08 February 2019

A Tale of Two Cities

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…

I’d be lying if I told you I’d read the book, but everyone knows the opening lines. And it only takes a few seconds to Google the classic work and learn that the two cities in question were London and Paris, and that Dickens wrote of those places at a time of great disruption, that being the French Revolution, plus or minus a few years, and how conditions impacted the lives of those who made their way through those places and times.

I, on the other hand, am simply stealing his well-known title to make a point of how civic conditions, and I would posit the leadership decisions that brought them about, make a difference in the lives and experiences of both residents and visitors to, in this case, two cities, these being domestic and thus a little closer to home, but rivals in a sense not unlike London and Paris. And yes, you could say we are also living in a time of great disruption, since my transit to and from the second visit in this pair was anything but certain in the face of our governmental disfunction thanks to the antics of a certain highly despised authoritarian figurehead and his similarly highly despised tortoise-like legislative crony. But this is no place for politics. Even if it had to be said. And I’ll be happy to go on. But I won’t.

Austin and Dallas. A hipster town and the Big D. Texas rivals, of a sort, though I suspect that Austin sort of shrugs its shoulders at Dallas, while Dallas makes a big point of being that Big D. But I don’t judge a city on its size and might. Rather, I judge on livability, which for me, as you might guess often comes down to runability. If a town makes the effort to create places where you can get out and get some fresh air, it seems to me that that town is thinking in the right direction. And that town is a lot more pleasant to visit.

I used to travel to Texas regularly, but till a few weeks back it’d been quite a while since last I set foot in its broad expanses. I’ve now made two trips in the last two months, one to each of the aforementioned municipalities. I made the effort – as I almost always to – to get my runs in while in each of these venues. And how do they compare? Well, my verdict was easy to reach: Dallas wants to be known as the Big D, and I’ll agree; it earned its Big D, while Austin lived up to the irony that its name begins with an A, as it easily earned that grade.

If I was blessed with bazillions of readers I’m sure there would be denizens of Dallas who would protest. Fortunately, with my blog’s miniscule eyeball count, the likelihood of anyone from that locale reading this is low. But even if they see this, I’ll stick by my story, despite my assessment not being terribly thorough or scientific, or by any means above reproach on other dimensions.

First, let’s cover off all the holes in the logic of my judgement. On my trek to Dallas, I never made it more than five miles outside of the perimeter of Dallas-Ft. Worth Airport. Bedded down in Irving, literally in view of the vast open space that is DFW, and working in Coppell, I never made it into Dallas proper. Had I made it downtown, I’m told that Dallas does have a trail, albeit paved most of the way, known as the Katy Trail, that heads more or less from downtown out toward Southern Methodist University and the White Rock area. I’ve been to White Rock and it’s reasonably pleasant, with some walking paths around the lake and some interesting birds to notch on your life list, if you’ve got one. It even hosts Dallas’ marathon.

But nine times out of ten, when you go to Dallas, you don’t go downtown or anywhere near those places. In all of those trips to Dallas over all of those years (and there used to be lots, I’d say I’ve been there at least twenty times), I ended up staying downtown exactly once. Sadly, the typical Dallas excursion places you in the endless pave-the-next-county sprawl of places like Richardson and Plano, where everything is made of the exact same shade of beige concrete. Cut-and-paste society, a colleague of mine once called it as we travelled around looking for dinner one night. Everything pretty much repeats every three to five miles.

On my last trip, I tried striking out north from my hotel, away from the airport, into Coppell. In the span of a six mile loop I crossed two freeways twice, scrambled through massive intersections designed with no recognition that pedestrians exist, and alternated between the leg-crushing (beige) concrete and trying to run on the artificially-installed turf strips along the road that have a uniquely hard and lumpy surface that is entirely non-trail-like and nearly impossible to stride over. But that was where there were places to run. Dallas has no qualms about narrowing a four-lane arterial (and they’re all four, or six, or eight lane arterials) to two narrow lanes lined with barrels over a bridge and – of course – no pedestrian space. At times like that, I had to take my life into my hands, because I really didn’t know the area well enough to pull off an ad-lib detour. In calmer moments, it was still a drunken wander, since in many cases where sidewalks do exist, they were infected with the New Jersey Wandering Disease.

