29 November 2012

A Douglas MacArthur Moment

Seeing as it is National Condiment Day, I’ll try to catch up (get it, catsup, or ketchup as you wish) with recent events over the next few evenings. It’s been a busy stretch with two races in five days and lots more to come in the very near future, so prepare yourself for an blog-o-rific onslaught. And no, it’s not really National Condiment Day; I just invented that for literary fun, though I relish the thought of such an event. (Groan.)

Let’s start this evening with Chapter One, Return of the Jedi, in which our intrepid Greater Boston squad once again travelled west to Westfield, Massachusetts (which would seem odd if we lived further west and had to travel east to Westfield, but I digress…) for another round on the Stanley Park course. We’ll move on to Chapter Two in a couple of nights.

Having had less than a stellar outing there four weeks earlier, this was a Douglas MacArthur moment (“I will return!”), returning to Westfield seeking vindication after an enjoyable but mediocre race a month prior. This time the old-fashioned butt-kicking I’d tasted four weeks earlier by running in an open-age race (there being no masters event that day) would be replaced by an old-fashioned butt-kicking of racing in a masters race, but one comprised of New England’s best, this round being the USA Track & Field New England Cross Country Championships. And indeed, place-wise, it was a pretty good butt-kicking, but place aside, I make no complaints about the day, it was essentially all good.

Last time out on the Stanley Park course, irrational exuberance sucked me out with the youngsters, neglecting reason and minor details such as having run a hard twenty-three only a few days earlier. Hitting the mile in five-forty-two wasn’t really a bad thing, but hitting it at that clip feeling entirely out of control of the race certainly was. That day, the rest of the run was a struggle, plain and simple, punctuated by the dual insult of hyper-extending my ankle twice on the same spot on the course – you’d think I’d learn… In the end, ringing up the 8K in a full thirty and a half minutes was nothing to be terribly happy about, though my companions and I didn’t let our respective mediocre races get in the way of being happy about what was otherwise a fun day. Besides, we knew that… We Would Return (thanks, Douglas).

This time, calculated exuberance put me at the mile in an identical five-forty-two, but feeling entirely in control. I voiced some good-natured exasperation about the quick start (at least for me) to the runner next to me in a purely psychological play, and then proceeded to leave him behind. From that point on it was only positive gain, picking off another few places with calculated bursts, losing none, and feeling solid.

Coming out of the woods for the last time, I’d already taken the relatively easy place gains, and a solid fifty yards separated me from the next pack forward with less than a mile to go. Making the second-to-last turn, one of them inched closer back to me, or me to him, impossible to say, but while I knew I could probably catch him given enough runway, quick mental calculations hinted that there just wasn’t enough race left to do so. I couldn’t help but thinking of Tom Derderian’s history of the Boston Marathon which I’d just finished plodding through (it’s out of print but available used, I happened to read the original edition), in which he describes many years’ races from the perspective of the second-place chaser, gaining on a fading leader late in the race, knowing he could catch and win, but simply running out of race. Now, with Tom himself (coach of our GBTC squad) somewhere behind me in the field, his words came to life, except that rather than conceding to the rapidly vanishing remainder of the course, they lit a spark. With perhaps a hundred yards left to go (pardon me, meters, this was a metric-measured 8K, not a five-miler), and perhaps twenty meters of gap remaining, rationality departed. Why not?

I can’t recall an all-out sprint like the one that erupted from some unknown place within since, well, I just can’t, and that’s not forgetting some of the more memorable all-out sprints. Maybe it was because Darling Spouse and Dearest Daughter the Younger had made the trip, and the alpha-male in me decided to show off. I can’t say why, or how, but ten meters from the line, I picked up one more place, much to the surprise and chagrin of my target.

To put this in proper perspective, this wasn’t exactly a case of stealing victory. It merely notched me up from thirty-somethingth to thirty-somethingth-minus-one. And as it happened, finishing eighth on my team, it was entirely meaningless so far as the scoring was concerned, but from a confidence and satisfaction perspective, it was entirely priceless. Not to mention just plain clean fun. More importantly, this time the finish line arrived three quarters of a minute earlier than the month previous, at a hair under six minute pace on the trails, and this only two weeks after Manchester’s hill and wind punishment. No complaints, and scratch the word essentially, it was all good.

