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.

18 September 2011

Sort of a Duel in the Sun

OK, so it wasn’t exactly Dick Beardsley and Alberto Salazar in the famed 1982 Duel in the Sun at Boston, but it was, for me, one of the more exciting races I’ve run, and certainly one of the most pleasing. And like most events that fall into that category, who knew it was coming?

Let’s get the mystery and suspense out of the way first. I managed to retain my title as the fastest yokel in our small pond known as the Forrest 5K, chalking up only my second win in Second Lap history (bar runs don’t count!). Once again I was the beneficiary of the alignment of the stars; nobody truly fast showed up. Some really good competition, mind you, but had I jumped into the five-K just one town over yesterday, I would have been smoked five times over and finished close to two minutes off the pace. So this was no Herculean feat. But hey, a win is a win.

The fun – and the exciting – parts are how it came about. The pleasing part comes with the numbers, which, as you might expect from your OCD-prone author, need some massaging to reveal their deep inner truths. We’ll get to that.

Frankly, I came close to abdicating the throne without a fight. For reasons unexplained, the race organizers chose to move said event an hour earlier, leaving me with the uncomfortable choice of blowing off my church band or blowing off my small pond title. The balance of goading from various parties weighed on the side of title defense. OK, the band will survive.

Defending my crown was in truth a rather ludicrous idea. The only reason I held it in the first place was the dumb luck of who didn’t show up last year. So said defense was effectively ceremonial. Not to mention I’d just put in a hard twenty-two miler two days prior, and didn’t really expect much from my over-trained legs. But the race was small last year and hinted at being small again. Online registrations, nicely posted and visible, were thin, to put it mildly. No heavy-hitting names stood out, but then, who’s to say I’d know them if they were in there.

One name that did stand out was Issam, my challenger from last year’s race. There are two races every year on this course, the other being early in the summer, which I’d missed due to vacation. A little homework revealed that Issam had run the June edition and kicked his time down close to what I’d run last year. But hey, I’d also pushed my five-K down over the summer, so…? Now, getting smoked by someone out of your league doesn’t inspire a top performance, nor does being alone out front. But the idea of having this guy back, who’d pushed me hard through the first half last year, was sweet. Bring on the rematch!

Then what to my wondering eyes should appear this morning in the registration line, no, not a sled with tiny reindeer, but none other than Rocket John. Rocket John, who to my memory had smoked me in every race shorter than a marathon. Rocket John, who reminded me of his speed during a brief – and quick – warm-up. Rocket John, who I hadn’t talked to in a few months while he healed up a few injuries, but here he was, he’s back. Yeah, so defend, deschmend, it was nice to hold the crown for a year, it’s pretty much over now. I vowed to just try to hold on as long as possible.

Which is pretty much what happened at first. Off we bolted, sucking cop car fumes, John, Issam, and yours truly. Leading for the first couple of tenths, Issam inches off my left flank. Then John going a stride up, Isaam and I elbow to elbow. Round the corner into Phelps Street, the three of us stuck like glue. Ripping my lungs out to stay in contact with John. Issam’s right arm glued to my left. A real dogfight, and we’re only at a half a mile. A dogfight? More like hanging on for dear life to stay in contact, expecting John to turn it on at any moment.

Out of the blue, another set of footfalls. A youngster in our midst! He seemingly effortlessly weaves between John and I and into the lead. Oh please, guys, I’m at full bore, you turn it up a notch and, well, good night. Resignation, it’s looking like a typical age-group day. But that still means fighting off John, and for the moment I’ve forgotten that Issam is young enough to fall out of my tranche. I’m looking at third in my age group. Well, it’s hardware.