Huh? The New Jersey Wandering Disease? Yeah, so named because that’s where I encountered it first. It’s when suburban sprawl road designers think it’s cute to make the sidewalks squiggle all over creation because, after all, those sinuous bends look good on real estate brochures, and they figure nobody is going to walk on them, and if they did, they’ve got no place to go anyway. Hey folks, I’m going for a run, not to a theme park.

After that first disastrous outing, I headed the opposite direction for the next two mornings, where the sidewalk (which you have to use because that route was another four-lane shoulder-less arterial, even though it was brand new and there was barely a car on it) rose up a bank, became ten feet wide, and, you guessed it, went all New Jersey on me. I guess you need something to break the monotony when otherwise all you’d see is the massive mile-long wall built to shelter the residents of the latest McMansion development from that riff-raff of (horror!) the road. Oh yeah, did I mention it was beige?

Get me the hell out of Dodge, please.

But this past trip was to Austin. I’d been to Austin only once before, so many years ago that I don’t even think I was running then. Back then I went to Austin both on a history tour, as I was reading through Robert Caro’s brilliant biography series on Lyndon Johnson (which was intended to be a trilogy, but he’s now working on the fifth book – I like people who operate that way – and I highly recommend all of his work), and because I was so sick of going to Dallas that I needed something different. My recollection of that trip was good, but vague.

Cut to this past excursion, when I was camped in a “luxury” (read: overpriced) hotel downtown to be near the convention center since this was, in fact, for a convention. Downtown anything Midwest can be, like Dallas, a flat concrete jungle. But Austin is blessed with two things: first, a river that runs through it (or, since it’s dammed, they call it a lake), and second, and I’m guessing on this here because I know it takes positive action to make this happen, the civic leadership to espouse such a jewel and develop it for the betterment of the community.

Because of this, Austin doesn’t have the character of a concrete jungle. Now, I’m sure that when one goes away from the center city, there are concrete jungle zones. I certainly saw the size of their freeways heading from and to the airport. But I also saw on the maps that there are quite a few green spaces even away from the city center, and many of them appear to connect.

The part I do know about, after nearly a week ‘in country’, is the trail network around the Colorado River (a.k.a. Lady Bird Lake), and up Barton Creek past Barton Springs. Trails encircle the lake, extending five or six miles end-to-end, punctuated by dedicated pedestrian crossings, some glommed onto automotive bridges and one dedicated entirely to human-powered travelers (ignoring for the moment the ubiquitous electric scooters that litter the sidewalks and add a little sport to pedestrian navigation). These trails occasionally coincide with parallel streets’ sidewalks, but mostly traverse the riversides on dirt and gravel, often through shaded arbors, and in a couple of places on boardwalks (well, false flagstone walks) on bridges over edges of the river, er, I mean lake. By mixing up the bridge crossings, I was able to create a healthy combination of loops.

Then there’s the Barton Creek trail, which I explored on a run with a co-worker from Canada also in town for the conference. Extending southwest, this trail first leads up to the city’s swimmin’ hole, at which point you do have to hit some pavement to get around. But on our first foray we missed the spot where the trail heads away from the creek and found ourselves at an odd dead-end, staring at a dam, a concrete wall, and a fence. Before I had a chance to turn back to find our error, my daredevil companion had shinnied out on the pipe while clinging to the fence and swung himself around the wall onto the other side, which turned out to be the swimming area. I had no choice to follow, though my acrobatics were considerably slower and more cautiously executed. (Easing back into a run along the shore, we were duly chastised by the lifeguard about the ‘no running’ rule. Lifeguard? Swimmin’ hole? January? Right, southern Texas.)