It’s satisfying to return. Just ask Douglas.

No time to bask, though, because Chapter Two lingered a mere five days later. We’ll save that one for the next episode.

17 November 2012

I Know Everybody!

One of the best aspects of the running community is that it is truly a community. Most runners are highly social beings, and within a certain radius that tends to expand the longer you run, you find that you have a good chance of either knowing that runner you see heading down the street, or have enough common running friends that it’s easy to enter their circle. It’s like LinkedIn without the hassle of spam and invitations from people trying to sell you insurance.

Better, even if you don’t have any common connections, typical runners generally won’t care if you join their parade; indeed, they’ll welcome the company and invite you into their mobile coffee klatch, resume unseen. When I came back to the sport this was one of the first good memories to come rushing back, and now, years later into that expanding radius, it’s truer by the day.

With a big race tomorrow, yesterday’s plan was easy miles, and so it was, at least for the first two. With that widening radius, it was really no surprise yet still an unexpected pleasure to have run into a favorite training buddy. Hey, like the title says, I know everybody, right? Serendipity struck, we linked up, and so much for easy miles! We hammered the next six at a hard tempo pace (midway through meeting yet another club friend, we know everybody, right?), at least until we backed it off a bit on the final hill. I may pay for this in tomorrow’s race, but who can refuse the mutual drive that partners like him offer? And there was more to come.

Less than sixteen hours later, having foregone the usual Saturday morning local club donut run in order to transport Darling Daughter the Elder to a school function, said school being twenty miles away, I was debating the morning’s strategy. Run from the school (being dressed and ready to go), then wait, mildly damp, till she was done? Drive home in-between, wasting an hour and fuel but having the option to sneak in the run and shower? Or just hang out with a good book in a coffee shop, knowing the afternoon’s slate might make getting the run in a little tricky? None seemed optimal.

Like manna from Heaven, the answer was given. Navigating Worcester just a mile from her school, we started passing voluminous clumps of runners out for a casual Saturday morning slog. As we drove by I scanned for familiar faces without obvious success, but I had a suspicion of who they were. To Darling Daughter, wondering if I really knew these people, it was easy to say in jest, “Sure, I know who they are, after all, I know everybody!” I didn’t really know if I knew them, but I knew it would be easy to know them. Seven and a half years of running will do that to you. Now the choice of when to fit in my run was easy. Drop daughter, run from school, find runners.

A half mile from the school I found them, turned onto their route, and started having a ball. Chatting up the first guy I met, my suspicion was confirmed that this was indeed the training group out of the Worcester Central Branch YMCA that I’ve known of for a few years since they sent a large team to my local club’s Wolves 10K a couple years back. This isn’t your typical Couch to 5K program, it’s a Couch to Marathon, and it succeeds. These folks aren’t fast, but they sent forty-two people to the Marine Corps Marathon three weeks ago. I’d guess that was a significant chunk of the group, almost all of whom tackled a major race this fall. Impressive on all counts.

I proceeded to hopscotch forward, gabbing a few minutes with individual runners or groups, then moving on to the next batch, getting great stories and making connections along the way. One lady had just completed her first marathon, experienced the not-unexpected dread that she’d made a big mistake somewhere around mile twenty, persevered, and a few weeks later was already revved up to do it again. Another turned out to have worked for my daughter’s school and had a niece there who, as luck would have it, parks her coat every day in the locker next to Dearest Daughter the Younger. More proof: it’s not just me, she knows everyone too!

My plan was to hang a right and head back – after all, there’s that race tomorrow and while this was an uber-relaxed pace, I had no intentions of great distance – but said plan was foiled, having linked up with about the sixth group, this time three ladies, two of which (if my memory serves me right) had run our Wolves race. Jabbering away, the planned right became a left, and before long I found myself at the Worcester Y, the termination and gathering point for those finished with the mobile portion of the coffee klatch. My three companions-of-the-moment quipped to their gang that they’d picked up a boy, a rather amusing thought that I hadn’t heard come my way in, oh, decades? And there in that gang was none other than their leader Andy, who did in fact know me from our team-captain-to-race-director chats from that Wolves race. I was greatly amused at the thought that what I’d said to my daughter had pretty much come true.

