28 May 2010

Let It Shine

A few days ago I was ensconced in a hotel room in a city I was told is not a friendly place to run. Matters not, I was – and am still – on injured reserve, taking a few days more to try to heal a nagging Achilles, now coupled with a strained hamstring as well, so said urban imprisonment is of minor concern. But even without running at the moment, this running habit of mine is generating positive results.

As I wrote the bulk of this article a few days back, the oversized hotel room television silently flashed a truly astounding assortment of crap that I just don’t see at home because when home, other things occupy my time rather than a brief spurt of traveling-time channel surfing. My amazement that anyone would watch some of this stuff is exceeded only by my amazement that anyone would film this stuff. Vacuous and vapid are words that come to mind. Yet people do watch it, else there would be no economic incentive to air it. And with each minute of viewing time, these twisted media versions of reality influence the viewers’ perceptions of normal. Is it any wonder our society in general chases materialistic and wasteful idols and has largely lost its way?

Every impression that reaches every person has an impact in some way, shape, or form. It’s a basic fact that drives our advertising-driven society. Each moment of impression might be explicitly accepted by the receiver, explicitly rejected, or more insidiously, implicitly unprocessed but not unnoticed. One might believe the impact of such unprocessed impressions is nil, but I hold instead that it is additive, slowly shaping reality as defined by perception. In a simple example, I may explicitly reject the notion of the driver passing by me doing eighty-five while another may explicitly accept that behavior as admirable, but the bulk of people probably don’t even think about it. After a while, their perception of acceptable reality is eighty-five on the highway.

Everything you do outside of closed doors is an influence on others. Each impression you make on others may be explicitly rejected, explicitly accepted, or unprocessed yet additive to the receiver’s perception of the world. In time, you do influence those around you, whether you want to or not. You have the choice of what kind of influence you want to impart.

My coworkers know I am an avid runner. I’ve had the blessing of supportive management who for years have not only encouraged my lifestyle, not only embraced my efforts to build this healthy activity into my busy appointment schedule, but have explicitly advertised my exploits, adding a slide to the usual staff meeting blather after most of my marathons. Many explicitly reject these impressions with the usual good-natured (and somewhat accurate) accusations of insanity. Some explicitly accept these impressions with recollections of their previous similar adventures or wishes of future imitation. Most leave them unprocessed, but they cannot fail to paint their view of reality.

And it works. After five years of running, I’ve seen a surprising – or perhaps not surprising – number of converts, all the way up to a co-worker who went from a casual jogger to completing Boston last month. I know I’m not entirely to blame for any of these converts. I also know I’m not entirely not to blame. For whatever blame I hold, I am proud of my influence and prouder still – for them – of the transformation I’ve seen in these people. It’s a positive influence. It’s leadership.

As it turns out, I’ve had a chance of late to turn these casual influences into something stronger. A manager also bitten by the running bug learned that I’m acting as race director for our club’s upcoming 10K. She encouraged me to send word of the event to our sales and engineering teams, both as a fun event and as a way to encourage some fitness on the team. Now, it’s one thing to passively lead by example and quite another to drag your peeps kicking and screaming into the pool. I wasn’t quite sure what their reaction would be.

I needn’t have worried. After a few days of radio silence to let the concept sink in, out spewed that typical sales force competitiveness. The trash talk started. The factions formed. I found the need to make the executive decision to add team scoring to our race, just to let these folks have their day, have their fun, and in the process, do something good for themselves. I was tickled pink.

You might think you run for yourself, and you do. But don’t forget for a moment that your running is a beacon of healthy living, shaping the perceived reality of those around you. Let it shine.

08 May 2010

A Long Awaited Experiment

How great is it when different parts of your life collide in good ways and build on each other synergistically? Now and then the fickle finger of fate points in the right direction, and it can be very cool, as it was last week. As a result I’m going to try an experiment I’ve wanted to do for some time.

Just back from a few days of post-Boston relaxation I was greeted with – what else – about four hundred business emails, not counting the “congrats on a fine Boston” ones that don’t count as a chore to wade through. Yes, the benefit of vacation time and being home-office-based means you spend the night before returning to work already working. C’est la vie, it’s a living, and a pretty good one.

In my line of business, which is, in effect, trying to explain what our gadgets do and why you want them, where our gadgets are pretty complex devices that can be rolled out in any of about four-point-seven million variations, I get called in to see pretty much any customer in our fold when the time is right. The usual day brings the usual suspects: insurance companies, colleges, consulting houses, government agencies, you name it. Then once in a while comes a treat, the call you just can’t wait to go on. So how cool is it that my first customer call after coming back from the marathon was a running shoe company? Can you beat that? A meeting at New Balance. Way cool.

