08 September 2018

The Sound of Silence

Back around June, a few nagging issues I’d been nursing seemed to just explode into a synergistic rage, and I really had no choice but to back off, slow down (a lot), and nevertheless continue to eat ice cream. Faced with that, the number of ways I’ve thought of to lead off a running blog post when there’s been precious little running worth talking about have been staggering. Yet before I’ve sat down to write against any of them, being that that hasn’t risen to a high priority given the dearth of running excitement, most of those ideas have faded or been eclipsed by new ones.

One of them was to play off the word ‘funk’. As in, I’m in a running funk. Then, for artistic fun, play off on the possibilities: Funk, as in music. Funk, as in a spice used by a local high-brow gourmet pizza grill. Funk, as in the smell of a hiker after days in the trail (which really raises questions about the use of that spice on food). Funk…and Wagnalls, which, if you’re old, means something. And of course Mrs. Funk, who I didn’t have for second grade, but Sis did.

Well, that was a paragraph worth ignoring, now, wasn’t it?

But that’s how the running news has been all summer. Stunning silence, void of anything interesting, which led me to call this the Sound of Silence. But while running has been a sound of silence, that doesn’t mean I can’t sate my half-dozen followers with something else interesting. After all, all run and no alternate fun makes Jack a dull boy (whoever Jack is). And besides, sometimes silence is a good thing, or at least the silence of complete isolation, where nobody can hear you scream, or more accurately, nobody can hear you curse. Cursing happens when you get to that “Oh ****!” moment where you question the decision tree that brought you to this moment – and your sanity – the kind of moment I found myself in a couple of weeks back.

How I got there does make a decent story. But to properly tell this story, I need to set the stage. This is going to take a few minutes, so hold on. I promise it won’t hurt a bit. At least not you.

Besides running, as frequent readers of this series likely know, hiking is another of my passions. I completed my New Hampshire Four-Thousand Footers in 1995. Accomplishment of said feat is accompanied by (upon application to and acceptance by the Four Thousand Footer Committee) the presentation of a ‘scroll’ – alias, an artistic certificate – at an annual awards ceremony. Back in ’95, I received mine by mail; I didn’t make it to the festivities.

But two summers ago, Dearest Daughter determined that before she disembarked for her extremely green college, she wanted to complete her own circuit of the White Mountains, so, accompanying her, I completed my ‘second tour’. Though no new scroll was involved this time for me, we did attend the gala to receive hers, and heard about the plethora of other summit lists out there that I’d not given much attention to prior, such as the New England 67 and the Northeast 111; the former consisting of all the four-thousand-foot summits in New England, and the latter adding New York’s Adirondacks and two rather forgettable summits in the Catskills (and curiously consisting of one hundred and fifteen, not one hundred eleven summits). As each recipient of these lofty list awards was called up, they’d be asked which summit was the last they scaled to complete the crusade. Other than those who finished their ‘111’ in the ‘Dacks, the answer was almost universal: North Brother.

I decided right then that I’d finish my ‘67’, and it wouldn’t be on North Brother. Be different.

The reason that North Brother is almost always last is that it’s so far out there, you get points just for making it to the trailhead. It’s buried deep in Baxter State Park, which is buried deep in northern Maine. I’d been there once – in 1984 – by accident, travelling homeward with my college wing-man Scott after an excursion to the Canadian Maritimes. Returning through Houlton, Maine, we stared at Mount Katahdin, the centerpiece of the park, for what seemed an endless stretch while driving the nothingness of I-95, nothingness so extreme that only a few years earlier had the road been expanded from two-lane limited access to a full-fledged Interstate. Our resistance worn down, we were forced by the allure of the mountain to bunk down and climb the beast the next morning. Since then, thirty-four years have elapsed, and though I’ve passed through Bangor dozens of times, I’ve never ventured further north.

North is what you need to reach Baxter in general, and certainly North Brother. First go to Bangor, then keep going. Pass Orono, home to the University of Maine, the last bastion of anything sizable, and keep going. Drive fifty more miles (at speed limit seventy-five, there’s nothing in the way), get off, go another dozen miles to Millinocket, a once-thriving paper mill town now searching for its next gravy train. From there, you got it, keep going, seventeen more miles to Baxter’s southwest gate. And from there, another thirteen, on a twenty-mile-an-hour dirt road – nearly an hour further – just to reach the trailhead. Adding the detail that Baxter is preserved in a highly primitive state – there is no power, no phone service, no cell phone signal, you realize that at this point, you’re a long way from just about anything. It’s a whole lotta’ north, both literally and figuratively. At least the gods were smiling on me, literally leading me north with a rainbow.

But back up a moment here, as there’s more stage-setting. Remember, we’re getting to a moment.

Before this expedition, I was three summits short of the ‘67’: Old Speck, the peak I’d designated to be the last ascent on this quest, North Brother itself, and a lonely and nearly flat spot called Hamlin Peak, on a shoulder north of the famous and busy Baxter Peak, the main summit of Katahdin, probably the most spectacular mountain in the Northeast. Thirty-four years back (almost to the day), Scott and I summitted Baxter, oblivious to peak lists (and many other things in life). Hamlin hadn’t registered on the radar screen. Now, to complete this odyssey, a return was needed to notch that high spot; a flat spot, as noted, but only flat after you’ve done all the hard work of going up all the steep bits (and worse, later, coming back down). And you don’t do it without the glory of the main summit (I mean, seriously…) so of course a return to Baxter Peak was in order, and besides, it was an unparalleled day. Hamlin followed, lonely, windblown, and spectacular in its own right, and that was merely Day One, which meant I reached the forlorn and remote Day Two trailhead for the Brothers on an already somewhat worn body.

And I said the Brothers, not just North Brother, because as it turns out, in yet another of Mother Nature’s practical jokes, the three other summits adjoining North Brother – South Brother, Coe, and Fort – don’t rise to the four-thousand-foot threshold, but they do rise high enough to land on yet another peak list, the New England Hundred Highest. The NEHH list has some seriously obscure summits on it, and the likelihood of ever finishing it is slim, but it’s well recognized that if you’ve made it to the trailhead of North Brother (Points!) and you think there’s ever a chance in your life that you might find the NEHH in reach, well, you’d better knock off those other three summits while you’re there. It’s a long way back. And not only that, but the last one – Fort – is accessible only via an off-trail herd-path, read, bushwhack, from the summit of North Brother. In other words, if you don’t do it and you want it later, you’ll have to do North Brother all over again. And you’ll hate yourself.

To knock off all four summits in a day, there’s a trail loop that nabs Coe and South Brother, a spur off that loop to North Brother, then the aforementioned bushwhack to Fort. But to add more flavor to this adventure than just the bushwhack, the marked trail itself ascends a rock slide on Coe that every online summit post and even the ranger at the gate of the park warn you not to even think about descending. Though the quite useless Appalachian Mountain Club guide describes the trail as simply climbing “moderate at first, then steep”, and though others not so spooked by steep drops might not break a sweat on it, to yours truly, who loves high places but hates edges (for those of you who know Baxter, no, I will never do the Knife Edge), such endeavors chill the soul more than just a bit, and the prospect of facing this solo, miles from anywhere, miles from anyone, chilled the soul a considerably large a bit.

Because yes, this excursion, unfortunately, was solo. That wasn’t the plan, but Intrepid Hiking Companion ran smack into a nasty health event wall the day before our departure and landed in an extended hospital stay (*snif*). Now, solo on the trails to Katahdin’s main summit isn’t solo; there are plenty of souls all around. Solo from there to Hamlin Peak was entirely solo, but not particularly challenging. Solo descending from Hamlin was a bit frighteningly solo, with more than a few, ‘don’t trip here’ moments. But solo in the Brothers? That’s seriously solo. And when you finally get to that trailhead and find it nearly deserted – just one vehicle in the lot, who’s park destination ticket indicates they’re not going where you’re going, so you’ll be facing that slide Very Much Alone (not to mention the bushwhack later) – and you’ve been staring at some seriously sharp mountains on the drive in that gave you pause… Yeah, solo. Like, oh crap, solo. And the tone of the moment wasn’t helped by the fact that the day’s forecast of glorious sun instead became a somewhat ominous hazy fog, which I’d learn later was actually smoke from distant fires.

I paced around the trailhead a few times, pondering the wisdom that had plopped me in the middle of nowhere facing a significant challenge with, as previously noted, no one to hear me scream.

Just do it. (Sorry, Nike.) Start walking. And at that first junction, where a left meant just knocking off North Brother and going home, quick, turn right, start the loop before you think too much. The disappearance of the few wet footprints I’d seen on that first segment and the plethora of cobwebs attacking from all sides only served to assure me that the party in that other pickup truck had indeed gone straight to North Brother, so it was me versus slide; me and me alone.

As the trail rose up the valley between Coe and a rather uniquely named mountain called OJI (yes, all capitals, named for the one-time shape of rockslides on its south face), a cliff came into view on Coe. Naw, that’s a cliff, that’s not the slide. Naw, that can’t possibly be the slide. No, um, bleeping way. (You can’t get a decent picture of it from the trail, so I cheated and stole this one, probably taken from OJI, from that infinite source of the Internet.)