Beyond there, the trail turns rough, rocky, and technical as it skirts small waterfalls, white water, and calm basins. It’s not exactly green, this being a fairly arid climate and it being January, but it feels green enough, and it’s just, well, lovely to be in this space within running distance of the skyscrapers of a major city. An eight mile out-and-back from the hotel got us well into this bit of quasi-wild canyon – which extends much further – which is at times rimmed with civilization atop its walls but is all rocks and trees and water down below.

And the people. These trails are full of people. This system is the life of the town. I spoke with numerous people who told me they’re out there every day. Runners, walkers, dog people, you name it. It’s healthy, it’s community, and it’s a damn fine cure for when you stay out way too late in Austin’s famed music scene. Yeah, I took one for the team, so to speak, and put in one of those ‘I don’t do this very often but yeah, that was awesome’ nights at Pete’s Piano Bar, soaking up the amazing raw talent of the musicians and slicing several serviceable years off my vocal chords despite trying to soothe them with copious amber fluids.
Oh, and there was that now infamous ‘wall of donuts’ at the convention closing party. Yeah, the trails are good for that, too. One last sunrise run before heading to the airport made even that fifteen-and-a-half-hour odyssey getting home entirely bearable.

Austin feels more Oregon than Texas. The river (er, lake) and its trails define it. The community forms around it. It sets a tone that extends well away from the river. And if I had a chance to select the location for a future meeting, it would draw me back.

It was the best of times.

19 January 2019

Double and Nothing

I’m at the age when things are supposed to start to slow down. Retirement (oh my, that word!) is within a ten-year window, hopefully sooner, and life’s priorities should be shifting toward enjoying things in the twenty-or-so years before bodily functions slow down (far more than they already appreciably have) to a point where some things become considerably impractical. So how come two months have passed since I’ve had the time to take a breath and pound out some storytelling? The busy level of late has been rather frenetic, but today I have a block of brilliantly uninterrupted time – since I’m not connected to the Internet – yes, airplane time. Clatter away, keys, clatter away.

To be fair, part of the issue is that there are fewer stories to tell. I’m racing less and spending more time managing a knee that almost certainly will never truly get better, and you, dear reader, get rather bored with prose about yesterday’s training run. But I haven’t been devoid of stories altogether, and yet still, my production schedule lags.

I missed altogether relating stories from this year’s instance of the Mill Cities Relay, but to be fair (again, do you see a pattern here?), there were fewer stories than usual from that soggy outing. Our team found itself separated at birth due to various participants’ weekend time conflicts, meaning we never were all in the same place at once, somewhat diminishing the team fun aspect of the day. The weather was ugly as it is wont to be in early December, and though the steady rain magically slowed a minute before the start of my opening leg, it paid me back after our third-leg man wanted to run a warm-down and I, nearly dry after playing team driver for the last two legs, foolishly agreed. The skies opened and we re-drenched ourselves, thus arriving waterlogged and shivering at the bash at the finish line, but still had a fine time. No brick (top placing teams at Mill Cities are awarded bricks – really), but that was to be expected.

Oh, and that opening leg I ran? Well, it rolled in faster than I expected, but considerably slower than last year. Which takes us back to that, ‘things are supposed to slow down’ bit. And they have. I vacillate between thinking I’ve gotten way slower (which I have) and that I’ll get whomped any time I show my face at any moderately competitive race, and alternately deeming I’m really not that out of it, scanning the race articles in the back of New England Runner and seeing that the senior division times are still often in line with my reality. I know I should just go ahead and race anyway, and to be fair, I’ve got four and a half future races already in the chute, so that will come. In the meanwhile, it’s fun to just kick back, enjoy the sport for what it is, and take part in some activities that don’t require speed, pain, and suffering.

Like running two marathons two days apart.

I haven’t told many of my non-running friends about this one. The few to whom I’ve mentioned it are certain I’m overdue for the looney bin. My running friends, on the other hand, know of goofy things like the seven-day, seven-continent, seven-marathon challenge, and see just doing two as relatively tame. Well, some of them, at least. Other of my buds often run ultras, where twenty-six miles is just the warm-up. For them I just said that I ran a fifty-two miler over a span of forty-nine hours. Even at the ‘go slow and survive forever’ pace of an ultra, that’s absurdly leisurely.

