30 August 2014

Not As Level As Expected


Life isn’t fair, but sometimes you slough that off and appreciate the goodness that is. Back in May, I wrote of two races which presented what couldn’t have been a more stark contrast: one by runners, for runners; the other a charity fund-raiser that saw the runners as a handy source of cash. Through the power of Almighty Marketing, not to mention the appearance of the governor and other notables, the charity ball out-drew the runners’ race by about nine to one. Bad news, right? Well, maybe not. First, it was a good cause. Good for them. And second, on any given day there are a lot more people at the mall than there are on the summit of Mt. Adams (or pick your favorite non-road-accessible White Mountains major peak), but I’ll take Mt. Adams. That’s just the way life goes. And let’s face it: Mt. Adams would get a little crowded if it were the other way around.

As you’d guess, I skipped the charity run, and targeted the Level Renner ten kilometer as the next stage of my twelve-step racing rehab, my first middle-distance outing since May. I expected a strong field to help push me a little closer to the exit ramp from my racing doldrums. The field certainly materialized; the doldrums were only partially vanquished.


The hundred and one people who ran “on the Level” in Brockton a couple of Sundays back (may have fit on two school buses, but they would have been very fast buses. Don’t confuse field size with field quality. This race wasn’t your garden variety duffer five-K; it ran more like one of the Grand Prix series. I thought about trying to relate to you how different this was from its contrasting contribution-collecting counterpart, but that science got nerdy (read: boring) quick. You can suffer through it as an appendix, and an inflamed one at that, below. For now, I’ll just say that the level of competition at this race made it easy to get my butt kicked, but the organization and operation of the race made that butt kicking a highly pleasant experience – hats off to the Level Renner guys!

Let me start you off with just a little bit of nerd data: twenty-one of the one hundred and one racers ran sub-six-minute pace, and another twenty-two came in at sub-seven – nearly half the field in total in a range that most people would label as fast. Could be they were inspired by being in Brockton, the City of Champions according to its welcome signs, where running fast can be good for your health? (Sorry, Brocktonians, you know I’m kidding…really, the venue was delightful.) Or could be that those who follow Level Renner are clearly a self-selected group of competitors, and without the mighty arm of marketing (and no visiting governors), the masses just didn’t show? Bottom line is that the lack of the masses did nothing to diminish the quality of this event. And frankly, that lack made parking a lot easier, too. All the better with both Dearest Daughter the Younger (who ran) and Dearest Spouse (who got some nice pics) along for the fun.

I admit that I was fooled by this one. I looked at the course and saw two loops, an inner and an outer, around reservoirs in a relatively flat part of the state, and judged that it must be a relatively easy course, right? Looks perfectly in alignment with the “Level” part of the organizers’ name, right? And I was rather wrong on that count. This was not as Level as expected. There was only one hill, and it wasn’t huge, but it wasn’t something you could ignore, either. In a fit of either evil or genius or both, they managed to work this hill into a two-loop course a total of three times by diabolically placing the start at the very bottom – so you’d hit it when you weren’t yet in your stride – and positioning the finish at the very top – so you’d hit it when your tank was on fumes. With that on the day’s menu, the ascent in the middle hardly mattered.

I had no illusions about what I could pull off. In jest, but tinged with obvious reality, I offered up my concession and congratulated rival EJ on adding a win to his column well before the gun. Catching him wasn’t in the cards, nor was coming close to my two-year-old best, but I did single out as a stretch goal the time that would translate to an eightieth percentile, or ‘national class’ (take that label with a grain of salt) performance in the age-grading tables.

The irony is that the Grand-Prix-like field, the likes of which have spurred me to some of my best performances in the past, wasn’t much of a factor this time. My relative slow-down from a year back meant they were largely out of range in no time. But there was in fact just enough of the right competition to keep the motivation flowing.

There’s a funny thing about racing. If you’re alone on a sparsely populated course, you’ve nobody to egg you on, and it’s easy to consciously or sub-consciously ease off. But conversely, if you’re in a huge pack, the competition loses relevance. With people passing and being passed constantly, there’s no reference as to whom to key on or how to pace. The most competitive situations, in my experience, are when it’s you against one or just a few others. There’s a non-verbal language that seems to flow between such small groups that says, “Game on!”

Once our adrenaline dragged us up Hill Iteration One, the sub-six guys were already gone and I settled into just that sort of small group. Around the first loop, hitting Hill Iteration Two, my pacers seemed to swap out as if planned; the guy I’d been hanging onto fading suddenly, being replaced almost as suddenly by the woman who’d eventually take the female runner-up spot – not a bad consolation when the women’s winner was an Olympian. Yeah, it was that kind of field.

Through three miles, that eightieth percentile stayed in reach, though just barely. That goal and a stubborn refusal to break contact with my new pacer were balancing the agony of racing rather nicely, until mile four clocked in an inexplicable twenty seconds off pace. Knowing the level of detail of the organizers, I had a hard time buying the likelihood of a course-marking error, though I’d later hear similar reports from others. I chalked it up to mid-race sag and a few more ups and downs than perhaps I’d been aware of. But suddenly, eightieth percentile was a long shot at best. Even when miles five and six dropped right back to target, that twenty seconds was forever.

