02 October 2015

Counting On Some Race Magic

You’re never ready for the next race. Once you accept that, the rest isn’t exactly easy, but it’s a little more palatable. With just over a week left before my fall marathon, I’m nowhere near where I imagined I might be when I hitched on for this one last spring. But Dearest Spouse put it in proper perspective, noting that I could fret about how well I’ll run and what place I might snag, or I could just go run a marathon and enjoy it (at least to the extent that one can enjoy the late miles in any marathon). Making that mental shift is harder for me than it should be, but some effort in that department, and maybe a little reliance on some race magic, should get me through.

It’s been a rough couple of months in Lake Wobegon, and though I don’t live there, it’s been rough here, too. The best laid plans of catapulting off a solid Boston, training hard over the summer with a plethora of quality tempo, bursting into a fall race brimming with energy, and therefore signing up for one of the fastest courses in the east, well… Those plans pretty much just laid down and died. As of a couple weeks ago, I was considering bagging the whole thing. After all, why dump good money into travel costs for dubious results?

But somehow this thing called running always manages to surprise. A not-entirely-terrible local five-kilometer a couple weekends back suggested that perhaps, just maybe, I wasn’t dead yet. Emboldened, I of course did something rather silly and pounded out twenty-three the day after the race. It wasn’t great, but then again, it wasn’t bad, either. Then quite by accident I found myself cracking an old record and topping ninety miles for a week – still shy of that single hundred-miler from my youth, but otherwise the most I’d ever piled on in seven days. Wait, I hear you say, whaddaya’ mean, “By accident?” You didn’t notice ninety miles? Well, no, I was just running a lot trying to regain what I’d lost over that rough stretch. Heck, no wonder my legs were tired.

A family road trip to my native Upstate New York lowered the output for a couple days, with a flat and rather healing outing along the big lake in Syracuse and an intensely non-flat – but highly leisurely – outing with Dearest Daughter the Younger in Corning, a run which sported a notable DTM Ratio of 3.6 (Deer To Miles). And all of that was the setup for a swing back through Albany for more clan visitation, and key to our tale, The Test.

Back in June I’d run the first half of the Mohawk Hudson course, logging a solid pace through the initial twelve and three-quarter miles. I didn’t expect any surprises on the back half, but I know that seeing the course – even a generally flat course largely on a bike trail – adds that element of familiarity that gives you a bit of mental control, especially in the high miles. When the body is turning to rubber, you want to know exactly what ground you’ve got left to cover. So it was that after a light free breakfast at our finishing-line hotel, Dearest Spouse deposited me for a chilly forty-six degree launch at mile twelve-seven-five, then headed back to the far end for her and DDY’s run, artistically timed to correspond with my hopefully triumphant appearance on the Albany riverfront.

Sounds like a grand plan, right? The cool thing is, it worked. With about a mile to go, I swept past them on their outbound leg, indeed feeling triumphant, conveniently timed for a spin-around cool-down to meet them back on the course. NASA couldn’t have coordinated it better. We even made it back to the hotel in time for a second free breakfast before they shut things down (which, by the way, set us up nicely for a third breakfast, this one not free but hearty, with Dearest Offspring the Elder, a couple hours later…ah, one of the joys of running is an unlimited license to eat). And that arrival was triumphant because I’d passed The Test. I’d convinced myself that there was indeed a marathon lurking in me, and that it would in fact be worthwhile to toe the line in two weeks.

Right out of the gate, my crusty, creaky, achy-breaky body of recent weeks came alive. Perhaps it was the chilly start, necessitating some rapid internal combustion. Perhaps it was the light duty of the day before, hinting that if I can manage to back off on a decent taper, perhaps my overtrained legs have more in them than they’ve let on recently. Or perhaps it was just that race magic, the combination of adrenaline and the simple knowledge that now is the time to turn the knobs up. Whatever it was, the knobs turned, the engine fired, and by the time I plunged off the trail at milepost seventeen and a half – a quick drop just as nasty as I’d feared from my memories of the area – I was hitting sevens cruising south through Cohoes and Watervliet. Convenient timing brought me through a gang assembling for their Sunday morning group run – just seven minutes later and I’d have had company, but would likely have blown my pace – and about an hour later blew me across the finish line of a local race just being set up. Call that an easy win.

The familiarization aspect worked. Mental notes of rail trail tunnels, entrances, landmarks like the old street-car station. That nasty drop. Visuals and feels for the distances of the highway crossings. Answering the mystery of how to get back on the trail for the last six-plus, having driven the highway above hundreds, if not thousands of times, and having never seen the tiny underpass we’d follow – who knew? Solving the odd branch in the trail shown on Google Maps yet never referred to in the course notes. (Answer: it’s not there, your bad, Google.) And perhaps most critically, laying out the last mile in my head for that inevitable painful final push.

By the end, I’d clocked an average pace a good quarter-minute per mile slower than I’d clocked on the first half in June, and quite a bit off what I’d need for a truly competitive race. But I’d also clocked the most solidly paced training run since, literally, June. Indeed, I’m not dead yet.

I won’t tell you it’s been all peaches and cream since that day, but it’s been considerably more decent than it’s been in quite a while. The question has been answered. I am indeed in for Mohawk-Hudson. One more local race this weekend for a tune-up, a taper, then I’ll just hope for a little of that race magic to sew both halves of the course together – and to help me hold it together!

