24 August 2011

The Power of No (Subtitle: Mud)

I’m not playing the Company Man but perhaps the Corporate Gods for whom I work are onto something. My firm recently rolled out a new marketing slogan, “The Power of We”. It’s supposed to highlight what can be accomplished when people are empowered to work together collaboratively (and of course, make them want to buy our collaboration-enabling technology). A bit corny? Perhaps. But consider the opposite, “The Power of No”. It’s powerful, and we (not the corporate we but a more personal we) had to defeat it last week.

The Power of No. It’s easy to say no, to find reasons not to do something, and frankly, sometimes it’s prudent to do so. In the case in point, there was a fine tipping line between the prudence of saying no and saying no because it was an easier, more comfortable choice. But what’s interesting here is that the Power of We defeated the Power of No. And it took We to do it.

Yes, this is a hiking story, but it can be applied to just about anything, including running, so it graces the pages of said running blog.

About this time of year my clan usually slogs up to the White Mountains of New Hampshire and goes peak-bagging (alternated with swimming and doing generally nothing, all good things), but this year we had the pleasure of an invitation from our neighbors to spend a few days at their family camp house in New York’s Adirondacks. Sort of a tacit part of the deal was that I’d strike out with their teenage son on some significant hike, since his clan isn’t into the bigger stuff while he, at the ripe old age of fifteen, is already closing in on completing his Adirondack Forty Sixers. Not that this was any skin off my back; indeed, I live for this stuff.

Now, the Adirondack Forty Sixers is a somewhat quirky list of summits. As you might guess, there are forty-six of them. Not too dissimilar from the forty-eight New Hampshire Four-Thousand Footers, except that the Forty Sixers include a few mistakes. Knowing that surveying has been a rather precise science for a long, long time, I am somewhat mystified as to how they got these so wrong, but they did. In fact there are only forty-four summits in the ‘dacks that reach or exceed four thousand feet, but one of them, MacNaughton Mountain, wasn’t believed to be four thousand feet and was therefore left off – and remains off – the list. Three others, however, which were erroneously believed to be four thousand feet were put on – and remain on – the list. Two of these, Blake and Cliff, just miss the golden altitude. And then there’s Couchsechraga.

Every list has its “insult” summits. In the Whites, they are Owl’s Head and Isolation, two summits just barely over four thousand feet – so you have to do them – and so far into the woods that you wish you didn’t. In the Adirondacks, Couchsechraga is the “insult” summit. So far into the woods, and not even close to four thousand feet (how did they get this so wrong?), but you have to do it. And to make the slap in the face even harder, you have to pass over a forty-two-hundred-foot ridge, descend eight hundred feet, then climb again to reach its paltry thirty-eight-hundred-foot summit. Then retrace your steps to get out. And all of this is on herd paths, unmaintained trails sporting all sorts of injurious and mucky joys. The name is Algonquin for “Dismal Wilderness”. It shows.

Well before our departure for the ‘dacks, Intrepid Young Hiking Partner provided me a list of the peaks he needed to bag. Nestled in that inventory was Couchsechraga. A quick jaunt to my favorite ‘dacks hiking reference site reminded me of what this was all about. Sixteen and a half miles. Mud. Herd paths. Mud. Climbing up streams. Mud. Bogs. Mud. Three summits to cover in the Santanoni Range. Mud. Did I mention mud? Yes, mud.

That’s easy. No. Plenty of others on his list. And as I don’t get to the ‘dacks all that often, the chances of me finishing my Forty Sixers are slim. So I don’t care a hoot about Couchsechraga.

But Intrepid Young Hiking Partner worked me past the Power of No, and the plan was set. We beats No, part one. We would do this, and we would do it in a single day, unlike most who backpack in, camp, and accomplish these summits in a sane manner.

The day before our planned adventure, we didn’t get rain. To steal my daughter’s favorite adjective of the moment, we got Epic Rain. A solid day of constant downpour. Streams around the ‘dack house, normally dry all summer, ran to overflowing. Not steady rain through the night, but absurdly intensified rain, all too apparent as I half-snoozed on the screened sleeping porch. Dry and comfy, but pretty much like listening to the rain on your tent. With the clock set for a quarter to six. Groan.

