28 February 2012

Three-Peat!

Another weekend, another sunny and beautiful yet windy February day on the Cape & Islands, and another notch in the win column. While these wins aren’t exactly world-class, I could still get used to this. And this one was on a return engagement, number three, our very own Three-Peat. Now, it’s not quite the award you get just for showing up, but admittedly it wasn’t far from it. Nevertheless, our team performance gave me a big grin.

If it’s late February, it must have been Hyannis Marathon, Half-Marathon, and Marathon Relay time, that weekend when the otherwise flat-lining winter economy of Cape Cod briefly comes alive thanks to five-thousand-plus tights-clad runners. If the locals weren’t so desperate for a dollar, or at least something to stave off the boredom, they might question the collective sanity of these people. For the most part, these aren’t the hard-core types I wrote of last week. The marathoners here are largely the statistical average. The winning times don’t tend to make the news. And most of them don’t insist it’s only a training run for Boston. Indeed, most of them – about eighty percent – don’t do the marathon at all, rather the half, which is the big draw. This is not the Type A crowd, yet they’re still out in force at a time when the weather is usually just plain lousy.

This year’s edition loomed a bit ominously since race organizers expanded the field significantly and had no problem filling the slots. I feared that what had been a crowded host hotel might become unbearable. My bad. I hadn’t noticed that they killed off the ten kilometer event, simplifying things, and the crowds weighed in pretty much at the same level as before. Fear averted.

This year’s also loomed a bit ominously because that field expansion added over half again as many relay teams, adding to Our Fearful Leader’s angst over our ability to recapture our little bit ‘o glory. Three-quarters of our twice-champion masters team were returning, our newest addition Pat seemed promising, and I knew I was in good shape to improve on previous years’ performances, but with over forty additional teams, well, our team captain reveled in his worries no matter how much we tried to calm his jitters.

Bring on Alfred E. Newman. What, me worry? This was, after all, a fun event. Nothing more than our winter outing & bash for my local club (I have to be clear now that there’s two, so last weekend was a “Red” weekend, racing for Greater Boston, while this weekend was “Green”, racing for Highland City, life gets so confusing!). Captain Dan didn’t see it that way. To him, this was the big prize. To me? Well, if we win? Super! If we don’t? Whatever! It’s all good fun. In that agonizing runner way, of course, where pain equals fun.

Mr. Newman ruled the day. No worries. A walk off, more or less. Much to our surprise, last year’s count of merely five men’s masters teams shrunk to a paltry three. So winning that category wasn’t exactly a Red Badge of Courage. But the field did grow to one hundred and ten finishing teams, mostly in the open divisions – them thar young’uns – and while such a statistic wasn’t published, the truth is that four old guys from Marlborough and Hudson finished fourth amongst all the teams, and only two seconds out of third. Not bad for budding geezers.

I can truly say I was proud of this team. Rocket John led off with a solid seven mile segment, cranking sub-six-thirties into the windy half of the course. Pat, who I nicknamed our “X Factor”, surprised all of us, mostly himself, dropping his expected low-sevens pace below six-forty. Wind at his back or not, that was a fine piece of running! Frankly, I wasn’t even really looking yet when he showed up with the tape-encrusted lead pipe they call a baton for this extravaganza. After my roll back into the wind (being a double-loop marathon course, the first and third legs are the same, as are the second and fourth), Dan brought home the victory, fast enough for us to slice – hello? – nearly seventeen minutes off last year’s winning time. Indeed, it was the first time my relay team ran the marathon faster than I’d covered the distance alone.

My leg was a different world compared to last year. By the time I set out last year, the course was littered with relay teams and full marathoners on their second lap. This year, with Pat stepping in for what had been our slowest leg, I was launched into loneliness. With the wind propelling my first two sub-six-minute miles, I passed two full marathoners and was passed by one young relay runner, who put fifty yards on me but never opened it beyond that. And that was it. Five more miles, mostly into the wind – and brutally into the wind for the final push down the beach road. Completely lonely, making it a tough mental battle to hold the pace, though I managed to equal my ten-kilometer personal best pace set out in Seattle, averaging not too far above flat sixes. That loneliness seemed like a good omen for a hoped-for win, but I’d failed to pay attention to which teams had come through the exchange before Pat’s arrival, so I just didn’t know, couldn’t back off, no slacking allowed.

Like last year, after a quick recovery, Rocket John and I ran out the second half of the course for a training warm down, once again amusingly ignoring the cheers from fans and volunteers. It just wasn’t worth explaining. Besides, our true mission was to watch for Anchor Dan flagging, in which case we’d already decided to mug him, take the baton and timing chip, and dash for the finish. Gladly, we didn’t catch him.