23 September 2015

No Pity

It’s a fair cop. One of my club-mates chided me via social media after this weekend’s local Police Chase (did you notice that pun?…fair cop…Police Chase…oh, never mind). “It's hard to pity a runner that came in second today, only bested by a runner almost half his age,” wrote he in response to my last blog posting. Yeah, less than twenty-four hours after publishing my previous penning on the frustrations of the past few weeks, I did pull into the back lot of the local Moose club about ten seconds behind the winning youngster. Nolo contendere on that one. But while pleading no contest to the charge, let me also plead no pity to the intent.

Part of the problem here is thematic, part is timing, part is my tendency to under-predict (or call it an abhorrence of trash talk), and part is, I’d like to hope, plain old healing, though certainly if I’m right on that last part, it’s not a problem at all.

Thematically, this space, this periodic request to burn ten minutes of your day, is here to journal the ups and downs of hacking away toward fun, fitness, and tiny feats of accomplishment all while time incessantly hacks back. So when I bemoan aches and pains, it’s not to goad you into sending messages of solace, but to inspire you to battle through your own challenges.

As for timing, rarely are there hours in the day to allow publishing on an as-it-happens basis, and sometimes, since fun photos that might add to your perusing adventure have yet to surface, that’s not a great idea anyway. Stories back up, and while it’s enough to ask you to actually read this stuff, it’s clearly too much to ask you to read it more often than once a week or so, thus I sometimes feed these tales of adventures out over time. But occasionally that doesn’t work either. Case in point: when the topic is a lousy couple of weeks of training, it makes sense to get it out there before the plot spoiler of the next race. This time, I made it with about twelve hours to spare. And let’s remember, that next plot twist could have gone either way.

Then there’s my reputation for telling my club-mates that I’m feeling crappy, lousy, awful, stiff, sore, or sometimes just plain ugly before many a race. They laugh at me, because somehow the adrenaline of the race (and perhaps it’s the sugar hit of the Gu pack I usually suck down fifteen minutes prior to post-time) usually gets me through in reasonable form. But the fact is, I’m really am often feeling crappy, lousy, awful, stiff, sore, or sometimes just plain ugly before many a race, and sometimes, like this time, even more so than usual. I’m not going to lie. And on those rare days I actually do feel good and ready, I’m not going to foolishly predict any solid performance.

Add it up, and yes, guilty as charged. I published my tale of latest challenges, and twelve hours later cruised home in second place. So my club-mate’s chiding is at least on the surface warranted, but, your honor, I fall upon the court to recognize the justification for my actions.

And yes, the kid who won it was a mere babe, twenty-nine years my junior. And I’d run a warm-up with him to give him pointers on the course. And told him flat-out that I was doing it so when he beat me, I could humorously say it was because I’d shown him how. And then I called him back from a wrong turn he took mid-race. And none of that matters, because he ran a fine race and was well deserving of his victory, and I’m pleased for him.

On another day, I’d have tried to give him a run for his money. But on a day when I hadn’t had a solid run in weeks, when I was nursing a healing hamstring, and when I was questioning whether I should abandon my fall marathon a mere three weeks out (having still not notched a twenty-plus of adequate quality to convince me it’s worth spending the money on the hotel), I had a rational choice to make: put down the hammer and try to catch the youngster, knowing that he wouldn’t go down without a hell of a fight (sprinting against a youngster at my age is not wise or easy), and risk re-injuring the hammy, or keep a clear head and balance the importance of this local race against the bigger looming goal. There’d still be just as many burgers and beers and friends to enjoy them with after finishing in second place, and just as many medals as well, just that mine would read, “Winner of the Old Fart Division” rather than simply “Winner”. It was an easy decision.

From the rather disorganized start, my rival quickly slipped by and surged to put about forty yards between us before settling in for the long outbound climb. By the top of the main rise, I’d shaved off about ten of those yards, and then another ten climbing the last significant bump on the course, and was grinding that hamstring-and-coming-marathon versus local-five-k math, tending toward the former, when despite my earlier pointers, the Bounding Bundle of Youthful Energy ahead of me hit a crossroads and a wall of confusion. Despite my several shouts of, “Straight up!” he elected to go wrongly left and down – go figure. By the time he heard me and figured it out, I’d pulled even.

With a mile and a quarter to go, almost all of it downhill, at this exact point on the course last year I was also neck and neck with my competition for the local crown. But that day I wasn’t in hurtin’ shape, and my competition was a forty-something. This day, sprinting against a twenty-three-year-old while operating on questionable parts, well, just didn’t seem to be all that worth it. As the Bounding Bundle surged out twenty yards again, I wished him well and followed him home, crossing a good twenty seconds slower than what I’d clocked last year on the course, and nearly a minute off the five-thousand I’d run on the track back in July.

Unremarkable was the best word to attach in terms of comparison to past performances, but in contrast to the weeks before – and indeed the very day before when I couldn’t even muster eights on a short outing – it was more than pleasing. So maybe part of this whole pity-prediction-performance problem was indeed some welcome healing, helped along post-race by the burgers, the beers, and the buds (the running buds, mind you, they had good beer). And if so, that’s not a problem at all.

18 September 2015

Out of the Water!

