30 March 2009

Protective Custody Denied

In an attempt to prevent an outbreak of irrational exuberance, I applied to be taken into protective custody by the Boston Athletic Association. So far as I can tell, I was denied. Since I don’t think the Federal Witness Protection Program applies here, I’ll just have to go and have some fun.

I’m now at T+3 weeks since I resumed my running. I’ve already done what every beginner does and every experienced runner says they know better and won’t do, which is to pile it up a bit too quick and pay the price. Experience kicked in, though, and I backed off, so the price was perhaps only a buck or two. My right calf started complaining, and it’s brother-in-arms (brother-in-legs?) the shin added it’s voice, so I backed off a couple of days and all feels well again. Besides, the weather was miserable today, so another day of rest was downright attractive.

The cool part about this was that by last Thursday, when I ran my daughter around a short two mile loop then added another lap for personal satisfaction, I could for the first time say that something other than my foot was my primary concern. What a milestone! I’m finding that I’m not thinking about the toe most of the time I’m running, and that mindset has started to leak over to when I’m walking, even without shoes. Mr. Big Toe still doesn’t curl, and perhaps he never may, but once again he’s doing the primary job he was designed for.

Last week I cranked it up to a nine miler at eight minute pace. A few shorter runs have clocked in a little quicker. It’s encouraging, though there’s still ten pounds to shed to regain Emaciated Kenyan status and a minute to shave off the average training pace. That’s assuming a return to the old normal, which of course may never happen. Matters not, I’m out there and loving it.

And so here we are, three weeks till Boston. Will he, or won’t he? Yes, I signed up for (and of course paid for) Boston last fall, after Wineglass, knowing I was injured. Might as well, who knew what would transpire? Six months was a long time out, even if I knew I had some healing to do. Then the surgery, then I hoped I’d be back out there by late January, then February, which became March. Boston was clearly out of the question. But I didn’t want to defer until I found out my number. Then along came bib number 1899, and while there’s not a neuron in my brain that thinks I can race it, it’s sure tempting to run at least part of it.

Which brings us to protective custody. Sanity shrieks a clear message here. The self-preservation instinct drove me to seek safe haven serving up the goodies at a water stop, just to keep me off the race course. Dutifully, though with a touch of sadness, I hit the BAA website. I was a bit puzzled when the site insisted that I sign up for a pre-race service slot but showed no race day opportunities. Assuming those must be on the next page, I agreed to sell BAA merchandise at the expo. Now, onto that next page for the race day activities – but no... Thanks, selection submitted, have a nice day.

It took me a few passes through the site to realize that there was no next page. There were no race day service opportunities. Like the race itself, they are, it seems filled and closed out. My attempt to be taken into protective custody has been denied.

Damn. I guess I’ll just have to run.

Now, there's no chance in purgatory that I’ll run fast, and I am telling myself and everyone who will listen (though few believe) that there’s no chance I’ll end up on Boylston Street. But with a ticket to the first corral, I owe it to myself to line up behind those Kenyans (being sure to stay to the side and out of the way of the racers, of course) and experience the front of the pack. Being that my Wineglass time is effectively identical to the Buffalo time that got me this slot hints I might get another chance up there next year, but who knows what next year will bring? In the long run, we are all dead. Right, Mr. Keynes? So enjoy it while it dangles.

Which offers up an interesting opportunity: start in the heat of the race, but with zero pressure, zero worries (other than to stay out of everyone’s way), not a care in the world other than how to thumb a ride home when I decide enough’s enough. I’ve ordered up a tiny little digital camera (my current one’s a little bulky), a nice big memory card, and a couple extra batteries. Unless it’s pouring rain (why kill a new camera?) I hope to have some fun and document this adventure. After all, blogs are more fun with pictures, right?

And if, hours, days, even weeks later, I wander onto Boylston Street, well, cool if I do, cool if I don’t. Let’s just hope for a nice day.

18 March 2009

First Corral

Wow. All I can say, all I can think is, wow. When I started running again four years ago I never could have dreamed it. First corral, Boston Marathon. Bummer I won’t run it, but, well, so what, and, well, wow.

