27 November 2013

Tiny Bit of This

On the eve of a Big Day (a Big Turkey Day, of course), I have to tell you about another Big Day. Not that it was Big for me, but it was extremely Big for those immediately involved, mildly Big for those peripherally involved, and of great amusement (and happiness) to someone who is only relationally involved, that being yours truly. As I said, I’m only relationally involved. But I feel like I had a tiny bit of influence on this coming about, and that brings a smile.

Call me self-centered, but I run for me. The list of wins are obvious and long: physical health, mental health, friends, fun, and a lot of laundry. Once I get over that, I run so that what I get out of it might keep me around a little longer to continue to keep my wife up while I read late into the night (truth: she’s out before I’m on page three and never complains about my leaving the light on), and torture my daughters with bad jokes, which they do often enjoy even if they don’t like to admit it. Go one or more notches down the reasons why list, and it’s fair to say I run to give others the hint that it’s not a bad idea to go back and look at reason number one as it applies to themselves.

When I think of my influence on others, I don’t forget that it was a co-worker’s influence on me that brought me back to the sport and all of the life-changing effects it’s had over the last eight and a half years. Thanks, Joan! Over the years I like to think I’ve given that forward. I don’t fool myself into thinking that I can be the only reason someone else decides to strap on a pair of shoes and take some control of their destiny, but I can’t disown the few grains I may have put on one side of their scale of decision.

A few years back, Niece the Elder, now Dr. Niece the Elder and a licensed physical therapist who sadly lives too far away for me to mooch random services (lucky her) took up our sport. I certainly wasn’t the primary cause, but my being wrapped up in this endeavor wasn’t lost on her, either. We’ve since enjoyed joint adventures at the Boilermaker, Wineglass, on random roads, and notably at the annual Pie & Glove, the local turkey trot in her area (which I’ll miss this year, not travelling, all the better with the nasty weather). That latter event isn’t grand and glorious, but with more than one of us sucked into the sport, it became a family event. The last few years our clan – mine and sis’s – have made the trip to the starting line, and just about everyone has jumped in. Positive good spread around.

Cut to the next scene, and Niece the Junior, now in grad school in the grand capital of hill work, Miami (flatter than Houston, I think, and that’s saying something!), has caught the bug. Again, I certainly wasn’t the primary cause, or probably even secondary. But with Big Sis in on the fun, Ancient Uncle hovering about, and other friends and acquaintances, running and fitness become mainstream norms, so much easier to plunge into. Of course, not having to run hills, or run in snow, and having the beach and ocean to plunge into just down the street can’t hurt, either. Anyway, the point is that Niece the Junior dove in and decided she’s was going big or going home, and targeted her first half marathon. For this I have one word: Woot!

Sixth paragraph, and we aren’t even to the action. (Dearest Spouse was right this evening in telling me I’m too verbose.) My point up to here is that we all influence others by what we do, and those who we’ve influenced continue to influence, and so on, ad nauseam. So when something cool and good happens that might not have happened, or at least might not have happened quite that way, we can smile and say, “I had a tiny bit of this.”

Niece the Junior signed up for her first half marathon, the Disney Wine & Dine, which is somewhat unusual in that it’s held at ten at night, perhaps the better to increase your consumption of flying protein, also known as insects, in the Florida climate, or more likely to avoid the crowds in the theme parks you’re running through and not have to get up at three in the morning to do it. Like everything else Disney, it’s highly produced (no judgment attached to that statement, just the facts, ma’am), so whereas there’s a reasonably big video screen at the Boston Marathon Athlete’s Village, there is (I am told) a REALLY BIG video screen at the Disney equivalent, where fourteen thousand runners are milling about, pondering their upcoming journey through the Magic Kingdom, and staying entertained out of a corner of their eye. Amidst this mass of track-shoed humanity, many of them in costume for added fun, a Roving Video Crew wanders, randomly cornering anyone they find generally interesting, cute, or simply in their path, stuffing the microphone in their faces and doing live interviews, broadcast live on that REALLY BIG screen for all to see, and through the REALLY BIG sound system, to hear as well.

Disclaimer: I wasn’t there. Most of this is based on what I heard later. Some of it I may fill in with conjecture because I like to tell a good story. And let’s face it, this is a good story.

