27 April 2015

Like No Other


Twenty-two marathons including nine Bostons (even if it is a little hard to see those nine fingers in the pre-race photo…). But this one was like no other.

Yes, the expo was filled with Cardboard Mebs rather than Cardboard Ryans, but those details change with the wind (of which we had plenty). Coming off the year of Meb’s American victory gave the race a slightly different feel, but that has nothing to do with why this one was like no other.

In a flashback to Boston Number One, the forecast was big-time ugly. That day, back in oh-seven, the Nor’easter faded and conditions weren’t so bad. But this day, the storm strengthened and conditions grew steadily worse. But that has nothing to do with why this one was like no other.

In another flashback to Boston Number One, I started well back in the pack. That day, my number in the six-thousands, earned with a three-fourteen qualifier, put me in the sixth corral. Since then, I’d moved up and grown accustomed to the rocket-like starts of the first and second corral neighborhoods. But this year, my injury-weakened three-oh-seven qualifier brought me back, earning me a number back in the six thousands, though with the current system that was good for only a Personal Worst seventh corral. But that has only a little to do with why this one was like no other.

In a more recent flashback, two years back in Boston Number Seven, I smoked my fastest ever. That day, the finish arrived at two-fifty-two and change, bringing two hours of elation before the bombs blew. This year, I snuck back into the sub-three range for the first time since that date, but made no serious threat on that personal best, so clearly that’s not why this one was like no other.

And to confess a lie, I’ve repeated to many that I’ve never run a marathon in negative splits, that meaning running the second half faster than the first. In truth, I went back in the logs and found my memory to be faulty. I’d done it once, at Bay State, in ‘oh seven, and while that race was a watershed, being the day I figured out that a marathon can be raced rather than simply run, it was a rather up-and-down affair pace-wise on a fairly flat course. That’s quite different from the difficult Boston course with its early downhills and late climbs, and besides, I didn’t manage to run this one in negative splits anyway. But I came darn close. And I ran the most consistent, controlled marathon in any of my twenty-two tries. And that’s what made this one like no other.

I came into this race as a Designated Badass, looking my best following a face-plant on an easy taper-down trail run a mere four days before the big dance. A half-dozen miles into an easy saunter, one quick distracting glare of sun blew out my focus, turning my toe into a grappling hook trying to extract a root that obviously wouldn’t budge. Physics won. Fortunately there was no one in the forest to hear either the tree falling or the subsequent oaths emitted. This gash probably qualified for medical attention, but I settled for quietly oozing my way home and knowing that I could probably scare off anyone I couldn’t outrun on Monday.

I also came into this race knowing I had three fairly solid months of training, despite Snowmageddon, capped off with Hard Core March and that terrific final long run with The Brit a few weeks back. I felt more prepared for this one than I’d been since the ‘thirteen race, but at the same time, still figured that sub-three was a stretch, especially with the forecast headwind. With conditions as they were, I moderated my goal and set about solely to improve my existing ‘sixteen qualifier, which at three-thirteen would get me in for next year’s race but almost certainly relegate me to the second wave of starters. I figured the lower half of the three-ohs would be adequate to do the job, and I’d save the heroics for a day more attuned to speed. So rather than lurching aggressively down the early descents from Hopkinton, I didn’t fight the Corral Six traffic, and clocked the slowest first four miles of my seven competitive Bostons.

Despite the leisurely start, it wasn’t a stroll in the park. While the crowds lessened the impact of the headwind, it was omnipresent, and worse, it led to the less-than-savory choice of constantly adjusting stride to draft off endlessly changing running windscreens, or enjoying the freedom of space, only to be instantly reminded by a blast against the body of why space was not a good thing. Unlike that last long training run, there was no easy breezy fluidity to my stride, other than the fluidity that began precipitating around Framingham Center. A half dozen miles in, as the rain started to add wet to the duo of cold and windy, my usual mental math games started to register concern as I wasn’t putting much time in the bank. But on the other hand, I was measuring that banked time against the three hour mark, and while I knew I’d love to get back under that barrier – a two-fifty-nine-fifty-nine is light years from three-oh-oh-oh-oh (said the guy who ran three-oh-oh-oh-seven a few years back) – the cooler part of my head (weather-related pun intended) kept up the mantra that low-three-ohs was all I truly needed.

I’d hear later that some succumbed to hypothermia induced by the on-again, off-again forty-five-degree rain and wind. My recollection of when it rained and when it waned is at best damp and musty, but I don’t recall becoming truly soaked till the hills of Newton. Dearest Spouse’s and Dearest Daughter the Younger’s photos at the Lower Falls bridge reveal only moderate wetness, though I retained both the hat and gloves I’d figured on chucking. When the rain truly came, those gloves would become sodden leaden bombs, on one hand sucking heat, but on the other offering at least a tiny modicum of shelter from what, by Beacon Street, had become a truly unpleasant day at the office, rescued only by the fact that the race was going, er, swimmingly (sorry about that one). Images shot by the Very Expensive Race Photographers (which, respecting their copyright, I cannot reproduce here) could be mistaken for sea otters.

Any lingering doubts about splits versus perceived effort vanished in the hills. This trip wasn’t quite the spring-stepping romp of three weeks earlier – this time I did at least notice the second hill – but it was obvious that compared to days when I’d turned to chopped liver in this stretch, on this day I was the chopper, picking off fading runners constantly (I’d finish about four thousand places ahead of my bib number seeding). Heartbreak came and I was over the top feeling fully under control with only a mild decrease in pace. Mental rocket-fuel poured into the system. Mile twenty-two, coming down the backside, was the fastest of the race – a trick never before seen in my Boston experience. Past the graveyard, through Cleveland Circle, onto Beacon, in control. At twenty-four, a whoop and a high-five – so strong it almost knocked me for a loop – from Greater Boston Tom convinced me that it must’ve been visible that I had this one in the bag – another shot of adrenaline. Twenty-six wasn’t easy – it never is – but when the post-race hypothermia cleared, I’d see that I clocked the fastest last four miles of any of my nine Bostons.