I navigate a fine line in writing about my running. It’s about the experiences, the people, the joys and agonies, all the positives, mental, physical, and otherwise, that come with this odd obsession. It’s not so much about achievement, and it’s certainly not about extolling achievement, but achievement happens and can’t be denied. And when it happens, it’s part of the story. Leaving it out omits a part of the story. But talking about it can come off as pompous, the voice of a braggart.

This isn’t about being a braggart. This is about an out-of-self experience where I step aside, say, “Wow, how the heck did that happen?,” and reflect. You’ve got to imagine that Obama woke up the next day with that kind of feeling. Think of about when you accomplished something you never thought possible, or just looked back at your life and wondered how you got here. You look at yourself as if peering in from the outside, and said, “Wow, how the heck did I do that?”

Tonight the Boston Athletic Association posted bib number assignments for the 2009 Boston Marathon. Even though, knowing my qualifying time, I’ve pondered the possibility of it happening for months, the moment I saw it on the screen it was still the biggest thrill of my running life. Bib number 1899, first corral. Wow.

If you’re not familiar with the mechanics of the start of the Boston Marathon, it works like this. The 60 or so elite men and women – the ones you see on television – start up front, the women a half-hour ahead in a separate start, and the men along with the general start, but segregated from the field. These amazing individuals are awarded elite numbers as well, starting at 1 for the men and F1 for the women. Just to be in the same race with these people, even if you’re standing at the dead last end of the starting throngs, is a thrill.

Behind them come another 26,000 plus. To avoid mayhem, runners are ranked and bib numbers assigned in order of their qualifying times, with numbers starting at 1000 and rising till they can’t rise no more. The start is organized with roped corrals of 1000 runners each, lined up behind the elite starting area, admittance strictly controlled by bib number. This way, you start with runners of similar ability, a blessing you can appreciate as soon as you’ve experience joggers lining up at the front of your local 5K and getting in everyone’s way. Just before the start, they drop the ropes (for the first wave of 10 or 11 corrals, the rest go a half-hour later) and everyone moves forward, but you’re still grouped by ability and the start, while crowded, works very well.

And so it goes. First the elites, a God-like status never to be attained by mere mortals like me, then the corrals, for the rest of us cattle. For my first Boston in 2007, I qualified into the sixth corral. I was thrilled to be in Boston at all, and thrilled with the sixth corral. The weather was awful, my race didn’t go well, but I didn’t care, I’d finally run Boston after 30 years of wishing. For my second Boston last year, my 3:03 from Bay State moved me up to the third corral, which put me close enough that I could wander up and actually see the elite women’s start. It was like being in the neighborhood of the Gods (or Goddesses as it was). And now for 2009, bib 1899 grants me entry to the mythical first corral, right behind the elites.

Had you asked me four years ago if I’d even run a marathon, I would have told you I wanted to, but had no idea if I could, or would. Had you suggested I’d be in the top 1000 qualifiers for Boston, I’d have had you committed.

And so I say, “How the heck did that happen?” Am I proud? Of course, I’d be a liar to say otherwise. But again, it’s not about being a braggart. It’s about sharing the thrill of the outcome of this long strange trip we’re all on together. And a big part of this honor belongs to all those around me who support me in this crazy drive – my family, my running friends, and so on. Thank you all, really. And it’s about repeating my mantra to the world: You have no idea what you are capable of. No idea, really.

The bummer is that, post surgery, I’m in no position to run the race. I’ve yet to log even 20 miles total since resuming running ten days back. Even if I somehow restored enough condition to run it, I certainly couldn’t race it. Frankly, I don’t trust myself to even think about it, since I know my obsessed brain will push me inexorably to at least jogging it, and that’s probably not a good idea.

Even though I can defer my qualifying time to next year, there’s no guarantee that the same time will land me in the first corral for Boston 2010. For that matter, there’s no guarantee I’ll be able to run Boston 2010, or even run next week. Life is like that. But for the moment, well, wow.