Still, I had my pacer, my competition, my reason to keep pushing. She being seventeen years my junior (a detail worked out later, though it was pretty obvious at the moment), obviously ridiculously fit, and still ten yards out front, it was only the irrationality of the race-fogged mind (and the stupidity of the competitive middle-aged male) that told me to make a run for her. Wearing my finest trademarked Death Warmed Over face and grunting loud enough to scare off any center-city Brocktonites from our lovely west-side park, I ground past her on Hill Iteration Three – thank you, Upstate New York upbringing for putting hills in my blood – and held her off while careening the last five hundred feet to the line…

…Which I crossed nineteen seconds off the eightieth percentile. I had to settle for seventy-nine-point-something, not quite what I’d sought, but still my best age-graded race since the Repair & Clot Saga. But with that last burst, it was a moral victory. Another step of racing rehab notched.

[Final note: I’m glad a couple of my Greater Boston teammates are head-shaver types. Makes my considerably-more-visible-every-year scalp look almost fashionable in this warm-down shot!]


Appendix: A Tale of Two Races’ Fields

Thinking about the differences between the Level Renner 10K and the “Charity 5K”, I was curious how to compare the fields of two races on two courses, two days, two distances. Here’s some thinking and a little math. You may find this interesting or painful.

To compare courses, short of a topology study, I just applied basic judgment. Every course is different, so an exact comparison isn’t possible. But assuming both were measured accurately (a stretch, but appears true here) and knowing both, the charity run’s described as fast, while the Level course wasn’t as level as expected but was still quick, neither stood out as being a significant factor. And the weather was fine on both days, so I set that potential factor aside as well. This then leaves the simpler question of how to compare a 5K to a 10K. There are several methods, two of which I use here, and it turns out they came out pretty much in the same place.

The simplest method is to use a pace predictor such as the one on the Runner’s World web site. This tool doesn’t take into account age or gender, but simply reports expected times in various events based on what you ran in any given event. A slightly more complicated method is to use the age grading tables, which are statistical compilations of bazillions of races. By this method, you start with a performance in a certain event, and based on age and gender, determine the Performance Level Percentage (PLP) for that race, or how it stacks up to the thousands of race times upon which the tables are built. You then take this PLP and plug it in to see what that same level of performance would produce in a different event. The advantage here is that you can run it multiple times across a sampling of ages and genders to better represent the span of abilities. I ran both methods, and as it turns out they come out pretty much in agreement with each other. That means either that the world is in harmony (or more likely that these two methods are, in fact, built on the same statistical data), or it is rigged, but that’s for you to decide.

Using the PLP method, a 40-year-old male running the 10K at 7-minute pace produces a PLP of 65.4. That PLP plugged into a 5K for the same competitor a 6:43 pace. Since the world isn’t all 40-year-old men, I re-ran the process for a sampling of ages and genders running the 10K at 7-minute pace and came up with an average equivalent 5K pace of 6:47. The pace predictor came up with a little more aggressive prediction of 6:43. For my pseudo-science, I’ll go with 6:45. Running the same age-grading procedure for a 10-minute pace 10K yields an equivalent 5K pace of 9:41. And in this case, the pace predictor agrees spot on.

There is one more factor. Calling these paces equivalent is charitable to the 5K since many of those who run the five wouldn’t or couldn’t run the ten. But to keep it simple, we’ll just ignore that.

Now let’s look at the races. At the Level Renner ten-kilometer, a pretty astonishing 42.5% beat seven minute pace, a group we’ll call the fast zone, and 90% beat ten-minute pace, what we’ll call the mid-pack, leaving only 10% in the plodders. But at the charity race, only 4.5% hit the equivalent fast zone, and 42.5% – ironically the same percentage of fast zone at Level Renner – ran the mid-pack standard. The remaining 57.5% plodded their way through 5K.

This comparison isn’t intended in any way to sound elitist. I’m not judging runners based on pace ability (Proof: certainly mine has slowed in the last year!). Your DNA has a lot to do with whether you’re a twelve-minute guy, a seven-minute guy, or Meb Keflezighi. More participation means more healthy people, period, and that’s a good thing. But it is interesting to compare the fields and get a feeling for the different nature of these events. And it makes you feel better when you barely cracked the top third at the race you ran, to know you would have hit the top 2% at the other place.

Enough nerdism for today. Get out and go for a run.

26 August 2014

Racing By Accident


A while back a club-mate posted what struck me as a very amusing little graphic, even if to many of you it’s probably old and overused by now. Just go with it, humor me. At my advancing age, I completely identify with the absent-minded Dory (that’s from Finding Nemo if you just swam out from under a reef). Um, what was I writing about again? Right!

The bit about, “I’m never running again” certainly doesn’t apply to me, but the second half, “Oh Look! A Race!” is right up my alley. What’s been killing me these last months has been how few of them I’ve run, and how I’ve missed the camaraderie, competition, and development that come as part of the package. But, knock on wood, that pesky Achilles is finally starting to feel better, here on the full year anniversary of going in for that repair job, though in its place, the left knee is offering great grief despite all attempts to ignore it. Knee aside (Damn the torpedoes!) that puts me back in the marketplace, looking for races to tune up those skills again. I just didn’t expect to run one entirely by accident.