Said boyfriend of Niece the Junior, who is also running the race albeit injured (spoiler alert: she smokes him, but he had a good excuse) apparently knows people who know people who know where to get good stuff off the back of a truck, or if not that, at least how to contact – and manipulate – entities like a Roving Video Crew wandering among the masses at a Disney event. Said boyfriend has a plan, but operational security is a must. Said boyfriend executes plan, informing just enough assets on the ground (such as Dr. Niece the Elder, who flew in for the race with little sis) to assure the event attains Epic Status, while still assuring operational security.

Roving Video Crew just so happens upon Niece the Junior and interviews her, live on the REALLY BIG screen, in front of fourteen thousand milling runners about her upcoming first half marathon. You ready? You nervous? You look good in that tutu! Many likely don’t notice, as this scene has graced the screen many times that evening. But when they’re done with her, they turn to him, and presumably, knowing that this was just a little bit pre-arranged, don’t fret when he takes the microphone…

And fourteen thousand people scream.

Now, was that cool, or what?

(She said yes.)

Besides due congratulations, I smile, thinking that I had a tiny, tiny, tiny (really tiny, but non-zero) bit of this. The Moment would have happened, sometime, somewhere, maybe just as it did, but maybe, possibly, not quite, not there, not like that, because for it to happen like that, she had to run. And why stop there? Let’s take this back a notch. Really, Joan had a tiny bit of this, too, and until I send her the link to this story, she’ll have had absolutely no idea what she helped wrought.

Congratulations! And never stop being a positive force in the world.

25 November 2013


Spring is certainly not in the air, so a young man’s fancy does not turn to love. Rather, with the fall nip in the air, it’s time for that annual ritual of American corporate life, open enrollment for health care and other benefits. It’s time to find out how much your premiums and deductibles went up and your company’s contribution (inevitably, it seems) went down. But I’m not kvetching, really. I’m glad to have health care benefits, and I’m glad that the accessibility of that benefit now isn’t at risk should I, through choice or chance, cease to be employed. I am, however, kvetching over the assumptions that the corporate world lays upon the masses during this time of wonder.

The health of the average American is at a crisis level. Few would not argue with that; nor would I. But there’s a key word in that statement that gets forgotten in the application of large programs to large numbers of people: average. Yes, there is a problem with the average, but any average is made up of the proverbial bell curve, and people at both ends (as well as the middle) of that curve need to be handled appropriately. That often seems to be forgotten. A huge assumption gets made all too often that we are all average. We are not, and we shouldn’t be handled that way.

What spurred this ranting was a well-intentioned plan by Mighty Employer to encourage healthier lifestyles amongst its five-digit count of employees, not only out of concern for their general welfare, but with the hope of reigning in long-term healthcare costs. It’s a reasonable effort, and I repeat and phrase well-intentioned, because I ascribe no malice to this enterprise. It doesn’t take much looking to see plenty of people who could benefit from some changes. And nothing encourages like the Almighty Dollar, so Mighty Employer put some teeth behind their plan: this year, five hundred bucks of your benefit contribution is riding on making a reasonable effort to be healthy. So far, so good, nothing motivates like the Almighty Dollar. But here’s where things go sour.

Assumptions. America’s health may be in a sorry state, but that doesn’t mean you can assume that everyone’s health is in a sorry state. Yet it appears that they – if not the corporate benefits folks, then certainly the outfit they hired on to administer the program – do just that.

I’m not claiming perfection, genetic superiority, or general awesomeness. But despite my recent tendon and cloggy setbacks, I’m in pretty good shape, and to assume otherwise, and therefore tell me that I need to participate in programs to fix all the problems that you assume I have, well, that’s a little annoying to say the least, rather patronizing, perhaps even debatably insulting, but more important, it’s simply counterproductive.

Like many of these programs (yes, I’ve seen them before), there’s an elaborate point system, with the goal of amassing enough Magic Points to claim your Five C-Note Carrot. Family members are welcome to join in the fun, so Dearest Spouse and I sat down and filled out the online health assessment, which was harmless. We could win more points by placing an administrative burden on our doctor to fill out a form with basic stats (including, interestingly, neck size, thus guaranteeing more than just administrative work but an actual visit, burning their time and ours for something that never in my life have I had, or seen the need to have, measured). But that really doesn’t seem fair now, does it? Why place even more burden on Lady Doctor to work for free? Besides, that alone wouldn’t generate enough Magic Points, so we’d have to look further anyhow.

