19 February 2013

Multi-Dimensional Goodness

A true New England classic, the Martha’s Vineyard 20-Miler boasts the slogan “No Weenies”, aptly accompanied by the familiar red circle-with-a-bar international NO symbol cleanly stomping out that word. Ironic then that I found myself wearing that race shirt, complete with that logo, the next day when I sought the shelter of an indoor hamster cage run (a.k.a. treadmill) for the first time in over a year. Yes, I weenied out, but given the brutal icy wind blowing the day’s fresh snow across ugly sloppy roads, and mostly having just thawed from the previous day’s experience, well, my disdain of those wide-belted devices was trumped by a whiff of sanity.

This bending of a core principal (Outside!) was induced by the final miles of Saturday’s 20-Miler, when racing into a wind-driven stinging sleet, already soaked by nearly fifteen miles of precipitation, having lost most feeling in my arms and weathered a couple of rounds of frozen and re-thawed eyelids, I found my legs so cold and numb that I feared they’d stop working and I’d stumble. While I staved off repeat of the Great Wineglass Tragedy, I was pretty close to non-functional crossing the line. Rarely have I beelined so rapidly to the rejuvenation of a hot shower. Suffice to say that the race director didn’t lie in his race-eve email warning that the weather would, in a word, suck.

I’d already concluded that we did it right last year, jumping in less than twenty-four hours before the starting gun, already knowing we faced a day of wind but one mainly dominated by relative midwinter warmth and sunshine. Not so this year, when Rocket John and I opted to take the early-bird registration discount months back, which left us feverishly fretting the forecast. Frankly, the angst probably wasn’t worth the ten bucks we each saved, but then again, had we not committed, with the forecast as it was, we’d probably have opted out. John, who suffered an injury-ridden rough day, probably wouldn’t have minded, but despite the extremity refrigeration bonus, I’d have missed out on a good one. Ya’ never know, if you don’t toe the line, it won’t happen!

A good one it was, and on so many dimensions. How do we count the ways? There’s the sheer adventure of the planes, trains and automobiles-style complex journey, or in this case, boats, buses, and automobiles. This is not a simple excursion, though the organizers make it as easy as possible. There’s the enthusiasm of the volunteers, never such a cold and wet lot putting on such happy faces – and their uncanny ability to have your checked baggage ready and waiting when you walk in the door to the school is nothing short of exemplary customer service. Then there’s the ‘Old Home Days’ atmosphere, this being an event for the die-hards, and indeed the die-hards make their appearances creating a reunion of sorts. And not only old friends reunited, but new friendships made, bonds enhanced by the joy of us veterans sharing our logistical knowledge of this odyssey with the first-timers who, unlike at most easily-manageable races, can really benefit from the guidance. But that’s only the start of it, because this race has some pretty serious legs and it’s long enough to generate the excitement of a developing drama.

Old Friends, Club Friends, New Friends on the Vineyard
There’s a healthy competitive club presence here, with my Greater Boston crew fielding five and some clubs up to a dozen. While we didn’t take the new club participation trophy, we’ll claim the bravery medal, as one of our own was probably the only soul brave enough to run this in merely shorts and a singlet. I think they’re still chipping poor Jon out of his personal ice block.

Moreso there’s a healthy competitive presence in general, with a lot of experienced runners who know tactics and appreciate competitive teamwork. This year’s race developed much differently from last year’s, where the top ten all went out hard and fast. This year’s start was so leisurely by comparison that despite my promises not to go out too hot, I had to hold back so as not to lead the pack around the first bend. Two of my GBTC teammates soon forged away, and it was only that promise of conservatism that made me hold back with the chase pack, which in retrospect was the smart option. But by mile three I wasn’t so sure, as we lumbered a loping six-thirty-four pace – already putting me behind my hoped for six-thirty average.

I needn’t have worried. These guys knew what they were doing. As soon as we rounded the tip of Oak Bluffs and put the wind at our backs, we dropped the pace twenty to twenty-five seconds and made a game of it. Easily the most enjoyable stretch of the race, for seven miles we as competitors worked as a tight team to hold a solid tempo and put plenty of time in the bank, hitting the halfway point a few seconds ahead of last year’s irrationally exuberant start.

But at ten I miscalculated slightly, having placed myself on the road to avoid the snow of the bike trails and not returned to the trail in time for a turn which snuck up sooner than expected. I found myself on a wide trajectory that broke the pack magic, and suddenly I was alone in a self-motivation exercise as the rain picked up and the air grew colder. The next few miles were tough mentally, no longer carried by or carrying the pack, but the teamwork wasn’t finished. Anyone who’s run this race before knows that the second half is tough not only for being the later miles, but due to the prevailing winds, the gentle but long upgrades that never seem to offer up the favor of downs, and the somewhat mind-numbing sameness of the scenery once away from the coast. Thus when Tom from competing club Whirlaway caught up with me around mile thirteen, he well knew he’d be better off with the motivation of two rather than simply pushing forward alone with that far left to go. Between that and his just being a wicked good guy to help drag me along, together we held the splits to respectable, if not first-half levels, until he motored on with two and a half to go, close enough that we each could find the will to finish it under our own steam. While he put nearly a minute on me in those last two miles (my nineteenth was abysmal), it’s pretty clear that teamwork benefitted both of us.

My mental math told me a Personal Record was in the offing, though after that snail-like mile nineteen I still had some doubt. Twenty was a screamer though (or perhaps the nineteenth mile marker was misplaced, which seems a little more likely), and the clock read a surprisingly smaller number than expected – well under two-oh-nine and a big personal best by more than a minute – far better than I’d expected on the starting line. For the second year it was good enough to take top honors my age group, a nice boost being less than six weeks away from moving to the next one. Greater Boston’s team of five cleaned up, winning the overall men’s, three age groups, and a second place age group; five out of five medalists, not too shabby. More important though was the fact that this year’s race was simply smarter, with a conservative start (still no negative splits, but at a roughly sixty-three – sixty-five split, not too bad) and more teamwork, bringing a better result.

Fitting that after all of this that Old Home Days served up a final chapter on the boat ride home when we met up with Chris of RunRunLive fame, the very Chris whom I’d met not far from the mainland side ferry terminal while running Cape Cod seven-plus years back, and who inspired this blog. Thanks for the brew, Chris, who knew they actually served the good stuff on the boat? Chris is raising bucks for Team Hoyt for Boston, consider dropping some coin in his till on his web site.

And so it was that after this somewhat epic day, when Sunday dawned snowy, sloppy, but most importantly, windy as all get up, gusts well over forty, it was, after all, the day after, not the day of, and I’d already legitimately earner my No Weenies shirt and medal. Nothing says you have to push into a near-suspended-animation experience daily. But having said all that, I must admit that amidst the boredom, faced with two large screen televisions each tuned to farm-team pro, er, excuse me, college basketball, both just far enough away so as to make the scores unreadable, and of course having no headphones to hear the commentary, yes, amidst that and the warmth and sweat of the great indoors, the bruised arms from whacking the channel changing squawk box, the amusement at people mounting and dismounting their mills within ten minutes, indeed, despite all that, I must admit I got a pretty darn good workout in on that hamster cage.

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