Eugene was a reasonably important race for me; a test of recovering fitness level at the longer distance, being already qualified but still aiming for a better Boston seeding time in a fall marathon. But while I pushed it hard, it wasn’t a speed contest, nor the body-wrecking full marathon distance. Coming off it I felt little collateral damage, but still, there was recovery to be had. The following week’s travels, not restful by any stretch, and punctuated only twice by easy runs, left me high on the stiff & sore scale upon return to my native time zone. Stiff, sore, and of course miles behind in my work. The first bits I’d just have to deal with. But at least the work bit was eased by convenient coincidence of having our company picnic slated on the first day back. Beats working, right?

But we’re a distributed workforce, so that picnic was down near Hartford. Not yet acclimated to the time zone, rising early for a run before heading south wasn’t an attractive thought, so I packed my bag and figured I’d catch whatever opportunity the day offered up for a few stiff and sore recovery miles. A couple of meetings, a couple of volleyball games (where at my size, I am utterly outclassed, but nobody cares), and a couple hundred pounds of food later, as the crowd began to dissipate it was time to slink away to the nearest phone booth to transform into running guy, then wander off through the park on a slow, stiff, and seriously overfed recovery jog.

Not so fast. You thought you were getting off that easy? Why are there a couple of runner-looking types wandering around the parking lot? Why is that one approaching me, and why is he asking me where the race is? Race? What race? There’s a race? Oh! There’s a race! Yes, just around the corner, barely a quarter mile distant, were gathering a hundred-plus for Monday night’s instance of the Wickham Park cross country summer Grand Prix series.

Who knew? How cool is that? Seriously, who could resist? (Don’t all raise your hands at once!)

Now, if you’d asked me the day before, even hours before, if I’d want to run a race that evening, the answer would have been unequivocally no! Stiff, sore, tired, and of course, post-picnic, stuffed to the gills with foods I’d rather not itemize. (Why, oh why, did we eat desert afterward? Yeah, because it was there…) But if you put it in front of me like that… You’re here, there’s a race here, and it’s my kind of race, for the runners, just a couple of bucks… Hello, Dory! Oh look! A race!

I did a quick mental calculation while warming up with gentleman who’d initially asked me about the location of – and in the process lit me up on the existence of – the race, and decided that I had but three goals, in order of importance: first, don’t lose my lunch, second, get a good workout in, and third, soak it up. God sent me a race, right when I needed it. Enjoy it!

Yes, that first goal sounds a bit less than polite, but trust me, you don’t know how much we’d eaten.

As it turned out, this race series is seen as the summer tune-up for many area high-school cross country athletes, not the least reason being that Wickham Park happens to be a key location for big meets and at least sometimes, the state championships themselves. It’s a big draw. Or in other words, the field was smokin’. There followed a giant sucking sound, pulling me into the first loop far faster than I deserved or could reasonably stomach – really – and even with the best I could muster, still watching only the backs of a large group of mostly fast young guys.

Rarely have I gone into a race less ready. On top of everything else working against a rational decision to race, this one was also short – claimed at only two-point-six but even shorter by my estimate – and fast. I’ve prioritized fitness and endurance this year and have been absent from the track entirely since popping that hamstring in early June. I couldn’t have picked a worse race at this given time.

Yeah, so what? Just run, you idiot! The field was kicking my butt, but I was among my peeps, running trails and fields in a beautiful park, and getting in a far better workout than I’d planned. And at least to that point, I still had my lunch.

I’d like to tell you that out of some deep reservoir of unknown strength I pulled out an amazing performance, but that would be an utter lie. Rather, I enjoyed the scenery, huffed up the biggest hill around the mile-and-a-half mark, and made the final loop – a reverse of the initial loop – considerably slower than my first time around, a decidedly strong indicator of a decidedly not-so-strong race. There was really nothing competitive about it, save for the fact that I thought I saw an old guy or two in front of me and for a brief moment considered a chase. Turns out I was right – there was one fifty-plus up there, but there wasn’t a thing I could do about it.

But hey, I didn’t lose my lunch. And I got in a great workout. And I had a ball, over the notion of having a race appear in front of me, over the group of great people putting on the race who made for interesting chatter, and best, over wandering back to the few remaining co-workers, now even more bloated from more food and drink, in my post-race finest, sweaty and runner-style disgusting, but still offering up a good eyeful of a different way to have fun. What’s not to love?

And the ice was broken. It’s time to race!

22 August 2014

Fire & Rain, Or Rather, Ash & Slugs


[Ed Note: First things first; some housekeeping. After a stretch of wandering in the desert with little to expound upon owing to injuries, reduced training, and so on, I now find myself about a half-dozen stories in arrears. Brace yourself, prodigious prose productivity perhaps pends!]

Life deals up unexpected turns. Who’d have guessed that within a few days of each other we (yours truly and Dearest Daughter the Younger) would find ourselves first running on the edges of an abyss formed by the fires of a thousand volcanoes and a billion tons of volcanic ash, and then later running among the giants of the damp and drizzly redwoods, populated by the oddly charming if severely unappetizing western banana slugs. Experiences like these are not soon forgotten. To quote the Talking Heads, eviscerating a few irrelevant interim lines, “And you may find yourself in another part of the world, And you may ask yourself, well...how did I get here?”