Ah yes, we can participate in Online Wellness Programs. What joy! Because, after all, if I was underactive, overweight, or otherwise afflicted, clicking on a web site would clearly change my behavior, right? Think of mom, smoking for fifty years, who ignores doctors and other real people, but who I’m sure would instantly change her tune when faced with the delights of a web site.

Skepticism of effectiveness aside, let’s consider the cornucopia of programs laid at my feet. A breadth of ten programs, all with cute names that needlessly trademark commonly used words, like the “Achieve® Cholesterol Management Program” or the “Care for Your Health® Chronic Condition Management Program”. Gosh, they had to trademark the phrase “Care for Your Health”?

So, let’s see… I can manage my cholesterol, which I’ve already done. I can control my blood pressure, which really isn’t a problem. I can care for back pain or those chronic conditions I also don’t have. I can manage depression or reduce stress, both of which running has pretty much handled (though programs like this are capable of inducing). I can sign up for a nutrition program, and while my diet isn’t perfect, I know what good nutrition looks like and what to strive for, and I really don’t care to be told to eat tofu on Tuesdays. Or I can quit smoking.

Question: Do I lose points if I start smoking, just so I can gain points by quitting?

Of course, I left one out of that previous list. It’s called “Energize®” (that trademark thingy again), and it’s the only one I can realistically sign up for which won’t constitute a bald-face lie. Now, I’m not into bald-face lies, especially just to get money, and yes, I certainly will exercise, so this isn’t a lie. So both Dearest Spouse and I plunged into this one.

Step back and consider that even in my injured and recovering state, I’m still tracking about a hundred miles a month. And Dearest Spouse, while not infected with the running bug, is highly active and hits the gym four or more times a week. So neither of us qualify as the Assumed American Couch Potato.

Into the woods! We dive in. And we are each faced with a multi-page survey of our present activities, how often, for how long, what do you think about this, that, and the rest. These queries are of course fraught with the usual, “I’m a robot and don’t understand reality” issues, such as when I tell it that I hike, which isn’t every week, but when it happens, often comes in the form of Adirondack Death Marches and the like, it wants to know, “How many minutes?” It rather freaks out when I tell it that I’m on the mountain for twelve hours. Whatever… We are both amused at the question, “Do you think exercise is boring?” to which we both answer a solid ONE on the one-to-ten scale where one is “I Live to Exercise!” and ten is “YES, It’s God-Awful Kill-Me-Now I-Can’t-Stand-This BORING”. OK, it didn’t use those phrases, but you get the idea.

You’d think the magic automated program might catch on, given an answer like that. But no, it assumes we are all…average. And so it takes over and generates a customized plan, just for you! Yes, with lots of exclamation points! I didn’t add those!

You can guess where this is going. The seventeen page (!) document produced is comical only to the extent that it not entirely sad, insulting, and completely irrelevant. Never mind the simple programming bugs (for some reason, every apostrophe comes out as three question marks), the content is largely inane and the attitude is patronizing at best.

It acknowledges that I’m “Staying Strong”, in the top tier, stage four of their lingo (good thing this isn’t about cancer!). But since Mighty Employer paid real money to Health Program Consultant who likes to Trademark Programs, they have to tell me that their Energize® program can help me improve my sense of well-being, manage my stress, maintain my weight, and tone my body. Yes, all this can be yours, just for the price of a few hundred clicks on a web site.

It gets better. I’ll quote directly a few times here while you hold your head out the window and vomit: “You're not alone. A lot of men in their 50's lose sight of their own needs.” Note to Composers of Introduction: I haven’t lost sight. They tell me how many men find it hard to stay active. Note to Perky Twenty-Three-Year-Old Copy-Writer: I don’t have that problem. They tell me I can keep up my current level of exercise, which they had to acknowledge exceeds the amount that experts recommend, and still have a life. Note to H.R. Benefits Staffers: I do have a life. They tell me that most people find that exercise gives them a net gain in energy. Note to those who can’t imagine it: DUH, why do you think I already do it? Their perkiness knows no bounds… “Great! Read on. It only gets better.” Good God, really? I’m only on page two!

I cannot begin to enumerate the masses of mindless mush that this customized report pours into the dumpster of my soul. I’m told why I like hiking. I’m told that if I’m overweight (which I told it I’m not), I should avoid running. I’m enlightened that mowing the grass with a power mower is an example of cardio activity. Really? Gosh, I didn’t know that! Do I get bonus points for my human-powered squirrel-cage manual mower? I’m given basic math lessons: if I add ten minutes of walking, I’ll make it to Portland, Maine, by the end of next year. Of course, if I ran during the time I spent on this program, I’d make it to Portland, Maine, by next month. But my favorite part has to the section where they state that, “Since you are already active, we suggesting building on what you’re already doing,” at which point they suggest (I’m not making this up) that I pace while I’m talking on the phone, take an extra lap around the grocery store, and when I run errands, park farther from the door.

