21 December 2012


It’s the end of the day on the twenty-first, and despite what the Mayans may or may not have said, either we’re still here or at least our perception of reality is; apparently the Matrix has not yet been breached. I recognize that where the Mayans lived is a time zone or two away from here, so there’s still time for the big finale, but I’m betting that life will go on, at least for most of us.

On a day that began with the solstice and the various pagan rituals of the renewal of life and the coming of longer days that you may or may not have partaken in, and ended with our apparent survival, life is a good topic to ponder. It’s fragile. We know that, yet we skirt its boundaries almost daily without thinking about it, or at least we don’t like to. When those boundaries are crossed, we are shocked, grieved, thrown out of our comfort zone, and left to ponder something that shouldn’t be a surprise, since it is with us all the time. We will all lose this game in the long run (no pun intended), so the best we can hope for is to make the most of it while we can. Ride the gravy train of life experiences. Or, in economic terms, maximize the utility of what we’ve got while we’ve got it.

This column was forming in my head well before our nation entered its state of profound grief over the senseless tragedy in Connecticut last week. It was forming since about a quarter to eleven on the night following Cross Country Nationals in Lexington, Kentucky, when I became witness to the aftermath of a different tragedy, the loss of Lauren Roady, in what can only be described as an ironic, yet certainly horrible accident. One soul in Kentucky, compared to twenty-six in Connecticut, yet the holes in the fabric of those who knew her (I did not) loom just as large, holes the size of someone lost well before their due.

Celebration follows Nationals. I learned that last year in Seattle, not that it was a surprise. It’s an appropriate thing to do. The pressure to perform at your “National Best” has just been relieved hours earlier. You can you look forward to a break in training intensity for a while. Most important, though, is the simple fact that you can celebrate that one way or another: you made it to Nationals, you competed with the best, even if you couldn’t hold a candle to them, and you were a part of an event that is in effect a celebration of our sport itself. You’ve maximized a bit of your life. It’s a high. Ride it.

This year’s celebration didn’t roll off as coordinated as last year’s. The organized gala somehow didn’t materialize, so teams made for alternate celebratory venues. Having found myself in a pub of hopelessly happy harriers, I was unfortunately quickly reminded of a physical weakness in my being, that being my utter inability to discern voices above a din. Unable to communicate meaningfully, I elected to make it an early night, and headed back to the hotel with my teammate roommate. Thus it was that we were already in, when many would revel late into the night.

I mentioned last week my appreciation of irony. I’d just commented to my roommate on the unusually high volume of sirens outside our eighth floor room, something not unique to this night as I’d noticed it the previous evening as well. Must be a rough town, I remarked lightheartedly. Thus the irony when he happened to glance out the window and realized that this time, the sirens had converged on the street below our window. “You’d better come over here and look at this,” he beckoned.

What we saw sank our hearts. A street full of first responders. A victim, respectfully covered in the standard-issue white sheet. This wasn’t CSI, this was life. We amateur sleuthed from eight stories up and observed the team below investigating a parked, darkened fire truck, and had already deduced the likely scenario of a pedestrian having been hit by the fire truck before it was confirmed on the local news. Knowing it was a tragedy no matter who it was, we still prayed it wasn’t one of our extended running family. It wasn’t until morning that I learned the sad truth, that not only was it one of our family, but a young member of our family, whom I’d later learned had been married only two months prior. My thoughts went back to my uncle losing his first wife to a traffic accident only a month into his newly married life. I was too young then to understand the horror of such an event. Now, with nearly twenty years of a wonderful marriage and all the blessings it has brought to me written in my book of experience, the tragedy below took on a an even heavier dimension. It was hard to fathom being denied so suddenly, so soon.