I’d been swimming in the river, and the call came to get out of the water. That famous river, De Nile, and yes, the water was fine, but let’s face it, most everyone looks better soaking wet – that sheen hides oh-so-many flaws. Eventually, though, it’s time to face the music.

This is supposedly a column not just about running, but running through aging, running through the challenges that life and a slowly declining body inevitably line up in one’s path. The life challenges are the fun parts, calling for creating creative ways to notch your runs while exiled to the swamps of South Florida, for example. The aging and declining body parts aren’t always as much fun. It’s a trick to balance those mounting limitations against the motivation to defeat or minimize them as long as possible. So we push and we push and generally carry on, until there comes a point where perhaps we really shouldn’t.

And therein lays a quandary. I often advise that it’s more important to be running in ten years than it is to be running next week. I’m just not very good at following that advice. It’s inconvenient. It gets in the way of preparation for races. It interrupts consecutive day running streaks. It torpedoes mileage goals. And yes, I know that two out of three of those are meaningless OCD-style drivers, but they’re drivers just the same, and drivers deliver motivation, and motivation keeps getting us out there, and getting out there keeps us alive just a little bit longer. We hope.

All of which is how I found myself once again dog-paddling in that famous quasi-Egyptian waterway. With my current streak pushing toward the two-hundred-day mark, having not missed a day since February, and being on track for a personal highest and nicely rounded number annual mileage accomplishment, it was drive, drive, drive toward my fast approaching fall marathon. But I really couldn’t ignore the signs of overtraining – leg fatigue, slowing pace, and worse, I just couldn’t shake the chronic trouble in that left knee – trouble that typically didn’t rise up during my runs (though of late had started to), but that made stairs far more of a chore than they should be.

August closed up, two thirds through the year, two thirds of the way to that nice round number on the odometer, but only just two thirds – no buffer for tapers, time off, or anything. Any training interruption would mean falling behind. But I began to question whether I’d hold out even till the fall marathon, let alone till New Year’s Eve. I really had no choice but to follow my own best advice. Out of the water, son, you need a break.

One would think a week off, coupled with a hit of my favorite anti-inflammatory, would set things right in the world and let me return rested and ready to rock. Sadly, it hasn’t worked out that way. To my dismay, the time since that week off has been ugly, hindered by quads that feel like I just started running, legs that are celebrating the hundredth anniversary of Einstein’s publishing his theory of general relativity by sucking up energy and converting it into leaden mass, and worst, a hamstring that pulled itself for no reason (if you pull a ham, does that make it pulled pork?). Since these woes came on from not running, I’ve taken the approach of trying to cure them by running, and slowly, oh-so-slowly (which has included lots of miles taken oh-so-slowly), I’m starting to move a bit toward normalcy, with big jumps backward like today’s seriously tortoise-like wind-suck-fest. Once again I ask, is this the beginning of the big slide downward?

Saturday’s local five kilometer jaunt, a race that I won last year, might not even get off the starting line. Game-day decision, as they say. And if it does, it will only be through the luck of the no-shows that any respectable placing shows up next to my name. Then again, there’ll be burgers and beers, and even amidst self-doubt and angst, you’ve got to keep your priorities straight, right?

30 August 2015


It’s one of those weeks when the way the article started just wasn’t working. I thought I’d have your attention with a title punning bear – as in the one that ran across my path a few weeks ago in New Hampshire – with bare – as in the attire in view while I strolled South Beach in Miami this past week. But no matter how I twisted my prose, it just wouldn’t work. Despite how much I wanted to slip in that ursine encounter, a first while running (though certainly not a first while hiking) as notable news, I just couldn’t get from there to the real tale at the top of the ticker, the absurdly hot, humid, and horrific experience that is running in Miami in August.

All creative writing aside, the bear part was exciting, despite lasting only a moment during my run in our favorite little berg of Franconia, New Hampshire. While cruising an obscure road in this obscure town, my attention was drawn to the passage of that most frightening of vehicles, the dreaded Rental RV, all the badness of a lumbering and ungainly box on small wheels combined with the inexperience of a newbie pilot. Smokey, a bear of notable girth, must have had a death wish to have dashed when he did, perhaps fifty yards up from me, but far fewer in front of the wily Winnie. All indications were that he made it back into the woods, where bears will do what bears will do, and I returned to our favorite White Mountain lodge with a fun story.

Oh that the presence of beloved New Hampshire-style mountains, or any elevation change for that matter, and the crisp forty-nine-degree air of my morning runs in their midst could have been even slightly in my presence this week. Sadly, that was not the case. Some months back, Corporate Employer laid out a selection of dates when I could sink my teeth into some compelling technology training. Of all options, only one week remotely fit between the maze of scheduling reality. The problem was that the venue was Miami, and the week was in August. I fully expected this combination to be a seriously suboptimal slating selection, but having no other options, I clicked that box. Had I realized just how suboptimal, I might have taken dire and irrational measures to have done otherwise.

From this…

To this…

Once arrived in Dade County, all creative writing aside, the bare part was a rather visually entertaining span, enjoying a stroll with Niece and Spouse on the famed South Beach with its remarkably low clothing-to-skin ratio. The heat was pressing but still novel and made bearable by wading knee-high in the bathwater-like surf. It’s notable that this excursion took place before actually trying to run in the area; before I learned just what I was up against. It’s also notable that Niece and Spouse – who are known to run at times – choose to live in this place. What I’ll be saying from here on, including commentary about humidity rotting the locals’ brains, is meant with no disrespect for said blood kin. It’s just, well, true.