You know where this is going.

Boil the frog time. By the time you realize you’re in it, and yes, what you said couldn’t be it is indeed it, well, you’re in it. By the time it gets so steep that you’re holding on at every step, testing each handhold, each foothold, three points of contact, steady, take the next step, can’t afford a single mistake, it’s too late. You’re not going back down this thing. There’s only one way out, and it’s up.

Plenty of others have climbed this, and many who aren’t as edge-nervous as I may not have given it a passing harrumph. And to be fair, much of it was sticky, competent rock. And then it wasn’t anymore. And I’m climbing the left, where the summit posts had indicated the trail rose, since blazes were few and far between. And the cursing has begun. And then there’s no more way to go up, really, no possible way to grab a hold of anything else, no toe-holds, stuck, and I realize that fifteen feet below me, I spy a blaze that says I had to cross this open scape of cliff to the other side. Which means I have to back down, first, just to get to where I can cross. And let go of the vegetation on the sidelines that’s been my lifeline.

Solo. Trip just once and it’s going to suck, even if you’re with buds. Trip just once with nobody to run for help, and…

The crossing was somewhat vertiginous, but not too bad, but I cheated. You were supposed to cross halfway, scurry up to the next rock shelf, unprotected, and cross the other half. I opted to just make the crossing on the shelf where I started, which got me to some marginal grips on the right side, but stuck leaning into the hill against a chest-high rock with no footholds, no rock handholds, and only those marginal scrub grips, not strong enough to trust to heave my trivial mass over the granite. Obviously, that’s why you were supposed to scurry up the middle. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t…

It’s only taken me three pages to set up this moment, and that’s before I added the photos. But you have to realize how remotely alone I found myself, about eighty percent up a crazy one-way-up rock slide, miles away from anything, unable to figure out how to get over this damn rock, and yes, very, very, solo.

Yes, this was it, that “Oh ****!” moment. Why on Earth did I do this?

But we ask the same question at Mile Twenty-Three of just about every marathon, and yet we come back for more. It’s the runner mentality. It’s the human mentality.

Five minutes may have passed, or thirty seconds; I’m not sure. I scoped out every bit of loose vegetation till I found something with what seemed like just maybe enough purchase, gave a heave, and crawled up that boulder. Seemingly within a minute I’d reached the top of the slide, escaped onto a narrow, steep, but dirt-and-tree-lined trail, and downright sprinted upward, heart thumping wildly not from the effort but from the mere escape, wanting to put as much space between me and that slide as quickly as I could. At that moment, I didn’t give a crap about any of the summits on the day’s dance card. Bushwhack to Fort? Are you kidding? I had given up the New England Hundred Highest right then, right there. I was emotionally spent. I didn’t care.

But we cross the line, spent physically, wrecked mentally, and yet we come back for more. Maybe we take a little time to heal, but we come back. It’s the runner mentality. It’s the human mentality.

Summit Coe. Hike the ridge then bang up the side trail to South Brother. Back to the ridge, onto the spur, up the nasty eroded path to North Brother (where I finally found the couple from that one lonely trailhead vehicle, brightening my mood). Summit North Brother – that’s Sixty-Six – and there, there, there it was, a mile across the scrubby krummholz, Fort. Forlorn Fort.

Another Nike Moment. Don’t overthink this. Cairns marked the start of the herd path. Plunge into the scrub. Not too hard to follow at times, a little wild at others. Over a scattered boulder field, and there it was, the summit of Fort, graced by the chassis of the radio from an aircraft which crashed there in 1944. Ten minutes, get off before you forget which boulders brought you up and which ones you’ll need to find again to get back on that herd path, since there are no cairns on this end. Cuts and scratches and bruises, pain fades from your mind. Back on North Brother, damaged, but it’s done, save the long walk out, now encountering all those folks who got a late start and now, only now, let you know that you probably weren’t as alone as you thought. But you didn’t know that at the time.

Having lived to see another day, the next morning found me slogging ten-minute pace on a tour of the streets of Millinocket, a tour that doesn’t take too long and doesn’t encounter any resistance in the way of traffic on a Saturday morning. My legs responded as one might expect, given the punishment they’d endured over the last two days, but tainted further by the persistent wounds of time that brought on this summer’s funk. More time off hasn’t cured the malady, at least not yet. I’m not entirely certain what will at this point; the drop off was sudden and severe.

In no way am I throwing in the towel. There have been plenty of setbacks over the last thirteen-plus years of this running adventure. There’s no point in not trying to get past this one. As if to convince myself of this resolve, of course I went ahead and registered for next year’s Boston.

But when the thing that will stop me from running, or at least stop me from being somewhat competitive, finally hits – and it will, let’s not kid ourselves, I am getting old – I know that the running mentality is there. The mentality that drives you to do things you’re not sure you can, and even when you hit those moments that nearly break you, brings you back to take on some more. The longer any of us can hold onto that, the more we’ll get to live out our years on our terms.

And it also gives us chances to curse out loud in the middle of nowhere. Which, let’s face it, is kind of fun.

15 June 2018

Mutual Aid

[ Ed. Note: It’s a two-fer. Yeah, really two stories here, and yeah, I really should have split them into two posts for the attention-span-challenged among us (read, all of us). The timing didn’t work out that way. So hunker down and slog your way through; hopefully it’s amusing enough to keep you away from Words With Friends for a few minutes! ]

This weekend a collection of my clubmates will be taking on New England’s famous “Just One Hill” race up the Mt. Washington Auto Road. Sadly, this famed and fabled event often conflicts with summer travel, so I’ve never put my hat into the lottery for an entry, though some day I’ll have to give it a shot. After all, what could be more enjoyable than a race that Dearest Daughter watched from the one-mile mark last year and reported to me that she’d never seen more people looking so destroyed in any race, let alone at the mile mark.

I had a little taste of what my clubbies will be up against during that ten-states-in-ten-days odyssey I mentioned in our last esteemed episode. Part of that ramble involved a couple of days on business in South Carolina (so now you know where that neighborhood was that I railed about), after which I high-tailed it to Great Smoky Mountains National Park because, well, because it was there, or at least near to where I was, and because I’d never been there, and because it’s got mountains, and mountains are what I do, at least when I’m not running.

Since the purpose of the trip was discovery, I’m glad I was in a rental car, since it’s pretty likely that I shaved a half inch off the brake pads while navigating the serpentine route I chose to get from here to there. You can get from here to there quite quickly via the interstate, but really, what’s the fun in that? I opted for an entirely ignored stretch of pavement that gets you from South to North Carolina via an obscure corner of Georgia that most Georgians don’t know exists: Route 28, check it out. There’s no state highway that connects it to the rest of Georgia, just a county road.

Being geographically (and let’s face it, generally) nerdy, and having already run that morning in South Carolina, those ten miles passing through Georgia naturally called for another run. Not that I hadn’t run before in either of these states – I had – but the prospect of running in four states in two days seemed cool, so I detoured to a dirt forest road along a stream, not by any means deserted as there were campers and fishermen out, but certainly not a heavily travelled byway, and popped in a few miles of hill climb before resuming the absurdly curvy roads to Cherokee, North Carolina, my remote outpost for the next couple nights. In theory, I’d awaken the next morning, run in North Carolina – also a state I’d previously run in – and double again with a run later in the day on the Tennessee side – finally a new entry on the states-I-have-run-in list (I’ve been in forty-nine, Alaska beckons, but before this trip, I’d only run in half of those). Thus the plan, four states in two days.

But the next morning with the weather looking iffy at best (and having seen what a fierce Smoky Mountain thunderstorm looked like in the last hour of my drive the evening before) I opted to forego the North Carolina run and hit the trail early to beat the storms. Hours later, seeing what I would run up against, clearly it was a wise decision. After about nine miles of delightful (and rain-free) hiking on the Appalachian Trail, which straddles the state border, I headed to Laurel Falls, recommended by a ranger as a good trail run that met my criteria that it had to be on the Tennessee side. She mentioned it was a hill, but seemed to sense that I wouldn’t freak out if it was REALLY a hill, and thus she left out the details, but I’d caught a glimpse of the elevation profile in her trail guide and had a hint of what I was getting into.

Lauren Falls is one of the most popular hikes in the park. To handle the traffic, the crowded first mile-point-three up to the falls is paved and a decent climb of about three hundred feet per mile, enough to provide a challenge to your average national park visitor but not all that tough. Other than slowing at the falls to avoid knocking people off the trail, I opted not to stop on the way up. Past the falls, I picked my way past a soggy spot and set back to running the next one-point-eight to the first trail junction, which I’d deemed to be my turnaround. The obligatory selfie for Dearest Spouse back home revealed a rather worn countenance.