As our nation grapples with how to respond to the very public tragedy in Connecticut, likewise our running community grappled with how to respond to this very specific tragedy in Kentucky. Just as with the aftermath of Sandy Hook, emotions ran high, sometimes edging into unexpected directions. Message boards lit up in the days that followed, mostly with grief, but with a few insensitive comments trying to lay blame on both the victim and the firemen, who when you think of it, were also victims of that tragedy. Both sides suffered the worst day of their lives; Lauren and her family for the obvious reason, and the fireman at the wheel, a person committed to saving lives, having taken one, and in the process also having taken on immeasurable grief.

While speaking of blame seemed inappropriate, the reality of the event forces us to examine the actions we take and the potential outcomes. Crossing a street on a rainy night and getting hit by a fire truck is fatal. But we can’t stop the rain, and we can’t avoid crossing streets, nor can we stop allowing fire trucks to traverse our streets. Nor is it appropriate to never travel to a race again, nor to never race, or for that matter, even run again. There are a million things that can bring about our demise. Whether you are spiritual or not, there is no denying that life is a miracle that it exists at all. And it is fragile, so easy to turn off. But we can’t stop living simply because we will at some point stop living. We can learn, but we can’t allow ourselves to lose our propensity to action.

A few days ago I headed out for a far-off business meeting. I know that each time I get in the car to travel to some distant customer could be my last. Mother Nature certainly didn’t make this trip easy, with several stretches of heavy weather providing more than a few White Knuckle Moments. But my end could just as easily happen on dry pavement down the street from home. Or who even needs a car? Several years back I managed to inflict a body-full of fabulously colored contusions (ooh, they’re at their best a month later!) right on my unexpectedly icy front porch, or should I say on each of the stairs leading off it, bouncing off every one, sailing wildly out of control halfway down to the street. Risk and danger are everywhere. We work to minimize them. But we can’t hide from life because of them, or let them get in the way of our efforts to get the most out of the life we have. We’ve got nothing but time, and less of it every day.

One of the things I appreciate about the running community is that it is filled with people who have, through their actions, made a public pledge to get off the couch, fight through adversity, better themselves, and get the most from what they have. While I am one of them and hope that my actions preach this message, I still thrive on the inspiration of other runners to drive myself. It’s a self-energizing loop when we band together to coax each other on. It starts locally, it builds regionally, and it celebrates nationally. We went to Lexington to celebrate what humans can do when inspired to make good use of the time we’re granted.

When a tragedy struck such as did that night, we mourn, and we try to learn both individually and as a society how to avoid a repeat performance, but in the end we carry on. In doing so we honor those lost, who would have wanted us to carry on, and would have been there to cheer us forward. We walk away, or in our case, run away, reminded at how fragile life truly is, and how important it is to celebrate and maximize the life we’ve got.

15 December 2012

Running With the Thoroughbreds

Chapter Four of the Four-Races-In-Twenty-One-Days Extravaganza came and went so quickly that a week has passed before I’ve finally sat down to document it for the ages, or perhaps the aged. It didn’t help that life turned from busy to insane right about the time of our Kentucky sojourn, finding myself setting foot in ten states over the course of an eight day span, with Kentucky adding a new state to the running list – been in forty-nine, been over the fiftieth, have now run in twenty. I’d like to say, “And now we rest,” but the coming week offers no such luxury. Ever onward!

I love ironies and coincidences since they are a constant reminder of how connected we all are in this world. And somehow they’re better when they jump out unexpectedly, having been there all along, silently unnoticed. Such it was that on the final leg of the Bluegrass Odyssey, having travelled for days with the team, that it was only upon driving one of my Greater Boston teammates home from the airport late Sunday night that I discovered he was none other than the winner of my local club’s race this past summer – the one I’ve served as race director and now provide scoring services for. I missed this connection because he ran in rival Boston Athletic Association colors that summer eve, and only came over from the proverbial Dark Side a few months later.

