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.