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!