24 October 2008

Sometimes You Just Know

When last I wrote, I was in limbo. I wanted answers. I knew I probably wouldn’t like the answer. Well, I got the answer. And I don’t like it, though it is exactly what I expected. And the cure is also exactly what I expected. Would I rather go back to Limbo Land, not know, and have a hope that it wouldn’t be as it is? Nope. In life we must move onward, absorb our hit points, and plan for the next day.

Many years back I lost a dear relative (well, technically first cousin once-removed, but that’s just the family historian in me talking…) to colon cancer. To us on the outside, the time between its onset and her demise seemed amazingly fast. But her husband commented later that he was pretty sure she knew something was wrong. Sometimes you just know.

When something goes twang and subsequently a part of you doesn’t work, you pretty much just know. My foot went twang just after the start of the Wineglass Marathon, and my toe no longer works. Sometimes you just know.

Dr. Foot Doctor (who’s wife, by the way, is running the Marine Corps Marathon in DC this weekend, good luck Mrs. Foot Doctor!) initially centered on arthritic build-up to explain why my toe wasn’t working real well earlier this summer. He may not have been entirely wrong, but it didn’t seem entirely right, either. But the anti-inflammatory meds worked to a reasonable extent, and onward we pressed.

After the twang, so to speak, I suggested a tendon tear, but he was skeptical, since such injuries usually result in the big toe sticking up like a bad joke from an ED commercial – yes, for more than four hours straight. Mine didn’t. So a tendon tear didn’t make sense. But neither did any other rational explanation. Irrational explanations (alien activity, chemicals in the water, economic stress…) we pretty much did rule out. Off I went to the MRI machine, where, after you argue with them, your insurance company pays most of the cost of your 30 minute nap in a very loud machine.

Through the joys of digital radiology, I ended up with a CD of my MRI. Yes, the doctor can access it online, but they give you one just in case. And this makes for hours of fun. Other than the really obvious stuff, I really have no idea what’s in these images (like the one included here of the tendons on the bottom of my foot – I think), but they’re awfully cool. I’m not a doctor, nor do I play one on TV, so I waited for the official review.

The call came tonight. The MRI has been read, analyzed, and marked up with circles, arrows, and paragraphs on the back of each one to be used as evidence. And guess what? Just as I thought, I’ve torn a tendon, the great toe flexor tendon which runs along the bottom of the foot and pulls the toe downward. The tear is right where I envisioned it based on the Wineglass Twang – about an inch behind the ball of the foot – it may in fact be in this image – I really can’t be sure. But it’s not quite how I envisioned it. Instead of the tear you’d tend to imagine, where you see that little stringy bugger snapped in two, it’s a linear tear – the long way, more or less – which makes the tendon so weak that it doesn’t pull the toe down, but it’s not severed. So my foot can indeed be featured on a commercial in the World Series (not that anyone is watching it) without you lunging for the remote control because the kids are in the room.

Early next week I’ll meet with the good doctor to choose Door #1 or Door #2. Behind Door #1 is 4-6 weeks of immobilization in a cast, hoping that it heals, which it should. “Should” is a little tenuous, though. “Might” would likely be a better word. Behind Door #2 is, you guessed it, we slice ‘em, we dice ‘em, we sew ‘em back up. Surgery. Not big-time surgery, just a fairly simple procedure, but surgery none the less. The really weird part though, is that the sewing ‘em back up includes the use of ‘equine tendon’, as he put it. Yeah, as in horse. Strong as a horse. Horsepower. The joke possibilities are endless. This, too is followed by 4-6 weeks of recovery, but the “Might heal” of Door #1 gets upgraded significantly, and turns into, well, strong as a horse. But Door #2 might also come with scar tissue on an inconvenient spot on the foot of a runner. Hmmm, decisions.

Behind Door #3, by the way, is a goat. If you don’t get that joke, you’re not old enough.