The end of the year offers an interesting opportunity for this kind of lark. The last Sunday of the year plays host to the Groton Marathon, a loose conglomeration of crazies from the Squannacook River Runners, where participants are welcome to run anywhere from a couple of miles to the whole banana. And New Year’s morning brings another tradition, the New Year’s Boston Marathon, where a different loose conglomeration of total loonies, goaded on from afar by the Maine’s somewhat legendary Gary Allen, gathers at six in the morning in Hopkinton on New Year’s Day – an hour when some have yet to go to bed from the previous night’s revelry – and proceeds to hoof it into Boston. Depending on the vagaries of the calendar, these two runs fall anywhere from a week to a day apart.

A few years back, I did the double, though that year granted the reprieve of a six-day separation between the two. Last year, on the other hand, the calendar decreed a back-to-back, Sunday-Monday combo. The allure of that stunt had me mentally booked in for weeks beforehand, but last winter’s deep freeze forced a level of sanity. Groton that year went off at one whole degree (that’s Fahrenheit, for my one likely Canadian reader), though under a warming sun. But the next morning called for minus four at oh-six-hundred, and with no sun to temper the chill for at least an hour, I flat out chickened out. So this year I’d have to settle for the two day span, Sunday and Tuesday, but I figured it still qualified for mildly wacko.

To those who insisted that one must be certifiable to even think about doing this, I could constantly explain that these weren’t really like running marathons but were instead more like running very casually for five miles or so, stopping for goodies and chit-chat, running another five till another stop, and so-on. Not what I think of as a marathon where I’m typically pushing from start to finish, only stopping if forced to do so, and utterly spent by the end. That explanation certainly didn’t work well for my non-running friends, and didn’t even work well for many of my running friends for whom a marathon is just that – a few miles, a break, a few miles… Yeah, I know. Just go with me on this; these weren’t killers.

Groton kicked off a big twenty-six degrees warmer than last year’s edition, with about twenty starters posing amidst the pile of cut trees and construction debris that kept us just short of our traditional start point (fear not, we doubled back a tad at the end to ensure the full distance!). That count would dwindle to nine who covered the full route – but that was a record by a factor of two for the now six-year-old event and included our first vision-impaired runner and our first female, who, in the spirit of Jock Semple, we offered to bowl off the course about six miles in (oddly, she declined).

The Squannies as usual provided terrific support with goodies at the stops (like this one at mile seventeen amidst the delightful sunshine), any and all needed logistics, and even companion runners for those flagging a bit. And of course, at the end they supplied their classic Sharpie-labelled Christmas ball ‘medals’ which in their bulbous form don’t easily fit on any medal rack (yes, after nearly fourteen years of racing, I finally got a medal rack – thanks, HCS Dave! – and instantly filled it beyond capacity with another equivalent collection to spare). We constantly goaded each other to slow down, stick together, save our energy though the first twenty miles before letting ourselves open it up a bit at that point. From twenty-three, my cranky knee was, like last year, insisting that I pick it up to reduce the stress that the slow pace seems to induce, but unlike last year, fortunately one other participant was of same mind, so when we dropped the hammer a bit and finished it, we were able to insist that we’d tied for second, since there really should be no winner of this event.

Monday, I rested. I’m crazy, but not entirely stupid. Besides, six in the morning is early.

New Year’s Eve wasn’t pretty if you were a Times Square or downtown Boston reveler. But the rains quit somewhere around five, and other than a few leftover spits, six arrived with wet roads but reasonably warm temps and a benevolent western zephyr that, while rarely actually felt, certainly must have offered a boost on our trek to the Back Bay.