14 March 2009

Home Again

Today, a big milestone: back on the streets, back out with my running club! I’m home again. I sucked wind and I loved it.

I’m running (no pun intended) the balance between caution and, well, not quite wild abandon, but let’s say prudent aggressive progress. So far, knock on wood, it’s worked in my favor. To my relief, Lady Healer did not flip out when I admitted to her this week that I’d jumped her gun a bit and hit the track. She was pleased that my foot tolerated the adventure without swelling or other ill effects, and agreed that some running could help her goal of breaking up the fleshy ice of my long recovery. So, no professionally administered punitive pain, though we did have some fun and cranked up the electro-stimulator machine to new highs to make those toes dance. Suffice to say it’s a fun place, my P.T. Palace.

Since I’d jumped her gun a bit with good results, I figured I’d make the next baby step and graduate to our local rail trail, not track-flat but not far from it. My running club hits the trail on Saturday mornings, and how great would that be to rejoin my club buds? Except after I’d psyched myself for this, I discovered they’ve started alternating weeks on and off the trail, and this was an off week, putting them on the roads, which by definition around here means hills.

Oh, quandary. I’m supposed to start off on the flats. OK, define the word “start”. Hint: think Bill Clinton, and look in the dictionary right next to “is”. I started on the track. I ran twice on the track (last time with my daughter, which was very cool!). If this were a race, I’d be done with the “start” in a minute, perhaps ten if it were a marathon. Should I hit the roads – and the hills?

If you can’t guess my answer to that, you haven’t been studying hard enough. Detention for you.

It’s been a long time since I checked the hourly forecast the night before. It’s been a long time since I laid out the running clothing the night before so as not to wake up the house with sliding and creaking dresser drawers in the morning. And it’s been a long time since I overslept for a morning club run.

7:10 AM, radio on, alarm, roll over for 5 more minutes.

8:00 AM, wife says, “Weren’t you going running this morning?”

Crap.

Fortunately, my club doesn’t usually start on time. And so for my re-entry to the roads, my re-entry to running with my club, I made it from sound asleep to dressed, fed, and transported to the local park in twelve minutes.

8:14 AM, RUNNING WITH MY CLUB! WAHOO!

Not only did I love it, but they loved it. They loved it that I was looking for who was running slowly for a change. They loved it that I was making comments like, “Oh crap, a hill.” They said they were going to record my grunts and groans. And I loved that they loved it.

For the record, we cranked out five miles with some good hills, but certainly no aggressive hill attacks. It wasn’t fast, but it wasn’t all that slow. I was in telephone pole counting mode on the final upgrade. I was sucking wind wholesale, and my legs were in marmalade territory. But running with others made me less aware of the weirdness of my foot, which is feeling stronger. Just like my feet strengthened up dramatically when I started this game four years ago and erased my previous arch strain problems, it’s becoming pretty clear that running is helping the healing process.

It was fabulous running with the gang again. It was fabulous running on the roads again. The wind-sucking and leg gelatinizing will pass. I’m home again.

12 March 2009

In Honor of Floppy Bob

Pity poor Bob. Bob is the skeleton in my daughter’s 5th grade class. He’s got great bone structure, but alas, he’s a complete quadriplegic as he has no tendons. He just hangs around all day, listless, clearly depressed, and reminiscent of the residents of Gary Larson’s famous boneless chicken ranch, though with a different affliction. But today I had the opportunity to honor Bob’s role in my daughter’s education and use my recent experiences to pay one forward.

News of my surgical adventure not surprisingly reached my daughter’s teacher, who thought a little first-hand experience would liven up her class’s study of the skeletal system. And so I gleefully put aside my usual breadwinning slideware of networking technology and became, for a half hour, Quasi-Doctor Cattarin, medical lecturer to the 11-year-old set.

I’m used to speaking to CIOs, network directors, and other techno-types. I’m used to the usual range of adult responses, the in-your-camp types, the antagonists, the close-minded techno-bigots, and yes, even with my constant stream of bad puns and gags, the snoozers. Fifth graders present a whole different challenge. It’s a challenge to figure out what they do and don’t know at that age, and hit their level. But they’re a great audience, they show their satisfaction and glee like no adult crowd, and they’re a lot of fun.

