21 October 2014
In the aftermath of the Inexplicable Alien Leg Pain of a week ago and the resulting suspenseful (and happily, negative) blood test, Lady Doc, upon relating to me that I wasn’t going to die of a blood clot (at least not now), asked for an update a few days later. I like that she’s in the medically modern world and doesn’t mind the intrusion of email, so obligingly, Sunday night I somewhat sheepishly admitted to her that yes, I did run a marathon on the leg that only a week prior I’d feared fatal. Her brief reply conveyed amused disbelief – not doubting what I’d done, but the very fact that I would – and went on to make reference to my apparent toughness. I’m not certain I concur. Foolish, perhaps. Determined, perhaps. Tough? I prefer to think it’s just what we do.
In any event, as you’ve guessed, I pulled the trigger. Despite a rather sleepless night, somewhat inexplicable considering the lack of import and barely perceptible level of pressure I’d applied to this race, when the alarm went off at a quarter to five, I was already awake. The game-eve decision had been a go, the game-day decision concurred, and an hour later I was off into the pre-dawn darkness, destination Lowell, where I say in fun that you’re incented to run fast since you never know who’s behind you, but which is in truth a fine venue for an extremely fine race.
At the end of the day, the standard rules of morality applied. You do dumb things, you pay the price. I subjected myself to the trial of the marathon when my body wasn’t really where it should have been, and in return I was given a ten year sentence for my transgression. This, however, was a ten year sentence to celebrate. I came home with another ticket to the dance having notched my tenth successive year of Boston qualifiers. April of 2016 is eighteen months away and a lot can happen before then, but at a minimum I’m invited to the party to hit double digits.
Frankly, there’s no place I would have rather done it. Despite considering a new venue for this year’s fall punishment, defaulting to my nearly-hometown race was by no means a let-down. About the only thing I don’t like about this race is dealing with the fact that they make ‘Baystate’ into one word. It just offends my sense of style and usage. Oh yeah, and somehow the hotel hosting the pre-race follies couldn’t come up with enough pasta to feed everyone. But I’ll blame Radisson for that, not the terrific race crew. Besides, that race crew made it up not only with their signature hot soup post-race, but with the boxes upon boxes of homemade PBJs. Sounds corny? Perhaps, but tasted like heaven. And everything else about this race is first class.
I ran my first Boston qualifier at Baystate. It’s only fitting I ran my tenth there as well.
This one was textbook, but like my college physics textbook, it came in two volumes. Volume One was textbook on how to run a marathon the right way. Despite being Rodeo Number Twenty-One for me, this was, quite frankly, a new and highly enjoyable experience. But Volume Two was textbook on how the marathon is, in fact, a marathon, and what it can do to you. It will find your weakness, prey on it, attack you, chew you up, and spit you out the other end. That’s why the marathon retains its respect no matter how many hundreds of thousands slog through their twenty-six at the pace of their own personal hells.
I’d suggested previously that of the two goals I’d held out for this race, only one was reasonably within reach. Bettering my three-oh-seven from this past year’s Boston in hopes of improving my seeding for next April was at best a long-shot, but notching that 2016 qualifier – which at my age requires only three and a half hours (less a few minutes of safety for the cut-off under the current system) wasn’t outlandish (and I know many of you cringe when I say “only” but it’s all relative…). And that’s exactly how it turned out, but rarely if ever do I get from here to there in a straight line.
When I’m in top shape, hitting the first miles in the low sixes is normal. Settling in for a dozen more in the mid-sixes is typical. Trying to hold it together in the late stages is standard operating procedure. In my best races, I’ve nearly held it under sevens the whole way. In others, it’s gotten ugly. But never have I run what the pros would consider a smart race. Not once have I approached even splits – the second half at the same pace as the first – let alone negative splits, coming home faster. This time, with no pressure to go for anything dramatic, I figured I’d give it a try, just for kicks and grins. For once in my life, run a smart race. Go out conservatively. Baby that right calf that, while gloriously devoid of the Alien Pain from Hell, still was clearly unhappy from a garden-variety strain, and was, I figured, the likely source of my comeuppance.