The most important part of this event, once the win was secured, is undoubtedly the treasured hand-painted quahogs, among the cooler trophies on the New England circuit. This year I came armed, Sharpie ready to hand over to the event’s honored guest, Joan Benoit Samuelson, to christen our prizes. And then there were three…



23 February 2012

Vinsanity!

Remember last week’s news fad? Linsanity! If you’re living under a rock, or have just chosen to vacation there for a while, it’s all about Jeremy Lin who managed to make people actually care that the NBA (you remember them, the basketball dudes?) still exists. Against this backdrop, I offer my own groaning pun. Yes, this past weekend it was… Vinsanity!

In truly American, impulsive, we can do whatever we want fashion, I ventured offshore on a lark-like moment’s notice to President Obama’s vacation spot of choice for the Martha’s Vineyard 20-Miler. To the Vineyard! For a twenty-mile race! On a spur-of-the-moment!

Now, there’s nothing really odd about jumping into a race on the spur of a moment. But somehow the need to take a boat to get there transforms it from a casual weekend jaunt into an Epic Journey.
Yes, I know, it’s only a forty-minute ferry ride, and people do this every day of the week, but hey, for me, this was rather exciting. Echoing again that there’s nothing odd about jumping into a race, even for a long-distance guy like me, jumping into a twenty-miler on a day’s whimsical notice was clearly an outlier event. But that’s exactly what we did. On the Vineyard Rather insane. Result: Vinsanity!

And yes, I said we. After all, what are friends for? A good friend will prevent you from doing foolish things. A really good friend will join you for the fun. (Bueller?) So whereas I got the idea about a day ahead of time, I offered up this lark to Rocket John just a few hours before the registration deadline. With only ten minutes to spare before the four o-clock deadline, we signed up for the next morning’s race. Barely fourteen hours later, Rocket John, sporting what he likes to call his “winter growth”, found himself out to sea with me, sharing the boat not just with people in tights, but also, as a surprise side-event, a gaggle of mostly young and frequently lovely Brazilian ladies heading to a church conference on the island. Sporting tambourines and other
musical instruments of destruction, they didn’t wait for arrival to begin their revival, and we were treated to great rejoicing on the windy bow (behind me in the photo). But I digress…

Yes, Rocket John is a fine example of one of the reasons I love this sport: adventurous people willing to pursue healthy fun. And this race is a fine example of an amassing of that breed. While I appreciate the presence of anyone willing to come out for a local five kilometer slog rather than going to the mall or slugging a six-pack while zoning to some ├╝ber- unimportant yet oddly nationally televised clash of non-titans like Bemidji State versus the University of Yuma, nothing can beat the crowd at an event like this. A twenty-miler. On an island. In February. You get the idea. It takes a special breed. These are the hard-cores, the die-hards, the people who could probably benefit from a good twelve-step program. I love these people.

To be fully honest about the level of our depravity however, I must admit that even this crowd thought we might have fallen overboard from the ferry. This was, after all, a twenty-miler, and most had planned for this one for quite a while, even if they insisted, as many did, that it was just a training run for Boston. We met plenty who planned this as a destination event, including a crowd from my old hometown in Upstate New York, easily revealed by their Wineglass shirts. So, let’s get this straight, you jumped into a twenty-miler yesterday? Why, that’s, uhh, Vinsanity!

It’s sort of worse than that, but at least I had a plan. After my stint of five races in twenty-three days had pretty thoroughly wiped me out, I’d backed off, swore off racing for a bit, and just piled up some miles. The effect was rather surprising. In the week leading to this lark I felt like flying, culminating in a nine-miler on Thursday at the quickest pace I’ve cut in a non-track workout in quite a while. Heck, I figured, feeling like that, I should race this weekend! And look what popped up on the web! Such it is that I found myself racing twenty, not just with no taper, but merely two days after that hard effort. So the plan was to hammer the Vineyard aggressively at a pace notably quicker than marathon PR, knowing that I could test it out without worrying about those pesky final six miles, and also knowing that if I could hold it without any preparatory rest, it had to be a good sign. And if I couldn’t, well, it’s always good to know.

Many location names in Massachusetts, including that name itself, derive from native American names. There’s a legend that Martha’s Vineyard is Abenaki for “Windy Place”. Yeah, OK, I just made that up, but I’ve made my point. For this race, that meant ten miles mostly downwind, then ten more, mostly back up. So after the first typically stupid fast six-flat mile, and a few more reasonably paced ones wandering through Oak Bluffs, past the hotel where my lovely soon-to-be-bride and I enjoyed a bike outing the last time I was on this island, could it be, twenty years ago?, when the field thinned I didn’t really care that I found myself alone by mile four, since the wind was prodding me along the ocean-side causeway bound for Edgartown.

