31 December 2013


I know you’re all sick and tired of the “Year in Review” assault which comes at you from all directions about this time, so I wouldn’t dream of adding to that pile of mush non-news. But on this New Year’s Eve, it’s worth noting that there’s always hope, and some of that hope tried to peek above the murk in these waning days of the year.

It’s been a roller coaster, from the top of the game at Boston in April, to the slab for the Big Achilles slice in August, and then even lower for that clotty adventure in September. Trying to recover from the pitfalls of the second half of this year has been more than a little disappointing. Surviving the Attack of the Platelets, thanks to being in good shape, was great (and I’m not belittling that, I wouldn’t be here otherwise!), but at the end of the day, or the end of the year as it may be, my Achilles, along with a good portion of the rest of my left ankle, still hurts, often a lot, and in a clearly related news flash, my training still falls into the range of mostly crappy.

But it’s time to put the dismay and gloom behind me. While Dr. Foot Doctor rightly preaches patience, Diabolical Physical Torture-meister pretty much declared me on the right trajectory this week. Do your exercises, stretches, heat, mantras, by all means be lovin’ those anti-inflammatories (which are, of course, performing quite nicely!), and go for it, but there’s not a lot more I can do; it’s up to you.

Indeed. Damn the Torpedoes! New Year’s Day is coming, and it wouldn’t be right not to show up at some event, so I went ahead and signed up for my New Year’s favorite, the Freezer Five. I held no delusions of grand success when I did so, but I also knew that otherwise, the first real deadline would be our Hyannis relay in February, already dangerously close to Boston, and without something nearer in front of me, it’d be hard to turn up that extra notch. Nothing lays it on the line like laying it on the line. Wednesday’s race needs to be a bit of a test, a warm-up so to speak, a return to the world of the living, even if I don’t expect to race well by previous standards. Not wishing to take a test without at least some cramming, I notched a few encouraging runs over the last couple days.

Sunday marked a first foray back into double digits since before the surgery. I hit one of my go-to loops for a ten-miler, and turned up the heat a bit, resulting in my best post-slice road pace by a significant margin. Dearest Daughter the Eldest, who happened to be leaving for work when I was walking it off immediately afterwards, did report that I looked like hell, but considering that I hadn’t approached that standard of effort in a long time, I took that as a compliment.

That under my belt, our local Highland City Striders club set out en masse last night to visit our Central Mass Strider friends for their Monday-night pub run, a very casual quasi-race, really more of a hard workout, really more of a whatever-you-want-to-make-of-it workout, followed by what one of our club-mates likes to refer to as amber fluids. It’s only three miles, so if you’re not warmed up, forget about any decent pace, but with temperatures dipping below twenty and a biting wind whipping up the street, nobody felt like warming up. I settled for some Achilles stretches and about a tenth of a mile jog to assess the atmospheric nastiness. I expected nothing in return.

Then something cool happened. A ray of hope pierced the cold, windy, long-term-disappointed gloom that’s been hanging over me for months. We gathered outside the pub, we shooed the traffic away, someone said go, and… I went… far quicker than I’d expected possible, seemingly effortlessly at first, and at reasonable effort as the miles cranked on. Perhaps it was merely numbness from the cold, but things didn’t really hurt much. Not stiff. Not sore (it would return later on the warm down, but hey, take it when you find it). Overjoyed. I ran with one other, the two of us well distanced from the laid-back pack. I let him go at the end, not worrying about winning something that can’t be won, something that nobody cares about winning, and wondering if there was still any tradition of the winner needing to buy a round. I let him go because I wasn’t interested in hurting myself, just seeing what the body would produce. And it produced three miles at nearly a minute per mile faster than the already quicker ten-miler the day before. It produced a ray of hope. Maybe this darn thing will actually heal. Maybe there will be another good round of racing from these legs. Maybe…

Happy New Year, wishing you rays of hope in whatever you seek.

