21 August 2010

A Series of Little (Wolves) Tastes

A couple of decades ago, just before I embarked on a business excursions to Los Angeles to teach a roomful of people a solid week’s worth of mind-numbing information, my mother was thoughtful enough to send me a restaurant review she’d seen in a magazine. When you get to L.A. check this place out, she told me, it looks good, and was, according to the article, “reasonable”.

After I dragged ten of my corporate classmates to this fine establishment, I realized that “reasonable” in a magazine about an eats-house in L.A. is only reasonable in comparison to a year’s tuition at Cal Poly; our expense budgets were shot for the week and we literally did pick up a meal or two at McDeath’s to make up for the folly. But memories of that evening linger, notably when the waiter, in perfect harmony with the prediction in the magazine article, strode to our table and announced, “The chef has prepared for you tonight a series of little tastes…

Let the gastronomical delights and the financial wreckage begin!

Why do I think of these things? That, I cannot say. But in that spirit, at last, nearly a month past the event, I fulfill my promise of bringing you stories of the Wolves race. The author has prepared for you tonight a series of little tastes…

Indulge.

Who’s That Winner? Our race was won by 18-year-old Ben Perron of Southborough, the next town south of here. Shortly after the race I received an email from Jeff, the coach of the Southborough Recreation track & cross country programs, a gentleman I’ve had the honor and pleasure of working with on numerous middle school meets with my Immaculate Conception teams. Jeff was tickled by the news since Ben was a veteran of his program. Clearly a high for any coach!

In Record Time? Ben’s time was a minute and change off of last year’s winning time, but we extended the course this year to gain USATF certification. Granted, we added only 84 feet, about 5 seconds at Ben’s pace, but a change is a change, it’s a “new” course, and I’d give him at least a record with an asterisk.

Stretched It? Why add 84 feet? Certification is a mysterious thing. For certification, we elected to measure assuming runners might cut onto a sidewalk we’d presumed they’d skip last year. It’s lumpy and ugly and such, but they could, so we did. Doing so still put us only a few feet off our wheel measurement from last year – within the error limit for certification. But on the second measurement it all came out different. Why? I’d call up Alan Jones, inventor of the famed Jones Wheel, and ask, but I’ve kind of lost track of him since I knew him in my early First Lap days running for the Triple Cities Running Club back in Binghamton NY. Alan was a real pioneer, using computerized results reporting for our weekly club meets in the days when “PC” was a foreign word to most. His son, Clain, who took over the Wheel business for a time, was a schoolmate and track & XC teammate of mine, though a bit younger than I. Someday I’ll have to look them both up… And maybe they can explain it. Though we were within the acceptable limit of error, we elected to be conservative and added the distance. Whatever.

The Course, Completed: Measured or not, we had a scare when the City tore up a piece of the rail trail which our course crossed twice (being an out and back) mere days before the race. Race director’s coronary department! But the work was completed rapidly, and truth be told, that spot – at the town border with embedded town seals and an embedded piece of rail – was a bit hazardous and needed attention. Kudus to the City for fixing it. Just for us, we figure.

And Maybe It Was – Because the City was Fabulous: Early in the planning stages, our fair city, the fine City of Marlborough, tossed a new permitting process at us that created some heartburn. The new framework was clearly designed to handle the woes that entail from visiting carnivals, charlatans, and murderers’ conventions. We, being local folk trying to do good, were, to be fair, a little irked. But there was method behind the madness, and being more aware of our plans than ever before, the City delivered in spades. They gave us the stadium again for our finish and post-race gathering, but their man on location, Rick, didn’t just unlock the gates and open the doors, he pretty much joined our race staff and worked his behind off to make it a fantastic night. Gratis. And the City sent us cops, not one, not two, but three, James, Tony, and Borden. Gratis. And they didn’t just stand there like rent-a-cops, they too dove in like race staff, covering road crossings, traffic snarls, you name it. Two of them, mounted on their fine titanium steeds, became roving course marshals (“The runners are coming! The runners are coming! One if by foot and two if, umm, by foot!”), and one happened to be on the spot when our casualty of the day occurred and one went down to heat stroke. Thanks to these guys, our runner was treated in minutes, his worst lasting wound being a bad memory. Hats off to the City of Marlborough, a thousand thank-yous.

Missed My Fame: My hub-bub as pre-race field commander was interrupted for a five minute interview by the local access cable news program. The bummer is I forgot to watch it. My fifteen minutes of fame, and I missed it.