The early mild upgrades passed, we reach the first major rise and hit the mile in – yee-haw, five-thirty-nine. Issam is still glued to my left. And I mean glued. We’ve never varied more than half a stride since settling in a quarter-mile out. Then, and I don’t really recall when or where it happened, it was probably at this rise, not only the youngster but even Rocket John are no longer in my forward vision. Hills are your friends, I tell my middle school cross country kids. Today they seem to be. I bleed hills. I’ve taken two of them on the hills. Confidence rises a bit, but I’m burning up at this pace, they’ll probably be back, and Issam, Issam, we’re literally banging elbows. Neither of us cares or is offended. In our grunted breathing I sense he’s eating up this duel as much as I. I can’t shake him, nor he me. We alternately test each other with half-stride bursts, the other always answering. Beardsley. Salazar. But even they ran one in front of the other. If this race had crowds, they’d have a treat to behold. Alas, along these stretches, nary a soul.

I’ve never run a race like this. The two of us played Siamese twins for a solid mile and a half. Even around the turns. Splitting only momentarily as I had to swing wide around a car to avoid crunching his space, but rejoining within seconds.

Last year he’d faded early on the climb up Cook Lane. This year he stuck like glue as we neared the crest. A tenth, maybe two, to the top. If he stuck with me over the apex, no telling what would happen on the way down. Up is in my blood, down, not so good. Now or never…

I don’t know if I surged, he faded, or both, but suddenly the trance was broken, my left arm was free. I didn’t dare look back, even as his footsteps faded, which took quite a while. Reactions from the sparse crowd didn’t offer up the usual verbal hints to the span of the gap. And what of Rocket John and the Youngster?

All you can do in this situation is do all you can do. Sounds redundant, but there’s no deeper thinking. Just haul. Dig deep. Ignore bodily alarms, drips, and other inconveniences. And kick it around the corner, into the parking lot, over the line. You’d kill yourself if you lost it there.

I’d learn afterward that like last year, Issam dropped back more than I’d expected. I had twenty seconds on him at the end. But he sliced thirty off his previous best on the course; truly impressive, and a trend that extrapolated will be hard to counter down the road.

Had I known the gap, I might have slacked it in. And what a glorious reason not to look back, but to just assume you’re about to get re-smoked. Because that final push brought me in, at least on my watch (official timing experienced some challenges, so this is the best I’ll get) dead heat tied with the best I’ve ever run on that course, a time from three years back, three years younger, before the famed foot follies, while in my peak condition. Converted from the long course back down to a true five-K distance (I warned you that the OCD would come back into this), it was only my third sub-eighteen and only a couple seconds off my Second Lap best.

You don’t do that when you’re so far behind the leaders that you don’t care, or when there’s nobody pushing you. You do that when you’ve got awesome competitors of similar ability around you and you find yourself in that rare epic duel. My hat is off to these guys, and would be even if the order of finish had been reversed.

15 September 2011

Desperation is the Mother of Excess

How does that phrase go? Something, I think it was necessity, is the mother of something else. Seriously, I forgot the phrase and had to Google it, and it’s invention. But I was thinking of it because my catch phrase of late is a perversion of said idiom.

I’m not quite sure how this always happens, but it always happens. Over the years my attitude toward the marathon has shifted from pipe dream, to awesome and slightly fearful goal, to challenging race, to a motivating goal for the fall and spring seasons. Except that somewhere along the way, the idea of the race as the motivator for the training leading up to it somehow gets lost in the vagaries of the calendar.

There are two simple explanations. First, summer is always busy. The concept of summer vacation doesn’t really hold water in the real world, when even vacations entail a lot of effort to pull off. Pile on top of that a couple of business trips that made August evaporate, and, well, how is it that September is half over already? Second, October – a.k.a. marathon season – is just ages away from summer, right? Except it’s not, really, it’s separated from summer by the single month of September. My mental process, no longer tuned to the shock and awe of my early marathon attitude which dictated detailed and careful training planning for the race, somehow repeatedly fails to comprehend that twelve weeks prior to a mid-October marathon lies… what’s that? Yes, the middle of July.