25 December 2013

All I Want For Christmas Is...

Yesterday’s Christmas Eve Mass, where my contemporary church band plays our annual pre-Mass concert, was a celebration of faith and music, joyful, uplifting, and a lot of fun to boot. Today, the gifts are all unwrapped, there is far too much chocolate in the house, our stomachs are uncomfortably full from a fine dinner, the brother-in-law and charming spouse have departed, and all are sated. Further, the ratty old Santa hat has absorbed its annual allocation of sweat over the last few days’ runs, usually to the delight of passing motorists, though today, oddly, on Christmas Day itself, they were mostly silent Grinches. No accounting for logic, but it’s all good.

But what’s excited me from a running standpoint is Chemistry. Tis the season to take advantage of all that modern medicine can provide. Yes, I know you won’t find that on a Hallmark card, but then again, most of the things that you find on a Hallmark card do little for me (with a few notable exceptions over the years, like Thing One and Thing Two, and “Please Disregard Stephanie”…but I digress). Yes, Chemistry is now gloriously re-accessible, and all I want for Christmas is my two front teeth eclipsing a few doses of some effective anti-inflammatories.

Good running stories have been few and far between since I haven’t raced since Boston, and good running itself has been hard to reach since ratcheting down the training over the summer, August’s Big Slice, September’s Clot City, and the aftermath. While I managed both last month and this one to bump up over a hundred miles, I’m still up a few pounds, still pedestrian in pace, still fighting plenty of pain in the Achilles that I’d hoped would be fixed by now, and worst of all, feeling stiff as a board. It’s times like this that I have to admit I’m halfway to a hundred years old, and the second half of my life probably won’t be as easy breezy as the first.

It’s also times like this that I realize the crutch that I, like many runners, rely on without giving much thought: the magic of anti-inflammatory medications. I frequently joke about my use of Vitamin I, our running code word for ibuprofen, and occasionally reach for something a little stronger, but I don’t really think about how well that stuff really works, quietly, unassumingly, in the background. I don’t want to sound like an addict or anything, but how does that song go? You’re gonna’ miss me when I’m gone…

Until yesterday, I hadn’t touched the stuff since mid-August. You have to lay off anything that stuff for a week or so before surgery for the simple reason that it’ll make you bleed worse when they slice you open, which is generally viewed as a bad thing. Then, based on the nature of the surgery, where the intent was to cause inflammation around the injured tendon to promote healing, you have to lay off the stuff afterward as well. And then, when you win the jackpot and land in the hospital with clots in your lungs, resulting in a three-month sentence of consuming Drāno to clear your pipes, anti-inflammatories are strictly verboten. Again, it’s highly frowned upon to bleed to death, so this is good advice. Except that four months later, especially when your training is seriously interrupted, this makes you feel, well, fifty. It makes you wonder how the rest of the fifty-year-olds who don’t do what you do feel like every day. No wonder they complain.

Lady Doc had told me that three months into the rat poison regimen, we’d run an ultrasound on my legs to be sure they weren’t growing any more unsightly clumps. Not that this would assure complete go-forward safety; nothing can do that, but this would, at least, lay to rest major concerns of a newly emerged clot-factory still at work now that the post-surgical laid-up lifestyle had passed into the past. So two weeks ago I trundled off to my oh-so-familiar local hospital where by now, after months of weekly blood tests, I’m on a first name basis with much of the central registration staff, to see what my lower veins looked like.

Spoiler alert: after two cardiac ultrasounds, which were probably some of the coolest images I’ve ever seen, this one was a bit of a let-down. Leg veins just aren’t that interesting. Mike the tech was great, showing off a few valves, making the machine make cool whiiisshing noises (who knew that curling your toes changes the pressure in your veins?), and showing me what was to be seen, which fortunately included no visible clots, but, well, they’re just veins, and even when enhanced with the pretty colors of Doppler blood flow imaging, not all that cool compared to the beating of a heart. But excitement or not, he delivered what I wanted to hear, which was a green light. As he put it, this was one of the few tests where he was authorized to give me that news, since had it been otherwise, I’d be staying for a while. Yeah, I know that game, having been there just three months earlier. Ebullient, Elvis left the building thinking he’d consumed his last dose of warfarin.