Did they howl? You Bet They Howled! We billed it as the Wolves run, and they howled. Yes, at first, because I told them to howl at the start, and howl they did. But howl they continued to do. They even became famous for doing so, as reported by John over at the Worcester Telegram & Gazette (take a look down toward the middle of his column). Hey, you have to be a little loony sometimes, right?

Real Wolf? The morning of the race, my wife spotted a coyote while out on her morning walk. Yes, they’re known around here, but not all that common. And for you nay-sayers, the Eastern Coyote is a hybrid with plenty of wolf involved. I say it was an omen. And one real wolf, or at least a distant cousin of one, did cross the finish line.

But As They Howled… What About The Important Stuff? So our team has been working for months and it’s all come down to this. Field commander mode, everything must get done. Finally, it’s starting time. I’m making the pre-race announcements. We’ve verified that our split timers are on the course and ready for the start. Amy, our Head Queen Diva, belts out a stirring national anthem. We howl. And in the excitement, the fun, the not-wanting-to-hold-these-people-up-any-longer, I say GO! Oh what fun! And then I have that, OH CRAP moment, when I realize that while yes, I did have my stopwatch in my hands, DID I START IT? A moment of panic. Yes, I did start it, even at the right time, but I realize that of all those checklist items, I’d forgotten to verify who were our backup timers and if they were ready. Thank God for teammates, they were all over it. Not that we needed it, but if we had, and they hadn’t, oh, I shudder to think. “Well, we THINK you ran about, umm, uhh…”

And Last But Not Least: This race was a tremendous team effort, especially on the part of the few inner-circle folks who worked ridiculous hours to make it happen. But I did stamp a few personal bits on top, just because, well, after all, being race director does let you make a decision now and then. And I wanted to recognize some people who never get recognized, so we gave awards to not just the fast folks but also to those with the most perseverance: the very last man and woman to cross the line. Unfortunately we missed catching the last lady before she left. When I contacted her to send her award, she was tickled by the recognition, but said she’d departed “exhausted and embarrassed”. Embarrassed? Always remember, I reminded her and I remind you, when you toe the line for that 5K, 10K, or any race, the last place finisher has just accomplished far, far more than the 99.5% of the population who haven’t left the couch. Fast or slow, stand proud, you came, you ran, you howled, and you triumphed.

16 August 2010

Not That Great

Ed Note: Yes, I know, I’ve promised stories from the Wolves race. Sadly, my primary computer is down for the count with maintenance issues. All of the Wolves pictures are over there. So again, I’m afraid you’ll have to wait for the Wolves, and hopefully enjoy this tale in the meantime.

It’s easy to romanticize. We do it all the time. Imagine that perfect setting, that perfect experience, scope it, plan it, just do it, it will be great. Yeah, well, not always.

That famous glitzy running magazine features a spread every month called the “Rave Run”, where some ├╝ber-fit denizen of our community glides along through breathtaking scenery, without, of course, having their breath taken away, since that would be a bad thing during a run. On occasion that feature has even hit a place or two where I’ve run, and they are fabulous spots. But since we don’t get those opportunities often, we try to re-create something similar close to home.

A few days back I had a business meeting in Connecticut, about an hour and a half from home, and as is often the case with my late-night routine, I didn’t drag my bones out of bed early enough to pop in a few miles in the pre-work sunrise hours. Rather than fret, I saw this as an opportunity: pack the bag, find a good spot, and plan a rave run for the ride home, once safely removed from customers who actually desire that the engineers who visit are clean-smelling and somewhat kempt. It is, after all, a sales job. But I digress.

My target, courtesy of a thirty-second web search, was the Air Line Trail (or Airline Trail, depending on who you believe), an abandoned rail bed stretching 50 miles through northeastern Connecticut. In my brief web search, I didn’t catch much information about the trail; I simply looked for a spot not far from my travel route but away from civilization. In northeastern Connecticut, that isn’t really that hard; I chose a section near Hampton in the James L. Goodwin State Forest. Ah, what better way to end a workday on the road than with a pleasant ramble through the forest, where the map promised trailside lakes and forest scenery, the former railway promised relatively flat and easy going, and the brief web search hinted at a soft, unpaved surface.

After a few miscues – as it turns out you cannot find the trail when it crosses US Route 6, forcing a start in the forest at the next road crossing – I hit the trail. Flat and easy going? Check. Soft, unpaved surface? Check, a fine respite for that nagging Achilles. Scenery? Too early to tell. So, two out of three so far, not bad, but there was a forth forest feature I hadn’t figured on. A frighteningly frequent flying formation fomenting furious frenzy. Silly me, I should’ve known better.

