16 May 2014

Back to the Streets

Somewhere around mile two, in the middle of the Clinton Tribute Five Miler last weekend, with the Hill From Hell looming just ahead, it occurred to me that I’d sort of lost my racing brain. How hard should I be pushing at that point? Really, I’d kind of forgotten that fine detail. That’s what happens when you take a big gap in your racing. That’s when it’s time to get back to the streets.

What I’ve disliked nearly as much as constantly sucking wind during my journey back from the injured reserve list has been being largely absent from the racing scene. I’ve raced here and there, on New Year’s, at Hyannis for the relay, and of course at Boston, but each of those was a pins-and-needles affair, hoping I’d be in solid enough condition by race day in order to avoid a train wreck. (Yes, I know, I hear you saying, “What, are you kidding me?” Remember, it’s all relative.)

Till very recently I haven’t felt the readiness to jump in when the opportunity arises. But a few days back a page seems to turn; my training condition seemed to brighten. Conveniently, that page turned just before a local race I’d already signed up for, thus providing a quick snapshot of whether that readiness was real. And the verdict was…? Well, not fabulous, but not too shabby, either.

So if you’re going to dive back in, dive back into the deep end, right? Don’t pick an easy one, make it a challenge. The hills of Clinton, Massachusetts seriously qualify to fill that role. If you look at a map of Clinton, you’ll notice a huge structure: the dam that holds back the Wachusett Reservoir, the faucet of Boston and its burbs. If you look at a topographical map, you’ll notice why they built the dam where they did. You’ll see lots of hills surrounding a steep and narrow valley. Clinton grew up as a mill town for obvious reasons. Clinton excels as a challenging racing town for the same reasons.

The Tribute Five Miler is a curious race. While a decent set of real players usually show up, the event is largely a local affair, centered on the annual lauding of a couple of exemplary citizens selected each year for their service to the town. Scads of locals sporting team shirts come out to run in support of their favorite “tribute” (no Hunger Games cracks, now, they don’t kill them). The level of support is grand and speaks well for the community.

This isn’t unusual, of course. What’s curious is that these teeming teams, which like any of these local events include plenty for whom this is the biggest physical effort of the year, aren’t tackling the typical five kilometer jaunt around the local park. They’re tackling a five miler, already longer than your usual couch-to-race end-game, and further, one of the toughest five milers for many miles around. The Clinton course falls on the brutal side. Whether those once-a-year folks realize this is unknown; perhaps they might not be so gung-ho if they saw an easy five-K in a flat town for comparison. But they get out there, and they do it. Yet that’s not all: to make it more fun, this one starts uphill, relatively uncommon. I admit it’s a source of mirth watching the local youngsters bolt out with abandon, only to fall back wheezing before topping out a mere third of a mile in.

OK, so maybe they lack a bit in common sense and racing experience, but wheezing on topping out is what this one is all about. Put this course in perspective: I ran it only once before, two years back. That year I’d just run my best five-miler at the Freezer in January, and two months after Clinton, I’d top that with a new best at Carver. I was in top shape, but sandwiched between those two pleasantly flat speed-fests, the Clinton course stuffed me a full minute and a half slower. Sure, it was hot that day, but it was hot at Carver, too. The difference? Four significant hills.

Fast forward to this year. This year’s Freezer, my first race post-surgery, was one of the slowest five-milers in my logbook. While I expected progress since then, Clinton forces you to keep your goals modest – not to mention that it got rather toasty again this time. I’ll let you cheat and look at the last chapter and tell you I landed a half minute below my Freezer time. Now, if you can follow all this twisted logic, to me that was a two minute gain on the five-miler. (Huh? You scratch your head… well, it works like this: if Clinton was a minute and a half slower than the Freezer last time, and a half minute faster this time…Aha! …you say, now I get it!) In short, it was good enough for a Saturday’s work.

And work it was. After holding back a bit while watching the follies on the initial rise, the second hill, just past the mile mark, hit a lot harder than I’d remembered it should. After which, just for fun, the only flat mile-long stretch brought the Joy of Headwind. It was about halfway into that wind that it struck me that I’d sort of forgotten how to race.