Trying something new and foreign, I linked up with the three-oh-five pace group, led for the first half by a youngster I know only as Somerville John. Three-oh-five was a bit of a stretch, considering my starting condition, but with a controlled pace, for once not burning rubber early, it was worth seeing what would happen. Maybe, just maybe, if I ran this smart, for the first time ever, I could see what negative splits felt like. Besides, I knew if I blew it up, I’d have twenty-plus minutes to clean up the wreckage and drag my bones back to the Tsongas Arena – and still get that 2016 time. It was a fine day for an experiment.
From the outset, I loved it, truly. No tension. We didn’t even stand near the start line – well, by my usual standards, at least. Granted there were a thousand and a half behind us, but in a race of this size, I’d normally stand near the front and be over the line in a second. This time, a leisurely six seconds passed post-gun and pre-line, hugely indicative of my hope to keep this under control. We just rambled and ambled, John carefully checking his GPS and setting us on sevens, plus or minus a few seconds, with glorious accuracy.
And the gang was enjoyable, the camaraderie palpable. I tried to keep them amused with silliness and stories of previous race stupidities, and how exciting it was to try to do it right this time. Plenty of return tales circulated. But above all, we were a functioning machine, men and women on a mission, getting the job done, on a perfect cool overcast morning, with the bonus of a lighter headwind than expected but even at that, working together trading shifts out front to share the load. Click, click, click, textbook.
First time to the Tyngsborough Bridge at mile eight, despite passing through the head-windiest section of the course, still manufacturing dead even sevens, not effortless but also nowhere near the kind of energy expenditure I’m used to when burning six-and-a-halves at that point. And with the bonus of a downwind stretch ahead, cruising. But the Calf of Death was registering dissent.
At twelve, over the Permanent Temporary Bridge (also known as the Rourke Bridge, a “temporary” span put in place nearly thirty years ago!), and into the second loop. Hit the halfway mark in a tad over an hour thirty-one and a half, still nailing sevens, heading back into the wind, noticing the work, but in control. Still thinking about nailing the second half in even or negative splits, and pondering that Goal One – bettering that Boston 2015 seed time – might come back into reach. But the Calf of Death seemed to be arming for a fight, and I knew if anything was to stop me, it would be he.
Back to the Tyngsborough Bridge, knowing I’d defeated the wind the second and final time, and onward into the downwind stretch, coming up on twenty, still cranking sevens. Doing the math for if – or when – things blew up, how bad it could get while still getting that 2016 qualifier; the math getting more favorable at each milepost. And the Calf of Death was ready to pounce.
Textbook, Volume Two, where we are reminded that this is, after all a marathon, arrived with surprising ferocity. I suppose this is why I like paper books over e-readers. With a paper book in your hands, you can see and feel when you’re near the end. There are no surprises. But at mile twenty, it was like reading a tome online without the benefit of a scroll bar. Volume One ended without warning in a way I haven’t experienced in twenty previous marathons, and I was forced to open the next book. Right. Now.
Almost precisely at mile twenty, where race organizers had lovingly painted a brick wall on the road, the Calf of Death announced that if I didn’t stop punishing it immediately, it might do something really nasty, like go Snap! Crackle! Pop! It didn’t so much change feeling instantly as it somehow signaled mentally that its time was up. And I can’t place in my head whether it was real or I was fooled, but mentally I went into preservation mode. I’d covered twenty in two hours twenty. I had an hour-plus to cover the last six and change and still get that ten year sentence. If I let it break, I’d have to do it all over again (and if it broke, no telling when – or if – I’d be able to), or go into Boston 2015 with the pressure of needing it then or facing a warm-weather recap.
Rationality took over. Time to shut it down.