It came as no surprise that that opinion changed on making the big turn about halfway in and heading east. Yes, I knew it would be windy. Yes, I wished I wasn’t alone at that point as sharing the load with a draft partner would have been so welcome. I could handle all that. What irked me was the big windmill, whump whump whumping out its kilowatts. Don’t get me wrong. This Prius driver loves those things. But it was such a reminder of how tough this lonely upwind stretch was. The course designer’s version of psychological warfare.

Still, by mile eleven I had over a hundred seconds in the bank to hit my six-and-a-half-minute goal pace – over eleven to burn every mile – and I only used up about five per over the next few miles. By seventeen I popped one in under goal pace, and entered the final two with over a minute to burn. But fate, she is unpredictable, and fate tried to trip me, sending an agonizing abdominal cramp a half-mile later. A brief walk, beat the bugger back a bit, soldier on, a very long and highly uncomfortable final mile, and though I’d toasted most of my cushion and fallen just out of the top ten, still eleven seconds to spare within my goal.

A couple of my Greater Boston teammates joined me to take a bunch of the men’s age groups as well as the women’s overall, four notches in the ‘W’ column being a nice added touch to the day. And while the ending wasn’t pretty, I’ll take an aggressive goal met on no preparation. Boston’s less than two months out. Hey, you never know, it could be a good sign.

12 February 2012

The Most Important Hour

A few months back I was speaking at a company conference in Rhode Island and enjoying my annual chance to run the beautiful, if a bit windy, coastline south of Newport. I’ve been haunting this event for enough years that many of my company’s partners and customers expect to see me slinking out in tights in the morning and dash in a bit later to the breakfast buffet, fresh off the roads, well, rather sweaty in fact, but you get the idea. My life on the road in running shoes is quite well known to those in my life on the road pitching technology.

I’ve been blessed with enlightened management that understands the value of exercise and its positive impact on health, both physical and mental, and the resulting positive impact on job attitude. And I’ve witnessed a few conversions along the way, which only lends a boost to my spirits to think I might somehow create some positive influence. At this year’s conference, a few hours after my morning coastline tour, my colleague Dan rang me up to let me know he was arriving mid-day, and was excited at the idea of finally getting a chance to go out for a run with me that afternoon. Yeah, so I’d already run that day. What’s a double workout for a friend and a chance to encourage a healthy endeavor? Who am I to say no?

I burned the extra hour and we slogged out an easy five through historic Newport. We had a great time, and I got paid back a few days later with a big laugh when another colleague taunted me that apparently the story was circulating that I’d tried to kill poor Dan. OK, so I thought it was an easy five, I guess my perspective gets skewed a bit. Dan is, I’m pleased to say, still quite alive, and I’d expect willing to do it again.

All the talk of attempted murder aside, this other colleague and I got into a discussion which I’ve found myself repeating periodically. As it came up again this week, it rose to blog-worthy status. Put simply, it’s the question of balance and prioritization. I hear it over and over from co-workers: I need to get some exercise. I’m out of shape. I’m putting on weight. I can’t find the time. How do you do it? How do you find the time?

I tell them the simple answer: It’s the most important hour of my day.

My work, as is true of so many professions, can eat a person alive. I could easily work from waking till sleep, and each day I would still find myself facing a larger stack of unread materials, uncompleted actions, and unrealized possibilities. Suicide by self-abuse is futile. Instead, paying myself first is vital.

I ask my overburdened colleagues if they can keep up with the load. The answer is obviously, no. I then ask them if they had an extra hour every day, would it significantly change their ability to keep up? Universally, the answer is still no. The next logical step goes the other way: If one extra hour won’t make a dent, would one fewer hour really put you that much further behind? When faced with this logic, not one of my colleagues has disagreed that such an hour stolen would cause material harm to their effort. And in fact, it’s not always an hour stolen from work time, anyway.

Once you’ve spent that hour, the crap thrown your way during the rest of the day really doesn’t matter. Putting in the midnight oil really doesn’t matter. Road food, road trips, and road construction just don’t matter. You’ve already paid yourself, and you can be satisfied that it’s been a good day.

Commit that you will make it a priority to find time for the most important hour of your day. Your reward will be obvious. And you’ll send a message to those around you to do the same.

Shout Out Department: After meeting the legendary Dick Beardsley last fall at Wineglass, I finally read through his two books recently and learned the rest of his amazing story, encompassing both his running successes and his subsequent struggle with substance abuse. As it so happens, today, February 12th, is his fifteenth anniversary of coming clean from the painkillers that almost killed him. I sent him personally, and send him here publicly, big congratulations. And I suggest you check out his foundation, www.dickbeardsleyfoundation.org, dedicated to helping provide treatment for youths mixed up in substance abuse. His books are worth a read, and his foundation is worthy of your support.

01 February 2012

Climate Controlled Comfort?