Seriously. This is building on what I’m already doing? Do these folks realize that when I run errands, I run errands? I run to the bank. I run to City Hall. I run to the doctor. Heck, I run to the store if the object I’m buying is small enough. Can I park any farther from the door than that? Oh, and does using a bathroom on a different floor of the building (another real suggestion) really add to the exercise of one to two hundred (or more) miles per month? (Note to Clueless Writers: My home office is in the basement. There are no bathrooms here.) That’s why I use words like patronizing and insulting. Even before page fourteen, where they tell me how to cope with their view that I think exercise is boring. Hello?

I could go on, but you should be spending your time exercising rather than reading this blather. And that’s my point entirely: the time I spend clicking on their web site, playing their games, gaming their system, would be far better spent either actually exercising, or really working. Remember work? After all, I do think they want me to do that.

I can, and probably will have to, waste time clicking on their web site, trying to convince it that a hard interval workout at the track does satisfy the need for twenty to thirty minutes of moderate walking. But as I noted, it’s simply gaming the system. I called the benefits folks and tried to reason. I’ll send you training logs and spreadsheets. I’ll send you race results. You name it. Just don’t waste my time. No dice. I do have a senior manager in Human Resources lined up for a chat next week, and I am hoping to find some sanity in that meeting. I’ll happily eat my words to the extent success there guides.

At this point it’s no surprise to you when I say I can be as sarcastic about these kinds of programs as the most jaded and acerbic person out there, so it’s worth reminding you of my point. I get it. I see what they’re trying to do. I see the need, and it’s dire. There’s no question about that. I’ll also concede, sarcasm aside, that even though of questionable effectiveness, web-based programs (to be fair, in some cases followed up with human phone calls) are a tool in addressing a large population. But there has to be a safety valve, a sanity lever, a willingness to look around and recognize that a portion of your population is doing what you want them to do, so trust but verify, ask them to show you evidence, but believe them, embrace them, encourage them.

All I ask is that you don’t assume we’re all average.

09 November 2013

Rescued By the Blogosphere

If sneaking a run in while only in Pennsylvania was a motivation enough to boldly test the Achilles (now STOP, that’s not an insult to Pennsylvania, it only reflects that it’s not very far away!), notching a run in the Golden State wasn’t even a question of motivation. It was obvious. Oddly, despite having travelled there extensively in years of yore, I’ve managed to avoid the place entirely since the mid-nineties, so it too was missing from the Obsessive Compulsive list of states within which I have donned shoes and treaded miles.

Besides, when trapped in a cavernous urban hotel, a cavernous urban convention center, and a cavernous company rah-rah meeting (the corporate tradition known as the sales conference) for days, getting out running would be a mental stability necessity. Not that I fault my employer for holding said rah-rah meeting; as rah-rah meetings go it was pretty good, not to mention it meant our whole gang was together to watch the Red Sox win it all (Big Screen, Big Papi, Big Night!). But still, mental stability. Must. Run.

Alas, have you looked at a map of Anaheim, California? It’s been forty-five years since the song came out, but I’ll give you a hint: L.A. is still a great big freeway. In fact, even the “surface roads” as they say in California lingo, are, to my view, nearly freeways. Granted, they have traffic lights, but they’re wider than most freeways back east, and traffic moves, well, faster than it does on most of the clogged freeways. It’s not conducive to gentle, calm, and peaceful outings.

Morning One’s target was a circumnavigation of the spot on the map called Disneyland. Knowing I’d be out in the early morning dark (early morning not being my forte by any means, but doable when still on east coast time), this option offered the advantage of relatively few street crossings. And gee, perhaps a sighting of some tall landmark within the Marketing Empire of Disney?

Not a chance. Far be it for mere mortals to actually see into the empire without having paid a large quanta of wampum. The Imagineers are masters of landscaping. I might as well have been circling a typical California gated community, expertly hidden from prying eyes. So rather than something interesting to behold, it was merely concrete sidewalks and headlights screaming by at close to fifty on the flat boulevards, boulevards of sameness. Amusingly, a club-mate from back home related he’d been in the same convention center trap, had tried the same lap for the same strategic reasons, and experienced the same disappointment. It wasn’t just me. I felt no regret for being limited to only a few miles in my hobbling state, since I knew that adding more miles really wouldn’t have changed the scenery.