It was like no other. The combination of moderated goals, early race traffic, and a conservative approach to retain strength to battle the elements resulted in the most evenly paced marathon of my career. I’ve got to get a bit nerdy here to make the point, but it’s worth making. Self-recorded mile-by-mile splits begin to tell the tale, deviating only for the hills of Newton, and then not much:


Five kilometer splits from the timing mats paint an even more pothole-free picture, courtesy of the fact that the thirty-five kilometer split includes both the up and the down over Heartbreak. Max variation was a mere four seconds per mile:


And for one final bit of nerdism, charting my seven competitive Bostons (eliminating my first, not in the same league, and the year of recovery from foot surgery, a recreational meander) makes the start and finish of this year’s race stand out. Other than a slow first mile in ‘oh-eight, quickly averaged out, this year’s edition was the slowest start, followed by the fastest finish:


With a first- to second-half variation of under a minute, this was close enough to be called even splits, and it felt good, a race to the end, under control, no death shuffle. It’s been a long time since I’ve powered through mile twenty-four! It’s been a long time since I’ve had a race like this, period, a race like no other. And best, a race like this resets your mind as to what might be possible down the road…

13 April 2015

Positive Side


It’s easy to look at last week’s race and focus on the fact that in this year’s edition, my fifth go at this local classic, I ran a Personal Worst time. It takes a little more thinking, and some would say over-rationalization, to find the positive side. But I’ve done that thinking and I’ve found that positive side – indeed, several of them. Go ahead and paint that label of over-rationalization across my face. I’m happy with the day, and I’m stickin’ to it.

The ambling party du jour was the Tri-Valley Front-Runners Frank Nealon Boston Tune-Up 15K, which winds through the up and un-up undulations of Upton. This race is a winner. It’s a club race held for runners, by runners, and priced to recognize that we’re runners, not a ready source of cash for a charity we don’t care about or a for-profit promoter. It’s well run, supported by a terrific team including a guy named Gary – who can’t love that? It’s a superb course, scenic, quiet, and moderately challenging, well matched for its timing just before Boston. It draws a reasonably strong field inspiring a solid effort. And lastly, oh, the goodies! So many post-race comestibles, with…soup! I’m smitten with any race with soup, and this one doesn’t just have soup, but a plethora of volunteer-made varieties warming with multiple flavors. Fittingly, rather than yet another shirt to stuff in the overstuffed shirt stuff drawer, this year’s giveaway was a soup mug.

OK, you get it, I love this one, which is why I’d run it four times previous (which would’ve been five consecutive save for a conflict last year). It’s also why returning is a tough prospect, as that strong field, excellent course, and brothy post-race incentive have eked some decent outings from my aging legs. So I did my homework, mined my logs, listed those four previous circuits, and seeing what I was up against, groaned. The worst of them rang in at twenty-two seconds per mile faster than my previous ten-miler Amherst outing in February. The best seemed entirely out of reach.

And as it turned out, not only was that best performance indeed entirely out of reach, but I didn’t even equal the worst – and that worst was only as bad as it was since that particular year I’d lost a bunch of time with an errant shoelace. So yes, this year’s was a Personal Worst, but there was no question this race had a big positive side.

Let’s start with the fact that while I needed – and failed – to pick up twenty-two seconds per mile from my Amherst pace to match my worst Tri-Valley, I did pick up…twenty-one. Yeah, it was close. You can quibble about this versus that: Amherst is unquestionably a tougher course, with its hellacious hill at mile three – which at least offers payback at six – but then piles it on deeper with another at eight (and let’s not forget the mud and snow). But Tri-Valley sported high winds which, as is usually the case, never felt as though they were behind you, but instead knocked you for a loop at the worst moments. Said zephyr spun up precisely at the hill at four and a half, utterly demolishing anything resembling good form, and later lined up perfectly to entirely negate the usual final mile pace-enhancing sprint. I can’t claim any scientific analysis, but times across the board seemed a bit slower than usual on that course. So call it a draw, or at least recognize that the course didn’t give up those twenty-one seconds per mile. I had to buy them with a bit of old-fashioned pain, or in other words, six weeks bought me a pretty good bump.

Though satisfied, I wouldn’t characterize this as a strong bout of racing. Once the positional dust settled by mile one, I’d went minus two for the duration, giving up two spots and gaining none. Armor Chink One came quickly by mile three, and though I was able to keep in contact, even closing a bit late in the race at least until he noticed and responded in kind – I really had no race in me. Armor Chink Two, around mile six, wasn’t even a contest. Hot youngster seemingly bounding with energy swoops in effortlessly, knocks me out of the top ten, and cruises on toward his next victim. Hey, at my age, what can you do about that? But then again, at my age, I’ve got at least twenty years on the dude, so there. And I did hold off another challenge in the final half mile to walk away with some racing pride, seal eleventh, and take ownership of the trophy for the fifties – an aptly themed engraved soup ladle (well played, Tri-Valley!). But that was the extent of the racing for the day. It was mostly an exercise in gritting it out against gravity and the elements, battling tired legs – but being able to keep those tired legs in overdrive.