Closing the trip with a connection through our Running With the Wolves race seemed apt given we’d just spent the weekend Running With the Thoroughbreds, lining up with the nation’s best runners in the nation’s best horse country for this year’s USA Track & Field National Club Cross Country Championships in Lexington. Yes, the meet tech shirt indeed featured a steed. No, we didn’t see many of them. Mostly we saw rain and fog and rain and darkness and rain, though mercifully the rain abated for the main event on Saturday, leaving it’s calling card in the form of Kentucky mud that simply won’t come off my shoes.

Unlike last year’s excursion to Seattle, I had a feel for what I was in for this time. Still, the prospect of lining up with the best of the best was no less exciting; indeed it felt a bit sweeter having a year of camaraderie with my Greater Boston masters teammates and thus not feeling like the tentative outsider new guy. But once again, I didn’t expect any impressive placing amongst such a high-class field, and the results yielded no surprises. The funny thing about this trip is that excluding one horrible event – the tragic loss of a runner from Washington in a traffic accident the night after the meet, reflections to follow in a future post – this was mostly a fantastic trip. I say mostly because somewhere around four and a half miles into our ten kilometer race, the thought occurred to me that, “I’m enjoying every aspect of this trip… except this race!”

The race was, in a word, a fatigue-fest. We scoped the course on Friday (in the rain) and knew it was non-stop hills, but I’m a hill runner, and expected it to be thoroughly manageable.
It’s good for the psyche to be utterly wrong from time to time. Manageable became mangleable. Save brief stretches about a half-mile in and in the final half mile, there was no flatness to be found. Up, down, up, down, up, down, yeah, this course was like a jump rope (bad pop culture reference, but fitting). No downhill was long enough to provide recovery for the next up. By the halfway point, I was toast, first lightly tanned, then deep browned, finally burnt and crispy.

At least I remained vertical throughout. Having foolishly not brought my spikes, thinking they were heel-less track spikes which would shred my calves (and which, ironically, I had yet to actually use with spikes actually installed within), it was clear on our course reconnoiter that going spikeless would leave one feckless. A quick night-before pilgrimage to the local running emporium produced only another set of track spikes, but having come this far, I wasn’t about to let a little wardrobe duplication spoil the day. Armed with some serious foot-mounted daggers, I violated Rule Number One, never do anything in a race you haven’t tried before, and raced in shoes I’d first run in only twenty minutes prior to the gun. Not landing in the mud was worth the price of a blister and some delayed-action arch fatigue.

Traction, however, did nothing to combat the fatigue, the sagging pace, and the generally unexceptional execution of this race. I didn’t go out particularly fast, but still I got slower, and slower, and slower. At the five mile split (recognizing that distances in cross country aren’t entirely accurate), the clock read a full two minutes behind where it stood at the same distance a week prior at Mill Cities. Race photos reveal more than my usual Death Warmed Over look; on that day I’d have to say the microwave failed, leaving more of a Cold Congealed Leftover Death Just Out of the Fridge look. It wasn’t pretty. But I wasn’t the only one; slow times and creeping fatigue took their toll on much of the field (I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that this syndrome also hit my rival EJ “Bad Dawg”, resulting in another check mark on my side of the tally). Place-wise, I actually moved up a hair compared to last year’s Seattle festivities relative to the size of the field. The change versus the overall field wasn’t statistically significant, but within my age group it was a pretty decent bump. Always find something positive, right?

Team Greater Boston Old Guys broke no records, but held our own, especially since our number one speedster was forced to jog it in after trying valiantly to overcome a painful injury. Yet in a race like this one, place doesn’t matter so much as being at the place, being a part of something big, exciting, and just plain cool. I had a chance to reflect on that for Eric from LevelRenner.com, and to my amusement, my commentary graced the last minute or so of his race coverage (note, the video on his site at this link seems to work better in Internet Explorer rather than Firefox). To even more amusement, he closed his video with a quick clip of EJ, ironic in that he can’t have known of our rivalry. (There’s that irony thing again.)

