09 March 2012

A Good Bad Day

This month marks seven years since re-entering the world of compressing midsoles and obsessive recording of distance. In seven years, I’ve been remarkably fortunate in that I can’t think of a race that was truly a train wreck. Somehow my ever-aging body has managed to pull through, and while not every race has been exemplary, most have ranked at decent or above. Or at least decent enough that I can pull some positive out of the mush.

If you’re expecting me to say that the streak is broken, the locomotive ran off the bridge, the calamity came, well, sorry to disappoint. It did not. But Sunday was at least one of the rougher days at the races, even if it did turn out very well in the end. As my darling spouse put it, “Even when you have a bad day, you have a good day.”

The good bad day came at Stu’s 30K (no, that rhyme was not intentional), gloriously only a few towns away considering the previous two weeks’ successive Cape Cod expeditions. Though this was only my second time running Stu’s, it feels like an old friend, since it passes through West Boylston, my old home stomping grounds of the 80’s, on its circumnavigation of Wachusett Reservoir. Miles four through nine and a half were once my daily commute; I could probably run them with my eyes closed. And it’s good to have good feelings about this course, since it helps you forget the fact that it’s otherwise diabolically nasty, almost all hills, with the worst as the finale.

Like the hills on this course, our bodies tend to peak and fade. Two weeks earlier, clearly on a peak, I’d run off with abandon to Martha’s Vineyard, nailing a personal best pace for the long race category. The following week brought another, a hard personal-best-pace segment at Hyannis that put an exclamation point on February. But by race day at Stu’s, the gloss was fading. Sometimes you just know, though this time I only suspected. I’d figure it out for certain about seven miles later.

Call it reckless disrespect, but popping in eighteen-plus really didn’t concern me. I targeted hitting my mostly-flat-course Vineyard pace on the hills at Stu’s. And there was fire in my legs at the start. For fun, I led it for a quarter mile, not showing off, just feeling comfortable. A fast first mile was no concern; I’d done it on the Vineyard, yah, whatever. I dialed it back a notch into the first big climb, linking up with a buddy for a while, then enjoyed the ride down the backside to the lake, up again through the center of the old home town, and headed south toward Boylston alone.

And then, rather quickly, the dial spun from Cruise to Fried.

It really wasn’t the fast first mile, the irrational exuberance, or the callous disregard for the distance of the task at hand. It was obvious in short order that it was simple case of, “You did what three weeks in a row?” fatigue. I could just feel the life leave my legs. Not hit-the-wall whole body wheels-off-the-bus-at-twenty-two style, but the clearly-there’s-no-race-left-in-these-sticks style. And this was at mile seven. Yup, it’s gonna’ be a rough one.

When this hit, I was in fifth place. How I finished in thirteenth, I’m still not entirely sure. It seemed like it should’ve been about twenty-fifth. The first notch down to sixth came rapidly, followed by, irony of ironies, none other than my rival EJ, alias Bad Dawg, who arrived perfectly timed as we came upon my Ace Support Team who aptly record our fourth meeting, this day clearly his.

Just past the halfway point the course pulls an odd sort of u-turn, offering to all the great relief of yet another hill conquered, but for me the dismay of learning that I wouldn’t be losing spots by ones and twos. Instead I was treated to the view of what looked like a massive chase pack. Ignoring for the moment the absurdity of being followed by the chase pack, it was an ominous realization. Screaming down the hill at mile ten, they swarmed, and twenty-fifth place or worse seemed a certainty. Yet the onslaught stopped around fifteen, and I bought a few back, laboring every stride.

What a turnaround, and not for the better! Flying to crushed in seven miles, followed by agony for the next five. But at twelve came magic, one of those times that can’t help but make you love this sport and the people in it. My great uncle Joe used to talk about a collection of his dearest lifelong friends who called themselves the Agony Trio. At twelve, we made our own Agony Trio, Artie, Roy, and myself, not lifelong friends, but all clearly in agony, naturally coagulating around our mutually collapsing selves, all loudly admitting our burnt toast status, all completely aware that though we were competing with each other, we were in desperate need of each other to survive no-man’s land, that stretch when you’re beyond help but too far from the end to power yourself to the finish. For the next four miles our little self-help group grunted, complained, surged, dragged each other, and refused to leave a man behind. Yes, those miles were net downhill, but not all downhill, and there’s no way any one of us would have held pace without the other two. And we did: At mile sixteen, I had held within a few seconds of my first-half stride. But man, did it hurt.

The rest was classic Stu’s. Sub-six screaming down past the dam into Clinton. Ballooning to over eight climbing out the other side. Truly awful finish line photos, Death-Warmed-Over after another round in the microwave. Days later I’m still feeling damaged. This one left a mark. Yet in the end, the clock rang up nearly three minutes off my 2010 time, my pace was a mere three seconds per mile off the flatland Vineyard, missing by target but not by much, and the race director handed over a bit of swag for my having placed amongst the old guys. Frankly, pretty good for a bad day.

Final parting random bit: How cool is it to be handed number 69, which you can (and of course I did) wear upside-down?

1 comment:

  1. If that was a "bad" day, I certainly don't want to see you on a good one. Stu's is a helluva thing, and it took a five minute improvement over my previous best to hang on for dear life and finish just ahead of you.

    Well run, well written. And your crew does quite a nice job with the camera!


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