But hey, at my age, I also have the joy of leaning back on the glorious age-grading tables, and you’d better believe I take that advantage. And the answer to that riddle is? By the Holy Tables, this wasn’t a Personal Worst after all, but rather smack dab in the middle of my previous four outings, with a rating just north of the golden eighty-percent, the first time I’ve cracked that barrier since the day the bombs blew at Boston. I’ll bite on that one for a positive side.

All statistics aside, the reason I’m attaching the positive side label to this is easy: Hard Core March, which was truly a lot of hard work, appears to have paid off. First in the breakthrough run on the Boston course a week back, then in dropping the pace so much at Tri-Valley compared to a mere six weeks back, and just for a bonus, with a few other tellingly positive recent workouts. Experience has taught that my aged bones require a spin-up time between turning up the training heat and seeing the results. January and February started turning the corner from the injuries and breaks of last year, and probably, in hindsight, made Hard Core March possible. March appears to have delivered.

None of this is any guarantee of a good Boston. But whether the payback appears on Patriot’s Day or not, the satisfaction of knowing that even with a few more years on the odometer, I’m battling back again toward competitiveness after this latest round of setbacks, is reward unto itself.

[ Ed note: Thanks to Ted & Mary Tyler for the photos via JimRhodes.com / Coolrunning. ]

03 April 2015

Breakthrough


[Ed Note: This post was written for Level Renner's Boston Legion series, but of course finds a home here at home as well!]

Serial marathoners know the game. Our mileage rises in the spring and fall leading to our typically biannual races, and falls off in recovery. It’s a cycle occasionally interrupted by the inanity of stuffing in an extra outing, perhaps to make up for a bad day at the office, or just to hit a different venue without skipping a beloved favorite, but it’s a cycle just the same, sometimes so cyclic that it might seem you’ve fallen into a rut. And then, if you’re lucky, along comes the breakthrough.

The breakthrough doesn’t happen on every marathon cycle. My last significant one was a full two years back, leading up to Boston 2013. That day, my training partners and I set off for an easy twenty-four, and instead hammered the fastest non-race twenty-plus I’ve ever logged. Three weeks later, I sliced two minutes off my personal best and spent two hours of elation until the bombs blew. But since then, a series of injuries have made subsequent marathon cycles a struggle, and the build up to this year’s Boston hasn’t really been inspiring.

Until Sunday, when I hit the breakthrough.

It wasn’t as fast as the epic breakthrough of 2013, but I’m one surgery, one brush with mortality, several injuries, and two years older. It’s not that I’m resigned to never regaining that peak of 2013, but I certainly don’t see that return, if possible at all, coming in the near term. Nevertheless, Sunday’s breakthrough achieved everything one could hope for in that Last Long Run, and it came as a very pleasant surprise at that. Breakthrough.

I’m sure there’s plenty of hard-core science surrounding the training value of the long run. Frankly, I’m too old at this point to really care. Gaining an extra two-percent advantage from some highly technical advancement in technique is still not going to win me an age group crown at Boston. It’s not that I don’t have the drive to push to my maximum, it’s simply that running, and running marathons, is a lifestyle that I enjoy, and a lifestyle that needs to fit into the rest of my life with only moderate adjustments. So I don’t adhere to training plans that direct specific workouts for specific days. I know in my head what I need to accomplish, and I know how much time remains before race day. Given work schedules, weather, and how the body feels, I’ll get it in.

The Last Long One should be about three weeks prior, given the cooperation of all factors, but there have been times that I’ve had to push out a couple days, go out at an ungodly hour, and slip it in before work. Happily, this time the Gods smiled on us. Only one of my small gang of go-to long-run training partners was available, but I knew I could count on The Brit for a solid outing and that I would likely be the one challenged to keep up – the ideal way to push yourself just a little bit harder. With a clear forecast for Sunday, I eased off my pace for Friday’s ten-miler, and took a VDO – Virtual Day Off – on Saturday, cruising five on autopilot with my local club, my only goal being our Dunkin’s outing afterward.

While my “prep” – if you could call it that – for the long run was that mere two-day micro-taper, the lead-up was a bit more intense. Following Baystate last fall, I was forced into a two month break to heal an Achilles injury, restarting the engine only in mid-December. About the time the cylinders started firing, we all know what happened next, all nine feet of it. I managed to log decent mileage through the whiteout we called February, but little of it consistent. March became make-or-break, so I poured it on. My theory was simple: make my body completely impervious to the first ten or twelve (or more) miles. Hard Core March kicked off with a twenty-two miler, decent but not terribly strong, added another twenty-three two weeks later, again not a confidence-building outing, packed in over a dozen ten-plus-milers, and had me on a pace for an all-time monthly mileage high.

With the last long one slated, the good news was that my fifty-two-year-old body was withstanding the onslaught well, but the bad news was that my training pace, while improving, wasn’t where I’d like it to be, nor had the feeling of flying that we all crave truly come back since the injury break. And my outlook was not cheered when The Brit and I emerged from the car in Hopkinton at noon on Sunday to find the forecast mild tailwind instead transformed to a rather brisk headwind.

Whatever. Damn the torpedoes.

I’m somewhat of a Luddite, wearing only a classic split-taking stopwatch. I run by feel, take splits now and then with mental location notes, map it later, and analyze the data against my recollection of the experience. But I’m not above using extra data when it’s available, and I had two sources: The Brit’s GPS, and the convenient fact that we embarked from the starting line, giving us the convenience of Boston’s painted mileposts. Still, I refused to look for the first few miles. Enjoying the early downhill yet fighting that surprising wind, the Luddite me didn’t want to know. All I knew was that at the moment, I was feeling good, so I figured we mustn’t have really kicked it in yet.