Not so fast. What Lady Doc patiently explained was that the three month guideline was based not so much on calendar time, but on cumulative time when those weekly blood tests indicated a propensity to bleed beyond a certain level – or in other words, cumulative clot dissolving time. Over the past three months, I’d had some time when that crucial number had dipped. She wanted me to run the Liquid Plumr till the end of the month, which meant, aw shoot, that much longer feeling stiff and sore. We negotiated a bit and settled on about halfway, time off for good behavior, that being my resumed running, so one more week, one more test, one more good reading, then freedom, followed by four days to let the red stuff thicken up again, then have at it. The theory was that I should be good to go by about Christmas.

So it is that amidst the true joy of the Christmas season, I’ve had the additional treat of being able to start beating back the cobwebs that have grown over the past four months. It’s only been two days now, and it might be purely placebo, but I’d like to think those charming little anti-inflammatory chemicals are starting to do their job. I actually felt a little faster yesterday. Could it be?

Combining this with the fine, if not somewhat painful efforts that Jon, my latest purveyor of what he likes to call Diabolical Physical Torture (apparently that’s what the “DPT” in his title means) has been applying over the last couple of weeks, there is, I am hoping, some light at the end of the tunnel during these short dark days. He’s worked out a lot of the issues with the rest of the ankle that have crept in while I’ve babied the Achilles. Unfortunately, no such luck yet on the Achilles itself. Both he and Dr. Foot Doctor just say patience. (Silly them, to think I could really be patient?) There’s still a big part of me that wonders if all this Achilles repair/recovery was worth it, since, after all, it still hurts. But at least, for Christmas, I can start to make the rest of me feel a little better.

Merry Christmas to All, and to All a Good White (Pill).

18 December 2013

Flameless, Yet On Fire

When it finally happened, it wasn’t just cool, it was downright cold. And dark. And an embarrassing hour late. But we didn’t care. We had a ball – or more accurately, a torch, minus the flame. Take a sacred event, cross it with holy ground, and you get something ethereal, unreal, and almost mystical. Then somehow, accidentally, find yourself in the middle of it, and you question how the world sorts these things out. This time, the world sorted out the highly improbably outcome that I ended up running the Olympic torch across the Boston Marathon finish line Thursday evening.

Adding to the irony was the fact that I hadn’t been back to the finish line since the day of the race, the day of the bombing, the day the world changed, and the previous day when I’d asked the question of how world-scale events could cross paths with little old me. It was somehow fitting, I suppose, that world-scale events (that’s a bit of a stretch here, but go with me) should cross paths again with little old me, at the same place, but this time all for good. Let’s say we cancelled out that previous ugly day with a polar (and polar-feeling) opposite.

So let’s sort this all out. Mighty Employer, that same one so roundly lambasted a few weeks back regarding their rather inane online wellness programs, really is, despite that episode, a pretty interesting place to be. Mighty Employer doesn’t have the marketing power of some of the more well-known names, but quietly continues to supply a major chunk of the world’s business communications technology, and even more quietly cranks out some seriously amazing networking technology. Networking, that is, being the business of moving bazillions of packets of data around the world so that you can, amongst other things, pull up this column any time you feel like it.

It is this very seriously amazing technology that won us the honor of building the entire network for the upcoming winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Come February when the games begin, everything you see on television, every score, standing, timing, and replay, not to mention the connection for every one of the hundred thousand of devices carried by every spectator at every event, plus every feed from every one of the thousands of surveillance cameras… all if it will ride our network using a new technology called Shortest Path Bridging. I won’t go any geekier than that, but suffice to say it’s new, different, better, and way cool. Yes, I’m proud, yes, I have my fingers crossed, and no, I wasn’t personally involved, so if it burps, I too will burp, but not panic.