Cursed flies. Evil, villainous, cursed flies. I’d use stronger words but we try to keep this family oriented.

Now, I’m not saying I was really prepared for this. It was a quick, last minute, running-out-of-the-house decision. I’d made tactical errors. No dry clothing outside of dress work clothes for afterward. No beverage stock. No plastic bag to keep the car key fob dry (hmm, soak it in salt or carry it looped around the fingers…neither optimal). And no bug juice. The latter would have been handy against mosquitoes, but not having it was really not the problem; it would have been useless.

These were not your average house flies, or even your typical black flies. These were kamikaze flies, terrorizing in swarms, like kamikazes using their impact more than their weapons to agonize. Before I was a hundred meters down the trail I was pelted with a hailstorm of winged protein packets. No bug juice could have penetrated the air quick enough to turn them back from their evolution-honed attack vectors. Frankly, it’s hard to figure out how they do it, how they seem to position themselves in your path and allow you to smack them as they smack you.

Damn the torpedoes. Full speed ahead. This is going to be a beautiful route. I am going to enjoy this.

Except that it really wasn’t, and I really didn’t. Trees, trees, and more trees. Don’t get me wrong. I love trees. I will hike for days. I love forests. But even the most excitable peak-bagger will tell you that the wooded summits are a bit of a letdown. We outdoors types do like some spice on our food. We do like something more than trees. Now where were those lakes on the map? Ah, yes, those weed-choked over-phosphated almost-thick-enough-to-walk-over quasi swamps. Yes, those must have been the lakes I was promised. Well, as they say, it looked good in the brochure, but that was just marketing.

Truth? It wasn’t that bad. But more truth? It wasn’t that great.

Well, when you’re in it, you’re in it, and you might as well milk it. I pushed on, at a harder pace than planned in a futile attempt to outrun at least some of the flies, till I reached the fifth road crossing which I’d measured as a tad over five miles out, having seen a mere two humans by that time (not even another runner to commiserate with!), then spun it around for the return trip home. Being a hot, humid evening, my shirt soaked and heavy, it wasn’t long till the ancient runner’s malady set in, with friction on the pointy bits creating red streaks down my white top along with the accompanying screaming soreness of every stride. On a normal day, the solution is easy. Lose the shirt. But not with four miles of flies between me and the car.

Soldier on.

Probably the worst insult was having to jump in the car instantly after coming off the trail. No walking warm down, no time to let the drippage subside. Grab the towel, slam the door, and get out’a there. Fast.

So it wasn’t the rave run. It wasn’t the nirvana spot I’ll return to. But we have to take what we’re given and make the most of it. It was certainly an adventure. And it was the first hard ten miler I’d logged in a long time.

Who knew flies could be such tough coaches?

08 August 2010

Loyal To My Lifesaver

Ed Note: I’ve promised more stories from my club’s recent race, and I promise, I will get there. Meanwhile, August 7th has come around again. I’ve written before about what happened on that date, twenty-nine years ago. But with my sister fighting a courageous fight against cancer, showing how a positive attitude toward one’s own care (and life in general) can inspire and carry us through the tough times, it’s all the more relevant to tell the story again in more depth. I recently was asked to write an inspirational piece on running for a friend’s forthcoming book, and my selection of a topic was easy. I present that piece here. Fight on, sis. You’re showing us how it’s done.

It’s simple, really. Running saved my life. Dramatically. Someone, or in this case something, saves your life, and you ought to stay loyal to it. I didn’t, and running had to save my life again – not quite as dramatically the next time, but really, it did, again. This time I’ve learned. Running is my friend. I will stay loyal as long as I can.

Truth is, running had already made my life before it saved it. I was the geeky kid, the nerd, the one everyone taunted and teased, the klutz with no athletic ability. It didn’t help that I had the emotional control of a tornado till middle school. I had the respect of the adult world, but without single a cool factor in my column, I was hopeless amongst my peers. But in high school, I found my calling on the roads, the trails, and the track. A natural endurance. A tolerance for pain. An urge-to-kill competitiveness, as one of my coaches used to call it. A path to bring a little victory to the old Spartan Blue & Gold, a school that sorely needed it. Of course I was still a geeky kid, a nerd, and a klutz, but as a runner, I grew up, and gained some respect by the time high school ran its course. On my way out the door, the world stood at my feet with great plans and opportunities.