New Balance sports an impressive looking headquarters on the edge of Boston, but we trundled up to their other place in beautiful (he said somewhat tongue-in-cheek) Lawrence, Massachusetts. Truth be told, while Lawrence doesn’t have the best reputation as a garden spot, as one who’s heavily interested in history I find the place rather fascinating. And New Balance lives in a grand restored nineteenth century mill – with track lanes marked on the hardwood floors in places.

My sales rep of course opened the meeting by bringing up the marathon, and the moment I knew would come at some point came immediately: “And you ran it in New Balance shoes?”

Umm, uh, well, truth be told, no. I’ve been an ASICS guy, with a smattering of a few others tossed in for variety, none of which made me all that happy. And I’m a frugal guy, so I simply buy last year’s model at the cheapest close-out price I can find on the web. Hey, they’re not the newest, latest, and greatest, but if they were good enough last year, they’re good enough now. Sad truth is I’d never tried on a pair of New Balance that I thought had fit my feet. But it’s also fair to say that my trusty ASICS have changed a bit over the years, I’ve blistered more of late than usual, and I’m game for variety. I just hate paying running store prices to run those tests.

Yah, well, they understood, and we moved on and had a fine meeting. But they promised to take us upstairs to the factory store afterward. We’ll get back to that after a short interlude of extreme coolness.

Interlude of extreme coolness: New Balance has a lab where they do all sorts of dynamic biometric studies on runners and shoes. I’d heard about it some time ago, and corresponded with the guy who runs the lab about a year ago, but that was as far as it went. I figured I probably scared him off with my tale of bizarre foot surgery – I mean, how much useful data could he get on normal people’s feet by measuring my bionic one? By now, of course, things are a little more back to normal in the foot department, and I might actually be of some use to him. As a runner, the opportunity to get a better understanding of what my body was really doing sounds simply too cool to resist. And as an engineer, the opportunity to see how that measurement and analysis was done was again simply too cool to resist.

Since things in my life were converging that day, you’d expect me to tell you that it turned out that the lab was a mere fifty feet down the hall from our meeting room. And that somehow, the name of the guy who runs the place – with whom I hadn’t corresponded in over a year – just popped into my head halfway through our meeting (this, when the name of the guy across the table whom I’d just met had already left my head). And so I will tell you that these things were so, and that I was treated to a quick visit to the lab and a chat with said lab engineer. Whether I can be of any use to him remains to be seen (it would appear, in Seussical Grinchian fashion, that my foot is a size or two too small), but it was a great connection to make.

On to the shopping! Armed with a friendly discount, I hit the company store and to my delight did indeed find a pair of New Balance that appear to fit my feet, so I’ll give a pair of 1225s a drive and see what happens. But the much cooler bit was the 904s, which, at least in my opinion, are a cross between training and racing shoes. Light as a feather, but not so insubstantial as to leave your little piggies exposed to the nasties of the road. And shockingly yellow. Easier to pick me out of the crowd with these puppies on!

I’ve wanted to try out a pair of racing shoes for some time. It’s been close to thirty years since I wore those lime green Nike Waffle Racers around town and around tracks in upstate New York. But what’s been holding me back was the fear that real racers simply wouldn’t be supportive enough, and that old Yankee frugality – I had no great desire to dump a lot of money on something that experimental. Come the 904s, not really true racers, but a nice combination of lightness and support, and – just my style – last year’s model, discounted, with a bonus friendly discount at the already discounted factory store, and, well, even Mr. Stoic Shopper can’t resist making that kind of buy.

Which means I now have to consummate the experiment, which pushed me over the edge upon which I was tottering, which means yes, I went ahead and signed up for the Buffalo Marathon. Life just switched from post-Boston, to T-Minus four weeks to the next marathon. In cool shoes that will either kill my feet or – I hope – slice some effort and time from the tallies.

We learn best through experimentation.

Ed Note: A few days after I wrote this but before posting, I took the 904s for a short test drive. Like running in comfy slippers! Can my feet stand them for 26 miles? Actually, not my biggest concern at the moment as enough other things hurt that I’m really questioning my decision to run Buffalo.

04 May 2010

Wackos Descend on Groton

What kind of a wacko goes out and races six days after the Boston Marathon? Apparently quite a few kinds, since a bunch of us lined up for a little post-Boston reunion on the starting line of the Groton Road Race 10K a week ago, a mere six days after punishing ourselves through the Newton hills and down Beacon Street.