Well then, hello there. It’s a good thing that the forest was intensely lush and beautiful to offer some distraction. It’s also a good thing that I didn’t see a soul once past the falls, because heavy breathing turned to grunting turned to cursing for a junction that simply wouldn’t arrive. Later analysis on my funky smartphone hiking app would peg this stretch at a rise of six hundred and ten feet per mile, or about twelve percent grade. Though I’ve been training in the high sevens, the best I could muster was somewhere around eleven minutes per mile. And the ride down wasn’t much faster; at that grade, caution – remember, not a soul around to hear you yelp if you go down – dictated a seriously low-gear descent, at least till back on that lower paved section when I could open it up a bit. Truly an inspiring outing, and running state number twenty-six in the books.

But here’s the thing: I struggled up the steep part of that grade for just under two miles. My clubmates this weekend will be heading up the Auto Road which likewise averages about a twelve percent grade, but for them, it’ll last over seven miles.

Whoosh. I wish their cardiac muscles well.

It occurred to me that I was a bit of a fool to have initially planned to start the day with the North Carolina run. The hike and hill-climb run double was quite enough for one day, especially following my South-Carolina-Georgia double the day before. I settled for notching the North Carolina run the next morning, so four states’ runs took three days rather than two, and doubled that one up – third day in a row – with a power hike (most certainly not rain-free) up another significant summit before skedaddling to the airport and home. Successful journey.

But really, that’s not what I came to talk about. That’s just to paint the picture of the abused body I hauled into last weekend’s race (and of course to relate a terrific adventure; abuse often brings that reward). Sure, there were a couple weeks between then and the race, but business travel didn’t exactly make them relaxing, so when Saturday dawned, I had little in the way of expectations.

It’s standard procedure that I anti-trash-talk before a race. My clubmates expect that I’ll groan a bit about what hurts, how I’m not feeling great, and that I’m not expecting fireworks, then the gun goes off and we’re, well, literally, off to the races. Since everything is relative, when it’s a Grand Prix race, all that anti-trash bodes truth once I’ve had my butt thoroughly kicked. But when it’s a local race, not against the New England elite, I rightly take some tongue-lashing about my grousing once I’ve sorted myself to somewhere near the front of the small pond pack.

Saturday, however, things really did hurt, coming off that series of adventures just related, and I really was not feeling great, and I really was not expecting fireworks. Yeah, I know, I know, you’ve heard it before. This time, though, the lower joints were complaining loudly, which might or might not have been enhanced by a different pair of shoes I’ve been using, and I was so out of it that the highlight of my warm-up was a senior moment where I didn’t even recognize my warm-up buddy emerging from his shrubbery stop. Certainly there was nothing in that warm-up that hinted at the ability to move faster than an ungraceful lope. But whatever. I plopped myself into the second row behind the line and once aloft, tried to fire up the engines while what seemed like a far larger lead pack than usual for a local race (mind you, a large local race, but still a local race) rocketed away.

By the first turn, only a quarter-mile or so in, I found myself chatting with Shirtless Youngster, loping much more gracefully alongside. This is not supposed to happen. Not the shirtless part or the youngster part or the graceful part, but the chatting part. There’s an old saying that if you can sing, you’re running too slowly, and if you can’t talk, you’re running too fast, but that’s for training purposes only. In a race as short and fast as a five kilometer, there’s no way you should be, or be able to be, chatting. Grunting, maybe. Chatting, no. But there we were, and it didn’t bother me, since I really didn’t think I was moving particularly fast that day, so hey, chat away, enjoy it.

But a funny thing happened. Wizened Old Goat and Shirtless Youngster bonded a bit. It cemented at the mile mark where the race clock reported a number quicker than I figured I was up for and likewise quicker than Youngster apparently felt prudent. He muttered something I can’t quite recall, but it equated to an expression of one of those “Oh crap” moments. Truth is, the race clock was wrong by about ten seconds – they’d started it late – but my watch revealed that we were still moving quicker than I’d counted on. I found myself almost reflexively falling into Coach Mode. Don’t panic, young Jedi, it’s only a 5K, stay with it. No, I didn’t actually call him a Jedi, but it would have been so appropriate since at that moment we hit a downgrade where I did say, “Gravity is your friend,” but it would’ve been better to have uttered, “Use the Force…of gravity” (groan now).

Bob Seger’s Night Moves lyrics come to mind, “I used her and she used me and neither one cared” (OK, adjust the gender, you get it). Yeah, I was coaching him now, as we picked off a few runners and finally crept past the two front-runners of the State Police recruit team, this being a race in honor of a fallen state trooper whose comrades had come out in impressive force. But I was also drawing off him. The trick in a 5K is maintained intensity. In longer races, you can often find a moment to back off just a hair, catch your breath a bit, and plan for renewed pushes later. No time for that in these sprints; it’s go, go, and keep on going. My best 5Ks have been those where I resisted my body’s natural desire for that back off and instead reminded myself that it will all be over in a matter of minutes. So the fact that I was coaching this kid meant that I had to stay with him as well, at least until the inevitable final sprint came around.

Later I’d learn that he was drawing off me not only from the coaching, which thankfully didn’t annoy him, but also from the fact that being a race run by my own club on my own turf, and by my being the first of my club to appear in the pack, well, it was like Cheers in that everybody knew my name (good thing too, since one of the course marshals was Dearest Spouse, and it’d be a sad day if I looked so bedraggled as to not get her recognition!). Local fame is nothing more than that – local – and for what it’s worth, it’s certainly enjoyable, but to a young guy, this probably seemed a bit like being linked to the town’s Kenyan.

And we were still chatting. During this sprint. Which again, was not supposed to happen. Which does make me wonder, pondering this post-mortem, if there was more in the tank, but that will remain unknown. Meanwhile, just past the two-mile mark I told him that my being at least thirty years his senior meant that he absolutely had to beat me with his youthful finishing sprint, lest I be highly disappointed in his mettle. In the comical moment of the day, he doubted I had thirty years on him, so I quizzed him and found that indeed I was wrong – it was almost forty. A third of a mile from the end, I shooed him ahead on his barely ripened legs and enjoyed watching him put five seconds on me by the finish mats.

He couldn’t tell me his actual personal best, having had racked up his previous times on notoriously inaccurate cross-country courses, but I think he walked away happy. And I walked away a bit amused, having just shaved a few seconds off my season best and picking up another Slightly Fossilized Division win on a day when I didn’t think the engines had the remotest chance of kicking in. And I’m quite convinced that coaching, glomming, teaming, whatever you want to call it, made it happen. So thanks, Youngster; you made it fun and we pulled off a decent outing via our little Mutual Aid Society.

The next day, I should note, my legs were unusually shot, a rarity after a short race. I guess this was the final layer on top of a wedding cake of abuse, so it’s time to back off the racing for a bit and let some cells regenerate.

03 June 2018


A spate of travel of late, some corporate, some fun, put my feet in ten states in a ten-day span. That won’t win me any awards, though it did push this tale of my latest adventure out a few weeks. And more importantly, it provided an interesting angle on what might otherwise be Just Another Race Story. That angle came to me whilst I was running down a somewhat repulsive in-your-face-display-of-wealth street bordering a ritzy golf club in one of those ten states. That angle was the concept of handicap. It was an intriguing concept, because I absolutely did not win a race a couple of weeks ago. But if running was handicapped, well…

The ritzy and repulsive bit needs to be reported because it was central to making me think a lot about golf, and thus equity and comparisons in competition – which is where this is all going – rather than just run on by as I otherwise would have done. But please, don’t beat me up for beating up golf a bit, as I’ve got nothing against the sport. Sis golfs, her husband golfs a lot, many of my friends and co-workers golf, and decades ago I too golfed a little. Not well, mind you, but I did, and I liked it. Yes, I wish more golfers would walk the course rather than putter around in those electric carts, though I recognize that many clubs, in search of faster play and more revenue, require them. No, it’s not golf that I’m lambasting, it’s that unfortunately, golf is one of those things that elitists use to display their elitism.

Back home I run past a golf course almost daily, a pleasant place surrounded by a pleasant neighborhood of pleasant homes and (mostly, I presume) pleasant people. That’s not the Disneyland I found in this certain southern state. No, this was McMansion after McMansion, completely alike in their attempts to be unique and more impressive than their neighbors. Obscenely in-your-face. A lifestyle so uber-comfortable that many residents lay rubber mats at the entrances to their driveways so as not to feel (horror!) a bump while pulling in the Benz. A collection of estates (I hesitate to use the word neighborhood) so manicured and yet so lifeless that I longed to see a plain old front porch, but alas, that’s just not the culture. I know I digress; that’s not golf, that’s people who think they’re high and mighty, and those people aren’t limited to golf.

But here’s the thing: the whole reason I was running through this neighborhood was because it was the only street of some length near my hotel that was safe to run. This particular area, seemingly awash in money, doesn’t seem to believe in spending money to build roads with basic safety features. Twisty rolling roads top blind rises and hidden turns with literally two inches between the edge line and uncertain unpaved space. The only picture I came away with was a straight and flat version of this rather deficient design, but you get the idea.