And just to put some punctuation on the big, exciting, and just plain cool aspect, the fact is that when you go to these events, you just never know who you’ll meet, chat with, or even end up on a run with. The morning after, seeking a few easy miles of recovery, I found myself bolting a ten-miler through Downtown Lexington and the University of Kentucky Arboretum (a lovely spot, really) with a world-class runner I’d met casually in the lobby of the hotel. You just never know, and the next thing you know, you’re running with another thoroughbred. Relish the experience.

Side note: A full thirty years later, this event brought on a pleasant reunion with a friend I ran with in my high school First Lap days. There’s a great story of a wild night at the races that’s the topic for another night…

05 December 2012

A Brick!

It’s Chapter Three, and it just occurred to me that this rapid-fire adventure of four races within a twenty-one day stretch actually spans four states. How cool is that? It started in Westfield, Massachusetts, the next race five days later was in Corning, New York, and this latest began in Nashua, New Hampshire. There’s barely time to write this before the plane leaves for Kentucky for Chapter Four, the finale!

An odd outgrowth of the phenomenon of getting to know so many people, as I wrote about a few weeks back, is that I’ve accumulated clubs along the way. Starting with my local and beloved Highland City Striders, I found myself signing up for various clubs for various good reasons. The Squannacook River Runners have invited me to their post-Boston-Marathon party for years, so it just seemed fair to join their club and support them with a few bucks in dues.

Membership has its privileges, so they say. In this case, there’s an interesting race known as the Mill Cities Relay, named for its course along the historic Merrimack Valley through the cities that drove the American Industrial Revolution. I’ve had my eyes on it for years, but curiously, you can’t run it unless you happen to be a member of a club in the Mill Cities Alliance. While Greater Boston and Highland City are my primary affiliations, neither is a Mill Cities club. But Squannacook is.

Squannies are very much like my local Striders. It’s a great group of people, though not a highly competitive club, save a few people here or there, one of whom we recently recruited to our GBTC Masters team. But they turn out in droves for Mill Cities, grouping themselves on teams with fish-themed names in keeping with their club’s ‘river’ name. I tossed my hat in, and found myself on the Fire Eatin’ Fish, a rather killer team with my fellow GBTCer Mark, his wife, and two more strong racers. I also found myself in a very cold and icy parking lot at a very early hour Sunday morning with nearly sixty Sqannies getting psyched before heading to the start in Nashua, where I was lined up for the opening leg.

There’s a side story here. I’d run a relay with a Squannacook team long ago, in 2006, the Fred Brown all-the-way-around Lake Winnipesauke classic. That day too, I’d been assigned to a team with Mark (that’s when we met), and had likewise drawn the first leg. And while I delivered a strong leg for my team, it didn’t start out so smoothly.

What happened is hard to explain without drawing a map, but suffice to say that in scoping out the course the night before, I didn’t have time to drive the last half mile, and that was critical. On race morning over one hundred teams lined up in a driveway to start the journey, the first stage of which was to run fifty feet to the road and turn down the course. The problem was that my internal compass knew we were facing south and needed to head west, which meant turning left, and I never questioned this assumption. I lined up on the left side of the field, eyed the fence post at the corner, and focused on getting around it before the crowd tried to make the turn. I succeeded wildly, rounding the post and heading west before everyone else…because everyone else headed for the other post and headed east, as the course looped around itself before going westward ho.

The embarrassment of taking any wrong turn in a race can only be topped by doing it from the starting line, somehow not noticing that a hundred others all went the other way. I still marvel at that gem. And while my team was forgiving, I still wanted to make this one go right, and go well. The Squannies deserved nothing less.