That bare reality quickly gave way to Monday morning’s first run of the week, which quickly revealed a minor detail I’d forgotten about: Miami is a lot further west than you tend to think. In the summer months, it’s second nature to me that getting out early isn’t a problem daylight-wise. But in Miami in late August, sunrise has already crept to seven, a bit of a challenge when corporate breakfast starts thirty minutes later, and the real corporate fun a mere thirty after that. And it’s also the case that the closer one goes to the Equator, the faster darkness turns to day; there is no extended dawn. In short, sunrise at seven means very little light till darn close to seven, so one must rise in the depressing blackness of night and hit the mean streets under cover of sodium vapor lamps to cover any respectable distance before the bagels are gone. But in a land of heat and humidity, that would seem to be a good thing anyway. After all, it’s coolest before dawn, and that must be a comfortable time to run. Right?

In a word, wrong. While daytime temperatures never exceeded the low nineties – a level we top regularly in New England – the humidity and resulting absurdly high dew point made the mornings hover around eighty with literally saturated air – nearly one-hundred-percent humidity. Back home, early morning track workouts in the summer-damp low seventies are bad enough. It’s hard to describe the heaviness of the air when you set foot outside the climate-controlled confines of the hotel into the Miami miasma. It almost pushes you back inside. It’s so dense, it’s always on the verge of exploding. The old song says that L.A. is a great big freeway. Miami, on the other hand, is a great big thunderstorm, as the sky tries to shed itself of summer on a constant basis, with storms visible across the vast, flat horizon almost constantly for days at a time.

Yeah, big deal, I hear you saying. We’ve all run on those really hot days.

Yeah, big deal indeed, I say. Even those really hot days up north just don’t have this feel. And those really hot days don’t come one after another after another. And when they do, we (well, most of us) have plenty of gear to swap in and out to assure we start fresh the next day. On this weeklong excursion, travelling light, I’d brought one pair of running shoes. While I prefer to rotate a few pairs, I can get by without that luxury now and then. I really hadn’t thought it would be a problem. Ah, the things we learn.

Morning One: About six miles, heading south. In the urban desert of the Hotel Zone, nestled against the south side of the airport, options for attractive running routes are limited at best. A couple miles of leg-crushing concrete (coupled with time-sucking waits for freeway-like traffic to clear at major intersections) brings me to the brief relief of a parkway-like drive in Coral Gables where I can enjoy a quiet and traffic-free expanse of leg-friendly macadam and puzzle at the wonder of locals out walking and running in long sleeves, pants, and even sweatshirts. Did I mention the humidity rotting the locals’ brains? By the time I’m plodding back hotel-ward, I’m in full drench with accompanying chafing, and am fully toxic and leaking heavily on arrival. Jerry, the hotel doorman, rushes to supply not just a bottle of water, but a well-chilled one, the first of what would become a daily kindness leading to some fun chats and I’m sure his amusement of their novelty of the week, el corridor loco. That small kindness was appreciated more than you know. Well done, Sofitel Miami. (On another note, the concierge actually did have a prepared map for joggers. Their two mile route wasn’t enough for my needs, but I can count on one hand the hotels I’ve stayed in that recognize and cater to people’s desire to run on something other than a hamster cage in the fitness center. Again, well done, Sofitel.)

Morning Two: Weather.com pegs the humidity at well over ninety percent and posts a ‘feels like’ temperature of ninety, and that’s in the pitch darkness a half-hour before dawn. I get an earlier start, not due to any temperature advantage (there is none) but to make it to the office closer to on time, yet somehow an extra mile soaks up that advantage. But I think I’ve got the system all figured out, stepping into the shower clothed, washing the togs, hanging to dry in the air-conditioned room. I should have suspected coming trouble when even a tech singlet wasn’t completely dry by evening.

Morning Three: Dressing amidst the sparkle of the pre-dawn streetlights outside my hotel room, I can’t help but notice that while I’ve got dry clothes, my shoes are more than a bit damp, but I’ve no alternative, so onward. With an even earlier start, I intend to venture further toward what looks like an attractive golf-course-skirting avenue, but it’s so dark, and Coral Gables has a habit of using street-level painted concrete blocks for street signs (Niece had warned me of this!) that I miss my turn and, while certainly finding some nice neighborhoods, don’t really hit my planned route. Worse, that evening, despite them having sat in the air-conditioned room all day, I realize my shoes aren’t merely damp, they’re soaked. Leaden. Not just wet, but briny. Salt doesn’t evaporate. Problem. I call the concierge and ask for a fan. Housekeeping arrives in twenty minutes and I leave my little brine-buckets in a zephyr overnight. (Well done, Sofitel Miami.)

