26 September 2014

Healthy or Not, Here We Go

News came out recently that juror selection for the trial of one of the friends of the Boston Marathon bombers begins on Monday. In a stroke of running irony, I was slated for jury duty – you guessed it – on Monday. These are both true statements, but I did leave out one teensy weensy detail – the Marathon trial is in Federal court, I was heading only for state duty. And in any event, on Friday they called off my set of dogs; apparently nobody is in line to be hung at high noon, so I’m off the hook. Still, it’s amusing to consider the prospect of being called in the courtroom and asked if I could be impartial. Well, Your Honor, other than the fact that I heard, felt, and watched the aftermath of the blasts from my post-race perch in the Marriott, yes, I probably could.

In a leap of literary segway with plenty of license, I’ll use that as a jump-off point to dive into how we decide on anything impartially, or at least rationally. Is it rational to drive ourselves to race after race, goal after goal, in the face of both obvious and hidden dangers? A few weeks back I was witness to physically-induced mental breakdown. Yet I persist. It took over two years, surgery, and a brush with disaster thanks to those lovely post-op clots to beat back the agony of the Achilles (and I’m pleased to say, a year post-op, it’s finally feeling pretty good). Yet I persist. And now I’m dealing with a left knee that doesn’t complain much on a twenty-miler, but strikes me with brutal pain on a single stair. Yet I persist. Am I capable of being impartial? Rational? Am I at all sane? It’s a good question.

Faced with this latest persistent malady, I finally got over my frugality and pulled the medical trigger. It’s been a light year medically. Admittedly I was looking forward to coasting downhill to December thirty-first having barely scratched my large deductible. Greeting the new year with the resulting sizable chuck of unspent coin was an attractive goal. But I’d gone ahead and signed up for a fall marathon (a story in itself), and that race has crept closer quickly – far more quickly than my training has advanced. With the need to crunch some serious pavement between now and, well, yesterday, it was time to verify that I wasn’t destroying myself.

It’s not that I haven’t repeatedly Googled “knee pain” in at least fifty permutations over recent months. It’s not that I haven’t repeatedly convinced myself that I have not torn, mutilated, spindled, or otherwise demolished significant moving parts. It’s not that I hadn’t pretty much self-diagnosed what was going on and strongly believed it wasn’t career-ending, and it’s not that I hadn’t already text chatted with Dr. Foot Doctor who from his remote perch, agreed. If I wasn’t so convinced, I wouldn’t be running. But I haven’t been able to fix it, and there was still that part of me that whispered “meniscus” and “ACL” and all the other mean, nasty things that you hear about in the same paragraph as the word knee.

Bypassing the usual on-ramps, I took it straight to Dr. Bone Doctor, who I’d seen nine years back following my first marathon when I was fairly certain I’d stress-busted something (which turned out not to be the case – do you detect a hypochondriac tendency here?). I took a liking to him immediately back then, not in the least because he’s athletic and gets it. “Stop Running!”, the mantra of so many doctors, was not his approach then, and it became quickly obvious that it still isn’t. It didn’t take him long to determine and affirm what I really needed to hear. I had not damaged any of the parts that bring to mind mean, nasty things about knees, and I was not destroying myself by continuing to train. He agreed with Dr. Foot Doctor and Dr. Google (a dangerous yet easily accessible medical resource) that the major bits looked well, and that the problem was most likely a patella tracking issue, where the tendons under the kneecap go out of line due to imbalances in muscular strength, or in simple terms, my inner quads aren’t as strong as my outer quads, and they’re not pulling evenly. Some exercises and another round of physical therapy, since restarted, would, said he to his patient, hopefully help his hapless hurt.

Declared healthy, it’s off to the races…or is it? With said diagnosis in hand, I belatedly – with less than four weeks till the marathon – cranked in my first twenty-plus shortly after. Like most runs of late, the knee held up, only to complain on a single step later. But that diagnosis of muscle imbalance, muscle weakness, haunts me, because beyond its effect on the knee, I can feel it in general. There’s something there, something that’s been growing, or more accurately diminishing, for some time. It appears unexpectedly, a stride where the strength seems to waver, a moment of not just weak knees but a feeling of weak, period, that gnaws at my pace and my mental state. Must I finally admit to the realities of age? Or is there another mystery at work here with surprises yet to be discovered?

