29 July 2012

Credibility Shot

I feel rather sheepish. Staring at the yawning chasm of nearly two weeks since last writing (I know all six of you readers are sitting on the edge of your seat in anticipation) I’ve been trying to conjure a way to accurately describe my state of being since officially declaring Slump. Indeed, things dropped so low that things actually started dropping, to the extent that Tuesday night while running a hill workout with my local Strider buds, I took it almost literally on the chin when a large avian being bombarded my left shoulder (it must have been large by the scale of the result). OK, not my chin, but close.

Everyone told me when that happened that I should run out and buy a lottery ticket. I admit it, I didn’t. I could’ve been a multi-millionaire by now, or more likely just a dollar poorer. But you have to admit, it was a rather rare event. In my forty-nine-plus years it’s never happened to me, and considering how much time I spend outside, that’s somewhat surprising. But there it was, a wet, darkly evil-looking splattered mess released from above with devastating accuracy. Yee-umm!

In the mood of, “Can it really get worse?” (to which the answer is, “Of course it can, you fool!”), I spent the next couple evenings trying to wax poetic about this excremental event. Surely there must be a way to knit such an omen to my stiff, pained, and slow status, and find a ray of sunshine to cast upon my readership! But by Friday, all I’d come up with fell clearly into the corny column. With a big race pending in the morning, I abandoned my lonely writer’s garret to await Saturday’s results, expecting them to be tinged by slumpiness, giving further ammunition to weave an even deeper and wiser tale.

Except that it didn’t happen. Saturday turned in about as big a surprise as what hit my left shoulder on Tuesday evening. Perhaps it was telling that when the gun fired, I wasn’t paying a bit of attention. Time to go? Really? Surprise! What transpired in the next half an hour is what brought on the sheepishness. I know you’ll never believe me when I say the word slump again.

The much-anticipated and, due to my training funk, somewhat dreaded event was the next in the series of USATF New England Grand Prix races, this time the 34th Carver Cranberry Five Miler. Recalling what happened in Bedford New Hampshire back in May, I had zero illusions that the field would offer anything in the same league as the word forgiving. Even had I been at the top of my game, I knew the competition would be crushing. Add to that the fact that I’d volunteered to act as team manager for Greater Boston’s men’s masters team, raising my visibility within this club of fast guys, made me just the tiniest bit concerned that a slump-induced train wreck might just happen to get noticed. Not that they’d get worried or upset or anything, it was just me having a good fret. Hey, it’s a free country, I can grow my own worries if I want to.

Which is why it was probably for the better that after a rushed warm-up, feeling more or less crappy, already soaked from the hugely humid but mercifully mild morning, I was entirely taken off guard by the gun. In smaller races I’ll toe right up to the line or close behind, but not, as I learned at Bedford, in a Grand Prix,, where only human Ferraris dare to tread. Not being up front, and with an odd lack of pre-race announcements (or perhaps I was simply oblivious), I truly had no idea – BANG!

There was no forgetting Bedford. I fully expected a huge field consisting of every ringer in New England to precede me through the cranberry-bog-laced countryside. But even with that expectation, the scale of the humbling shellacking was impressive from the outset. If there seemed to be a brigade in front of me at Bedford, this time it seemed an entire army. That’s no surprise in a big race like Boston, but in a race of just under six hundred, it’s disconcerting.

As at Bedford, I missed the first mile split, and had no idea how fast this train was rolling. But mile two confirmed we were on the Tokyo to Osaka bullet express. I thought back to the stride workout I’d done Thursday night, eight-hundreds on the track at a little faster than five-K pace. With only forty hours till the race, I’d wanted to feel race pace but not overwork, so these weren’t interval- fast, but solid, with a few minutes recovery between each. I knew that the real goal would be to string six together back-to-back sometime to finally nail that five-K personal best. Here at mile two in Carver, I’d just strung four. Except this was a five-miler, not a five-K, and it was obvious that stringing ten wasn’t in the cards without immediate defibrillation available afterwards.

