30 December 2011

And Now For Something Completely Different

Movie and musical themes keep running through my head that zero in on what could be seen as ironies or could be seen as a train running a little fast on a downhill grade. Picture the movie drama (the film has been made, I don’t recall the name, never saw it); he’s going too fast, will he make it to the valley safely? Or will there be a spectacular fireball, consuming countless extras and movie props, and of course our hero?

A simpler image is the end of the Blues Brothers movie: the demise of the Blues Mobile. Admittedly this low-brow flick still stands as a favorite; my tastes are not entirely cultured. What a vehicle! Cop tires, cop motor, cop suspension, and it pulled off amazing feats, but when it reached its limit, the end was sudden. Instant, violent disintegration. Everything fell off at once.

Notwithstanding the easy comparison to the finale of a bad day marathoning where only the wheels fall off, I sometimes wonder if I’m not pushing my body like the Blues Mobile, only to have everything fall off at once. Knees buckle, ankles snap, heart myocardially-infarcts, lungs implode, a gelatinous blob is left pulsating on the race course somewhere, best removed with liposuction equipment. OK, it’s not likely, but should it happen, man, what a way to go.

Am I pushing a bit hard? Well, the year closes with a list of notable events, most of which I didn’t foresee coming. Since I’d failed at covering two thousand miles in the previous years, I skipped that in favor of the odyssey of running every street in town. Perhaps I was too busy studying maps to recognize the long-term change in intensity that set in, and here at year’s end I’ve covered not two thousand but twenty-six hundred miles, averaging fifty a week. Beating my thought-to-be out-of-reach annual record from age seventeen. Surprise.

At the end of the Marlborough map coverage, along came, quite by accident, a streak of running every day that now stands at two hundred and twenty-five days and, winter-be-willing, offers a shot at that other seemingly untouchable youthful mark of three hundred seventy five days. Can’t say it’ll happen, but even being this far in, surprise.

After scraping the three hour mark at Boston and serving up a heat-slowed Buffalo, I could have reasonable expected my pre-surgery marathon PR was a memory. Along came Bay State. Surprise. And following on that, racing with Greater Boston. Surprise. In Seattle. Big surprise. In the Nationals. Absurd surprise.

All of which leads me back to the question: Is this a reasonable new reality, or a path to implosion, Blues Mobile or otherwise? Another musical theme kicking around the cranium is a far lesser known one: an old Harry Chapin tune called Mr. Tanner. No relation to Rocket John, this Mr. Tanner is an ordinary local Ohio guy blessed with a rich voice, who at the urging of this friends cranks it up a level and sings a concert in New York. The big time. Except he’s good, but not big time good, and he comes home chastised to nothingness by the critics and loses his will to share his talents publicly.

That tune certainly went through my head on my way to Seattle. But I didn’t come home in disgrace, and the body hasn’t imploded yet. And frankly, I don’t really care if I get beat up a bit on the bigger stage. I’m just glad to have the opportunity to be there.

So to the last theme, borrowed from Python: And now for something completely different. Last night I treated myself to a pair of spikes, or when said metal bits are removed, racing flats. (Actually, my cross country team treated me with their generous season-end gift certificate.) I haven’t owned a pair of these since high school. Slippers with weapons, as Keith at the running store called them. And tomorrow I’ll test them out, racing a 4 x 1600 meter relay on the indoor banked track at Boston University, the first time I’ve raced a mile since high school. It’s been over thirty years. I have no idea what I can do, but I’m eager to push the body and try to find out. I feel like a kid again! Granted, a kid with achy bones and cholesterol meds, but you get the idea.

The movie and musical themes can make you worry, but it’s up to you to push past them, ignore the pessimism, and continue to drive to new adventures. Aging doesn’t have to mean retracting from the abilities of youth if you don’t let it.

Come to think of it, all the Blues Brothers really needed was a good mechanic.

16 December 2011

Going Loopy in Seattle

So first, let’s get one thing completely straight. This was the National Championship (technically, the USATF National Club Cross Country Championships), but there weren’t any entry standards. Given the right circumstances, mainly a club willing to have me and my willingness to get my bones to Seattle, I could have run in this at eight minute pace. Or slower. Indeed, in the masters’ race, there were plenty who did, seeing as the masters race includes not just us forty-somethings but fifty-, sixty-, and seventy-somethings. The race video reveals more than a few departing the starting line at a leisurely pace. So getting into Nationals wasn’t in itself an unattainable feat.

That being said. when I report that I finished 152nd of 356, frankly, so what? Reporting that I didn’t embarrass myself, beating about a third of those in my five-year age group (48th of 68), well, that’s nice too. It proves that moderate-size-fish-me stepped out of my local small pond and dove into an ocean of serious competition. It says I ran a respectable race but, as expected, I’m nowhere near the apex of this game. No surprises.

All that aside, the reality was that last Saturday afternoon I did stand at the start of the National Championships. Not exactly on the starting line, as each team’s starting box was about one-point-four people wide, so as fifth man I was a few feet back, but certainly at the starting line. Just being there? Wicked cool. Racing with the likes of these guys? Just like the commercial: Priceless. And qualifying standards or not, I was there because I’d run well enough to be asked. I’ll take it!

Running with a team with the historical cachet of Greater Boston is somewhat heady in and of itself, even though they’re all normal folks, and nice ones at that, who’s company I truly enjoyed on the trip. But leaving the hotel on Friday for our course scouting expedition, jogging in a pack of twenty-five-plus bright red Greater Boston jackets through the streets of downtown Seattle heading for the light rail was an unexpected high. Runners tend to be individualists. Buck the trend. Don’t follow the crowd. We’re different. But when it is your crowd of like-minded individualists in a visible show of force on the other side of the country, it’s all about team, and it’s a rush.

Seattle’s serious lack of winter daylight seemed to bring race day about that much quicker. Thirty-seven packings and re-packings of my race-day backpack later – who says I’m not obsessive-compulsive? – we were walking into the Jefferson Park golf course (with many thanks to City of Seattle for allowing us to trash their golf course). First surprise: An admission fee! Not for us, of course, but imagine that, people would pay to see us run! Second surprise: A real-live printed on glossy-coated dead trees program! With our names in it! Now, in the age of instant publishing, seeing your name in print has long lost its luster, but still, the Wicked Cool factors kept stacking up right alongside the myriads of cool jerseys from teams across the country. Nationals!

The starting line stretched wide across the second fairway, making a drive for the green rather tricky. Sixty starting boxes crammed into a hundred and fifty feet at best; really one person wide, though some teams tried putting two on the line. But even to get there, one had to pass through the officials’ tent and be inspected for proper and complete labeling; this race carrying more identification requirements than any I’ve seen before. Besides the standard front-side number bib, we were also required to wear a second copy of our number on our left hip, an age group identification bib on our backs, and not one, but two chip tags, one on each shoe. In other words, they’d be able to track us down if we ran to Oregon.

From there, five two-kilometer loops. The first a little different, the next four identical. No hills to speak of beyond a few mild slopes. Simple. So simple, that as a marathoner, I didn’t care when I learned the race was ten, not eight kilometers. Yah, another lap, so what?

Well, five laps is a lot when you’re burnt by the end of the second, that’s what.

Obviously my goal here was to run the best I could, deliver the best place possible for my team, and walk away proud. But wrapped inside was another nugget: a score to be settled with a rival from neighboring Lowell, a rival who’d beaten me the night we met this past summer, and to whom I’d returned that favor at the New England Cross Country Championships. This was the rubber match. Beat “Bad Dog” E.J. Period.

Turns out the Lowell team started only a few boxes to our left. Within a few hundred meters, as I danced and jumped to stay upright in the starting rush, memories of being gored by spikes in high school (from which I still carry scars) returning to haunt me thirty years later, I’d picked up E.J.’s distinctive gray locks to my left. By the first turn he’d dropped in a stride behind me. Game on.

The reality was that I wasn’t in this race from the perspective of a serious contender. I’ve already noted my unembarrassing but unimpressive finish places. I was at capacity, all cylinders firing, not much more I could do if the earthquake hit and I had to run faster to escape the collapsing ground just to live another day. Had someone, anyone, crept up on me to pass, I can’t say that I wouldn’t have let them.