Now, ironically, Chris Russell commented on one of my posts a while back (see “Goals - A Race Tale, and Getting Way Too Deep”), “You need a good injury to set your head straight. 6 months in a cast would be perfect.” OK, Chris, I won’t lay this on you, and it won’t be 6 months, but you win.

Funny thing is, I’m OK with this. I’m even leaning toward the more radical solution of surgery. I’d rather take the aggressive approach and know it’s fixed. A month or two off won’t kill me. I’m just ready to leave Limbo.

21 October 2008

Running Limbo

Living in limbo stinks. We all want resolution, no matter what the issue. Usually we’d rather have any resolution, even one that’s not optimal, rather than the nothingness of not knowing. Of course, once we get a resolution that spells bad news, we change our tune and say that it was better when at least we’d had hope. Such is the twisted logic of the mind.

The intensity of the memories of the Wineglass Tragedy is fading. For a couple days afterward, I relived the fall – a little post-traumatic stress if you will – I’ll leave off the ‘disorder’ part since it has indeed faded. I certainly questioned my judgment on pushing so hard to the finish. I had to come to grips with the whole thing.

In doing so, some things that weren’t at all clear then became more so with time. I hadn’t thought I’d passed out, but now I’m quite certain that I lost 15-20 seconds of my life between hitting the ground and entering the med tent – being walked in by people who I have no recollection of being picked up by (whoever you were, thank you!). I’m also pretty sure that something is busted in my nose. It’s still sore, bruised, and there’s a bump where one shouldn’t be. Alas, you can’t put a cast on your head, so what can you do but let it heal? And a sore nose doesn’t stop you from running.

But there’s that toe thing. The non-functional toe didn’t come from the fall, though obtusely it may have contributed to it by screwing up my stride and making me work harder. But whatever the proximate cause, the lingering reality is that it doesn’t work. And when your big toe doesn’t work – in this case, I can lift it but can’t push it down – it certainly does affect your running. I can run, and even run at a decent clip, but probably not for too long, since the second toe is called upon to do unnatural things that it just wasn’t designed to do (and as a result it is black, bruised, and certainly not beautiful at the moment). Without the ability to push off, well, it’s just not right, I tell you.

And it’s been two weeks. I’m going a little stir crazy not knowing the prognosis. I’m in running limbo.

If I run, am I doing any further damage? Dead is dead, right? You can’t get any more dead, just like you can’t get a little bit pregnant. Mr. Toe doesn’t work now, he doesn’t seem to be changing, so what’s the harm? I don’t like not running.

Or would Mr. Toe recover if I didn’t run? But how long would I have to not run to find out? And what if that theory is wrong? Then what’s the point of not running?

I’ve been doing what any normal person would do. Cheating the edge. Running a little. Which doesn’t satisfy either scenario, really.

Dr. Foot Doctor didn’t seem overly concerned, but perhaps he’s just an overly confident guy. He prescribed an MRI last Monday and said after seeing it we’d work a plan to fix the problem, resting if needed, or training right through it. Training right through it – I like the way he thinks. And he didn’t specifically say to stop running, though neither did he specifically say to keep running. But do the MRI.

Limbo… Should I run? I want to run. What if I’m hurting it? Should I be registering for Boston? I want to register for Boston. What if I won’t be running Boston (yes, I know you can defer, don’t let facts get in the way of a good blog now…)? Limbo… I can’t stand to wait.

But first, the insurance company has to pre-approve the MRI. And so while I want to run, and more importantly, I want to know if I should run, I must wait, because this is America and our health care system is massively screwed up. Why don’t they trust the doctor? I do, he’s the expert, he says we need to see what’s going on with an MRI, it makes sense, I believe him. This is not a rocket science decision. How else are you going to figure out what’s going on in there when we already know the x-ray back in July showed nothing? In my book, an insurance company should police for abuse. One MRI, when they already have a claim for an x-ray a couple months back, is not abuse. But they insist on the instant second guess. I’m not sure that nationalized medicine would help this – I might not be able to get an MRI at all – but something has to change, and change big time.