Morning Two, accompanied by a couple co-workers, one a local friend, the other a new one in from Germany (a high point of these conferences is the people from all over the world), I targeted a meander through the residential neighborhoods to the south. This wasn’t a simple exercise. They are a maze of twisty passages, all alike (for those of you who remember the original “Adventure” game from the seventies). Even had it been daylight, it would have been easy to get lost; bad enough on my own, but downright embarrassing when dragging along a couple of colleagues. But I used my usual strategy of minimizing turns you have to find, instead leveraging roads that end in a T and force your next move. And so we made it back alive, the experience far better for the presence of friends, the empty streets, and the ability to use of asphalt rather than concrete. But still, rather unsatisfying. I’m sure each homeowner’s estate we passed was a place of pride, but to us, they all looked the same. But I knew that would happen, so I prepared for the experience by planning redemption.

As it turned out, my recent romp in the world of clots had a secret sunny side. Dr. Lady Doctor made it crystal clear: if you’re flying, you’re active on that plane, walking every half hour (which at one point turned into push-ups in the galley, but that was another story…). As a result, I couldn’t take the red-eye home as corpo-directed (sleep and walk around? Incompatible!), which offered up a post-conference afternoon to escape the L.A. basin grid. But where to go? With only a few hours between busting out and dusking out, it had to be close, and after days of urban captivity, it had to be great.

And as it turned out, I knew exactly where to go. No, not physically, but among our blogging world, for advice. There happens to be a lady named Lauren who, to my view, knows every trail in Southern California (and after running the city streets, I know why!). She’d linked onto my blog years back when I’d done some podcasts for my old buddy Chris of Run Run Live, and I’ve wandered over to her blog, On the Run, from time to time. We online literate runner types are nothing if not willing to connect and chatter endlessly via the web, so it was worth a shot to look her up and beg some tips. And tips she did provide. So it is with great thanks to Lauren that I happily report that my urban anesthetization was erased with a delightful, if a bit dusty, amble through some fine California trails. Rescued by the Blogosphere, indeed.

Our target (I say ours, as co-worker Vic tagged along to walk the trails, likewise needing a convention cure) was the Aliso & Wood Canyons Wilderness Park. Honestly, the part that I saw, while pleasant and highly enjoyable, didn’t qualify as wilderness by any means, but I’ll also hedge by noting that I certainly didn’t see the whole park. Mattered not, it was wilderness by comparison. Lauren vectored us into an entrance at the park’s northern extent, and suggested a trek to the Top of the World, where vistas of the Pacific awaited. What’s not to love?

Pause for a moment and remember that Dr. Foot Doctor did tell me to run, but cautioned against big hills, especially downhills. And remember that Lady Doctor, besides decreeing my airborne exercise, had warned me of the hazards of bruises, bumps, and sharp objects, owing to my now being on Drano, a.k.a. rat poison, a.k.a. blood anti-coagulants. Thus consider my amusement when after a brief mildly-downhill start, a turn up the Cholla Trail brought not only an immediate sharp climb, but an immediate sharp environment. About five million not-so-little hypodermic needles presented themselves along the trail, attached to a plethora of cacti. I couldn’t help but find the irony in that. One slip and I’d look like a Holiday Inn showerhead crossed with a Hitchcock movie, but not in black and white.

OK, it wasn’t really that dramatic, but it was worth the laugh as I plucked my way carefully up the trail, treading carefully on the healing Achilles, the footing being tenuous from what was obviously a lot of mountain bike abuse.
Reaching the crest at the West Ridge Trail, the hills leading ocean-ward spread out on an absolutely perfect day. West Ridge is more of a broad dusty road than a trail, but side trails offered more confined trail-like experiences, and vistas poked out in all directions, across the vast populated basins to the distant ranges, and with the crest of each successive rise, closer and closer views of the sea. I snapped plenty of shots on the mini-cam, including a couple of amusing attempts of simply aiming the camera behind me while on the run, trying successively to get it straight. These are better left unedited, unrotated, uncropped, the better to show off the fun.

