21 October 2014

Ten Year Sentence

In the aftermath of the Inexplicable Alien Leg Pain of a week ago and the resulting suspenseful (and happily, negative) blood test, Lady Doc, upon relating to me that I wasn’t going to die of a blood clot (at least not now), asked for an update a few days later. I like that she’s in the medically modern world and doesn’t mind the intrusion of email, so obligingly, Sunday night I somewhat sheepishly admitted to her that yes, I did run a marathon on the leg that only a week prior I’d feared fatal. Her brief reply conveyed amused disbelief – not doubting what I’d done, but the very fact that I would – and went on to make reference to my apparent toughness. I’m not certain I concur. Foolish, perhaps. Determined, perhaps. Tough? I prefer to think it’s just what we do.

In any event, as you’ve guessed, I pulled the trigger. Despite a rather sleepless night, somewhat inexplicable considering the lack of import and barely perceptible level of pressure I’d applied to this race, when the alarm went off at a quarter to five, I was already awake. The game-eve decision had been a go, the game-day decision concurred, and an hour later I was off into the pre-dawn darkness, destination Lowell, where I say in fun that you’re incented to run fast since you never know who’s behind you, but which is in truth a fine venue for an extremely fine race.

At the end of the day, the standard rules of morality applied. You do dumb things, you pay the price. I subjected myself to the trial of the marathon when my body wasn’t really where it should have been, and in return I was given a ten year sentence for my transgression. This, however, was a ten year sentence to celebrate. I came home with another ticket to the dance having notched my tenth successive year of Boston qualifiers. April of 2016 is eighteen months away and a lot can happen before then, but at a minimum I’m invited to the party to hit double digits.

Frankly, there’s no place I would have rather done it. Despite considering a new venue for this year’s fall punishment, defaulting to my nearly-hometown race was by no means a let-down. About the only thing I don’t like about this race is dealing with the fact that they make ‘Baystate’ into one word. It just offends my sense of style and usage. Oh yeah, and somehow the hotel hosting the pre-race follies couldn’t come up with enough pasta to feed everyone. But I’ll blame Radisson for that, not the terrific race crew. Besides, that race crew made it up not only with their signature hot soup post-race, but with the boxes upon boxes of homemade PBJs. Sounds corny? Perhaps, but tasted like heaven. And everything else about this race is first class.

I ran my first Boston qualifier at Baystate. It’s only fitting I ran my tenth there as well.

This one was textbook, but like my college physics textbook, it came in two volumes. Volume One was textbook on how to run a marathon the right way. Despite being Rodeo Number Twenty-One for me, this was, quite frankly, a new and highly enjoyable experience. But Volume Two was textbook on how the marathon is, in fact, a marathon, and what it can do to you. It will find your weakness, prey on it, attack you, chew you up, and spit you out the other end. That’s why the marathon retains its respect no matter how many hundreds of thousands slog through their twenty-six at the pace of their own personal hells.

I’d suggested previously that of the two goals I’d held out for this race, only one was reasonably within reach. Bettering my three-oh-seven from this past year’s Boston in hopes of improving my seeding for next April was at best a long-shot, but notching that 2016 qualifier – which at my age requires only three and a half hours (less a few minutes of safety for the cut-off under the current system) wasn’t outlandish (and I know many of you cringe when I say “only” but it’s all relative…). And that’s exactly how it turned out, but rarely if ever do I get from here to there in a straight line.

When I’m in top shape, hitting the first miles in the low sixes is normal. Settling in for a dozen more in the mid-sixes is typical. Trying to hold it together in the late stages is standard operating procedure. In my best races, I’ve nearly held it under sevens the whole way. In others, it’s gotten ugly. But never have I run what the pros would consider a smart race. Not once have I approached even splits – the second half at the same pace as the first – let alone negative splits, coming home faster. This time, with no pressure to go for anything dramatic, I figured I’d give it a try, just for kicks and grins. For once in my life, run a smart race. Go out conservatively. Baby that right calf that, while gloriously devoid of the Alien Pain from Hell, still was clearly unhappy from a garden-variety strain, and was, I figured, the likely source of my comeuppance.

Trying something new and foreign, I linked up with the three-oh-five pace group, led for the first half by a youngster I know only as Somerville John. Three-oh-five was a bit of a stretch, considering my starting condition, but with a controlled pace, for once not burning rubber early, it was worth seeing what would happen. Maybe, just maybe, if I ran this smart, for the first time ever, I could see what negative splits felt like. Besides, I knew if I blew it up, I’d have twenty-plus minutes to clean up the wreckage and drag my bones back to the Tsongas Arena – and still get that 2016 time. It was a fine day for an experiment.

From the outset, I loved it, truly. No tension. We didn’t even stand near the start line – well, by my usual standards, at least. Granted there were a thousand and a half behind us, but in a race of this size, I’d normally stand near the front and be over the line in a second. This time, a leisurely six seconds passed post-gun and pre-line, hugely indicative of my hope to keep this under control. We just rambled and ambled, John carefully checking his GPS and setting us on sevens, plus or minus a few seconds, with glorious accuracy.

And the gang was enjoyable, the camaraderie palpable. I tried to keep them amused with silliness and stories of previous race stupidities, and how exciting it was to try to do it right this time. Plenty of return tales circulated. But above all, we were a functioning machine, men and women on a mission, getting the job done, on a perfect cool overcast morning, with the bonus of a lighter headwind than expected but even at that, working together trading shifts out front to share the load. Click, click, click, textbook.

First three miles, a hair under sevens per mile, meaning a little below three-oh-five, but so amazingly under control that it felt effortless. Not painless, as the Calf of Death never went entirely silent for a single step, but certainly effortless.

First time to the Tyngsborough Bridge at mile eight, despite passing through the head-windiest section of the course, still manufacturing dead even sevens, not effortless but also nowhere near the kind of energy expenditure I’m used to when burning six-and-a-halves at that point. And with the bonus of a downwind stretch ahead, cruising. But the Calf of Death was registering dissent.