Unlike Groton, this one isn’t really organized as a stick-together-group run – it’s show and go and figure out who’s there to run your pace on the fly. I vocalized my intended comfortable but faster than ambling pace, and two youngsters seemed to imply they’d be in that neighborhood, but when we set off at that raw hour (watch us goofballs go here), they were gone in a flash. I’d later learn they nearly broke three hours that morning. Instead I found myself in the company of two quite reasonably paced companions, one who intended only to run the first ten miles back to her home town of Natick, and another young lad who’d notched a few ultras but never a road marathon.

Call me a sap but I truly love the instant camaraderie that springs from being randomly coupled with a bunch of like-minded and like-paced runners. Though one of my companions lived a mere two towns away, I didn’t know her from a hole in the wall (though later, at the Natick Goodie Stop, an old runner friend would drive by, recognize me, tell me he knew her, and I’d realize we were only One Kevin Bacon Degree of Separation apart), and the other young lad was equally, if not moreso a stranger. No matter. By Ashland we were chatting it up and enjoying the ride.

Though this is a casual event, like Groton, there is enough organization behind it that our ‘race director’ for the day, Walter (of Mile10Connections), set up a full-fledged aid station in Natick, and later at the finish line. Amy left us in Natick, and Rob got a head start while I continued to jaw it up, so when I hit the road again, I had to add a little oomph to reel him back in so as to continue giving him the verbal tour of the course. After another aid station set up by his folks in Wellesley, I dragged him into the hills as he started to flag, his hips unhappy with the extended asphalt mileage.

By Boston College it was apparent he needed to tone it down, and it was apparent, thanks again to That Damn Knee, that I needed to turn it up. Knowing that his dad was leapfrogging to ensure his upkeep, I split off at the graveyard and, like at Groton two days earlier, turned on the jets. Beacon Street wasn’t exactly fast, but it felt fast, it felt strong, it felt downright fun to power past people on the street knowing they had no inkling where I’d started, and it felt seriously satisfying to confirm that at a marathon plus twenty miles into the next one, there was plenty of gas in the tanks to run this thing in for real. After all, a big reason for doing this was to convince myself yet again that marathons were still in my grasp if not merely in my blood, and that my joints, while possibly not thrilled at the prospect, were more than up to the task. And while neither of these would have re-qualified me for the next Boston Block Party, the running time (exclusive of those goodie stops) for each wasn’t far off the mark.

Best of all, the end turned into a bit of a party – just like Boston should be. Walter not only laid out a delightful spread (with help from a friend of his who owns and runs Pancho’s Taqueria in Dedham, who supplied fabulous homemade salsa, shameless plug!), but he being of the Boston EMS Heroes (yes, he was there on that fateful day in 2013) called out one of his on-duty squads who parked their unit at the finish line, lights flashing. Nothing beats cranking down Boylston Street – in (light but very much real) traffic – because, well, dammit, you’re finishing the Boston Marathon, and they can just go around you, and there’s an ambulance up there making it an event just to prove it. And just under forty-nine hours since we ambled away from the Groton Senior Center, I had two marathons – not the kind that count in my race list, but two marathons nonetheless – in my pocket.

At the finish I learned that the two youngsters had raced in and already left, but I hung for over an hour in the unbelievably warm fifty-degree-plus glory of New Year’s Day (consider that the weather was far better that on Monsoon Marathon Monday!), welcoming Rob and myriads of other runners who’d run various portions of the course (none that did the whole thing, at least that we met), including some I knew from previous adventures, before Walter graciously delivered me back to Hopkinton.

What a way to start the year!

So there’s the double part of the title of this episode, but what of the nothing? Usually it’s double or nothing, but in this case, it was double and nothing. After the double marathon and a few more days of easy runs, I had to admit that my body did complain a bit – mostly foot strain, toe bruises (almost all from the second marathon, guessing that my form was breaking down a bit in the late miles), foot cramps, and so on – and I was more or less forced to take a few days of nothing and lie low. The nothing part.

A small price to pay for some big smiles to remember some big miles.