But not E.J. He’s not getting by. No matter what.

In his mind, a similar scenario. Anyone else, would he, could he have hung on? Unlikely. But for him, let Cattarin go? No way. No matter what.

And so it went. Loop one. As I told my cross country kids, run the first one hard and say, “Oh crap, I’ve got four more to do!” Loop two. Oh crap, there are really three more? This really is ten kilometers, not just five easy loops. Agony set in rapidly. E.J. stuck like glue. Some guy in the woodsy section of the loops kept screaming, “This is NATIONALS! Show ‘em what you’ve got!” The course slicked up, this being Seattle it was damp to start and became more so as the drizzle accumulated, and first one, then another runner went down in front of me on the lower turn; without spikes I now had to choose my route carefully, step light and sure, as well as sprint like the world was ending. Four loops. Hang on. He’s going to smoke me on the final stretch, I just know it.

But I won’t let him. Flail. Break things. Risk permanent heart damage. Whatever.

A teammate watching my finish (after all, I was fifth man, and as epic as this was for me, they were all done minutes earlier) said simply, “You were all over!” The booth review of the tapes makes it look almost smooth (for those of you who actually followed the video link, it’s about sixteen minutes into the show). All I can say for sure is that E.J. was ten feet back. Two out of three, game, set, match. For this year at least.

Had I been in his shoes, I would have had the same reaction he did: win or lose, neither of us would have run the races we did without each other. For me, it was a minute and a quarter off my best ten kilometers, though to be fair I haven’t run all that many of them. And it wasn’t embarrassment, or humiliation, but instead exhilaration.


Final Irony Department: Following on my previously reported Nerdism of my annual mileage effectively matching the crow-flies distance from my front door to Jefferson Park, another nerd-like bit arose: Saturday’s race was day 206 of my streak, and those of you who knew all the area codes before they proliferated into an unmemorizable morass know that 206 means Seattle.

05 December 2011

Dad, You're Such a Nerd!

One of the biggest races in my life looms a mere five days away. I’m not nervous, I’m nerdy. At least that’s what Dearest Daughter the Elder said when I told her what I’m about to write here. Frankly, she’s right. I celebrate cerebralism ceremoniously.

That race is the USATF (USA Track & Field, so technically it’s “USA-TF” but I always find myself thinking “US-ATF” and wondering why there aren’t Federal agents knocking on my door looking for booze, smokes, and guns, but I digress…)…right, where was I…USATF National Club Cross Country Championships in the Land of Dampness called Seattle. Where, I note, the weather forecast looks cool, crisp, and fine for Saturday.

I’ve come to grips with my presence at such a lofty event. In recent races I’ve played with the age grading system and the fact hasn’t escaped me that my times, scaled to my lofty age, edge to the high end of the seventies on the performance level percentage scale, where eighty percent is labeled “national class”. So while I haven’t truly hit national class, I’ve come close, and therefore it’s not absurd to show up at a national level meet. But adding the word “championship” to that meet knocks me back to the absurdity classification. On the other hand, subsequently adding the word “club” brings me back into the realm of “the bouncer won’t kick you out at the door, because you came with these other guys”. True, I am “B Team” relative to the level of the top performers on the Greater Boston Track Club Masters team, but the fact is that I’m ready, willing, and able to travel to be a part of the team, filling out the fifth man spot, and fifth man is just as important as first man when it comes to cross country scoring. My job is simple: run my heart out.

That settled, I’m just hoping that my heart isn’t constrained by some of the other achy bits of late; the right hamstring, the left hip, the left knee, all complaining a little of late, but when is there a time when something isn’t complaining? It’s called age, and we deal with it. Last week I hit the track with local training partner Issam to hammer out mile repeats, and the results were encouraging. My target then was simple: make six minute miles feel comfortable, because my goal in Seattle is to string something close to six of them together, which would deliver a ten kilometer personal best by far and hopefully a decent placing for Team GBTC.

Uh, yeah, that’s ten kilometers for this race. Up till a few days ago, I’d thought it was eight, like the New England cross country championships. Suddenly I figured that out. Not that I mind at all, longer to me is better, but I did find it a bit embarrassing to be planning to travel all that way and not even know the distance of the race. And on the topic of traveling all that way, we get to the title of tonight’s posting.

It occurred to me the other day whilst clicking off the miles that an amusing irony was hanging out there, just waiting to be identified by the truly obsessive compulsive type that I am. I had an inkling that some numbers were about to line up. On return from my run, I hit the web to test the theory, and sure enough, there it was…

From my doorstep to Jefferson Park, Seattle, site of Saturday’s festivities, as the crow flies, two thousand four hundred and sixty five miles. For those of you seeking the instant replay to verify the call on the field, we can zoom in a bit without giving away too many state secrets to verify this is the actual point to point distance. From my doorstep…

To the starting line in Seattle…

Two thousand four hundred and sixty five miles.

And here’s the nerdy bit. As of this morning, my mileage total for the year is two thousand four hundred and eleven miles. A mere fifty four miles short. Not exact, but pretty darn close. Had I noticed this a week or two back, I could have piled in a few more and made it perfect, but at this point it’s too close to race day and the body needs some rest, so I’ll settle for a few short runs between now and then and end up around thirty miles off. Still pretty close, within a margin of error, close enough to point out the irony. I’ve literally run to Seattle.

Telling Darling Daughter this brought on the title comment. True. Guilty. Nerdy. Proud of it.

But fitting. It’s been a year that’s brought a number of satisfying racing successes and already by far a Second Lap annual mileage record, and barring injury, will shortly bring an all-time record surpassing those youthful days. All of this led up to the call up to the GBTC team, which opened the door to toe the line at a race called National Championship, which I’ve come to grips with but still feel a big “wow” every time it comes through my head. All those miles, about two thousand four hundred and close to sixty five of them… Indeed, this year I’ve run to Seattle.

Let’s race!

22 November 2011

Rocky Mountain Reward

John Denver obviously wasn’t a runner, or if he was, he was acclimated. I’ve just returned from a week in mile-high Westminster, Colorado, a space on the map about ten miles north of Denver who’s city limits sign claims the same five-thousand-two-hundred-eighty foot elevation as its famed urban cousin. This is somewhat disingenuous, as unlike Denver, which has a city center at which to measure, I was entirely unable to locate such a thing in Westminster. Locals confirm that the place has no center, it is merely a district of sprawl without a heart, so to speak, and it’s relatively hilly, so claiming to be exactly a mile high is clearly marketing. I could be cruel and say that it’s got all the charm of Dallas’ northern suburbs but with better scenery, but as I said, that would be cruel.

In any event, I really didn’t expect that mile-high bit to be a factor. I hike four-to-five-thousand-footers regularly, and that’s strenuous. I’ve never noticed the effects of altitude anywhere south of seven-thousand feet. But then again, the only other time I’ve run at altitude was the very first summer I’d returned to the sport, and truth be told, with the pace I was running at that point, I probably couldn’t have told the difference. A glance at my log shows only three runs on that wonderful trip to Yellowstone, one slow, two untimed, so who knew?

Monday morning’s outing chalked up the eighteenth state I’ve run in. I’ve set foot in forty-nine, and flown over Alaska, but “have run in” is another tally altogether. Yes, another useless statistic. As the Doobie Brothers once sang, it keeps you runnin’… But putting another notch in the sole of my shoes was about the end of the goodness. It was one of those just plain awful runs, and if I hadn’t found a trail to get me off of the abysmal six-lane speedways and maddeningly winding secondary streets, laid out intentionally to break the grid but resulting in a maze you don’t dare penetrate for fear of never escaping, well, other than getting off-road, it was just awful. Stiff, slow, uncomfortable, unpleasant. And even the trail, a spot of hope, faded from dirtness and petered into leg-crushing concrete.

Ever wanting to be the optimist (but not always succeeding), I wrote it off to the stiffness of hours crammed into a middle seat on a packed plane, the resulting soreness in hips, knees, and various other parts, and the nasty fact that our conference convened at a nearly unconstitutional seven-thirty AM. With sunrise at six-forty-five and work running till well after dark (recall those six-lane speedways, evening runs were right out), you do the math, squeezing runs in was clearly going to be a challenge all week.