Talking about this with the outside world brings on reactions of skepticism at best. A common reply: Didn’t you just win a race a couple weeks back? True that, and dismissive responses about the size of the field that day, about how this is a relative change, mean little to anyone outside my skin. To them I’m still a reasonably fast old guy. So this is my battle, not theirs, to be managed on my terms, not their perceptions.

Without a doubt, it’s dismaying. But without a doubt, I can’t let it stop me. Age might be encroaching, or any of a number of other things. But even at my ripe age, baring something really nasty, there are decades to go in this race, so we still keep fighting it. Right now that means I’ve got about three weeks till another marathon, and of course I’m not ready, so healthy or not, I’d better get moving.

12 September 2014

State of Mind?

Dearest Spouse and I sat down to watch the flick Milk the other night. It’s worth a couple hours of your life to see how a fight for the rights of one slice of humanity became, though Harvey Milk’s leadership, a cause of human rights. But in the end of this true story, both he and the mayor of San Francisco are assassinated by a crazed political and personal opponent who’s attorney used, somewhat successfully in that he was convicted only of manslaughter, what became known as the “Twinkie Defense”, the theory that his devolution from a previously healthy lifestyle to a diet of junk food proved his state of depression and consequently his inability to act rationally. (Actually, the movie gets this fact wrong and perpetuates the myth that his diet caused the irrationality – a mark of shame on an otherwise excellent work – but some quick web sleuthing – thanks Snopes and imdb – corrects the story.)

What does this have to do with running, I hear you cry? Simple. It raises one of the most basic questions of our being: How do any of us recognize when we’re no longer able to recognize that we’ve lost the ability to recognize reality? And how can that affect – or even cost – our lives while we run?

Few of us, thankfully, will find ourselves in a state of such depravity that we engage in violence against others. Some of us, though, will indeed find ourselves in a state of sufficient depravity to drive ourselves past rational limits. We may, in a way, engage in violence against ourselves.

Remember who’s writing this. The person who rationalized his collapse at the end of the 2008 Wineglass Marathon as a simple fall, but who over the years came clean with himself and recognized that he didn’t get to the moment of that fall through a series of entirely rational decisions. And the person who is somewhat convinced that he learned his lesson and stopped himself from doing it again a few years later at Boston.

It’s good that I think I’ve learned, and I think that I can keep from making the same frightening mistake again, though there’s no guarantee I’m right. But even if I am, there is still the problem of the first time. I like to say that you don’t know what the thing that eventually kills you will feel like, because it hasn’t happened yet. Likewise, you don’t know what it feels like to pass from rational mental functioning to something else, certainly not the first time because you haven’t yet felt it, and maybe not even later, because, well, it’s a circular argument as you can see.

I won a race the other day. That doesn’t happen often, and it was an exciting occurrence for me, but my excitement and happiness lasted all of about one minute before turning to horror. At the end of that minute, my rival for the first two miles of that five kilometer race came into view of the finish line, staggering wildly, obviously physically unstable, and clearly heading for disaster. Despite being nowhere near recovered from my race, I raced again, this time toward him, but didn’t reach him in time as he catapulted headlong, frighteningly, into the pavement. Then things got weird.

But first, let’s back up about forty-five minutes. The event was a local community race, and I’m leaving details vague to respect the privacy of those involved in the story. Many of you readers already know where it happened and to whom; it’s no secret, but these identities don’t matter to the telling of the story. So for those of you who don’t know them, I won’t spread any more details. But suffice to say that it was a small event. Despite the best intentions and efforts of the organizers, word just didn’t get out too well. The thought had crossed my mind that morning that maybe only forty folks would show, and maybe I’d have the fun of a moderate-fish-in-a-small-pond win. I wasn’t far from wrong; only sixty showed.