Days pass. Limbo. I want to run.

By Thursday I call the doctor and they have seen no response. By Friday, I’m antsy – did I say I want to run? I call the insurance company and, you guess it, they denied the MRI. And they sent their decision to me via – get this – snail mail. And of course they won’t tell me why. And of course, it’s late in the day, the doctor’s office is closed, I have to wait till Monday.

Limbo… The whole weekend? Should I run? I want to run.

I run anyway. Not a lot, but I run. Cheat the edge. I hope I’m not making it worse.

Monday comes, many phone calls, an in the end, the system sorta’ kinda’ maybe works. I’m in for the MRI for Tuesday morning. I’ve got my fingers crossed, because I can’t cross my toes – at least not on the right foot. But I’m still in limbo.

13 October 2008

A Guy Called Scab.

It’s been an interesting week. The human body is an amazing device in its capability to repair damage. And the human psyche is even more interesting. Watching how people react to situations out of their ordinary envelope makes for interesting study.

When the smoke cleared, the damage roster included two scraped knees, a couple lacerations and small abrasions on the hands, and of course the face. The face was a work of art, with nasty wounds on the forehead, chin, nose, upper lip (including the loose tooth), and next to the eye – the latter of which would also bloom into a fine shiner by Monday. Then there was the foot and toe malfunction, which only became apparent the following day when all the other excitement wore off. The immediate damage in the photo from the med tent was red and alarming, but the real joy didn’t appear until a day later, when all of these beauty marks had some time to bloom to their full potential. How did that song go? Bloom and swell, forever…

To wrap up this exhausting week of travel, I learned I’d been slotted in a training class for the week and would have the joy of spending ten hours per day being force-fed techno-babble. Ironically, this proved to make the week a little easier by reducing the number of people I had to face with that face.

I think it was the black eye that did it best. When people see you beat up, they instantly wonder if indeed, you got beat up. Which, of course, I did, but not the way they think. And of course, they’re afraid to ask. But you know they want to know, and you’d like to tell them so they stop thinking you’re a victim of domestic abuse or some freak encounter with a falling air conditioning unit. One of my running club buds put it well, when he stated, “and I don't think Ann can continuously chime ‘It wasn't me’ or ‘Don't look at me’, so you will have to fess up when people look at you, then her, and just shake their heads thinking ‘that's so sad’…” Ann, of course, being not only my lovely wife, but an avowed pacifist...

My line became, “I got in a fight with a brick walkway,” which worked pretty well to break the ice. Being trapped in the same room with twenty other people for the week meant only having to tell the story once during the “Let’s all get to know each other” phase of the class, which invariably toasts a good hour of the start of all these sessions. I must admit some dismay that not one of them asked what my time was in the marathon. Bunch of exercise-challenged techno-geeks, all of ‘em!

Then came the hard part – showing off my new appearance to people who actually knew me. Tuesday night was band practice for our church folk group. I softened the blow with a warning email. They rewarded me with a new nickname. I’m now the guy called Scab. Not to fear that this would be a short-term moniker of affection, the name still stuck on Sunday even after most of the scabs no longer did. I love these people!

By the next day I’d fallen into the role and for the first time completely forgot that I looked like Human Sandpaper. It took me a while to figure out why that store clerk was staring. How quickly we forget…

But the amazing part of this story is the resiliency of the human body. By the end of the week, when I was released from my techno-geek prison, I was almost suitable for public display. And by Sunday – a week after the First Great Collapse of October 2008 (hey, I beat the Dow Jones by a couple of days, mind you), those hard-working cells had rearranged and re-grown themselves to pretty close to normal. Not completely, of course. The shiner still shines a bit, and there’s a funny bump on my nose that I sure hope isn’t bone, but all in all, well, as I said, the human body is amazing. The pictures tell the story.