It’s got to get better, right? The stiffness will wear off in a day, it couldn’t have been altitude as we’re not really that high, right? And even if it was, give me a day or two, I’ll get over it, Tuesday will be grand, right?


Six-twenty AM. Back to the trail. Whereas on Monday’s short jaunt I’d found an access point and followed it inbound back toward the hotel, Tuesday I ventured outbound. Must be some scenery out there, it’s a trail, right? Well, perhaps there is if you come in May, but in November, it’s dry, brown, bleak. Nothing but dirtness. Not to mention incessantly windy and cold. Traversing a moonscape pock-marked with prairie dog holes, the residents of which are very tough to photograph with a cell phone camera, though I tried over lunch one day. And never far enough to escape the sound of the speedways. And passing by the wastewater plant, to boot. Another miserable run. Close to seven-forties. Highly unpleasant. Friends, it was a trend.

Another day, lather, rinse, repeat. Colder. Bleaker. Ventured further, passing under one of the many six-lane speedways. Near a creek, a trickle, providing life to a few brushy trees, barren not due to lack of leaves as would be the case back east, but simply barren in general character due to the near-desert conditions.

Two more days in this place, and knowing that the hotel’s location offered no other even remotely attractive or mildly safe alternate routes, the upcoming two more slogs down the trail didn’t beckon, they hung like a duty. So Thursday demanded a change. A mile north, a sprawling high school, oddly with three tracks. Why three? Beats me. I picked the one furthest away to get more of a warm up.

Six-thirty AM, on the track. I don’t know if that’s ever happened before. Started beating out eight-hundreds, my pace workout of choice. And like Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, pretty much awful. By this time I’d resigned myself to the fact that fifty-two-hundred feet has an impact. So does a twenty-mile headwind in the backstretch. And the half-dozen intervals I had time for would have ended in yet another unsatisfying workout, save one thing.

By luck, not by choice, I’d picked the track that was perched on the side of a long west-facing slope leading down to a wide lowland expanse, stretching fifteen miles or so to the front range. Beyond, the summits of Rocky Mountain National Park scraped the pre-dawn sky. I’d gotten glimpses of them throughout the week, but only now had the alpine-induced cloudbanks cleared. As they were, they were simply spectacular. Longs Peak piercing the center of the range, Fairchild Mountain, at thirteen-five, the highest summit I’ve hiked (photo circa 1992), to the north, and Wild Basin and it’s cadre of summits, where on that same trip nearly twenty years ago, my hiking companion and I went off-trail through the summer snow nearly to the Continental Divide. All painted in brilliant fresh white. All bringing back fabulous memories. Already a worthy reward.

The west-facing slope didn’t just slope down to the west. It might seem obvious, but it sloped up to the east. With my attention on the summits, and the windy backstretch, and my inability to get more than one of those eight-hundreds under three minutes, I wasn’t really thinking about
that fact. But what it meant was that before the sun rose on me, it shone over the top of the slope and simply ignited those summits in a downright brilliant yellow-orange that rivaled the richest color you’re ever lucky to see at sunset. And then some. The effect exceeded intense. The week’s misery wiped away in a moment. For as much time as I’ve spent in the mountains, still, shock and awe. Fulfillment. Oh, if I’d had a camera then, rather than the lame shot taken mid-day from the office with mid-day lighting, not that it would have captured the intensity anyway, but just to try.

So that’s what John Denver was thinking.

Trapped in suburbia, beaten down by a week of short nights, bad runs, wrecked sinuses from half-percent humidity, solid days of sitting, the inevitable excess of business-travel food, trying desperately to work the slugs out with some speedwork that wasn’t producing much of the word speed, and, oh yeah, losing feeling in my hands from the cold to boot…It just didn’t matter. Those mountains on fire made the trip worthwhile.

Friday’s run? Back to the trail. Simply didn’t matter. Reward already gained.

16 November 2011

Running Through the Mud Into the Sunset

This one is tough to write. When time allows, I dive into this creative hobby of mine. I’m certainly not doing it for fame, considering the vast number of people who don’t read this blog. I’m doing it because I enjoy the writing, enjoy painting pictures with words, sharing the experiences, and to an extent, reliving the experiences. But this one is sad, because the experience has come to a close, and I’ll miss it. For at least this phase of my life, I’ve hung up my cross country coaching hat.

Dearest Daughter the Younger graduates from her small Catholic middle school in the spring, which means that barring an extended period of unemployment or a second stint during retirement, too far away to ponder, this is the last year I’ll be coaching the team. Squeezing it into my personal and professional schedule has been challenging, and just can’t be justified if my kid isn’t on the team. But rewarding? You bet. I will miss these kids and the fun – and honor – of serving them.

Coaching middle school kids in an endeavor that is rooted in personal motivation is an exercise that ranges from frustration to sublimity. These aren’t finely tuned athletes seeking fame and scholarships; they’re smart enough to know there isn’t much of either at this level.
They’re normal kids, good kids, kids who are there in many cases because their friends are there, usually not because of any inherent natural giftedness (though to be fair, I’ve been fortunate to have a few cases of that, too). They’re kids who are motivated enough to get out and do something beyond homework and video games, but not necessarily motivated enough to keep running when behind the trees, out of sight of the coach. They’re not old enough yet to care whether they get
enough exercise even though I talk to them about lifelong fitness, because the health issues of not doing so are still completely foreign to them; they’re on their youthful free ticket.

Despite these challenges, I’ve been honored and overjoyed to have every wonderful one of them.

In a school the size of Immaculate Conception, there simply aren’t many fall interscholastic sports choices. In fact, there’s exactly one. So from the kids’ perspective, if they want to do something, it’s cross country or, well, cross country. (To be fair, we don’t live in a desert, there are city-wide soccer programs, karate schools, you name it, but within the school itself…) And from the coach’s perspective, there’s not a large body of students to draw from, so depth is not a word that enters into the equation. Assuring enough runners to score a team in a meet is the primary goal. Speed, endurance, and raw guts are not qualifying characteristics.

Put these equations together, and you get a team that spans a third of the student body and ranges in talent so diversely that assembling any workout such that the kids are somewhat in sight of each other can be perplexing indeed. Were this high school, I’d send them out for five to ten on the roads, and I’d see them most every day. This is middle school. You can’t send a fifth grader on the roads, you can’t send them far unaccompanied, and you can’t, for that matter, send them far at all. But you’d like to give the older kids a solid workout and maybe, just maybe, prepare the faster ones for some racing success. But you only get to do this a couple of times a week over a short season.

It comes down to changing your criteria of success. Success can’t simply be winning, because our team of seventeen drawn from fifty-some students isn’t real likely to wallop a public school team of forty drawn from a pool of four or eight hundred. Success has to be defined at a personal level.

A few years ago I decided to take up the guitar. I taught myself a little and then signed up for a group lesson at a local school’s adult education program. My instructor would constantly remind us that we weren’t going to play like Eric Clapton. The only thing that mattered, he’d pound into our heads, was whether we were playing better now than we were last week, last month, last year. Measure success on your own scale. Make it personal.

And so I take that message to my charges. Are you stronger, faster, healthier today than you were last week, last month, last year? A little more experienced in the ways of racing? Are you moving ahead? I challenge them at the start of the season. Look where you are now. In our short two-month-long season, where can you be? How do you measure it? Are you aware of your fitness level? What’s your resting heart rate? How far can you run? What’s your race pace?

You’ve’ got two months. Go. And remember, you only get out of this what you put into it.

Over the course of the season, they transform. The more gifted runners realize that they really can start running and just keep doing it. I’m a player coach, I’m out there with the kids, even the afternoon after the marathon, I want to show them it’s worth the effort and you can run through the inevitable aches and pains, on good days and bad.

Early on, sending them out for a mile brought groans. Late in the season, some were suggesting we extend our runs. And even the social runners-to-be, who’d stop any chance they found themselves out of sight, discovered the joys of social running, the pack motivation, the mobile coffee klatch as I like to call it, and found themselves running longer than they’d ever expected they would.

