30 March 2015


A couple days back I crept a notch closer to the next age group with requisite details like cake and goodies enclosed in attractive yet fully recyclable paper. Ever searching for an annual theme, this year I’ve proclaimed to be finally playing with a full deck. (Last year I was seventeen again. And again. And again. And the year before…well, you get the idea, keep it fresh every year.) But a bigger milestone passed a few days earlier: a decade since rejoining the ranks of runners. Just like that, ten years, snap your fingers.

What a ride it’s been.

Ten years ago, age was creeping in. (Of course, it still is, but at least now it has to put up a pretty good fight.) Back then, while it wasn’t as if I was a sloth – I’ve never really gone inactive – being ten years into the dad thing, slothiness was encroaching. The alarm bell went off while plopped at my desk, noticing my legs were feeling a little odd, and making the mistake of Googling that symptom. You know nothing good ever comes of that. But the frightening diagnoses it served up, which I didn’t really believe then and still don’t, jarred me to action.

On the twenty-third of March of 2005 I strapped on a pair of Asics I’d picked up in the markdown bin of the local big box shoe warehouse and set out to cover a two mile stretch I frequently walked with Dearest Spouse. I barely made it. In retrospect, that was pretty impressive compared to the experience of most who take their first steps in excess of ambling pace. After all, I didn’t start as a slug. But I was pushing toward a buck sixty on the scale, which for my frame translated into a rather cheeky visage in some photos of the day.

Undaunted, a few days later I pushed the envelope to nearly double that distance, and by the end of the month I’d rather boldly – and foolishly – defined that route as the “standard” course, having run it all of twice. I managed to traverse it with only one walking break, and with nine and a half miles under my belt, had nearly pierced double digits for the month.

No doubt having the perspective of a previous running life, even if twenty-plus years in the past, helped. There’s a glass half-full half-empty thing going on here. I talk to plenty of beginners who can’t fathom covering three or four miles. I came at this from the opposite side, finding it hard to fathom that I couldn’t cover three or four miles. I remembered the past and what was possible. It was only a matter of time.

Time passed, as did a lot of scenery, potholes, heat, snow, and slop. And on the last day of the tenth year (that would be the twenty-second, since the twenty-third technically began my eleventh year), my log reported eighteen thousand one hundred eighty-eight and three-quarters miles. Having just read of a guy who covered over sixteen thousand in less than two years, I can’t in any way claim that’s impressive, but it’s still a big number, and more importantly, it’s a journey.

The statistics are obsessive yet still fun. Two thousand four hundred eighty days of running, sometimes more than once, a little over two-thirds of all the days that passed, including those which found me sidelined with injuries, three surgeries, and that dance with the blood clots. A seven hundred and fifty day streak of at least three miles per day which proved something defined as either resiliency or insanity as you wish, again personally significant but not noteworthy in the big world of others’ big accomplishments. As best I can count, one hundred and nineteen races, including twenty-one marathons, plus forty-two training runs of twenty miles or more to prepare for those masochistic meanders. Runs in twenty-four different states and at least sixty-six different cities and towns in Massachusetts, and within my own City of Marlborough, every mile of every street, at least as they existed at the time of that odyssey.

Beyond the numbers, though, is the transformation the years have wrought. From that first five kilometer race a few months into the adventure, to racing eight (and shortly, nine) Boston Marathons, plus experiencing the honor and excitement of toeing the line at two national championship cross country meets sharing team colors with some of the most outstanding athletes in New England if not the country, these past ten years have provided an unending stream of goals, motivators, thrills, yes, also spills, rewards, and fun. They’ve changed who I am, what I expect to do on a daily basis, and how I look at the challenge of the next ten years, or twenty, or more.

