30 September 2010

Bizarrely Beautiful

[ Ed note: This is the last of three articles on Reach the Beach. ]

Reach the Beach was a thirty-six hour blur. Between leaving home at 7:30 AM Friday to returning at 7:30 PM Saturday, I have to think hard and refer to paper records to remind myself of what happened at any given time. Not sleeping will do that to you. But one image is burned in my mind with intense clarity; an image that frames the entire experience, an image of bizarre beauty, and image that will be impossible to convey in words, but I’ll try.

How often do you see or experience something entirely apart from your previous experience? Visit a new place of sublime natural beauty? The mountains or dunes may be different, but you’ve seen beautiful vistas before. See a new movie, concert, or show? They may be new works, to be sure, but they are more or less new variations on familiar concepts. In general, once past our younger years, our ‘new’ experiences aren’t all that new. And you could argue that what I’m about to describe wasn’t all that new either, but it sure struck me as such.

To begin with, the whole idea of a string of runners spanning over fifty miles is pretty unique, but it’s not something you can take in all at once. Still, it makes an impression, as you drive for tens of hours through the day, through the night, never more than a minute or so from the next runner stretched out in a line before you. When darkness falls (Thud! …as I say to my daughters…) that line takes on an ethereal quality as the runners themselves vanish, replaced by bouncing blinky lights and the various shapes of reflective stripes worn by runners of various shapes. It’s like a fifty-mile-long stretched out line of Christmas lights, in a way.

My first shift came as blackness overtook day, and so my first vision of this was from road level. But that first shift was on a road with enough traffic, interrupting the placid red bobbing procession, making it interesting but not all that impressive. Subsequent shifts seen from the relative comfort of the van brought this home. And on the last shift of our van’s evening round, I got a preview of what would later burn into my head as the signature image of the event.

It was about 9:30 PM when our number twelve runner Bill took the baton at Echo Lake State Park, somewhere in the voids of central New Hampshire. Unique to this leg, the RTB Overlords aimed him out the back entrance of the park – a route he later described as utter darkness – while we motorized types used the main entrance and looped around to rejoin the course. Down the road we stopped for the usual mid-leg cheering, but for some reason this time it was really, really, really dark. And really, really quiet. And, odd for the area, flat and straight. And devoid of all traffic save a van now and then.

It left an impression. Standing in the road, it felt like an enveloping dark, punctuated only by the passing, every half minute or so, of a bobbing headlamp attached to a heavily breathing set of footsteps and blinky lights. Nothing but quiet, dark, and poetically lonely runners. Peaceful. And beautiful, in a way.

A peace unfortunately shattered by the frenetic activity and klieg lights of the net Vehicle Transition Area, my subsequent hopeless attempts to get some sleep during our van’s off-time, the rude 2:30 AM rising. We were back on the road again, my head in a semi-zombie state till 5 AM, when I found myself at the Gilmanton School – a town I’d never heard of – shivering from cold and my sleep-deprived body’s inability to regulate its temperature, itching to start my leg, my heart, my blood flow.

When the time came, it was somehow even darker than during our stop on Bill’s leg. The moon was supposed to be at half-phase, and though we didn’t see it during Bill’s phase, it probably raised the level of darkness from complete to merely utter. By 5 AM, it had set, and once away from the lights of the school, complete blackness pervaded, except, of course, the minute quanta of light that each runner’s lamps emitted.

When it’s dark enough, you realize that an LED headlamp burns with a cold super-white, almost blue-tinged light. You also realize that while the quantity of light it casts might be relatively small – certainly smaller than what you’d like when your goal is to illuminate on the road in front of you, the laws of physics are real, and if unimpeded, that light will go on effectively forever.

The air was cold, crisp, and indeed, optically unimpeding. The road, at this point, straight. The light did go on effectively forever. As I approached and passed each runner, the reflections it returned from their reflectors far outshone their blinky lights, but because the beam bobbed with each stride and sway of my head, the effect was almost strobe-like, somewhat magical, completely surreal. And then came the ‘wow’ moment.

The next runner I approached was wearing half tights and a form-fitting top, all black, nothing baggy waving in the breeze. On each arm, each leg, and in several other places, his togs had double sets of long thin silver-white reflective strips built in. Additionally, his reflective vest was snug, not prone to any spare movement, and his blinky light was built in. There was no stray movement in any clothing; all was completely coordinated with his body’s motion. Taken as a whole, in the cold harsh light of the LED, his black-clad body vanished into the night, replaced by a series of lights, mostly reflected, that perfectly, almost digitally, recorded his every movement. It was kind of a cross between the concept of those round measurement points painted all over a crash test dummy and a very funky computer-generated simulation of human movement. It was a way I’d never really seen a human before. A study in fluid movement. A study in form. Utterly unique. Utterly cool.

But there was another component which added to the effect. It was cold, in the high forties, dry, crisp, perfect steam weather. And so every second, this computer-generated motion study became a human steam locomotive, bursting a cloud of exhalation that blew up and over his head, capturing the cold light in a blast that appeared, roiled, and quickly vanished out of my beam. It too took on an almost artificial computer-generated quality.