Which leaves the unfinished business of the toe, a topic that many of you in my vast and caring (well, at least caring) readership have asked about. At present, it just sort of doesn’t do much. It goes up, but not really down. You really don’t appreciate your big toe until it doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do. As a result of its absenteeism, toe #2 took a mighty beating at Wineglass, and of course turned a lovely shade of purple. Yeah, I know, yum! I put in a couple of miles on Wednesday, and a 7-miler on Friday, and it just wasn’t right. Without that big toe, all else is afoul. I truly feared that the twang at the start of Wineglass had been the snap of a tendon. Ugly.

Thus today I trundled back to my running-friendly podiatrist who’s staff again slotted me for an instant visit despite his two-month booking backlog. I guess they know I’m a bit impatient. Again, his prognosis was far less dire than I’d feared. No, it’s highly doubtful that I snapped the tendon, or, he tells me, my toe would be rocketing vertical. Might be more of the arthritis, perhaps indeed some lesser tendon action, or a cartilage spur, but none too dire. He spoke of making a plan to keep running, not of hanging up the shoes.


Well, at least a partial Whew! Next step is off to the Big Humming MRI Machine on the Hill, and he’ll figure out what’s really going on. Which, in the big scheme, is what we’re all trying to do in life anyway. This is best summed up by a non-running friend of mine who wrote, “Nice job (your time, not your face). As for the karma of it all? You are a runner, these things happen. At the end, you were tired, you relaxed, and then you fell on your face. Literally. BUT you didn't die, you’re not in the hospital, and you will run again. So go drink some wine, relax, rest up, and start planning for next year.”


10 October 2008

Paying the Price at Wineglass

This entry is longer than usual due to the exceptional events of the day.

The scabs are starting to come off. But there’s other damage, both physical and emotional. On the results page, my run of the 27th annual Wineglass Marathon from Bath to Corning NY looks like a smashing success. I clocked my second 2:54 marathon, a mere 4 seconds off my PR. I won my age group. I even almost won some cash. But smashing was the word of the day.

To steal a favorite phrase from a co-worker, let’s cut to the car crash. I went down at the finish. Hard. Face plant on the bricks. Yes, for real, my face served as the shock absorber. Very little damage to the hands and knees. And yes, they were bricks. Tripped? Yes, I think so. Collapsed? You could say that. I had nothing left to catch myself. And despite shouting, “Catch me!” as I went down, physics intervened and denied the best efforts of the finish line staff. Gravity won. My face is a mess.

But that’s probably not the worst of it. A few days later, my face is healing rapidly. The loose tooth is tightening up with an all-clear diagnosis from dentist Dr. Bruce. But the day after the race it became apparent that my already troublesome big toe has morphed to a nearly non-functional big toe. That’s a major problem. And my psyche is really beat up. I’m questioning myself repeatedly: simple accident, or stupidity? Such feelings of doubt haven’t been helped by the apparent demise of the global economy. It’s enough to make anyone feel bleak.

How did we get here? Let’s go back to the start of this odyssey.

I’m always amazed at the logistics of preparing for a marathon, especially when you’re away from home. The amount of crap I packed for this trip, which began nearly a week earlier and included travel to Ohio for a family funeral, was simply astounding. When leaving a week early and trying to pack for every weather possibility and every other contingency, well, you can imagine. I spent Saturday evening sorting, strategizing, and of course, mixing rocket fuel. What clothing would be sacrificed? What would be enough to keep warm? As it turned out, there was far more indoor space at the starting location than the race organizers had let on to, and morning warmth wasn’t a big issue.

This being marathon #8, my routine for these things is established. The dreaded 4 AM alarm, my least favorite part of these events. The pre-warm-up at home, a brief jog up and down the street before departing to shake things loose, this time being at my sister’s home where there are no street lights and it’s really dark! Then grab all that pre-staged stuff, out the door, off to Corning to grab the bus to the start in Bath. Mild fretting over when to dump the warm clothing on the baggage truck. Then the real warm-up, a quick mile, feeling good. All is well.