Soldier on, more high eights, but goal in sight, sucking up any encouragement possible. Two miles out, sharing the road with the grunts of the shuffling dead, more striking than usual because I really wasn’t there with them; rather I was just wicked slow from the pain, willing the Calf of Death to hold together and not tear itself to shreds. A half mile out, pleased to hear sideline encouragement from pacer Somerville John (relieved with fresh pacers at the halfway mark), who built the first half of this race for me and now added that ounce of fuel at the end. At last, over the line, soaking up a nice shout-out from announcer Steve who publicly recognized my feat of running every street in the city a few years back. And oh-so-pleased to see former teammate Mark working the finish, knighting arriving warriors in cloaks of Mylar armor. At times like these, it’s good to have friends.
Textbook, yes, in two volumes: How To Run A Marathon Perfectly, and How A Marathon Will Try To Defeat You. Volume One was short a few pages, so we had to dip into Volume Two. Things got ugly, and that vision of a smart race evaporated. Negative splits turned into ten extra minutes on the back half, ballooning a potential three-oh-three to -thirteen, but as my old friend Chris (working the water stop with the Squannacook crew at mile seven, thanks!) would say, that makes a better story on Monday morning.
And no matter. Mission accomplished, sentence imposed, tenth date in Hopkinton now slated for April 2016.
18 October 2014
At eight tomorrow morning I might be running a marathon. No, scratch that, I probably will be running a marathon. But it’s four in the afternoon the day before, and I’m still not sure. To most who’ve run a marathon, who know the training build-up, the inescapable anticipation leading to the starting gun, such a laissez-faire attitude might come across as, well, rather strange. Trust me, I’m not that far removed from reality, it’s rather strange to me, too.
This wasn’t the plan. The plan was improved training, improving health, readiness for a fall race. The plan was to better my seeding time for Boston 2015, and in the process, land a decent qualifier for Boston 2016. The plan was for a real marathon. Then along came last weekend.
I’m used to things hurting. I’m old, I run, that’s just the way it goes. But there’s hurting, and there’s hurting. And the circumstances under which that hurting arrives have a lot to do with how I, or anyone else for that matter, deal with said hurting. For the past few months, when people greet me and ask how I’m doing, my answer has been pretty straightforward, “Stuff hurts.” It’s not a complaint so much as an honest answer. I’m not going to tell you that all is rosy, when in reality, stuff hurts. But as I’ve written before, I’m not going to stop doing what I do just because of that.
But a week ago this morning, it was different. The lower right leg – the one that’s been on the edge of a calf / Achilles strain for weeks (no, not the left one, that Achilles is finally feeling mostly better; yes, the other one…it’s always something!) suddenly erupted in pain. Not the, “oh, I strained / pulled / ripped / otherwise abused it” pain, but hot, radiating, hugely aching pain, out of nowhere. And it did it while I was doing absolutely nothing. No, not running, not even walking, but instead it came while driving on a ten minute ride to meet the gang for our Saturday morning social run. Out of the blue.
I did what any red-blooded runner would do, and tried to run it off. After all, this wasn’t anything that felt like a running injury, nor was it anything that seemed to impede motion, other than due to its alarming pain. And it wasn’t anything that seemed to intensify – or abate – when confronted with some gentle jogging. Over the next couple days, in between hits of Vitamin I, it came and went, radiating backward into the calf, forward through the bone, upward, downward. Its very centrality – after all, what is in the center of your leg, but… lit the warning bulb on the dashboard of my brain, recalling last fall’s bout with the blood clots, Clot! Clot! Clot!
Boy crying wolf? Maybe. But if boy doesn’t cry wolf and it is, in fact, a wolf (sorry, I know wolves are unfairly characterized as evil when in reality, they’re glorious creatures), boy is in deep trouble. And the logic of the explaining the excruciating extremity was otherwise stumped. Muscle strain? Too strong a pain. Tear? Wrong kind of pain. Stress fracture? Coming on while doing nothing? Broken leg? I’d likely fall down. What’s left? Alien disease? Can’t be, no warning from Donald Trump. The word clot kept coming into the limelight, though unlike last year’s post-surgical adventure, I could conceive of no logical reason for another one to appear. Unless, God forbid, it was my fate to have become susceptible to them.