The moment lasted for all of twenty to thirty seconds as I got close enough to get the full power of my beam on this vision, then just as rapidly evaporated as I passed him and moved on to my next prey. I’d pass plenty more runners on this leg, but none with that combination of clothing, form, motion, light, and steam; that power of impression. I’m certain he had no idea of the impact that his gear and the conditions had created. But for me it burned into my memory an image that somehow embodied the whole idea of Reach the Beach. Human form vanquishes all, including night, to carry on toward out goal.

Yeah, I suppose you had to be there. But trust me, bizarrely beautiful barely begins to describe it.

27 September 2010

Some Old Guy Won It

[ Ed note: One more tale from Reach the Beach is still forthcoming, but we interrupt that adventure to bring you this special news bulletin! ]

Five years in the waiting, and it finally happened. The stars aligned, the moon was in the correct phase, and the tide was just right. I actually won a race. Was it wicked cool? You bet. But one of the most fun bits of the day came after the race, while my wife was checking out the posted results. Someone else checking out the results over her shoulder remarked, “Some old guy won it!”

Seeing as this is, after all, a blog about the adventures of getting back to running later in life, nothing could have been more appropriate or more amusing. To be fair, I’m told that the speaker of said comment wasn’t all that young themselves, and was probably stating it more as a, “Wow, that’s cool, it wasn’t just some kid running away with it!” And I’m also pleased that someone stood up for my dignity and replied, “That old guy is her husband!” Bottom line though is that when she told me this story, it truly made my day.

How do you like that? I finally won a race. Some old guy won it.

The irony is that ten minutes before the start, I wasn’t going to run. Since those screaming downhills in Franconia a few weeks back, the left shin has been in tough shape. It’s been right on that edge where I figure I’m out of shin splint zone and into stress fracture zone. I’ll never know for sure, since I learned long ago that it’s really not worth the medical brou-ha-ha (and cost) to figure it out when the remedy for either is rest. So I rested, but that little Reach the Beach event intervened – can’t really skip that one when there are eleven others counting on you – and it got pretty painful again. So I rested again, pretty much hadn’t run since RTB, and around rolled Sunday.

I was already registered, and it’s a big turnout day for my club, so of course I showed up, dressed for the party. But in a mere mile warm-up, I could feel the pain returning. Do I, or don’t I? Hey, it’s only a 5K, can’t hurt much, right? But hey, the leg hurt in less than a mile. And I was (and am) still hoping to run (very casually!) the NH Marathon this coming weekend, despite having not put in anything longer than eighteen and having taken the bulk of the last two weeks off. But I’d finally strapped on those ultra-light New Balance 904s I bought way back in April and had yet to race in, and I oh so wanted a test drive. But don’t be an idiot, you fool, you’re injured. That was it, my mind was made up, I was sitting this one out.

Then I noticed that the pre-race crowd was mysteriously sparse. The Forrest Memorial 5K usually pulls in a field of about 200, but clearly that wasn’t the case today. Crap. How many times had I finished second or third, how many times had one guy showed up to spoil my chances of that elusive win, and how many times had I looked at the results of races I hadn’t attended and said, “Crap, I could’ve taken that one easy!” I knew I’d kick myself if this was my day and I didn’t step up to the plate. OK, so my healing will be delayed one week. I was back in.

The field really was thin. This was no feat of vanquishing the masses. Only a hundred showed, and nobody stood out as a ringer. Still, you never know.

Off the line my assessment held true. Not even any starting line imposters, playing rabbit till they petered at the first turn. Lonely. Just me and the two motorcycle cops. But it was way too early to think it could last.

And indeed, it got interesting pretty quickly. At half a mile in, another runner reeled me in and pulled along side. Didn’t pass, just pulled up. Neither of us spoke for the next few tenths, nor did I even glance. I started working through my head whether I could hold the pace, wondering who this guy was and what he had under the hood. His breathing belied that he certainly wasn’t cruising effortlessly, but neither was I. Heading up Phelps Street I broke the silence.

“How old are you?”

“Forty,” he replied. OK, two good facts. First, he’s no youth ready to out-sprint me at the end, but he does have nearly a decade less wear on him. Second, this race does 5-year age groups, a bit of overkill even when at its full-size field, and a density of medals sure to carpet the field on a sparse day like today. But presuming we didn’t go cardiac or get taken out by a surprise army, we were both in the hardware.

“Cool. I’m 47. No matter what happens, we’ll both get something.” I figured I’d toss in a little old-guy psychology too, and called him a youngster, just for fun. He took the bait, and made a crack about wondering where the real youngsters were. Bunch of wimps, we decided, and huffed on.

Another tenth along, as he stuck like glue, I pondered that he might indeed have a reservoir of capability, contemplated a potentially deadly horserace at the line, and decided to lay out a deal. “You ever won one of these before?”


“Me neither. Whaddaya’ say if we’re still like this at the end, we just cross the line together?”

“I’ll think about it.”

OK, so he’s confident. That’s OK, I’m not doing too bad myself. Every little surge he pushed, I met. Bide my time.