And they all got faster. Relative to themselves. All of them learned how to push just a little harder each time. They learned that racing isn’t always comfortable, indeed, it shouldn’t be, but it’s always rewarding. I’m one who believes that if the message isn’t received, it’s irrelevant, and it’s better received if it is fun, so I gave them some practical and fun race advice: Run the first quarter mile hard, then say, “Oh crap, I’ve got to do this six more times!” Then do it again. And again. And they loved it, and they did it.

Two months later, when we closed our season at the annual Central Massachusetts Catholic Championships, we scored three individual medals and our boys bested three of the seven teams, a best-ever finish for the school, at least in the years of my involvement. We scored numerous race pace personal bests. But more importantly, we scored fitness, fun, pride, and joy.

Because the now infamous Northeast October surprise snowstorm was bearing down on us, already pelting us by the time the last race finished, the meet organizers wanted to hand out the medals immediately as runners came through the finish chute to get them home quicker ahead of the weather. I objected, and offered to do the announcing, quickly, for a proper awards ceremony. The shouts of unbridled elation at the calling of each name by the kids from all the schools, not just ours, were alone reward enough for the effort to get our teams to that point. It feels good to contribute to joy.

They said thank you to me in a way I didn’t expect and that knocked me flat, by presenting to me a plaque that wasn’t just beautiful, but that let me know they’d actually listened to my coaching mantras. Remember, hills are our friends, dig deep, and leave nothing in the tank. How many times I’d said that, shouted that, screamed that. They told me that they’d heard, and that it mattered. They allowed me the opportunity to leave a stamp on them, and for that I am honored and forever grateful.

How do you say goodbye to that?

11 November 2011

Running in Circles

Age is a funny thing. It is in many cases entirely detached from visible reality. I was indulging in a rather la-tee-dah (and thus overpriced) hotel restaurant dinner with clients and colleagues at a conference this week when the age topic bubbled up, and I learned that the customer sitting next to me, whom I’ve known for many years and thought of more or less as a college kid (since he started working for this customer straight out of school) was in fact thirty seven.

Wow. Time flies. If he’s thirty-seven, then I’m, well, I knew that already. We’re running in circles around the sun faster than we think, but by actually running, perhaps we have a better shot at denial of the lap count.

With this in mind, Sunday found me running in new circles and running in circles, literally. Joining up with the Greater Boston Track Club masters’ team opens up a whole new circle of potential friends, training partners, rivals, and inspirations. New circles like that are healthy. And we spent the day, a gem for New England in the fall, chilly and a bit windy, but brilliantly sunny and crisp, running round and round at Franklin Park in Boston, referred to as Boston’s Mecca of cross country, but more aptly described as one of the least easy-to-find well-known places in New England. No roads that you’re likely to know go there, yet somehow we found it.

Once you get there, you’re only halfway home. My publicly stated fear for this, my first race with the GBTC, my first USATF cross country race (for those of you watching at home, that’s USA Track & Field), and the first race I’ve run with the word “Championship” in the title since high school, was that it would result in Total Humiliation. My unstated fear, having looked at the course map, was that I’d simply get lost and confused, a deer in the headlights in the woods, lapped perhaps and thus uncertain which lap I was on. It didn’t help that the map was evilly oriented with north shooting to the east-northeast (note my handwritten caption on the margin). The men’s masters’ eight-K course combines four laps, each a little different, reminiscent of the old Adventure game of early computing, “A maze of twisty passages, all different.” Had I not pulled out my crayons and colored my copy, I might be wandering the Franklin Park Wilderness yet, or worse, become trapped in the old bear cage on its namesake hill (which actually is an old bear cage, leftover from the relocated zoo), which we all agreed would be a fabulous spot to film a horror flick.

But I’m happy to report that the USATF New England New England Championships didn’t result in Total Humiliation. In fact, it was a fun day, and though certainly not notable within the field, it was for me a pretty good time, indeed, if once can assume a reasonably accurate course, which, given that it winds through the woods is a tough bet, but also given that it’s a USATF Championship and they are, after all, the Course Certification Gods, a decent bet, it turned out to be a personal best.

I can sum up this race rather simply: I ran a decent five kilometer race. Unfortunately, the race was eight kilometers. The last three were an exercise in hanging on for dear life.

There’s nothing quite like the fun of an open field start, though oddly, a mere ten minutes before race time, there were virtually no runners on the field. Even the GBTC veterans found this a little weird. Within minutes, they materialized, we lined up, no time for nerves, we were off, and I was hugely relieved to find myself in the middle of it. Not the end. Clearly the middle.

Lap one. Non-descript. But hey, check it out, I’m running in this thing. I’m not clattering across the road crossings like my spike-equipped competitors, but I’m in this, and holding my own. Hot diggity.

Lap two. Climb Bear Cage Hill. Bearly a nubble in my book, but the biggest in this course. Picking off a few. But mile two slows.

Lap three. Into the woods, the Wilderness, hardly a wilderness, but a cute name. Back out, and over the drop back onto the plain of the starting field. A nasty little drop in itself, combined with a tight turn, combined with mud. As I’m about to make some witty remark about how our knees are too old for this, someone beats me to the punch. These guys are OK. Pace restored.

Three miles down, and frankly, I’m toast. Like I said, I ran a decent five-K. Wouldn’t be a personal best, but probably within twenty seconds or so. But we’re not done. So I resolve that I won’t let myself lose any places from here on in. After all, cross country is about placing and scoring more than time. It’s tactical. Or it’s supposed to be, or could be, if you’re not toast. And I am toast. Buttered.

Lap 4. Holding even to original place. Down one. Even again. Down, up, down, losing track, but never more than three down. Then back to Bear Cage. Hills are your friend. Pick ‘em off. One, two, three, back to even. Topping Bear Cage, I am not looking too happy in the pro photographer shot that I can’t reproduce, but can link you to. Pretty close to the RTYP zone. If you must ask, Run Till You…yeah.

In the article I’ve yet to write about the team I coached this year, which I do promise to write as the kids deserve it, I’ll tell you about the fabulous, absolutely perfect Thank-You-Coach plaque they presented to me at our after-season pizza-fest. On it they inscribed the mantra I worked into their heads all season: Remember, hills are our friends, dig deep, and leave nothing in the tank. Crashing down Bear Cage Hill, busting my lungs back to the starting field, I am thinking about my kids. I can’t fail to be true to what I’ve barked at them for two months. This finish is agony. But I must. Round the final turn, it’s a mad dash across the field. Dig deep, kids. Dig deep, coach. Leave nothing in the tank.

From somewhere within came a kick, I know not from where. I know not how many I picked off in the last hundred yards, but it was at least one, maybe two, maybe three. Thanks kids, without this memory, I can’t say I’d have found those last drops in the tank.

Spectacular? Of course not. Translating my eight kilometer time to five miles served up the PR, a big smile. Beating the guy who nipped me for the masters at a summertime local five-K, big smile (though now he’s pledged revenge, game on!). Racing with the new team at a whole new level, big smile. But fittingly put in my place, that being, “Not bad, but certainly not spectacular.” Mid-pack amongst this school of fish, forty-fourth among eighty-three. I wasn’t a scoring runner, but I did finish mid-pack within the GBTC team as well. Held my own.

Curious about the effects of age, I ran some analysis on the results, and found that no matter how I sliced it, I came out pretty much in the middle. Plenty of those I beat were the older masters, and plenty of those I trailed were younger. It wasn’t absolute, but it was pretty clear that age matters. We are running laps around the sun. We are denying it by running laps around the park. Our laps are slowing down. Yet we persist, and until we can’t, we will.

And at the end of the day, it was fun. Fun to race with these guys and be a part of a venerable Boston tradition. Fun to watch the big boys in the open race afterwards, passing by in a pack after lap one so tightly clumped that the ground literally shook. Fun to have the family out for the party. And fun to know I didn’t get totally kicked in the teeth.

So with that, I’ve tossed my hat into the ring and signed on to accompany the team to Seattle where, barring disaster, I will be the fifth man; yes, scoring, yes, it will count. Total Humiliation still looms as a possibility, but only in exchange for the lifelong excitement and memory of having toed the starting line of a race with the words “National Championships” in the title.