It’s a dangerous point in a race when, early on, you know you’ve got so much time in the bank that a great day is possible if you can just hold on. You’re faced with the choice of just holding on or pressing for gold. In a Grand Prix race, where medaling is really out of the question, and your team, while important, isn’t likely in the running to take the crown, pressing for the gold with every iota of effort is a tough order. But just holding on is a downright, well, cop-out.

Here I was somewhere in-between. I had a lot in the bank, but not so much as to be able to mail it in. And I’d hadn’t even hit the halfway mark. While I can tell you that mile three sagged from the initial pace, and mile four sagged more, I can say that it wasn't because I was just holding on. Unless you count just holding on for dear life, trying to grab the various parts that were flying off and hold the machine together for two more, one more, another half a mile…

Two pictures tell the story. Early in the race, a shot that I’d be happy to show my mother. Late in the race, form failing, mouth agape, brow sunken, essentially looking like hell. Laughing at myself at how I matched the bit I’d read in a running tips book (to be the topic of a future post) where the author commented that at 100% effort, race pace, you’re unable to wipe the spit off your chin. But still knowing that barring collapse, a personal best was in the offing.

And then it was out of the offing and into the bag. And to make it sweeter, it wasn’t just an official personal best, but also ahead of the interim split, my previous unofficial personal best, from Bedford. And my age-adjusted rating matched that of Bedford, tying this for a best-ever race.

Of course, place-wise, I got utterly slaughtered. Even worse than Bedford. But hey, it was a Grand Prix, what do you expect?

If I feel crappy this week, you’ll never believe me if I tell you I’m in a slump.

Thanks to Krissy Kozlosky of krissy.smugmug.com for the early race shot, and Ted Tyler from www.Coolrunning.com via www.JimRhoades.com for the horrid late race shot. Not that Ted took a horrid shot, of course, it was all my fault.

16 July 2012

It's Official

I heard on the news that they declared Syria to be officially in civil war. Gee, what a surprise. I’m making my own similar declaration today. Yes, I’m “officially” in a summer slump. Gee, what a surprise.

This seems to happen every year, and every year I question whether this is the beginning of the end, the start of that long slow slide to aged shuffledom, the piercing of the aura of being the fountain of youth, and no, I didn’t make that up, a business colleague uttered that one the other day to which I sputtered, choked, and lay dead on the floor. OK, it wasn’t that dramatic, but it’s been feeling that way. In any event, these slumps arrive, I ponder what malady is killing me, and a few weeks later normal life resumes. Or at least it has in the past; this time the jury is still out.

Yes, I know I just notched a personal best in that ten kilometer two weeks ago. It’s still a slump, and it started even earlier than that. I just haven’t declared it officially till now. Thanks, Syria.

During our annual week in Acadia National Park in Maine, there were a few days that were just plain brutal. One day’s measly three miles that left me ready to wilt and drop in a gelatinous heap on the pavement. A repeat a day later, pleased that I had the excuse of being on a comfortable slog with my daughter, since I didn’t think I’d be going much faster had I been alone. And an attempted track workout where I couldn’t blame my sloth-like velocity on the bizarre dimensions of the Mt. Desert Island High School track. Really, it’s a strange track with the longest turns I’ve ever seen, and it seriously throws you off, but just as seriously, that wasn’t the problem.

Characteristic of these slumps will be mini-anti-slumps, only to return to slump-dom shortly thereafter. This year’s Maine trip produced some lovely runs within the park proper, more than I typically get in during our trip, including the fun of pulling running shoes out of my pack, leaving the hiking boots behind, and hammering my way back (around the mountains on the road) at the end of a long point-to-point hike to retrieve our vehicular transport and recover the family unit. That one was a hoot, thirty-eight minutes to unwind four or five hours of hiking. But slump-dom returned.

And since then? Ever the obsessive, my training log spreadsheet (yes, of course I have a Total Geek Spreadsheet, you must have known that) has a check box for each workout where I can elect to ignore the pace of that day’s run in the calculation of the month’s “average training pace” – a measure that provides some insight into racing readiness. The check box is there for days when a pace calculation isn’t possible or practical, or for days when, due to social reasons, that day’s pace isn’t representative of normal training. Like an addict coming clean I have to admit that I have severely abused that little box over the last several weeks, taking the, “This one doesn’t count” out more times than not. Definition: Slump.