The geography of the place befuddles and deceives. Just before reaching the Top of the World, about a mile from the coast and a thousand feet up, civilization suddenly encroaches unexpectedly with an park entrance from a neighborhood of homes, but not from the direction you expect. Combined with the angle of the coast, it’s hard to figure exactly which way is north, and where the rest of the park, the southern extent I didn’t have time (or a healthy-enough Achilles) to explore, actually is. But it mattered not, the views to the sea, with Catalina Island barely visible in the foggy haze, were sublime. And the company up top, a friendly local couple, Rene and Phil, kept me engaged in chatter so long that Vic, even in his jog/walk (which couldn’t have been all that much slower than my injury-induced tortoise-like pace), caught up and arrived to share the summit.

We strategized our return, I opting for a longer route and he a shorter, with a plan for signaling at our point of convergence with a pile of rocks to know who’d arrived first, and set out. After a stretch back down the
West Ridge, I turned down the Rock-It (not to be confused with Rocket John, though the thought occurred to me; this one was more of a descriptive moniker), which quickly shrunk down to single track and just as quickly turned as rocky as its name promised. True to Dr. Foot Doctor’s orders, the steepest parts called for careful walking rather than running, which also offered the benefit of slowing up and soaking in the scenery of the descent into Wood Canyon. By the time I’d reached rock bottom, so to speak, the sun had already dipped behind West Ridge, and the Wood Canyon Trail proved cool and pleasant with easy footing, surprisingly, even with some water in the stream bed, a surprise for this arid land.

Vic had just finished creating his signal – V marks the spot! – when I arrived at our meeting point at the base of the Lynx Trail, at which point my poor abused Achilles had had enough, so we walked it out from there. It was sore, yes, but also nicely stretched and loosened, and actually working better than when I’d started. Running state number twenty-two was in the bag, and happily, with the memory of a great afternoon on the trails far overshadowing the earlier grid grinds.

Thanks, Lauren!

06 November 2013

John Would Have Laughed At That

There are days when you marvel over how perfectly the gears turn, how everything goes as planned without a hitch, and how you can’t believe that you navigated the rapids of random events with no surprises. And then are those other days. But the beauty of life is that while some of those not-quite-so-perfect other days may spell disaster, some are instead the kind of days when you just smile, enjoy the ride, and know that it just doesn’t matter. All is well anyway, whatever happens. A couple of Sundays back, the first ever John Tanner Memorial 5K was one of those kind of days.

Other than nagging pain of thinking how I shouldn’t be wearing the name of my dear friend across my chest, unless he had just opened a new bar or something like that, it was a joy to honor John’s legacy. By and large, for a first-time event, it was a stellar day. Fine weather, fine crowd, fine food (and plenty of it!), fine fun, and a fine chunk of change raised in John’s honor for his charity of passion, the Our Promise to Nicholas Foundation, all due to the efforts of a fine bunch of people who built this event on love for John and passion and conviction for their cause. There was just one eensy, weensy, tiny little thing though, a minor detail in that, well, the five kilometer race turned out to be barely three kilometers for the first couple dozen runners. The winner, my bud and training partner Issam the Problem Child, just about ran me over as I strolled leisurely through the finish chute, not expecting any action for another seven or eight minutes. He might have wondered why I was in the chute, in the way, but mostly he wondered why he was in the chute to begin with…already. Ah, Houston, we had a problem here.

Amidst the confusion, someone – I recall not who – made the comment of the day: John would have laughed at that. And it was true. John Tanner, the man we honored that day, the man I’d never heard say a bad thing about anyone despite many miles of my harping on one topic or another during our runs together, simply would have laughed off a major screw-up in his own race. He’d laughed off bad lap counts on that day we did the silly indoor half-marathon. He’d laughed off bad race logistics, bad post-race food distribution, bad weather, and just plain bad races. In fact, he’d laughed off just about any misstep in the road of racing and the road of life that he’d faced. And had he been there for his own memorial, he would have laughed at this one, too, loudly and heartily. So at the end of the day, we just smiled and enjoyed the ride. It just didn’t matter.

I’d held back in getting involved in the planning of this event. As much as I would have liked to do so, I just didn’t think it prudent to commit my involvement knowing that I was heading for surgery and a recovery of unknown dimensions. In hindsight, that was likely a wise choice, considering I never counted on being down for the count again from the Clotskys, and up till just recently I still fell pretty firmly into the category of mobility impaired. Thus, come race day, my official role was simply to be the floater, the Wizened Old Goat of race organization, wandering around looking at what was broken amidst the myriads of plans, well thought-out but done so by a first-timer crew who wisely knew that they didn’t know everything. This title was also, of course, a euphemism for, “What do we do with this guy who can’t run at the moment, when we’ve filled all our volunteer slots?” I was tasked to plug the holes and seek that which could be improved at the last minute.