At twelve, over the Permanent Temporary Bridge (also known as the Rourke Bridge, a “temporary” span put in place nearly thirty years ago!), and into the second loop. Hit the halfway mark in a tad over an hour thirty-one and a half, still nailing sevens, heading back into the wind, noticing the work, but in control. Still thinking about nailing the second half in even or negative splits, and pondering that Goal One – bettering that Boston 2015 seed time – might come back into reach. But the Calf of Death seemed to be arming for a fight, and I knew if anything was to stop me, it would be he.

Back to the Tyngsborough Bridge, knowing I’d defeated the wind the second and final time, and onward into the downwind stretch, coming up on twenty, still cranking sevens. Doing the math for if – or when – things blew up, how bad it could get while still getting that 2016 qualifier; the math getting more favorable at each milepost. And the Calf of Death was ready to pounce.

Textbook, Volume Two, where we are reminded that this is, after all a marathon, arrived with surprising ferocity. I suppose this is why I like paper books over e-readers. With a paper book in your hands, you can see and feel when you’re near the end. There are no surprises. But at mile twenty, it was like reading a tome online without the benefit of a scroll bar. Volume One ended without warning in a way I haven’t experienced in twenty previous marathons, and I was forced to open the next book. Right. Now.

Almost precisely at mile twenty, where race organizers had lovingly painted a brick wall on the road, the Calf of Death announced that if I didn’t stop punishing it immediately, it might do something really nasty, like go Snap! Crackle! Pop! It didn’t so much change feeling instantly as it somehow signaled mentally that its time was up. And I can’t place in my head whether it was real or I was fooled, but mentally I went into preservation mode. I’d covered twenty in two hours twenty. I had an hour-plus to cover the last six and change and still get that ten year sentence. If I let it break, I’d have to do it all over again (and if it broke, no telling when – or if – I’d be able to), or go into Boston 2015 with the pressure of needing it then or facing a warm-weather recap.

Rationality took over. Time to shut it down.

Never has a race changed character so suddenly and so dramatically. Twenty-one clicked in at eight minutes. Twenty-three, the low point, bogged over nine. Somewhere the Calf-of-Death-imposed shuffle brought the rest of me down mentally to an overall shuffle, though the well-controlled first twenty meant I could still do it with a smile on my face (or at least it seemed that way, but we’ll see how the overpriced race photos look). I still did the math, and I was still well ahead of it. Nines were ugly, but I could afford twelves, and I told myself that if I couldn’t do a few more twelves, I didn’t deserve the Boston time anyway.

Soldier on, more high eights, but goal in sight, sucking up any encouragement possible. Two miles out, sharing the road with the grunts of the shuffling dead, more striking than usual because I really wasn’t there with them; rather I was just wicked slow from the pain, willing the Calf of Death to hold together and not tear itself to shreds. A half mile out, pleased to hear sideline encouragement from pacer Somerville John (relieved with fresh pacers at the halfway mark), who built the first half of this race for me and now added that ounce of fuel at the end. At last, over the line, soaking up a nice shout-out from announcer Steve who publicly recognized my feat of running every street in the city a few years back. And oh-so-pleased to see former teammate Mark working the finish, knighting arriving warriors in cloaks of Mylar armor. At times like these, it’s good to have friends.

Textbook, yes, in two volumes: How To Run A Marathon Perfectly, and How A Marathon Will Try To Defeat You. Volume One was short a few pages, so we had to dip into Volume Two. Things got ugly, and that vision of a smart race evaporated. Negative splits turned into ten extra minutes on the back half, ballooning a potential three-oh-three to -thirteen, but as my old friend Chris (working the water stop with the Squannacook crew at mile seven, thanks!) would say, that makes a better story on Monday morning.

And no matter. Mission accomplished, sentence imposed, tenth date in Hopkinton now slated for April 2016.

18 October 2014

The Maybe Marathon

At eight tomorrow morning I might be running a marathon. No, scratch that, I probably will be running a marathon. But it’s four in the afternoon the day before, and I’m still not sure. To most who’ve run a marathon, who know the training build-up, the inescapable anticipation leading to the starting gun, such a laissez-faire attitude might come across as, well, rather strange. Trust me, I’m not that far removed from reality, it’s rather strange to me, too.

This wasn’t the plan. The plan was improved training, improving health, readiness for a fall race. The plan was to better my seeding time for Boston 2015, and in the process, land a decent qualifier for Boston 2016. The plan was for a real marathon. Then along came last weekend.

I’m used to things hurting. I’m old, I run, that’s just the way it goes. But there’s hurting, and there’s hurting. And the circumstances under which that hurting arrives have a lot to do with how I, or anyone else for that matter, deal with said hurting. For the past few months, when people greet me and ask how I’m doing, my answer has been pretty straightforward, “Stuff hurts.” It’s not a complaint so much as an honest answer. I’m not going to tell you that all is rosy, when in reality, stuff hurts. But as I’ve written before, I’m not going to stop doing what I do just because of that.

But a week ago this morning, it was different. The lower right leg – the one that’s been on the edge of a calf / Achilles strain for weeks (no, not the left one, that Achilles is finally feeling mostly better; yes, the other one…it’s always something!) suddenly erupted in pain. Not the, “oh, I strained / pulled / ripped / otherwise abused it” pain, but hot, radiating, hugely aching pain, out of nowhere. And it did it while I was doing absolutely nothing. No, not running, not even walking, but instead it came while driving on a ten minute ride to meet the gang for our Saturday morning social run. Out of the blue.