And so I found myself on this long and winding road of rococo estates, thinking about inequality, thinking about golf, and thinking about how at least the sport of golf tries to come up with a way to deal with that problem within the game so that it can be a somewhat level playing field for all comers. Golf has something that’s quite interesting to runners: the handicap. It’s the recognition that in this sport, talents, whether honed or innate, vary considerably, and if it’s going to be any fun playing, there should be a way to compare those people of varying talents. It’s an imperfect system, because the calculation of that handicap is dependent on each player’s previous performances, against which their next performance will be judged, and of course each person’s previous experiences differ from the next person. But it does allow the duffer to have a shot to top their local league standings or win a tournament now and then.

Running’s closest match is the masters age grading tables, though it’s not equivalent by any means. Golf uses that person’s actual performances, while the masters tables just count the number of times you’ve travelled around the sun. The masters tables do nothing to make it easier for the mid-packer to ‘beat’ the elite, but they do give the aging runner the ability to compare their performances against both their previous, younger-days performances, as well as those of other competitors, both younger and older. They are an admission that we get slower as we get older, but since we don’t all do it on the same timetable, they’re just a good guess.

Golfing style handicaps would be nearly impossible to administer in the running world, where courses aren’t nine or eighteen holes and aren’t finite in number, so they can’t all be rated for difficulty. And on the flip side, golfers don’t vary quite as linearly relative to age – think of some of the aging legends of the sport, or even that retirees finally get more time to hone their game – so age-grading tables wouldn’t make sense for them. Given all that, we’ll keep our respective systems and recognize that they both have similar goals – comparison across unequal competitors.

So how come we don’t hear more about age-graded performances in races? Certainly most races have age group awards, but really, how did the winner of the masters, the seniors, the veterans, perform relative to the young whippersnappers who broke the ribbon? Did that lady who won the fifties run a killer race, relative to what the accumulated statistics of millions of races by people of her age would suggest, or was she just the only one to show up? That’s where the tables step in.

If you’re not familiar with them, as I hinted, these tables are based on literally millions of race results, statistically analyzed by some method which I do not know. What I do know is that they were developed at least in part by Alan Jones, the same Alan Jones who brought the running world the Jones Counter, the internationally recognized standard for measuring and certifying courses. If you see a pattern from this esteemed gentleman, I can personally attest that you are right. I ran in high school with Alan’s son and knew Alan through the Triple Cities Running Club, where he was putting out race results in computerized documents in the late seventies. Yeah, a little ahead of his time. And as we’d say in New England, wicked pissah smaht.

Alan is my Patron Saint of Getting Older. I’m at the age where my times are inevitably slipping. Without the age-grading tables, that would be the end of the story, and I’d have to admit to decay. But by running results through the tables (it’s easy, do so at this link), you can compare this week’s race against those run years ago. It’s not a perfect system, because every race is different based on the course, the weather, and so on, but in general, it’s easy to see if you’re slipping, holding steady, or improving on how you should perform relative to you some time ago.

What’s wakes up the crowd is when a race director or a scorer applies these tables to an entire race. The first time I ever saw this was in a local 5K I dropped into while on a business trip. Enlightenment! Of course, I wasn’t quite as old then, so it didn’t carry quite so much weight. But still, sure I got beat by some local kids that evening, but based on the tables, did I?

Back in March at the New Bedford Half Marathon, the spreadsheet wizard who compiles the USA Track & Field New England Grand Prix results and statistics did just that. In that star-studded gathering of blazing speed, I justly got my butt kicked, soundly walloped into two hundred and sixtieth place. Ouch. For a guy who occasionally wins a small race, that really put me in my place.

But ranked by age-graded performance, that two-sixty rose to spot number one-oh-five. Yeah, I still got my clock cleaned by over a hundred people, but it was pretty comforting to see that I wasn’t acting my age. Note that’s not one-oh-five against the old folks like me, that’s one-oh-five against everyone, age eight to eight-eight.

All of this was on my mind a couple weeks ago when the results rolled in from the Clinton Tribute five miler, a local favorite that we often refer to as the Hill From Hell race. In truth, there are three Hills From Hell in this brief race, plus another right out of the starting gate, and only one stretch flat enough to allow you to gather your wits. This being my fifth Tribute, I’m ready for those trials; I’ve got a pretty good mental map of the pain to come. And Mama Nature laid out fast racing weather: chilly with the threat of rain (which did roll in around the halfway mark), but nearly windless, so no repeats of Boston’s Monsoon Monday. In short, there were no excuses for this one, just the chance to turn in a decent time.

As Tributes go, this one rolled out with a predictable story line and a happy ending. The usual local kids bolted off the line and spent themselves by the third block of the uphill kick-off, though one, a bit older, and who I’d later hear was a solid local trackster, would hang on through the first mile and run a solid race overall. I couldn’t seem to find my racing gear in the first mile, but that may have been a blessing as I didn’t burn out on adrenaline but instead settled in to crank out what may have been my most consistent Tribute, holding steady splits through the quasi-alpine terrain.

At the second turn, the spot where the field is usually sorted out, I counted nine ahead of me. I eclipsed that somewhat older kid and dropped into the single digit place zone, then took out another pair by the time we topped the first Hell Hill around one-point-five. A mile later, in the midst of that blessed flat stretch, I put on a surge to assure that when I passed what would turn out to be my final victim of the day, he wouldn’t have any thoughts about debating the topic. Being somewhat fond of hills, I didn’t expect any further arguments, and since clubmate Matt – same of last race fame – was far enough ahead to reach the next time zone, there was no chance to close that gap, so I just ground it out for a sixth place finish and another Slightly Fossilized (a.k.a. senior) division win.

It’s worth noting that after the previous weekend’s race, where I looked like Utter Hell in the finish line photo – even worse than my usual Death Warmed Over look – this time I made a conscious effort to try to crack a smile while screaming into the downhill finish, since I knew they’ve always got a photographer poised. On a relative basis, I’d say it worked out; small children probably won’t run from that finish photo.

It’s also worth mentioning that the Tribute knocks itself out for the runners. This event exists to honor the annual Tributes, folks who have knocked themselves out for the community (and thankfully, aren’t forced to subsequently kill each other a-la Hunger Games) and raise funds as well. But unlike many of these events, the organizers haven’t forgotten that it’s a race. The trophies are bigger than Mt. Rushmore, and each divisional winner gets their mug recorded and published in the local paper, which as it turns out, one of my professional colleagues, a native of the town, happens to read and forwarded a snapshot of the page (first pic in this adventure) with a nice pat on the back – thanks! But the point is, competition still matters here, and that’s one of the big draws.

It was on that note that when the results rolled in, I churned the numbers, as my perpetually nerdly demeanor demanded. After finagling for a course measurement discrepancy (how a course I’ve measured as accurate in the past was coming up a tad short was a mystery, and no, it hadn’t changed, but apparently Google had, and this is precisely why you can’t certify a course that way, thank you [Alan] Jones Counter), I opted to adjust my time upward a bit for, let’s call it, personal integrity. Even though this adjustment put this one at a disadvantage compared to my four previous outings on this course (I didn’t retroactively adjust those), to my surprise found my age grade rating still made this my best Tribute, and in fact my best five-miler since hitting my fifties. Who knew? Praise be to Alan.

I took it a step further. I scanned the results and spot-checked the obvious suspects: runners nearly my age who’d beaten me (there was only one in his late forties), and runners older than me who’d come in relatively close behind. My suspicion was confirmed: nobody attained my age grade rating or higher.

So, did I win? Obviously, no, that’s not how races work; this isn’t golf. Was there an award for this? Clearly no (though I have heard of races that do this, but I got a hunk-o-hardware for my division, anyway). Should there be? Probably not. But is there some quiet satisfaction (admittedly less quiet after publishing this column) in this micro-achievement? Of course, he said, grinning. Does a golfer smile when she wins the tournament, even if that win was based on handicap?

14 May 2018


There are races that you target, key races that mean something in the great scheme of a life of running. Then there are races that you jump into in the hopes of lifting your established team, your clan so to speak, to some level of perceived greatness, like the Grand Prix series. And there are races that are simply local fluff or fun. But every now and then come the days when you’re really just a hired gun. Not that you’re really hired, of course; real money doesn’t change hands, but hired in the sense that you’re brought in to do your job, to load the dice. I guess I’m quick enough – not in any big pond, mind you, but perhaps in some small to moderate sized ponds – that I get that call now and then. Jump on our team, we need you, we need to kick someone’s butt. Yup, just call me One-Eight-Hundred Runner.

Thus it was I found myself riding to the unlikely destination of Canton, Massachusetts, to run on a team supporting the Pappas Rehab Hospital for Children in an event to support the same institution. All I knew about this team was that it had apparently been snubbed the previous year by, of all people – horror! – the caterers! While this event was certainly a fundraiser for the hospital, it wasn’t a fundraiser in the as in hit up your friends, but rather a fundraiser as in big supporters anteing up the sponsorships because little supporters – like us – will show up and because it’s a great thing to do. For me it was simply a chance to jump into a grudge match and help settle a score. My clubmate and his friend who works for the hospital – a fine institution recently renamed in honor of Arthur Pappas, most popularly known as the Red Sox’ doctor but in truth someone who accomplished oh so much more – needed to be sure they didn’t get beat up by a bunch of burgermeisters again.