In part, blame those test shoes. Certainly you remember (because I know you recall all that I write, right?) the trail shoes I was sent to test, the shoes that inspired me to trade pavement miles for trail miles, the shoes that led me like a lamb to the slaughter to a number of nasty wipe-outs, bashes, and bruises (not the shoes’ fault, mind you). Yes, it was the shoes that screamed, if you’re going to be tooling around the American West hiking on trails through expanses of great awe, why not run a few of them instead? Besides, I promised I’d put miles on their shoes, so into our elaborate expedition we slipped a few fabulous forays.

Yes, as you read last time, we went all the way to Eugene, Oregon to run a half marathon just because it finished on an oval stretch of rubber entirely identical to every other oval stretch of rubber save for the fact that a lot of famous and talented people have run on it (and even that doesn’t truly make it unique…). But you can’t go that far, run the race, and just come home. The knee bone’s connected to the thigh bone…and the next thing you know…

Once airfares dipped enough to make it somewhat less than entirely ludicrous to consider travelling to Eugene for the race, practicalities set in. There’s the expo and packet pickup, there’s the fact that you don’t want to race right off the plane, nor do you want to get back on the plane post-race sans shower (two things an airline passenger doesn’t want next to them: an Ebola patient and a sweaty runner), so it became instantly obvious that this would be a multi-day itinerary. From that point, the mysteries of airfares dictated what days thou shalt and shalt not travel.

But beyond the practical bits hung the simple fact that when you’re heading that far away, and to a place of amazing beauty and geological excess, you might as well soak it in. While DDY had never reached the Pacific, the fact that I had on many occasions didn’t make me any less interested in squeezing all the adventure I could from this excursion. You can see where this is going. Our race in Eugene quickly transformed into a ten-day extravaganza, orchestrated to cover as much ground as humanly possible. A restful vacation this was not.

I could spout for pages on the places we went, the wonders we saw, but you, dear reader, come here for running adventures, so I shall not disappoint nor stray too far. The challenge on this odyssey was to find ways to fit runs in, when our days were filled with hundreds of miles of jaw dropping scenery (it became a watchword of the trip to grunt, “WHOA!” virtually every time we turned a corner to a new vista) and miles of hiking and exploring. Somehow I managed to sneak in a half-dozen outings, even a double one day, morning and evening coming in two separate states. But those shoes egged us onto the trails…

When you think of the Pacific Northwest and Oregon, some places roll straight off the must-see list: Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Hood, Crater Lake come instantly to mind. We hit them all, but then dug down the list of obscure sights to one I’d never heard of: the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. Borne of my desire to show DDY the ‘other’ Oregon, the deserts east of the Cascades, the part I’d never myself seen, she scoured the maps and found this gem. I’ll lay a bet that you’ve never heard of it either. Now you have. Go you must, said he Yoda-like.

The Monument, which takes its name from the area of the John Day River, the town of John Day, and ultimately John Day himself, spans three ‘units’ spread across many miles. That inter-unit travel time isn’t lost, however, as the scenery outside of the monument land often matches that within for its ability to amaze and delight. Still, by the time you’ve reached a part of the monument to explore, you’re ready to shake off the car legs and crank up the heart rate. Our plan to fulfill this need was to trail run a circuit at a place called Blue Basin in the Sheep Rock Unit. I’d tell you what town that’s near, except there aren’t any. The nearest named place is Kimberly, which so far as we could see, consisted of two buildings and a sign worthy of photographing for DDY’s best friend of same name back home.

Again I could spout for pages on the geology that makes Blue Basin what it is, but I’ll summarize it in two words: volcanism and erosion. The combination is stunning, and at this spot, a short trail leads up into the belly of the basin itself, a flaming example of erosion. But the real action is the trail that circles the ranch, taking you around and above for the birds-eye view. It’s not long – just a few miles – but those few miles take you from the valley floor, where we swear we saw a sign that said the trail rose only one or two hundred feet, to the summit above the basin, which is, in fact, over seven hundred fifty feet up.

About halfway up, a sign told us just how wrong we were. The annotated photo below – look closely! – presents an idea of scale; yes, that’s DDY in the red box chugging up the mountain! From the top, the views into the basin, the views across the valley (remember, I said volcanism, and those are some of the area’s sixty layers of lava you see), the views up the valley over the painted rocks, spectacular here and even better elsewhere in the monument, simply dazzle the eyes. And then it’s time for the trip down, again eye-popping and a bit nerve-wracking, hugging hillsides, zigzagging down slick gravel switchbacks, skidding on the fine-grained dust borne of those layers of volcanic ash, and plunging into the basin where you can’t resist heading up inside for the view from another angle. You forget that you’re in the desert and that it’s ninety-plus degrees. You’re simply too awestruck to care.







Wow. But after that, it was time to run a race. And then, it was time for a recovery run, and that time found us about five hundred travel miles down the road, in a very different place. This time, no hills. No desert. No volcanoes. And really, though it’s never truly absent, no erosion. Instead of big vistas, big trees. Really big trees.

We’d scoped our recovery run from three thousand miles away, and were aimed for the northern California cost amidst the giant redwood trees. The Coastal Trail in Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park looked like a gorgeous redwood-strewn sweep above the Pacific, leading to a trail who’s name made it simply irresistible: Damnation Creek; likely not runnable but a short hike to the ocean itself. From afar, this looked like a dramatic way for DDY to finally reach the waters of the western ocean. But from up close, an obviously very knowledgeable ranger pointed out a factor we’d missed: mountain lions! Apparently the Coastal Trail was not the place to be, especially for our planned evening jaunt. DDY would have to (and did) find those Pacific waters elsewhere.

