13 August 2009

Gentlemen's Sport

Ours is a gentlemen’s sport. Sure, we sweat like pigs (metaphor of course, my daughter the pig fan points out that pigs don’t sweat). Sure, we get caked in mud on the trails. And even blood sometimes, too. But outside of the realm of big name competitors’ vocal rivalries, we’re kind, helpful, and gentile to others even as they’re thrashing us soundly. You won’t see that in a hockey game.

Yes, of course, this applies to the women as well. I’m not being sexist, there’s just no equivalent phrase I can think of that communicates the same connotation for the other gender.

Tonight’s case in point? The 4th Annual Chuck Martin 5K in Clinton, Massachusetts. I returned to this race tonight as an experienced veteran. Having run it once before isn’t a lot of experience, but it’s enough, considering last year’s event where my 3rd-place finish magically turned into a 2nd-place finish because the leader made a wrong turn and sadly came in 6th. Most of the race is on trails. Most of the turns are marshaled. Most, but not all.

As we gathered at the start with a good-sized crowd of nearly 200, there was plenty of chatter about precisely where the course went, it being pretty clear that most had no idea. When I volunteered that I not only knew the course but was there for last year’s game of Lose the Leader, I instantly became the man to follow. Now, I’m not really a mid-packer, I’m more of a front-of-the-mid-pack, back of the truly competitive, make a splash only in very small ponds or large puddle type of runner. Truth be told, I expected to be in the top 10%, but with my continuing recovery, not being back to last year’s level, sporting that aching and damaged foot, and so on, I certainly wouldn’t publicly hint that the crowd should follow me. But they did. It’s a weird sport.

Out the gate, the starting adrenaline rush kicked in and after perhaps 20-30 seconds with one other runner alongside, I was all alone. Huh? I’m not supposed to be alone up here. Perhaps a minute or so later – time is fluid in these events – a couple of youngsters arrived to keep me company, and the one guy who looked like a serious competitor in the pack proved that appearances aren’t deceiving and bolted out front. Ahh, that’s better.

And now comes the gentlemanly portion. After four tenths of a mile on the road, the course turns sharp left onto the trails and levees along the Wachusett Reservoir. At this turn, a local cop duly stood guard, assuring no runner road pizza events. And he did that well, but didn’t consider that the runner bolting toward him had no idea where he was going. And so our leader cruised right past Turn Number One.

If kindness and helpfulness were a random event in our sport, one runner might have alerted him to his error. But kindness and helpfulness aren’t random events among runners, they’re the rule. Ours is a gentlemen’s sport. Everybody jumped in to help. A cacophony of voices rang out – perhaps a half dozen – everyone within sight and shouting range, TURN LEFT! LEFT! LEFT!

It got better. By now I was running with a pair of youngsters, with a couple more behind us, while our leader quickly recovered from his error and again put space between himself and us more ordinary folk. And then he did it again.

While missing Turn Number One could be blamed on a complacent cop, missing Turn Number Two at about six tenths of a mile could only be chalked up to, well, perhaps a missed brain cycle? On approaching a set of barriers across the trail, clearly positioned to prevent passage, in front of which was a yellow plastic tape that gave a pretty obvious hint to turn right at the barriers and follow the tape, our Beloved Leader somehow ran right through the barriers and with each passing moment compounded his error by going deeper behind the Fence of No Return.

In any other sport, those behind him would see an opportunity. Let him go. Second goof. Our turn now. His loss.

Not in our sport. Again the choir sang. GET BACK HERE! TURN RIGHT! GET OUT FROM BEHIND THE FENCE!

And as if the Gods were giggling in mirth, it got even better. The rest of the leader pack thought itself so smart. They’d gone right before the barrier. They bolted up the levee. And to my shock, they started bolting right over the top, down the other side, headed toward the lake. Uh, that was Turn Number Three. And nobody else seemed to get it. Now it was my turn to scream. TURN RIGHT! ONTO THE DIKE! Seems I was indeed, as they hinted at the starting line, the only one truly with a clue as to where I was going.

This was getting ludicrous.

And so it was that at three quarters of a mile in, I found myself leading the race. Not really supposed to happen. Cool, though. Enjoy it while it lasts.

One could argue that there should have been course marshals at these points of confusion, but Turn Number One was manned (by the Complacent Cop), Turn Number Two was bloody obvious, And Turn Number Three, well, it wouldn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the course probably didn’t plunge into the lake. But in any event, the point is that at each spot, everyone who had a clue helped out, even though the person they were helping was in the process of thrashing them soundly.

It’s a gentlemen’s sport.