22 November 2018


Dearest Spouse rightly corrected my mindset recently. Rarely do I put her on the spot like this, in public, for all to see, but I do so now because she was right. Not that that’s unusual, of course.

Yes, it’s been a rough stretch of late. After a local race in June, aches and pains made me shy away from the word race for a few months, and even coerced me to pull the medical assistance lever. We’ll come back to that later and explain the ghostly image, but for now, suffice to say it didn’t do a heck of a lot to improve things, so what else was there to do but jump back in the pond, at least with my little toe – just a tiny local five-K – back in September, and the result, to my viewing at least, was entirely…Meh. Then, a few weeks back, I dipped my whole leg in, biting off a half marathon, and…Meh. The following week, another small event, and…you guessed it, Meh. (I’ll pass entirely on this morning’s turkey trot, since the twelve-degree air and stiff winds combined to turn my feet into stride-less clomping bricks, so I consider that disaster to be an outlier – at least, I hope.)

Hearing my responses to those races, Dearest Spouse finally laid in and laid it out: You finished third on Saturday (well, a couple of Saturdays ago, as usual it’s taken me a while to get this out the door). You finished second in your age group in the half marathon the week before. And though unspoken, she clearly communicated: You’re more than halfway through the fifties on your way to that next big one. Just stop complaining. You’re still doing fine.

It’s hard to swallow that when I’ve watched my five-K time balloon nearly a minute since spring. It’s hard to accept that when my half marathon just grew by six minutes, and that was on a hilly, but also largely downhill course, and one that was short at that. It’s just plain tough to believe that when just about every run goes through what I now refer to as Phases One, Two, and Three, those being, the knee hurts sharply up front, I get a few miles of bliss, then the deep ache sets in. And it seems entirely untrue when my training pace is nowhere near where it used to be. But DS is right. Even the post-half-marathon little ‘ol five-K still clicked in at a respectable age-graded rating, despite the fact that the time, to me, was, well, that word again: Meh.

Positivity. It’s my job. I have to look at this the right way.

My New York City running buddy, the Brooklyn Barrister, tossed one of my recent moans about aches and pains (with a whiff of fatalism) right back at me with a response that, frankly, inspired me: “Gary, say it ain’t so! You’re the guy I point to when people ask me if I still expect to be doing this in 5, 10, 15 yrs. I say hell yes, this guy Gary ran a better time than me at Boston and he’s got 10 years on me. I feel like you’ve been through so much and it’s only the number (your age) that’s making you think differently about this one.”

And he, just like Dearest Spouse, was entirely right. It is indeed only the number that has me thinking differently about this round. It’s hard not to wonder if this knee thing is the start of those curtains descending. But he’s right, this is just another round.

I didn’t take his comments as a pat on the back. I took them as a reminder that running has multiple purposes. One is to keep me healthy, and though the skeleton isn’t entirely whole at the moment, the heart, lungs, and other random parts – notably my sanity – still benefit from this crazy hobby. Another is to have fun; above and beyond the sanity part, I still love being out there, leaving it behind, time to think, time to not think, time to spin wild yarns in my head, and of course, time with my running buds, some of the best running time of all. But speaking of those running buds, we gather together precisely because we motivate each other, and that same force emanates from all of us to encourages others to join in. We’re on display across our communities. We are engines of positivity.

So yeah, I can moan about the minuses, or I can find and glow in the positives.

It’s true that I only ran two of the New England (USA Track & Field) Grand Prix races this year, and that the second one was pretty much a tragedy. But in the first one, I managed to eke out the fifth man slot for our team, and our team won the senior division for the year’s series, so yeah, I had a very (very) tiny little part in that. (Granted, had I not been there, our sixth man would have been adequate for us to have still won, so it was indeed a very tiny part…hush, we’re being positive here). Positive: I still managed to contribute to the wining Grand Prix team.

