16 January 2012


How do you describe a race so ludicrous as this other than to just spit out that we raced sixty-eight and a quarter laps (um, really more, we’ll get back to that) around an indoor square track and called it a half marathon. Two hundred and seventy-three rather sharp left turns, which left behind a never-before-seen blister count on the feet. Where does one start with an event as odd as this?

How about with a guilt trip? The quandary of this circumambulation is that it became a cross between an item in a running magazine advice column and some old fashioned Catholic guilt. Let’s back up and recall why I subjected my bones to this oddity in the first place: as a stage in the Assault on New York.

Some might say I’m opinionated. Some might say I’m overly frugal. (No, really?) Putting those together, running wickedly expensive races has never held much appeal. I’ve tolerated the high price of the Boston Marathon because it is, after all, Boston, the Granddaddy, each running a fulfillment of a dream from my younger First Lap days, and because, being right in my back yard, other than the entry fee and twenty bucks to park for the expo, there are really no other costs.

New York, on the other hand, racks up an even higher entry fee than Boston. Credit the union labor in the City, I suppose, though in all honesty, the massive logistics of pulling this off in New York City make the price somewhat understandable. Add travel cost to what is never a cheap destination, and, well, I’ve always just said the heck with it. There are plenty of other races.

But there is an undeniable appeal. Not because it’s a World Marathon Major. Chicago, looping through the Loop upon Midwestern flatness, elicits a yawn. London and Berlin, nice I suppose, but I can go to my grave without having run them and not feel unfulfilled. New York, the city I loved to hate while growing up Upstate, yet the city that can’t fail to get your heart racing, and not just because of the creepy dude in the shadows somewhere behind you… New York, I’ve come to the conclusion that at some point I’ve got to run New York.

The rest falls into place easily. In a little over a year I’ll hit the next big age group, which means this is the final year of my forties, which means hardware is harder to harness against those forty-year-olds, which means I might as well do a big race this year where winning anything isn’t a possibility anyway, as next year I’ll be mapping out races with the best age group trophies. And as it turns out, New York’s guaranteed entry standards, which allow you to bypass the lottery, are tightening for 2013. I’d still make it with my current times if I can repeat them this year, but what about a Native Guide? Assaulting a mega-event like New York is a lot less daunting with experience at your side. Enter Rocket John, who’s run New York a few times, and knows his way through the maze of twisty shuttle busses all the way to Staten Island.

Except that Rocket John has had a couple of rough races of late, and didn’t have a New York qualifier, so we had to get him one. Since New York allows you to qualify with a half-marathon, which we can slip in any time, we had to find one, and soon, since we didn’t (and still don’t) know when registration opens. And I had no desire to travel to some far-flung place for said event.

Enter Smuttynose. Fact is there are darn few half-marathons in New England in the winter. There’s a reason for that. Most sane people don’t run half-marathons in the New England winter. And there are even fewer on a Saturday, which I prefer so I don’t have to blow off my church band. But there it was, tucked in the online race listings: The Smuttynose Palooza Indoor Half-Marathon, brought to you by the Loco guy, Mike St. Laurent. Sixty-six laps around a one-fifth-mile indoor track in nearby New Hampshire. On Saturday. In January. We had a ticket for our Assault on New York.

Race day arriveth. Race day? Seriously? Somehow it wasn’t. Not only was it a strange race, but our only real target was to get John under an hour thirty for New York, training run pace, and my legs were still shredded from last week’s five thousand meters in flats. Result: Zero pressure. The whole thing was loosey-goosey, even the course, which somehow grew from the advertised sixty-six laps and change to sixty-eight plus. Seems nobody had ever truly measured that fifth-of-a-mile track for USATF certification before, and much to their surprise it took five-point-two laps to hit a mile. Well, they promised to count our laps for us, so whatever.

The Question of the Day was how to run this thing. Rocket John favored a conservative start, juicing it up later. I’m not very good at juicing it up in a race. On a training run, sure, but late in a race it just doesn’t happen. If I need a time, I know I’d better bang on out there and put some in the bank. This is where the magazine advice column comes in. Do I stick with John? After all, this was about getting him a time. Or do I run a race? This wasn’t an important race for me, but after all, it was a race with a real live race entry fee. Oh, dear running etiquette expert, what do I do?

Rocket John, ever the gentleman, seemed to give the signal to go run it. We went out together for the first mile or two, kinda’ hot. He dropped back, and I motored on, inspired by the tall guy in black hanging off my flank. Not that it mattered, we were running second and third, not in contention to win (and in this odd event with two heats, a guy in the second heat would beat us all, leaving me third overall). But the competitive part of me took over, and I determined that Man in Black wouldn’t pass. He didn’t. But John fell well off the pace, faded, and missed his hour thirty.

Oh, Catholic guilt! What have I done? Did I let him down?

Truth is, had I stuck with him, I couldn’t have spurred him to make up the nearly five minutes by which he missed it. Then again, had we gone out slow and conservative as he’d planned, things could have turned out very differently. We’ll never know. Assuaging my guilt is the knowledge that he’s got another half planned in March, which should leave us enough time to get into New York, and I can pay him back by joining him for some major training before then.

Meanwhile, in the race… With John faded, distance growing between me and the Man in Black, and the leader well ahead, the rest became a mental game. Count the laps into each mile (with the mile markers scattered around the track due to the newly discovered five-point-two formula), click a split. There really was no other way to deal with this. You can’t simply follow the lap count to sixty-nine (they counted the first quarter lap as one). You’d go loopy. It’s like climbing the big hill back to the house at the end of my training runs. You have to break it into manageable chunks.

Besides, I had to keep track, since the race organizers’ promise to count our laps itself got lapped. In a race where we lapped people continuously, electronic counting was the only possible way to make this work. But John and I had inadvertently rung up a lap during our warm-up. We thought it would be cleared before the start, but the previous relay heat ran slower than planned so we started before they finished. Result: No clearing of the system possible, and Rocket John and I had an extra lap on the boards. Intrepid race management tried to fix this mid-stream, but didn’t get it right. Further, I fouled up my watch as well, and didn’t realize that in re-syncing, I de-synced.

Six laps to go. But they announced I had eight. Say what? Four laps. They said six. I’m done. They say two more. No choice but to run two more, we’ll sort it out later. And later we figured that we both had it wrong, each by one in the opposite direction. So yes, I ran a half marathon that was about thirteen-point-three miles long and my last-lap kick was for naught once we pulled the splits and realized we had to shave off that last circuit. It cost me a perhaps half a dozen seconds in a race where I landed only a dozen clicks off my best, south of a buck twenty-three. But clocking that in a rather casual effort on somewhat shredded legs can’t be a bad thing. And besides, they made it up to us; the Smuttynose was on tap (forgive me Father, I sinned and spilled one!) while we cheered on our friends in the second heat.

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