Now, you might be saying, “Hey, that’s just throwing the game,” and I suppose in a way, it was, but here are a couple of 40-somethings and it just seemed simpler than imposing death and destruction on both of us. And I was tickled think of what Wendy and Bill working the finish and results would do to sort that one out. A tie? Umm, we’ve never had that before…

A tenth or two later he spontaneously agreed to the deal. Confidence waning. So I could probably take him. Yeah, but I offered the deal, so I can’t act on that signal, it just wouldn’t be sportsmanlike, now, would it? I’d made the pact with the devil, I couldn’t be the one to break it.

So he did it for me. At a mile and three quarters, climbing the biggest hill on the course, he faded suddenly and significantly. I goaded him to come along. No dice. I simply held pace. I didn’t leave the coffee klatch, he did. The bargain was broken, fair and square. I had my shot.

But it wasn’t over. After the biggest climb came the biggest drop, and I’m not a strong downhiller. I was certain he’d be back. I poured on what I could find to forestall the inevitable, and refused to look back. Give no signs of weakness. The thin crowds didn’t give me any hints to the spread between us, either, so I finally broke down just before the final turn and shouted to a spectator, asking how much room I had. Had I looked, I would have known why he laughed. My rival, knowing he had nobody close behind himself, and having given up the hope of holding on to me, had faded well back but remained solidly and safely in second. Later he’d tell me he was pleased with his race and was fine with the whole deal / no-deal thing. And so it was just me and those two cops, for today, my cops for a change, heading for home.

The look on my wife and daughters’ faces was classic as I passed them, headed into the parking lot, and crossed the line. “You’re not supposed to win races!” one of them said later. What fun proving her wrong!

It wasn’t a stellar time, though it was my best 5K since the famed foot surgery. And the field was thin. And perhaps, just maybe, the magic shoes, the feather-light 904s gave me a little unfair advantage (or a fair advantage, why not?). But all that really mattered was that an old guy won it, and finally, that old guy was me.

24 September 2010

Sleepless in Seabrook

[ Ed note: This is the second of at least three articles on Reach the Beach. This one focuses on my running fun. Yeah, it’s long. So was RTB. One more RTB posting follows! ]

I admit, I lied in that title, just for a cheap pun. Reach the Beach doesn’t go to Seabrook. It ends in Hampton Beach, but humor me and grant me a little poetic license. Seabrook is, after all, a brief swim from the terminus of our 209 mile odyssey, and while I may not bear any resemblance to Tom Hanks, a shameless pandering to my beloved by citing one of her favorite movies might make up for my absence from the family compound and sleep-deprived grouchy state on return. And “Sleepless in Hampton” just doesn’t sound appealing at all.

So let’s start there, at the end. In my pre-race post, I noted that Hampton, to my memory, did nothing for me. With all due respect, meaning no insult to your Aunt Jane who’s had a family cottage there for fifty three years, after finishing one of the larger and oddest meanderings of my life, even on the emotional high of done-ness, it still did nothing for me. Overbuilt beach town, a bit worn. Even the state park beach at the end of the sand spit which constitutes the town – worn. When, just before we left, I made my team wait three minutes while I dashed from the finish zone tent complex through the dunes and out to the actual beach, where the dunes sheltered one from the view of said worn-ness, it was a lovely beach. But I had all of twelve seconds there. Dip the finger in the sea. Finish the journey. Return to my team, to our vans, to home.

So Hampton didn’t win a boost toward my Top Ten Places to Visit, but that didn’t dampen the adventure. I’ve spent plenty of time in the Granite State, having completed hiking the Four Thousand Footers back in ’95, and I felt like I knew the place. But what became apparent is there is a lot more of the state besides the White Mountains and Interstate 93 to get you there. While the first legs of RTB traversed my beloved Whites (and of course I didn’t get to run any of those), we subsequently covered parts of the state that neither I nor most living residents of New Hampshire knew existed. Even with my finely tuned sense of direction, I still have to look at the map to figure out where we went, but with this came a very real feeling of having mastered the vast landscape with our legs.

Our team, known as Outer Body, a name borne on a play on words from an attempt to refer to an out of body experience with a Boston accent, left Massachusetts Friday morning bound for the start at Cannon Mountain at the top of Franconia Notch – where it was, of course, raining, muddy, and just plain miserable, though thankfully that transformed to perfect weather within hours. We were photographed, processed, ingested, inspected, and all that stuff, and launched just after noon in the 12:20 wave. And I did? Well, nothing. Being runner number nine in van 2, I had no other task than to wait. So we did what anyone else would do in a situation like this: we went out to lunch, of course.

While I was recruited for this by a friend from my club, he ended up in van 1, so I was paired with six complete strangers – five runners, and because we were exceptionally lucky, a dedicated driver. Having a pilot was a godsend as the hours rolled on and the miles faded past; hats off to Jack for staying awake and in good humor while navigating through countless leapfrogs and TAs. Filling our van’s contingent were a married running couple, a pair of lovely lasses, and Jay, a Lutheran pastor, who proved to be the wildest of the bunch, a credit to his calling and a hoot and joy to have along for the adventure. All great people, and the long rides and shared meals helped me integrate with this crew, but it was hard not to find myself a bit in the outsider role. Jay’s humor helped break those barriers; thanks to him, the word “pigtail” will never be the same.