To bring the topic home to them, I started off from their classroom companion whom they know and love, and entitled my talk, “What Bob is Missing, A Tale of a Tendon”. And since Bob has no tendons, I brought Bob’s long lost cousin, a skeletal foot kindly lent to me by none other than Dr. Foot Doctor (actually, his partner Dr. Partner Foot Doctor, are these guys great or what?) on which I’d rigged up a tendon system with strings and rubber bands. Dr. Partner’s foot was a big hit as he waved his toe to the class on command (with a little tug on the string).

Now granted, I’m known in professional circles for being on the goofy side even when speaking on dry technology topics. I figure if they’re not asleep, you’ve got a better chance they might actually hear what you say. But still, waving the toe at the audience? You just can’t have this kind of fun in a briefing on voice over IP technology. No way.

Then, of course, it was on to the meat of the lecture. The human meat. Mrs. Teacher insisted that I tell my whole story, yes, including the juicy bits from the operating table. The coincidence that O.R. nurse who took those infamous pictures was the mom of one of the students in her class was simply too much to resist. Nevertheless, I expected that not every 5th-grader would agree this was cool, and gave a huge SQUEAMISH ALERT to avert eyes.

The boys, as a rule, loved it, and I’d like to think that at least one was inspired to pursue medical school a decade down the road. The girls were a mixed bag, with a few taking my hint to look away. Fair enough, I expected that. Mrs. Teacher was tickled, not least by some of my bad puns that could only be appreciated by someone over 40, and even suggested I come back next year – even when she’s no longer my daughter’s teacher.

As for me, well, what a grand opportunity to turn misfortune into a fun learning experience and pay one forward to the next generation. And what fun, to boot, even if there was no technology salesman buying all of us lunch afterward.

(Oh, and did I mention, yes, I ran again today, a bit farther, a bit faster, plenty winded, legs like jelly, it was rough, it was grand…ahhhhh.)

08 March 2009

Half a Lap of Euphoria

The first half lap was pure euphoria. Beyond that I experienced reality, which was harsh, but not too harsh. The very experience, however, presents me with an ethical dilemma. I suppose I’ll have to fess up, because Lady Healer reads my blog.

Dr. Foot Doctor not only cleared me to go, but indicated that running would help to loosen up the rusted bits. Lady Healer, on the other hand, wants me to wait, warning of possible injury precisely because those bits are so thoroughly rusted. I’ve committed to following all directions of my medical professionals, but, umm, well, umm… But HE said, but SHE said… Now, I can’t exactly return to the world of the living runners and not write about it. Those of you who’ve actually read this supposed running blog during all the time I’ve not been running would be a bit cheated, I’d say. But if I write about it, she’ll know, so I guess I have to tell her.

I cannot tell a lie. Spring called like a siren song and I responded like the volunteer fire department. I admit it. It was 60 degrees and flat-out gorgeous today, a gloriously free Sunday afternoon. I took a walk with my family. Yeah, when they turned right, I found myself inexorably pulled to the left. Yeah, I accidentally found myself at the high school track. And mysteriously, I was dressed in running shoes, running shorts, running hat, and, to prove that symbolism isn’t dead, my Wineglass Marathon running shirt. It was freaky. It was like I had planned to go out for a run. But really, I swear, it was an accident. (Not.)

I’ve had the devil on one shoulder and the angel on the other, so I ignored my shoulders. Dr. Foot Doctor said keep it flat, start on the track. Well, whaddaya’ know, I was at the track. Lady Healer said don’t run. OK, so technically, a slow jog, being careful not to stress Mr. Big Toe, isn’t, at least in my mind, truly running. And Bill Clinton did not have…

The rest is history. The long drought is over. A hundred yards in, I let out a war whoop that I’m sure was heard several blocks away, or perhaps that was the sound of rust scraping off my brake rotors like you get when you leave your car at Logan Airport for a week. Another hundred yards and the euphoria melded into legs that felt like, well, felt like they hadn’t run since October, but it didn’t matter. I clocked my first mile in a blazing 8:48, which I don’t demean since I recognize that for many, that’s an admirable pace, but just go with me when I say it was a pleasant jog.