Morning Four: I’ve now proven that salt does not evaporate, not that I didn’t know before. Sad shoes are somewhat dryer, lighter, but by no means dry, and downright slimy. I’m anticipating a planned evening run with a local club arranged by a co-worker, but knowing the way the week has gone work-wise, I figure that’s a gamble, so to be sure I don’t miss the day I head out on a short jaunt. (As it turns out, the evening run indeed does not happen, so it was a wise move.). Turning west for a change, I’m delighted to cross an overpass, the first hill I’ve encountered other than a meagre three-foot rise in Coral Gables and the ramp to the front door of the hotel. It’s not much, but my legs appreciate the change. (I can see a distant hill from my hotel window. It’s a landfill. Look very closely under the red arrow in the photo below… Otherwise there is nothing to break the monotony of the Miami topographical desert.) Even on a mere five-mile slog, I’m squishing in my shoes and my pointy bits are screaming from every morning’s soaked-and-heavy-fabric-induced abrasion. But Jerry has that cold one on arrival…

Morning Five: For my last hurrah (the sound I’ll make when the plane leaves the tarmac to head north), I re-study the maps so that even in the dark, this time I can find that golf course. I’m rewarded with a view of a grove of utterly gorgeous baobab-like trees (which may indeed have been baobabs, but I’m no botanist) [Ed note: No, silly, BANYAN trees, not baobabs!]. In the endless expanse of sameness that is Miami, it’s the first truly sweet view of a week’s worth of running. I stretch the last morning to eight miles, not really caring if I’m a few minutes late at this point. I know that without drastic action, the TSA won’t allow me to bring my weaponized footwear on the aircraft, so this morning I step in the shower shoes and all and bathe everything down to the insoles before leaving them for a final morning with my good friend the box fan till late checkout during my last morning at the office. By noon, they’re sufficiently disarmed and cleared for transport.

Six hours or so later, I step out of the terminal at Logan and luxuriate in reasonably dry, low seventies air that feels like nothing less than heaven. The next morning, back with my local peeps, our easy club run in mid-sixties is a joy. The preceding week seems surreal, a bad dream.

Those poor shoes, washed of their load of salt, are currently enjoying a respite in the disinfecting northern sun, but something tells me they will always whisper, “Squish!” on every future stride in memory of their southern trauma. Let’s face it, Miami is for winter.

04 August 2015

Sounds Great

An old adage reminds us that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. That conflicts with a different old adage (or perhaps it’s an idiom?) that suggests we should take things at face value. And while seemingly unrelated, I’ll toss in yet another old adage that says that ninety percent (or some similar made-up percentage) of the battle is simply showing up. Actually, there are a lot of old adages. With the number of them I’m spewing here, I’m sounding rather adagio, a punny bit of irony since that means slow, and this is a column about racing which one would hope to be fast.

Where on Earth is he going with this?

Through a quirk of fate, I’m holding a medal that says I finished second in the USA Track & Field New England Championships men’s masters’ five-thousand meters. Wow, lil’ ol’ me, the second fastest master on the track in New England? That’s quite a title. Impressive even. Sounds great.

Ah, but remember, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

So here’s the dirty little secret. Seventeen people showed up for the race. Seventeen. Nine were fast young guys who unsurprisingly finished first through ninth overall. One was a woman. Yeah, one. And she won the women’s race. Funny that. That left the other seven of us to comprise the entirety of the masters race. I didn’t quite grasp these numbers at the time, but later analysis, as they say, eked out these truths.

It’s worth noting that the entire New England Championships meet had been slated for two weeks prior but was postponed due to ugly weather. It’s a near certainty that plenty of people who’d planned to compete found their dance card unexpectedly shuffled. The starting line probably lost two or three competitors for every one of us last-minute hey-why-not-jump-into-this entries.

Still, we’re told to take things at face value.

Second out of seven isn’t as impressive as second out of a hundred and seven, but to be fair, the seven that did show up were solid athletes, competitive enough to follow USATF events, confident enough to consider jumping into a meet labelled “Championship”, and daring to race five thousand meters on the glaring transparency of the track rather than anonymizing crowd of a community road race. Let’s face it, the typical field of one hundred seven or even one thousand seven would fall a little differently on the bell curve.

So then it’s true: ninety percent of the battle us just showing up.

But I really had no intention of doing so. Once again, I was sucked in at the last minute through the positive peer pressure of my Greater Boston club-mates. Another spur-of-the-moment decision made on legs still recovering from the Level Renner only days earlier. And like that marathon relay a month earlier, with no time for niceties like reconditioning my legs to operate in track spikes, which sure would have been nice on that Friday night’s wet, slick surface. No, there was no real prep for this other than behaving myself the night before.

That night before had included a casual pub run with my local Striders peeps. While just a fun run, I’d previously used it as a hard tempo to gain training value from the evening’s outing before the evening’s ingestion began. This time, knowing I'd signed up for the USATF race a mere twenty-four hours hence, I vowed I'd stay with the front of the gang and go no faster. The irony is that when I looked at the comfortable pace that gang led, it occurred to me that I'd need to slice off a full six minutes to hit my goal the next night. Admittedly, that was a bit daunting. Adding to that was the mild amusement that in neither my youthful nor my aged Second Lap days had I ever run a five-thousand on an outdoor track. I’d done it indoors once, several years ago – a dizzying twenty-five laps – but never on the outdoor big oval. There’s something about the immediate feedback of lap splits that changes the race. For the better or worse, I couldn’t say.

With the small field and the fact that the rest of the meet’s events were slated to be held in the next day’s high sunshine, the race itself took on the feel of a hard workout, so without pressure that two misfires of the starting gun led only to amusement rather than any level of competitive stress. The third time being a charm (another adage?), we began our twelve and a half slippery circuits.