Those burgermeisters, by the way, deserve great kudos, even if they were our targets for the day, as they were one of those big supporters. Foley’s Backstreet Grille in Stoughton annually dedicates their support to this kids’ haven to the extent that they close their restaurant for the day to send their staff to support the race. That’s pretty much unheard of in the restaurant biz. On top of that, every category winner walked away with a gift certificate from their fine establishment. You can be jaded and say that’s just a way to drum up business, but in total, it was a lotta’ dough, or wings, skins, burgers, or whatever.

Whatever, indeed, because for the moment, they were to be vanquished. And I was brought in to help with the cause.

One of the aspects of being a true mercenary is that you don’t really know the rules and you don’t really care; you just do your job. Admittedly, once I learned about the hospital, I did indeed care, but I never did learn the rules; we just did our job, we being myself and a few others from my local club. We vanquished those chefs. But we didn’t know then and I still don’t know now how the scoring was done, nor do I know whether I made a difference in that score. That’s when we pull out that word again, whatever, because, well, yea, there were burgers, dogs, and beers to be had ex-post-race-oh. Mission accomplished, good enough for me.

Our recruiter Paul led us to believe that nobody competitive showed up and that it was an easy, flat course. After all, said he, look at last year’s winning time! Mercenary Matt and I loosely pondered the idea of a one-two walk-off; and though he politely avoided anything remotely approaching trash talk, I knew clearly who’d be the one and who’d be the two in that scenario (hint: I’m old, he’s not).

Never believe the marketing. It wasn’t flat. Not brutal, but not flat, either. And it was a tad long, which explained at least a bit of last year’s winning time. While the course was certified, a certified course is only guaranteed not to be short. It can be a bit long (or sometimes crazy long, recall the nine-point-four mile Boston Tune-Up 15K). On top of that, the marshals sent us off course – avoiding a cut-through on the certification map – within the first tenth of a mile. Ah, the joys of small races. Courses aren’t perfect, mileposts aren’t either (by their postings, my second mile clocked in under four minutes, um…), and even the flag got stuck when the veteran color guard tried to hoist Old Glory pre-race. Again, whatever. As Belichick would say, do your job.

It was obvious by the time we’d circumambulated the hospital grounds that a few real players had, as we’d suspected while reconnoitering the pre-race gaggle, shown up. One-two certainly wasn’t in the cards. Heck, coming up on the mile mark I had a dog – yes, a dog – breathing down my back side. Between the idea that a dog might overtake me (dog owners, don’t be insulted, I know they can be fast) and the adjoining idea that his owner could be on my tail while repeatedly shouting, “Heel!” while I was gasping for enough oxygen to hold the pace, well, it wasn’t comforting.

Fido faded, I took out a few folks on the first significant rise and shortly thereafter, and spent the rest of the brief adventure (five-k’s are just too short and too fast for my liking) staring at Mercenary Matt from thirty seconds back. No chance of catching him, nobody threatening from behind, just grind it out.

About this time I recalled that my fellow mercenary and I had made a pact a couple weeks back to join motivational forces over the summer and hammer out enough track work to shave our respective five-k times down. About this time I realized that the target time I’d agreed to was more than a bit unreasonable. About this time it occurred to me that on an age-graded basis, I’d have to run the race of my life by summer’s end to pull it off. But at this moment, I decided I’d be happy just being within a minute of that irrational goal, so even with no threat, I swung what little hammer I had and came across the line looking so God-awful, as the finish line picture would reveal, that I made a mental note to try and smile at next week’s race (spoiler: I did, sort of, but that’s the next story).

That imagined one-two walk-off became a four-five placing as we were roundly thrashed by those fast guys who weren’t supposed to come to this race. But still, fifth out of a few hundred, even if a bunch of them were just there for a walk, well, it’s respectable for an aged goat (and yes, I took what I’ve come to call the Somewhat Fossilized Division). And that idea of being within a minute of my miniature Impossible Dream even sort of materialized, if you took the long course into consideration. But considering that my age-grade rating on this one bordered on what I think of as my ‘gold standard’, the thought of knocking off a whole minute from a short race by summer’s end... Well, let’s not think too hard about that for the moment.

Burgers, beers, and the accumulation of enough awards among our carpetbagging crew made for a fine outing, and forced us to start planning a return trip to the area just to eat our winnings (after a run, of course). It even allowed me to forgive Paul for his sins of marketing, since he too walked off with a certificate to add to our edible prize pot. And there will be next year, since I suspect the caterers will be seeking their revenge.

Happy Mercenaries

Meanwhile… Boston Follow-Up: Check out this seriously excellent video on the Boston Monsoon Monday Marathon experience from my buddy Chris Russell’s friend Eric (Eric made the video, Chris narrates and stars, so to speak). It’s fifteen minutes of your life well spent. Enjoy it here.

22 April 2018

Frozen Food Department

[ Ed Note: As is often the case, postings on marathons themselves become marathons. Pace yourself, there’s a lot to this story! ]

A week later I cannot begin to figure out how to describe this experience. The usual question I get is, “Have you warmed up yet?” to which I reply with a crack about having completed the swim portion of the event (funnier if you know how weak a swimmer I am), and thinking to myself that every subsequent blast of wind since that day has evoked a PTSD-like sense of dread.

I’ve run twelve Boston Marathons and twenty-eight marathons overall, plus a few more I think of as unofficial. I’ve run over a hundred and fifty races. I’ve gone hypothermic several times. But I’ve never seen or experienced anything like what hit us last Monday. Nor has anyone I’ve spoken with. Not veterans of twenty or more Bostons. Not those who remember forty. Many have said this was the grand-daddy of all one hundred and twenty two, so far as the impact on the runners.

If you’ve been under a rock or just don’t follow this stuff, the perfect storm intruded on our party. To a runner, purgatory is cold rain, and hell is cold wind-driven rain, and perfect hell is all of the above escalated to a level of intensity that drops both jaws and internal core temperatures. Anyone who has qualified for Boston has run and raced in cold weather, in rain, in snow, in wind. We get it, we deal with it. This one was different. I’d rather race in the single digits – been there, done that, just a few months back. I’d rather race in snow on a thirty degree day – snow gets you wet, but most blows by, brushes off. Neither penetrate like cold, wind-driven, heavy rain.

Boston rained from the start, rained for the duration, and only ceased raining to allow interruptions of stunning downpours that exceeded the definition of rain. Marathon Monday (dubbed Monsoon Marathon Monday by a friend) dawned with a fresh coating of snow and ice on the ground, barely rose above that frigid temperature by the start, and never attained even the slight warming that was forecast. As I passed mile twenty-four, the thermometer still read forty-two – and that dial would drop even lower by the time friends passed it later. The fateful day started with a true-to-prediction stiff headwind that proceeded to deepen its attack throughout the race. The Weather Channel had forecast finish line sustained winds at nearly thirty with an ominous orange GALE WARNING banner on-screen, while the local TV news pegged expected gusts at forty-five. Neither were overstated. All were head-on, save for the brief two blocks of Hereford Street when ironically the canyons of the city spun the tempest around. A tailwind rarely registers as anything other than the lack of resistance. The intensity of that one-minute long hind quarter boosting reprieve spoke volumes of its power.

No clothing worthy of an attempt at racing the distance could stop the assault. Those who opted for the shelter of more clothing simply accumulated more refrigerated coolant against their skin. Those with wind gear became sailors, which might have worked well if they’d had the time and space to tack their way upwind, but that wasn’t an option. Slower folks in the charity-runner range may have enjoyed the luxury of worrying less about minimizing their clothing for speed and performance, but paid through their extended exposure time. And the post-bombing elimination of the Hopkinton baggage check once again haunted this race; save for throw-aways, my wardrobe choice had to be made by seven in the morning while my front yard was still white and icy.

I opted for minimalism, recalling the 2007 Nor-Easter race when temperatures rose more than expected, and the 2015 gale, when similar, though as we’d learn, nowhere near as intense, conditions brought on hypothermia but not until well past the finish line. Racing shorts, one long-sleeve wicking shirt with a racing singlet atop, a thin beanie, and glove liners for some protection but minimal water absorption. And cheap throw-away expo shades to try to keep some of the liquid bullets out of my eyes. Of all that, only the beanie truly worked as hoped.

It goes without saying that the dry shoes I’d brought to the Athlete’s Village and donned on my way to the starting corrals were wet shoes – at least not muddy, but still wet – by the start, and soaked shoes by the mile mark as attempts to avoid not just puddles but pools and streams and floods quickly became impossible to win. So drenched was the course that runners often coagulated on the non-flooded paths between tire depressions, leading to more traffic dodging and more bump-and-grind than I’ve seen in a marathon ever. That was just one more ingredient in what would quickly become an energy expenditure equation that couldn’t be balanced.