After a few minutes of friendly chit-chat, I extricated myself before they proceeded to the sit-down phase of their coffee klatch, knowing that without a cent on me I’d be at their mercy to beg a cup of tea and not wanting to imply the need for such generosity. The slog back up the hills to the school was solo and non-social, but carried the glow of what the running community can deliver. What started as a morning missing my local gang, wondering when and where to get my run in, was instantly transformed into a great day by the welcoming community of runners everywhere.

But it’s not just me, it’s you, too. Whether you know them or not, when it comes to runners, you really do know everybody. Go out and enjoy their company.

10 November 2012

Alternate Hell

Imagine you’re holding a party, and you get a few unexpected guests. What do you do? Now imagine you’re holding a party, and you get over four hundred unexpected guests. Now what do you do? I’d lock the front door, bar the back entrance, and run for the hills. But the folks putting on the Manchester City Marathon rolled out the red carpet, welcomed a huge number of New York City marathon refugees, and pulled it off nicely. Of course, we really did have to run for the hills.

Four hundred additional runners (and some sources said more) in a large race wouldn’t be a big deal. Manchester is not a large race. Last year’s full marathon had fewer than four hundred finishers. Granted, when you add in the half marathon and relay, the refugee influx didn’t double the whole event, but they certainly added a hefty percentage. And while it’s not hard to let a few hundred more people run down the street, it is hard to suddenly increase the amount of everything from refreshments to port-o-johns on barely twenty-four hours notice. But they pulled it off.

I’d already commented on how they’d run out of yellow full marathon bibs and had to issue me a blue half marathon number. The extent of their extension became clearer Sunday morning when I found many running not just with re-purposed blue bibs, but with generic plain white bibs with generic plain red numbers – in other words, whatever the timing company could find in the back closet. Where they came up with extra finisher’s medals (or even if they had enough), I know not. Granted, we were a huge financial windfall to them, but it would have been very easy for them to complain or simply shut off the spigot. Instead, we were welcomed every step of the way.

In these unique circumstances, a unique environment emerged. Wearing my “Refugee” bib on my back made it into a bit of a party, especially through miles seventeen and eighteen, where we full marathoners rejoined the slower half marathoners in their final miles, giving plenty of opportunities for others to enjoy my backward-facing statement as I weaved through that crowd. In retrospect, it was a smart move: their encouragement was pretty desperately needed, because the reality was I was already several miles past toast status.

The irony of the day is that in the big picture, it was a great day. But the race itself? Pretty lousy. One of those days. Seriously ugly in the high miles, and the high miles started way too soon. Hell, really. I escaped the Hell of a crippled New York to slog through my own personal Alternate Hell in New Hampshire. But hey, we came, we ran, we celebrated our circumstance, and we loved it.

I can blame the course, I can blame the weather, I can blame the week’s accumulated stress, and I can blame myself. Since this was an election week, I’ll vote for all of the above. They all played their parts, resulting in a time that most yearn for but I yawn for.

Manchester is not flat. That itself isn’t a big problem. Hills are in my DNA from youth, and continue to be a strength springing from the significantly lumpy area where I live. But Manchester’s hills are not nice hills, they’re city street block-to-block jut-up-and-down-rapidly hills that break your rhythm on the way up, and drop off briefly and steeply, giving nothing back on the way down. They’re a net loss both in both directions.

Layered on the challenging course was a wind that seemed to grow in intensity as the day progressed. Blasting from the northwest, it made forward progress feel at times like plowing through Jell-O, first insidiously sapping us throughout the first four miles, when our freshness masked the extra effort we were expending, and later, returning for the kill.

At fourteen we turned west, into the wind, and the real brutality commenced. At fifteen, turning north, we discovered that we thought was brutal was just the warm-up. In the space of a single mile, the torque needed to drive into that wind wore a two-inch blister up the middle of my left foot. I felt it happening, tried to compensate, but there was no hope for defense. By the time we turned a corner at sixteen, mercifully escaping the worst of that gale segment, my day was effectively over. In that two mile stretch, I went from functional and cruising to burnt tempest toast, put a fork in me, fully baked, and, oh yeah, still ten to go. And still the wind would return to haunt us, notably in a last ditch insult at twenty-five plus, blasting us full-force along the Mighty Merrimack River. Despite the flat ground at that point, ropes and crampons might have been useful.