It’s true that my training through the summer and fall has been pretty much horrendous, with my mileage cut in half and my racing fitness eroding steadily. But all that time not running offered up the possibility of alternate adventures like hiking Baxter (previous post) and subsequent to that, topping out Old Speck with Dearest Spouse to complete that New England Sixty-Seven list. And though my marathon might have slowed, that running fitness gets me up mountains at a pretty decent clip. Positive: A life goal achieved, a new patch for my pack, and even a chance to overcome my fear of ladders and heights by ascending the fire tower up top (took two tries, mind you).

It’s true that I sagged low enough to pull the medical lever. The pain and weakness in the left knee and leg drove me into the hands of a new Dr. Bone Doctor (we’ll call him Dr. Bone Doctor III). It’s true that his assessment was stark: “You’ve got issues here.” The cartilage under my kneecap, he reported, is roughed up pretty well, and no, scoping and scraping wouldn’t really help. But he was mildly comforting in his insistence that this wasn’t caused by my running but rather by some possibly even unnoticed alternate injury. He was clear, knees issues arise from lateral stress, not compressive. Positive: OK, so at least I didn’t really do this to myself intentionally. Oh, and he says I have great hips. (Hip hip, hooray.)

And it’s also true that his efforts, and subsequently the efforts of my latest Physical Terrorist, have yet to truly cure anything (though wishful thinking never fails to twist one’s perception of pain). But a couple of rounds of medical imaging (which long-time readers know I truly dig), including a bone scan where billions of Technetium 99 atoms jumped to their death for my benefit, have at least eased my mind by proving that while yes, there are bright spots in my knees (but like golf, it’s backwards here, bright spots are trouble spots are bad), no, I am not running on a broken leg (which sounds absurd, but the feeling on that side had me seriously considering a stress fracture in the femur – not so, pleased to know). And thanks to an overachiever in the
nuclear medicine department, who figured that if that stuff was floating through my whole body that he might as well run the camera (really, a glorified Geiger counter) over my whole body. Result: Not only the first and only true picture I’ve ever seen of all of me, but also proof that my head is quite empty – that first ghostly image of this tale. Positive: Things may hurt, but I’m not broken beyond function and am cleared to run on. And another Positive: Any physical therapy is good cross training, so soak it up.

Further, I’ve got one more lifetime story to tell about having had Dr. Bone Doctor III inject 10W-40, or more precisely, an extract of a rooster (really) known as Synvisc into my knee to try to smooth its crunchy ride. It didn’t work, but it was worth the try, and adding that to the horse that Dr. Foot Doctor sewed into my foot ten years ago, I can now claim greater coverage of my Barnyard Bingo card. Positive: Any amusing story is positive, right? Even if it involves needles.

And finally, it’s true that those races I mentioned came down on the Meh side from my perspective, but for anyone outside of the Grand Prix set, they were respectable outings. In the first one, given no speed workouts all summer and a three-month-plus gap since last racing, I still managed a consistent effort, a respectable age-graded time, third overall, and a Slightly Fossilized Division win (if against a small local field). In the third one, though slower than the first, the outcome was the same, and that time on tired legs having run the second, a half marathon coupled with an introductory mile, only six days prior. Positive: An old guy can still finish well in a race.

That second race, sandwiched between the two five-Ks, was the Red Baron Half Marathon in Corning, New York, which popped up as a family event since Darling Offspring the Younger wanted to run a half, and her college-town Syracuse Half was, in my view, overpriced. For half the coin – what a deal! – the Red Baron offered up a visit with Sis (who lives in Corning) as a bonus, and as it would turn out, ideal weather – a rarity for Upstate New York in the late fall – with spectacular foliage to boot. And for an extra five bucks, they threw in a pre-half mile race – the “Smile Mile” – and a bit more swag.

This was not a target race since I had no fall target race. If anything, for a Fall Feat I’d considered opting for the Incredibly Stupid and jumping into the Baystate Marathon on no training – in pure survival mode – just to snag a Boston 2020 bid rather than roll the dice in April. But a test-the-waters fifteen miler that was less than confidence-inspiring and some rather incredulous scolding from my PT ended that idea. Then along came the Red Baron and a chance to see if I could still race at least the half marathon distance without the knee falling apart and the leg descending into agonizing aches. Still no real training, but not Incredibly Stupid.