03 November 2011

Bay State Aftermath – The World Changes Quickly

It was oh so recently that my cruise through Lowell, Chelmsford, and Tyngsborough on that gloriously gorgeous fall day rang up a personal best at Bay State. A mere two weeks later, glorious fall became premature winter here in New England, and only now, nearly a week later, are almost all of the lights turned back on. The world changes quickly.

It was oh so recently that my running life was, to paraphrase Tip O’Neil, as local as all politics. A mere couple of weeks later, my local life has stepped up a notch, thrusting upon me an opportunity both fabulous and frightening, to go well beyond local. The world changes quickly.

So a number of tidbits and stories, as well as a few Earth-moving events, have followed from that day in the sun, contributing to tonight’s theme of rapid changes. We’ll start with rapidly changing fortunes.

Shortly after the Bay State finish, alongside pages and pages of half-marathon results, up popped the first page of full marathon results. Fifteenth place was an eye-opener, and confirmation of my time sealed the day’s story, but it ended there, or so I thought. Said page reported yours truly as the sixth old fart, trailing five other forty-somethings, and so naturally I went home.

I should have known better. Only two weeks prior I’d cashed at Wineglass as an overall master, and should have recalled that Bay State likewise awards the overall masters before chalking up the age group winners. Sixth, after peeling off the overall winners who finished in the money, would translate to third in the age group. No cash, but hardware. And I’d gone home.

But it got better. The results were wrong. The first master was listed as second, and so on, which deposited me in second place in the age group. It said so right there on CoolRunning. Or as they say, I saw it on the Internet, so it must be true.

But it got better still. A few days later I received an email from the race director congratulating me on my age group victory. Yeah, first place. Seems one of those old farts wasn’t old at all, just erroneously coded. And I’d gone home. So I missed my moment in the sun at the awards gathering, but I’ve got a trophy or plaque or something heading my way sometime soon.

With change at this rate, in a few more days I might just get a check after all.

But getting there was a result of the luck of rapid bodily changes. I’m no stranger to last-minute pre-marathon injury woes, and this time it seemed to be happening again. A scant two days beforehand, inexplicably, with no prompting, obvious injury, or whatever, the left hip went south. A few hundred yards into a slow pre-race taper-down jog, and big pain invaded. The dangers of age, perhaps, though I’m not in the hip-replacement zone just yet! The next day, still sore. The marathon? Didn’t feel a thing, I’m happy to report. Adrenaline? Endorphins? Who cares, it changed, this time for the better. But two days later, it changed again, and it was back, at least for a while. How exactly does that work?

Yet the biggest change came in another post-race email, this one from a runner a couple of towns away. Apparently the scouts had been watching. It was effectively the call-up, the draft, the invitation to the big leagues. Someone at the venerable Greater Boston Track Club, the very same of Bill Rodgers and Alberto Salazar fame (see, I wrote about Alberto and Dick Beardsley a month back, then met Dick, and now Alberto’s club comes a’calling, is there a pattern here?), yes someone over there noticed an old fart running a pretty quick marathon and inquired, pray tell, would I like to run with their masters’ team?

Growing up in Upstate New York, where I was a Mets fan (Red Sox Nation take note, I didn’t like the Yankees even then), well, this was the emotional equivalent of being handed the Big League jersey, come on and pitch in the shadow of Tom Seaver, or better, Tug McGraw, because as he used to say, ya’ gotta’ believe. Invited to don the red singlet with those plain words, “Greater Boston”.

The world changed very quickly.

Emotion Number One: Are you KIDDING? Wow, that’s, umm, that’s just so, umm, wow. WOW.

Emotion Number Two: Are you KIDDING? Me, run with these guys?

I can’t say I feel entirely adequate in this role. Many of these guys are simply awesome in their abilities. But as I was told, and clearly is true, they need depth, especially with masters who have lives and busy schedules and more injuries than the young’uns. And so there I was on their web site, signing up and forking over dues, and there I was on the USATF web site, becoming an officially designated member qualified to run in their races, and there I will be on Sunday morning, running the USATF New England Cross Country Championships in Franklin Park with that Big League jersey on. And if Sunday ends in something slightly kinder than Total Humiliation, there’s another interesting opportunity being dangled: toe the line as fifth man to assure a team score when they travel to Seattle for the USATF National Cross Country Championships. Yes, the words “me” and “national championships” in the same paragraph. Yes, it strikes me as pretty far-fetched. But as I wrote to my local club friends, when opportunity knocks, you need to go out with the ship unless it’s got the words “Exxon Valdez” painted on the side.

With the world changing this rapidly, the pre-Halloween snow storm that knocked out power to my entire city, most of my state, and a good portion of New England was just piling it on thicker and deeper. Bring on the change, we’ll just have to see how this all pans out.

21 October 2011

Delivered Back To the Sub-Three Zone

Yes, as is often the case, my posts on marathons are themselves marathons. If I could endure the race, you can endure the article. Hang tough! Press through to the finish line!

There’s an old saying that the best thing about hitting yourself on the head with a hammer is that it feels so good when you stop. I’ve come to believe that the secret of a strong marathon is simply denying yourself that pleasure of stopping the punishment. Of course it’s not so simple, but you get the idea. It’s very hard to maintain the intensity. Conversely, it’s very easy at any number of points throughout a race of that length to dial it back, reduce the burn, ease the pain. At some point it usually becomes a physical necessity. But most of the time it’s at least in part a conscious decision, and denying yourself that pleasure is frustratingly hard to do.

I recall somewhere around mile six of the Buffalo Marathon in 2008 telling myself that yes, this was hard, that’s just the way it is, get used to it and keep doing it. I burned a personal best that day.

Around mile four and a half this past Sunday morning, as the adrenaline of the start wore off amidst the few Lowell-to-Chelmsford slopes that constitute the hills of the Bay State Marathon, along came a small coterie that would provide the inspiration to deny myself the pleasure of dialing it back, and in the process, define this race. My guardian angels in neon green, giving me the boost I needed to get used to it and keep doing it.

I burned a new personal best on Sunday morning, finally eclipsing that three-year-old pre-foot-injury-and-surgery mark from Buffalo. A week prior, one of my club-mates had sent me a kind note following my Wineglass Half, proclaiming that I was defying age. Crossing the Bay State finish line, complete with a little fist pump with the iota left in the tank, I thought of his comment. Getting back to PR-zone, three years later. Defying the passage of those three years and the insults of injury, repair, and recovery. Satisfaction doesn’t cover the feeling. Elation is closer.

How this unfolded is worthy of, well, a blog posting of somewhat marathon length. Just get used to it, keep doing it, and read on.

Since I’m not paid millions to trash talk like an NFL linebacker, I try not to say much before these races. But it’s pretty obvious that the Prime Directive, a.k.a. Goal Number One, was to finish, never a given even with this being marathon number fifteen, and since the Wineglass Tragedy of ’08 that’s been modified to read, “Finish in one piece”. Unstated Goal Number Two was a Boston ’13 qualifier minus twenty minutes, to assure stress-free entry under the New World Order of Boston registration. With my approaching encroaching of five completed decades by the time ’13 rolls around, which conveniently recaptures the five minutes I’d otherwise lose with the new qualifying standards, my nut remains three and a half hours, meaning Goal Number Two was three-oh-anything. Stretch Goal? A return to sub-three land. Maybe, lining up the stars, I might have it in me. Certainly not certain. That’s why it’s called a stretch goal.

You’ll note that Personal Best wasn’t on the agenda.

Three hours is six-fifty-two pace. Simple plan, peg six-thirties, and keep doing it, leaving enough in the bank to overcome the inevitable late fade – negative splits simply not being in my dictionary. But to state the obvious, a marathon is long. And for me at least, a single six-thirty requires effort, let alone a marathon full of them.

One. Didn’t succumb to the usual starting gun stupidity. Started the running tally of seconds in the bank below six-fifty-twos. Two. Three. Bang on. Up seventy one seconds. Four, into the few rolling hills. Lagging just a bit. Mild concern, knowing that five’s got hills too, then six through eight offer up what’s typically the most headwind-prone stretch of this course, leading to the famed Tyngsborough bridge. And while not horrible, the winds were not insubstantial on this day. Need to hold this pace now. Can’t let the slip start this early.