By 8 AM, it’s warmer than expected, around 40° with only the slightest almost imperceptible breeze, so we’re not freezing. The sun is up but completely obscured by fog. That fog will break for about 10 minutes as we pass through the village of Bath, then blanket us again all the way until mile 20, keeping conditions cool and ideal and significantly minimizing fluid loss and replenishment requirements. In short, it’s a perfect day for a marathon.

But barely 100 yards out of the gate something goes twang in the front of my right foot. There’s a moment of discomfort, then all’s well. This is both odd and concerning, since I’ve had trouble with this big toe and foot, but I’m old enough to know that things do this now and then. It’s not hurting and doesn’t appear to be hampering operations, so I move on.

While the past two Wineglasses have sported relatively weak fields, the early reports were that this year’s would be stronger. To nobody’s surprise, a few speedsters quickly open up a big lead. By about a mile and a half we’ve formed a chase pack of about six – a chase pack in name only because none of us are deluded enough to think we’ll actually chase the guys up front. It’s an amiable group, and we’re really enjoying our tour of Bath together.

Departing Bath we encounter the first of the two stretches in the course that could be considered hills. This one is about a half mile of gentle rise. I’m a hiller, and I’m cruising, and our amiable pack breaks up. At the top, it’s me and a guy named Jim. We’ll each endure very different trials over the next 21 miles, and finish a mere 7 seconds apart. But for now, we’re on autopilot. Our splits are absurd, but with the ideal conditions, I’m not concerned. My plan was to go out fast on this flat, forgiving course, and see what was in the tank.

In Savona at mile 9, the local newspaper gets a nice snapshot of us. Sis is there to cheer me on; later I’ll learn we were moving so fast that she missed us in Bath. In the first known tragedy of the day, a passing car flattens the empty bottle I toss to her before she can reach it. A crushing omen, but I was unaware. Just out of Savona, Jim pulls up for a pit stop. He’ll catch me, then have to do it again, then catch me again. I feel for him. That, uh, issue can’t be fun.

I’m through 10 at 6:21 pace. My target was 6:30. I’m not sure if I’m worried. Mile 11 clocks in at 6:39. I’m worried. But mile 12 flies by in 6:17. I’m not. At the half, I’m on 2:47 pace. I’m worried again. I wanted to go out fast. Not that fast.

At 14 I realize that the twang in my foot wasn’t harmless. My foot is cramping oddly. I won’t realize it till the day after, but something has apparently happened to the tendon that pushes my big toe down so that it’s not pushing. My second toe is carrying way too much load, and it’s suddenly decided to take up the picket line and protest. I work to flex it out, and the beat goes on. I’m over the other “hill” in the course at 14.5, and clocking steady 6:30s till 18.

Then it gets ugly fast. Sis is at Coopers Plain at 18.5, and I already know it’s going to be a tough morning. Though I don’t look too bad when she snaps a picture from the moving car at 20, this is reminding me of my first Buffalo in ’07, when I watched the big PR slip away, but still captured a painful yet small PR. I slow to the high 6’s, and hold sub-7 pace through 22. I’m doing the mental math. That low 2:50-something is slipping away, but I still have a PR in sight, my best being a 2:54:09 in my second Buffalo earlier this year. Mile 23 hurts. Mile 24 is misery. Just into 25 I start to feel a bit unstable.

It’s around this point that I lean on my faith and remind myself that my suffering is nothing. I’m not certain that did me a positive service. In hindsight, the prudent act at this point would have been to take a break, walk a stretch, and be happy with a 2-colon-anything. But there’s only two to go, and a PR is still quite realistic, at least mathematically. Surely I can gut out two miles!

And I do. But it’s ugly. Really ugly. Jim has caught me again after his latest pit stop, and is only 20-30 yards up. I’m thinking I’m hanging in there OK since he’s not pulling away. More than likely he’s just doing the minimum needed to stay up on me. Smart dude. Miles 25 and 26 slip to the 7:30s, and the PR is slipping away, but it’s not gone yet.

