27 October 2012


A couple weeks back I snuck out for a lunchtime run, which isn’t unusual seeing as I’m fortunate enough to work from my basement office and enjoy a two-flight-of-stairs commute on days when I’m not seeing clients. Granted, I pay the price on other days, but at least in my office there’s no worry about whether amenities are available like a post-workout shower.

On that particular day I sauntered down to the high school track and proceeded to launch into the workout prescribed by one of our Greater Boston coaches. The day’s excitement was a series of twelve-hundred-meter runs at a target pace that shouldn’t have bothered me, but on that day felt entirely unworkable. After one, I groaned at the prescribed number and questioned whether I’d hold out, especially doing the workout solo with nobody to egg me on. Deal with them one at a time, I told myself, and eventually I clicked off the appointed count, pleasingly picking up the pace a second or two on each. Completion of this most minor goal – one workout – brought satisfaction.

A bit less than halfway through this test, onto the field arrived a high-school phys-ed class. I half expected to be expelled in a frenzied concern that I might be a child-molester, but neither the instructor nor the students seemed to care about my presence. Slog on. And observe.

What I observed was that the activity of the day was Ultimate Frisbee, and what ensued was a seriously low-energy version of what could have been great exercise. The cones were laid out, half of the participants donned the obligatory red pinnies, and they were off…slowly. Well, some of them, at least. I counted twenty-two students in the class. I counted ten who actually played. The other twelve – over half of the class – were excused for some reason or another.

Keep in mind that all walked onto the field. None were on crutches, in casts, or otherwise visibly impaired. I can bet that my assessment of bodily functionality was wrong on at least one or two of them who probably did have some sort of ailment or legitimate woe. But I’ve got to question twelve of twenty-two being considered unfit for fitness. Four sat in the stands and soaked up the sun; call it Vitamin D therapy. The other eight split into two groups of four and “walked”, a word I place in quotations because the pace at which they edged around the track wasn’t measurable.

Unmolested, I continued my twelve-hundreds, pausing for two minutes between each to regain some oxygen and sanity. During one such pause, when a group of boys happened to happen by, I casually inquired obliquely, “On injured reserve?” They responded in the positive. My lighthearted invitation to them to join me on the next rep met with expected incredulity.

It’s probably wrong for me to judge, but I can’t avoid it. There’s simply no way that fifty-five percent of that class was unable to play a seriously low-energy form of tossing the Frisbee. With no specific knowledge of each individual case, the blame can be distributed in all sorts of directions: the kids themselves, parents, teachers, administrators, the culture of lawsuits, you name it (at least the culture didn’t overreact and kick me off the track!). But in the end it’s really easy to observe that it’s little wonder we’re facing a fitness and obesity crisis amongst our population.

Contrast this to what I observed on last Saturday in a park near Springfield, where over a hundred athletes gathered to relish in the joy and pain of racing across fields and through trails at the Western Mass Distance Project’s Cross Country “Festival”. A festival might be an odd description, through a festival has music, and Zeppelin blasted from the sound system as we raced from the field start, and a festival gathers friends, which certainly qualified, and a festival has people doing what they love, so perhaps the word fits the bill. People come willingly to a festival.

None of these folks showed up because they had to. No phys-ed grades were on the line. And while there were a few cash prizes available, the reality was that few were in line to claim them. The rest were there for the love of the sport, for their own fitness, for the sheer fun of it. No t-shirts, no swag, and as with most trail-based courses, not even an assurance that you could compare your time to anything else you’ve run in your life. Just come out and run, and they did, with the friendship aspect uniquely captured in a multi-team group shot after the main event (and this was only the men, there were more) (go ahead, try to find me, I’m in there!).

Frankly, it was a pretty mediocre race for me as well as several of my traveling companion teammates. Coming off the previous week’s race and a mid-week hard twenty-three miler, the last big one before New York, I was feeling the pain of a number of bumps and bruises, and my performance reflected that – it certainly wasn’t one to write home about. My compatriots found themselves in similar situations. To add to our results ambivalence, we all found something a little odd about the course splits which seemed to imply that every one of us tanked wholesale in the last mile. But we simply didn’t care. We enjoyed a gorgeous day in the park doing something healthy, running around with friends.