Rest of the story… Our Beloved Leader again caught us after his latest mishap and retook the lead. I didn’t see any real way to stay with him, so focused on the runner who was sticking with me. At about 1.5 miles we were head to head on a wide levee. I decided to make a move, knowing it was early and risky, but he didn’t answer, and I had 2nd all to myself. Footsteps fade fast on the trails, and there was no crowd to give audible hints of the spacing behind me, so I had no idea if he would respond or others would surge. Nor did I want to look back. Nearing our emergence from the trails back onto the road, a sharper turn gave me an opportunity to glance back, and I saw no challengers. Two tenths from the finish I looked back anyway to avoid any surprises. Nobody home, smooth sailing.

For the second year in a row, I took 2nd, but this year the winner – Our Beloved Leader – was a youngster, so I scored the masters win, though in a time a full minute slower than last year. Most of that minute slowdown I attribute to just not being in the same shape as in the pre-surgery days, but then again, the entire field was slower, so it’s hard to tell. Frankly, it just doesn’t matter. It was a fun race, an eventful race, and a race that really showed off the best side of the nature of our sport.

07 August 2009

Wolves Howl!

Yes, I know that races are held every day, twice on Saturday, and it’s no big deal. But when it’s your own race, when it’s your first full-scale event, it is a big deal. And it was. The First Annual Running With the Wolves 10K went off with a howl, and came off like, well, clockwork Wednesday night, and there was great rejoicing.

Wednesday was an exercise in panic avoidance and bullet dodging. A few items short of a million could have gone wrong, but they didn’t. The Gods smiled upon us. My club-mates and I breathed a huge sigh of relief and a shout of joy when it was over.

First, it didn’t pour. Just not raining at all would be a tall order, the way our weather has been this summer. Wednesday was not only forecast to be the hottest day to date this summer – the first targeted to hit 90, which is pretty unusual for that not to have happened by now – but was, of course, also expected to be punctured by thunderstorms. Some severe. A real Weather Channel kind of day. Live by it, baby.

As of the night before, those storms were forecast to last until…? You guessed it, 6 PM of course, right up to the starting gun. Make me sweat. But no worries, the revised forecast Wednesday morning cleared up any concern over whether they’d wrap up in time. Instead they were forecast to last into the night. Gee, uh, thanks. Yet, as the afternoon rolled along, those menacing green, yellow, and red blotches on the radar formed to our west, approached, and then magically parted and avoided us.

Second, and probably most important, we built it and they came. Between sponsorships and pre-registered runners, we were financially whole no matter what. But if they didn’t come, it wouldn’t be much of an event, now, would it? And that wouldn’t do much for next year. But they came, oh glorious runners, they came! To paraphrase Jackson Browne, “People you've got the power over what we do, you can sit there and wait, or you can come run our race!” They didn’t stay-yay-yay home, they came. And I thank each one of them.

And third, everybody, and I mean everybody, pulled through. Our club is small, but it’s tight-knit, and it’s fantastic. Everyone covered their appointed tasks and anything else they could find that needed to be done. Sure, there were a few comical glitches, like me holding up the start for two minutes trying to get our one-mile splits person back on the phone. But all in all, it was smooth city. The traffic was marshaled. The runners were processed, hydrated, guided, cheered, and awarded. The refreshments refreshed. Even our medical tech volunteers had a customer, who happily was A-OK in the end, but gave us the satisfaction that we’d covered that piece of the plan. The newspaper sent a photographer, as did Jim Rhoades. The city opened up the field for our stadium finish, and even painted us a finish line. Our friends at CMS lent us gear that made our event safer, and look slicker, too. Our on-site sponsor The Karate School opened her business for our headquarters. And our post-race party? Well, not a lot of the runners showed, but at least for us, dinner for $3, cheap (yet good) beer, and two live bands. Can’t beat it.

Our course turned out better than planned. Since it hooked back on both the outbound and inbound, spectators could get from the start/finish onto the course in time to cheer the field. Traffic control at our first rail trail to road crossing was easy – we filled the road with fans! When the smoke cleared, the women’s race was ruled by the seniors who took the top three spots, with Carol Allain of the North Medford Club leading the way, while Julien Dimaria took the men’s race in a smokin’ thirty four minutes flat. We knew it would be a fast course, but yee-haa! We’ve got a mark to target next year!

These individual attributes read like a laundry list, which could go on. But they miss the point. It was a real race. Walking around, it felt like a real event. Small, but real. Falmouth must have started this way. Or the Boilermaker. Happy people enjoying themselves, at least once they caught their breath. We gave one back. We pulled it off. And that felt fantastic.

Change of topic…On an unrelated note, today, August 7th is always a special day in my calendar. It marks the day back in 1981 when I didn’t die, but came darn close (see posting from last year). Twenty eight years later and I have the joy of my wife and daughters and am healthy enough to pursue this obsession we call running. If I hadn’t been running and fit then, I wouldn’t have made it. Nor would I have stood a chance save for my sharp-eyed doctor who had a hunch as to what was going on, was right, and moved fast enough to save my life. Thanks, doc.