Having gained this advice while still inland, still blissfully unaware of the foggy mid-fifties gloom that would have greeted us - and eliminated our views - on the coast, we were entirely ignorant to how perfect we had it as we set forth through the filtered sunshine of the forest of giants on our replacement run up the Walker Road (irony, anyone?) in the Jedediah Smith State Park east of Crescent City. The road and its neighboring trails offered up flat, easy jogging, perfect for DDY’s post-first-half aches, surrounded by the unimaginable – until you’ve seen them – immensity of the redwoods. And if the trees weren’t enough, the giant banana slugs served DDY a slimy delight, the blackberry patch at the far end served me a feast, and best of all, the warm invitation of the Smith River at the end of the trail served both of us the perfect recovery. After all, aren’t wicking running clothes designed to get wet?


10 August 2014

You Raced Where?


I’ve got this thing about privacy. Yes, I post my adventures for all to see. Yes, I gave in last winter and got on social media. No, I’ve nothing to hide, I’ll hand my phone records to the NSA. Still, I’m somewhat old school in that I really don’t like to advertise my travels in advance. Hey, you never know, there are wackos out there, right? As a result, those of you not otherwise in on my plans via local chit-chat might find it surprising that Dearest Daughter the Younger and I just ran a half marathon in…where? Yeah, Eugene, Oregon. Tracktown, USA. The very same. And I never warned you it was coming. Keeping you on your toes, mind you.

It’s not unheard of for me to race in far-flung or obscure places. I have traipsed off to Seattle and Kentucky, but those were for national meets that were only held in, well, Seattle and Kentucky. A plain old garden-variety half marathon? Aren’t those available all over? Answer: Yes, but… Blame this one on DDY. It was her idea.

The evening I came home from the Boston Marathon (I had, frankly, forgotten it was that particular evening, but DDY reminded me), she, who had been hinting at wanting to do her first half marathon for some time, announced, “Dad, I’ve found the race for us!” Before getting to the punchline, I have to remind you that DDY is track & field Superfan Numero Uno. Her bedroom door and walls are shrines to the stars of the sport, sporting autographed bits from race expos, marathon posters, and other things that generally envelop her in a sea of Ryan, Galen, Meb, and others. Most kids her age crave bad pop music; her obsession is all things & people motile on foot.

“Dad, I’ve found a half marathon that finishes on the track at Hayward Field!”

I can’t recall if this was before or after dinner, but it is notable that I didn’t cough anything up.

Let me get this straight… You want us to go to Oregon to run a race we can find around the corner just because it finishes on a certain track? But as I said that, I cannot lie, I knew it was sacred ground. But seriously? You want us to spend how much on airfare, car, hotel, food, not to mention time off, planning effort, and all that jazz to run a race we can do here at home just because it ends on the X-Y coordinates… where the Olympic trials were, and will again be held… where Prefontaine and legends hath tread…where…wait a minute, why are we even talking about this?

“Dad, I’m going to get a job and I’ll help pay for it!”

By now you know. She did. We did. And you don’t fly all the way out there, just run the race and come home. We made it an epic adventure, a saga you will hear more about. But for the moment, we’ll stick to the prime objective of this expedition: We ran the Eugene Half-Marathon, for her, her first, and for me, another notch in my quest to regain some sort of racing shape. She succeeded brilliantly. I, well, I succeeded; I’ll leave it at that. And we had the time of our lives.

Since DDY came off the “Around the Mountain” carriage road at Acadia back in June with a smile on her face, I knew she’d cover the distance in Eugene. I didn’t care how fast or slow she did it. All that mattered to me was whether she’d walk away from this as a triumph or a living hell; the latter certainly putting a damper on future miles. But before I’d find out, I too had a race to run.

And Eugene put on a pretty good show. The run up was a little over-produced, to be fair, with a few too many cheesy emails, but I’ll chalk that up to comparing it to the subdued New England scene, where running is so in our blood we don’t feel the need to rile up the troops on a weekly basis beforehand. Not that running isn’t in the blood of Eugene and Portland, but this event clearly drew from far more than just the Oregon Duck and Nike corporate headquarters crowd. Fine, rev ‘em up a bit, it’s just email. It’s all just part of a solid organization effort.

But at the same time, Eugene was a madhouse. As it turned out, not only were thousands in town for the marathon and half, as well as the shorter races the day before, but the entire world was in town for the IAAF World Junior Championships – essentially, the track and field Olympians of 2016, 2020, and beyond. The town felt like the Olympic Village, and to our fortune, we were able to catch a few hours of said quasi-Olympics the day before, on that track at Hayward Field where we’d be finishing the next morning. Yet another layer of the mythical added to this pilgrimage…

Amidst that aura the gun went off at six in the morning. Or, as Robin Williams crowed in Good Morning, Vietnam, “It's 0600 hours. What does the "O" stand for? O my God, it's early!” Seeing it hit ninety-something later in the day, fifty-six at six was a worthy reward for rising before four. Fine, we’re up already, belt out that national anthem (getting the words wrong), but get us on our way.

In a word, or to be more accurate, two words, mostly uneventful.