I got to thinking about the motivation of this group compared to the motivation of that phys-ed class. I often told the middle-school kids I used to coach that if I didn’t run every day that something hurt, I’d rarely run. As much as I stepped onto the field in Westfield with various bits hurting, I can make a pretty good guess that a lot of those other guys, even the young, hearty and hale ones, were in similar stance. But unlike the fifty-five percent in that gym class who for the pain of a hangnail (I theorize, of course) copped out, here the bruised and battered dove in instead. We make these choices every day: dive in and play the game, or sit out and go stale. I make the point in regard to fitness, but you can extend the metaphor to any life endeavor.

We can’t fool ourselves into thinking that our choice to dive in makes us invincible. The fact is, we’re all going to reach our end someday, and we may reach it in ways that surprise us. Runners do have heart attacks, runners do get cancer, diabetes, and all sorts of other mean, nasty things, and one of those things will beat each and every runner, some well before we’re due. Contradictorily, some of those who loll, laze, live hard, and generally take the course frowned upon will see their hundredth year and beyond. Statistically there’s really no logic to it.

But isn’t it worth putting up the good fight and enjoying knowing that you’re stretching your odds? Which side of the contrast do you want to be on?

Shout-Out, or perhaps a Bail-Out, to niece Kristin, about to embark on her first full marathon within hours. Your first marathon is always a memorable adventure, but it will be hard to top this one: she’s running the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington with Hurricane Sandy bearing down on the city. This will truly be an interesting day. Send the Marines, put a smile on your face, and have at it. You will have unbeatable water cooler stories on Monday, that is, if you can get back to your water cooler… Go Kris!

14 October 2012

Clean Sweep

This one has been a long time coming. Forty-nine months to the day, to be exact. Not that I started counting back on the 13th of September, 2008, when last I recorded a 5K Personal Best. But having come within seconds of that now nearly antique mark several times, most recently this past June, this quest had long passed the threshold of frustrating. I don’t consider myself a terribly effective short-distance racer to begin with, and knowing that speed is the first thing to go as you age, this was the runner’s equivalent of a biological time bomb.

Why, you ask, would it matter? After all, it’s a given that at some point, each PR previously set will become my last PR ever set. I certainly won’t be cracking these times when I’m eighty. I could die a satisfied runner with the numbers already in the books, right?

Yes, except for this one item. It was a matter of pride. You see, my local club, the Highland City Striders, maintains a list of club bests, and before yesterday, I owned all the masters marks (for that matter, all of the marks – period – since nobody in other divisions had bettered them)…except one: that pesky 5K. And just because I had all the rest, I wanted that one, too.

For that one, the record belonged to a club-mate who’d recorded a performance from years before I knew him, indeed several years before what we often think of the “modern incarnation” of our club, which has gone through several phases of life stretching several decades (and since we have utterly no knowledge of top performances notched in those earlier generations, this is an entirely artificial accounting, but…), his in fact being the only record on the books not from the “modern era”. That mattered not. What mattered was that his performance was precisely ten seconds faster than the mark I hit back in September of 2008. And when I came within ten seconds at age forty-five, I looked forward to clipping off those seconds and snagging that spot in the books in short order. Instead, a month later, that famed foot tendon snapped, and it was a long time before I was even coming close again, years that by sheer aging shaved speed potential.

Cut to the present day, and reality was that the months were ticking away to when I’d miss that shot. Age Fifty looms in under six months, and while I can snag the “Best Overall” time any time I’m capable from here to eternity, my window to own the age forty to forty-nine masters records was closing. And winter, with unpredictable racing conditions, also nears. It was pretty much now or never.

Never will never come, because Saturday was now. It’s done. The barrier is broken, the forty-nine-month Personal Best drought broken at age forty-nine, and with enough to spare to snag that club masters record. And so for the time being at least, I’ve got the clean sweep: five-K, five-mile, ten-K, ten-mile, half- marathon and marathon.

I don’t kid myself into thinking that this is either important or eternal. It’s neither. Our local club is a wonderful bunch that I love to run with, but it’s not a highly competitive crowd. In contrast, I’d never touch a single record in my Greater Boston racing club, where one of my masters compatriots just aced an incredible two-thirty-six marathon. And besides, someone will come along and better these marks. After all, that’s what records are all about. But for the moment, it’s a fun achievement.