I did what any red-blooded runner would do, and tried to run it off. After all, this wasn’t anything that felt like a running injury, nor was it anything that seemed to impede motion, other than due to its alarming pain. And it wasn’t anything that seemed to intensify – or abate – when confronted with some gentle jogging. Over the next couple days, in between hits of Vitamin I, it came and went, radiating backward into the calf, forward through the bone, upward, downward. Its very centrality – after all, what is in the center of your leg, but… lit the warning bulb on the dashboard of my brain, recalling last fall’s bout with the blood clots, Clot! Clot! Clot!

Boy crying wolf? Maybe. But if boy doesn’t cry wolf and it is, in fact, a wolf (sorry, I know wolves are unfairly characterized as evil when in reality, they’re glorious creatures), boy is in deep trouble. And the logic of the explaining the excruciating extremity was otherwise stumped. Muscle strain? Too strong a pain. Tear? Wrong kind of pain. Stress fracture? Coming on while doing nothing? Broken leg? I’d likely fall down. What’s left? Alien disease? Can’t be, no warning from Donald Trump. The word clot kept coming into the limelight, though unlike last year’s post-surgical adventure, I could conceive of no logical reason for another one to appear. Unless, God forbid, it was my fate to have become susceptible to them.

These are the thought processes that scare the willies out of us. Sometimes it’s better to stay ignorant. Fat, dumb, and happy. Of course, that probably translates to a much shorter life.

As it was, being a quasi-holiday, and being as my own Lady Doc wasn’t on call for the long weekend and I wasn’t thrilled with who was, it wasn’t till Tuesday that action became practical. Wait a minute, you say, you’re worried about a life-threatening condition and you waited till Tuesday? Well, it went away, sort of. Then came back, but went away again. And so on. It was highly worrying, but still in the leg, not near the lungs. And besides, I did call off the seventeen-mile trail run and summit climb I’d planned in the Whites with Dearest Daughter the Younger. Wasn’t that alone indicative of the severity here? (And wasn’t that alone an indication that the word ‘taper’ has a strange meaning in my vocabulary?)

On Tuesday, by which time it had largely vanished as fast as it had come on, a simple blood test confirmed it wasn’t a clot, and there was great rejoicing. But the mystery remains as to exactly what it was.

Back on the road on Thursday, I felt exactly how a forced three-and-a-half-day break typically makes me feel: stiff, clumsy, and out-of-sorts. It’s not how I like to spend taper week. And the same old strain in that same mysterious leg reappeared, but I know what that’s all about. So with only a few days of re-loosening-up under my belt, I’m looking at Bay State in the morning. But hey, at least I’m rested, right?

Beating my Boston time for a better qualifier is likely an impossibility. Scratch goal number one. But gaining a qualifying time, even if not a terribly strong one, for 2016? Even in my abused state, that likely isn’t too tall an order. Goal number two, still on the table…if nothing breaks en-route. And given how I’ve gotten here, that’s not a sure bet.

It’s a calculated risk. I’ll set the alarm clock and decide sometime before eight tomorrow morning.

10 October 2014

Her Day, Not Mine!

It is fun, and in a way a relief, to write of someone else’s adventures once in a while within these lines of prose. It takes the pressure off writing about myself without coming across as a cad; trying to share the highs without boasting while relating the lows without whining. When someone else is the center of attention, I can pretty much say whatever I want, within the bounds of propriety. And this time, Dearest Daughter the Younger has earned her spot in these column inches.

Yeah, but we’ll get to that later. Back to me for a while.

I can’t tell you if I’m surging back into top shape or mere weeks from death. Inconsistency is the title of my training log. Speed is a memory, or at least speed as I knew it just a year and a half back. But as you’ve seen, since mid-summer, I’ve taken a ‘damn the torpedoes’ attitude and plunged back into the racing pool, even if mostly in the shallow end, and in the head of someone as twisted as I, that means a fall marathon is a fait accompli. It’s just what we do, right?

I’d entertained thoughts over the summer of dipping my toe into the fresh waters of a new race. Hartford stuck out, being relatively close, of reasonable reputation, and, interestingly, teasing top-notch racers with mini-elite packages. I spent about an hour thinking about that; after all, my 2013 Boston, still recent on my resume, ranked pretty strongly on the senior circuit, as did a few other outings before the Achilles slap-down, and hey, maybe if they wanted a competitive field in each age group…since maybe by fall I’d be back in that kind of shape…

Sanity caught hold, and I dropped that idea hard and fast like a heavy chunk of granite. Seriously, it would have been a stretch anyway – I’m no two-thirty-marathon stud, nor even, at my age, in the running for the overall masters column. And as the fall crept closer, and that inconsistency as well as various other woes continued to prevent solid training, practicality followed. Seriously, why was I doing this, anyway? In my shape it wasn’t to win anything, so why travel? My fall goals were simple: improve my seed time for this next Patriot’s Day, and land a qualifier for the one following, which – if that happens – will be number ten, a golden ticket that makes future Bostons just a little bit easier to get into. So if a decent time was the only goal, why play games? Just hit the local favorite and be done with it.

Except that the local favorite, it turned out, was all but sold out by the time I came to this conclusion. With literally no time to spare, I grabbed one of the few remaining slots, only to discover hours later that the annual race to honor my lost friend John Tanner had been moved to that same morning. Missing that was not in the plan and was not a happy thought, but the deed was done, and Bay State – for my fourth time – was booked. Though as it creeps closer, I can’t say that improving that seeding time is a strong likelihood, based on training, racing, and an utterly horrible final attempt at one more long one before coasting into a taper. At least today’s set of Yasso 800s, traditionally my last hard workout before a marathon, went reasonably well.

But before we got here, last weekend there was one more hill not to climb, but to descend; a race that for years I’ve avoided, either by racing out of town or working it as a volunteer or even, last year, power-walking it in the walking cast boot after the Achilles surgery and the Clotty Adventure. After all those years, it just seemed like it was time to tackle the Marlborough Main Street Mile.