There was no real racing for me, no obvious competition, no duels or showdowns. It was a hard, fast run, plain and simple, targeting a goal that seemed like a reasonable stab toward racing redemption. I’d self-seeded at an hour twenty-five, three minutes off my best, yet in my current state, a bit of a stretch. I’d like to say I monitored my progress to hitting that target, but once past mile four, the only real sin committed by the Eugene folks became apparent, as it became clear that monitoring with certainty wasn’t going to happen. Mile five, missing; mile six, early; seven, eight, and nine, entirely uncertain; ten nowhere to be seen. At four I was on target, hitting the first hill feeling pretty good. By the second hill at eight, the misfortunes of injuries and lousy training were already rearing their ugly heads, but without decent mileposts (yes, still no GPS watch for me, call me a purist Luddite) I really couldn’t judge how ugly it might have been. By the half/full split at ten, the field was so sparse (I’d end it nearly half a minute behind the previous finisher), it was just a game of trying to stay focused, stay intense, stay on the goal, and in the face of some blinding early morning sunrise, don’t trip over anything and stay on my feet.

Being accustomed to the full event, the half wraps so quickly. In no time, there were the gates of Hayward Field. There was that track, only hours before the host of the best youth of the world, and over the years the home of legends. No amount of late-race agony can prevent you from kicking it up with all you’ve got for your half-lap through the Holy Cathedral of Track.

Yes, I hit my buck-twenty-five (allowing for some change), and yes, I even took home (or at least they’ve promised to ship me) hardware for third in my old fart category, but there was unfinished business. You don’t travel all that way and spend all that dough and not be there to share the moment and get a picture with your daughter finishing her first on the track at Hayward Field.

But security and traffic flow made it impossible to hang around and wait. Off the track with you, you’re finished, move along! So we had a plan, hatched and planned, knowingly winked at and ignored by a particularly friendly volunteer. Time to execute!

Off the track, recover, retrieve the mini-camera from one of our checked bags. Key step, tear the D-tag off the back of my bib so as not to screw up the timing. And head out backward on the course…with a crucial pause at the unofficial beer stop at twelve-point-one, since I certainly couldn’t avail myself of that joy during the race. Back to the twelve-mile water stop, baffle and amuse the volunteers by jumping in and working the water stop (“Wait a minute, you ran, now you’re here working?” “Yeah, it’s a habit”). Realize with some embarrassment that you’ve forgotten what she’s wearing and hope to God you don’t miss her…and a few minutes later, along she came. So, what would it be, smiling or grimacing?

“Whatever you do, don’t give me that water! I’ve drank way too much!” Otherwise, smiling. Big smiling. Not even annoyed at Dad jumping ahead and snapping pictures (almost all of which came out wicked pissah blurry) smiling. Huge relief!

She cruised mile thirteen, and with me in tow for my second pass into the stadium, rousing up cheers from the crowd for her, she had her Moment of Zen on the Sacred Track at Hayward Field.

The fact that she sliced more than ten minutes off her expectations was gravy.

The fact that we got a couple of great pictures, Dad and DDY, there in that Holy Spot, was better.

Yeah, we traveled cross-country for a not-so-plain-old half marathon. We’ll both remember this one for a long, long time.



21 July 2014

A New Form of Abuse


To hear the crowd talk, you’d be forgiven to believe that leaving the streets and heading for the trails cures cancer, feeds the hungry, and brings peace to Gaza. Or if you don’t want to go that far, you might at least believe that trading pavement for the soft, comforting terrain of off-road will relieve your aches and pains and help you avoid injuries.

Er, exactly which injuries were they talking about avoiding? Today I sit with wounds aplenty, ranging from scrapes and cuts and bruises to things that I’ve considered might be broken (only later to decide likely not, though said judgments may have been endorphin-influenced). And this isn’t the first time this has happened since the trail running bug bit, not to mention plenty of other bugs on those trails. Maybe I’ve avoided some injuries, but clearly I’ve just traded them for an entirely new set and discovered a new form of bodily abuse.

I’m by no means new to trail abuse. I’ve been doing it for decades, but generally at slower speeds and in hiking boots. This year’s latest entry into that category so fondly known as the Death March came on our annual escape to Acadia. Dearest Daughter the Younger announced that unlike our usual leisurely Acadia outings, this time we’d traverse the entire east side of the island, touching almost all the significant (and a number of less significant) summits in one shot. Thirteen summits, seventeen miles, six thousand feet of up and another six thousand down, ten hours on the trail (portrayed nicely in the attached summit collage she put together, you’ll have to click and expand that one to hope to see any detail!). To tell you that no body parts were harmed in the making of this movie would be a bald-faced lie. Abuse was heaped on plenty of parts, toenails were sacrificed, shins scarred, you name it. But that’s not news.

Nor is it news that while in our favorite park, DDY and I once again enjoyed a number of delightful runs on Acadia’s vaunted carriage roads. It’s noteworthy that DDY stretched her longest to eleven miles – and a tough eleven at that – “Around the Mountain” for those of you familiar with the area – in preparation for her upcoming first half marathon (while Dad rather irresponsibly changed plans mid-run and tacked on a few more for a hard fifteen before going back to meet up – yeah, I needed that).