A few miles in, The Brit’s first readout changed that view quickly. To my surprise, we were cutting close to seven flats. I held out till mile six, took a reading the old fashioned way, and confirmed. Now, while that pace won’t win any races, consider that my previous twenty-milers clocked in the mid seven-thirties, and I hadn’t logged a road training run of any distance under about seven and a quarter pace since…well, at the time I knew it’d been at least since the injury comeback, but a later scan of the log hinted it might well have been since last summer. And I wasn’t feeling the effort.

Our banter made the miles melt away, click, click, click. The Brit later compared our pace to a metronome, so consistent we were. He’d spit out an instantaneous GPS reading from time to time confirming such, but I again held off another six miles, where my device reinforced the message that we had a good one going. Clicking off sevens, click, click, click, not quite what I’d need to pop a sub-three in three weeks, but also not drawing on race adrenaline, and still not feeling the effort. Elvis Costello banging in my brain through seventeen, into the Newton hills, I had to ask The Brit if I’d missed the second one; I hadn’t noticed it. An old-fashioned split at nineteen revealed at most a couple of seconds lag on the pace through the first two. That lag vanished as we hit twenty, then over Heartbreak to twenty-one, at the quickest pace of the day. Still feeling strong.

At that clip, we’d land twenty-six in the mid-three-ohs (and it sure felt like no wall was in sight) but this wasn’t a race, and we weren’t pushing it. The confidence that hit when we clicked the split topping Heartbreak was priceless. Mission accomplished, we needed no more to prove our readiness. We dialed it back about twenty seconds per mile at twenty-one and effectively ran a three-mile warm-down, leaving The Brit with his longest training run – at twenty-four – and me with my biggest monthly mileage total – at three hundred ten, (with two days left in the month), and both of us feeling like, given a smile from the Weather Gods, this could be a pretty good Boston.

30 March 2015

Decade


A couple days back I crept a notch closer to the next age group with requisite details like cake and goodies enclosed in attractive yet fully recyclable paper. Ever searching for an annual theme, this year I’ve proclaimed to be finally playing with a full deck. (Last year I was seventeen again. And again. And again. And the year before…well, you get the idea, keep it fresh every year.) But a bigger milestone passed a few days earlier: a decade since rejoining the ranks of runners. Just like that, ten years, snap your fingers.

What a ride it’s been.

Ten years ago, age was creeping in. (Of course, it still is, but at least now it has to put up a pretty good fight.) Back then, while it wasn’t as if I was a sloth – I’ve never really gone inactive – being ten years into the dad thing, slothiness was encroaching. The alarm bell went off while plopped at my desk, noticing my legs were feeling a little odd, and making the mistake of Googling that symptom. You know nothing good ever comes of that. But the frightening diagnoses it served up, which I didn’t really believe then and still don’t, jarred me to action.

On the twenty-third of March of 2005 I strapped on a pair of Asics I’d picked up in the markdown bin of the local big box shoe warehouse and set out to cover a two mile stretch I frequently walked with Dearest Spouse. I barely made it. In retrospect, that was pretty impressive compared to the experience of most who take their first steps in excess of ambling pace. After all, I didn’t start as a slug. But I was pushing toward a buck sixty on the scale, which for my frame translated into a rather cheeky visage in some photos of the day.

Undaunted, a few days later I pushed the envelope to nearly double that distance, and by the end of the month I’d rather boldly – and foolishly – defined that route as the “standard” course, having run it all of twice. I managed to traverse it with only one walking break, and with nine and a half miles under my belt, had nearly pierced double digits for the month.

No doubt having the perspective of a previous running life, even if twenty-plus years in the past, helped. There’s a glass half-full half-empty thing going on here. I talk to plenty of beginners who can’t fathom covering three or four miles. I came at this from the opposite side, finding it hard to fathom that I couldn’t cover three or four miles. I remembered the past and what was possible. It was only a matter of time.


Time passed, as did a lot of scenery, potholes, heat, snow, and slop. And on the last day of the tenth year (that would be the twenty-second, since the twenty-third technically began my eleventh year), my log reported eighteen thousand one hundred eighty-eight and three-quarters miles. Having just read of a guy who covered over sixteen thousand in less than two years, I can’t in any way claim that’s impressive, but it’s still a big number, and more importantly, it’s a journey.

The statistics are obsessive yet still fun. Two thousand four hundred eighty days of running, sometimes more than once, a little over two-thirds of all the days that passed, including those which found me sidelined with injuries, three surgeries, and that dance with the blood clots. A seven hundred and fifty day streak of at least three miles per day which proved something defined as either resiliency or insanity as you wish, again personally significant but not noteworthy in the big world of others’ big accomplishments. As best I can count, one hundred and nineteen races, including twenty-one marathons, plus forty-two training runs of twenty miles or more to prepare for those masochistic meanders. Runs in twenty-four different states and at least sixty-six different cities and towns in Massachusetts, and within my own City of Marlborough, every mile of every street, at least as they existed at the time of that odyssey.

Beyond the numbers, though, is the transformation the years have wrought. From that first five kilometer race a few months into the adventure, to racing eight (and shortly, nine) Boston Marathons, plus experiencing the honor and excitement of toeing the line at two national championship cross country meets sharing team colors with some of the most outstanding athletes in New England if not the country, these past ten years have provided an unending stream of goals, motivators, thrills, yes, also spills, rewards, and fun. They’ve changed who I am, what I expect to do on a daily basis, and how I look at the challenge of the next ten years, or twenty, or more.