And then it all went away – almost – if not for running.

People don’t get the flu in August, but I did. Maybe it was working three jobs, keeping up a social life, and running most every night at 1 AM when my best running buddy got off his second-shift job. Most likely it was dumb luck, since it turned out it wasn’t the flu.

After two days of feeling pretty down I awoke on a Friday morning, the seventh of August, 1981, feeling pretty good. Nevertheless, I elected to call in sick again that day. Might as well rest up, it’s Friday, they can live without me, I’m just a summer temp anyway. Back to bed for a nap at 7:30, mom’s off to work, I’ll be fine snoozing alone, enjoy it, college arrives in a short month.

A mere hour later I was jarred from slumber by a freight train derailment. The real train tracks were a mile from my house, but this train was in my head. Quite the wreck. Unimaginable pain. And it got worse when I lay back down. That told me something was really wrong. Enough lucidity to make the phone call. Mom, something’s wrong. Not enough lucidity to realize she’d hung up to call the doctor and was trying to call back. Still holding the phone in agony at the kitchen table when the neighbor came banging on the door to find out why the line was still busy.

Haze setting in. Fortunate to live in a town small enough that she’s home from work in ten minutes, we’re at the doctor’s office fifteen later. Lucky as hell to see a doctor who gets the right hunch the first time, after all, not like he sees spinal meningitis every day. Remember hearing, “No time for an ambulance, drive him to the hospital now, and don’t stop for red lights.” A crash team waiting for me at the door. Enough brainpower to crack with them that I must be really sick since they’re not making me sign any forms, but not enough to care about the pain of the immediately administered spinal tap on arrival. People tell me they hurt. I didn’t notice. Then, nothing.

Elapsed time: Feeling pretty good to deadly coma, about three hours. Ponder that. Three hours. Of course, there are plenty of things that will kill us instantly. A heart attack. A bullet. An asteroid the size of Chicago. Still, there’s something uniquely frightening about that three hour span. We tend to think in terms of instant death or slow decline. We don’t think much about the middle ground; it is foreign to us. Death in a span of three hours strikes an odd nerve.

The end of the story is that I’m still here. The recovery was long, far longer than a couple days in the ICU, a week in the hospital, and a month of recuperation. Effects lingered for close to a year. But I’m still here. Plenty of people contributed to the end of the story, all worthy of lifelong thanks. To this day I don’t know who that doctor was who played the hunch and got it right when minutes counted. Twenty five years later I tried to find out, but couldn’t. He saved my life. The crash team saved my life. The rest of the staff saved my life. Mom, of course, saved my life. Bacterial meningitis was at that time about 90% fatal, I was told (today’s drugs had dropped that to about 50-60%, still pretty scary). I was oddly honored to learn that I had generated my very own county-wide public heath alert.

But in the aftermath, the doctors summed it up very neatly and succinctly. Without the physical conditioning from my running, I wouldn’t have made it. They left no doubt about it.

Simple. Not running, not writing this. Running saved my life.

That part was simple. But life never is. Recuperation plus the onset of college made me drift away from my lifesaving friend. A little here, a little there, a little less next year. A decade later I was still cycling and hiking but not running. Another decade later the cycling had dropped away. The skinny kid was still pretty fit compared to the American Couch Potato, but frankly, had acquired a bit of pudge. Twenties became thirties became forties became the day I realized my legs didn’t feel very good anymore. Dr. Google, who has no bedside manner, suggested all sorts of mean nasty ugly things that could be happening. It was time to be saved again. I came back to my old friend.

This latest time it wasn’t a narrow escape from death. It wasn’t running in the fire turnout gear hauling me from the burning building of imminent death. But running came to my rescue again, replacing the start of my decline with the start of my midlife fitness triumph. Five years, twenty-five pounds, eight thousand miles and eleven marathons later, I am saved again.

People never stop telling me how running will kill me: death by joint degeneration, death by traffic, death by heart attack because they heard about that one guy out of thirty thousand who collapsed at Boston this year. They’re not entirely wrong. After all, running nearly did kill me a few marathons back. But I’m willing to give it that opportunity. Something will kill me someday, and if it is running, it will be because it running has earned it, because running has saved me, because I literally owe my life to running. And besides, what a way to go when the time comes.

Every August I remember the day I didn’t die. And I remind myself of what saved my life. I need to stay loyal to my live-saving friend.