It’s not my forte. It’s only a mile (it’s a hair short, but close enough), and I’m barely warmed up after three. It’s all about speed, and even in my good years, that’s not my finest quality. And it’s downhill – almost entirely save a couple of flat stretches. I’m an uphill guy. Strike one, strike two, strike three, and you know why I’ve avoided this one for years.

Confront your demons.

But first, I promised this would be about DDY. Remember that, a page back? I keep my promises.

Said offspring is enjoying – thoroughly enjoying I might note – her first year on the high school cross country team, made doubly fun not only because she’s finding new gears she didn’t know she had, but also by association, having landed on a team that, at last count, was something like eight and one. Winning feels good.

A couple cross country meets a week pretty much rules out weekend racing, which, as you read, worked nicely to the advantage of a bunch of old guys at the Forrest a week back. But a mile? Just a single mile? Her agonizing decision to run or not got downright tense the night before. I wasn’t much help; knowing my need for a ludicrously long warm-up for a race with the word speed in its description, I wasn’t sure how the logistics would fall out. I dithered on the choice as well, despite my bias toward prodding her to run, until she made the game-day decision to toe the line.

If nothing else good happened that morning, at least we had the joy – after three consecutive steaming bake-fests – of a perfect fall racing morning. Cool, crisp, calm, colorful, and a crazy-fast course. We shook out the cobwebs together on a first warm-up; then I left her to her devices while I tried to coax the old bones into readiness for something rapid with a few strides and such. It really was, as expected, a futile effort. I’m just not that rapid, but it contributed to my overall goal which was not to break anything two weeks before the marathon.

Now, this is supposed to be about her, but I can’t tell you much about her race. She came in almost exactly a minute behind me, but I didn’t see it. A minute after running that mile, I had yet to emerge from my post-race delirium. Oh, what I missed.

Before that moment came about – the moment I missed – there was a mile to cover. You’d think it’d be over in a flash, but it was the longest mile I’ve run, despite being the fastest mile I’ve run since high school. There’s exactly one turn, just before the quarter mile. By the time I hit that turn, I was already burnt toast. I was cursing myself for having failed to measure out quarter-mile reference points ahead of time. Guessing split locations in a race like that would be utterly meaningless. It sounds ridiculous, but despite having run that road hundreds of times, I found myself in utter denial of how far away City Hall – the finish line – still lay. I was beyond burnt toast. I was wreckage. My strides slammed the ground with uncharacteristic violence, to the point where I felt it in my back, a never-happens kind of event. And the final stretch – the final flatness where, now past wreckage and into disintegration, no longer with any hill left to drive me…and they’re taking pictures of my pain, far worse than usual…

There’s a reason I’ve avoided this race. A minute after I finished, I was still in no condition to notice that DDY was holding off a pack of females bidding for her slot, not just leading the youth, but leading all of the females. All of them. And holding them off, barely, but enough, across the line, over a minute faster than any mile she’d ever run, impressive even if it wasn’t all downhill and a hair short, yes, winning the whole shootin’ match among those with two X chromosomes.

Once I figured out what I missed, the fact that I nipped under a benchmark time was entirely irrelevant. I didn’t win a thing – not the race, not the masters division, and not fast enough to boost her performance to take the parent-child team award. But she won it hands-down, sweeping up not one but two sweet trophies since the fastest of each gender from our own city also earn swag. Better, she walked off with a couple hundred pounds of freshly delivered confidence, and melting skin from the beaming pride of her parents.

And to think about that choice, do I run or not? Nothing happens until you step on the line.

Now, I’m not entirely sure about my daughter being called, “The Fastest Woman in Marlborough,” but I think I’ll get my mind out of the gutter and enjoy it.

05 October 2014

Old, Old, and Older

In those heady days of a couple years back, when I was racking up two-hundred-plus months like they were going out of style and my racing capabilities were likewise growing, my racing circle expanded to the headier venues. Running New England Grand Prix events meant getting my butt kicked soundly by massive packs of New England’s best, but a hundredth-place finish in those kind of races was downright respectable and on more than one occasion meant a new personal best, despite the number of speedsters warming the pavement before my arrival.

This year it’s been about recovery. Each time I’ve gone through this cycle it’s been a little tougher, since I’ve been a little older, and I’ve battled the same demons of doubt. In previous episodes, I’ve come out of the tunnel stronger, but this trip’s finale is yet to be written, and the doubts remain despite real progress being made. Predictably, my racing circle has contracted, with a preponderance of local races. The few hot events I’ve hit, like the Level Renner, have reminded me that this is a rebuilding year.

But local races have their charms: little or no travel, easy logistics, plenty of friends, and complete unpredictability of their fields. You just don’t know who’s going to show up on any given day. That wildcard can make for interesting and sometimes fun results, and if nothing else proves the maxim that just showing up is a big part of the game.

When the winds blow the right way, you might win the masters division, as happened back on the Labor Day Laborious Ten Miler, which really doesn’t even have a masters division, but unofficially, I was the first antique across the line. That one was an event that escaped the clutches of blogdom, and for good reason. It was brutally hot and humid, my performance was middling at best, and if I’d had to pepper the column with photos, having stripped off even my light singlet somewhere around mile eight, the resulting visage might have sent you packing, no longer to return here to read another day.

When the winds blow really hard the right way, you might win the whole race. Let’s just say that the winds blew the fast guys off to the next county when the Police Chase rolled around, and you’ve already seen the slightly frightening story of that one.

And when the winds blow hard in strange, confused circles, you get strange, confused results like a bunch of old guys almost sweeping the podium of an entire race. That storm blew in last week at the Forrest Memorial, our local fall race conveniently called a five kilometer, but known by all to be a good tenth of a mile longer. We don’t care, we love it, and the burgers and beers keep us coming back.