Holding no illusions of matching my best times from younger days, I targeted lap splits that would deliver an eighty-percent age-graded performance. After a quick opening lap and a half, I settled in behind teammate Kris while we clicked off four more right on target – or at least my target. He’d seeded in at thirty seconds faster, so I knew he wasn’t where he’d like to be. When the next lap sagged oh-so-slightly, we swapped spots; it was my turn to pull our train for a while.

Mentally this was an interesting game. Twelve and a half laps, and I was not racing for any position but merely for a target time, so no strategy, surging, or fighting for position. Just even laps, hold it steady, count it down, simple…and still I managed to lose count. Go figure. I could blame the young fast guys lapping us, but sadly it was nothing more than a mobile senior moment.

Recovering my mental position, we’d knocked off three more, each a second ahead of target, but Kris was fading and would fall back I know not how far, as I had no need check; so far as I was concerned he was an ally, not a rival, in this game. With three to go, simple wasn’t so simple any more as fatigue grew, but somehow the certainty of the track – the known exact distance as opposed to the vagaries of a road course – made the countdown more manageable as the next two barely held to plan. Last lap, any semblance of form rapidly decaying, still focusing only on time, knowing I was ahead of my target but still seeking all I could squeeze out, suddenly the guy who’d led me by a wide margin all along was coming back, that margin narrowing…and meanwhile I sensed that Kris too was coming back to me, the three of us converging as the finish drew near.

No dramatic position changes would occur, but we three tightened the gap enough to make it interesting to the end. Having arrived with a goal time, and having shaved ten seconds off it, and having not really registered the demographics of the field, I gave no consideration whatsoever to the outcome of the competitive side of the race. I was fat, dumb, and happy (or perhaps skinny, sweaty as hell, and happy). That guy in front of me, Matt, and my teammate Kris proceeded to slug out a few laps of warm-down amidst pleasant runner chatter.

And then, a funny thing happened. Reminiscent of that moment in Arlo Guthrie’s Alice’s Restaurant, when the Sargent came in, pinned a medal on him, and told him, “You’re our boy!”, I jogged back to the finish area and found my utter oblivion interrupted when a race official handed me a medal. I can’t remember ever finishing a race and not checking my place, not knowing what hardware might be coming, and having to literally ask, “What’s this for?” It simply never occurred to me that in a race called the New England Championships that I’d win anything. “Second place,” was the official’s answer.

No kidding.

I know the truth. My time was satisfying for me. I hit my eight-percent age-graded goal. But it wasn’t anything spectacular. And yes, I’d finished second among the masters. Out of seven.

But hey, second in the USATF New England Championships? It sure sounds great.

28 July 2015

Chasing and Racing Away the Summer Slump

Summertime, and the living is…so far as running goes, usually associated with a slump. It happens every year, and though I’ve learned to expect it, it never fails to alarm me that once again, this could be the Beginning of the End, the start of that inevitable slide to oblivion (which is rather presumptuous of me to maintain that I’m not in oblivion already, but…). By the numbers, July hasn’t looked all that bad in terms of average training pace, until I cast off the rose-colored glasses and acknowledge that there have been more days of “no time” in the log than days where the run felt good enough to make it worth worrying about how quick the day’s miles passed.

And so we do what summer demands: run slow, run at ungodly hours of the morning to avoid the heat, run in interesting places to substitute fresh for fast, and of course, shake off the cobwebs with a few races. The slow part is easy. The ungodly part, not so much, but I’m getting better at rolling out before six, though I swear I’ll never enjoy it. The interesting places part comes by the luck of the schedule, earlier this month hitting three other states in a ten-day stretch, including a jaunt to my native Upstate New York for a family wedding. It seemed like a cool idea to run up the roads to the top of the Watkins Glen gorge and take the rim trail back down, and the deer and fox crossing my path on the way up seemed good run omens, but the reality of a muddy winding trail with a fatally high and unprotected drop into the yawning canyon on the left just didn’t work out as planned. Interesting? Yes. Fresh? Yes. Comforting? Not by a long stretch.

Which leaves the last bastion of battling the blahs, the summer race. And what better place to race than on a reasonably shady course in a beautiful park alongside ponds filled with blooming water lilies, that is, well, in a somewhat less than garden community of the Commonwealth. OK, so you can’t have everything perfect, but if it weren’t for the Level Renner 10K, I’d probably never have the adventure of going to Brockton. Truth be told, I can’t tell you if the rest of Brockton lives up to its reputation, but D.W. Field Park is a pretty nice place. Of course, two thirds of it is in Avon anyway.

By just my second trip to this venue, it’s become a favorite. It’s mostly because the folks from Level Renner who put it on do it solely for their love of the sport. That shines through. This is a by runners, for runners race. They’ve dispensed with the crap and focused on the important stuff, notably including actually reporting on the race as a race first – pretty rare in this age of overpriced and over-swagged corporate for-profit events and endless 5K runners-look-like-ATMs fundraisers. Instead, you get reporting on the race with videos and commentary on the action, interviews with the winners, and actually paying attention to the fact that our sport, while inclusive and welcoming to all abilities, is at its heart, competitive. Thanks to that attitude, while not a big event (though they doubled this year over last), the field oozes quality, and quality provides the competition that inspires better performances.