Things got weird fast. Within a mile, my numb legs made me question whether I had, in fact, put on my shorts that morning – something I’d joked about while Dearest Spouse drove me to the race, being buried in voluminous quantities of pre-race warmth and unable to recall what sat at the bottom of that seven-layer taco dip. Cruising Ashland, I was certain that said shorts had to be drenched and must be riding up to my hip joints, giving those interested in well-aged thighs a cheap thrill, because I simply couldn’t feel them. You shouldn’t have to look down to verify the location of your clothing, nor should subsequent downward reconnaissance reveal a truth entirely in contradiction to what your nerves are telling you. The shorts hung normally, it was the legs that really weren’t there.

But a few miles later, the opposite developed. Now, my exposed quads insisted they felt the presence of fabric – tights, track pants, whatever, hard to tell – but the unmistakable sensation of fabric brushing over them. Again, the visual confirmed a complete neural disconnect, they were, indeed, still quite (as intended) naked. All I can fathom is that the winds were strong enough to drive sensation down hair follicles below the upper layers of chilled numbness. Weird.

While they may have been transmitting wildly corrupted data from their sensors, at least the legs worked – not terribly well; in the cold numbness I simply couldn’t break beyond a tight, choppy stride, but they worked – at least through the first twenty or so miles. Hands, on the other hand, rapidly became useless. Manipulating the zipper of my mini-pouch became a quarter-mile effort. Simple actions like clicking off splits on my watch became an engineering challenge; fingers failed and only a thumb was strong enough even for that tiny motor function.

And then there was the acoustics. The wind drove even sounds into cognitive dissonance. Repeatedly I puzzled why runners approaching me from behind were carrying cowbells, only to realize that the sounds were coming from the dedicated drenched devotees lining the course – out there even in these conditions – right alongside. Fool me once, it’s a curiosity. Fool me repeatedly and there has to be physics involved, probably mixed with a dose of reduced brain capacity.

Meanwhile I was already shivering; not superficial oh-that-gust-was-cold shivering, but deep, core, inner shivering. By Framingham. Mile six. Twenty to go, and the winds were nowhere near their apex. My mind, usually focused on the math of time in the bank and pace required to reach any of several goals, could think only of the rate of heat loss and whether there’d be any fire in the soul by Boylston Street. And no sooner would my racing efforts start to turn up the thermostat ever so slightly when the skies would open – about every twenty minutes – in unspeakable deluges that instantly saturated every pore and bloated every liquid-holding fabric fiber with the equivalent of an ice bucket challenge.

Despite all this, I was having a pretty good race. How’s that you say?

After the horrendous traffic of the first mile, partly an artifact of my first-ever second wave start (I’ve always been in the first) and partly an inexplicable mix of incompatible paces by people who had supposedly been seeded by time but now were reacting to the conditions in a myriad of unpredictable ways, I settled into a target pace range that would bring me back to the first wave for next year’s race. Save for a slight and entirely acceptable slowdown on the first Newton hill, I held that range till Heartbreak. On target, cylinders firing.

At mile eight, one of my rocks of the race, perennial fan Cori was there, as always, come thick or thin. I’ve been doing this race so long that she’s gone from single (might have that timing a little off) to married to mom to her kid being old enough to make a poster in my honor (though sadly I didn’t see it till later). That kind of support and spirit keeps me coming back.

Around mile twelve, I picked up a CMS teammate, a young woman I recognized but didn’t know well, and glommed on to her steady pace under the theory that two CMS jerseys were better than one and it might give us both a boost, and perhaps even a few hoots from the crowd. About the same time, while tracking her, I passed my New York buddy the Brooklyn Barrister, up for his first Boston, and having what I’d find out later was a day that hurt to even read about – worse than even what the weather dished out. It wasn’t till I’d overtaken him that he spotted me, but being slightly blinded by the dim and rain-streaked light of the cheap shades, I was hesitant to spin around to see him for fear that I’d trip over something I could barely see, instead shouting and hoping he’d join me. “I’m laboring!” was the last I’d hear from him till he recounted his own personal nightmare a few days later.

At sixteen, Dearest Spouse was out there. I’d given her dispensation to skip this one, but love and dedication know no bounds. I couldn’t even give her the joy of sidling left, out of the shortest tangent path, to swing closely by, as everyone was huddled on the right, on the inside track of the curve. Even though drafting wasn’t terribly effective, not drafting was worse. Swinging wide into the wind just seemed unthinkable.

Heartbreak hurt, Heartbreak slowed me, but Heartbreak didn’t kill me. Shortly thereafter, cold killed me. The heat equation hit zero balance coming down the back side, and systems began to shut down. Past the Graveyard, through Cleveland Circle, those repeated dousings had taken their toll. Staying vertical became the challenge. I knew my hometown club, Highland City, was manning the pedestrian crossings at twenty-three and twenty-four. That bit of coming familiarity was a bigger boost than you’d expect; it was cathartic to holler, “This SUCKS!” to friendly faces, especially one friendly face who was, to my spirit-lightening humor, wearing a rubber-ducky kid’s swim float around her middle. Little things. Thanks, peeps.

At forty kilometers it was walk or fall. I stumbled from there to the twenty-five mile mark, a mere two tenths of a mile that seemed to take a lifetime. Irony of ironies, there happened to be a timing mat at both forty kilometers and twenty-five-point-two miles – the mile-to-go mark – so this lowest point was forever memorialized in a really bad pace readout. One more brief walk coming out of the Mass Ave tunnel, that Divine Wind of Hereford, about six years to get down Boylston Street, and it was over. Requalified for next year. If I lived that long, which at that moment, wasn’t certain.

The human body delivers far beyond what anyone can expect of it.

Crossing the line, my core temperature must have been low enough that even the gigahertz of my brain’s processor had slowed. My vision, already obscured by the throwaway shades that I could never find a calm enough stretch to discard, flickered as if the frame refresh rate on the video screen had been turned down by half. My legs wouldn’t have held another few seconds past the moment a medical volunteer appeared to provide support. From him to the next volunteer to the wheelchair scooping me up just as I was going down – not knowing if I would faint, vomit, cry, or all three – to the slightly warmer environment of what I’d later term the Frozen Foods Department of the medical tent, probably took less than a minute, but who knew? Time wasn’t registering. Another volunteer stripped my sogginess from the waist up, piled on layers of Mylar (and thankfully one real blanket), and put a cup of warm sugared water in my mostly non-functional paws. I have no idea how long I stayed, and the ordeal wasn’t over. Having finally displayed just enough motility and lucidity to gain walking papers, there still remained the task of navigating the finishing chute and picking my way through barricades and crowds, hauling a bag of leaden clothing and clad only in soggy shoes, soggy shorts, and a couple layers of thin film (sadly, without that one real blanket).

But I’m here, writing this. I survived, as did everyone else. I had it bad, but others had it worse. A record number hit the med tent, but nobody was lost. I made it to that Finest Hot Shower You Will Ever Experience, also known as the Squannacook post-race party (unending thanks to them for their efforts of bringing this together every year!). My time wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great either, but frankly, nobody cares. The winning times were the slowest in decades. Most of the elites dropped out. Speedsters I know all faded out in the high miles, not, I suspect, because of the traditional wall, but because, I’ll bet, their core temperatures collapsed as did mine, and they too found it nearly impossible to function. But I did, and they did, and still some absurd number like ninety-five percent of those who started, finished.

The human body delivers far beyond what anyone can expect of it.

They’ll be talking about this one a decade from now, maybe multiple decades from now.


Like most marathons, there are too many stories to fit in one marathon-length narrative. Here are a few bonus tidbits.

Mud Shoes, Dry Shoes: In a pre-race email, the Boston Athletic Association relaxed their stringent policies on what could and could not be brought to the Village and clarified that a pair of dry shoes would be allowed and indeed would be recommended, expecting muddy conditions at the Athlete’s Village. (Long-time readers will recall how I took them to task on this very issue in 2014 and their then-stalwart response; this message was welcome and long overdue.) The sea of mud, exceeded in my memory only by a legendary hike in the Adirondacks, delivered as promised. By the time I’d forded the muck pit and shoehorned myself into a patch of space, I was pleased to see that many heeded the call and wisely equipped themselves. What I didn’t expect was to then see people all around me donning those dry shoes while still in the tent – while still needing to re-cross that Rubicon to get out of the tent. I can’t tell you how many people I advised to wait until they reached pavement before making the switch. I just can’t explain this gap in their logic. (Further note: While I was changing in the Hopkinton High parking lot, someone with a BAA jacket came by and did an impromptu video interview – no idea where that landed…)

Of All The Gin Joints, You Picked This One:
Yes, I shoehorned myself into the middle of the mob-scene of the tent in the Village. Yes, I found a patch of ground, laid down an old Mylar sheet, and invited another runner to share the space. Safe and dry till it was time to leave for the race, right? No, suddenly a torrent came down on the middle of our Mylar, and looking up, amongst the vastness of the canvas, was one hole – yes, one – that had been taped up, and that tape had just come loose and yes, it was right atop us. Go figger.