Unlike a couple weeks earlier at the Police Chase, I wasn’t feeling at all competitive leading into this one. It was yet another hot day, third race in a row, and I’d awoken feeling like a cross between a limp dishrag and a quaking aspen. Strong wasn’t a word I could contemplate happening. I barely tolerated an anemic warm-up. I didn’t scope the field. It just didn’t matter.

And it really didn’t, more or less, because two things happened. Second, that race adrenalin kicked in like it almost always does – despite how often I expect that it won’t – and while I never felt powerful, I felt good enough to crank out something slightly above middling, while meanwhile the heat pummeled everyone else to the middling level or below. Or almost everyone. Because, first (you were wondering about that mis-ordered list?), the race was over in the first tenth of a mile, and I knew it without a doubt.

Bang, we’re off (well, actually, no gun, but you get the idea), and from somewhere on my right zips an orange streak with a bald spot on top. No starting line euphoria would propel me at this guy’s velocity, and unlike the local posers who so commonly sprint the first few hundred yards of these local races, it was obvious from the fluid stride that this guy was the real deal. By the first turn, when he went the long way around the traffic island, once it was clear he was still turning the right way, I didn’t worry about warning him. It didn’t matter that he’d lost a few seconds because I wasn’t going to catch him, nor, I suspected, would anyone else.

I don’t like to say I conceded by the first turn, but barring a repeat of my rival’s self-immolation of a few weeks back, this guy was not coming back to me. When at the half mile mark, friends on the course gave me the usual, “You’ve got this guy, focus on him!” encouragement, I just smiled and waved and focused instead on not self-immolating myself. I had no idea who was behind me or how far, and I wasn’t about to give them the satisfaction of looking back to find out.

By the time I huffed across the line wearing my trademark Death Warmed Over face, the Orange Streak, later identified as John, had thoroughly thrashed me by a minute and a quarter. His winning time was about ten seconds off my personal best on the course, but there’s no doubt that had I been in personal best shape, his result would have been markedly faster than his uncontested cruise. And to complete the slap-down, he was just as much an antique as I. The luck of those winds again, a second place finish and still didn’t even win my age group…go figure.

But as it turned out, what was happening behind me was the interesting part. I mildly thrashed the guys behind me by over a half a minute, but that’s where the battle erupted. Save for a last minute pass, it would have been antique to win, antique to place, and antique to show. Antique number three, also known as Steve, who in fact even had a few more years on the two of us up front, barely got nipped in the homestretch by a mere two seconds by some plucky youngster of thirty-something. The nerve! The lack of respect for elders! Kids these days…

Granted, most of the local youthful talent skips this event due to its placement smack in the middle of cross country season, but in a decent-sized field of a hundred and twenty, it wasn’t lost on any of our aged trio the irony of having the fifty-plus crowd take first, second, and almost third but a close fourth. I’ll take my fun where I can get it, and on a day when I didn’t think I even had a race-pace five clicks in me, second place with a dollop of ironic fun was a great appetizer for those burgers and beers. And therein lays one of the joys of local racing.

The Three Antique-gos…4th, 2nd, and 1st places

26 September 2014

Healthy or Not, Here We Go

News came out recently that juror selection for the trial of one of the friends of the Boston Marathon bombers begins on Monday. In a stroke of running irony, I was slated for jury duty – you guessed it – on Monday. These are both true statements, but I did leave out one teensy weensy detail – the Marathon trial is in Federal court, I was heading only for state duty. And in any event, on Friday they called off my set of dogs; apparently nobody is in line to be hung at high noon, so I’m off the hook. Still, it’s amusing to consider the prospect of being called in the courtroom and asked if I could be impartial. Well, Your Honor, other than the fact that I heard, felt, and watched the aftermath of the blasts from my post-race perch in the Marriott, yes, I probably could.

In a leap of literary segway with plenty of license, I’ll use that as a jump-off point to dive into how we decide on anything impartially, or at least rationally. Is it rational to drive ourselves to race after race, goal after goal, in the face of both obvious and hidden dangers? A few weeks back I was witness to physically-induced mental breakdown. Yet I persist. It took over two years, surgery, and a brush with disaster thanks to those lovely post-op clots to beat back the agony of the Achilles (and I’m pleased to say, a year post-op, it’s finally feeling pretty good). Yet I persist. And now I’m dealing with a left knee that doesn’t complain much on a twenty-miler, but strikes me with brutal pain on a single stair. Yet I persist. Am I capable of being impartial? Rational? Am I at all sane? It’s a good question.

Faced with this latest persistent malady, I finally got over my frugality and pulled the medical trigger. It’s been a light year medically. Admittedly I was looking forward to coasting downhill to December thirty-first having barely scratched my large deductible. Greeting the new year with the resulting sizable chuck of unspent coin was an attractive goal. But I’d gone ahead and signed up for a fall marathon (a story in itself), and that race has crept closer quickly – far more quickly than my training has advanced. With the need to crunch some serious pavement between now and, well, yesterday, it was time to verify that I wasn’t destroying myself.

It’s not that I haven’t repeatedly Googled “knee pain” in at least fifty permutations over recent months. It’s not that I haven’t repeatedly convinced myself that I have not torn, mutilated, spindled, or otherwise demolished significant moving parts. It’s not that I hadn’t pretty much self-diagnosed what was going on and strongly believed it wasn’t career-ending, and it’s not that I hadn’t already text chatted with Dr. Foot Doctor who from his remote perch, agreed. If I wasn’t so convinced, I wouldn’t be running. But I haven’t been able to fix it, and there was still that part of me that whispered “meniscus” and “ACL” and all the other mean, nasty things that you hear about in the same paragraph as the word knee.