All that was great, but overhanging mini-Grand-Prix-style motivational atmosphere was an entirely different kind of atmosphere, a crushing one with heat pushing the mid-eighties and humidity close enough to fully saturated that my warm-up left me a soggy sorry sight. Probably two thirds of the course is indeed shaded, which technically helped, though we were too far gone even before the gun sounded to truly appreciate that positive aspect. So, into the woods, but bring a paddle or a bucket or something because it’s wet in there.

The bad news is that a camera malfunction left Dearest Spouse with only a couple of shots of the tail end of my warm up with training partner Issam, also known as He For Whom a Blog Name has Never Stuck, and a few burst shots of the start, including a bit of goofiness (see zoom) when I noticed her snapping away. After that, kaput.

The good news is that a camera malfunction left Dearest Spouse without pictures from later in the race. The videos posted on the Level Renner site make clear you didn’t want to see that, anyway. It wasn’t pretty.

The last I’d see of my training partner was during that warm-up, after which he blew my doors off by a couple of minutes and erased my local club masters 10K record. Ever humble, he’d typically not even report the feat to the record master, but to my view, records are there to be broken, so once I managed to recover the ability to speak afterward, he gained my lauding, admiration, and insistence on recognition of his feat. The guy is just plain tearing it up.

Meanwhile, back in the cheap seats, I duked it out with perennial rival Bad Dawg. To call our relationship a rivalry at this point is my second sin of presumptuousness in a single column since it’s usually a rather one-sided contest these days with me on the short end, unless I can catch him on a tough day. Never more than a few strides off my flank, by about a mile and a half in, with the temperature gauge already pointing toward overheated, he slipped ahead – my only question being why it took him so long – and settled thirty to forty feet up. Over the course of the next four miles I watched in frustration as he first stopped by his parked car to take a slug from a cached bottle, then stopped at not one but two water stops for the full ingestion approach, and despite my uninterrupted efforts, I still couldn’t catch him. On some dimension somewhere, that’s just wrong.

But with under a half mile to go, with not just my feet but also those of the runner nearest me exuding resounding squishes on every stride from the absurd amount of sweat drowning every inch of our beings, my ersatz rival succumbed to what I’d learn later was in fact his tough day – he having raced a mere three days prior. On the last turnaround, literally working not to slide out of my inundated insoles while cornering, I slipped past him. But with the third and final ascent of the course’s sole hill between us and the end, no part of me expected it was over. Utterly tapped, that climb seemed so absurdly slow that I couldn’t fathom why I had yet to be overtaken. Only when topped out did I dare break my cardinal rule of never looking back and do so, knowing my opportunities to come out ahead on this scorecard were mighty few, and being damned if I’d give it up in the last tenth of a mile.

I know I placed a lot more importance on that micro-victory than did he, since it’s been a somewhat rarer occurrence to put a check in my column, so learning just how big the gap was at the end took on a somewhat irrational urgency. Dearest Spouse, who’s Priority One was to corral my wilted remains into the shade post haste, didn’t immediately connect that that my seemingly dazed wandering back toward the chute was in fact entirely lucid behavior with purpose. As noted, irrational purpose, but purpose none the less. Pointless, too, since I didn’t see the gap anyway.

Two minutes prior to my finish I’d lost my local club’s masters 10K record, but to my pleasure, on a day that could make molasses flow (or perhaps just rot), I’d sliced a fair chunk off my local club’s seniors 10K record, one that I already owned, but one that I made a little bit harder for my training partner to snatch away when he gets old and crusty like me. Combined with surpassing my target time and age-graded performance, it was a fine even if disgustingly sweaty way to break through a couple layers of that summer slump.

How long is it till September?

22 July 2015


Consider the lowly asterisk. One of only two characters that have been bestowed the Sainthood of its very own telephone key. It’s a graphic that has largely lost its identity in the smartphone era, being known to most of the current generation as merely ‘star’. And of all the commonly used symbols in our life, it’s probably the one that almost nobody draws accurately; for that matter, few even agree on how many points it should have.

But oh, it’s power. This diminutive glyph has the power to destroy what people have worked a lifetime to achieve. Roger Maris never got over his asterisk. As the man who finally, after thirty-four years, broke Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record, he found his achievement demeaned with an asterisk. Growing up as a baseball fan (in Upstate New York, so pardon my not being a Red Sox fan back then, but at least I followed the Mets and despised the Yankees even then), I always remembered that asterisk after Maris’ name. Yeah, he broke the record, but he did it in the recently lengthened season, whereas The Babe had eight fewer games in which to set his mark. So slather that man’s reputation with something worse than a scarlet letter! Give him an asterisk!

Well, I got my own asterisk last month, along with twenty-some of my Greater Boston Track Club teammates, at a rather unusual and significantly enjoyable event, the Somerville Road Runners Club Challenge Cup Marathon Relay. We earned our asterisk fair and square, and we’re proud of it. Of course, the race officials just called it a disqualification, but we’re OK with that. To us, it’s a glorious asterisk.

This one fell into my favorite category of races: accidental events. Or call it a pop-up, unplanned, and therefore unable to generate great angst in the lead-up, since you don’t have much time to think about it. And besides, if you didn’t know you were racing it just a few days before, would it really matter if you tanked anyway? No pressure, just fun, let’s go out and test the wheels.