This momentous event unfolded in the hamlet of West Acton, Massachusetts, which I like to call Wacton, at their Oktoberfest 5K, a largely local affair but made interesting by two twists: an invitation from one of my Greater Boston friends, a local resident, to join the fun, and the discovery that both my neighbor and his son planned on tackling those mean streets. Said neighbor was embarking on only his second race, having pulled off the impressive feat of dropping sixty pounds in nine months, and said neighbor’s son is none other than the famed Intrepid Young Hiking Partner. These things are always more fun in gangs.

As races go, this one had some quirks, most notably that the course crossed a commuter rail line a quarter-mile from the start, which forced us to hang around till the expected train passed through – notably late. So much for timing your warm-up. And that start, when it came, was a little confused, with one-too-many commands confusing us Type-A Obsessive Compulsive folks toeing the line. I’d have to say it was the first mass-false-start I’ve ever seen at a road race, and yes, I and about fifty of my closest friends probably got a second’s jump on the actual command to Go! And another second’s jump before they managed to get the gun to fire. These things happen and matter little. What did matter is that the course was advertised as wheel-measured accurate, and my post-race checking proved it to be spot-on. That, combined with a cold, crisp, and sunny (if a bit breezy) morning, made for an ideal day to assault a forty-nine-month hunger pang.

As is often the case in local races, by a quarter-mile in we’d already pretty much fallen into our finishing order. GBTC Long Tall John ran away with it, we let some other guy come in second, followed by yours truly, Kristen who’d take the women’s title, and another GBTC teammate Kris, incognito in black but solid in performance. With no mile markers, chasing a time was challenging, especially after breaking from Kris, and later Kristen before the two-mile mark (and there was a Kyle hanging around briefly as well, so while this may have been a 5K, I was surrounded by 3Ks, which was OK) (groan). In the battle of the Ks, Kris would outkick Kristen, giving Greater Boston a pleasing one-three-four finish. And both of those guys would give me a serious shortness complex in the post-race snapshots.

The homestretch was insidiously mildly inclined with a sprinkling of headwind tossed in for spice, and featured a slight bend in an otherwise straight shot such that the finish wasn’t visible until it was too late to make up any lost time. In other words, it wasn’t even worth glancing at the watch. Just go, go, go some more, and hope, and… crossing the line the show clock read three seconds under that club record! It was done!

Officially, they actually pegged me at five seconds under that record, a full fifteen off my previous best. I might quibble about whether I deserved those last couple of seconds based on the confused start, but it mattered not, it was done. Ironic too, since when I wrote of the last time I set that PR, way back in ’08, I closed that piece with a suggestion to “lighten up, and go slice 15 seconds off your 5K.” If I’d only known it would take so long!

04 October 2012


A few weeks back, while still mired in the Interminable Slump, the annual Forrest Quasi-5K was fast approaching (I call it the Quasi-5K because everyone knows it’s considerably over 5K, though with a great picnic afterwards, nobody cares). I couldn’t fathom racing anything, let alone a short one that would require – gasp! – that I’d actually have to run fast. But having won it the prior two years, I felt there was sort of an expectation that I’d defend my crown, the tiny little local crown that it was. What to do?

An obvious solution appeared: Darling Daughter the Younger had the desire to dip her toes in that puddle. Double bonus! Family time, and the complete elimination of all pressure to perform. Race day came and I ran a warm-up with my local club-mates merely for the fun of running a mile with them, certainly not due to any need to warm up. Race time approached without a care in the world; no timing of that last bathroom stop, no chugging a gel fifteen minutes ahead, no last-minute strides or stretches. Just hang with the crowd, chat it up, and, oh! They said go, let’s go for a run. This must be how the other side lives. It’s really not bad, not bad at all.

The irony is that a couple days before the race, along came what has proven to be the dramatic end of the Interminable Slump (hereby rechristened the Terminable Slump). There was great rejoicing, but the plan was in place, the Forrest would not be a race. Time was irrelevant, no watch, no worries. Darling Daughter scored an age group medal, making the day and unqualified success. And a fine day was had by all at the famed picnic. I’d already considered the day a total winner, having just relaxed and soaked it up, and then when I pulled down the pictures from my mini-camera I’d carried during the event. I was treated to this absolute gem of one of my local club-mates in action.

One word came to mind: Joy. Anyone at a hundred paces could tell from this shot what was going through her head. Indeed, when I sent this to her, she responded, “I did not realize how much fun I had had until I saw this picture!” And therein lay a great theme: Step back and recognize the joy that our sport, our lifestyle, can bring to us, if we let it. Fast times are great, but there is so much more, and so I share a few tidbits on my mind.