And even beyond the transformation are the people. Ours is a game for the masses, but with the line between the masses and the elites far narrower than in any major sport; a line that grows even fainter the deeper you dive into our pool. The champions of running, our heroes, are basically just like us, eminently accessible, as un-elite as any elite class could be, because they have percolated up from the likes of those all around us. And unlike other big-name sports, there is no defined age for anyone’s time to ride the top of their particular corner of the arena, so anyone can rise to local, regional, or greater significance from anywhere, anytime. From this springs a society of people who recognize that any individual’s skill level is merely relative and arrogance is left outside the door. Anyone will run with anyone, the fast slowing for the social joy of joining the slow, the slow happily straining to gain the training advantage of latching onto someone a notch up the ladder. And we’re gentlemen, competing hard yet helping, encouraging, and respecting both our companions as well as our rivals. Certainly practicalities intervene in this egalitarian nirvana, but nowhere else will you find a group of people more willing to play together to their heart’s content and health’s benefit with so little regard for stratification.

And so we run together, we race together, we drink beers and even eat donuts together (because we can), and we bond as friends. We spend our social time in motion, working hard for hours at a time, sometimes with those we barely know, at least at the start, but growing closer as the distance passes. So it is that along this journey I’ve collected an assortment of friends the likes of which you’ll never gain from your office. We argue and bitch and moan and complain like the best of them, then we strap on our shoes and knock off some road miles or track intervals or trail voyages. We come from different walks of life but share our common belief that we can if not control, at least influence our own well-being. We inspire others, we inspire ourselves.

Ten years of running is unlike ten years of just about any other activity you can think of. It’s a lifestyle, but better, it’s a lifestyle in which ten years is merely a beginning. I look back on the happy accident of that Google search that drove me out of my chair, and marvel at where that road has taken me. The next ten years, whether my pace is fast or slow, whether I’m able to cover many or just a few miles, will be better just by the nature of the impact that the last ten have made.

09 March 2015

Magic of the Run

You can have your Throwback Thursdays and Hump Days. For me, I’m in Hard Core March. I considered calling it the Long March (for those of you into Mao, there’s a big tome on that bit of history waiting on my bedside table, itching for time to consume), or maybe my all-too-frequently used phrase Death March, but this isn’t political and that second term is really reserved for mountain adventures. So Hard Core March it is, even if it doesn’t quite have the same ring.

Hard Core March was brought to you by our friends at Blizzarmageddonfest, that joyful result of a severely disrupted climate that resulted in Worcester, Massachusetts notching its coldest February on record, and of course you know about the snow (as does my left arm, which won’t be the same for weeks or more). Yes, the month that should have seen at least one if not more twenty-plus-milers to prep for Boston was erased in a cloud of white and series of single-digit gales. Somehow I managed to hit my monthly mileage target – barely – but with little quality, far too many miles on hamster cages, and only one run over fifteen miles. This was not an ideal result for one looking toward Patriots’ Day.

But the winter has spawned a bumper crop of news hounds, with a half-dozen media outlets fishing the ‘How are you coping with this weather and training for Boston?’ angle. Yes, it is community cable news season again, but the running media always has the better slant, so it was easy to say yes to the request to answer a few questions for the Boston Legion at Level Renner (follow the link for amusement!). It was there that the phrase was born, quite accidentally, when I penned for them, “I’ve yet to get in any twenty-plus-milers, so March is going to have to be hard-core.”

So that did it. It’s Hard Core March.

Hard Core March screams, “Don’t wait! Time’s running out!” And so our multinational band (a native Brit, a native Moroccan, and boring old me) didn’t wait, and dove in on the first day of the month with twenty-one and a half, enjoying the seemingly balmy near-thirty degree weather while marveling at the chilling effect of the omnipresent off-the-snowbanks wind – no matter which way we were heading. Hard Core March begs you to get past the feeling that seven or eight is enough for the day, and remind your body that ten should breeze by without much thought, because the game doesn’t start till well past then. Hard Core March doesn’t really care that you did that twenty-one-plus yesterday, today is today, time isn’t running backwards, get back to it!