Who’s thinking about marathon training in July? Certainly not me. It’s summer. It’s hot. It’s just not conducive to marathon-think. And suddenly it’s the end of July, it’s only ten weeks to the fall race, and I’ve hit a double-digit run just once in the last month. So I obligatorily crank out a fifteen as August dawns and vow that I won’t miss the up-ramp this year, that by the close of the month I’ll have worked in a bunch of something-teen runs and maybe already crack into the twenties, and this time I’ll get those three or four twenty-somethings in. Except, as noted, August evaporated.

And so it is September, Bay State, this year’s target race, is a mere six weeks and a few days away, and – gulp! – that fifteen a month back still ranks as the longest thing I’ve seen since Buffalo.

Kids, this is not good.

And so, as the title suggests, Desperation is the Mother of Excess. Crank it, baby, we’ve got ground to make up.

What resulted over the last two weeks was a little unwise, a little stupid, a little abusive, but let’s face it, a little invigorating in that I blew out a few personal marks and frolicked in the land of compulsion. And it ain’t over yet.

What better way to kick it off than with a double on the month’s opening day? Eleven in the morning, speed work in the evening. Two days later, force the twenty-something. On a day when, frankly, even the first mile stunk, but Desperation is the Mother of… I repeat myself. Twenty one stinky miles later, at least the first one was in the books, at least I had the ‘time on the road’ workout logged, even if the pace wasn’t pretty. Two days later, race the local ten-miler. Two days later, another fifteen. And of course more on the in-between days as well. This big-one-every-other-day cadence topped out at eighty-seven miles for the first seven days of the month, a new mark for me, as I record my ‘biggest weeks’ as any seven-day span. Life doesn’t stick to Sunday-to-Saturday schedules, nor do I.

But since that was the first seven days, it set up a shot at another oddball record I keep. Yes, the OCD side is coming out strong, now! I call it the “fastest to one hundred” (or two hundred). As in, fastest from the start of a month to that mileage total, and the previous mark was ten days. After eighty-seven in a week, the body couldn’t really stand thirteen the next day to make it in eight days, but covering that in two days seemed do-able and would still set a new mark.

Another business trip loomed on days eight and nine, complicating the task, but knowing where I’d be on day nine, I’d spied on the satellite photos a fine-looking canal-side towpath to run that morning. To my dismay, it was pretty short, a mere two-point-something to the far end, but knowing I wouldn’t have a lot of time, that was to be the day nine run. Which meant that if I were to make one hundred miles by day nine, I’d need, oh, um, well, I never quite figured it out exactly what I needed for day eight, simply too frantic, no time.

In football they call it a broken play when things don’t go quite as planned yet they still work out. Day eight, pouring rain and no time in the morning, trundle off to Albany, do that for which they pay me, get out of town to my next destination, slip in an evening run plenty long enough to assure reaching the day nine goal, and… broken play. Completely stymied on the ‘get out of town’ bit. Leftover flooding had closed bridges, funneling traffic into my path, bringing the world to a dead stop. Half an hour, a quarter mile of progress, not even on the highway yet.

This is the joy of running. Any time, any place. I bailed out of traffic to a hotel parking lot, changed, and hit the roads. An hour later, I had my run in, and traffic had lightened. And irony of irony, late that night at the hotel, when I charted out where I’d run, by chance the distance worked out to exactly what I needed so that the morning towpath run would hit one hundred. Exactly. Which it did, one hundred in nine days. I couldn’t have planned it better had I actually planned it.

Marathon training desperation? You bet. Excess in response? Absolutely. Tapping into the power of geeky number-crunching obsession? Priceless. Bring it on, there’s still the second half of the month to go!

01 September 2011

Perspective

Perception is reality, and I dare not get deeper on that topic since it’s an endless vortex, but perception depends on perspective. Everything depends on how you look at it. And how you look at it really defines how you approach it and who you are.