Groton is one of those classic New England races that has transcended mere racedom to enter the zone of eventdom. It is known to and appeals to the entire community, not just the hard-core and light-duty runners. This is evident by the size of the crowd compared to the size of Groton. There simply can’t be that many runners in a town that size, even counting us foreigners imported from neighboring villes. Truth be told, I didn’t go to Groton because I wanted to race. I went to Groton because I wanted to go to Groton, because my friend Chris is the race director, and I wanted to see his big party. I wasn’t disappointed. Quite the party.

Groton is a whole host of events ranging from a couple of kids’ runs to a 5K and then the headliner event, the 10K. The races are big enough to warrant shutting the streets, and the town is small enough that when the streets are shut, you can’t go anywhere, which led to the ironic situation of having to sit in traffic due to a race while trying to get to a race. The old guy who got out of his car behind me and groused about, “Can’t believe they’re running a race on a major thoroughfare!” just didn’t get it. In Groton, there simply aren’t many thoroughfares, period. You can’t avoid it. Fortunately, he avoided me, as I would have had a bit of a debate with his stance.

Our Masochism Trio of Boston Recoverees including myself, Rocket John, and Boston PR Mark, assembled at the start which was curiously marked as if to expect about a hundred five-and-a-half minute pace runners and at least a hundred more at six minute pace. Knowing that was probably more than a bit hopeful (the actual count at day’s end was three under 5:30 and five more under 6:00), we all paced around up front while awaiting a ten-minute delay due to a car wreck (no runners, thankfully) on the course. A couple of colonial minutemen fired off a volley, fortunately missing everyone, and we were off on a day that turned curiously from expected cool showers to surprisingly humid warmth.

The foolishness of this endeavor sunk in before we even left the high school track. Racing six days after Boston? Yeah, right.

Rocket John didn’t seem to notice this irony, bolting out in a manner suitable to his nickname. By the mile he was a good thirty seconds up on me, and that with me hitting the mile slightly under six flat. What did he put in his Wheaties this morning?

Mile one and I was pretty much finished for the day. No surprise, that was all the legs would offer up, no more power to expend. That’s not to say I was flat on the ground or anything, just that there was no way I’d be racing toward the six-oh-somethings I’d like to see in a five to six mile race. John was long gone, and by one and a quarter, Boston PR Mark eclipsed me as well. I told him I was toasted, put a fork in me, I was done, but soldiered on, settled down to a “default race pace” in the 6:20’s and chugged it out.

If there was any consolation, it wasn’t as if I was losing ground wholesale. I sparred with a few runners, trading a few places back and forth, having enough oomph to take a few on the upgrades – the benefit of growing up around and living on hills. There was the pleasant surprise of an unexpected cheering section, a co-worker out to root on his son, who spotted me around mile five. But it was otherwise an unremarkable run. I was happy to be able to hold my pace once I’d settled in, to post a little kick at the end just for the cameras, and mostly to be finished.

PR Mark, Rocket John, and I took 8th, 13th, and 15th among the nearly 500 finishers, nothing to scoff at, but nothing special on my part. Ironically, though I hadn’t gotten a real 10K split in the Tri-Valley 15K a week before Boston, when I extrapolated my 10K from miles one through six and an appropriate part of seven, it turned out – I can’t make this up – to the second identical to Groton. Of course, one would hope the 10K to be faster than the 15K, but of course, one doesn’t really care six days after Boston. In fact, one could be quite pleased to hold the same pace.

Now, the funny thing is that in five years of Second Lap running and racing, eleven marathons, countless 5Ks, bazillions of distances in-between, I’d never actually run a 10K. So what the heck, it was a PR anyway.

And the post-race munchies were great, too. Hats off to you, Chris, you ran a fine event.

(Photos courtesy of Jim Rhoades)

Bizarre Note: Groton is a classy New England town, home to a classy New England prep school, not surprisingly called the Groton School. But back in those First Lap days in upstate New York, we knew nothing of this. We knew of Groton as a small town in the Middle of Nowhere (as if we lived in the Center of Somewhere?), between Ithaca and Cortland, and worthy of derision as only high-schoolers can generate. For some reason one of the guys on my cross country team decided that the name “Groton” sounded like a fungal disease, and in that weird flavor of high school humor, we’d lament the pour soul who came down with a bad case of Groton. It’s thirty years later and I can’t get that out of my head, but I’m pleased that I haven’t needed any anti-fungal creams since running that fine event in that fine town last weekend.