Bypassing the usual on-ramps, I took it straight to Dr. Bone Doctor, who I’d seen nine years back following my first marathon when I was fairly certain I’d stress-busted something (which turned out not to be the case – do you detect a hypochondriac tendency here?). I took a liking to him immediately back then, not in the least because he’s athletic and gets it. “Stop Running!”, the mantra of so many doctors, was not his approach then, and it became quickly obvious that it still isn’t. It didn’t take him long to determine and affirm what I really needed to hear. I had not damaged any of the parts that bring to mind mean, nasty things about knees, and I was not destroying myself by continuing to train. He agreed with Dr. Foot Doctor and Dr. Google (a dangerous yet easily accessible medical resource) that the major bits looked well, and that the problem was most likely a patella tracking issue, where the tendons under the kneecap go out of line due to imbalances in muscular strength, or in simple terms, my inner quads aren’t as strong as my outer quads, and they’re not pulling evenly. Some exercises and another round of physical therapy, since restarted, would, said he to his patient, hopefully help his hapless hurt.

Declared healthy, it’s off to the races…or is it? With said diagnosis in hand, I belatedly – with less than four weeks till the marathon – cranked in my first twenty-plus shortly after. Like most runs of late, the knee held up, only to complain on a single step later. But that diagnosis of muscle imbalance, muscle weakness, haunts me, because beyond its effect on the knee, I can feel it in general. There’s something there, something that’s been growing, or more accurately diminishing, for some time. It appears unexpectedly, a stride where the strength seems to waver, a moment of not just weak knees but a feeling of weak, period, that gnaws at my pace and my mental state. Must I finally admit to the realities of age? Or is there another mystery at work here with surprises yet to be discovered?

Talking about this with the outside world brings on reactions of skepticism at best. A common reply: Didn’t you just win a race a couple weeks back? True that, and dismissive responses about the size of the field that day, about how this is a relative change, mean little to anyone outside my skin. To them I’m still a reasonably fast old guy. So this is my battle, not theirs, to be managed on my terms, not their perceptions.

Without a doubt, it’s dismaying. But without a doubt, I can’t let it stop me. Age might be encroaching, or any of a number of other things. But even at my ripe age, baring something really nasty, there are decades to go in this race, so we still keep fighting it. Right now that means I’ve got about three weeks till another marathon, and of course I’m not ready, so healthy or not, I’d better get moving.

12 September 2014

State of Mind?

Dearest Spouse and I sat down to watch the flick Milk the other night. It’s worth a couple hours of your life to see how a fight for the rights of one slice of humanity became, though Harvey Milk’s leadership, a cause of human rights. But in the end of this true story, both he and the mayor of San Francisco are assassinated by a crazed political and personal opponent who’s attorney used, somewhat successfully in that he was convicted only of manslaughter, what became known as the “Twinkie Defense”, the theory that his devolution from a previously healthy lifestyle to a diet of junk food proved his state of depression and consequently his inability to act rationally. (Actually, the movie gets this fact wrong and perpetuates the myth that his diet caused the irrationality – a mark of shame on an otherwise excellent work – but some quick web sleuthing – thanks Snopes and imdb – corrects the story.)

What does this have to do with running, I hear you cry? Simple. It raises one of the most basic questions of our being: How do any of us recognize when we’re no longer able to recognize that we’ve lost the ability to recognize reality? And how can that affect – or even cost – our lives while we run?

Few of us, thankfully, will find ourselves in a state of such depravity that we engage in violence against others. Some of us, though, will indeed find ourselves in a state of sufficient depravity to drive ourselves past rational limits. We may, in a way, engage in violence against ourselves.

Remember who’s writing this. The person who rationalized his collapse at the end of the 2008 Wineglass Marathon as a simple fall, but who over the years came clean with himself and recognized that he didn’t get to the moment of that fall through a series of entirely rational decisions. And the person who is somewhat convinced that he learned his lesson and stopped himself from doing it again a few years later at Boston.

It’s good that I think I’ve learned, and I think that I can keep from making the same frightening mistake again, though there’s no guarantee I’m right. But even if I am, there is still the problem of the first time. I like to say that you don’t know what the thing that eventually kills you will feel like, because it hasn’t happened yet. Likewise, you don’t know what it feels like to pass from rational mental functioning to something else, certainly not the first time because you haven’t yet felt it, and maybe not even later, because, well, it’s a circular argument as you can see.

I won a race the other day. That doesn’t happen often, and it was an exciting occurrence for me, but my excitement and happiness lasted all of about one minute before turning to horror. At the end of that minute, my rival for the first two miles of that five kilometer race came into view of the finish line, staggering wildly, obviously physically unstable, and clearly heading for disaster. Despite being nowhere near recovered from my race, I raced again, this time toward him, but didn’t reach him in time as he catapulted headlong, frighteningly, into the pavement. Then things got weird.

But first, let’s back up about forty-five minutes. The event was a local community race, and I’m leaving details vague to respect the privacy of those involved in the story. Many of you readers already know where it happened and to whom; it’s no secret, but these identities don’t matter to the telling of the story. So for those of you who don’t know them, I won’t spread any more details. But suffice to say that it was a small event. Despite the best intentions and efforts of the organizers, word just didn’t get out too well. The thought had crossed my mind that morning that maybe only forty folks would show, and maybe I’d have the fun of a moderate-fish-in-a-small-pond win. I wasn’t far from wrong; only sixty showed.

Still, it only takes one contender to push you to second place, so I scoped the crowd and picked out a somewhat familiar face, a man about my age who I was sure I’d seen at the races before. A little chit-chat confirmed that on any given day, he’d likely give me a run for my money, and I knew that at a minimum he'd be vying for our mutual fifty-plus group. A few minutes later at the starting line, another apparent player appeared, a young turk who humbly self-deprecated his readiness, but fooled neither of us. It’s amusing how we tend to spot each other, but we do.

After one of the stranger race starts I’ve experienced – someone blowing a horn from somewhere behind us without warning – and our subsequent vocalizations of less-than-savory oaths in response, the three of us split from the pack for the almost-entirely-uphill first half. In almost a repeat of that woodsy 10K from a couple weeks back, my two rivals set a pace a hair too hot, and I satisfied myself with staying within a fifty-foot tape measure of them. Like that day, I knew they’d either come back to me, or there wasn’t much I could do.