We’re by far not the only critical vendor to the games, but we are a critical vendor, so as part of the deal – call it a thank-you, call it hype, call it whatever – we were sent one of the torches actually used in the relay that is carrying the flame from Greece’s Mt. Olympus, throughout Russia, landing in Sochi this winter. I can’t tell you how many of these torches were made – it could have been thirty or thirty-three thousand; it matters not to me. But ours was numbered twenty-six, a nice coincidence considering where it ended up, at mile twenty-six of the marathon route.

Two days before said torch was slated to arrive in Boston on its cross-country tour, I knew nothing of these marathon plans. All I knew was that Thursday morning there would be a torch reception at our local office, after which it would be taken on a few customer visits. I begged a few customers to show for the reception, and was excited enough at the prospect of seeing it there. That, I figured, was it for my involvement.

Life is never simple. Somehow, one thing always leads to another. A simple request came in: a colleague asked if I could deliver the torch to a nearby customer, since she couldn’t make it down in time. Just the prospect of having the Olympic torch in my car made me giddy. Seriously, how goofy is that? But wow… toolin’ down the highway, just me and a real live official Olympic torch. Oh, and I’ve got the Hope Diamond in the glove box, too. I recalled seeing the torch relay come through town on its way to Atlanta in ninety-six, and remembered how cool I thought it would be just to lay my hands on it. Now they wanted me to take possession of this thing? Are you kidding?

Schedule rearranged, now a transporter for merely one leg of the torch’s day-long agenda, I was suddenly on the “torch team”, invited to the next torch planning call, and privy to the torch’s agenda. And on that agenda, there it was… at the end of the day… after the visit to Fenway Park (the Red Sox are our customer), the torch was slated to go to the finish line of the Boston Marathon, just because it was in Boston, and we were having fun in each city it visited, photographing it at local landmarks. Yeah, sort of like that famous gnome.

As I noted, take the sacred event – the Olympics, of which the torch is the symbol, carrier of the flame representing the best that mankind can be – and cross it with holy ground – the Boston Marathon finish line, holy even before last year’s tragedy, and many times more so afterward. To an athlete, a marathoner, a citizen of our global community, well, my bell went off. I made known on the call that I’d really like to be there for that stop at the finish line, would they mid if I tagged along? I didn’t say was what I was thinking: how incredible it would be to actually run the torch to – and across – the finish line! But far be it for me to impose or suggest that which I felt would be such a rush, such an honor, no, cannot ask… The team was pleased at my enthusiasm to travel with the torch to Boylston Street, and that was enough for me.

But there was a logistical problem: they’d slated only ten minutes to get the torch from Fenway to the finish line. Nobody seemed to note this problem until I pointed it out. I suggested they’d better take a cab, since trying to drive, park, get out of the garage, and to the line would take far longer than the time allotted. Murmuring all around…

…then it happened. A voice on the call said simply, “Why don’t you just run it down there?”

Seriously? As in, “You’d let me do that?”

This is where you learn one of those life lessons that sometimes things you think are high and mighty are in fact begging for someone to step up and, in this case literally, run with them. To me, this was akin to being knighted. You might as well have offered a gold medal. To them, I was solving a problem, and making their torch story all that much more interesting. Win-Win.

I couldn’t conceive of doing this alone; it was simply too cool not to share, and would be far better with others alongside. A few emails later I’d rounded up enough interest to hope I’d have a gang to run with, and maybe a gang waiting at the finish. A couple of folks from Greater Boston. A few of their friends. A couple of employees of one of the companies we visited earlier in the day.
It happened, the crowd of perhaps a dozen converged outside Fenway at the appointed hour, while we made our visit inside Fenway, out onto the field, posing the torch with the Sox staff in front of the Green Monster (the scoreboard reading, “We Welcome The Olympic Torch”), three Sox players holding the three World Series trophies, and Wally the mascot holding the torch in one hand and a Boston Marathon medal (yes, mine, my little touch) in the other. It was one of those life moments.