But in the end, I can’t kick anything but myself. I knew about the hills, and while the intensity may have surprised, I knew about the wind. Damn the torpedoes, I went out full speed, crossing the half on two-fifty-one pace. Such audacity (here, a euphemism for stupidity), hammering a major PR pace on a tough course on a tough day, well, shame on me, I should know better. Once through the gauntlet of fifteen and sixteen, my error obvious and unrecoverable, the day’s goal shifted tectonically from a decent time to merely protecting a 2014 Boston qualifier less twenty minutes, the new gold standard to assure easy early registration. Two-fifty-one to three-ten is a lot of space, but the outlook was ugly enough at that point to imagine the evaporation of even that big a cushion. Happily, crossing in three-oh-four, it didn’t.

Friends offered up the rationale that the week’s ups and down would have taken a toll on anyone. I’d concede there may be some truth to that. By the time I toed the line, I did feel like I’d ridden the roller coaster. So I guess it’s fitting that the roller coaster week, hanging on the edge of each day’s news from New York, would end in the roller coaster day, hanging on the edge of staying vertical on Manchester’s roller coaster topology. This is how it turned out. Life’s like that. Move on. Number eighteen is in the books. Time-wise, it’s not one for the record books. But on the whole adventure dimension, it won’t be forgotten anytime soon.

03 November 2012

The Marathon That Wasn’t

And just like that, it was off.

Really, the timing was incredible. I’d been meaning to get an email out to my work team since Thursday morning, as some of them are in the New York City area just might be out to offer a cheer or two. As things go, life and work got in the way, and it was Friday evening before that task saw the light of day. At 5:29 PM, I hit the send button. Literally three minutes later, Dearest Spouse walked in the door and announced, “It’s cancelled.”

With the trepidation I’d been feeling, which she knew I’d been feeling, I knew she was kidding me, except for the funny fact that she wasn’t. The other funny fact was that the radio station she’d had on in the car finished up a tune, announced, “The New York City Marathon is cancelled,” and rolled right into the next hit. No fanfare, no commentary, not even a hint of excitement in their voice. That, I’d guess, was the one and only time that this announcement generated zero excitement.

Hardly anyone in the Northeast, if not across the country, is unaware of the controversy that was brewing about the City’s and the New York Road Runners’ decision to move forward with the event. As I wrote only a few days ago, only a city like New York would have the chutzpah to try to pull this off in the wake of the one of the worst disasters in history. But also as I wrote, if they believed that this would be a positive sign to lift the spirits of the city, I would back them, and I would be there.

Nevertheless, I harbored plenty of doubts. How could they truly do this without diverting resources from the recovery, as they claimed? Private coaches to the start are the easy part. Traffic and security require law enforcement, whom one would think would have their hands full at the moment. I fully expected we’d face protestors, and during this week’s taper runs, I’d gone over in my head what I might say to them, how I might react. But frankly my concerns went deeper to basic safety. Desperate people do desperate things. It would only take one fanatical individual to create a significant incident during the race, and one can only image what form that might take. I’m not big enough to throw or receive a tackle, and that’s on the mild side of what could have happened. Granted, that could happen any year at any twenty-six-mile-long arena, but this felt like walking into a Coliseum lurking with potential lions. The official announcement email later confirmed this concern as an element in their decision.

When I realized that my bride-turned-messenger wasn’t joking, disbelief was mixed with relief. Doubtless she shared that sentiment.

The media, predictably, whipped this to frenzy status. It’s not worth recounting. You saw it. And you saw that virtually every commentator found blame somewhere. Almost to a tee, they were all smarter than the people in the middle who made these calls.

I won’t stand with them. I won’t blame. I won’t second guess.

This was an impossible decision all around. I refuse to fault Mayor Bloomberg or the New York Road Runners, no matter how inconvenient the outcome. They did what they thought was right when they made those decisions, given the information at hand. Was it reasonable to think the city could pull out of this and shine as a beacon of resilience, and would there have been value in that? Possibly yes. What changed between that decision and the subsequent one on Friday to call the game? The way I see it, in a word (well, two words), Staten Island.