These are the thought processes that scare the willies out of us. Sometimes it’s better to stay ignorant. Fat, dumb, and happy. Of course, that probably translates to a much shorter life.
As it was, being a quasi-holiday, and being as my own Lady Doc wasn’t on call for the long weekend and I wasn’t thrilled with who was, it wasn’t till Tuesday that action became practical. Wait a minute, you say, you’re worried about a life-threatening condition and you waited till Tuesday? Well, it went away, sort of. Then came back, but went away again. And so on. It was highly worrying, but still in the leg, not near the lungs. And besides, I did call off the seventeen-mile trail run and summit climb I’d planned in the Whites with Dearest Daughter the Younger. Wasn’t that alone indicative of the severity here? (And wasn’t that alone an indication that the word ‘taper’ has a strange meaning in my vocabulary?)
On Tuesday, by which time it had largely vanished as fast as it had come on, a simple blood test confirmed it wasn’t a clot, and there was great rejoicing. But the mystery remains as to exactly what it was.
Back on the road on Thursday, I felt exactly how a forced three-and-a-half-day break typically makes me feel: stiff, clumsy, and out-of-sorts. It’s not how I like to spend taper week. And the same old strain in that same mysterious leg reappeared, but I know what that’s all about. So with only a few days of re-loosening-up under my belt, I’m looking at Bay State in the morning. But hey, at least I’m rested, right?
Beating my Boston time for a better qualifier is likely an impossibility. Scratch goal number one. But gaining a qualifying time, even if not a terribly strong one, for 2016? Even in my abused state, that likely isn’t too tall an order. Goal number two, still on the table…if nothing breaks en-route. And given how I’ve gotten here, that’s not a sure bet.
It’s a calculated risk. I’ll set the alarm clock and decide sometime before eight tomorrow morning.
10 October 2014
It is fun, and in a way a relief, to write of someone else’s adventures once in a while within these lines of prose. It takes the pressure off writing about myself without coming across as a cad; trying to share the highs without boasting while relating the lows without whining. When someone else is the center of attention, I can pretty much say whatever I want, within the bounds of propriety. And this time, Dearest Daughter the Younger has earned her spot in these column inches.
Yeah, but we’ll get to that later. Back to me for a while.
I can’t tell you if I’m surging back into top shape or mere weeks from death. Inconsistency is the title of my training log. Speed is a memory, or at least speed as I knew it just a year and a half back. But as you’ve seen, since mid-summer, I’ve taken a ‘damn the torpedoes’ attitude and plunged back into the racing pool, even if mostly in the shallow end, and in the head of someone as twisted as I, that means a fall marathon is a fait accompli. It’s just what we do, right?
I’d entertained thoughts over the summer of dipping my toe into the fresh waters of a new race. Hartford stuck out, being relatively close, of reasonable reputation, and, interestingly, teasing top-notch racers with mini-elite packages. I spent about an hour thinking about that; after all, my 2013 Boston, still recent on my resume, ranked pretty strongly on the senior circuit, as did a few other outings before the Achilles slap-down, and hey, maybe if they wanted a competitive field in each age group…since maybe by fall I’d be back in that kind of shape…
Sanity caught hold, and I dropped that idea hard and fast like a heavy chunk of granite. Seriously, it would have been a stretch anyway – I’m no two-thirty-marathon stud, nor even, at my age, in the running for the overall masters column. And as the fall crept closer, and that inconsistency as well as various other woes continued to prevent solid training, practicality followed. Seriously, why was I doing this, anyway? In my shape it wasn’t to win anything, so why travel? My fall goals were simple: improve my seed time for this next Patriot’s Day, and land a qualifier for the one following, which – if that happens – will be number ten, a golden ticket that makes future Bostons just a little bit easier to get into. So if a decent time was the only goal, why play games? Just hit the local favorite and be done with it.