Finally at about 7:45 PM, more than twelve hours since leaving home, I took the snap-bracelet relay ‘baton’ from teammate Caren and hit the road on RTB Leg 9 in the rapidly fading daylight. I’d hoped the dusk would carry me through at least half of my segment, but blackness fell rapidly instead. The RTB overlords are rightly strict on safety. From well before dusk to well after dawn, each runner must be equipped with a reflective vest, headlamp, and, using the highly technical term that became the watchword of the event, blinky lights, attached both front and back. So equipped, the line of runners parading down the road created a weird red blinky parade, typically spaced a few hundred yards apart, never ending, blinking, bobbing, peaceful. We knew those blinky lights were critical because we wanted to stay alive, thus my concern when early in my shift I neared a lady who’s blinky light had failed. But we had a pastor in our van and therefore God on our side, so there on the road in front of me, like manna from heaven, was a dropped, broken, yet still functional blinky light – not hers, but clearly delivered in the time of need. A quick swoop, catch, and surprised handoff as I loped past, and I had re-equipped her for the coming climb.

By two miles into my 6.4 mile leg, any hopes of remaining daylight were dashed. When the big hill climb started at three, it was already dark. Really dark. And I’d put my headlamp on upside down so I couldn’t tilt it down. And I’d put it on dim to save batteries and couldn’t find the (bleeping!) button to turn it up. And the road had no shoulder and busted pavement. And an ambulance or something went screaming by – twice – making me worried that one of our ilk had gone down (so far as I know, that wasn’t the case). And the headlights were blinding. And I didn’t even spot my team out to root for me, it was so, so dark. And I had a ball.

My team was very casual, not concerned with racing or finishing times or really anything other than a fun time and raising some coin for their cause (checks to the Central Food Ministry, thank you, I’ll email you my address). But I’d decided to run my legs not at full race pace, since there were three and little sleep expected, but pretty close, to make them good hard workouts. I told the team I’d run seven minute miles, but I planned to beat that. And for my first leg, I did, dropping my pace well below my public target while making eleven “confirmed kills” (runners passed) with nobody returning that favor. And finished happy, though in notable pain from that left shin injury.

Around 10 PM, our van handed the game back to van 1, and made a beeline for the next VTA at New Hampshire Technical College to get some sleep before taking the helm back at 3 – yes, AM. Remember that I was with six total strangers, and I should also note that our team sweatshirts were black – rather hard to spot. Sleeping bag in hand I headed into the building to find a place to sack out, and rapidly lost track of my teammates. Inside the building was darker than outside. Dead bodies lined the hallways (OK, sleeping, but it was like walking through a morgue). And I realized I had a big problem: my team had no idea where I was, tucked in a side spur hall in the basement. If I didn’t wake up on time, they’d never find me. You can’t exactly walk through a building of sleeping people and shine lights in their faces to find someone. And I wasn’t sure they knew me well enough yet to recognize me if they did happen on my bones. And if 3 AM came around and I wasn’t there, they’d have no choice but to head out. So it was bad enough that I didn’t settle in till midnight, but worse that with this tension, I slept perhaps ten minutes before my alarm went off – and I did rise – at 2:30. No soup – or sleep – for me.

Soon after, 5 AM, at a place I’d never heard of called Gilmanton, colder than expected, made that much colder by my exhausted state, overdressed against the cold, jacket, gloves (already!), still shivering, thank God Caren arrived and I could get moving on 8.5-mile RTB Leg 21. Within a mile, time to strip down, a real feat when you’ve got a reflective vest over everything, and for additional safety I carried an extra headlamp I’d shine backwards. But this happened to be the only stretch where I paired up with a partner, Mike from Kingston NH, who offered up spare hands when needed. My van passed by shortly after the strip-down, took the hand-off of unneeded clothing on the fly, and we hit the big climb – four hundred feet in about a mile and a half – in darkness now moonless and even darker than before. Mike and I stuck together to multiply our headlamp power till he faded halfway up (ironically, of all the ~5,000 people in this event, I found myself chatting with his wife in the port-o-john line ten hours later at VTA 30). Over the lung-busting hill, onto what should have been all downhill on in, but instead the last two or three stretched on and on with several more rises, but also with a huge reward. As I topped the last rise, the sky was lightening, and though still quite dark, enough light crept forth to create an eerie beauty. I spontaneously belted out a few lines of, “There’s got to be a morning after!” to amuse another runner as I picked him off. Goofy, but having lived through that night, the sight of the pending dawn was one of those deep moments. Really. Leg two, probably about thirty confirmed kills (lost count) again with nobody returning the favor, and again well under my stated seven minute pace.

Back to you, van number one. Off to a local nook for the hungry-man breakfast. On to the final VTA. Brief nap – no, of course I didn’t sleep – on the lawn of a school on a truly delightful afternoon – all too brief, and van one was back, and we were off to the beach on our last legs.

I’d looked at my caseload leading into this – 6.4, 8.5, and 4.2 miles, 19 in total, but spread over three runs and twenty-some hours, and more or less said, “Piece of cake!” And had I run them pleasantly, that would have been the case. But I ran the first two hard, and I had to admit, combined with no sleep, I was hurting pretty good when I took the baton from Caren one last time. This one, RTB Leg 33, was short, so I just determined to get it done. Hammer down.