Then, after a day in which all had gone to plan, suddenly it all went south (or more accurately, east). I parted from our company team to change into running duds while they carried the torch back to the Sox front office. What happened next is still unclear, but as best I can tell, our gang of assembled runners had ducked back into Fenway to keep warm, so the company team didn’t see them, thought they’d left, and they themselves then left for the finish line, in a cab, with the torch. I went mildly apoplectic, having promised these dozen runners a torch run and having no torch.

It took an hour, during which our runners showed patience beyond the call of duty, but they were rewarded when the company team finally came back with the torch. Our daylight was gone. It was that much seriously colder. I was tripping over my own apologies. But we didn’t care. We had a torch, a real live Olympic torch, even though we couldn’t light it since we had to ship it later to its next destination, and we were running to the finish line.

The best part was that it was blatantly obvious that the magic of the torch was as strong for all of the runners as it was for me. They too bounced like goggle-eyed kids on Christmas morning. Countless cell-phone pictures were snapped as we took our sweet time and savored the route. The torch was passed around the group repeatedly. The two-thirty-one marathoner in the group was ebullient to jog at ten-to-eleven minute pace, because we had the torch. We hollered at passers-by that this was the real deal, the Olympic torch. We savored every step and we stepped until we stopped traffic at the finish line for picture after picture after picture, followed by a visit to ground zero in front of Marathon Sports, where for me at least, we erased April’s tragedy with joy and triumph.

At least until our adrenaline wore off, when I remembered that it was, after all, really cold.


01 December 2013

Plan B

I spent Thanksgiving in the Witness Protection Program. With Turkey Trots nearby in all directions, and the local high-school-versus-alumni-versus-local-club cross country race a mere mile from my door, and free to boot, I’d like to say that the temptation to show up at a race was as irresistible as the aroma of our meal later that day. Truth is, it was nasty windy, nasty windy and cold, nasty windy and I’ll just stay in bed and enjoy an easy morning not racing on Thanksgiving for a change, protecting myself from the inevitable urge to run hard – and perhaps hurt myself – once the gun went off, no matter how much I’d have told myself that I’d take it slow and easy.

Spared from stupid injuries, I did head out at noon when it was still nasty windy, and put in what was, at least at present for me, a decent distance at a relatively decent pace, still pathetic by my normal standards, but better than the week before. But sadly, the state of the recovery is at best tenuous. I’m touched that so many ask my status and seem to give at least a minor hoot, but I’m tired of not having good news to report. The bottom line is, it still hurts. Sometimes more, sometimes less, and running does seem to do it good as Dr. Foot Doctor said it would, but not good enough that it seems like actual progress. I remain cautiously optimistic, and will encounter a new Physical Terrorist soon in hopes of actively bludgeoning that ankle into painless submission.

So I’m not doing what I expected to be doing by this time, but that’s sometimes how things turn out. I have to be cool with that, and roll with it as it comes. It’s a universal lesson we can all absorb. This morning, a whole lot of people found themselves not doing what they expected to be doing at that time, and the great thing was that they were all cool about it, and rolled with it as it came. It’s refreshing to see no kvetching when the world is forced to turn to Plan B.

Since racing is out, there was no chance I’d run our local club’s “Tough Thanksgiving Ten-Miler”, a fest of the best of my local training hills. Instead, Darling Daughter the Younger and I set out this morning to work the race volunteer side. Our ten-milers (nine-point-eight-five for your OCD types) have been held for years, through heat, cold, rain, and snow, and they’ve always come off, one way or another. We had no reason to think otherwise this time, as the forecast called for high thirties, overcast, and rainless. But a quick glance out my window on rising hinted that the meteorological supercomputer cabal of the world had missed slightly, since the roads looked damp.