At this moment of mild concern, they arrived, sent like angels when I was in need. Three of them, the pair of he-and-she angels in neon green accompanied by a third who would in the end earn his sub-three by a mere second. Our long and fruitful relationship started with one of my typically goofball comments, this time about being blinded by the light of their matching singlets. Game on.

I’m not one to labor in silence. Most will tell you I’m one to chat your ears off. Having dropped in with this newly formed coffee klatch, it was time to cement the team. “Since it seems like we’ll be spending some time together, I’m Gary.” Angels sounded off, Kimberly and Ryan (though I called him Brian till that embarrassed Eureka moment viewing the results post-race), and Will, our token international element, settling for Chinese since we had no Kenyans handy. We gelled pretty quickly, and it was just the boost I needed. Despite the hill to Chelmsford Center, mile five returned to six-thirty, as did six, as would many more.

Off to the races. Except that it got a little weird quickly.

Four people hammering a marathon at six thirties, knowing there were twenty-some left to cover. This was not your casual “I’m going to run a marathon” charity runners’ gang. This was relatively serious business. Thus I thought nothing of it when we hit mile five and, having mentally incremented my in-the-bank tally, noted verbally that we were over a hundred seconds ahead of three hour pace.

“Don’t say anything about time! I don’t want to hear anything about time! I just want to run!”

This would not have been an uncommon comment on a Saturday morning stroll with my club-mates or a jog with the kids I coach. This was certainly odd to hear in this venue. Kimberly’s objection was nothing if not vehement. She revealed this to be her first marathon, which of course lured me to foolishly annoy her again by noting that the pace was a bit hot for number one, which as you’d guess, brought on another deserved chastisement. Hey, I learn slowly, but I learn, and I gladly complied, shifting to non-verbal mode to track my race from then on. When God sends you guardian angels, you don’t complain if they’ve got an oddity or two.

Ryan revealed his true self at the next water stop. I might as well have been jogging nine minute miles considering the way he bolted ahead to partake of the facilities, and just as rapidly re-captured us on the other side. I wouldn’t piece everything together until much later, but it turned out he’s a low-two-thirties guy who was just out to pace his girlfriend. Barely sweating. As such had no objection, indeed was downright gracious, to my drafting through the breezy stretch.

So we’ve got an absolute ox of a runner, a bastion of running power, and his lady friend smoking two-fifty-something having never even trained marathon distance, let along raced it, and who doesn’t want to hear about any time reference shorter than a season. Fine by me, don’t upset this apple cart, because it’s working.

By the Tyngsborough Bridge I’d slipped a few feet up on them. It just seemed sort of rude to tailgate for too long. Past my family on the outer-loop backstretch at mile nine, Darling Daughter the Younger using mom’s knitting clicker-counter to report twenty-first place to me, back into Lowell for the turn at mile twelve onto the Rourke “permanent temporary” Bridge (it’s a temporary span that’s been there since 1983!) which constitutes a gentle but lengthy climb when heading southbound. Off the bridge to start the second lap of the outer loop, which meant back into the hills, this time starting at fourteen rather than four. Pace holding till then.

Fourteen. Grades. (Hard to call them hills, really.) Lagging just a bit. Mild concern. Was this the start of the inevitable decline?

And there they were again. Angels are like that. Right at about fourteen and a half. Almost the same spot as the first time we’d met, just a lap later. Once again, right when I needed them. Inspiration to hold the pace. Wind breaking through the breezy stretch. Kimberly still hammering an impressive pace for marathon number one. And Ryan still bolting off now and then like we’re standing still.

As Jake and Elwood once said, we’re gonna’ get the band back together.

Six forties now, but still steady as a rock. See lap one, repeat. Slipped up a few feet on them at the bridge again, rejoined, slipped up, rejoined. The results show us crossing thirty kilometers dead together, at 2:02:32. It was beautiful while it lasted.

I’m guessing we split up around twenty, though I can’t really recall. By this time I knew Kimberly was running second amongst the women, and I was rooting for her to take the whole thing. Seriously, how cool would that be? Shortly before twenty-one I passed what might have been the women’s leader, taking a walk break but then re-starting at a decent pace, differentiating herself from the laggards we were lapping, but it wasn’t at all obvious. And past the Rourke Bridge we threaded our way past the half-marathon laggards. Or were they walled-out bonked marathoners? I lost count, and didn’t know I was picking up places, as were they just a bit behind me.

Twenty-three, the watch registered seven-flat. So much for finally running that marathon with every mile under seven. It was around here in the 2007 race that I was challenged not to hang on for dear life but to speed up. Time to make this the nadir of the race and turn it up for the last five kilometers. Time for desperate measures. Time to sing.

Singing isn’t really possible under these circumstances. Call it barking. But I had a cool tune my church band is working up in my head. The words are simple: “Prepare ye the way of the Lord,” with some embellishment here and there. It’s the tune and the rhythm that make this one work.

I frightened a number of lagging walking half-marathoners by barking. PRE! PARE! YE! THE! WAY! OF! THE! LORD! Not trying to be the God squad or anything, but drawing strength from being willing to shout this out. And drawing strength knowing I could still rustle up some humor, shouting, “KEY CHANGE!” at the appropriate musical moment, which conveniently corresponded to passing two strolling back-of-pack halvers. Twenty four and twenty five, nailed, the latter back down to six-forty. Mental math, a PR is possible.

Except that twenty six turned south not just directionally but operationally. The Aiken Street Bridge offered up a headwind powerful and unwelcome. Felt like nine-minute pace. And a half mile to go, all Hell broke loose. Not the typical fatigue of the wall, but generalized agony, institutional style. Uber-cramping. Alarm bells. Generally, coyote ugly.

Fine. It’ll still be a great time, but a PR wasn’t in the cards today anyway, right?

But at the twenty-six mile mark, Mr. Timex of the Wrist reported that even that agony was still sub-seven-minutes. Now if THAT was under seven minutes…

Run your brains out, you idiot.

And the clock at the finish gave it up, personal best, just by a few seconds, but, well, who knew?

Of course I looked like death warmed over at the end. It’s a trademark by this point.

I didn’t see this coming, but it was a good truck to be run over by. 2:54:03.7 officially. Point seven? Shirley! You jest! Even I can’t handle that degree of accuracy, just call it 2:54:04. 15th of about a thousand, picked up six places since mile nine, and though I didn’t realize it before I left, an age group award which I hope they ship out or let me know where to pick up.

Most satisfying, I’ve never run a marathon at such an even pace, so smoothly executed. And until the last few miles, I had my angels to thank for that.

I’d almost forgotten about them. But shortly after I sat down in the med tent to work out the cramps, into the tent they came, Kimberly and Ryan, my angels. She’d struggled late, gutted it out, came in a minute and a half later, and won it on her very first try. Thrilled to learn she’d cashed. And deserving of every bit of the adulations heaped upon her. My congratulations and gratitude goes out to both of them.

Tidbits and stories from along the way will follow in future posts.

13 October 2011

A Pre-Marathon Rant

Wineglass is a happy memory. My flesh has finally re-warmed from the frigid aftermath of heading back onto the course in hypothermic weather, soaked to the skin. I’ve already spent my winnings at least four times over: 1. Gee, this paid for the entry fee – exactly! 2. Gee, this covers the gas and tolls – in a Prius, pretty close to exactly! 3. Gee, I’ll send a donation to the Dick Beardsley Foundation – which you should do too (even if you don’t have a check to give away – exactly!), and 4. Of course, I must take my family out to celebrate this windfall, which, when all was said and done, came out to fifty smackeroos – once again, exactly! Next racing target? Bay State, this time the full marathon, coming up Sunday morning.

But enough of that, I need to rant. I’m calling this my pre-marathon rant. Don’t mistake this as having anything to do with the Class Act that is the Bay State Marathon. It doesn’t. I’m just ranting, pre-marathon. Because I’m about to run a marathon, while others are, well, …

/rant on

The other day I was returning from afar, driving my blue green-mobile (a somewhat azure-shaded Prius, blue green, get it?) through a nearby neighborhood. Being in electric mode at the time, I snuck up on a couple of guys out for their lunch-hour run and gave them an amused wave when they finally noticed me creeping up behind them. Just around the bend was another woman in rapid human-powered motion, and I smiled at the prevalence of runners streaming forth from the nearby Intel facility. My vicarious runner’s high quickly vanished thereafter.