How far I went beyond that I’m not saying, so as to avoid professionally administered punitive pain at my next PT session. It wasn’t zero, but it wasn’t excessive. At one point I even broke 8 minute pace for a lap or two. Woo hoo!

The good news is that aerobically, it was a breeze. Initial appearances hint that I didn’t lose too much conditioning on that front. And Mr. Big Toe held up just fine, still functioning, though a little tired. But the leg muscles are jelly, so I’ve got my work cut out for me. Bring it on.

My wife was almost amused that I came home mildly malodorous. That’s not her favorite part of my obsession, but in a strange way, I think she liked having it back.

Finally, a postscript from the “Misery loves to tell their stories” department. On my joyful post-accidental-workout walk home, I happened upon a Spring-induced spontaneous neighborhood gathering and stopped to chat when I noticed that two of the folks were locked in oh-so-familiar leg armor. After all, war stories love company. And what war stories they had: Chris broke her fifth metatarsal in a simple misstep, while Doug shattered his lower leg and ankle on wet leaves last fall, had surgery two weeks before I did, and only now was walking in the air cast. My adventure paled compared to what he’s endured. And thinking back to my angelic wife who cared for me hand and foot through my ordeal, I heard the punch line: they’re married to each other! Can you imagine having both of you down for the count?

05 March 2009

Fightin' Shape

Returning to the running world after 20 years was a homecoming. Home to the sport I loved way back when, home to getting back to fightin’ shape, and mostly home to the culture I loved then and love now, where, unlike other sad and abhorrent parts of our culture, fightin’ shape doesn’t mean anyone’s fighting.

Think about it. Have you ever seen a fight break out at a marathon? Running is up there with figure skating, where the occasional Tonya Harding might surface, but if she does, she’s a rarity, a news item, and universally loathed. Come to think of it, the worst violence I’ve ever seen in a race was in the movie “Run, Fat Boy, Run”, and that, while absurd to any true runner, was truly hysterical.

This is on my mind because I went to a fight Saturday night, as the old joke goes, that is to say, I went to a hockey game. A professional hockey game. The Worcester Sharks minor league hockey, to be precise. The Sharks were playing in a high pressure match because they are, after all, in 5th place in their division in the latter part of the season, and they were playing the worst team in the league, so after all, there was a lot on the line.

I’ve been a hockey fan for 30 years, and I’m not na├»ve to the nature of the game. It’s rough, no doubt. You skate around and smack guys into the boards and there’s a good chance you’re going to get someone hoppin’ mad at you at some point. But kids – who by nature of their lesser-developed maturity are more likely to fly off the handle – manage to play the game under control (and in most cases, though sadly, not all, the parents in the stands stay under control as well).

At the college level, the officials keep a pretty tight reign, and warring offenders are generally brought to justice. As a result, the college game is, to my mind, fabulous to watch if you’re fortunate enough to see it played well. To my fortune, my alma mater Rensselaer took the NCAA title during my final year as an undergrad in ‘85. We logged thousands of miles (in the car, not running, too bad…) and had a hell of a time watching truly fine talent play the game the way it was meant to be. It wasn’t peaches and cream – there were fights now and then – but only now and then.

The last time I saw a major league Bruins game, I spent the whole trip into Boston explaining to my then 5-year-old daughter that sometimes these guys didn’t behave well, and if they did that, we saw that as bad, and didn’t cheer or shout, no matter what the rest of the fans did. Then I held my breath, hoping for the best. I didn’t get to turn blue. They dropped the gloves 12 seconds in.

Saturday’s trip to the Sharks was organized through my daughters’ school. After all, at the minor league level, it’s a family-oriented event, so they say. They send their cute mascot to the schools (my daughters reported his malodorous suit needs a very thorough cleaning). They support local charities. They put forth an image of community wholesomeness.