At 26, sis is waiting on the approach to the pedestrian bridge – the home stretch! I’m in such agony that I shout to her not to take any pictures. I had imagined hitting this point and, being a hill guy, putting on a burst to take someone at the end.

Surely, you jest.

I’m on the bridge. I’m staggering, but I’m going to make it. I might still eek out the PR. The line…

Now, the funny thing, if this could be considered funny, is that the day before, when we’d checked out the course, we’d noted how the finish was on a slight down slope coming off the bridge, and how the actual line was the seam between the macadam on the bridge and the bricks of the walkway in Riverside Park. My sister had commented that someone could trip over that.

She’s a pretty smart observer of potential risk. When it happens, as you knew it would in this story, I have nothing to stop gravity and downgrade-enhanced inertia. I am in free fall, crumbling, wilting, melting forward into the bricks. The next few seconds are hazy. I don’t think I passed out, but I wasn’t entirely there either. Arms lifted, supported, and guided me to the medical tent a few feet away. The haze passed quickly, I recall sitting down carefully and burying my face in a bag of ice.

The good news is that sis didn’t see it happen, as she was walking over the bridge from her vantage point on the other side. The better news is that mom didn’t make it to the race. At least sis has seen her kids get beat up and injured on the scholastic sports fields. She took it in stride. It probably would’ve killed poor mom.

Being an early finisher on a cool and perfect day, I was their only customer for quite some time and got fantastic attention. Calm, competent, and saint-like, these volunteers from the Guthrie Clinic in Sayre PA, led by Dr. Phykitt, deserve unending thanks. They clean my wounds. They assess my consciousness (though asking me who the President was admittedly wasn’t a calming question). They provide an hour of TLC. They even go and get my medal. And Wineglass has really cool handmade glass medals.

When the smoke clears after my horse-race style ‘win by a nose’ finish (as one of my running club friends likened it; another commented that I’d ‘taken the bull by the bricks, or something like that’ – what exactly was he thinking?) I learn that I came agonizingly close, but didn’t get a new PR. I finished in 2:54:13, a mere four seconds off my best. In retrospect, I’m glad. I wouldn’t want this race to go down as my best, since it clearly wasn’t, no matter what my time was.

I ended up in 13th place out of the 550 finishers and won my 45-49 age group, the first time I’ve won my class in a marathon. At Wineglass as in many races, age group awards start after the overall and overall masters award winners take their slots. But the top three masters were all in the 40-44 group, so I really did top the 45’ers. I ended up 7 seconds behind Pit Stop Jim, who took the 3rd and last overall masters cash prize. The 7 seconds is irrelevant. I couldn’t have made up one.

And why did it end up so ugly? After all, I virtually cruised to my 2:54 in Buffalo. I even had a kick at the end that day. Sure, I went out fast, but not to the extent as to cause this level of crash. Perhaps it was the big emotional travel week? Perhaps the insidious impact on my stride of the protesting toe and foot? Perhaps, as they say in the NFL, it was as simple as, “Any given Sunday…”

Now, the irony is that I ended up with only small scrapes on each knee, and, thanks to a pathetic pair of holey (not to be confused with holy) gloves that were supposed to be tossed early on, but due to the cool weather made the entire trip, only a single small cut on each hand. My face, however, is a work of art. Most of the left side is abused: chin, nose, temple, forehead. A couple days later a nice shiner has appeared. I’ve been telling everyone that I got in a fight with a brick walkway.

It was a long 6-hour drive home. Enough time to condition the kids any my wife on what they’d see. Presenting myself wasn’t easy – for me or them. And it’s been a long several days since, reflecting on what happened. On one hand, it was bad luck, I tripped, I fell, I got banged up. On the other hand, perhaps it was stupid, perhaps I pushed too hard, perhaps it could have turned out a lot worse. I won’t find the answer to that question anytime soon.