By this time the pack had compressed and traffic increased to the point that I was running considerably faster than those poor blokes traveling on fossil fuels. My team was to have met me halfway through for a cheering stop, but along came one, two, three miles, and they hadn’t passed me yet. I wasn’t surprised when I pulled in to the end of my RTB miles to find no Shelly waiting. I’d beaten them by a good four to five minutes. Under the rules of the race, I could have continued on, taken the next four-mile leg, but in a 28-hour race on a casual team, you can’t be serious. So it cost us four minutes? So what? Leg 3, well under my pace for the first two legs, another eleven confirmed kills, but my perfect streak was broken: one guy passed me. Oh well.

And then? A few more TAs, a few more leapfrogs, the walk to the end when the van was hopelessly mired in Hampton traffic, and that was it. Somehow our van pulled in just in time (only Jay and I had hopped out to walk) and our other van found us and most of us were there to make the ceremonial run through the chute when Bill arrived, RTB’s equivalent of riding in on the Champs-Élysées alongside Lance Armstrong. And then, a little fellowship, a little beer, a little chowder, and the gift of an indelibly etched memory of a unique odyssey owned forever.

Next: A unique moment worthy of a column all its own, coming soon.

23 September 2010

Reaching the Limit

[ Ed note: This is the first of at least two articles on Reach the Beach. This one focuses on the event logistics. I cover my actual running fun in the near future! ]

If there’s one word that describes last weekend’s Reach the Beach Relay, it’s not Strategery, it’s got to be Vantastic. Vans, vans, nothing but vans as far as the eye can see. Vans to the left of me, vans to the right, here I am, stuck in the van again.

Four hundred and thirty teams, each with two big vans, most looking almost eerily alike, being bred from the same rental fleet stock, plying the absurdly rolling hills of New Hampshire, 209 miles from Cannon Mountain to Hampton Beach in a decidedly not straight line. A few rough guesstimates hints at about 15,000 gallons of fuel toasted, which sounds ugly until you do the same guesstimates for a typical NFL game and get a far larger number, then multiply by the number of games in the league each week and by the length of the season. Reach the Beach (RTB) is a drop in the proverbial bucket.

But I digress. It was all about vans everywhere, and so a little explanation is in order here. This relay is a logistical masterpiece, until the end, when it degrades to a logistical disaster. RTB consists of 36 legs ranging from three to nine-plus miles. The standard team is twelve runners (there are also “ultra” teams with only six, but let’s keep this simple, kids…), so each runner takes three legs over the course of the race. For each team, Van 1 sets out with runners one through six and leapfrogs from “Transition Area” (or “TA”) to TA, arriving ahead of their runner to queue up the next one, pick up the last one, and head out again, often with a stop or two along the route to cheer on or re-supply their teammate. After six legs, Van 2 steps in with runners seven through twelve and does the same thing, giving Van 1 a few hours R & R until they meet up again six legs later to trade positions again. The magical van swap-over spot is known as a “Vehicle Transition Area” (or “VTA”), and as you might guess, there are twice as many vans at these stops.

Did you get all that? It’s complicated. Read it twice, there will be a quiz later.

Obviously, sending off four hundred plus teams and 800 plus vans at once wouldn’t work, so the wise overlords of RTB devised a staged start. Based on your team’s estimated pace, you’re assigned a starting slot ranging from early Friday morning to late Friday evening, the slower teams starting first, with twenty or so teams heading out every twenty minutes. The plan is that everyone gets to the beach more or less at the same time.

It almost works. But thank God it doesn’t work entirely. We’ll get back to that.

Since each wave of starters spread out pretty quickly, the net effect of this is that there is a never-ending stream of runners, spaced mysteriously evenly, spreading probably over at least sixty miles, slowly congealing as the convoy heads south. There is also a steady trickle of vans, which in their own odd way create a safety barrier as no midnight drunk driver could get up much speed before taking one of these rolling behemoths out. Yes, midnight drunk drivers are a concern, as are 2 AM drunk drivers and 4 AM drunk drivers because this thing does indeed go all night.

Now, where the problem arises is, as I noted, that their system pretty much does work. The plan is that everyone reaches the beach Saturday afternoon, and they pretty much do, which means that as you get closer and closer to the end, the pack contracts and the van density per road mile creeps ever upward. Of course, if the timing were perfect, at the finish, that van density would spike to infinity, creating a singularity that would spawn not a black hole but a white one (since all the rental vans were white), which would swallow up all of the known universe. Fortunately, the timing’s not perfect, but it’s pretty good, and that means one thing: traffic.

You start to see it about mid-way through at the VTAs. At about 10 PM Friday night we arrived at the New Hampshire Technical College near Laconia. Not only is this a VTA, but it’s a place where you can pitch a tent on the lawn or roll out your sleeping bag in a hallway and try to get some sleep. I of course failed miserably on that count, but more on that in a future posting. What strikes you about this VTA is that the vans really start to pile up, since not only is this a VTA, but it’s a VTA where people stay for a while. Hundreds of them. And of course you have to find yours.