Rubber Ducky: I’d see my clubmate with her rubber ducky float down at mile twenty-three, but I missed my chance at the village. As a last-minute extra layer of pre-race warmth, I’d pulled an old terry bathrobe out of our basement heading-for-donation bin. Once ensconced in the tent and having removed my rain layers to expose this fashion, I took a walk over to get some snacks and suddenly realized how appropriate it was to be wearing a bathrobe while we were all taking a bath, so to speak. The crowd soaked it up (groan, pun intended). Oh, if I’d only had a bath brush or a rubber ducky.

Wrong Date?
Why does it seem every year that Saturday morning before the race turns into a delightful morning for a marathon? Happened again this year. The day after wasn’t bad, either.

Small World: I always love the variety of people at this global event. Sitting directly around me in the tent at the Village were people from Montreal, Paris, Monterrey Mexico, and Portugal. Closer to home, at the last port-o-john stop near the start, I asked the guy in line with me where he was from and he answered, “Binghamton, New York!” – my home town. My amusement at that multiplied when the guy behind him then said, “Me too!” Technically, the second guy was from about twenty miles away, but who’s counting. And no, they didn’t know each other.

Field Day for Bargains! I’ve never seen more stuff – and in this case, lots of good, expensive stuff – discarded on the course. As clothing soaked up more and more water, it was abandoned. The quantity of fancy running gloves was staggering. But the only thing I’d like to retrieve is the discount coupon promised by the marketing director of a major trail shoe manufacturer that I met on the bus to Hopkinton. Whoever you are, I know your brain was probably erased by the day’s experience, but if you read this…trail season is upon us!

07 April 2018

Time for a Nap

Well then. Four races in six weekends, with a solid, if not somewhat agonizing, twenty-one-plus-miler tossed in on the weekend between the last two, It brings to mind one of the few phrases I know in French: Je suis tres fatigué. I give no assurances that I spelled that correctly. Indeed, my French is so poor (read: close to non-existent) that I used to threaten to try to speak it to win arguments with an old college buddy. Faced with the prospect of hearing me butcher the tongue, he’d give in rapidly on almost anything.

But yeah, I’m a bit fatigué (fa-tee-gay), or tired (if you too don’t speak the unpronounceable or don’t care to pull up Google Translate). Part Four of the Race-Your-Way-To-Boston Training Plan is in the books. This last episode was a bit long – but we’ll get back to that later – and it wasn’t that great (though the number crunching hinted it wasn’t that bad, either). But it’s in the books, and Boston now looms a mere nine days away, and there’s not a damn thing I can do about it.

True to form for New England, the lead-up to Boston has been anything but comfortable. Just yesterday, well into April, my evening run was comfortable only due to a liberal piling on of heavy clothing, a lesson learned the previous evening when a howling wind turned our club run into what felt like the coldest outing all winter, even recalling the Groton Marathon at One Big Degree. I’d say it was me, but pretty much everyone was cursing from start to finish. So of course I expect the Boston forecast, currently on the damp side of the fifties, to turn evil and soar to the seventies or eighties by Patriots’ Day. That’s just how we roll, and there’s not a damn thing I can do about it.

The week leading up to this last racing episode was probably more exciting than the event itself, at least if you’re a nerd. Besides hitting a landmark birthday which wins me more time on my Boston qualifier (which already happened, since it applied to this year’s race), and besides crossing the anniversary of restarting this lifestyle, I hit an obscure milestone during that long run a couple of Sundays ago. The run wasn’t as smooth as I’d have liked for the last pre-Boston long one; one of my Squannacook buds came out seeking new scenery and a decent pace and I struggled to provide the latter. But about four miles in we had a solid Nerd Moment when I passed, cumulatively since starting up running again thirteen years ago (I don’t include the youthful days since my records are sketchy at best), one lap around the planet. Twenty-four thousand eight hundred and sixty miles. At least that’s if you measure over the poles. Since the Earth bulges slightly at the Equator (spinning will do that to you), it was another fourteen miles to that related milestone. Crossing both marks on the same twenty-one-plus miler conveniently eliminated the niggling question of which day to peg it to. Now I guess you could say I’m truly on the second lap.

But nerdly joy alone couldn’t get us up the simulated Heartbreak Hill I’d tossed in for Adam. I’d warned him that any run from my place pretty much had to end uphill, and Hosmer Street at mile twenty-one pretty much did us both in. Being a week off New Bedford and having struggled through most of the day’s slog (we’d later argue over who was killing who), I was burnt toast by the end, but save that one last race, the Boston training cycle was in the can.

Ah, that one last race. Being the rare Saturday event, it was a short week’s recovery after the long run, though I’m not sure a long week would have changed the outcome all that much. All I can tell you is that when I toed the line for the seventh time at the Frank Nealon Boston Tune-Up 15K, I wasn’t feeling like a spring chicken. But hey, the sun was shining, everyone who was anyone was there, and we were having a grand time chatting it up on the warm-ups, hanging around, and at the starting line – or well behind the starting line, since this was again a Grand Prix race; translate, every ringer in New England is in the house and you’d be a fool to line up in front.

It didn’t surprise me that they’d moved the start as I presumed they needed to accommodate the expected larger Grand Prix crowd. It did surprise me that they’d moved the start to a spot that seemed considerably farther away. And it surprised me more that they also moved the finish beyond the old one as well. Having logged a half dozen circuits on this course, I’d checked and rechecked and was convinced that their old course, which I believe was certified, was accurate. And a Grand Prix course sort of has to be accurate. So going farther on both ends didn’t add up, but, well, I’d have to deal with that later, it was time to go.

The best way I can describe a Grand Prix is that about a mile in, a mile that I covered at a stupid fast pace yet still had a veritable army in front of me anyway, a mini-gaggle of young studs from some unknown team passed by on the left. These were highly competitive smokin’ fast twenty-somethings and even they were exclaiming to each other, “Can you believe these Grand Prix race starts? Holy cow, look at all of ‘em up there!”

I look at these races as a source of inspiration for top performances, since you know there will always be plenty of people at and above your level. But on this day, inspiration wasn’t going to overcome the lead-up. Within a couple more miles, I was toast. Baked. That little pop-up thing they stick in the turkey had popped. Put a fork in him, he’s done.

Teammate Phil, whom I’d bested in our last two match-ups, caught up around two-and-a-half. I cranked it up to go with him for a half mile, but there was simply nothing in the tank. Fourth race in thirty-five days, six days since that planet-encircling ambulation, well, je suis tres fatigué. My mile splits settled back to ho-hum and I lowered my sights to a back-up time goal.

Long story short, even that didn’t happen. Each five kilometer stretched out worse than the last, and to add an insult, topping the last rise just after the eight mile mark, I cramped. Seriously? A lot of things – even weird things – happen, but I never cramp. But it was just that kind of day.

I actually didn’t look all that horrible in the finish photos, but let’s face it, by then, I’d dialed it down and dialed it in. No wow factor on this day, kids. Nothing to see, move along. Time to look forward to Boston.

The clock said “PW” – Personal Worst – and while it was certainly pretty low on the excellence in execution scale, I wasn’t quite sold that it was an the all-time bottom-scraper. There were, after all, those relocated start and finish lines. A quick casual measurement pegged the course as obviously long – not a big deal for a typical race, but surprising for a certified Grand Prix race course. Adjusted for the distance, it wasn’t quote a PW – some vindication – and subsequently applying the ‘Dude, you’re an old man’ age-grading tables, it really wasn’t that bad after all. But was I happy with it? Hey, look at the bright side, on a day like that, you don’t have to stick around to wait for the awards.

It did occur to me that these four races, Hyannis, Stu’s New Bedford, and the Boston Tune-Up, fell into a pace trend that, when plotted against the race distances (seven, nine, thirteen, and eighteen miles), actually made some sense. While not exactly aligned – New Bedford somewhat beating the trend, or Stu’s somewhat behind, depending on how you view it – one could construe that some extrapolation might give me a hint of where Boston might land. Since I don’t like to bore you with numbers (save the diameter of the Earth, which is hard to leave out), I’ll just say it was pretty much in line with what I sort of think I might kind of be able to maybe do. Perhaps.

So, readiness? Who knows. Stuff hurts, as it usually does, though I’d be a liar if I didn’t admit that stuff hurts more than usual. Seeing as I now qualify to move into most adults-only communities, I guess that’s not surprising. But I still refuse to deal with it. Indeed, I still feel like I’m waiting for my Adult Card to arrive in the mail any day now. A week out, the forecast for Boston is damp and cool with a tailwind. Two out of three (I could live without the damp) ain’t bad, I’ll hope it holds true. What I really need between now and then is to go easy this week, rest, or maybe just take a nap.

29 March 2018

Degrees of Difficulty

And he sticks the landing!