04 August 2009

Race Eve

It’s a good thing I don’t have many readers. When I go two weeks without a posting, I get no complaints. My excuse? I’ve been absorbed with race planning, which seems simple, except that it’s not.

It’s payback time. For all those races I’ve attended, for all those bits I’ve praised and all those items I’ve groused about, now it’s my turn. And knowing how persnickety I can be makes me want to get it right only that much more. The basics are obvious, but the details perplex, and it’s the execution that counts. You just can’t predict what’s going to happen on race day, and you won’t have much time to fix it.

Let’s back up a bit. My club holds a couple of races each year, but they’re extremely casual. Our Laborious Labor Day Ten Miler and Thanksgiving Tough Turkey Ten Miler (or whatever we call it?) are no-fee races. We collect food for the local food pantries as our entry fee. Along with no fee comes no expectations. No awards other than the honor of victory. Any refreshments are whatever club members decide to bring. It’s all casual. Nobody complains. What, they want their can of corn back?

But now that we’re a real live incorporated oo-fish-ee-al club, well, we want to do some of those oo-fish-ee-al club things. Like expand our outreach – after all, we do have a mission to promote health and fitness through running. Like build up a collection of equipment, like timing gear, to run a little higher-brow events. And so on. Stuff that requires coin.

At the same time, we clubbies have been lamenting the passing of the other-than-5K race. Along with the expansion of the sport from the midpack back – which isn’t a bad thing, mind you – has come a proliferation of 5K races. Several per weekend around here. All for some great cause, some so much for their great cause that I’m sometimes amazed to see what you can pay to run a 5K. Call it the dumbing down of the sport. Don’t get me wrong, I’m thrilled that more people are running, and though the 5K isn’t my favorite – way too short and fast for my tastes – it’s a fine event. But variety is the spice of life, and outside of the major races, variety is fast becoming an endangered species.

Such was born our new race. The First Annual Running With the Wolves 10K, on a weekday to avoid conflicts with other races, in the evening under the full moon – thus the name. A real-live oo-fish-ee-al event with a real live entry fee for a real-live great cause. Us. That sounds kind of self-serving, but it’s not. We’re a tax-exempt charitable organization. None of us profit. All of us want to spread the word and make our world healthier. We’re not fighting one disease. We’re beating back all of them, more or less. You can fight heart disease when it happens, or you can fight to stave it off through fitness. Our charity is the latter.

That being settled, it quickly becomes amazing how much needs to be done to assure a quality event; quality being a requirement in my mind when people are paying money to run, and we want to be sure there’s a Second Annual Running With the Wolves 10K. It takes a lot of people, and we’re a small club. We quickly laid down the law: club members won’t run in this event, they will run this event. Good thing, because it’s taking most of the club to cover all the bases.

I’m not the race director. And I won’t call myself the assistant race director, because that’s not fair to the core members of the race committee. But the amount of involvement makes it feel that way. Some of it is my own fault. As I said, I’m persnickety. They don’t call me “Slightly Obsessed” for nothing.

My number one pet peeve? Poorly measured courses. When I run a race, I want an accurate measurement, so I can compare today to my previous races. My past inquiries about course accuracy have ruffled a few feathers. So it’s only right that if we’re to get any complaints on that score, it should be my problem. Solution: measure it myself (with help, of course). Several times. Which takes quite a lot of time – measuring and re-measuring and marking out 10 kilometers, getting access to the stadium for our finish, and all that. If you, the racer, don’t like it, complain to me. I deserve it.

Somehow I landed the t-shirt design and acquisition task. Again, sounds simple. Not. Twenty seven phone calls and one hundred eight two emails later, piles of shirts arrive. Then there’s the scoring. We don’t own timing equipment and scoring software, so we’ve borrowed gear from our friends at a neighboring club and I’ve written the scoring spreadsheet from scratch. Designing and ordering banners. Handling the funds, of course, as I’m the green-shade guy of the club. And more…

It’s been a lot of time on my part, but it’s worth it – it’s cool to give this back to the running community. And no matter how much it seems, there’s so much more beyond me. Our race committee and general membership have been fantastic, beating the bushes for sponsorships, planning food, water, medical, traffic, marketing, registration, cleanup, awards, the kickin’ post-race party, you name it. Mine is but a fraction of the whole task. This club is awesome.

But it all comes down to a few hours Wednesday evening, and once that time arrives, our ability to fix any oversights is constrained by time. Very, very, short time. I think I’ll be sweating as much as if I ran the race. And there’s that forecast of thunderstorms to deal with, too…

Tonight our crew assembled – about 25 of our 35 or so volunteers – to go over all the plans, stuff goodie bags, and of course, stuff ourselves. We tried to think of everything we haven’t already thought of, and we rehashed everything we have thought of. And we know we’ve probably missed something – something that will appear at the most inopportune time.

I’ve got great confidence in this team, but I’m still sweating.