27 February 2013

Twice Chilled

It’s like being a twice-baked potato, except it’s the opposite, and last I checked, I’m not a potato. It happened again, and at this rate, my body should be acclimated for an Arctic expedition. Or at a minimum, perhaps I’ve reversed some of the effects of last spring’s Boston Bake-Fest, an overheating that I’m convinced has made me more sensitive to the cold ever since. The torture that brings on these thoughts came about on Sunday on Cape Cod, just a few sea miles from the previous week’s bodily refrigeration on Martha’s Vineyard.

Traditions die hard, and this one nearly made me die the hard way. For the fourth year, my local club, the Highland City Striders, fielded our men’s masters’ team at the Hyannis Marathon Relay. For the fourth year, Rocket John took the first leg and I the third, in a race where it’s two laps to the marathon and two legs to the lap, so our legs in fact share the same start and finish points. Our tradition has been that after he runs his leg, he hangs out at the exchange zone at Craigsville Beach while our second man returns to the starting point, hands off to me, and I return to that same exchange zone. He, by then typically damp and cold, daringly jumps out of a warm automotive shelter and joins me for our ‘warm down’, running the back half of the course which comprises the second and forth legs. We always tease our anchor man that our plan provides insurance: should we find him dead on the course, we can take the baton and make a run for it. This year, he wasn’t the one we should have worried about.

Hyannis is not a small event, and the larger an event gets, the tougher the decision gets as to whether the show goes on when conditions turn ugly. This one nearly didn’t get off the ground. The Weather Gods predicted doom, gloom, not to mention plenty of white stuff and at one point winds exceeding the speed limit on secondary highways. Faced with those possibilities, several thousand of us breathed a collective sigh of relief when the day was upgraded to merely windy, cold rain. Ah, what fools we can be when our perceptions are subconsciously biased. Windy cold rain…Martha’s Vineyard, Wineglass Half, I know that’s not pretty, but relative to what we’d feared, hey, not so bad, right? And oh, did it rain! Buckets, I tell you. John set off in nothing less than a downpour.

But twenty minutes before my leg, the Gods smiled, and it slacked. Mind you, it didn’t stop, but slowed enough that aided by a seriously fashionable trash bag, I was able to warm up and take the handoff in a not entirely soggy state. As I always coached my cross-country team, running in the rain only stinks when you start. Once you’re in it, you’re in it.

Seven miles and several cross-country-like stretches later (where we had to divert through sideline mud pits to avoid minor floods), I’d clicked off my leg to the beach, and found myself thoroughly saturated. To avoid the chill, John and I hit the back six quickly.

Cue the deep, ominous music. The rain picked up. The wind strengthened. And the temperature dropped. It was like Martha’s Vineyard all over again, but far wetter. It wasn’t a warm down, it wasn’t even a cool down. It was a repeat refrigeration, but unlike the previous week, I didn’t head straight for the shower, and that mistake nearly finished me. Instead, back at post-race party central, I tried to re-warm with copious hot soup while still cloaked in soak. Lesson to self: staying in wet stuff, dumb idea. Hot soup to no avail, violent shakes encroaching, a club-mate handed me her room key and ordered me to the shower. By the end of the interminably long walk to that furthest-most room, I’d reached the seriously ugly stage, nearly unable to strip away drenched frozen layers, barely reaching warm water. Not wanting to alarm me, she didn’t tell me until I returned that my lips had been blue. And I should note that I wasn’t alone. Others, including GBTC buddy Joe, who ran a far stronger training-run full marathon than he planned, told me of similar experiences. It was just one of those seriously ugly days.

But amidst the drama was the almost anti-climactic happiness of yet another hand-painted fourth clam shell, the unique award of the Hyannis relay, as once again our masters team topped a weather-thinned field for the win. No, there wasn’t much competition, and no, we didn’t match last year’s time (given the conditions, that wasn’t a surprise), but once a post-race scoring glitch was ironed out it was clear that we’d left no doubt, bettering the next-nearest team by well over a half-hour. Twice chilled within eight days, but four wins in a row, a growing set of clams, and spring, I insist, arrives Friday.

On A Different Note, Thirty-Two Years Later Department: The encouragement of a great coach sticks with you forever. Back in those schoolboy First Lap days, our distance man for winter and spring track was a guy named John Perry. I couldn’t tell you his qualifications, I couldn’t tell you whether he was truly a great coach from a technical perspective, but I can tell you that he knew how to motivate. During the winter track season of eighty to eighty-one, while we roamed from improvised to inappropriate venues (such as the ‘track’ at the Domes at Elmira College consisting of duct-tape markings circling the tennis courts, don’t impale yourself passing around the net posts!), While we raced around those somewhat dangerous circuits, Coach Perry would scream in his unique hoarse voice that still rings in my head, “Lift and DRIVE Mr. Cattarin!” “Pick ‘em up and put ‘em down!” To this day I still think of those phrases as mantra.

But that year he also held out a special carrot. He spoke constantly of an elite meet to be held at Princeton University at the end of the winter season that he wanted a few of us to qualify for and travel to. Along with those commands to lift and drive came a new refrain, “We’re gonna’ go to PRINCETON!” To a high school kid, it was exotic, it was exciting, it was worthy of busting our butts to achieve.

Alas, we never went to that meet (I never learned if we missed a cut-off, or by how much, or…?). Other than a quick drive-through perusal while on business in Trenton early in my career, I really never even went to Princeton at all…until last week. Being as it is now college touring time for Dearest Daughter the Elder, I found myself in that wealthy, beautiful portion of New Jersey so that DD the E could tour the Disneyesque campus of that hallowed ivy. The morning before our campus tour, I embarked on my own, striking out on the peaceful Delaware & Raritan Canal trail for a few miles before diverting to downtown Princeton, then plunging into the disarmingly beautiful campus. It was easy to get somewhat lost in the myriads of pathways crisscrossing the expansive school, but it was a joyful kind of lost, soaking up the perfectly manicured scenery at every bend, and confident that when I found myself spit out on the other end, it would be easy to find the canal for the jaunt back to the hotel we’d dubbed Forward Camp Princeton. That interlude of lost lasted probably only ten minutes, but it was a ten minute span I’d waited thirty-two years for, since that winter of eighty-one. Lift and DRIVE, Mr. Cattarin, we’re gonna’ go to Princeton. Maybe it wasn’t the track, maybe it was just the campus, but thanks, Coach, I finally made it, and I was thinking of you.

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