Six AM. Intrepid Partner is wide awake and surfing the NOAA website, insisting that the rain will move out shortly. Age & experience versus blind youthful energy. We’ve just had Epic Rain. We’re looking at unmaintained herd paths, read, plenty of *wet* foliage to soak us to hypothermia. We’re climbing streams. We’re crossing bogs. We’ve read of the legendary mud. On good days. Which this is not.

No. This is just not prudent. And frankly, I’m not keen on spending the day soaked to the skin.

But Intrepid Partner wouldn’t hear it. OK, perhaps we target an alternate summit, but we’re going to that distant trailhead, an hour away. And en-route, once again, he brings me around. We’ll give it a shot. Couchsechraga and the Santanoni Range. We beats No, part two.

Seven forty AM, the rain stopped twenty minutes earlier, and we’re on the trail. It’s four and a half miles on “real” trails, which means only that we’re not yet getting soaked from encroaching foliage, but the mud is already legendary. These are not trails. These are routes through swamps.

We reach the start of the herd path. Within fifty feet we’re faced with a twelve-foot crossing of a beaver pond on a floating, loose log. It’s deeper than we can find sticks to provide balance. Gingerly, we make it, only to find ourselves brushing through brush along the pond to find the path. Soaked already. Didn’t I tell you, NO?

Yet many drips, splats, slips, and a mile of climbing a stream later, we reach the ridge at a place called Times Square, as it’s the central meeting point of the herd path in and the three paths leading to the three summits. Of course, we drop a ball we’ve brought along. It is, after all, Times Square.

Next, it’s off to Couchsechraga, the toughest objective first. And here’s where the funny part happens.

Five minutes from Times Square, nearly four hours into the muck and mud and slick and slop, having topped the ridge at forty-two-hundred feet and now heading down towards Couchsechraga, we find the path entirely, completely, unavoidable, and deeply, flooded beyond passage. And the Power of No strikes the other way.

Intrepid Young Hiking Partner seems to have had it. He actually suggests giving up on Couchsechraga. He says no.

This is really the point of this whole story. In life, we lift each other over the hurdles we face. We can’t do it all alone, no matter how strong we think we are. We all have our moments of weakness, moments when our resolve loses resolution, moments when the Power of No takes over. Each of us would have abandoned this effort at one point or another. But as We, we can press on.

I knock some sense into him, plunge into the thick alpine spruce brush, and beat a path around the flood. We beats No, finale.

You know the rest of the story. Couchsechraga succumbed to our assault, including passage over and back through the famed bog in the col between her and Times Square. The other summits, Santanoni and Panther, subsequently became check-marks on our peak lists. We emerged nearly eleven hours later, wounded, abused, sore, caked with mud, our boots carrying enough water inside that we no longer cared what we stepped in, but immensely satisfied. Later examination of photos on various blogs compared to what we experienced only confirmed that we’d made this passage at absurd water levels of the type possibly only after Epic Rain.

But the Power of We overcame the Power of No. Depend on the motivation of your fellow runners and those around you to carry you through the tough points, in training, in races, in life. Give it back when you’ve got it and they need it.

Oh, one more thing: After this concluded, yes, of course I ran a few miles. Can’t let the streak die just because of some silly little Death March, can I?

08 August 2011

Fork in the Road

I popped out of the house at eight-thirty this morning for a short three mile meander around the neighborhood. Despite being brief, slow, and untimed, it was one of the more significant runs I’ve logged in quite some time. On its own, it was significant just to go out when I did. To add to that significance, I came across a fork in the road. Really. A crushed, abused, metal, very real fork, ground into the pavement. It got me thinking.

We have a habit of pressing on and putting the bad news out of mind. The financial markets are melting as I write, finally realizing the bad news we as a global society have put out of mind – that we’re in collective debt hole a mile deep from overconsumption and frivolous irresponsibility. It’s something you can’t ignore, or it will get you in the end. And I’d been putting my own bad news out of mind – that nestled between the healthy heart and endurance and all that jazz, a problem has been brewing; a health problem that nobody likes to talk publicly about, but that you can’t ignore, or it will get you in the end.

I’ve stated before and will echo again: if you want a good scare in life, Google your symptom. Six plus years ago, doing that was enough to spur me into returning to the running life. Yeah, so sometimes fear is a good thing. Certain bodily events evoke fear by their very nature, multiplied by the implication of what they might mean. This time, that Google search returned everything from trivial to terminal cancer. I couldn’t put it out of mind any longer, brought it up in my last physical, and heard what I didn’t want to hear yet knew would be the answer: So what if you’re not fifty yet, doc said, you’re going in for the scope. Yeah, that scope. As in the scope operated by a gentleman named Ben Dover. OK, enough with the bad puns, we all get it now.