04 October 2008


In 24 hours and 15 minutes the gun will sound and we’ll start our Wineglass odyssey from Bath to Corning NY. I’m hoping it will be just a few degrees warmer than it is at the moment. I’m camped at my sister’s place nearby, and dawn broke with frost and 33 tiny little degrees, maybe fewer. If not for the cozy hoodie, the warm laptop on my legs at the moment (a real incentive to blog at a time like this) and the purring cat beside me, it might be downright unpleasant.

I spent last evening pouring over course maps – both the published one and, heres a hint, the one posted on the USATF web site for certification purposes. If you don’t know a course and it is USATF certified, I recommend this little extra effort (use this link to find a USATF certified course). In some cases, and this is one of them, you can get a lot of insight into little details through this not-well-known alternate source.

When I get up the gumption, I’ll venture out for my last 3-4 mile shakedown. No, I didn’t think to pack the tights or a decent hat. That first mile will be a… you know. Then it’s off to the expo and to go scout the course, with the expertise of my native guides sis and her companion Phil.

To be continued, later today…

Later Today…

Those were indeed **** cold miles. But after 10 minutes, the heater started working, and by the time I was done I was warmer than I’d been since emerging from under the cat (and the covers).

When the sun was high, we trundled off to downtown Corning for packet pickup and the expo. And the sun was high, the day gorgeous, a perfect blue sky speckled with perfect puffy clouds, virtually no wind. The folks running the outdoor expo – really just one vendor – certainly appreciated it. I made my move to clear out the $5 rack.

Inside, at the packet distribution, the promised split of wine (this is after all, the Wineglass Marathon) looked a little less than appealing, but only a crank of the screw cap will tell. Unique to this race are bibs with the timing chip built in. It’s nice that you don’t have to tie anything to (and later remove from) your shoe, but it makes the bibs a bit stiff. Could make for some sore…you know. Sadly, no Wineglass stuff sized for the kids back home…*snif*

Then off to Bath via the freeway, to the starting line, and the start of our course scoping odyssey. Bath is a fine small town, wide avenues, stately homes, and of course it all looks grand on a sunny day, which tomorrow promises also to be once the icicles clear from our eyebrows.

Emerging from Bath there’s actually a bit of an upgrade, not that you’ll care at the scale involved or the location in the course. Then, basically nothing for several miles, which could prove a bit tedious, but again, early on we’ll probably be bunched a bit and hopefully have some goof chat going on. Through Savona the course turns off the main drag and becomes delightfully rural to and past the halfway point in Campbell (pronounced CAMPbell, not CAM-bell, I’m told by my native guide Phil!). One small rise past Campbell and a few railroad crossing “insult humps” comprise most of the elevation change, save one odd steep drop into a park later on, just past 21.

A brutal stretch paralleling the interstate leads into the populated zone, bringing some needed distraction as the miles grow long. A few pleasant neighborhoods where hopefully the locals will be aware of the event and provide some support, a mile on a rail trail with a somewhat unique and odd bridge tunnel combination under the freeway, and rapidly the final miles approach. The course needs a few odd winds and turns to gain the distance, then the final turn onto Centerway in Corning.

Every course has its signature moment, and for this one, it’s the finish, crossing the Chemung River, famed for wiping this town out in 1972 courtesy of Hurricane Agnes (I lived in upstate NY then, I recall it well). A new bridge was built around 1980, and the original now serves as a broad pedestrian promenade, and probably a home-stretch cheering zone. A slight rise leading onto the bridge could provide an opportunity for a last minute challenge – if I’m of that mindset by that time – then it’s all out to the end off the bridge, where Riverfront Centennial Park and hopefully a cold beer awaits.

Piece of cake. So long as I wake up on time, of course!

Well, it is a very flat course in my New England tainted view, but like any marathon, you just never know till the gun goes off. If I have a good day, I’ll shoot for a 2:anything. If I have an average day, 3:oh-anything (which is pretty amusing since one year ago today my PR was 3:14…). And if I just have a day, well, we’ll go for a nice run on a nice day, hopefully finish in one piece – always a goal of any marathon – and say we had a nice time. In the end, while it’s nice to turn in a solid time, or even have that golden day and burn a PR, the joy of the day is the adventure, the gorgeous fall tour through a beautiful valley in my old home turf, and just plain having a nice run.