Still, it only takes one contender to push you to second place, so I scoped the crowd and picked out a somewhat familiar face, a man about my age who I was sure I’d seen at the races before. A little chit-chat confirmed that on any given day, he’d likely give me a run for my money, and I knew that at a minimum he'd be vying for our mutual fifty-plus group. A few minutes later at the starting line, another apparent player appeared, a young turk who humbly self-deprecated his readiness, but fooled neither of us. It’s amusing how we tend to spot each other, but we do.

After one of the stranger race starts I’ve experienced – someone blowing a horn from somewhere behind us without warning – and our subsequent vocalizations of less-than-savory oaths in response, the three of us split from the pack for the almost-entirely-uphill first half. In almost a repeat of that woodsy 10K from a couple weeks back, my two rivals set a pace a hair too hot, and I satisfied myself with staying within a fifty-foot tape measure of them. Like that day, I knew they’d either come back to me, or there wasn’t much I could do.

By about a mile and a quarter, the young one did come back. Adding a bit of nitro to the mix when I passed, I tried to convince him that I wasn’t going to let him come back at me, and indeed that was the last I’d see of him till those frightening moments a minute after my finish. That left my same-age rival still about forty yards up.

Collecting my thoughts after what I’d tried to make look like an easy burst, but what had in fact taken a toll, I lost attention for just long enough that I didn’t catch my rival missing the turn at one-point-four until he was ten yards past. This being a gentleman’s sport, I gave him a holler about the turn, and he doubled back, erasing half his lead but still leaving me with a challenge and no certainty whatsoever that I’d be up to meeting it. But on the next small hill, I caught up far more easily than expected. My racing sense signaled weakness, but what lay ahead was almost entirely downhill, not my best skill, and an easy place for a contender with some speed to open it up. Left to a sprint to the death at the end, my confidence would not be high.

We hammered the subsequent big downhill elbow-to-elbow and made the turn for the last rise, a mere tenth of a mile of barely perceptible up, leading to a full mile of gentle downhill to the finish. Having sensed that weakness earlier, I put on my second burst of the morning on that rise and opened a gap before starting the downgrade, still fearing the dogfight that might erupt. Knowing he must be nipping my heels but refusing to glance back and show weakness, I poured on all the intensity I could muster. Halfway down, a spectator said I had fifteen seconds on him, but I didn’t buy it; he wasn’t in position to have timed the gap, and besides, it seemed far too quick a drop-off considering the level of competition I’d been up against. I didn’t let up, and glanced back only after making the final turn; seeing nobody, I wore my best Death-Warmed-Over face over the line.

Win. Small pond, to be sure, but so what, a win’s a win. Now, how close was he, after all? Come out of the chute, look back, nobody. Time passes, nobody still. It made no sense. For what seemed an eternity, but was only a minute. And then, around the corner appeared the young guy I’d lost at a mile-plus, and my rival, reeling, lurching, tottering at high speed, stumbling, crashing, shoulder to the pavement, maybe the head, road rash for certain, concussion perhaps? Horrifying.

I arrived seconds after he hit the ground, but rather than groan or moan in pain, he demanded that no assistance be given. I was taken aback. This wasn’t the famed 1908 Olympics, where Dorando Pietri was disqualified for receiving assistance when he collapsed before the finish line. This was a local race, where we could have carried this guy over the last stretch and nobody would have complained. But to my amazement, before I could do anything, he got himself back up and started to shave down the fifty yards remaining to the finish line.

He didn’t make it. Thirty yard down, he crashed again, this time with me in chase, entirely uncertain what to do. Again, he demanded no assistance, and again, he rose and staggered toward the line, which this time he crossed, only to collapse a third time, this time at least landing on my feet to break his fall.

Watching the first fall was frightening enough. Experiencing the bizarre sequence of events that followed ratcheted up the scale considerably. Then, while tending to him as he lay prostrate in the chute, hearing that in fact he’d been witnessed going down two or three times before I’d seen him, that what I thought was his first fall was in fact his third or fourth, was simply mind-blowing. Fellow caregivers spoke of competitiveness and type-A personality, but clearly there was more going on here.