Except that the local favorite, it turned out, was all but sold out by the time I came to this conclusion. With literally no time to spare, I grabbed one of the few remaining slots, only to discover hours later that the annual race to honor my lost friend John Tanner had been moved to that same morning. Missing that was not in the plan and was not a happy thought, but the deed was done, and Bay State – for my fourth time – was booked. Though as it creeps closer, I can’t say that improving that seeding time is a strong likelihood, based on training, racing, and an utterly horrible final attempt at one more long one before coasting into a taper. At least today’s set of Yasso 800s, traditionally my last hard workout before a marathon, went reasonably well.
But before we got here, last weekend there was one more hill not to climb, but to descend; a race that for years I’ve avoided, either by racing out of town or working it as a volunteer or even, last year, power-walking it in the walking cast boot after the Achilles surgery and the Clotty Adventure. After all those years, it just seemed like it was time to tackle the Marlborough Main Street Mile.
It’s not my forte. It’s only a mile (it’s a hair short, but close enough), and I’m barely warmed up after three. It’s all about speed, and even in my good years, that’s not my finest quality. And it’s downhill – almost entirely save a couple of flat stretches. I’m an uphill guy. Strike one, strike two, strike three, and you know why I’ve avoided this one for years.
Confront your demons.
But first, I promised this would be about DDY. Remember that, a page back? I keep my promises.
Said offspring is enjoying – thoroughly enjoying I might note – her first year on the high school cross country team, made doubly fun not only because she’s finding new gears she didn’t know she had, but also by association, having landed on a team that, at last count, was something like eight and one. Winning feels good.
A couple cross country meets a week pretty much rules out weekend racing, which, as you read, worked nicely to the advantage of a bunch of old guys at the Forrest a week back. But a mile? Just a single mile? Her agonizing decision to run or not got downright tense the night before. I wasn’t much help; knowing my need for a ludicrously long warm-up for a race with the word speed in its description, I wasn’t sure how the logistics would fall out. I dithered on the choice as well, despite my bias toward prodding her to run, until she made the game-day decision to toe the line.
Now, this is supposed to be about her, but I can’t tell you much about her race. She came in almost exactly a minute behind me, but I didn’t see it. A minute after running that mile, I had yet to emerge from my post-race delirium. Oh, what I missed.
There’s a reason I’ve avoided this race. A minute after I finished, I was still in no condition to notice that DDY was holding off a pack of females bidding for her slot, not just leading the youth, but leading all of the females. All of them. And holding them off, barely, but enough, across the line, over a minute faster than any mile she’d ever run, impressive even if it wasn’t all downhill and a hair short, yes, winning the whole shootin’ match among those with two X chromosomes.
And to think about that choice, do I run or not? Nothing happens until you step on the line.
Now, I’m not entirely sure about my daughter being called, “The Fastest Woman in Marlborough,” but I think I’ll get my mind out of the gutter and enjoy it.
05 October 2014
In those heady days of a couple years back, when I was racking up two-hundred-plus months like they were going out of style and my racing capabilities were likewise growing, my racing circle expanded to the headier venues. Running New England Grand Prix events meant getting my butt kicked soundly by massive packs of New England’s best, but a hundredth-place finish in those kind of races was downright respectable and on more than one occasion meant a new personal best, despite the number of speedsters warming the pavement before my arrival.
This year it’s been about recovery. Each time I’ve gone through this cycle it’s been a little tougher, since I’ve been a little older, and I’ve battled the same demons of doubt. In previous episodes, I’ve come out of the tunnel stronger, but this trip’s finale is yet to be written, and the doubts remain despite real progress being made. Predictably, my racing circle has contracted, with a preponderance of local races. The few hot events I’ve hit, like the Level Renner, have reminded me that this is a rebuilding year.