But it is news that one of those carriage road runs started with a couple miles on trails, a rare outing for me and a new experience for DDY. She found it rather cool to have to slog across beaver bridges on a run; a bit more interesting than counting telephone poles. And the unpaved surfaces did, at least at first, feel better on my rather battered body. So the stage was set, my interest piqued, and I was just waiting for a catalyst, which conveniently arrived several days after returning from Maine in the form of a notice that a certain corporation to whom I’ve sworn non-disclosure was sending a pair of trail shoes to test. Well, that sealed the deal. If they were sending me trail shoes, I guess it was time to dive into trail running.

Courtesy of the shoe deal, I’d suddenly shifted from rarely running a trail outside of cross country season to having a weekly quota of trail miles But I didn’t have to look far to find the trail running community. A group within my local club that calls themselves the Water Buffalo Faction (an unauthorized faction they like to say, the name obscurely pulled from the classic Veggie Tales tune – trust me, if you’ve had kids, it is classic) already had the trail disease and was just waiting for a new host to infect. Let’s just say my resistance was down. And once infected…the disease begins to do its damage.

Really, I should’ve known better. A year or so back, dragged into a trail run with some of my Greater Boston buddies, I’d come away battered and bruised, doubting my eyesight or at least my sure-footedness. But when they called this time, I was so chomping at the proverbial bit that it didn’t matter that the trail shoes hadn’t yet arrived. Into the woods!

Upton State Forest proved no match for our intrepid quartet that morning; its trails tame and serene, far from the alpine stumbles to which I’m accustomed. But Hopkinton’s Whitehall Reservoir changed our tune, turning significantly more ‘technical’ as the jargon goes. Technically, it just means something closer to what I think of as a trail: rocks, hills, turns, fun, and…ten miles in, a toe failed to clear a log, and you know what comes next. You really don’t think you’re going all that fast on these trails until you’re plummeting headlong into a date with the dirt. This time I was lucky, hitting soft stuff with an artistic three-point landing consisting of face, chest, wrist doubled under. Though I quite literally ate dirt, no blood was shed. Not so lucky was buddy Barry, who bought the farm a mile later with somewhat nastier results.

A few days later the bruises made themselves known, but these are badges of honor, right? Keep in mind that I’m no fan of the “show me how tough you are” fad events (or as the Center for Disease Control has called them, bacterial love-fests for your digestive system); I’m rather on the purist side. But these aren’t artificial hazards, they’re about as real as rocks and roots and slick hillsides can get. And there is no hefty entry fee. So yes, I guess these are badges of honor, and they multiplied over the next several weeks, setting the stage for Sunday’s arena of abuse, the Mammoth Trail Half Marathon, an inaugural event brought to you by The Water Buffalo Faction.

With a target half marathon coming up in only a week, I jumped into this as a last minute last big training run before the main event. Goal Number One was simply to not hurt myself. And based on how this article has progressed so far, you can guess how well I attained my goal.

Despite being within running distance of home, I’d never set foot on any but about a mile of the course, so it made sense to hang with one of its creators. He warned be repeatedly about the back side of Cedar Hill, where he’d dropped – literally – one of our local running buddies a few days earlier. Reaching that spot, it really wasn’t so bad – until he reminded me again, and like an idiot, I took my eyes off the trail, glanced around to view the scene of that former crime…and it was dirt-eating time once again. This time the landing wasn’t so soft as back at Whitehall, and for the next couple miles I had to think about whether there might or might not be a crack in my right ulna. At least this pondering distracted me from the continuous thorny leg assaults, imposition of various bruises, and other similar insults.

I’d bargained to stick with my native guide, but by mile eleven the flies grew so thick (see the postscript) that I had no choice but to high-tail it out of the swamp, take the lead, and take the event – not all that much of an honor being there were a mere thirteen of us brave souls – but a nice culmination to the last few weeks of trail-mania. It was a fair trade, a win in exchange for only a moderate amount of blood.

Run trails! Avoid injuries! Right, who are they kidding?


Flies, Damn Flies, and Statistics! One thing I’ve picked up on quickly running local trails – or perhaps it has picked up on me – is the astounding local population of deer flies: big, annoying, painful (if they get you) and stupid, but mostly annoying. But our Water Buffalo Faction lit me up on a low-tech yet effective weapon, the deer fly patch available from Tred-Not. Effectively a simple glue trap, when stuck onto your hat, the annoying dummies (recall I said stupid), who have a habit of dive-bombing your head, pretty quickly get lucky and get stucky. As it turns out, I seem to have an attractive aura about me, making me not only the favorite of the flies but also of my fellow runners who know that if I’m around, they’re that much safer. What an honor!

06 July 2014

Soviet Revisionist History


There is, as they say, a first time for everything. Since I started penning this blog, I’ve never missed entertaining my throngs for a whole month. Yet it’s happened. June came, June went, and you found yourself with a surprising extra twenty minutes on your hands, having not been distracted by my blather. I know that you all put that time to good use, solving world hunger and analyzing the chemical mix that produces the odd orange glow on the Speaker of the House. But if you spent a moment of that time pondering my whereabouts, please call off the All-Points Bulletin. I am alive and reasonably well, and I have no intention of stopping this periodic nonsense.