So it was that a week later, after notching my highest weekly tally in two years, the very next day it was back out with The Brit for another sixteen plus, this time cranking the pace down well below the previous week’s long one. Uncertain whether this was a good idea, fighting what started earlier in the week as a rather mild cold but had progressed to lung-clogging voice-ripping cough-fest, I figured I’d give it a roll and turn back in the event of Level Seven Agony. But you know that never happens. By mile four I was already out of my zone, but held on for the fun, especially the hill at nine that my companion claimed wasn’t impressive (he lied). By twelve, when like the previous week, again the weather turned, the temperature dropped, and the wind hit us full force face first, even adding a bit of snow for insulting impact, I gained respect for how my companion had felt the previous week when, somewhere around mile twenty, he already struggling, I informed him rather nonchalantly that in fact the course was a mile longer than promised. Like he the week prior, I was toast, and very cold toast at that. And that was with a mile-long climb yet looming ahead.

What’s beyond toast? Perhaps breadcrumbs, effectively finely dissolved toast? Find your own metaphor; on reaching our terminus, I was there, and just for dramatic effect found my two-hour-frozen well-overdue-for-a-coughing-spell lungs heaving painfully, needing to clear out the crap, but being over-chilled, not really able to. But hey, that passed quickly, and even with the late-game crash and burn, it was still a big breakthrough run. What’s a little agony, right?

Following that, one might expect that the next day would be a day of leisure, but one might be overlooking that not only this is Hard Core March, but that yours truly rarely ignores geeky statistics, having missed my calling to be the guy in the back room coming up with ridiculous facts throughout the NFL telecast. Yes, Frank, with that pass, Brady just surpassed number four on the all-time list of slot-left lobs to left-handed tight-ends resulting in six-to-eight-yard pickups! Can you believe it?

In my case, I found myself in reach of clocking my monthly meter to a hundred miles by the ninth of the month, something I’d only done a couple of times years back so it wasn’t new, but still notable (and no, I haven’t done it by the eighth). Meaningful? Of course not. Nerdy? You bet. And besides, the day was utterly spring, sunny and reaching the mid-forties, so late in the day when I could shovel the work stress aside for an hour or so, bon voyage.

Wow. Coming off the previous day’s virally-enhanced abuse, I expected a slow and stiff start, but I didn’t bargain for the lungs literally hurting. It felt like I’d literally pulled a lung muscle or two. No, not the diaphragm, but the mysterious, never-before-seen lung muscle. A mile out I was this close (how close?) to jogging it back in and calling it a sunny and glorious but relatively run-free day.

And that’s when the Magic of the Run kicked in.

By now, you’re saying, enough of your tales of woe, your moans of agony, your slipping in a few numbers (which you usually avoid) just to put some dimensions on this thing. We’ve all been there, you’re saying. We’ve all been worn out, beat up, fried, baked, and left out to dry.

And when you’ve been there, I hope you’ve had the chance to experience the Magic of the Run.

Mile two wasn’t much better than mile one. It still hurt. But then my planned course turned downhill, so I let it ride for a bit to see what happened. It got a little more bearable, but for self-protection I stopped the watch so as not to goad myself into running harder than I should. And I just let it go.

Around four and a half, traffic politely let me cruise a four-way stop I often pass, and it occurred to me that what they would have seen was indeed someone cruising by, but I dismissed it, having just come off a long sweet downhill. By six, I’d forgotten about the mile one lung syndrome. By eight, the small rises were floating by, and only the last, long climb back to the homestead offered up any level of concern. Somewhere halfway up that climb, the monthly meter chimed one hundred, and a half-mile later, only on finishing up, did I remember that my lungs were, in fact, still sort of messed up. Casual timing – alias glancing at the watch, noting only the minutes, not the details – offered up a pleasant, even if only mildly accurate, pace surprise. The detailed accuracy didn’t matter; only the obvious message that the run had, in fact, in its own odd way, healed me.

How many days do we find it hard to get out the door? Something hurts, the body is tired, aches, pains, this, that. Sometimes we have to heed those messages, listen to our bodies, and leave the shoes on the rack for the day. But when we can get past those inhibitors, let the heart pump, the muscles work, the mind wander (for some odd reason, today’s tune was, “Up, up and away…in my beautiful balloon” – can’t fathom what corner of the brain that came from), we come back stronger, happier, refreshed, and yes, healed.

The Magic of the Run.