02 October 2008

Closing the Circle

Today was a day for closing circles and saying goodbye. My family buried my grandmother today, a sad occasion of course, though somewhat less so as it meant her release from the terrible grip of Alzheimer’s. But the trip felt like much more than just saying goodbye to a loved one. I said goodbye to and closed the circle on a big part of my life as well.

Both sides of my family came to the United States in the early 20th century. Mom’s side, the Swiergos family, is Polish, dad’s is Italian (and no, we didn’t have a vowel in Italy either, we were northern Italians where many family names really do end in consonants, see www.cattarin.com for the genealogy). Both sides ended up northeastern Ohio. My folks were raised in Alliance, and though they moved on, my maternal grandparents lived pretty much their entire adult lives there. I spent many wonderful summers and more there. The memories are too numerous to recount, even to myself. Ohio became a part of me and always will be.

But Alliance, Ohio isn’t Cleveland or Columbus or anywhere else you might travel on business someday. It’s about 15 miles off the interstate, and not even a main-line interstate. Unless you’re driving to Akron, or happen to be in Canton, and make an intentional side trip, you’re not going to stumble on the place. In fact, I hadn’t been in town in 10 years, since the passing of my grandfather Swiergos. The Cattarin side holds periodic Ohio reunions, but none of them remain in Alliance. So with the passing of grandmother Swiergos, my blood-relative link to the town pretty much dried up. Burying grandmother Swiergos after many years of Alzheimer’s wasn’t too hard. Burying a chapter of my life was.

I’m in taper and rest mode for Wineglass coming up on Sunday. With an additional 400 miles driving out from upstate New York to Alliance and back, the rest part has already taken a hit. And when I was there, so did the tapering. My tapering rule-of-thumb is to run no more miles each day than the number of days till the race, until 4 days prior, at which point I stick to 3 or 4 a day to stay loose. With only 4 days till the marathon, I should have put in 3 or 4 this morning. But we were in a hotel room on the west end of town, and it was 4 miles to the old Swiergos house which had been home base to our clan for 50 years.

I knew I could drive by it later in the day if I wanted to, but who I am today is defined in part (other than my wonderful immediate family of course) by my running. Not so much the physical act of it, but the mental and emotional side which, even if I could no longer run, so fits who I am. Something insisted that I do what I’d never done, and connect my running life to my Ohio life which so shaped my early years. I broke my taper rule and covered eight and a half this morning, just to run down their street, the street I’d walked, biked, and played on so many times, but where I’d never – not even in my first lap days to my recollection – laid the stamp of my running footprints.

As these things often are, it was somewhat anticlimactic. The house, long sold from their caring hands, has run down somewhat. Neighbors on either side who happened to be out and with whom I chatted briefly were all recent short-timers with no neighborhood memory and of course no idea who these former pillars of the community were and what they meant to anyone, let alone me. But in a big way, it wasn’t anticlimactic at all. I honored them by running past the seat of their memory, in effect saying, “I’m doing well, I’m strong, and that’s because you did good.”

After my morning run through time, we did the funeral home, the Mass, the cemetery service. We stopped in to visit dad’s grave – he died at a tragic 29. We pondered in a way we never really had done before what our life as a family might have been like had that tragedy not happened. We could have all been very different people. As my wife likes to say, you can’t just change one thing. But we became who are. And who I’ve become was able to connect with where I came from, one time only, by running past the place that was a second home.

As it was, mom didn’t want to drive past the house where she’d grown up. She wanted to remember it as it was, not see it as it is. I was very glad I’d broken my taper rule. As we left town, I knew there was a good chance I’ll never be back. The circle is closed.

Rest in God’s peace, Granny.