With the Big Event on the line for eleven this morning, despite being in the late stages of the joys of preparing for the grand experience (which, I’ve got to say, really did not live up to the billing of horribleness conveyed to me by many – perhaps it’s because we runners are already used to dealing with extreme bodily events?), at eight-thirty I informed my Lovely Spouse that I was going for a run. Knowing me well enough, she didn’t bother to question my sanity.

I’d be a liar if I didn’t admit that my current eighty-one-day haven’t-missed-a-day streak wasn’t on my mind, but this was about more than that. This was about telling myself that I wouldn’t let myself be beaten either by the fear of what I might find out in a few short hours or even the nerves about the procedure itself. This was about positive thinking.

Thus the appropriate irony of finding that fork in the road a few minutes later.

Once my head cleared of insipid “fork in the road” jokes, I boiled the find down to two forks. First, while you always hope to take the healthy fork in life, life will at some point send you down a path where something will go wrong, no matter how healthy you are. That’s for fork in the road you can work to forestall, but can’t avoid forever. And second, when faced with that path, you have a conscious fork of your own: fold or fight.

Life chose to send me a curve ball, and in two hours I’d be injected, inspected, detected, infected, neglected and selected, to plagiarize the one and only Arlo, followed shortly thereafter by the news of what was what. I resolved right there, about a tenth of a mile of thought past that battered fork, that whatever came of it, good, bad, or ugly, I’d deal with it. If it was truly ugly, even if it was an unwinnable fight, I’d deal with it, and pray to have the emotional strength to post a shining light.

It’s all well and easy to write this now. The procedure was a breeze, the caregivers were angels as they always are, and the diagnosis was not ugly at all, being on the trivial end of the range of Google-listed outcomes. I would not have to fight that fight. A little more work to patch up the internal wound perhaps, but nothing requiring emotional or physical heroics of any sort.

But I’m glad I had the time to think about it. I’m glad that the running mind fueled enough defiance to get me out on the road in the face of something nobody looks forward to, at a time of high emotional vulnerability. I’m glad I found that fork, which made me think it through and steel myself for whatever might come. I’d hazard that someone upstairs put that fork out there for me.

04 August 2011

The Spoiler

How often have I finished a local race in second or third place and lamented that a fast guy or two happened to show up that day? As an experienced (read: older) runner, I don’t expect to win – heck, a top-few finish in any race is worthy happiness – but in a small local race where the possibility, however remote, exists, it’s a nice thought. Or at least snag the masters’ crown. And even though last fall, after five years of trying, I finally did notch that win, it’s still a recurring theme.

Now, a big race is another matter. Dream on. We’re just talking about the home-town events. And getting beat by the young ‘uns is to be expected too; coming out on top of the old guys’ rankings is enough of a thrill. And if I lose it to a local guy, that’s life, we hang out, chit-chat, and know we’ll see each other again at some future race. It’s a friendly crowd.

No, the annoying cases are when the guy who shows up to take the crown is an out-of-town ringer who just happens to drop in on your home-town race, spoils the party, and walks away with some honor that coulda’ shoulda’ woulda’ been yours (remember this posting?). Well, this time it was my turn to play the spoiler. No, I didn’t win, but I did snag the top of the masters’ podium, deprived the locals of a bit of hardware, and even met a new friend in the process. Score…

Set the scene: Business trip to New Jersey, the nice part (really, there are lots of nice parts), looking at four days of sitting in a room getting educated. Read, four days of desperately trying to keep my eyes open. This isn’t a condemnation of the speakers, who did a great job. It’s the physical reality of my body, which, when not engaged, shuts down in fifteen minutes flat. Sometimes I think that everyone else is wide awake and it’s only me and it must be some horrible disease that will kill me next week. Probably I’m just not noticing the others dozing as well.

I always make a point of getting my runs in while traveling, but I’d never done the ‘seek out a local weekday race’ thing before. But coming off the Reading FORR 5K a couple weeks back and having decided that I need more short races to sharpen my speed, I figured an evening dash would be just the thing to further that goal and shake out a day’s kinks from sitting all day long.