The Joy of Letting Go – Because We Can! This is, of course, what started the whole theme. The fact that we don’t have to push every day; that we can just go out for a day of fun, and leave it at that. It just doesn’t matter, so enjoy it.

The Joy of Excess - Because We Can! On the other hand, we do crazy things. A good portion of my running friends just experienced another Reach the Beach, that thirty-hour two-hundred-plus mile odyssey through New Hampshire. I skipped that one this year, but celebrated the end of the slump by hitting DAY FIVE HUNDRED of my streak, and that day turning a planned twenty-three miler into the longest run of my life, twenty-seven-point-two. Yeah, a marathon and a mile, and too bad it didn’t count or I’d have my Boston Qualifier less twenty for 2014. Excess? You bet. Love it, because we can.

The Joy of Relief, Part One – Go Jump In A Lake! A few weeks back, Rocket John and I headed out for a dozen or so, and it was great – for about five miles. After that, it just wasn’t pretty. Hotter than expected, both of us fading, still a mile or two back to the ranch as we passed by a local lake, and we figured…why not? Off with the shoes, into the lake, utterly perfect. Sweet relief, and freedom like you’re a kid again. You simply can’t feel so good as when you bounce from feeling so bad. The lows make the highs so much sweeter.

The Joy of Relief, Part Two – It Feels So Good When You Stop! So what if it was chemically cured? (I just hope the cure sticks!) The slump is over! To steal a line from Monty Python, I’m not dead yet. In fact, I feel good, I feel like I’m flying. What was it I just said? You simply can’t feel so good as when you bounce from feeling so bad. An old friend used to say it was like hitting yourself on the head with a hammer because it feels so good when you stop. Relish the high!

The Joy of Great Friends – And Benefits! (No, not friends WITH benefits, this is a family column.) I’ve often said that running with friends is just a mobile coffee klatch. We get to know the best people without having to endure a golf cart. They’re active, they’re interesting, they’re involved people, and hanging with them sometimes has unexpected benefits, like last weekend when our local club supplied judges for our city’s famous annual Chowderfest. Now, this event has been a highlight of my year for as long as I’ve known about it, a veritable feast of the best we have to offer. To have the opportunity to sit as an official judge was, well, let’s just say I can die happy now.

The Joy of Living Vicariously: In a sport where actually winning is pretty rare, we certainly have rivals whom we like to race against, but we don’t worry about their successes, we celebrate them. Big or small, running friends’ triumphs lift us – indeed goad us on to our own. That’s quite different from most sports where one side wins and the other clearly loses. We can all win, and this week has brought plenty of that good news and lots to celebrate.
My accomplices in last fall’s Bay State Marathon, Kim and Ryan, crossed the line together to win – for real – the Half-Moon Bay Marathon out west in the California fog. My rival E.J. smoked a 5K personal best time that makes my mouth drool a deep shade of envious green. And my neighbor Greg, on his weight-watcher quest combined with a couch-to-5K plan, achieved it non-stop at the Forrest, and is already plotting his next conquest. They’re all an extension of the energy we share with each other, providing each other with little sparks, and I am thrilled for all of them!

The Joy of Classic Little Moments: On a totally different tack, while running past a nearby school a couple days back, I was not a bit surprised when a mother with her little ones oh-so-safely strapped in back proceeded to cut me off as she raced out of the school lot. Experience has shown that it’s usually those moms so worried about how people drive around their kids who are the worst offenders around others on foot, like me. Whatever, I’m used to it. I dodged, gave her the usual barking “YO!” and an arm-shrugful of disgust, and carried on. Only to have the mom who trailed her and watched the whole thing pull out, pass me on the street, and shout out, “You tell ‘em, Gary!” I have no idea who it was. But hey, really… cool!

And The Simple Joy of What We Do: Day in, day out, we find an hour, strap on our shoes, and just go. Many if not most days I have no idea where I’m going when I depart. I’ll decide that in a mile, when I decide how I feel, consider how much time I’ve got, assess the weather, my mood, the phase of the moon, whatever. It just doesn’t matter. We just run, and absorb the joy. So turn off your MP3, stop staring at the four square feet of road right in front of your feet, look up, soak it in, and find the joy.