Stepping out for the newspaper a few minutes later, I nearly flew off the front porch, bringing back really bad memories of having executed that very stunt many years ago, at high speed, bouncing off each concrete step…All…The…Way…Down…imparting bruises that graced my hips and hind quarters for months, but that’s another story. This morning wasn’t high speed, I caught the rail, and took note that the surprisingly iced-over morning wasn’t as we’d expected.

It’s under two miles to Ghiloni Park, base of operations for the Ten Miler. Edging cautiously onto the public thoroughfares, it seemed the hazard was local to my north-facing down-sloped lot, not an uncommon occurrence, and I gradually gained confidence as we motored carefully down what appeared to be wet but ice-free roads – until about a quarter mile from the park, that is, when we found ourselves on the wrong side of the road, twice. Holy Yikes! (Not what I said at the time.) Creeping into the park, it was instantly clear this wasn’t a normal race morning. As our runners likewise crept into the park, each told their story of the dangers they’d endured and wreckage they’d avoided en route, none carrying a pretty story, one nearly reduced to tears. Wreckage. Over by the skating rink. Downtown Northborough. Route Nine in Westborough. And sixty-five cars and a bunch of trucks on the interstate in Worcester. It was seriously ugly. Seriously “I’ve run and raced in almost everything including blizzards but this is downright dangerous” ugly.

This was the kind of day when one is eternally grateful not to be wearing the tag that reads, “Race Director”. Our event leader had a serious quandary on his hands: Nearly a hundred runners, and a major safety problem. The roads right around us seemed acceptable, just wet. But we’d all experienced the nightmare of arriving. It felt like the temperature was rising, but cold spots would persist, and roads don’t thaw immediately (and we’d later confirm that it wasn’t getting any warmer, we were just growing more numb). Send the runners out, and all might be well. Or a car might take out a tree trying to avoid a runner on a patch of ice. Or worse, a runner might slide into a car. We’d be dealing with an instant tragedy, and worse, probably an instant lawsuit and an instant ban on future races, because we’d have known about the danger. But send the runners home, and most wouldn’t be too happy, despite the danger. Runners are, after all, a hardy lot. Damn the torpedoes, right?

Race Director Mark wisely devised Plan B. We were, after all, in a large park, a park graced with a half-mile dirt track and numerous trails, a park where every local cross country team, including the one coached by our race director as well as the one I used to coach, both trains and competes. A few heads knocked together and the plot evolved, starting with twenty-one laps of the track (it’s a bit less than a true half mile), and evolving into what was thought to be about a mile loop incorporating more of the park, times ten.

That’s when the coolest part happened. Save for a couple of folks who had to bail simply due to time constraints (we’d delayed the start to allow stragglers to arrive and hope conditions improved), not one person complained or second guessed the race director’s call. Eighty or so people who expected a hilly ten-mile road race lined up for a relatively flat ten-lap park circuit. And they didn’t even complain when we realized due to runners’ GPS reports that our loop was only nine-tenths of a mile, and announced on lap two that it was now an eleven lap race, or that we had no practical way to count their laps and just left them on their own, to their own memories and honor. Not a peep of discontent. In fact, with the water stop now available every few minutes, bathrooms handy, and race staff ready to grab unneeded clothing (creating a colorful display on the fence), and, for a few, the convenience of saying the heck with it when the time had come shy of ten miles, everyone made what could have been a tragic and horrible day into a terrific, albeit cold and wet, one.

Call it Thanksgiving spirit. Our club doesn’t charge for this race. The entry fee is a sack of food for the local food pantry. Our pickup truck was loaded to twice the height of the bed and riding low with literally a ton of food. Our runners come to enjoy the run, but also to give back this way, and to their credit, their giving frame-of-mind extended to a whole lot of tolerance when we were forced to take the safe route and involve Plan B. They ended up not doing what they expected to be doing, and they were all cool about it, and rolled with it as it came.