The EMTs rolled him into the ambulance and the report came back from the emergency room that his internal temperature had hit a hundred and five – basket-case heat stroke, also known as hyperthermia (oh yeah, did I mention, it was HOT!). More telling was his later report that he had no recollection whatsoever of the last three-quarters of a mile; a report that was to me in a way a relief. It was no Twinkie Defense, but it helped me to understand that his irrational actions were the product of his heat-compromised head rather than some crazy competitive drive seeking second place in a rather meaningless local race. And this is where we get back to presence of mind.

A lot of things can cause us to lose our heads, and none of us is immune from this danger. In the case of Harvey Milk, his assailant suffered from, at a minimum, depression, if not true depravity. In my case at Wineglass, my best clinical diagnosis would have to be stupidity-induced type-A over-competitiveness. In the case of my rival, heat stroke is known to cause neurological symptoms including bizarre behavior, irritability, delusions, and hallucinations. For all we know, he really might have thought he was Dorando Pietro in the 1908 Olympic Marathon.

This is the local bleeding edge of the national debate. How do we prevent people who lose their heads, for whatever reason, from doing things harmful to themselves or others? At what point do we intervene? When is that prudent, and when is it infringing on that person’s rights? Had someone tried to stop me at mile twenty-two of Wineglass, I would have been mad as hell and given them the fight of their life. This time not only I, but apparently other spectators beforehand, had tried to assist, which would have meant stopping, my rival, and he gave the fight of his life. The cause of his losing his head was different from mine, perhaps more insidious and harder to spot and control, but in the end the result was the same: we both could have given our lives.

I am no expert and claim no answers here. After Wineglass, I learned some self-policing, which helped at that subsequent Boston, but I can’t say that experience would have helped me avoid the heat-induced irrationality we witnessed this time. Perhaps a more activist intervention stance is in order? You might save a life, though you might also get someone really upset with you.

I just don’t know. Please be careful out there.

06 September 2014

Back to Back to the Woods

Planned races mean sitting and thinking between now and then. Accidental races, like that Wickham Park adventure, involve no thought whatsoever. Somewhere between those two extremes is a middle ground. So when the email showed up the day after my all-out effort at the Level Renner 10K seeking last-minute cannon fodder for a Greater-Boston-led expedition back to the Lynn Woods Relays, a race I hadn’t done in six years, and said relays were only two days out, that was enough time to think about packing the right gear in the bag, but not so much time that I’d be thinking about the race itself. It also wasn’t enough time to think about the fact that my local club had another woods race planned for the very next night. I just jumped on it. Back to the Woods! And that meant that the very next night, I’d do it again. Back to Back! To the Woods!

Part One of this duology wasn’t high-pressure. Our Greater Boston Track Club team intended to field a top-notch men’s open team, and they did, and they were far more than top-notch, and they blew everyone out of the park, making me proud to be wearing the same uniform. Our team, in contrast, was there for a good time, a good workout, and, as it turned out, a good meal afterward with good friends. We couldn’t find four of the same gender, so we went as a mixed team. We couldn’t even find four properly aged runners, so we supplemented with the daughter of a teammate, blowing any chance of old-fart award placement and leading to our brilliantly conceived team name (I can say that because I did not make it up myself), GBTC Masters and Apprentice.

Everything I remembered about this race from six years got better except my relay leg time, but being six years older and, remember all those wounds?, I really had no complaint about that. The course had been altered to get more of it on the gravel roads and trails and less on the asphalt, and it was seemingly easier to follow. The starting and handoff logistics were vastly improved (there are no real handoffs, no batons, you just go when your teammate arrives, honor system). The parking was easier. The crowds were more amiable – probably because six years later, I know a few more folks within them. There were even fewer bugs – at least until the bitter end of the awards and chit-chat. It was simply a rosy evening at the races.

While quite a bit slower than last time, I wasn’t at all unhappy with the race itself. Part of that differential I chalk up to the course change; less asphalt and more gravel equals a slower course, and in the span of a merely two and a half mile leg, little changes can make a big difference. And on trails, who really knows (or cares?) if the distance was accurate or the same as last time? If one trusts the distance, this one was a Personal Worst, but scanning the fifty-plus teams (with no way of knowing the ages of those on open teams, so it’s unscientific), I’d say I fared pretty well against the jury of my peers. I can say scientifically that I blew out nearly forty teams on my leg without giving up a slot. It didn’t win us a thing, but hey, you take your satisfaction where you can find it. But that analysis is fairly irrelevant. We had a fine night out at the races. When all was said and done, we had a late night at the races. And suddenly it was the next night at the races.