Beyond the runners, a mild traffic tie up lay a couple hundred feet ahead, centered on a stopped school bus and a bunch of parked cars we had to negotiate after it moved on. And why the parked cars? Because the moms were there, three of them, each collecting their respective Junior, and loading each into their Enormous SUVs parked at the bus stop. On an utterly gorgeous day, I must add. Being motive myself, I couldn’t tell you if said Enormous SUVs were idling or not, though I’d lay a bet that at least one, and probably more, were. Even if not, that’s not really the point here; this is still rant-worthy.

First, the disclaimer. Of course I don’t know these people’s life stories. Of course, each might have a special reason for their chosen vehicles and actions that day. Mom Number One’s family might own a contracting business which needs that large vehicle for hauling equipment to job sites (though none of these luxurious Land Yachts appeared scathed by actual work). Mom Number Two might be on a tight schedule and have to snag Junior and race across town for something more important than purchasing a latte at Starbucks (I’m being kind here, see?). And Mom Number Three could be sporting a medical condition which causes sudden death upon sustained contact via rubber soles with asphalt.

Yes, each of these people might have had every reason in the world for what they did. But I’m guessing at least the majority of them didn’t. Because when I’m out running, I see this all the time.

Let’s review. It’s a beautiful fall day. Sunny, cool, comfortable. And it’s lunch hour, which means these are True Juniors getting off the bus, likely kindergartners or perhaps pre-K, and here in our fine Commonwealth, as in most states, the law provides that the younger the kid, the closer to home they will be deposited by said yellow transport. So it’s a reasonable bet that Home Sweet Home was probably a quarter mile away. Half a mile on a bad day. (Indeed, in the “I see this all the time” category, I am thinking of another place I run frequently where I see this behavior consistently where the bus stop is at the end of a street that is only a quarter-mile long, so we can hold these truths to be self-evident.) And none of these mothers, nor any of the Juniors, appeared impaired, at least so far as I could tell as I crept through the clog. And I note there was no Mom Number Four sans vehicle, nor any additional Juniors; the described condition here, bus-to-DVD-equipped-SUV-cocoon, was unanimous.

And so we have it. Government panels mandate the removal of sweetened beverages from schools. Councils investigate the marketing of junk food to kids. Experts scream about high-fructose corn syrup. All of those endeavors are worthy. And we won’t even mention those who continue to deny that mankind is driving climate change, as fourteen inches of rain dump not once, but twice within two weeks on various parts of Upstate New York. I’ll skip the global warming aspect of this other than to emphasize the behemoth size of the vehicles because this is a pre-marathon rant, not a pre-climatic-Armageddon rant.

The bottom line is that mom picks up Junior in the Enormous SUV so he doesn’t have to walk the quarter mile home from the bus stop on a beautiful fall day. And we wonder why Junior (and mom) are getting fat.

Let’s bring the marathon back into this. I don’t expect everyone out there to run a marathon. I don’t even everyone out there to run, period. But for the love of liposuction, do something to positively influence your health (which, if you’re reading this, you probably do, so my rant falls on converted ears, but I must rant nonetheless) and more importantly, to influence your offspring’s attitude toward physical activity. Because otherwise, the future portrayed in the movie Wall-E, a world filled with immobile corpulent flesh-bags, isn’t so outlandish.

/rant off

This being pre-marathon, Bay State looms a few days off. I haven’t run this one since 2007, and I am looking forward to going back. Sadly, they’ve traded the wicked cool stadium finish for a more standard street finish, the benefit being that runners won’t have to climb both up through the seating and back down to the street post-abuse. That was, in my view, a small price to pay for a very cool conclusion, but I’ll go with an open mind that the replacement will probably be grand.

And my readiness? Well, after a torrid September, I’m as ready as one can be who more or less forgot to start serious training until six weeks prior. But as my starting point was relatively ready to begin with, I can hope that three hundred miles last month and Wineglass as a successful tune-up will translate to a good day Sunday. As always, I have my goals, but you won’t hear about them till the day is done. All I will say for certain is that the forecast looks good. But weather is never certain. So we’ll just go for a run and see what happens.

05 October 2011

Innocence Lost?

News emerged recently of an experiment in Europe that appears to show neutrinos traveling faster than the speed of light. While I count myself among the naysayers who fully expect an erroneous edge to appear in the methodology, which will re-vindicate Einstein, the possibility that this did happen has relevance to this weekend’s event in my running adventures.

How, you ask? Well, it’s twisted, but let’s have some fun. After years of racing, I cashed in. It was only fifty bucks, and it came with a shirt and a nice bottle of wine, but it was cash (OK, a check, but you get it). And I didn’t have to sell my blood to science to get it. I won it fair and square. For a person of my age, this carries the obvious implication that I’ve lost my amateur status. Innocence lost! Nobody today would care about this, but when I was a kid, that would disqualify a person from the Olympics. Ah yes, the days when the Olympics were oh-so-pure and amateur-only, except of course for the Russians and East Germans. Now, about those neutrinos?
While on my run yesterday I pondered, what if we could harness them to bend time to bring back my youth, when I could then train for real when I still had the speed, rather than take twenty years off, but keep the competitive experience which maturity has brought, and yet get around this troublesome fifty bucks that would knock me out of the ’84 Games?

Yeah, that’s a little over-dramatic, and I know the logic is twisted and the physics are questionable, but it was a fun mental meander and it was cool winning the bucks. OK, back to reality.

Reality was forty-one degrees with a cold breeze and a ton of rain in Campbell, New York (that’s Camp-Bell, mind you, not like the soup). Reality was briefly kind when said rain miraculously took a half hour off for the start of the first-ever Wineglass Half Marathon, the new alter-ego of the venerable Wineglass Marathon. Reality turned the spigots back on before we’d covered even the quarter mile from the start back to staging headquarters at the Campbell School. And those spigots slowly increased their flow throughout the race till we crossed the finish line several pounds heavier than we started. It’s not uncommon for me to return home with a sopping bag of evidence proving the folly of wicking fabric. It’s rare that said evidence holds only sweet rain rather than toxic sweat. In short, it was more or less miserable. But also fast, both from being devoid of heat issues and from the sheer desire to get it done and get out of the weather.

The funny thing is that in six plus years of running, I’ve clocked fourteen marathons but had never done a half. So no matter the outcome, Sunday promised a Second Lap PR. But when the dust settled, I had to pull out my scrapbooks and look up the one and only half I had done back in the first lap days. Took a while, but there it was: the Delhi-to-Andes (NY) Half Marathon, December 16th, 1979, age sixteen and a half. A net downhill course, and I remember it was my longest and one of my better races. And I beat it on Sunday, thirty-two years older.

Truth be told, I beat a lot more than I expected on Sunday. Niece Kristin picked this, for her a home-town race, as her second half marathon, and I, feeling somewhat responsible for her adopted propensity to self-inflict pain, agreed to travel down to make it an event.
And try out a half. And pop in a tune-up for Bay State (full marathon) in two weeks. And maybe knock off Rocket John’s club half-marathon master’s record. A buck-twenty-five was the target, a hair under six-thirty pace. Maybe if the stars aligned, an age group spot in the generous five-year tranches, a reasonable hope, yet certainly not assured with eleven hundred registered.

But the way this fell out, I was never in a position where I couldn’t count my exact place. That ranking was never lower than seventh, then after picking off a pair, one of whom looked distinctively masters-aged and thus a worthy target, and who appeared vulnerable early on yet took maddeningly long to rope in, up to fifth, then surrendering one spot at mile seven to settle into and remain in what to me was a somewhat shocking sixth place finish.

I admit I broke one of my cardinal rules in the last five miles. I tell my cross-country kids, don’t look back, it’s a sign of weakness to your opponents. Listen to the crowd for when they cheer for the next guy. But I was hearing nothing. And the course sported a few tight turns, one nearly a one-eighty, late in the game. I had to look. Nobody. And a huge gap ahead as well. In fact, more than a minute on either side at the finish. Which made the newly laid out finish – a change that I like to think I was perhaps somewhat responsible for after Faceplant ’08 – almost eerie.