It’s crap. Their business is built on raw violence, stoking the animalistic bloodlust of the populace. We’ve come no further than the Romans with their lions-in-the-Coliseum bloodlettings. The violence was frequent, intense, and not only allowed but encouraged. The game commentator on the public address system extolled the fights as part of the great entertainment of the evening. In short, it’s clearly league sanctioned, because it sells the product.

Witnessing adults acting like animals is a sad occurrence. Witnessing children – especially young children like the 6-year-old boys and girls behind me sitting next to their smiling parents – screaming “Fight! Fight! Fight!” is downright disturbing. It’s no wonder society is a mess.

In a baseball or football game, when tempers flare, officials and teammates immediately jump in to try to separate the warring parties. In the rare case where a larger melee erupts, at the least it’s a notable event, and typically the parties engaged suffer some retribution. At the ‘family friendly’ Sharks game, when players dropped the gloves, they danced around each other for a solid minute before starting to fight, so as to stoke the crowd to higher levels of frenzy. The officials and their teammates, who had plenty of time to act, did nothing. It’s part of the show.

I’ve known hockey for years, and I’ve known that at the professional level, violence has been a problem for years. Even from that position, I was blown away at the extent of the pandering to such base instincts. Chances are good that was the last professional hockey game I’ll attend.

Think about this next time you’re jostling for position amongst 25,000 runners. When someone runs into you, you both say you’re sorry. Even at the highest levels of competition, civility is the norm, not the exception. Don’t take for granted the fabulous culture of the running world. It’s one of the new remaining islands of civility in society. We’ve got it good. We work out bodies into fightin’ shape, yet never see the need to fight anyone other than ourselves.

02 March 2009

A Foot of Spring

It’s March, it’s Spring (see The 60-Day Challenge). To prove it, a foot of fresh white Spring fell today. I told my physical therapist that when that foot of Spring melts off the local track, I want to be running on it. Meanwhile, we had a grand time at the Bev & Ed Whitney Memorial 5K on Saturday.

I don’t really know who Bev & Ed Whitney were, other than that they were the recipient of the North Medford Club’s Fred Brown Cup in 1993, which tells me that they were truly dedicated to the sport of running. Twice a year the NMC shows up in Hudson MA to host a race in their honor. It’s a small event, about 30-40 in the winter and perhaps 60 in the summer, but it’s at one of our favorite local watering holes, so who can resist? And being as it is right smack in the heart of our hometown Highland City Striders territory, it’s our noble duty to show up in force to support their race. And we do. My Striders turned out in force, fielding 10 of the 36 runners, including 4th-place finisher Greg (photo) who elected to damn the torpedoes and fly in summer duds on a cold, blustery February day. I suspect he ran fast just to get back to his warm clothes.

I had looked forward to the Whitney for weeks, intending that it would be my symbolic return to the world of the living runners. But alas, my PT, Lady Healer, mandated otherwise. So I relegated myself to the role of Unofficial Official Photographer, and sobbed silently and invisibly as the race was won in a time over a minute slower than what I’ve done on the course. Not that I would have run anywhere near that speed had I run, in my current shape, nor that had I been in shape for speed, would the race have fallen that way, since I know the winner has also smoked the course a lot faster. Still, one can lament.

Another half-dozen Striders arrived to liven up the after-race festivities. I can’t say enough for this crowd. They’ve kept my spirits up through the long desert of my injury, and they’re pretty good runners, too. Heck, for the second straight year they took the Clydesdale Relay crown at the Hyannis Marathon. Of course, for the second straight year they were the only Clydesdale Relay team at the Hyannis Marathon. But I love ‘em just the same. Thanks, ladies and gents, for the moral support this winter. I’ll be back on the roads with you soon.

As soon as Lady Healer works a little more magic, that is. She’s the master (mistress?) of deep massage, and can loosen my joints till they pop. Good pain, I tell you. Today she pulled out the big guns and hit me with the laser and the electro-shock. Yes, I know, the possibilities for jokes are endless. No, she didn’t attach the electrodes to my head.

So no running yet, but hey, at least I got some cardio out there shoveling that Spring off my driveway today.