By the time you reach the final VTA, the Sanborn Regional High School in Kingston, the enormity of scale has sunk in. By that time – the completion of leg 30 – you’re into the routine. You find nothing unusual about volunteers waving at you with those little orange sticks like the ones they use to guide aircraft on their roll to a stop at the terminal. The zippy little rotating flashing lights marking the actual runner hand-off zones at the TAs are old hat. All of this seems so, so normal by now, but here you are among many hundreds of vans, and while the number of people doesn’t touch an event like a major marathon, the dance they all perform, knowing just when to be where, when to run, to hand-off, to hop in the van, well, it’s amazing, and it’s getting thicker.

After TA 32, the traffic had grown so thick that I beat my van to the next handoff and had to hang around cooling my jets, awaiting our next runner. After TA 33 they sent the vans down a different route than the runners to keep the roads moving. And after TA 35 it’s the home stretch, and the dreaded singularly happens. The last mile through Hampton Beach comes to a standstill. Crawling at best. They simply can’t get all those vans into the parking lot at the beach fast enough. One of my teammates and I actually got out and walked just to be sure we’d be there when our last runner arrived, so as not to miss the ceremonial team run through the finish chute.

I’ve got to suggest that Reach the Beach has Reached the Limit.

What’s a race organizer to do? This thing grew out of nothing, and the unique aspect of the adventure has attracted such a following that it keeps growing and growing. But my experience this week says it just can’t grow any more. Many of the TAs themselves are at their bursting point, barely able to stow the vans transiting through. It can’t get much bigger, but nobody likes to be shut out.

The organizers seem to have figured this out and have announced the launch of a new RTB here in my home state of Massachusetts next spring. Perhaps it will take a little of the pressure off the original RTB. Or maybe it will just cause the popularity to explode that much more. Not that getting that many more people out to run more miles is a bad thing – no, far from it. It’s just an interesting thing to ponder. Could the amazing scale of RTB be replicated many times over, and in doing so, become ordinary? What does this say about our society? Our sanity?

Right, let’s stop that train of thought; it’s getting a bit too deep. Next time, stories of my running adventures at RTB.

16 September 2010

Reach the Edge

Tomorrow I set off on an adventure. Not really a race, just an adventure. Yes, after a number of years of contemplating it, I’m finally running the Reach the Beach Relay, somewhat by accident, but running it just the same. The bigger theme of the week, however, is riding the thin edge between crash training and injury, so I’ll call this Reach the Edge week.

Reach the Beach is a 209 mile odyssey through New Hampshire, starting in my beloved White Mountains at Cannon Mountain at the top of Franconia Notch (where it will be tough for me to get back in the van with my team without heading off for a summit first…), and winding its way down to Hampton Beach, along a route not even remotely direct.

The finish point is somewhat ironic. I’ll spend over a day heading for a destination that, while I’ve never really been there (I think I drove the main drag once?), I associate with tacky beach businesses and partying crowds. With me being a mountain person and it being a beach, it’s already starting out handicapped in the impression department, though admittedly some recent R&R on Cape Cod have bent my opinion of beaches significantly upward. Nevertheless, Hampton is not a high spot on my list. Shame on me for being so judgmental for so many years, but it is ironic to work so hard to leave a place I so love just to get to a place I could so care less about.

But then again, after working so hard to get there, I may just fall in love with the place and find its hidden beauty. That’s one of the cool things about running and racing. I have tremendously fond memories of places like downtown Lowell and Buffalo, neither considered the garden spots of their regions, just from memories of running and racing adventures. And so this adventure could in fact transform into a new appreciation for a place I associate with heavy traffic and beer-swilling beach types with loud radios and oversized coolers who like to engage in what used to be known as sunning but what I refer to as active cancering.

But that’s really not the point of this story. I just got carried away a bit.

While I’ve wanted to run this relay for a number of years, Reach the Beach wasn’t even on my radar this year. I didn’t seek it out just as I haven’t sought out any races all summer, and only recently tried to return to the land of the living. But my same club friend Bill who lit me up on the forty-dollar marathon (or, as I previously noted, the inexpensive training motivation program) dropped me a note last week that his team of twelve numbered only eleven, and would I consider jumping in?

It’s like giving candy to a baby. What, are you kidding?

Now, the funny part is that I was signed and sealed before I even knew who I was running with. I knew this wasn’t a team racing for glory, this was a team out for a fun adventurous run. Super, no pressure, just fun, I’m in. And Bill told me it was a group from his church, where I know he’s very active. We’ve had numerous chats about promoting the church life and though we’re of different denominations (I’ve always been amused by that word, what, I’m a ten, he’s a twenty?) we’re pretty much on the same page. So I knew I was going to be an honorary Lutheran for a day and a half, and I’m cool with that.

What I didn’t realize is that his team – no, make that our team, known as “Outer Body” – is doing this as a fund-raiser for a food bank ministry his church runs. So I’m sort of kind of maybe accidentally begging for donations to the Central Food Ministry of Lowell. Which is a place, as I noted before, of which I have fond memories. Funny how these things connect. Anyway, I figure since we’ll be tooling around in the Food Ministry’s van on the back roads of New Hampshire, I’d be a good sport to ask for some donations to their cause. So, all six of you reading this, consider this a plea, email me, and drop a few bucks to a good cause.