But, you beg, why the absence? I could simple say I’ve been busy, and it wouldn’t be a lie, however it’s actually a bit more curious than that. While you might find it hard to believe, I am sensitive to avoiding undue repetition of theme. The whole idea of this running column, pun intended, is to celebrate the adventure of running into the later years, when we’re not only not spring chickens, but we’re fast approaching, if not already past, the mid-summer poultry stage. A lot of the story of running hard and competitively as a master – no, wait, make that a senior now – is dealing with inevitable injuries and health issues. But how many times can you hear me whine about stuff that hurts? I’ve got to keep this upbeat, or I will inspire you to run…away.

In late May I’d written a column called “Bozo”, referring to that famed blow-up punching bag of our youth and waxing poetic on how Bozo always got back up again. Keep it positive! I wrote how my training seemed to be turning a corner, and how things were looking up. But a more timely issue popped up demanding air time that week, and Bozo was put on the shelf for the following episode.

Only days later, another issue popped up – this time in my right hamstring, this one sudden, painful, and in the middle of a set of two-hundreds on the track. Coach Dad had devised a diabolical workout for Darling Daughter the Younger where we’d start at a relatively easy clip, and reduce our target by a second on each rep. Since I spotted her ten seconds on each, the difficulty level was just about right for each of us. But on number five, Mr. Hammy went pop about fifty meters in.

The good news of the night was that DDY not only finished the workout and made her time target on number ten, but I had the fun of watching her discover a new gear from the sideline, watching her stride, rather than from behind playing chaser. But my frustration over this bodily failure made the pain of the injury that much worse. Another training break, right when I’d hoped to ramp it up!

It just didn’t seem like the right time to opine on how well things were going, so Bozo went back on the shelf, and after a few hyperactive weeks of work and vacation thrown in for good measure, suddenly, it’s July. How did that happen?

By now the ham is healed, and while other stuff still hurts (what else is new?), the big issue is that rather than having seven weeks of solid prep before my next target race, I’ve gotten in only one good one and have a mere three remaining. But that’s how life goes. I’m be playing catch-up in my training, and I’ll also be playing catch-up on a few interesting topics here, so stay tuned.

Now you know the rest of the story, but there is still that blow-up punching bag sitting on the shelf…what to do? I hate to let a bit of polished prose go to waste, so here’s the plan. Those of you old enough to remember the cold war knew how our comrades on the other side could rewrite history to match their world, and do it with a completely straight face. So I’m taking a page from the manual of Soviet Revisionist History. What was that I mentioned about not posting in June? No, that was simply not true, comrade! Look, my last column was published on the final day of June, and you can read it here! Do not believe that propaganda! We speak only the truth!

30 June 2014

Bozo


[Ed. Note: This was written in late May. See the next column, “Soviet Revisionist History” for my lame excuse as to why it’s being published in July but dated June.]

What do economists and runners have in common? Both can truly recognize trends only in hindsight, but both claim the clairvoyance of being able to spot those trends well before they’re proven. In that respect, I’d say that meteorologists have a better track record. Despite this, I’m going to call the Florida race before the hanging chads have been plucked from their ballots. On second thought, that brings back really, really bad memories. Forget I brought that up. Please.

We’ll take a different tack: a funny thing happened on the way to the forum last week. I got there faster than expected. And the economist-runner within wants to point out what could be a good trend. Is this, or is this not, the return of at least some of that vaunted mojo?

The point of this uncompensated writing odyssey was and still is to explore the adventures of running and racing later in life. Plenty my age and older run, jog, and stay active, but being the competitive type (no, really, me?) and being blessed by my Creator, whoever or whatever he/she/it may be, with the ability to move at a decent clip relative to most of my peers means that what I try to relate in these pages is the skewed vision of someone who tries to compete like a somewhat young guy but who happens to live in the body of a somewhat old guy.

A big part of that young / old dichotomy is the overriding reality that the old part will win. I will slow down. I will grow less competitive in general, even if I hold steady among my aged peers. That’s hard to accept until it’s forced on you, and so each time I’m knocked down, it’s human nature – or at least my nature – to try to bounce right back to where I started, like those blow-up Bozo the Clown punching toys we whacked as kids. (Disclaimer: I never owned one. I don’t regret that, either.) As kids, we’d hit Bozo hard to try to make him stay down, but he always came back up (excepting that final, piercing blow, which I never witnessed). As adults, we’d like to think we can do the same, but we know it won’t last. One of these times, we won’t get all the way back up. I’m not talking about that final piercing blow, just the one that makes us come up a little… deflated. The question is, which time will it be?

Before the Achilles devolved so badly as to force surgical action last summer, I was arguably in the best shape of my adult life. I knew that electing for repair work would knock me down, and that getting back up would be hard work. I didn’t count on the bonus blow of the clots making the return path that much steeper. And now I wonder if I’ll rise back up fully, or return a little… deflated. Will it be this time? Or not?

Last week seemed to hint toward the not side. The leftover wounds from Boston were fading, the sun was finally out after a week of gloom, and something clicked. I know from experience that changes in my fitness come in chunks rather than in smooth progression. A chunk seemed to happen. My body felt better, my training pace dropped, and as noted earlier, I got there, wherever there happened to be on several successive days, faster. No, the Achilles annoyance didn’t, and probably never will go away entirely, but the rest of the machine seemed in better tune. It felt like maybe, just maybe, oh so long after last summer’s knock down, I might be finding that mojo again.

Then again, check back in six months. All those economists can probably tell us how we were really doing, and perhaps I will be able to as well.