But this one started on a rough note as well. Though I pretend otherwise, I am admittedly quite OCD. I get to the race early, I sweat the details of my extensive warm-up, I manage various functions incessantly, I get my head into the race. They say it’s healthy to let go. Being at the mercy of your club and your team’s schedules means letting go, admitting you can’t control everything, and making the best of it. Sometimes it works out. Sometimes you find yourself arriving barely in time, standing in a long line for a single stall, trying to warm-up by jogging in place while waiting, and subsequently bursting toward the starting line, barely staying upright across the ice-glazed parking lot to the line, relieved that the start is delayed five minutes giving you time for a few strides, but that’s it. Crappy warm-up, tense, just not in the space. Healthy? Debatable.

Fortunately, it didn’t seem to matter. The brick dropped – yes, they start this race not with a gun, but by dropping a brick which we presume came from a real mill building – and once we executed what my frequent rival EJ Bad-Dawg called a “Scoobie Doo” start,
where your legs spin on the slick, icy ground, but you don’t actually move right away, there was no question which way to go this time, and we seemed to be going fast. The forecast of high thirties was off by a good six to eight degrees, making for a foggy, dank, chilling, and most importantly, hazardous day; the bridge over the Merrimack at the half-mile was frighteningly treacherous.

Once we found traction, nobody could ask for better running weather. Windless, cold, and fast. Frankly, I had no idea how fast. I’m guessing by the fact that the four- and five-mile markers were so clearly painted that there were in fact ticks at the one- and two-mile points, but I zoned right by them. For twenty minutes I was either flying or dragging, who could tell? The cylinders seemed to be clicking well, but whether that was because of a good day or simply because I wasn’t making much steam, I couldn’t say. Five-point-four to the exchange zone, just go, don’t look at your watch if you haven’t seen any markers, what’s the point?

When one appeared at mile four, what appeared on my watch said fast. When another appeared at five, what appeared on my watch said personal best by a quarter minute over this summer’s run at Carver. With another point-four-one to go, it wasn’t a five-miler, so I’ll call it a “distance class” personal best, the second new mark in two races. And to sweeten it, on this day I took the check-mark in the EJ Rivalry column. It’s all good, save a bit of a muscle strain from that Scoobie Doo start, or the poor warm-up, or both.

But the day’s fun was not yet done, indeed, only beginning, this being a relay. For the next couple of hours we did the relay-logistics thing, barely making it in time for the shortest leg, embarking on a wild goose chase for rocket fuel for our anchor man, and generally enjoying the fact that everyone on our team turned in smokin’ performances. Two hours forty-six after the brick dropped, our caffeine-fueled fifth man crossed the line sealing up a solid second-place finish among twenty-four teams in our co-ed masters division and winning us a coveted brick. Yes, like the device that starts the race, the trophies here are also made from antique mill bricks. It’s just so appropriate.

Chalk up another New England classic, clearly on the bucket list of must-do races, worth every minute invested. Add to that another personal best, and I’m itchin’ for Chapter Four, Kentucky here we come.

01 December 2012

Not Quite A Pi(e)?

There’s a famous, and upon examination mostly untrue, story that over a hundred years back, the Indiana state legislature came up with the brilliant idea that pi, that mathematical constant that makes things round, could be, well, modified. The popular story goes that they passed a law defining pi precisely with very few digits, rather than the endless decimal it really is. The truth, at least according to Wiki, is nothing of the sort, though what they were actually trying to do was, from a mathematical perspective, nearly as silly, if not quite as obvious to the ordinary soul.

This is, however, a good lead in to the question of how big a pi should be, or in this case, how long a pie, specifically a Pie & Glove race, should be. Advertised as five kilometers, the truth appears to be that we didn’t get all the Pie we thought we were getting. But I’m ahead of myself…

Where we are is Chapter Two of the rapid-fire sequence of late fall races, Chapter One – the Return to Westfield – having been related a couple of nights back, and Chapters Three and Four yet to come, though come they will, and soon. It’s a busy time. And to think, one might expect a little period of rest after the fall marathon. Not this year.