By about a mile and a quarter, the young one did come back. Adding a bit of nitro to the mix when I passed, I tried to convince him that I wasn’t going to let him come back at me, and indeed that was the last I’d see of him till those frightening moments a minute after my finish. That left my same-age rival still about forty yards up.

Collecting my thoughts after what I’d tried to make look like an easy burst, but what had in fact taken a toll, I lost attention for just long enough that I didn’t catch my rival missing the turn at one-point-four until he was ten yards past. This being a gentleman’s sport, I gave him a holler about the turn, and he doubled back, erasing half his lead but still leaving me with a challenge and no certainty whatsoever that I’d be up to meeting it. But on the next small hill, I caught up far more easily than expected. My racing sense signaled weakness, but what lay ahead was almost entirely downhill, not my best skill, and an easy place for a contender with some speed to open it up. Left to a sprint to the death at the end, my confidence would not be high.

We hammered the subsequent big downhill elbow-to-elbow and made the turn for the last rise, a mere tenth of a mile of barely perceptible up, leading to a full mile of gentle downhill to the finish. Having sensed that weakness earlier, I put on my second burst of the morning on that rise and opened a gap before starting the downgrade, still fearing the dogfight that might erupt. Knowing he must be nipping my heels but refusing to glance back and show weakness, I poured on all the intensity I could muster. Halfway down, a spectator said I had fifteen seconds on him, but I didn’t buy it; he wasn’t in position to have timed the gap, and besides, it seemed far too quick a drop-off considering the level of competition I’d been up against. I didn’t let up, and glanced back only after making the final turn; seeing nobody, I wore my best Death-Warmed-Over face over the line.

Win. Small pond, to be sure, but so what, a win’s a win. Now, how close was he, after all? Come out of the chute, look back, nobody. Time passes, nobody still. It made no sense. For what seemed an eternity, but was only a minute. And then, around the corner appeared the young guy I’d lost at a mile-plus, and my rival, reeling, lurching, tottering at high speed, stumbling, crashing, shoulder to the pavement, maybe the head, road rash for certain, concussion perhaps? Horrifying.

I arrived seconds after he hit the ground, but rather than groan or moan in pain, he demanded that no assistance be given. I was taken aback. This wasn’t the famed 1908 Olympics, where Dorando Pietri was disqualified for receiving assistance when he collapsed before the finish line. This was a local race, where we could have carried this guy over the last stretch and nobody would have complained. But to my amazement, before I could do anything, he got himself back up and started to shave down the fifty yards remaining to the finish line.

He didn’t make it. Thirty yard down, he crashed again, this time with me in chase, entirely uncertain what to do. Again, he demanded no assistance, and again, he rose and staggered toward the line, which this time he crossed, only to collapse a third time, this time at least landing on my feet to break his fall.

Watching the first fall was frightening enough. Experiencing the bizarre sequence of events that followed ratcheted up the scale considerably. Then, while tending to him as he lay prostrate in the chute, hearing that in fact he’d been witnessed going down two or three times before I’d seen him, that what I thought was his first fall was in fact his third or fourth, was simply mind-blowing. Fellow caregivers spoke of competitiveness and type-A personality, but clearly there was more going on here.

The EMTs rolled him into the ambulance and the report came back from the emergency room that his internal temperature had hit a hundred and five – basket-case heat stroke, also known as hyperthermia (oh yeah, did I mention, it was HOT!). More telling was his later report that he had no recollection whatsoever of the last three-quarters of a mile; a report that was to me in a way a relief. It was no Twinkie Defense, but it helped me to understand that his irrational actions were the product of his heat-compromised head rather than some crazy competitive drive seeking second place in a rather meaningless local race. And this is where we get back to presence of mind.

A lot of things can cause us to lose our heads, and none of us is immune from this danger. In the case of Harvey Milk, his assailant suffered from, at a minimum, depression, if not true depravity. In my case at Wineglass, my best clinical diagnosis would have to be stupidity-induced type-A over-competitiveness. In the case of my rival, heat stroke is known to cause neurological symptoms including bizarre behavior, irritability, delusions, and hallucinations. For all we know, he really might have thought he was Dorando Pietro in the 1908 Olympic Marathon.

This is the local bleeding edge of the national debate. How do we prevent people who lose their heads, for whatever reason, from doing things harmful to themselves or others? At what point do we intervene? When is that prudent, and when is it infringing on that person’s rights? Had someone tried to stop me at mile twenty-two of Wineglass, I would have been mad as hell and given them the fight of their life. This time not only I, but apparently other spectators beforehand, had tried to assist, which would have meant stopping, my rival, and he gave the fight of his life. The cause of his losing his head was different from mine, perhaps more insidious and harder to spot and control, but in the end the result was the same: we both could have given our lives.

I am no expert and claim no answers here. After Wineglass, I learned some self-policing, which helped at that subsequent Boston, but I can’t say that experience would have helped me avoid the heat-induced irrationality we witnessed this time. Perhaps a more activist intervention stance is in order? You might save a life, though you might also get someone really upset with you.

I just don’t know. Please be careful out there.

06 September 2014

Back to Back to the Woods

Planned races mean sitting and thinking between now and then. Accidental races, like that Wickham Park adventure, involve no thought whatsoever. Somewhere between those two extremes is a middle ground. So when the email showed up the day after my all-out effort at the Level Renner 10K seeking last-minute cannon fodder for a Greater-Boston-led expedition back to the Lynn Woods Relays, a race I hadn’t done in six years, and said relays were only two days out, that was enough time to think about packing the right gear in the bag, but not so much time that I’d be thinking about the race itself. It also wasn’t enough time to think about the fact that my local club had another woods race planned for the very next night. I just jumped on it. Back to the Woods! And that meant that the very next night, I’d do it again. Back to Back! To the Woods!

