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.

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