Yeah, I guess the simple swan dive is easy, at least if you’re a diver, as might be the basic gymnastic vault, if you’re a vaulter (or, I guess, if you’re talking about the landing, you’d be a devaulter, but I digress…). It’s when you add in the ‘elements’ that things get more difficult. In those sports, and probably others, they call them degrees of difficulty. We runners have our own version of degrees of difficulty, like the number of degrees on the thermometer, the degrees of tilt in the course (fancy verbiage for hills), and the degrees of the compass determining from where the wind howls. In Stage Three of the climb up the mountain of Boston prep racing, the New Bedford Half Marathon served up an interesting combination of those degrees.

But before we get into the pain and the pleasure of the race, let me pause first and say a few words about New Bedford. Yes, they’ve got the Whaling Museum and yes, the associated national park (seeing how the place is always windy, it’s no surprise they built a seaport there; people way back when may have lived in what we now see as a black and white era, but they weren’t dumb). And yes, I’m sure they have a few other gems that I’m not thinking of at the moment.

But New Bedford is not high on the list when you think of rockin’ places or economic wonders. It’s a struggling town, struggling economically as are all New England fishing towns, struggling with more than its share of addiction issues, and, well, just plain struggling. It’s no ritzy seacoast tourist town like Hyannis. It’s worth noting that I’ve had the pleasure of doing business with some superb people there recently, and after I’d penned the start of this paragraph, but while I was still pondering whether to make such a statement publicly, those New Bedfordites told me the same thing, unprompted. It’s no secret, it’s no insult, it just is.

But therein lies the beauty. When a couple thousand people descend on Hyannis for their annual midwinter race-fest, outside of the race itself, the town yawns. Half the town is empty, being summer homes sitting lonely in the winter, and the other half of the town is just plain used to visitors. So sure, we get some support in the streets, but it’s not a big deal. But when a couple thousand people descend on New Bedford for their annual running extravaganza, it is indeed a big deal. It’s an event. Or as Arlo once said, friends, it’s a movement.

New Bedford rolls out the red carpet. The local support is nothing short of phenomenal. I can’t think of another race outside of a big city marathon with more fans along the route – and not just friends of the runners, but local residents, making a big effort to get out there and make noise. The volunteers – it’s all volunteer, but you’d guessed that – are second to none in friendliness and enthusiasm. The cops on the road – paid cops, I’m sure – are more into this race than any other I know; seriously, these men and women voraciously cheer, and this is a Grand Prix race, which means I’m nowhere near the front of the pack by the time they see me, and they’re still into it. And there are stretches where even the bars – yes, on Sunday morning – seem to spill their patrons to add more rah to the rah-rah. Add in post-race chowder and what more could you ask for?

I hear you say, “How about some decent weather?” Well, yeah, there is that. Though by New Bedford standards, this year was actually quite lovely, though still challenging. Last year’s gale found me working with a local cop to try to re-right the road closure signs downtown. Last year’s gale had a buddy comment that if the wind had suddenly stopped during the waterside stretch through mile ten, we would have all fallen down, so intense was our lean. This year, by contrast, delivered brilliant sun and seemingly mild wind. Seemingly. It’s all a matter of degrees, remember?

Twenty-five degrees isn’t really that cold, when less than three months back I was racing at five, casually marathoning at one, and running in the negatives. But factor in that this is a decent-sized endeavor – north of two thousand runners – with someone complicated logistics: parking, race headquarters at the YMCA, and the start/finish are separated by a few blocks, making for a lot of forth & back. Then add in the tweak that they close off the start line twenty minutes early and force entry to the corral from the rear, so if you want to be anywhere near the line, you’ve got to be in the corral – read, no room to keep running to keep warm – early. Top it off with the fact that you’ve got to dress for hot and cold, depending on your direction versus the wind in any given mile. And again, as noted, this one is Grand Prix, part of the annual New England USA Track & Field team and individual championship scoring, so yeah, it matters to get it right.

Daring youth did this one in shorts and singlets. For me, the older I get, the colder I get, so even tights, a double shirt plus the racing singlet, and my haute couture contractor-grade trash bag atop that couldn’t stave off pre-race shivers and shakes. I wasn’t alone; in a telling scene, ten minutes before the race virtually nobody was near the starting line, since it was in the shade. A half-block back a gaggle of shivering runners huddled in the northernmost diagonal slice of sunlight peeking over the downtown edifices. The two young ladies who belted out pre-race anthems certainly had impressive pipes, but on days like this, one would have sufficed; I’d be perfectly happy if God Didn’t Bless America and the bombs simply burst in the air. Let’s just get moving and generate some heat!

Funny things go through your head when the gun goes off. A quarter mile in, while still surrounded by hordes of people who’d mostly kick my butt in short order, it occurred to me that in my pre-race dance, flitting between parking, the Y, warming up, stripping down, and of course the port-o-john, I’d never even looked at my shoe laces since dressing at home hours earlier. Typically I don’t don the lightweight racing shoes till I’ve reached the venue, so I know that I’ve tightened and tuned, but this time I’d fiddled and diddled with different shoes at home early that morning, seeking the one that would least agitate the large patch of missing skin behind my left heel, courtesy of a snowshoe outing in somewhat ill-fitting boots a week prior. Now, as we barreled north into what was proving to be more than a mild breeze, instead more of a face-freezing wheeze, crap, those shoes felt loose. It was kind of a, “Did I close the garage door when I left?” moment. There’d be nothing worse than losing a minute or two before we’d even hit the mile mark. Pray to the God of Friction and hope for the best…and yes, they held on.

Go to a race once and you’re experienced. Go to a race twice and you’ve got it down cold (in this case, pun intended). This being my third outing, it was my civic responsibility to pass on tribal knowledge, and I’ve coached a number of people, including the fast young lady who carpooled down with me, that the hills on this course aren’t severe. Two early on, when you’re fresh, and one at the end, long but not steep, a welcome chance to fire up different muscles for that last push to the finish, but nothing to worry about.

Wrong, and Wrong.

Wrong Number One: Yeah, there are three up front. Small sin, I know, but I should know better, and staring at number three, I knew I’d lied to her. I also knew she wouldn’t care, but to an OCD type, that’s a mark. And amidst those climbs, remember those degrees of difficulty? The opening stanza, heading north, is almost always into the wind, but as we curved to the west, I got the hint that the northeast wind I’m used to was in fact decidedly northwest. That doesn’t sound like much of a difference, but it would prove important in the final push. At this early stage, it just made those two, no, make it three early hills a bit tougher than planned. Yeah, but we’re fresh.

No worries. Miles four through seven brought southbound shelter, the wind seeming to vanish but actually gently padding us from behind, our skin no longer abased but instead warmed by the almost-spring sun, an utterly lovely stretch save the fact that there’s no rest, you can’t break the intensity. I pondered the absurdity that this crowd, myself included, considers a half marathon to be relatively short; by five miles in you’ve only got a mere eight to go, so you’re thinking borders along the lines of speed as opposed to survival. I had a little help on that count, having heard on the ride down that a clubmate had run a solid time in a half earlier that morning a few states to the south. While his time was utterly irrelevant to mine, I knew that our racing capabilities have been similar of late, so I put his pace into my head as a benchmark. Having lost a bit in those opening hills, the southbound stretch was the perfect opportunity to bank precious seconds against that meaningless but focusing goal, knowing that I’d need them in the gnarly bits to come.

Which leads us to Wrong Number Two: That last hill? Yeah, it is a big deal sometimes. Those ninety degrees from northeast to northwest meant that while mile ten, the usual gnarly bit heading north along the water, was windy as usual (though not nearly so ugly as last year), the respite that usually comes by passing through the floodgate (shown on a lovely summer day, courtesy of Mrs. Google) and back inland didn’t show up. Instead, the wind aligned itself straight through that floodgate portal, and straight at us as we steamed just west enough of north to turn that last ‘no big deal’ hill into a long, agonizing, extended gnarly bit.

Let’s just say that it was strong enough and cold enough that even wearing shades, my eyelids were frozen enough that a good hard blink at the wrong moment would have probably flung a frozen contact lens into the gutter. And let’s just say that in pictures from that climb, well, I pretty much look like hell frozen over.

But once you top this thing, it’s only a quarter mile, half of it downhill, let it fly, body parts flailing, wild abandon, and it’s done. My carpool companion carved out her best and took our local club record, which she proudly held for exactly seven days before it was taken back by her club rival. I set no records but closed it out more than respectably, nearly an age-graded best (because, let’s face it, real bests are probably long in my aging past), and had the pleasure of learning I’d notched the fifth scoring slot as our Central Mass seniors team ran away with the win in this year’s first Grand Prix team competition.

Meanwhile, my local clubbies keep me sane, or I drive them insane (the fun pose in this shot was my idea), or we meet somewhere in the middle while this bodily-abusing crazy climb to Boston nears its finale. One more push, one more tuning race to go, then on to the big dance to Boylston Street. The gods are actually calling for decent weather for the last of this four-race series. So, with fewer degrees of difficulty, can he stick the landing?