And even beyond the transformation are the people. Ours is a game for the masses, but with the line between the masses and the elites far narrower than in any major sport; a line that grows even fainter the deeper you dive into our pool. The champions of running, our heroes, are basically just like us, eminently accessible, as un-elite as any elite class could be, because they have percolated up from the likes of those all around us. And unlike other big-name sports, there is no defined age for anyone’s time to ride the top of their particular corner of the arena, so anyone can rise to local, regional, or greater significance from anywhere, anytime. From this springs a society of people who recognize that any individual’s skill level is merely relative and arrogance is left outside the door. Anyone will run with anyone, the fast slowing for the social joy of joining the slow, the slow happily straining to gain the training advantage of latching onto someone a notch up the ladder. And we’re gentlemen, competing hard yet helping, encouraging, and respecting both our companions as well as our rivals. Certainly practicalities intervene in this egalitarian nirvana, but nowhere else will you find a group of people more willing to play together to their heart’s content and health’s benefit with so little regard for stratification.

And so we run together, we race together, we drink beers and even eat donuts together (because we can), and we bond as friends. We spend our social time in motion, working hard for hours at a time, sometimes with those we barely know, at least at the start, but growing closer as the distance passes. So it is that along this journey I’ve collected an assortment of friends the likes of which you’ll never gain from your office. We argue and bitch and moan and complain like the best of them, then we strap on our shoes and knock off some road miles or track intervals or trail voyages. We come from different walks of life but share our common belief that we can if not control, at least influence our own well-being. We inspire others, we inspire ourselves.

Ten years of running is unlike ten years of just about any other activity you can think of. It’s a lifestyle, but better, it’s a lifestyle in which ten years is merely a beginning. I look back on the happy accident of that Google search that drove me out of my chair, and marvel at where that road has taken me. The next ten years, whether my pace is fast or slow, whether I’m able to cover many or just a few miles, will be better just by the nature of the impact that the last ten have made.

09 March 2015

Magic of the Run


You can have your Throwback Thursdays and Hump Days. For me, I’m in Hard Core March. I considered calling it the Long March (for those of you into Mao, there’s a big tome on that bit of history waiting on my bedside table, itching for time to consume), or maybe my all-too-frequently used phrase Death March, but this isn’t political and that second term is really reserved for mountain adventures. So Hard Core March it is, even if it doesn’t quite have the same ring.

Hard Core March was brought to you by our friends at Blizzarmageddonfest, that joyful result of a severely disrupted climate that resulted in Worcester, Massachusetts notching its coldest February on record, and of course you know about the snow (as does my left arm, which won’t be the same for weeks or more). Yes, the month that should have seen at least one if not more twenty-plus-milers to prep for Boston was erased in a cloud of white and series of single-digit gales. Somehow I managed to hit my monthly mileage target – barely – but with little quality, far too many miles on hamster cages, and only one run over fifteen miles. This was not an ideal result for one looking toward Patriots’ Day.

But the winter has spawned a bumper crop of news hounds, with a half-dozen media outlets fishing the ‘How are you coping with this weather and training for Boston?’ angle. Yes, it is community cable news season again, but the running media always has the better slant, so it was easy to say yes to the request to answer a few questions for the Boston Legion at Level Renner (follow the link for amusement!). It was there that the phrase was born, quite accidentally, when I penned for them, “I’ve yet to get in any twenty-plus-milers, so March is going to have to be hard-core.”

So that did it. It’s Hard Core March.

Hard Core March screams, “Don’t wait! Time’s running out!” And so our multinational band (a native Brit, a native Moroccan, and boring old me) didn’t wait, and dove in on the first day of the month with twenty-one and a half, enjoying the seemingly balmy near-thirty degree weather while marveling at the chilling effect of the omnipresent off-the-snowbanks wind – no matter which way we were heading. Hard Core March begs you to get past the feeling that seven or eight is enough for the day, and remind your body that ten should breeze by without much thought, because the game doesn’t start till well past then. Hard Core March doesn’t really care that you did that twenty-one-plus yesterday, today is today, time isn’t running backwards, get back to it!

So it was that a week later, after notching my highest weekly tally in two years, the very next day it was back out with The Brit for another sixteen plus, this time cranking the pace down well below the previous week’s long one. Uncertain whether this was a good idea, fighting what started earlier in the week as a rather mild cold but had progressed to lung-clogging voice-ripping cough-fest, I figured I’d give it a roll and turn back in the event of Level Seven Agony. But you know that never happens. By mile four I was already out of my zone, but held on for the fun, especially the hill at nine that my companion claimed wasn’t impressive (he lied). By twelve, when like the previous week, again the weather turned, the temperature dropped, and the wind hit us full force face first, even adding a bit of snow for insulting impact, I gained respect for how my companion had felt the previous week when, somewhere around mile twenty, he already struggling, I informed him rather nonchalantly that in fact the course was a mile longer than promised. Like he the week prior, I was toast, and very cold toast at that. And that was with a mile-long climb yet looming ahead.

What’s beyond toast? Perhaps breadcrumbs, effectively finely dissolved toast? Find your own metaphor; on reaching our terminus, I was there, and just for dramatic effect found my two-hour-frozen well-overdue-for-a-coughing-spell lungs heaving painfully, needing to clear out the crap, but being over-chilled, not really able to. But hey, that passed quickly, and even with the late-game crash and burn, it was still a big breakthrough run. What’s a little agony, right?

Following that, one might expect that the next day would be a day of leisure, but one might be overlooking that not only this is Hard Core March, but that yours truly rarely ignores geeky statistics, having missed my calling to be the guy in the back room coming up with ridiculous facts throughout the NFL telecast. Yes, Frank, with that pass, Brady just surpassed number four on the all-time list of slot-left lobs to left-handed tight-ends resulting in six-to-eight-yard pickups! Can you believe it?