On the whole, the race team did a great job on the event in general, so I focused on the running experience. At the tail end that meant working with the hired-on timing crew, which included a comically frightening drive from the start to the finish, separated by about a half mile, with one of their team clinging to the trunk of their packed-to-the-gills car, just so they could give ol’ cripple here a lift…yikes! It meant calling in my Highland City Strider Lifeline to deliver and set up our finish chute, a detail overlooked (future note; no, the timing company doesn’t provide that). It meant doing a little pre-race consulting on the weird little twists, turns, and a double-back they’d built into the start of the race. To me, that first quarter mile looked a bit ugly, so I counseled them on staffing the turns thoroughly. After all, we didn’t want to have to launch any search parties for lost runners. I figured if we got them out of that mini-maze, we were all set. As so often happens, I figured wrong.

Having been to so many races where the course isn’t even posted, I was pleased that each runner was given a course map. Granted, the early mini-maze just appeared as a smudge, but we had that covered. Everyone else could clearly see the out, the side loop, the further out, the turn-around, the back, and the cut-into-the-driveway-to-the-finish. Clear as mud to everyone, right? So it came as somewhat of a shock when Issam showed up at the finish line barely a minute after the timing crew managed, after a significant fight against stubborn technology, to get the show clock operating.

Yep, it was clear as mud to everyone except the two course marshals at the end of the side loop, who somehow weren’t in the loop, and knocked the race for a loop. Issam the leader knew the course and tried to debate them when they sent him astray, but they were insistent, and they were the officials. It’s a tough spot for any runner. I’ve been there myself. You think you know the course. You’re being told otherwise. You have only seconds to make the decision: obey or ignore the officials, the former at the risk of going what you believe to be the wrong direction; the latter at the risk that no matter how right you think you are, you might not be.

He buckled and heeded their instructions. Twenty more followed him. Many of them thus ran world record times for a 5K. Meanwhile, at the finish line, just about the time we figured out what happened, apparently so did those course marshals, who started sending people the right way. A ten minute runner-free gap ensued before runners who went the entire distance started filtering in.

The irony is that both course complexities – the early mini-maze and the mid-race side-loop – could have been eliminated by just moving the turnaround on the out-and-back portion further out, and that would have added some nice scenery as well. Ah well, we live and learn…

Well before such contemplations of future upgrades could be entertained, there was the immediate mess to clean up. Some in the organizing staff felt that the awards needed to go to those who ran the entire distance. That didn’t sit well with my runner’s perspective, considering that the error wasn’t the athletes’ mistake, and since I knew that nobody in the field would have challenged Issam had he and all the rest run the full distance. We kibitzed on the concept and converged at honoring the winners, no matter the distance, and devised some makeshift awards – Our Promise hats – for the “full distance” division. This left a few heads spinning, not unlike trying to explain scoring in a cross country meet, so the organizers decided they’d better hand me the microphone to announce the explanation of the awards. Starting the day as a volunteer without portfolio, I ended up as emcee of the podium. Funny, life goes that way sometimes. It was fun announcing the new world records in the ersatz 5K.

Nobody complained, nobody worried, because we weren’t there to do so. We were there to honor the man, the giant we’d lost, and we did so no matter what burps interrupted our day. John’s family reported en masse. Nicholas’ family and the Our Promise to Nicholas folks arrived in force. John’s coworkers and friends, present and accounted for. The Highland City Striders, John’s (and my) club, made a strong showing. And another John, Vermont John, the man who’d been present in New York City when our Rocket John went down, the man who was the only link to provide comfort to John’s family on how his demise was mercifully quick and painless, the man who’d been thrown into something he hadn’t asked for and had no previous connection to, yes, Vermont John showed true class by making the three-hour trip to come and honor the man.

Honoring Rocket John Tanner was easy. He just had that effect on people.
Images from the day

Issam is confused to be done, but pleased to be first in line!

John’s brother Jim motors it home and enjoys the finish

Hey! Look who ran today! It’s Dearest Spouse!

 This was one day where it was very cool to wear the race shirt in the race

And some even wore John’s medals…here, a Boston Marathon medal.