Heat? Perhaps. Humidity? Highly likely. Foolishly pushing past nagging injuries, like that Achilles that just won’t quit, or the recent stiff knees? Who’s to know? Simply overtrained, the streak coming home to haunt? Maybe, but let’s not jump to conclusions and kill it off before we really know. All I can say for certain is that the beginnings of most runs this past week have been pretty downright miserable. And in some cases, the middles and ends of those runs have paralleled.

For example, this morning’s expedition in Rochester – the one in New York, that is – started off at just plain awful, and ascended to notably unpleasant by the time I’d reached downtown and my planned break to overlook Rochester’s High Falls. The return trip scaled to the pinnacle of somewhat unbearably long before finally concluding in the state of soaked and wilted. That’s just how it’s been. But hey, the falls were really a nice sight. And tomorrow’s forecast is only for the mid- to high-nineties. No big deal.

This too will pass, and that’s part of the lesson, I keep telling myself. Life isn’t up, up, up. It’s got downs, sideways, and a few out-of-control skids now and then. Slumps will come. They’ll usually go. Until one day they don’t, in which case we simply learn to live with a new normal, the version of reality that will rule from that point forward. It’s inevitable, and we might as well enjoy the ride.

04 July 2012

Dog Should’a Ate My Homework!

Be a good boy, always do your homework, and you’ll go far in life, right? Seems like good advice, and it usually is. This time it held true just a little bit too literally, notably on the latter end of that statement. Here’s one time when I wish the dog had eaten my homework. Except, of course, for the minor details that this kind of homework couldn’t be eaten, and that I don’t have a dog.

One week after writing about the hazards of for-profit versus non-profit club racing, I dipped my toe into a for-profit race. As I said, it all comes down to attitude, and I’ve casually known this race producer for some time. He’s local, he’s not Big Corporate, and he’s a runner, so I don’t mind that he does this for a living. Besides, that Groupon-like email with the half-price offer was compelling. Who says I, Joe Frugal, can’t be swayed by a low price?

And the event in question is, to be entirely frank, worth a few bucks just for the fun and experience, never mind the racing part. The Harvard Pilgrim Finish-At-The-50 combines the schmaltz of the NFL with the world of running. I’m no big fan of mainstream pro sports, but that’s not to say I don’t enjoy watching the Patriots (when they win, of course), or can’t enjoy the opportunity to play in their sandbox. This race serves that up: the finish consists of racing through the inflatable Patriots football helmet – the one that the team comes through at the start of each game – onto the field of Gillette Stadium, surrounded by its sixty-eight thousand seven hundred and fifty six seats,
many filled with family and friends, to finish, as the name says, on the fifty-yard line. Never mind that the field is currently set up as a soccer pitch with no yard lines. It’s the same spot, you get the idea. Add some schmaltz, a few Patriots cheerleaders (OK, eye candy, not schmaltz), the Patriot mascot, a real Patriot just for show, put it all on video on the huge stadium screens, and note with glee that your family is sitting in front row, fifty-yard-line seats, a feat never to be repeated, and it is, well, fun. Then add fireworks afterward, and the traffic is, well, legendary.

But the theme today is homework, and how doing it will take you far in life. So let’s back up a day.

This is not a small event. Pre-registrations exceeded five thousand against a stated cap of six thousand which in itself was exceeded. And this is not an elite event. No Boston-like field where eighty percent are qualified and know the ropes for race prep and logistics. No, this is a collection of everyone who finds this football-relation thing interesting, and there are a lot of those, and bless them, they’re not all astute racers. You can expect a lot of people converging on this to run a five kilometer that might not do it again till next year. Fair enough, good for them, but it means that I had no interest in trying to pick up my number in the mayhem of race evening. And as luck would have it, I had a business meeting the previous afternoon just down the road, so I swung into Foxborough, picked up my number, and went out to scope the course, using the map posted on the race website. Doing my homework, like a good boy.