I’d toed up for only three races since last year’s Boston, and in none did I have to address the speed called for on this day. The Freezer was just a test drive. By the time Hyannis rolled around, I still hadn’t regained any speed, so a solid run for the team was enough to celebrate; time was secondary. Boston was about pacing and strategy, not speed. But this was a five-miler, to my mind a long sprint, where the game is pushing past the limits that your brain is setting to protect you, but which really just slow you down. There’s a huge mental component of knowing how hard to push. You only learn this by successively pushing, each time a little harder. Take time off, and you forget.

I had to learn it back. Back during the sharp dive leading to the one mile mark, I had to remind myself of how to race downhill. Let go. Fall forward. Use the hill. Don’t run protectively. Pushing up the second hill, I couldn’t decide if my legs were heavy because I should push them harder, or if perhaps because I was really stupid to run eight-hundreds, even if casually, two nights earlier. How hard was too hard…especially knowing that just ahead lay the Hill From Hell?

The message here is that racing is largely mental, except, of course, for the physical part. The good news is that all of these mental gyrations fell by the wayside because the second half of this race is the physical part. You stop thinking, because you’ve gone to Hell, or at least you’ve reached the Hill From Hell. All I need to say about this lovely stretch of road is to remind you of that dam. The Hill From Hell rises in fits and starts and puts you atop the southern bulwark for this massive monument of civil engineering. In fact, you end up a good bit higher. And then, when your legs are fully rubberized, you beat the living tar out of them screaming from above the dam level, down the dam hill, to bottom of the dam valley. Dam.

But you’re still not done. Another big climb, not as high as the Hill From Hell, but unlike that one, steady, no pitch variations, no respites for the very, very weary. And coming off that one, shredded, it’s time to sprint the last half mile home, the last two blocks of which are punishingly downhill.

I hate this course.

I love this course.

It’s brilliant, of course.

As it was, by the time Clinton’s signature feature arrived, all the passing that was to pass had passed. I wouldn’t see another runner ahead or behind, but obviously didn’t know that yet. Not that I would have slacked off one bit, but it might have been comforting.

Though it would have been bad form if this was a mystery novel, I already revealed that time and pace-wise, things turned out pretty much in the range I’d hoped for. So much for suspense, right? But there was still a little mystery: were there any old dudes up front? I didn’t think so, but you never know, as I’d lost track of a bunch of folks in the initial uphill surge and really didn’t know my overall place.

Nor, it seemed, did anyone else. On average, I notched eighth place overall of a crowd shy of three hundred. Average, I say, because a spectator pegged me at seventh, and an official in the chute said ninth, and they were both wrong. And oddly, they’re not big on posting the results for this one, since the local paper likes to hold onto them for a scoop when they publish…a full week later, so if I hadn’t crashed the scoring table, I still might not be sure. But the truth did trickle out: one master ahead, but a mere youngster, a forty-something, so yes, the fifties were mine, and one of the obscenely large trophies of one of the most trophy-heavy races around now is seeking a home in my office. Darn thing doesn’t fit on any shelves…

Now, I just have to start doing this a lot more often so I can remember how this is all supposed to work.

Odd Bits, Part One, Fame? Checking in, I had the unique experience of being recognized by a reader whom I really only knew through online interactions. I love to tease myself about how few read my blather, but there really are perhaps a few more than a few, and I certainly appreciate you taking time out of your day to enjoy the fruits of my obsession.

Odd Bits, Part Two, DDY Conquers!
Dearest Daughter the Younger, with the goal of her first Half Marathon on her mind, took on the famed Hill From Hell. It slowed her down but did not kill her, as she completed the course end-to-end, with no breaks. More on that Half Marathon Quest in later columns…

Odd Bits, Part Three, Hot Stuff! In a truly odd turn, not only did a fire break out on the course, but it literally broke out during the course of the race. As I passed through the two mile mark, I noticed nothing. Granted, I was in a perplexed fog, but billowing smoke would have been hard to miss. Mere minutes later, as DDY passed the same spot, the smoke was pouring wildly, and minutes after that she’d have to dodge the fire truck racing to the scene (while, it’s interesting to note, another fireman also raced to the scene from the other direction, as he was in the race). Nix one minivan, but happily no injuries.

Odd Bits, Part Four, Green! This being a local race, I ran it in green with my local club, the Highland City Striders, rather than in GBTC red. Besides, the after-party is in an Irish establishment so it had to be a Green Day.

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