Did we know how bad it was on Staten Island when the decision was made that the show must go on? I think back a few days, and I would have to say no. Remember, with the Twenty-Four-Hour-Nonstop-Fill-That-Airspace Media, we hear everything as it emerges. We saw every piece of “breaking video!” within moments of its creation. To my recollection, we didn’t see the devastation of Staten Island until somewhat past midweek. Then we knew. They were still finding bodies with the weekend just hours away. That undoubtedly changed the equation.

We also experienced the hazards of social media. While I’m not a big participant in the space, with no Facebook, Twitter, or other significant medium in my fold save this non-real-time blog, I certainly see where these tools can be valuable. But I also see that they can lead to emotional and often flawed decisions. Sometimes it is better to let things soak in for a while (no flood-related pun intended), let them ponder and stew, before rushing to judgment. Is it possible that the timelines of recovery had been worked out to expect that by Sunday morning, the days would be far brighter than they were on Thursday, when it was reported that tens of thousands gave their electronic thumbs up to the downfall of the Marathon? Is it possible that the impact of the now-famous generators moved into Central Park for the finish line operations were well known to be entirely inappropriate and inadequate for the recovery efforts, a proverbial drop-in-the-bucket that really wouldn’t have much impact? (It was said they could power four hundred homes, but were there really four hundred homes with infrastructure ready for them to be plugged into?) Is it possible that those in the know really had worked out that the impact of the Marathon wouldn’t materially affect recovery efforts? And is it possible that the fury aroused by this instantaneous yet mono-dimensional communication channel excluded the ability for these hard questions to be properly considered, and instead created an environment where one spark could set off mayhem?

I can’t say what the answers are to these kinds of hypothetical questions, but I can say that when social media allows for what is in effect an instant electronic riot, staged by people who may are not in the middle and most likely do not have the facts possessed by those who are, flawed decisions can be made. I’m not saying they were made. I’m saying they can be made.

It’s as simple as this: I am confident that the people who were in control of the decisions had best interests in mind and made the best decisions they could with the information they had at the time. I highly doubt there was any ill will or evil intent going on here. In the end, those decisions resulted in a whole lot of inconvenience and cost some runners and various businesses some money. Put that in perspective against the people who lost their power, their homes, or their lives.

I won’t second guess. This is how it turned out. Life’s like that. Move on. Of course, I’d really like it if they’d send me my bib and my shirt, just for kicks.

And so we move on to Plan B: An hour north of here, there happens to be another marathon tomorrow, and so I and many other New York City Marathon Refugees descended on the extremely welcoming even if somewhat beleaguered staff of the Manchester City Marathon at today’s expo. So many of us arrived that they ran out of yellow full
marathon bibs and started issuing us blue half-marathon bibs instead, assuring us they’ll handle it on the accounting side. I took the liberty of spicing mine up, blotting out the “half”, and making it at least partially yellow.

Manchester is not New York. The crowds will be smaller, but they will cheer us just the same. The course is ludicrously more difficult, so our times won’t be as spectacular, but we’ll share that much more satisfaction at the finish. Ironically, the weather is forecast to be, almost to the degree, the same. We’ll have a grand time, especially if today’s small but welcoming expo was any sign. I walked in wearing the bib I’d created for my local club’s morning run (and may wear on my back
tomorrow), and had more fun conversations than at any pre-race event I can remember. Tomorrow, the refugees will run, and while New York City heals, we will have a fine day that happens not to be in New York City. This is how it turned out. Life’s like that. Move on.

01 November 2012

Sandy In My Eyes

Obviously I’m not the only person who’s seen the irony of a storm that whips up and rips up sand being named Sandy. Still, Monday morning when I braved out (OK, it wasn’t that brave) into the pre-storm spray to log the day’s streak-minimum three miles, I couldn’t help think of the metaphor of the bully kicking sand in someone’s face. The immediate someone was of course myself, taking the spray, not sand, head-on, right in the eyes, the usually-shielding running hat being utterly useless in the face of the fringes of a tropical cyclone, but the bigger someone has been the whole east coast, notably New Jersey and New York City.

What a year to have decided – long ago – to run the New York City Marathon.