Following that Sunday in Stanley Park, it was a mere four days till Thanksgiving, the one day when a surprisingly large percentage of America gets off their butts to do something physical in order to assuage their guilt over the looming feast. To this I say, outstanding! The explosion of turkey trots is one of the few trends of late that is actually good for America’s health, even if it’s only once a year. It’s like seeing the church packed on Christmas and Easter and thinking that it’d be nice if those people actually showed up the rest of the year, but then thinking twice and just being glad that they still found it important enough to come at the holidays, in defiance of Santa and the Bunny. As a result, many of these races are huge, growing mostly from the mid-pack on down, though my trot of choice, the Pie & Glove in Corning NY, also sported a strong field up front, offering up plenty of human anchors to hold a pace.

Now, two races in five days isn’t necessarily a good idea, but on the other hand, if it makes (and keeps) you sharp, and if the old bones can sustain the punishment, so be it. I banked on the bones and bet on the theory of sharpness. And it paid off with a personal best, though one laced with a let-down, it being not quite what I’d thought it was.

How can a personal best be a bit of a disappointment? When it’s not the blowout you thought it was, the blowout you’d been waiting for, the blowout you felt was real, until you found out it wasn’t. But at the end of the day, it was still a personal best, and a key one at that, one that confirmed that the previous wasn’t a fluke.

And the apparent blowout seemed plausible. Really. A cold, nearly windless day. A fast course, entirely flat save an out-and-back over the mild bump of a river bridge. Enough time beforehand to run the whole thing for a real warm-up (and still jump behind the registration table to help them work down the two-block-long check-in line). And mostly, the right state of mind, confidence that last month’s long-awaited 5K best signified that the readiness was there to cash in for a real breakthrough.

You can’t spend much prose on a 5K, as it happens too fast. Mile one came faster than any previous road race mile one, but it didn’t worry me, all cylinders were clicking. For mile two, it became a mental game, latching on others and reminding myself that I didn’t need to back off after the quick start, and it worked, the second marker
arriving a second faster than the first. On the home stretch, I focused on the word ‘intensity’ and refused to relent. Being mostly an out-and-back, one eye hunted for Darling Spouse, Dearest Daughter the Younger, and a pair of cousins, this being a family event now turned tradition, while the other eye glued onto moving reference points, no, not just gluing on but apparently picking up the pace and passing a number of them in that last mile. Darling Spouse, whom I didn’t locate in the outbound crowd, did spot me and reported that I looked, well, intense. Her word. I guess the focus thing worked.

Rounding the last corner gave me a somewhat breathtaking glimpse of something I’ve never seen at the end of a 5K, the show clock reading sixteen something. With a person standing in front of it, the something part was obscured, though I knew it must be a large something, and sure enough, sixteen changed to seventeen before I crossed a few seconds later. Just seeing sixteen blew a few mental circuits. Not crossing till it clicked over didn’t really matter; I was still in at more than half a minute ahead of that October personal best in Acton. A half minute off a 5K is hard to fathom, but the splits bore it out, and the kind of day it was made it believable.

Quick chatter among the early finishers hinted that the course was indeed short, but only by a bit. At only a bit short, adding a few seconds would still make it a blowout. It was enough to make me not care that I’d missed third place in my age group – and a pie, the real, not the mathematical kind – by a mere three seconds. (We got one anyway as thanks for sis’s volunteer efforts.) I was floating.

But things that float often sink. Back at sis’s ranch, out came the laptop, up came the mapping web site, and the truth sunk in and sunk my state of floatation. A bit short stretched into quite a bit short, and the huge breakthrough melted into merely a six-second personal best. And that’s how a personal best can be sort of a disappointment. Not that I won’t take it happily, it’s still a best, turned in four days after Westfield, and a nice confirmation that Acton wasn’t a fluke.

I’m just sayin’…

This Pie was a little shy of being full-sized. Maybe the measuring wheel was made in Indiana a hundred years back?