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…

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