Now, most of my accidental events have at least been on the radar screen, just waiting for the opportunity to jump in to arise. Consider that first Martha’s Vineyard, or last year’s Lynn Woods, both races I knew about before the last minute chances to toss my shoes in the ring. But this one? Never heard of it. And considering the nature of the beast, twenty-six legs of a mile each (save the first one which included the extra point two), it was an event for which I was ill-prepared at best. What, me, race a mile? It’s been three and a half years since the last time I did that. It’s not something I remotely train for. The potential for comic outcomes was vast.

Yeah, let’s go for it.

The call went out a mere three and a half days before the gun went off. Our intrepid team organizer took on the audacious task of assembling a team of twenty six in a mere three days. Merely thinking he could pull this off at all pretty much defines the word chutzpah. And impressively, he did pull it off. Mostly.

Pulling together the twenty-four runners that he did in that period of time is nothing to shake a stick at. And being a couple short wasn’t really a problem, since the rules allowed for two to run a pair of legs (though the repeat offenders were supposed to have been the slowest on the team, which would have put Old Relic here, running in the midst of the gaggle of Young Hip and Fast GBTC speedsters, at serious risk of having to experience twice the agonizing fun). But we fell down on our female count, where the rules said we needed at least eight to run at least ten legs, but came up a few short at only five. As a result, we knew going in that our efforts wouldn’t count. We decided we didn’t care (which also meant we didn’t care who ran the double legs, which mercifully saved my legs!). We’d run it anyways, just for the fun of it. After all, shouldn’t this all be just about the fun of it?

We ran it, we smoked it, and we wiped the other teams off the track. And indeed, it didn’t count. Yeah, so what?

The irony of course, is that had we had our full complement of fast women, I and my fellow masters would probably have slid off the roster in favor of the younger faster guys. There was no rule requiring a certain number of antiques on the team (hmm, suggestion for race organizers for next year?). So perhaps an asterisk was the best I could get. I’ll take it and be proud to be associated with the team that earned it.

As for the race, though I had only three days to think about it, I conveniently had the chance to hit the track the morning after signing up. It’d been so long since racing on any track, I frankly had no idea whether to attack this in road racing shoes, or the odd red slipper-like featherweight things I’d picked up recently and wasn’t sure what to do with, or dive in head first and strap on those track spikes I bought years ago when I barely tasted the indoor track scene. A couple of shoe changes later, it was pretty clear that my aged gait wasn’t going to take to the spikes in three days flat. I settled on the red monster slippers. Likewise, I wasn’t at all sure how to prepare for racing a mile, knowing that my warm-up requirements have gotten longer and longer, and that I don’t hit full speed until about number three or four of any track interval, and that with twenty teams shuffling twenty-six runners, there’d be no space on the track for those kind of warm-up shenanigans. When race day came, I found myself leaving the stadium over and over, trying to simulate leg-loosening repeats over a series of mini-warm-ups. I can’t say I was anywhere ready by the time my nineteenth leg rolled around.

Meanwhile, our GBTC Speedy Young Turks and Fast Sleek Women were embarrassingly running up the score on the rest of the teams. I knew that in the end, nothing would matter, but teamed with guys running four-twenties and thirties, and ladies smoking low fives, I had to at least strive for respectability. Besides, we’d been promised a barbeque by Coach Tom if we beat his youthful marathon best of two nineteen. Never mind the unattainable win, we wanted the burgers. I targeted five and a half as an attainable – and mostly unembarrassing – goal.

Snap, it was over. Accustomed to marathons, firmly of the belief that a five-K is way too short and fast for my tastes, the mile barely registered. Click, a lap, a little quicker than desired but of no concern, just back it off a hair. Click, the second lap, a little too slow, noticing that by leg nineteen, runners of all abilities spread into an almost uniform paste over the track offered utterly nobody to key on. Click, the third, always the toughest lap of a mile repeat in a workout and no different here, yet a second quicker than the previous, in good shape. Click, the last one, solid, closing with pleasingly even first-half-second-half splits, and as a bonus beating my target by a few seconds. Hey, I’m just getting warmed up. It’s over?

I knew that I simply hadn’t known how to race that distance, and that given some practice, I’d probably slice quite a bit off my result, but coulda’ shoulda’ was meaningless, and the order of the day was just to soak it up and enjoy. To my amusement, I later found myself having run the fourth fastest of the nearly fifty fifty-plus men’s legs, not that the distinction would get me a cup of tea at Dunkin’s. But to even greater amusement, I savored the moment with a bunch of our teammates accumulated on the track to root on our last man as he closed out our odyssey out at the two hour, thirteen and a half minute mark. Three things were obvious: we’d earned our burgers, we’d bettered the next team by enough (six minutes, it turned out) that had we swapped five of our men’s legs for more women’s legs we’d likely still have won it, and that despite having just teamed for what we thought was a pretty respectable time, we knew that most respectable Kenyans would have kicked our butts entirely on their own. That kind of put what they do in perspective.

In the end, twenty-two teams found spots in the results, followed by a twenty-third, emblazoned with a prominent DQ rather than a place rank. But in my book, DQ is for ice-cream cones and Blizzards. We took it as an asterisk: what we did, but what was – and had rightly to be – taken away. Roger Maris, we feel your joy, and we feel your pain.