Part One of this duology wasn’t high-pressure. Our Greater Boston Track Club team intended to field a top-notch men’s open team, and they did, and they were far more than top-notch, and they blew everyone out of the park, making me proud to be wearing the same uniform. Our team, in contrast, was there for a good time, a good workout, and, as it turned out, a good meal afterward with good friends. We couldn’t find four of the same gender, so we went as a mixed team. We couldn’t even find four properly aged runners, so we supplemented with the daughter of a teammate, blowing any chance of old-fart award placement and leading to our brilliantly conceived team name (I can say that because I did not make it up myself), GBTC Masters and Apprentice.

Everything I remembered about this race from six years got better except my relay leg time, but being six years older and, remember all those wounds?, I really had no complaint about that. The course had been altered to get more of it on the gravel roads and trails and less on the asphalt, and it was seemingly easier to follow. The starting and handoff logistics were vastly improved (there are no real handoffs, no batons, you just go when your teammate arrives, honor system). The parking was easier. The crowds were more amiable – probably because six years later, I know a few more folks within them. There were even fewer bugs – at least until the bitter end of the awards and chit-chat. It was simply a rosy evening at the races.

While quite a bit slower than last time, I wasn’t at all unhappy with the race itself. Part of that differential I chalk up to the course change; less asphalt and more gravel equals a slower course, and in the span of a merely two and a half mile leg, little changes can make a big difference. And on trails, who really knows (or cares?) if the distance was accurate or the same as last time? If one trusts the distance, this one was a Personal Worst, but scanning the fifty-plus teams (with no way of knowing the ages of those on open teams, so it’s unscientific), I’d say I fared pretty well against the jury of my peers. I can say scientifically that I blew out nearly forty teams on my leg without giving up a slot. It didn’t win us a thing, but hey, you take your satisfaction where you can find it. But that analysis is fairly irrelevant. We had a fine night out at the races. When all was said and done, we had a late night at the races. And suddenly it was the next night at the races.

Wednesday night saw four hundred runners on one hundred teams, coursing through the woods of Lynn; it was a big wing-ding indeed. Thursday night saw a massive crowd of twenty, yes twenty, coursing through the woods of Berlin; it was a decidedly small wing-ding, perhaps not even a wing-ding at all. But it’s become a summer tradition for our local Highland City Striders known as the “No Frills 10K”. No entry fees, no awards, and almost no goodies save some leftovers from the club’s big 10K a week ago and the case of waters I hauled in to supplement.

Wednesday in Lynn may not have been an A-race, but I’d certainly given it my all, and I was questioning the sanity of showing up at anything labeled as a race the very next day. Alongside me on my warm-up, club-mate Will (blue shirt in the picture), who’d run – and won – the club’s big 10K only two nights earlier, was asking himself the same question. Knowing ourselves to be of similar caliber (though he of considerably fewer years!), seeing no obvious threats around us, knowing the casual aspect of the evening’s festivities, and most importantly both agreeing that all-out racing was just plain silly in light of our previous evenings’ endeavors, we inked a mutual non-aggression pact: run it hard together as a workout, bring it in together. That pact had an out-clause, however. Will stubbornly promised he’d chase down any youngster who tried to upset this freshly minted New World Order. I figured if that happened, I just wouldn’t care and told him (in jest, of course) to just trip the kid.

It’s a two mile circuit around Gates Pond, so the course is simple: start a tenth of a mile off the pond, spin it thrice, zip back out that tenth, and you’ve got 10K. But it’d diabolical, too, because each lap brings a good half dozen ups and downs, a few of them rather noticeable, and all on gravel roads with plenty of poor footing. It’s ideal to wear you down.

Within two minutes it was clear that our back-room plotting was for naught. Precocious Peter (center in the picture), a mere wet-eared lad of eighteen about to head for college, hit the gas and blew our plans. Will, true to his threat, tried to track him. You can say I’m old and wise with experience, or you can say I just didn’t have that much fire in my heart, but I can tell you that I just said, “Whatever”. With legs of rubber, there wasn’t a lot to be done, at least not without pushing into the damage zone, and that race wasn’t worth it. Besides, we’d barely started. Either the kid’s got it, in which case there really was nothing I could do, or he’ll fade like a kid and age will trump inexperience. I certainly didn’t slack off, but I certainly did accept my karma de jour.

The kid had it, and ran it well all the way home, though in the end, the half-minute differential between us probably happened almost entirely on that first lap around the pond. He didn’t fade, but Will came back to me at the close of the second lap, and with the overall and not-terribly-coveted crown rather certainly gone for both of us, for a few minutes it seemed that the mutual non-aggression pact was back in force. I’d have been happy for the two of us to push each other home in a solid workout. But a half-mile into that last lap, my restored partner conceded fatigue, he was baked, off you go, he commanded…

It’s an odd situation. Where does cooperation and geniality stop, and competition begin? Given that green light, knowing my partner – or rival? – had released the bond of our gentlemen’s agreement, what exactly were the rules? With ten minutes left – including the third round of those highly noticeable hills on the back-side of the circuit, the possibility of my own fade was still quite real, and while I wouldn’t have cared if he rejoined me, my worn and wounded legs didn’t want a dogfight. I took the logical out: if you don’t know the answer to the question, just don’t let it be asked. Lap three clocked in faster than lap two primarily because I didn’t want to have to answer that question, a question that, in this context of a casual twenty-person race where even if I’d rolled over and walked it in, I’d still be the quickest antique on the lot, simply didn’t need to be asked. In the end, Will rolled in about a hundred feet or so behind me, we jogged a pleasant warm-down amidst the beauty of the forest, and agreed that once again, we’d had a fine workout and a fine night at the races, which is about all one could hope for having popped in three races in five days, the last two back-to-back.
11:18 PM 9/6/2014