Then why toss in the mile beforehand? I guess that amidst all of my bemoaning of what condition my condition is in, the theme of this post still lives inside: Positivity. It’s just a mile, I said. I’m not going to kill it. It’s a warm-up. To me, perfectly logical. To others, a bit crazy. But still, a message of positivity: Don’t think of these things as undoable.

I had nothing to achieve in that mile (really one-point-oh-four, but who’s counting) other than to not embarrass myself and to get loose enough so that mile one of the half would seem casual. Our lead pack of four sauntered off the line to circumambulate the campus of Corning Community College, perched in the uplands, seven hundred feet above the river valley where the half would end. Half way around, I let the two young ‘uns go and focused on holding off the only one who looked (and was) about as ancient as I, which resulted in yet another third-place finish and division win, bringing with it the oddest and perhaps cutest little glass medal I’ve seen (look closely, there’s a smile in there), on little effort. Later, when I faded a mile short of the finish of the half, proponents of simple math would claim it was because I’d raced a mile beforehand. I non-concur, running math just doesn’t work that way.

To my mind, the strategy worked. An hour later (or fifty-four minutes, really), the half kicked off, and mile one – a repeat circuit of the campus – did indeed feel casual. But the mildly ancient-looking one I’d held off in the mile pulled away from me as we pulled away from the school, and it looked like the age group would elude me right from the start. In the end, it did – I’d have to settle for second in the division – but not thanks to him. I took him back by mile three, but by then another fossilized specimen had already gone by to do the drubbing.

This was not an easy half. Once off campus, the next seven miles rocked and rolled, culminating in a killer climb at mile eight. After that, those seven hundred feet to the river valley (actually more by then, thanks to the climb) spilled out in just two or three miles, sometimes at a rate that required serious work just to fight gravity. It would’ve been interesting to know just how quickly some of those miles clicked by, but unfortunately the weak point of this event was measurement: the splits were wildly inaccurate (and old-school here doesn’t carry GPS), and the course seemed to land about a tenth of a mile short, adding a mild slap to having already clocked in six minutes slower than New Bedford back in March. Still, a top ten percent finish, second in the age group, and decent age-grading – on no focused training – well, not too ugly. And that knee held up surprisingly well. So, let’s say it again: Positive: It’s not all gone. The old guy can jump in a half not embarrass himself.

Oh, and a bonus: Darling Offspring ran the whole thing non-stop – a first for her. Huzzah.

So yeah, a lot of positives. Dearest Spouse – who, by the way, works out at least five times a week herself – reminded me with her comments that I need to take seriously the mission of staying positive. For me that means not only accepting that I’m still kicking, but letting those around me – running friends, work colleagues, family, whoever – see that they don’t have to give up either. Positivity isn’t always easy to pick out from the debris of life, but it’s our job to find it.

Well, That’s Interesting Tidbits Department: It’s been a few months since the last post, so here’s an oddity worth a snicker. A funny thing happened while I wasn’t racing: I appeared in the paper in a race. The local fish wrapper ran an article on a local race with a fine photo of me dashing off the line. Only problem: I wasn’t there. Old picture. So much for fact-checking.

And speaking of a snicker, there’s that Snickers ad on TV that makes me laugh even though I’ve seen it a zillion times. Concerned doctors sit around the patient, who, it seems, has had the doctor’s cell phone left inside his abdomen in surgery. The phone then proceeds to reply to the doctors’ conversation. Well, I walked into Dr. Bone Doctor’s exam room, thinking my phone was off, and mine did the same thing. “Gee, I said, every time I come here I’m led into the same room. It’s like you only have one.” “No,” the nurse replied, motioning down the hall, “We have those three.” And my phone blurted out, “Those Three,” and started describing some movie I’d never heard of. OK, you had to be there. But it was funny. Really.

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.