A couple of days ago, as Sandy approached, I fretted that I’d indirectly coaxed my niece into the claws of Mother Nature as she attempted her first full marathon at Marine Corps in Washington as Sandy menaced. But Sandy politely held back just long enough, deluging areas just east of DC while leaving the marathoners somewhat blown but quite dry, and Kris can now put the “Marathon Finisher” sticker on her gravestone when the time comes. Sadly, that was the end of Sandy’s patience. You know the rest of the story. In short, it wasn’t the Marine Corps Marathon I should have been worrying about.

In the days following the disaster we watched to see how this would play out regarding the NYC Marathon. The physical and logistical problems were obvious. But the emotional angle was, and still is, trickier.

Physically, much of the city remains without power, not to mention other damage. Logistically, the Staten Island Ferry, slated to shuttle twenty-four thousand of my friends to the start, is out of commission, which is largely irrelevant since you cannot get there anyway with no subway service to lower Manhattan.
The Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, the route to the start for the other twenty-three thousand friends, is now on the NYC Duathlon course as the swim segment, and I’m not a strong swimmer. Other problems abound, ranging from traffic to the simple question of whether enough restaurants will get enough shipments of chow to serve up enough pasta on Saturday night. I’m packing my granola bars.

Emotionally, there’s the big question of whether this is the right thing to do at all. People are suffering. Basic needs are unmet. And we’re going to put great efforts into holding a race?

But New York Road Runners’ head cheese Mary Wittenberg made a couple of good points, appearing on the Today show this morning. First, the decision was made only with Mayor Bloomberg’s approval. Second, logistical changes were made to avoid the use of public resources, notably, all transport to the start will be on private coaches. And finally, the economic impact aside, she pointed out that the marathon is a symbol of the triumph of human spirit. Letting it go on will hopefully serve as an inspiration to New Yorkers everywhere that not only can life go on after the disaster, but that the city and the country will recover, because of the spirit that drives nearly fifty thousand people to push themselves to the limit. It seems to me it’s a far more motivating statement than George W. Bush’s admonition to go shopping after 9/11.

I can understand the symbolism. It jives with the message that I often try to convey in these pages about taking the active choice, taking control, and making positive things happen for yourself and those around you. You are heavily influenced by what you see around you. Perhaps we can help to deliver some hope to those who need it.

After all, New York City is a place that defies logic, defies itself. I’ve often said that it succeeds in spite of itself. When one ponders the difficulty and cost of getting anything done there, one has to wonder how anything does get done there, or why it is done there in the first place. But to borrow the oft-used quote from Jurassic Park, life will find a way. Sure, the source wasn’t a bastion of philosophical wealth, but they made a good point.

Growing up in Upstate New York, we had a strong love-hate relationship with New York City. By the time I became old enough to be politically aware, the Big Apple was going bankrupt under Ed Koch (who now has his name attached to the Queensborough Bridge, mile sixteen on the course, or the 59th Street Bridge if you’re a Simon & Garfunkel fan). We figured that the tax dollars we sent to Albany were simply dumped into the river to float uselessly past the vortex of The City. Not long after, our governor Hugh Carey, a Brooklyn native (who as of two weeks ago has his name attached to the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, which would have been our route to the start had it not become an ersatz aqueduct)
seemed to fuel the Upstate-Downstate feud by coming to our city to scoff at a local looming environmental disaster, uttering the now famous phrase, "I offer here and now to walk into Binghamton, to any part of that building and swallow an entire glass of PCBs." Needless to say, there was no love lost between “us” and “them”. For a time, I even rebelled against the very label, “The City”. After all, Boston is a city, too, right?

I got over it. The fact is, there hasn’t been a single time in my life when I haven’t felt at least a little bit of awe and excitement upon entering the City of New York. Granted, that comes with the trepidation of the hazards and aforementioned inconveniences of doing anything in the city (which I try to communicate as a reality check to Darling Daughter the Elder, thinking of college and star-struck by the place), but face it: you can’t fly in and see the skyline, drive in over a grand bridge, or even ride the rail in and marvel at the length and breadth of the catacombs though which you travel, without recognizing that it’s an amazing place, even with all its dark and seamy undersides.

Leave it to New York City to have the chutzpah to try to pull this off after what they’ve been through.

I’m still somewhat split on it, but they’ve said that the show will go on, and so I will be a part of it, part of a show of support for a resilient and strong city. Even if I’m not yet quite sure how we’ll actually get there. Life will find a way.