In my case, I found myself in reach of clocking my monthly meter to a hundred miles by the ninth of the month, something I’d only done a couple of times years back so it wasn’t new, but still notable (and no, I haven’t done it by the eighth). Meaningful? Of course not. Nerdy? You bet. And besides, the day was utterly spring, sunny and reaching the mid-forties, so late in the day when I could shovel the work stress aside for an hour or so, bon voyage.

Wow. Coming off the previous day’s virally-enhanced abuse, I expected a slow and stiff start, but I didn’t bargain for the lungs literally hurting. It felt like I’d literally pulled a lung muscle or two. No, not the diaphragm, but the mysterious, never-before-seen lung muscle. A mile out I was this close (how close?) to jogging it back in and calling it a sunny and glorious but relatively run-free day.

And that’s when the Magic of the Run kicked in.

By now, you’re saying, enough of your tales of woe, your moans of agony, your slipping in a few numbers (which you usually avoid) just to put some dimensions on this thing. We’ve all been there, you’re saying. We’ve all been worn out, beat up, fried, baked, and left out to dry.

And when you’ve been there, I hope you’ve had the chance to experience the Magic of the Run.

Mile two wasn’t much better than mile one. It still hurt. But then my planned course turned downhill, so I let it ride for a bit to see what happened. It got a little more bearable, but for self-protection I stopped the watch so as not to goad myself into running harder than I should. And I just let it go.

Around four and a half, traffic politely let me cruise a four-way stop I often pass, and it occurred to me that what they would have seen was indeed someone cruising by, but I dismissed it, having just come off a long sweet downhill. By six, I’d forgotten about the mile one lung syndrome. By eight, the small rises were floating by, and only the last, long climb back to the homestead offered up any level of concern. Somewhere halfway up that climb, the monthly meter chimed one hundred, and a half-mile later, only on finishing up, did I remember that my lungs were, in fact, still sort of messed up. Casual timing – alias glancing at the watch, noting only the minutes, not the details – offered up a pleasant, even if only mildly accurate, pace surprise. The detailed accuracy didn’t matter; only the obvious message that the run had, in fact, in its own odd way, healed me.

How many days do we find it hard to get out the door? Something hurts, the body is tired, aches, pains, this, that. Sometimes we have to heed those messages, listen to our bodies, and leave the shoes on the rack for the day. But when we can get past those inhibitors, let the heart pump, the muscles work, the mind wander (for some odd reason, today’s tune was, “Up, up and away…in my beautiful balloon” – can’t fathom what corner of the brain that came from), we come back stronger, happier, refreshed, and yes, healed.

The Magic of the Run.

28 February 2015

How Quickly We Forget


In barely an hour, Spring arrives, at least by my reckoning. March First! Day 60 of the challenge! And yet, once again it’s dropping to the single digits tonight, and once again the call is out for another four to six inches of snow tomorrow eve. But it doesn’t matter. The sun is high, the forecast is for warming, and daylight savings time will be here in a week. It’s over. Winter, that is.

But something else is just beginning again: racing. It’s beginning again not because winter is ending (though more significant races have been cancelled or postponed than I’ve ever seen, so this year we did need winter to end for racing to start!) but because it’s been over four months since I toed the line. The last time was at Baystate, a race that went swimmingly till suddenly it didn’t, leading to a significant injury time-out, protective custody to keep me out of favorites like New Year’s Day’s Freezer, and a slow return to reasonable, though certainly not optimal, fitness.

Four months, tough training conditions, no speed work, weight on, weight off, and it’s time to race, which leads to the inevitable question, well, how fast can I go now? How fast should I go now? It’s not so simple as just bolting away with abandon. A decent performance requires decent pacing, and decent pacing requires some knowledge of capabilities. The wrong strategy means leaving too much on the course…or being scraped off the course with a spatula. And while four months isn’t really that long, four months with complications makes that strategy a complete mystery.

It’s really amazing how quickly we forget.

Racing is a funny thing. You forget how to do it in no time. Not as in forgetting how to ride a bike, not as in not knowing what to do with each leg in succession (no, left-left, right-right really doesn’t work), but you forget what you’re capable of and therefore how hard to go after that threshold. The only cure is…racing. My times of peak racing always come not just with consistent training, but with plenty of racing.

The plan was to ease in with my local Highland City Strider club’s annual tradition of re-assembling our masters team for the Hyannis Marathon relay. But alas, like the Martha’s Vineyard Twenty-Miler the week before, which sanely belied its slogan of “No Weenies” by cancelling when they couldn’t find the paths that the race was to traverse, the folks in Hyannis threw in the towel, or should I say they tossed off the Cape, in the face of overwhelmingly bad road conditions.

As far as easing back into racing and starting the process of capability rediscovery, Hyannis had three things going for it. First, it’s a relatively short (seven mile) leg. Second, it’s an easy course; that leg having one small hill that barely registers in my book. Third, and most importantly, being a relay, everyone’s performance matters, but there’s no microscope on anyone’s, and at the end of the day, we do this as a fun club excursion. It’s not all that competitive. It just doesn’t matter. It’s a perfect return-to-racing laboratory.

So why was it that within hours of learning of its cancellation, there I was, answering that email from my Greater Boston buds to join the team at the Amherst 10-Miler? The Grand Prix Amherst 10-Miler. As in, the every ringer in New England will show, guaranteeing you will get your butt kicked Amherst 10-Miler. Why?