The older I get, the more I want each day of my remaining time to be of great value. Yeah, I know, I should have thirty years left, maybe more, and I’d like to think I’ll be running for most of that time, but the odds tilt a little bit every day. So it’s kind of foolish to hang on, hoping for time to pass more quickly just to get to the end of winter. But we all do it anyway, each year wishing away the days, in my case till March 1st which in my twisted logic I call spring (see The Sixty Day Challenge).

This year’s been a little different. Winter’s hardly arrived. Halfway through the Sixty Day Challenge, and it’s been a breeze. This afternoon arrived absurdly summerlike, pushing sixty, a freak outlier by any standards, but not at all the first warm day this winter. Climate change, however, is a topic for another day. Today it was just a chance to hit the snow-free track for some intervals. In shorts. In February.

Irony of irony, as easy and breezy of a winter as it’s been, I’ve never spent more time running indoors, at least not since we used to bounce off walls during my First Lap running days – back that later. Since that first track meet back on New Year’s Eve Day, I’ve hit five, yes, count ‘em, five different indoor tracks during that twenty-three day, five-race stretch. In the seven years of my Second Lap running, previous to this year I’d hit, if my memory serves me right, oh, about zero.

The litany? On New Year’s Eve, the wicked fast 200 meter banked oval at Boston University. A week later, an unexpected avoidance of winter weather courtesy of a business colleague, gaining access to the flat yet charmingly indoor circuit at RIT in New York. The next day, the now famed 5,000 meter Hamstring of Death run at Boston’s Reggie Lewis Center. Then the bizarro Smuttynose indoor half marathon on the bizarro three-hundred-ish meter squareish track at the Hampshire Dome. And finally, a week later, blisters still fresh from nearly three hundred left turns in New Hampshire, the Masters Mile at the Greater Boston Track Club Invitational at Harvard’s indoor palace. That final race was a mild disappointment insomuch as I didn’t go sub-5:10 as hoped, courtesy of legs rubberized by far too many races in far too few days, but it still checked in only a couple seconds off the first track mile that started this string.

Twenty three days, a veritable tour of climate controlled facilities. I’d say it was time to get outside and experience some winter, except that as noted, that’s been in short supply. Climate control in the great outdoors? Beside’s today’s balmy break, last weekend brought two days of glorious sunny double-shirt-only weather, resulting in nearly thirty-two miles including a smokin’ twenty-miler with a new GBTC running bud. For me, it’s the earliest jump on Boston training ever.

All of this was unthinkable in the First Lap days in Upstate New York of 1980. You know the drill, the snow drifts were six feet high and it was a remarkably long walk, uphill both ways, to and from school. And we liked it.

Except of course it was more or less true. It did snow a lot there (and still does). We did walk quite a ways, including not only hill climbs but the famous creek crossing which claimed an unlucky student every now and then, resulting in soggy days in class. And other than one or two really special meets where we’d travel to a distant college’s field house, we didn’t have real indoor tracks like those that seem to pepper the landscape today. We ran our winter track season wherever we could find anything that somewhat resembled a loop that was heated and covered with a roof.

Like the track drawn out in duct tape around the indoor tennis courts at Elmira College’s domes. Don’t hit the net posts, they hurt. But at least it had a decent surface, unlike running the outside hallway of the Broome County Arena. Today, they’d probably put a floor down over the ice rink and lay down a track. But back then? Heck no…. We ran our meets around the slick polished concrete concourse encircling the perimeter of the building. Who knew in those days about the bone-crunching effects of running on concrete? We were just happy to be indoors! The good news was that the design of the building allowed for some room to turn the corners. The bad news was that jutting ominously into the entrance and exit of each corner were delightfully sharp-edged railings on the ends of the stairways leading to the seating areas. Misjudge your turns, or slip on that shiny waxed surface, and you’ll save big money on that needed appendectomy.

But my favorite venue was our indoor training “facility” consisting of the two bent-but-parallel hallways of our junior high school, connected by three ladder-like rungs and thus forming something that really didn’t resemble a loop but allowed the possibility of running circuits. Paved in classic school-floor terrazzo, shinier and slicker than the concrete of the Arena and arguably harder, these were not wide hallways as it wasn’t that large of a school. And the rungs were even narrower. You simply couldn’t run at any clip above a jog without strategically bouncing yourself off the cinder-block walls of each turn, artfully using arms and shoulder to avoid the windows, lockers, and other concussion-ready hazards that lay in waiting at each right-angle bend. An interval workout doubled as an upper body workout. Passing was an art. And just for fun, we’d occasionally invite another school over to scrimmage and watch with glee as they plastered themselves to various parts of the structure.

Ahh, thems was the days. What we did for a little climate controlled comfort. Now the kids play soccer indoors, they rarely stand outside the toasty warm running SUV while waiting for the bus, and, wait, I said this wouldn’t be about climate change. I’m backing off the races and going outside this month for some certainly climate changed, but not climate controlled, good ol’ fashion winter.

If it would ever snow.