Like turning onto Boylston Street at Boston, the Wineglass finish now turns onto Market, the main drag of Corning, for a three block straight shot home that seems interminable, but is in fact only a third of a mile. Like Boston, the finish arch looms what seems an eternity away. But unlike Boston, where even at the three-hour mark, you’re among huge crowds of runners amidst thousands of cheering fans, here there was nearly complete solitude and silence. The neutron bomb meets the race finish. A wide open boulevard, parked cars eliminated. Nobody in front of me, nobody behind. And where there should have been blocks of fans, owing to the weather, nearly a vacuum till the last block. Cold rain almost numbing the senses by this point. Hammering down the double yellow line. Feeling like I was watching myself from the external cameras. Ethereal.

Yeah, sixth of over nine-hundred finishers. Surprised me, too. And the third overall master. I knew I gave up a master’s spot when Costas took me down at seven, but didn’t realize till the results were posted that the next man up was also well aged. Mattered not, the top three masters cashed. Amateur status gone. Innocence lost. No complaints.

While the place took a bit to sink in, the time was equally satisfying. Rather than the targeted six-and-a-halves, the first eight clicked off around six-twelve, feeling downright springy. When some leg fatigue set in, the fade was only back to close to my planned pace. A buck twenty two and a half at the end. I can’t say this will translate into a strong full at Bay State, but it can’t hurt.

Rocket John told me I’d love the distance of the half, and he was right. You can run your heart out, but you’re not destroyed like after the full. It’s a game of maintaining pace, not of tapping all capacity. I did love it. Thirty-two years later. Faster than last time. And I’ll have to do it again.

While my capacity wasn’t tapped out, my body heat was far more depleted by the conditions than I thought. After a quick chat at the med tent with Dr. Phykitt, the very same who patched my face back together three years ago, I headed back onto the course to reel in niece Kristin as promised. The cold was simply stunning. Into the breeze with a dual-shirt-load full of utter drench, shorts drench, shoes, socks, headband, gloves, hair, everything drench. Forty-four-degree drench. Dangerous drench. After a mile plus, finally warming a bit, I reached the last water stop and in a fit of amusement had the unique fun of working a water stop in a race I ran for ten minutes or so until Kris appeared and we brought it home, for her a race that also exceeded her expectations. Fun, but not so smart. Stunningly cold again. Uncontrollable shaking while stripping in the parking garage. Probably the closest I’ve been to hypothermia ever.

Thank God they served soup.

Bearded Postscript: I’m going to have to write more articles comparing my adventures to those of well-known people. Two weeks ago I wrote of my race at the Forrest, and mirthfully compared it to Dick Beardsley’s 1982 Boston Duel in the Sun. I swear I did not know at that time that he was to be the honored guest at Wineglass. Yet there he was at the entrance to the expo, signing books (which, sadly, he ran out of by the time I came out with my number). I couldn’t resist pulling up that recent blog post on the smart phone for him.
Fame doesn’t mean you can’t get a kick out of fun coincidences. He was truly tickled, he was a truly nice guy, and we had a truly fun chat. Dick, I was sad to see a DNF next to your name, and wish you the best in your in battle to recover from those injuries. Come on up to New England for a recovery run!

Hmmm… Now, if I can make this work again, imagine the interesting people I could meet!

29 September 2011

Bridging the Generation Gap

You can tell that there’s a new generation gap and that I’m on the wrong side of it merely by the fact that you don’t hear the words, “generation gap” anymore. That tag phrase of my younger days separated us rambunctious youth from our supposedly conservative elders. Today, there’s gen-X, gen-Y, gen-whatever, but that old phrase seems to have landed on a heap of buggy whips.

Now I’m the supposedly conservative elder, though the term conservative invokes in me a visible wince. No, I don’t mind mixing my politics with my running. Why, just yesterday I enjoyed the mirth of running past what apparently had been someone’s grand idea but now sits as a failed development, ninety percent empty land, scraped clear and scrapped, a bad idea that brought ruin to all who touched it. Sound familiar? The road was aptly named Tea Party Circle. But I digress.

So let’s drop the conservative and just stick with elder, and let’s consider the generation gap for the moment not as the differences between me and my ancestors or descendants, but between me now, and me then. Part of the fun of being on the Second Lap is comparing today’s reality to those First Lap days or youthful yore.

Amongst the five billion web sites, the billion that claim to be “social” as it’s the current buzzword, and the two percent that acknowledge athletics (I made up these numbers, of course), there’s a site out there known as Athlinks. I found it several years ago while engaging in the nearly universal vanity of Googling myself. Here was a site that had mined quite a few race results and knew a surprising amount about my running.

Not being exactly shy and reserved on the web; after all, this is a public blog displaying plenty of rants, raves, and depravity, I am nevertheless a decidedly anti-Facebook, anti-Twitter type, in the former case objecting to a private company explicitly abusing personal privacy for financial gain, and in the latter case objecting just because it feels better than having to know if my friend is eating a ham sandwich at the moment. While I acknowledge some value in both, I cringe at the lemming-like way that people have flocked to these services simply because everyone else did. Can you spell Time Sucker? And who hasn’t received a Linked-In invitation from someone they’ve met once at a conference and will never see again? Seriously, folks… And along comes this social networking site that just happened to be running-related, so that made it OK?

Well, the logic goes that all of those race results are already out there, so there’s no compromise of privacy, and I don’t have to tell them much more about me, nor to I have to actively use it (though some of the stats and comparisons it offers are downright tickling to the OCD streak in me), and it is, after all, sort of a backup racing log should all of my technology-based records here suddenly go black. So yes, I exist on Athlinks. And it’s pretty good about picking up probably two-thirds of my races without any help.

Where is this going, you are asking? Wasn’t this about a generation gap or something? Well, yes, and we’re ready to go there now.

To Athlinks, my life started with my first marathon in the fall of 2005. Or at least it did until a few months ago, when much to my tickled amusement appeared a race result for me from…1982! And it was no error. June of 1982 to be exact, the Vestal XX, a local twenty kilometer studded with hills, hills, and more hills. A race I’d wanted to run for years back then, but never did until I’d been off to college for a year and returned in pretty marginal shape, the fading days of my First Lap as the running sapped away and my training became less and less consistent, leading to that twenty-plus-year gap. My generation gap. First to Second Lap gap.

When it first appeared on the site, I was amused that my performance from 1982 – averaging seven and a half minute miles – was rather weak compared to what I run today, until I recalled that 1982, post-freshman year, wasn’t exactly representative of what I could do a year or two earlier. Still, it’s comforting to know that thirty years later I’m able to work myself into far better shape than I could then, and stick to it far more consistently despite the uncertainties of real, non-collegiate life.

I pulled out my log from that era and read up on that race. I’d gone out intentionally slow with a running buddy for the first half, then turned it on for the return trip. My recollection is that the second half was all downhill, so when I read in my log that I was “ripping it home” and see the pace specified, I chuckle since I intend to run significantly faster for the entire half marathon – on the flat – that I’ve got slated for this Sunday morning.

Thirty years later, I’d love to run against myself from back then.

There are some things I know I’ll never touch from that era. Burning the final quarter mile of the two-mile down around sixty seconds. Not going to happen. Spinning a mile in something close to four and a half. Ditto. Speed like that is toast for me. And thank God I will never do another race-walking mile.

But there are things from those days that I am reaching and surpassing. Age brings focus and determination that crumbles endurance marks. I’d never run a marathon in those days, now number fifteen looms. At six and a half years, I’ve stuck to this on a consistent basis far longer than in the early days. And this month, in the desperation of catching up on fall marathon training, I’ve finally busted not just my Second Lap but also my First Lap – and all time – monthly mileage mark, which will culminate tomorrow when I hit three hundred miles for the first time in my life.

This, like everything, is relative. A running co-worker tells me that he logs that kind of mileage regularly, so it’s no big deal in the universe. But it’s a big deal to me, as it will be if I ever pass the other remaining endurance and capacity marks of my youth.

Two-seventy-nine in January of 1980, meet three hundred in September of 2011. There’s one hole of my generation that’s been bridged. I take back my opening statement. I’m not on the wrong side of this gap.