I found myself on a streak this summer, sort of by accident. Sometime in June I noticed I’d run every day for a while, then it was a month, two months, then the old Second Lap record of seventy two days came and went, next thing you know one hundred days was looming, arrived last week, and was surpassed. In the past few weeks alone The Accidental Streak has survived a colonoscopy (yum!), an Adirondack Death March, and Tropical Storm nee Hurricane Irene. Tonight as September starts to unwrap itself, I stand at one hundred and six days since May nineteenth. (And by the way, I applaud club-mate Jim whom I learned was just as crazy as I, having gone out for his run at about the same time as I on Sunday morning as Irene closed in, a “drenched-in-sixty-seconds-and-loving-it” adventure that he enjoyed as much, if not more so, than I, you go…)

So, back to the Accidental Streak. I’m prone to be amused at this. Not proud, just amused. Proud would imply that this is something remarkable. It’s not, other than the fact that it might be a good motivator to keep getting out there, and possibly a remarkable way to do foolish things to my body, though I am pretty well convinced that the occasional days of three to four mile jogs around the neighborhood really count for days off.

There’s one of those perspectives. Three or four miles at a leisurely seven and a half pace is a day off. Most “normal people” would spew a heavy guffaw at such a statement. You do what?

But let’s take the other perspective. You’ve only done how little? At one hundred and six days straight, I’m still two hundred and sixty-nine days short of what I did back in 1980 in the First Lap days. Over a solid year. But hey, I was a teenager, had none of the responsibilities of the real world, you know, easy to dismiss. Or not. Who’s to say there weren’t plenty of things getting in the way back then as well?

And we’ve all read stories of people who’ve run every day for ten, twenty, thirty years or more. I marvel at how they got around the red-eyes to Europe, the medical procedures, the Conferences from Hell, the flu. Perhaps they don’t have lives, though I suspect they do. To them, running every day is just a way of life, like waking, eating, (we hope) showering, and sleeping. I can’t say I’ve reached that. There have been days when slating in even a half-hour jaunt has been a challenge. So in perspective, what’s a hundred or so?

On my recent trip to the Adirondacks, I had the pleasure of linking up on one of my runs up the Lake Road in St. Huberts with a young lady who screamed ultra on multiple dimensions: her education, her profession, her running, even her marriage to yet another ├╝ber-runner. From my perspective, her tales of past and upcoming hundred-milers, twelve-hour races, ten-hour training runs, and so on simply boggled the mind. To her perspective, it’s just what she does.

I mentioned my Couchsechraga Death March of two days prior, and added with amusement that after the eleven-hour, sixteen-plus-mile, three summit mudfest, I’d hit the road for a quick three to shake out the joints, because I figured that from her perspective, it would be just that - amusement. I didn’t mention the Accidental Streak. In the context of her adventures, it seemed rather silly.

“So you’re streaking?”

Her response surprised me a bit, and it struck me as to the power of perspective. To almost anyone else, the Death March itself would seem absurd. The idea of going for a run following the Death March would be grounds for an in-patient assessment for long-term commitment to a lovely place where flowers grow and the sun shines and nice men in white suits ascertain you’ve taken your meds and are peaceful and sedate and no longer hurting yourself. From her perspective, it was a completely normal thing to do, entirely within the realm of what normal people – to her – did in normal times. I didn’t have to explain myself. She got it.

Adding this to the plethora of times I’ve had to deflect comments about my tiny-bit-larger-than-average fish status in my somewhat smallish local pond, or in other words, yes, I may hit the top three or five in a local five kilometer, but no, I’m really not fast, just lucky that nobody else moderately quick showed up, and won’t you consider the really fast guys out there of whom I too look upon with wonder…. Well, her response got me thinking over the last couple weeks about the power of perspective.

You control your perspective. You decide what’s normal within your scope of reality. You obviously accept physical limits – or perhaps you don’t accept them without first testing to see if they’re real – but aside from that, if you decide that it’s completely normal to run X miles in a month, or X miles at a time, or X times a week, or whatever, whether running-related or not, you decide that. Work – and push – your own limits, not those that the world seems to have put in place and imposed on you. And when you set your version of normal, accept it as just that: normal. Don’t let either the derision, whether serious or in jest, or the lauding, impact your definition of normal. Just strive on your own dimension. Set your own perspective. Enjoy its freedom.