Part of the answer is that I didn’t do much for my Greater Boston buds over the last year of injuries and wanted to fly the flag. Part of the answer is that I miss Amherst every year for Hyannis, and, well, I was curious. But the real reason was because I’d forgotten how to race, really needed to start that recollection rehab process, and my vehicle to do so had just dried up. I was signed up before I’d even looked really closely at the course profile which was, courtesy of its creator some forty years ago, GBTC’s own Tom Derderian, brilliantly challenging, brilliantly evil.

So instead of low-pressure fun and easy seven, I was now committed to a highly visible uber-competitive, diabolically hilly ten. Seven to ten may not seem like a big jump, but the other factors made it feel like triple the challenge. And just to add flavor, it was only after I’d picked my target pace and locked my brain around it that I learned that over two miles of this beast was on a dirt road, which, in the Winter from Hell, though pleasantly on the nicest day we’d seen in a long time during the Winter from Hell, meant snow and mud to help your target time slip-slide away.

How quickly we forget. How about something so simple as lining up at the start? Certainly not up front, this is Grand Prix, I’d be killed up there. As it was, I chose too conservatively and lost a bit to traffic on the snow-narrowed roads. Not that it mattered much in the end, but it just reminded me how quickly we forget the details.

And certainly not that it mattered in placing. You don’t go to a Grand Prix race with any expectation of hardware. By the time the course straightened out enough to see ahead any considerable distance, those ahead were gone at far more than a considerable distance. These races will make you feel small. While you might be in the top few in a local race, here there are hordes ahead, and not because there are twenty-five thousand in the race a-la-Boston. On this day, in a six-hundred person race, I wouldn’t crack the top quarter, so you’re not battling for place, it’s just you against you. How tough can you stay, mentally, to stay on pace through ten? And not just any ten, but a brutal ten?

The course is a “lollypop”, the first two-and-a-half being out and back, with a five-mile loop in the middle. The bulk of the out part of the out and back is downhill, planting firmly in your mind that you’ll have a treat of a climb at the end. But it’s the loop where the real action is, starting with climb so tremendous that it added a solid minute and a half to my mile three split compared to miles one and two. So bad that those I was paired with when hitting the three-mile marker groaned and insisted I not tell them the embarrassing number I’d just read off my watch.

After being hit by that blunt force trauma, there was no recovery and thus no settling in till it was over, which was a long, long ways away. Even the long downhill through mile six required mental effort; I’m not a natural downhiller and have to force the stride open. Then, the climb on the back part of the out and back surprised me only in that the part I expected to be the worst wasn’t, though that was no consolation as the part I didn’t expect, was twice that. This was the kind of race where I was quite pleased that the professional photographer, who happened to be sitting on that climb, stopped snapping pictures of passing racers a dozen or so worn faces before mine appeared. Short of visual evidence of the crime, that sort of imagery really didn’t need to be seen.

I already mentioned that I was pummeled in the standings, though I did get minor consolation of rising about forty notches in the age-graded stats. But I’m calling it a win. Even with the unexpected snow & mud, I hit my target pace within a second. I’ve got a data point. I’m starting to remember what I’d forgotten. A few more of these and it’ll seem like old hat again.

And about the time I finish this column…it’s Spring. At last.

21 February 2015

Science Non-Denial


As I sit down to write, it’s snowing once again. If this is a surprise to you, please remove your head from the orifice in which it has been inserted. And as for that previous comment, yes, I know I’ve always said that I write a family-safe column. At this point in this winter, I just don’t care anymore.

Normally at this time of year, I’m elated that we’ve blown through the eighty-percent mark on the Sixty Day Challenge and that my definition of Spring is just days away. This year, I’m fighting off the feeling of being beaten. My soul says, “Never Surrender!” but my body has had quite enough. Never before have I succumbed to the terrors of the treadmill to the extent of these past few weeks.

Today I took a zero on a Saturday, an event exceedingly rare. With a forecast of four degrees at eight AM, not unprecedented for running but just not attractive, I passed on the club’s donut run. Then, after several hours on a ladder whacking ice off the roof (a rather futile enterprise but it made me feel I’d done something to stave off the coming melt disaster) and emerging thoroughly chilled, the thought of getting out for a few miles in the afternoon, after the snow started falling, seemed, well, cold. Really, really cold. And with a race tomorrow – not the planned Hyannis relay which was cancelled due to snow-clogged roads, but an alternate race that I cannot for the life of me figure out why I was stupid enough to sign up for – staying inside and laying low seemed attractive.

Perhaps worse than the weather has been listening to the science deniers who proclaim that all of this snow and bone-chilling arctic air disprove the theory of human-induced climate change. It’s a core tenet of climate science that overall warming does not mean warming everywhere. It means increased volatility and changes to established patterns. One aspect of current thinking is that with the warming of the Arctic and subsequent loss of polar sea ice, the temperature differential between the polar and mid latitudes has diminished, which has weakened the jet stream, which has allowed more meanders in the atmosphere (think a slow, meandering river compared to a fast-running stream), which allows air masses to dive northward or southward more than in typical years, which results in pretty much exactly what we’re seeing.

Unlike certain politicians who recently have been afraid to admit their stances on basic sciences like evolution (seriously? didn’t we settle that one long ago?), I have confidence in the scientific process and the resulting knowledge that enhances our lives daily. Science debate is healthy. Science denial is ignorance. Ignorance of the process by which scientific knowledge is created, ignorance of the science we live by every day, and ignorance of the consequences that such denial can bring, especially if that denier is in a position of political influence. Go ahead, just ask that denier how they got to the rally they’re speaking at, and when they hold up their cell phone with the GPS app, ask them how it works – and how mankind figured out how to make it work. Science.