But local races have their charms: little or no travel, easy logistics, plenty of friends, and complete unpredictability of their fields. You just don’t know who’s going to show up on any given day. That wildcard can make for interesting and sometimes fun results, and if nothing else proves the maxim that just showing up is a big part of the game.
When the winds blow the right way, you might win the masters division, as happened back on the Labor Day Laborious Ten Miler, which really doesn’t even have a masters division, but unofficially, I was the first antique across the line. That one was an event that escaped the clutches of blogdom, and for good reason. It was brutally hot and humid, my performance was middling at best, and if I’d had to pepper the column with photos, having stripped off even my light singlet somewhere around mile eight, the resulting visage might have sent you packing, no longer to return here to read another day.
When the winds blow really hard the right way, you might win the whole race. Let’s just say that the winds blew the fast guys off to the next county when the Police Chase rolled around, and you’ve already seen the slightly frightening story of that one.
And when the winds blow hard in strange, confused circles, you get strange, confused results like a bunch of old guys almost sweeping the podium of an entire race. That storm blew in last week at the Forrest Memorial, our local fall race conveniently called a five kilometer, but known by all to be a good tenth of a mile longer. We don’t care, we love it, and the burgers and beers keep us coming back.
Unlike a couple weeks earlier at the Police Chase, I wasn’t feeling at all competitive leading into this one. It was yet another hot day, third race in a row, and I’d awoken feeling like a cross between a limp dishrag and a quaking aspen. Strong wasn’t a word I could contemplate happening. I barely tolerated an anemic warm-up. I didn’t scope the field. It just didn’t matter.
And it really didn’t, more or less, because two things happened. Second, that race adrenalin kicked in like it almost always does – despite how often I expect that it won’t – and while I never felt powerful, I felt good enough to crank out something slightly above middling, while meanwhile the heat pummeled everyone else to the middling level or below. Or almost everyone. Because, first (you were wondering about that mis-ordered list?), the race was over in the first tenth of a mile, and I knew it without a doubt.
Bang, we’re off (well, actually, no gun, but you get the idea), and from somewhere on my right zips an orange streak with a bald spot on top. No starting line euphoria would propel me at this guy’s velocity, and unlike the local posers who so commonly sprint the first few hundred yards of these local races, it was obvious from the fluid stride that this guy was the real deal. By the first turn, when he went the long way around the traffic island, once it was clear he was still turning the right way, I didn’t worry about warning him. It didn’t matter that he’d lost a few seconds because I wasn’t going to catch him, nor, I suspected, would anyone else.
By the time I huffed across the line wearing my trademark Death Warmed Over face, the Orange Streak, later identified as John, had thoroughly thrashed me by a minute and a quarter. His winning time was about ten seconds off my personal best on the course, but there’s no doubt that had I been in personal best shape, his result would have been markedly faster than his uncontested cruise. And to complete the slap-down, he was just as much an antique as I. The luck of those winds again, a second place finish and still didn’t even win my age group…go figure.
But as it turned out, what was happening behind me was the interesting part. I mildly thrashed the guys behind me by over a half a minute, but that’s where the battle erupted. Save for a last minute pass, it would have been antique to win, antique to place, and antique to show. Antique number three, also known as Steve, who in fact even had a few more years on the two of us up front, barely got nipped in the homestretch by a mere two seconds by some plucky youngster of thirty-something. The nerve! The lack of respect for elders! Kids these days…
Granted, most of the local youthful talent skips this event due to its placement smack in the middle of cross country season, but in a decent-sized field of a hundred and twenty, it wasn’t lost on any of our aged trio the irony of having the fifty-plus crowd take first, second, and almost third but a close fourth. I’ll take my fun where I can get it, and on a day when I didn’t think I even had a race-pace five clicks in me, second place with a dollop of ironic fun was a great appetizer for those burgers and beers. And therein lays one of the joys of local racing.
The Three Antique-gos…4th, 2nd, and 1st places