Wednesday night saw four hundred runners on one hundred teams, coursing through the woods of Lynn; it was a big wing-ding indeed. Thursday night saw a massive crowd of twenty, yes twenty, coursing through the woods of Berlin; it was a decidedly small wing-ding, perhaps not even a wing-ding at all. But it’s become a summer tradition for our local Highland City Striders known as the “No Frills 10K”. No entry fees, no awards, and almost no goodies save some leftovers from the club’s big 10K a week ago and the case of waters I hauled in to supplement.

Wednesday in Lynn may not have been an A-race, but I’d certainly given it my all, and I was questioning the sanity of showing up at anything labeled as a race the very next day. Alongside me on my warm-up, club-mate Will (blue shirt in the picture), who’d run – and won – the club’s big 10K only two nights earlier, was asking himself the same question. Knowing ourselves to be of similar caliber (though he of considerably fewer years!), seeing no obvious threats around us, knowing the casual aspect of the evening’s festivities, and most importantly both agreeing that all-out racing was just plain silly in light of our previous evenings’ endeavors, we inked a mutual non-aggression pact: run it hard together as a workout, bring it in together. That pact had an out-clause, however. Will stubbornly promised he’d chase down any youngster who tried to upset this freshly minted New World Order. I figured if that happened, I just wouldn’t care and told him (in jest, of course) to just trip the kid.

It’s a two mile circuit around Gates Pond, so the course is simple: start a tenth of a mile off the pond, spin it thrice, zip back out that tenth, and you’ve got 10K. But it’d diabolical, too, because each lap brings a good half dozen ups and downs, a few of them rather noticeable, and all on gravel roads with plenty of poor footing. It’s ideal to wear you down.

Within two minutes it was clear that our back-room plotting was for naught. Precocious Peter (center in the picture), a mere wet-eared lad of eighteen about to head for college, hit the gas and blew our plans. Will, true to his threat, tried to track him. You can say I’m old and wise with experience, or you can say I just didn’t have that much fire in my heart, but I can tell you that I just said, “Whatever”. With legs of rubber, there wasn’t a lot to be done, at least not without pushing into the damage zone, and that race wasn’t worth it. Besides, we’d barely started. Either the kid’s got it, in which case there really was nothing I could do, or he’ll fade like a kid and age will trump inexperience. I certainly didn’t slack off, but I certainly did accept my karma de jour.

The kid had it, and ran it well all the way home, though in the end, the half-minute differential between us probably happened almost entirely on that first lap around the pond. He didn’t fade, but Will came back to me at the close of the second lap, and with the overall and not-terribly-coveted crown rather certainly gone for both of us, for a few minutes it seemed that the mutual non-aggression pact was back in force. I’d have been happy for the two of us to push each other home in a solid workout. But a half-mile into that last lap, my restored partner conceded fatigue, he was baked, off you go, he commanded…

It’s an odd situation. Where does cooperation and geniality stop, and competition begin? Given that green light, knowing my partner – or rival? – had released the bond of our gentlemen’s agreement, what exactly were the rules? With ten minutes left – including the third round of those highly noticeable hills on the back-side of the circuit, the possibility of my own fade was still quite real, and while I wouldn’t have cared if he rejoined me, my worn and wounded legs didn’t want a dogfight. I took the logical out: if you don’t know the answer to the question, just don’t let it be asked. Lap three clocked in faster than lap two primarily because I didn’t want to have to answer that question, a question that, in this context of a casual twenty-person race where even if I’d rolled over and walked it in, I’d still be the quickest antique on the lot, simply didn’t need to be asked. In the end, Will rolled in about a hundred feet or so behind me, we jogged a pleasant warm-down amidst the beauty of the forest, and agreed that once again, we’d had a fine workout and a fine night at the races, which is about all one could hope for having popped in three races in five days, the last two back-to-back.
11:18 PM 9/6/2014