John’s love Kim left no doubt as to why we were here

And the Highland City Striders even brought the tent

03 November 2013

Return On Questionable Terms

[ Ed. Note: Travel and schedule have left me several weeks behind, weeks in which a bunch of somewhat interesting – or at least blog-worthy – occurrences came about. Brace yourself for an attempted catch-up onslaught over the next few days! ]

In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that when last I wrote, I didn’t disclose all. I harbored a guilty secret, a plot in my mind that was about to hatch, one born of pure obsessive compulsiveness, and one that a corner of my mind suggested might not be a very good idea. But I knew I couldn’t – and wouldn’t – resist.

To thy own self be true, right? Easier said than done when you don’t really know the truth (or, so it was said in that famous movie line, you can’t handle the truth). Dr. Foot Doctor had indeed set the schedule. While still in the boot, start with the recumbent bike in the gym (check!), then graduate to the elliptical (check!), and when boredom from those torture devices reaches a fever pitch, it will be time for escape. Then, upon exiting the confines of the Dreaded Boot, walk for a week before starting to jog, slow and easy, using common sense. “You’ll know what to do,” or something like that, I think he’d said. But would I? How does one really pick the date to venture back into the pool, waiting long enough to come at the event whole enough so as not to break again, but not waiting so long as to suffer more damage from atrophy and sloth? The truth is usually not simple.

Boot Escape Day had been set for the weekend of October 12th, but with His Blessing, I’d moved it up to Wednesday the 9th. Why such precision in reporting? Simple: if Escape Day was the 9th, Try ‘N Jog day, a week later, would be the 16th, right? Now, we all know that bodies don’t heal on these exact schedules, but… to thy own self be true, right? So wait the week till the 16th, right?

And it so happened that on the 16th, I’d be in Pennsylvania with Dearest Daughter the Elder on yet another college tour. And it so happened that Pennsylvania wasn’t on my Official Obsessive Compulsive list of states in which I’d run (in my second lap that is, since I’d hit it in my youth, but to a true O-C, that’s a different list!). This meant that I could add a state to the list, but I’d have to do it by stretching the spirit while skirting the letter of the law on when I should, in fact, run.

We’re not talking about a far distant or obscure location that I wasn’t likely to get back to at some point fairly soon, like the upcoming trip to California, so the need to add this state to my running list really wasn’t so critical as to risk re-injury with a slightly accelerated return to the roads. But Pennsylvania nagged. I pass through an edge of it frequently en route to family gatherings with never the chance to stop and pop in a few miles. No, it’s not obscure or far, but I’ve been running over eight years and it hasn’t happened and it was simply time to fix that. But oh! The cloud of Catholic Guilt hung heavy! Was this a good idea, or simple foolhardiness?

The truth was that the five-plus-hour drive had left me stiff and sore, and it wasn’t a stretch to announce I needed to get out the morning for a stretch, at least a walk, and perhaps a jog, leaving DDE to drag herself awake in the hotel room. I conveniently left out the detail that days earlier I’d plotted a three-mile loop and committed it to memory. You know what happened before I write it.

After a warm-up walk across the parking lot, it was simply impossible not to break into a jog, or at least something that barely resembled one. I can’t be too critical of my pace since there are many for whom that pace is a normal event, but suffice to say that a casual glance at my watch – actual accurate timing being out of question – hinted that I moved no faster than I had a week and a half back while power walking the Main Street Mile in the Dreaded Boot. Perhaps this was a preview to me at eighty?

And it was a joy. No worries about timing street crossings, just pause, smile, and wave. No worries about sucking wind when you’re barely working, barely breathing. No worries about performance, pace, or time. No worries at all, really, other than being sure to take the one up-slope ridiculously slow, and, well, yeah, one big worry. I sure hoped I wasn’t hurting myself. After the surgery, the recovery, the clots…that would be a shame, and just plain stupid.

But if I seriously thought I’d hurt myself, I wouldn’t have done it. And in truth, that pesky Achilles started to feel better while I ran. Endorphins? At that pace, hardly. It just loosened up nicely. I’d pay for my morning joy later in the day, while walking gingerly around that college campus, sore enough to give me real worry that I had indeed been foolish. And I’d back off for the following week just to be sure I wasn’t compounding stupidity with idiocy.

But in hindsight, I know now that my intuition was right. The later-in-the-day pain was a payment worth making. Not so much for adding state number twenty-one to the running list, that obsessive desire which perhaps pushed me a bit ahead of plan, but for jumping back in the pool, feet first.