Travel Monday, sit, sit, and sit, and by Thursday I’d downright need a race, so a race I found in a little town called Mt. Tabor. That was the target, till I discovered that our agenda of having to sit, sit, sit (and we did not like it one little bit, he said, channeling Seuss), was to extend into the dark hours Thursday night. Rapid reassessment, a little more web hunting, and thus emerged alternate target, the Tuesday night Branchburg Recreation National Night Out 5K in, not surprisingly, Branchburg, New Jersey. A mere sixteen miles from the office and a seven fifteen PM start. Piece of cake.

Yah, but this is New Jersey, where traffic aspires to hither-to unknown dimensions. So it wasn’t a piece of cake, but I made it, and found myself in a place I’d never heard of, with people I’d never met, at an event that was really about getting the locals out – nearly three hundred locals of which a glance at the results hints that fewer than fifty came from more than a town away. I wasn’t just the outsider, I was, even better, the conspicuous outside, sporting as usual my club jersey. Of course nobody had a clue where the Highland City Striders came from, and nobody asked. The excitement for this race was the cross-country preview, with the local youngsters lined up to duke it out in a pre-season test. I’d noticed that from looking at last year’s results and looked forward to have a bunch of fast kids to push me.

And it was, in short, a lovely night. Hot again, yes, but a lovely course through a lovely park with a lovely trail section, shady, soft underfoot, with a bunch of fun twists and turns – glad I jogged it ahead of time so as to avoid bouncing off various trees – and even a lovely cross-country start, dashing across a field from the wide starting line, a few curses emitted here and there when the golf cart we were chasing led us slightly astray of the path off the field, but still, just plain evocative of the word lovely, enhanced by a large and enthusiastic cheering section.

As expected, there were a lot of fast kids. As hoped, I didn’t see any fast old farts, but I wasn’t about to look back to verify that. Just keep swimming. Most importantly, there were enough fast kids that once the field settled in, there was always someone to target. In fact, I’d say that the field depth was just right. Too many and it’s meaningless to pick ‘em off. Too few and it’s unrealistic to catch the next one, way far out front. This crowd was just right. Constant motivation. Double motivation, in fact, as it’s sweeter when you can pick off the seventeen-year-olds, and at least a half dozen fell over the last two miles.

At the two mile split I knew it was a decent night. How decent I couldn’t then – or now – say, since this wasn’t a course that would pass the USATF White Glove Test. Plenty of undelimited inside turns. Virtually unmeasureable trail sections. But no worries. Call it close enough. Call it happiness crossing the line a quarter-minute faster than the last one two weeks back, which had been my fastest in years. Maybe it was short, who cares. Eighth of nearly three hundred, and took the masters by a wide margin. Cooler, the scoring company included a “PLP” – Performance Level Percentage – rating in the results, a computation that scales your time to your exact age. I’d seen this concept before on an individual basis, but not included in the general results so you could compare yourself to everyone else of any age. Smoked them kiddies. Sweet.

Now, the funny thing is that I wasn’t the only spoiler. I was the old fart spoiler, but there was another, the young spoiler, or shoulda-been spoiler, Dan from Minnesota, posted to Jersey for a summer internship, and in a weird twist, we finished a mere seconds apart. After knocking off the half-dozen kids, he was next in my crosshairs before we ran out of runway. Figure the irony that of three hundred local runners, the two from afar finished three seconds apart. And he too should have deprived the locals of some hardware in his twenty-something age group but for an administrative error that cruelly deprived him of said medal. Ah well, he took it well, no biggie.

We figured all this out in the post-chute chit-chat, and to my amusement I found he was planning on Thursday night to hit Mt. Tabor, my original target. It would have been sweet not to have had those meetings. Three seconds apart on Tuesday called for a rematch on Thursday, but sadly, not to be. The rematch will have to wait till Dan nails his Boston qualifier, which I’m confident he will, or I find myself in Minnesota, hey, you never know.

And then? While my co-workers were (probably) out drinking in the bars, shoulda’-been spoiler Dan and I hung out on in Branchburg, New Jersey on National Night Out, downed cheap and tasty burgers whipped up for charity, enjoyed a summer night while the town selectmen battled the town cops on the softball field, and swapped running stories. What more could one ask for in life?