Now, what was my point again? Right, the edge. We’re now down to two weeks to that marathon. I managed a seventeen-and-a-half miler late last week, and, feeling good, kept up the intensity for a couple of days, hitting a respectable fifty miles over five days. And whammo, the shin injury came back, with a vengeance. Well, what did I expect, anyway?

So we dance. A few more days off. Then, much by accident, but a great motivator, Reach the Beach. Considering the lingering injury, not really at a good time, but how often does life fall exactly as you want it? I cover nineteen miles, which would be a good training run for the marathon if it were in one shot, except that it’s in three legs, so it’s not. Which means that next week I’ll need to get a twenty-miler in, or I am pretty much doomed to the death shuffle come the high miles on the west side of Newfound Lake. But a twenty following shortly after Reach the Beach is of course likely to re-aggravate that already aggravated aggravation.

Aggravated if you do, aggravated if you don’t.

A crash training program can easily lead to a crash. It’s like piloting the space shuttle in for a landing. You’ve got to hit just the right angle, and you get exactly one chance to get it right. In short, I’m riding the edge. Drive the training, synergistically build the motivation, while dodging the injury bullets that come so often on a trajectory like this. Two more weeks till the marathon. I just need to keep my balance as I ride this thin line, trying to reach the edge without falling off.

09 September 2010

Shedding Moss

It never fails. Never say die, or you might. Predict where you’ll get that speeding ticket, and you will (and yes, I did and I did, though that was twenty-two years ago, clean since, no, wait, I’d better not say that, either). Announce a breakout, as I did last week, and something will break. Which I did, and it did, though I’m hoping I’m quickly past that, gathering steam, and shedding the moss that grew on the bottoms of my feet this summer.

Just a week ago I gleefully declared the summer slump over. New Hampshire Breakout, I called it. There’s an aspect of positive thinking in a statement like that. The recession will be over when we all decide it’s over, right? And my slump will be over when I decide it’s over. And I decided it was over, though I knew there was an issue…

When in New Hampshire, my clan bases ourselves at a fine small motel in Franconia, just north of the famous Notch. Nestled along the Gale River, I’ve got the choice of running the valley or heading up the hills, which, being New Hampshire, are significant. Arriving a couple of Mondays back on a cool, drizzly afternoon, having just driven the course of my upcoming New Hampshire Marathon, I was inspired to run the hills. Abandoning the clan at the motel, I headed up Route 117 toward Sugar Hill, veering off at the top to climb higher up Sunset Hill, roughly a seven-hundred foot climb in about two and a quarter miles. Exhilarated!

And then… Most runners would groan at a hill like that and crave the coming descent, but I’m not most runners. I’m simply not a downhill guy, perhaps a good reason I gave up alpine skiing over twenty years ago. (Yes, I prefer to hike uphill as well. But that came later in the week, I digress.) But what goes up, right? So, bang a left at the top and scream down, down, down, a beautiful quiet rural road, straight and steady, down, down, I’d checked my watch and knew I’d been cranking for a good six to seven minutes, all down all the time, not gentle but really down, down, down, when what do my wondrous eyes do see, but… yes, the familiar “truck on block” sign waning me of an impending hill.

Only in New Hampshire. Or, I suppose any mountainous state, but it sounds good to say that since I was in New Hampshire. A solid mile downhill and now they’re warning you about a hill. You’re kidding, right? I literally laughed out loud.

There was a reason they warned me. What followed were three or four pitches of the painful kind. The kind of hills that you simply can’t follow the hill coaching advice of letting the hill to the work, letting yourself glide down in a controlled fall, not fighting it. No sir, not on these babies. If you didn’t fight these, you’d be dead.

Bottom line (and it took a while to get to the bottom), them there hills, they hurt bad. Leaning back, fighting like the dickens just to keep balance, yanking on muscles that never get used, no, just plain shouldn’t get used, slamming, pounding, pain. That seven-hundred feet evaporated in about one-point-four miles, and with it evaporated a fair amount of connective tissue, I figured out later.

I know, I know, it’s kind of like Arlo Guthrie telling you the whole Alice’s Restaurant story to get to the punch line, isn’t it? But you really need the setup to know there this is going.

We spent a fabulous weekend in the White Mountains beating the crap out of our legs. Tuesday, per my younger daughter’s request, was up Mt. Washington via Tuckerman Ravine, a truly grand route I hadn’t covered in twenty eight years (and descending via a route I’d never taken, only to be taken by surprise by a very significant ladder at the end of the day; now, I don’t like ladders much and my daughter likes them less, but what can you do?). Wednesday I ran the hills again, different route but more painful descents, and a nasty surprise to discover that nine miles into a nine-and-a-half miler, on Mt. Washington-abused legs, the bridge was out, and it would tack on five more to go around. Fortunately, a very amused construction crew showed me how to weave through their work zone and pass through. Hey, if I can climb mountains, I can get over a measly creek, right? Thursday, an easier summit and a flat run, Friday a few small summit hikes and some moderate hills on the late-day run, Saturday my daughter again picked a good one, one of the steepest trails in the Whites, the Flume Slide, for a finishing touch on a week’s leg abuse.

And I came home pumped. And I wrote that column. And I knew darn well that my legs were shredded. And I didn’t care, because after a week like that, the slump was over! And I had less than five weeks to ready myself for the marathon.