Which brings us to the news of last week, the much ballyhooed (I’ve been waiting years to use that word!) story paraded through the media of how running too much or too fast will kill us. (Yes, this column is about running; we do have to return to that topic.) Said study, published in the American College of Cardiologists journal, reported on the findings of the Copenhagen (Denmark) City Heart Study, and concluded, not unexpectedly, that “People who are physically active have at least a 30% lower risk of death during follow-up compared with those who are inactive.” So far, so good.

But then it gets interesting, and we get to the part where the media, always ripe for an angle and an argument to drive twenty-four hour coverage, tried to pick a fight. And I’ll admit they succeeded. I joined the fight, posting some rather pointed comments on various social media sites. But it’s worth stepping back a bit and looking at the whole story.

The second sentence in the abstract of the study (full disclosure: all I’ve seen is the abstract, since I’m not interested in paying to gain access to the whole study, so correct me if you’ve got the whole thing and I misspeak) states clearly, “However, the ideal dose of exercise for improving longevity is uncertain.” That too, would seem a reasonable statement. Every perspective is relative. Couch potatoes think light joggers are extremists. Light joggers view typical runners who actually race as hard-core. Typical runners see die-hard fossils like yours truly as a bit daft. And die-hards look at anyone who’s considered the Western States 100-Miler as a bit off their boat. It’s a given that at some level, too much of anything will kill you, so the authors’ statement is not unreasonable, no matter how much any one of you thinks you exercise an optimal amount.

Next, we get into the core of how science works, and this is where everything falls down, because I’d hazard that most in the media, and indeed most in the general public, aren’t enlightened on the process. In the simplest terms, you run a study, you publish the results. But the subtle key bit is that it’s unethical not to publish your results, even if they don’t match what you want or expect to see. It’s up to the rest of the scientific community to examine your methods to determine merits or correctable flaws and to try to replicate or repudiate your results based on further studies. One study doesn’t make knowledge. Replicable results do.

In keeping with proper ethics, the Copenhagen Study published their results, and they happened to show that in their study group, the lightest of the light joggers had a greater tendency not to die. (I describe them as lightest of light because the pace described only marginally exceeded a fast walk.) More average joggers had a slightly higher tendency to die. And the “strenuous” joggers (I use those dreaded double quotes because what was described as strenuous encompassed most of the runners I know, be they slow, middling, or fast) did, in fact, die most often. (Perhaps that odd wording, as none in fact died more than once, but you get the picture.) Whether they were surprised by this or not is irrelevant; they fulfilled their responsibility to publish. Reacting to the results, a researcher involved in the study was quoted as saying, "No exercise recommendations across the globe mention an upper limit for safe exercise, but perhaps there is one.”

The media, of course, had a field day. One could probably guess that most of those in the media who ran this up the flagpole rarely run the length of a flagpole, but that’s beside the point.

It’s perfectly acceptable to state that there may be a healthy upper limit for exercise. There are probably also healthy upper limits for broccoli, fish oil, and meditation.

It’s perfectly acceptable for us runner types to look at the study and guffaw at their category definitions of light, moderate, and strenuous.

It’s perfectly required of the scientific community to look at the study and determine its merits and flaws. To me, two stand out immediately. First, the sample size of strenuous joggers and the number of deaths in that tranche don’t provide enough statistical certainty to determine anything. Second, the causes of the two deaths in that group aren’t revealed, at least in the abstract. They’re labelled only as “All Causes” and for all we know, they were hit by a falling hyena in a freak zoo accident (but even if they died mid-stride, see Flaw One). The authors seem to recognize these facts, thus while they ethically report the data they found, they clearly state in their abstract that the optimal amount of exercise is uncertain.

This is one study. It is not knowledge. It is a data point to be replicated or repudiated. The media doesn’t get that. They just want news. But it brings up a good point when we go back to the weather. The media wants news, eyeballs, advertisements, revenue. They portray opposing sides of the climate change debate as having equal standing, because it makes for news. Any chink in the armor of one side grabs more headlines, sells more ads. But in this case, it’s not just one study. It is an overwhelming, nearly unanimous agreement of many, many studies and most people in the scientific community. It is knowledge. We can debate the details of how, and what to do, but it is knowledge. And it’s all of our responsibility to understand the scientific process so we understand why that is so. If we do, we can certainly question specific studies, but we can’t deny the very scientific process that brought us the technological capabilities to receive that twenty-four-hour news on the amazing device we carry in our pocket in the first place

Can one blame the public? I think I got a great education both in secondary school as well as at both of the colleges from which I graduated, yet through all those years of learning, never did anyone explain the process of peer-reviewed research. Only self-directed reading later in life lit me up on it. It’s no wonder most don’t get it, but we all need to. We’ve got to put a filter on the media, look behind the headlines, and understand the scientific process. Self-immolation through ignorance is a terrible way to go.

So at some point science might eventually tell me that all this running is folly, and if so, I can’t deny it. But at least I can enjoy the other benefits. A few days ago on a lunch-hour nine-miler, I came upon an unlucky motorist who, in an attempt to avoid an oncoming Behemoth SUV hogging the bulk of the curved, snow-covered and narrowed lane-and-a-half-wide road, ended up hung up on a massive snowbank. I can’t say that I was able to do a lot; a bit of digging, a little pushing (New England cross-training), some advice and moral support, but twenty minutes later we succeeded in freeing and sending him on his way. I ran off with a story and the satisfaction of leaving a little gratitude in my wake. That’s worth it.