I’ve always been a big proponent on knowing the course ahead of time. I’ve always been a critic of races that don’t post the course map, making the previous virtue difficult to attain. And I’ve seen the results of failing to attain that virtue numerous times, always at someone else’s expense, because, after all, I do my homework.

Which is why after a fast mile one, a disappointing mile two, a realization around mile three that while I’d faded off smokin’ pace and could feel in my bones I’d lost the opportunity to beat the virtual personal best set midway through the Bedford twelve-K, I still had a good shot at an official personal best were I just to hold on. And I knew the course, knew just what to expect, and figured I could do it, because I’d done my homework.

Pulling into the center of Foxborough, the course cut right and then was to cut immediately left. Except it didn’t. Or at least the guys in front of me didn’t; they all went straight ahead, blindly (in my view). I knew the map, I knew the course, and it cut left on Bird. I knew there were no street markings anywhere along the course – because I’d scoped the whole thing – so not seeing one at this turn didn’t worry me. I looked left and saw, one block down, a cop stationed at the next turn onto Baker. Seeing that cop assured me that I knew the course. “Left!” I shouted to the field (who of course ignored me), and made a wide-swinging, very non-tangential, hugely inefficient left turn. Because I did my homework.

And a block later the cop told me they’d changed the course that day.

Now, you can ask, why, if the cop knew that they’d changed the course, was he standing on the old course? Was he that bound to orders? You can also ask, why did they change the course that day? The answer, later research would show, that they changed it two weeks earlier, but never updated the web site, nor apparently the people who’d posted the signs warning locals of road closings, which were duly posted on what was now not the course.

I more than muttered several expletives and momentarily lost my will to live. Then like a pilot coming out of a stall, I re-lit the engines and made the command decision to run the “old” course anyway, knowing that the two roads paralleled, and just see what happened. I had a nagging guilt that if the roads weren’t quite parallel, I could have shorted the “actual” course. Or the other way around, but at least that wouldn’t be guilt. My mental map of the terrain was good, but not that good.

Along Baker Street, between the “road closing” signs, stood a number of perplexed spectators wondering where the race was. For them, I was it. A half mile later the field rejoined me – nobody noticing the guy re-entering the field from the left – and it appeared I slipped in where I’d left off, so I ran it in. Through the tunnel, onto the field, eyes on the clock, despite all this a few seconds to spare, and in the end a six-second personal best recorded – if I didn’t short the course.

To be fair, finishing on the fifty when you’re really racing is far less relevant than when you’re a big Pats fan and you go for a typical participant’s maybe-just-a-little-harder-than-usual run. Those folks probably got a lot more out of the cool finish than I did, hammering toward a PR, eyes only on the clock once I’d clocked the slow five-K guy who swayed into the ten-K lane inside the narrow stadium-entry tunnel who didn’t move despite course marshal instructions and my warnings (I’d predicted that would happen, serves him right…). But once the race was done, holding apr├Ęs-race on the field at Gillette, with those towering rows of seats looming overhead, was undeniably cool.

A brief discussion with the race director immediately after the finish was more or less meaningless, as I’m certain he couldn’t understand a word I was saying in my post-race stupor, and with over six thousand people descending on his finish line crew, he had more things to think about. I duly reported to the awards booth, picked up my second-place booty for the forties age group, and noted I’d only missed winning it by five seconds. Bummer, ah well.

And then I clocked out that little detour the next day. As it turns out, those two streets are indeed parallel, but the street I took to get from the first to the second swung notably south, adding a twentieth of a mile. My guilt was assuaged, I had not shorted the course. I’d gone long, by point-oh-five, which doesn’t sound like much, but at my pace, that cost me a surprising eighteen seconds, not counting the momentary deflation upon learning of the re-route. That five-second gap between me and winning my age group came back to haunt.

We can analyze, understand, learn to avoid these pitfalls in the future, but that’s it. Can’t change it, so laugh, tell the story, and move on. Do your homework and you will go far in life. In my case, a twentieth of a mile too far.