Reality has a habit of setting in at the least convenient times. Those downhills had done their damage. New Hampshire Breakout quickly unveiled its true identity of New Hampshire Break-it. By the end of last week my left leg was at that, “you’ve got a nasty shin splint which, if you don’t rest, could gravitate to a stress fracture” point. And I hadn’t yet put in a long one. Four weeks to a marathon, and my longest run since May was a fourteen miler. And in need of a few days off.

Well, this stinks, eh?

The glass is half empty, the glass is half full, the glass is broken, take your pick. I’ll take half full. OK, so I burned four precious days sidelined and resting. OK, so there’s barely more than three weeks till the marathon. OK, so what? I told my self this wasn’t a time-focused race, this was a motivator, so get motivated. An early morning seventeen and a half today, not the best, but not bad, and we’re on our way. Mash in a twenty early next week (here’s a plan: other daughter’s new school is eighteen-plus away via the back roads, hitch a ride in with her and run home, that’ll be a fun and interesting odyssey…). Toss on top of that a high-mileage couple of days next weekend, as I was just recruited by a friend as a last-minute fill-in for their Reach the Beach Relay team – White Mountains to Hampton Beach, yes, again in New Hampshire, a dozen runners per team, 200+ miles, about 24 hours. Before you know it I’ll be in taper, one local 5K booked to mix in some speed (and burgers afterward) a week before, and hot diggity, we’re gonna’ run a marathon soon!

Moss free.

01 September 2010

New Hampshire Breakout

Those who follow astrology (though I cannot for the life of me figure out why) would recognize a phrase like, “Such and such plays a major part today”. Yeah, watch out for those Leos, you never know about them. That is, of course, if you know who they are.

My horoscope two weeks back might have read, “New Hampshire plays a major part today.” And I would have laughed, and said, “Of course, you astro-ninny, I’m heading up there for a week shortly,” which of course, I did. But New Hampshire played a bigger part than expected, and the result is, I hope, a breakout from my injury-prone summer slump.

It’s been pretty much a foregone conclusion that my fall marathon would be the great Null and Void Marathon, held on a bench near you. After the horrid May (103 multiple-injury-laden miles), disastrous June (a mere 77 miles) and somewhat recovered but still hobbling July (finally a respectable 158 miles), all pretty much devoid of any racing, the thought of prepping for a big fall event was, well, astro-ninny silly. Nope, no marathon for me this fall. Stay the sane course.

But the down side of that decision is that there’s nothing pushing you, nothing goading you into working toward a higher level of fitness, nothing driving you out the door every day. And the result has, so far as I can tell, been an extension of the slump, probably beyond what it physically needed to be. Mentally, it’s dragged me down, which of course translates back to the physical. It’s a spiral, easy to fall into, hard to break out of.

Enter my club-mates, or one in particular. I’ve always said that a club is a motivating force, and this time was no exception. At a recent workout, club-mate Bill mentioned his fall plans to run the New Hampshire Marathon. Which one is that? Manchester? Clarence DeMar? Huh? No, the New Hampshire Marathon, a race I’d never heard of. How is it these things exist for years and you never hear about them? Thanks to the club, you do.

So, here’s the cool part. It’s only forty bucks. Yes, I spelled that out so you know it’s not a typo. Forty bucks. Lock, stock, & barrel. Cheapest marathon I’ve seen in, well, cheapest marathon I’ve seen. And it appears to be a full-fledged event. Forty bucks. Go figure.

Now, what this did to my head was simple. For forty bucks, just sign up. Don’t even think about it, just do it. That’s only five bucks more than the fee I lost by not running the Boilermaker this year. For forty bucks, you get motivation. You get something pushing you. And you get the freedom of knowing that if you find you just can’t pull it off, well, so what, it was only forty bucks. And if things go well, you even get a race. And a t-shirt, of course, because I need another t-shirt, but hey…

I know people that would spend more than that on a tie. I can’t see why, but they do.

And so, just before heading off to my week of hiking with the family in New Hampshire, I mailed in my check for forty bucks, and I am now registered to run a fall marathon. Since I was going to New Hampshire anyway, and since it was rainy and not a great hiking day on our way up, we spent an hour or so and drove the course. Very pretty, circumnavigating Newfound Lake, and of course, this being New Hampshire, hilly. Just my style, oh, what fun!

I now have motivation. Combined with a week in New Hampshire where the air was cool and, when not raining, crisp, my outlook has risen significantly from slump-land. Even the last few days home, when it’s peaked in the mid-nineties every day and hit the mid-eighties every time I’ve gotten on the road, making me feel quite awful again, my outlook is up. I’m registered for a fall marathon.

We won’t talk about the fact that it’s a mere month from tomorrow and the longest run I’ve put in since May was a fourteen miler just before the New Hampshire trip. No, that’s crazy talk, we’ll just avoid that little reality. Let’s see, pop in an 18-miler this week, a 21 in another week and a half, still time to taper and rest, and after all, this one is not about the time. Just go and have some fun. Really. I swear.

It’s all about the motivation.

New Hampshire plays a major part today. Really, I read it next to Ann Landers, it must be true.