27 April 2015

Like No Other

Twenty-two marathons including nine Bostons (even if it is a little hard to see those nine fingers in the pre-race photo…). But this one was like no other.

Yes, the expo was filled with Cardboard Mebs rather than Cardboard Ryans, but those details change with the wind (of which we had plenty). Coming off the year of Meb’s American victory gave the race a slightly different feel, but that has nothing to do with why this one was like no other.

In a flashback to Boston Number One, the forecast was big-time ugly. That day, back in oh-seven, the Nor’easter faded and conditions weren’t so bad. But this day, the storm strengthened and conditions grew steadily worse. But that has nothing to do with why this one was like no other.

In another flashback to Boston Number One, I started well back in the pack. That day, my number in the six-thousands, earned with a three-fourteen qualifier, put me in the sixth corral. Since then, I’d moved up and grown accustomed to the rocket-like starts of the first and second corral neighborhoods. But this year, my injury-weakened three-oh-seven qualifier brought me back, earning me a number back in the six thousands, though with the current system that was good for only a Personal Worst seventh corral. But that has only a little to do with why this one was like no other.

In a more recent flashback, two years back in Boston Number Seven, I smoked my fastest ever. That day, the finish arrived at two-fifty-two and change, bringing two hours of elation before the bombs blew. This year, I snuck back into the sub-three range for the first time since that date, but made no serious threat on that personal best, so clearly that’s not why this one was like no other.

And to confess a lie, I’ve repeated to many that I’ve never run a marathon in negative splits, that meaning running the second half faster than the first. In truth, I went back in the logs and found my memory to be faulty. I’d done it once, at Bay State, in ‘oh seven, and while that race was a watershed, being the day I figured out that a marathon can be raced rather than simply run, it was a rather up-and-down affair pace-wise on a fairly flat course. That’s quite different from the difficult Boston course with its early downhills and late climbs, and besides, I didn’t manage to run this one in negative splits anyway. But I came darn close. And I ran the most consistent, controlled marathon in any of my twenty-two tries. And that’s what made this one like no other.

I came into this race as a Designated Badass, looking my best following a face-plant on an easy taper-down trail run a mere four days before the big dance. A half-dozen miles into an easy saunter, one quick distracting glare of sun blew out my focus, turning my toe into a grappling hook trying to extract a root that obviously wouldn’t budge. Physics won. Fortunately there was no one in the forest to hear either the tree falling or the subsequent oaths emitted. This gash probably qualified for medical attention, but I settled for quietly oozing my way home and knowing that I could probably scare off anyone I couldn’t outrun on Monday.

I also came into this race knowing I had three fairly solid months of training, despite Snowmageddon, capped off with Hard Core March and that terrific final long run with The Brit a few weeks back. I felt more prepared for this one than I’d been since the ‘thirteen race, but at the same time, still figured that sub-three was a stretch, especially with the forecast headwind. With conditions as they were, I moderated my goal and set about solely to improve my existing ‘sixteen qualifier, which at three-thirteen would get me in for next year’s race but almost certainly relegate me to the second wave of starters. I figured the lower half of the three-ohs would be adequate to do the job, and I’d save the heroics for a day more attuned to speed. So rather than lurching aggressively down the early descents from Hopkinton, I didn’t fight the Corral Six traffic, and clocked the slowest first four miles of my seven competitive Bostons.

Despite the leisurely start, it wasn’t a stroll in the park. While the crowds lessened the impact of the headwind, it was omnipresent, and worse, it led to the less-than-savory choice of constantly adjusting stride to draft off endlessly changing running windscreens, or enjoying the freedom of space, only to be instantly reminded by a blast against the body of why space was not a good thing. Unlike that last long training run, there was no easy breezy fluidity to my stride, other than the fluidity that began precipitating around Framingham Center. A half dozen miles in, as the rain started to add wet to the duo of cold and windy, my usual mental math games started to register concern as I wasn’t putting much time in the bank. But on the other hand, I was measuring that banked time against the three hour mark, and while I knew I’d love to get back under that barrier – a two-fifty-nine-fifty-nine is light years from three-oh-oh-oh-oh (said the guy who ran three-oh-oh-oh-seven a few years back) – the cooler part of my head (weather-related pun intended) kept up the mantra that low-three-ohs was all I truly needed.

I’d hear later that some succumbed to hypothermia induced by the on-again, off-again forty-five-degree rain and wind. My recollection of when it rained and when it waned is at best damp and musty, but I don’t recall becoming truly soaked till the hills of Newton. Dearest Spouse’s and Dearest Daughter the Younger’s photos at the Lower Falls bridge reveal only moderate wetness, though I retained both the hat and gloves I’d figured on chucking. When the rain truly came, those gloves would become sodden leaden bombs, on one hand sucking heat, but on the other offering at least a tiny modicum of shelter from what, by Beacon Street, had become a truly unpleasant day at the office, rescued only by the fact that the race was going, er, swimmingly (sorry about that one). Images shot by the Very Expensive Race Photographers (which, respecting their copyright, I cannot reproduce here) could be mistaken for sea otters.

Any lingering doubts about splits versus perceived effort vanished in the hills. This trip wasn’t quite the spring-stepping romp of three weeks earlier – this time I did at least notice the second hill – but it was obvious that compared to days when I’d turned to chopped liver in this stretch, on this day I was the chopper, picking off fading runners constantly (I’d finish about four thousand places ahead of my bib number seeding). Heartbreak came and I was over the top feeling fully under control with only a mild decrease in pace. Mental rocket-fuel poured into the system. Mile twenty-two, coming down the backside, was the fastest of the race – a trick never before seen in my Boston experience. Past the graveyard, through Cleveland Circle, onto Beacon, in control. At twenty-four, a whoop and a high-five – so strong it almost knocked me for a loop – from Greater Boston Tom convinced me that it must’ve been visible that I had this one in the bag – another shot of adrenaline. Twenty-six wasn’t easy – it never is – but when the post-race hypothermia cleared, I’d see that I clocked the fastest last four miles of any of my nine Bostons.

It was like no other. The combination of moderated goals, early race traffic, and a conservative approach to retain strength to battle the elements resulted in the most evenly paced marathon of my career. I’ve got to get a bit nerdy here to make the point, but it’s worth making. Self-recorded mile-by-mile splits begin to tell the tale, deviating only for the hills of Newton, and then not much:

Five kilometer splits from the timing mats paint an even more pothole-free picture, courtesy of the fact that the thirty-five kilometer split includes both the up and the down over Heartbreak. Max variation was a mere four seconds per mile:

And for one final bit of nerdism, charting my seven competitive Bostons (eliminating my first, not in the same league, and the year of recovery from foot surgery, a recreational meander) makes the start and finish of this year’s race stand out. Other than a slow first mile in ‘oh-eight, quickly averaged out, this year’s edition was the slowest start, followed by the fastest finish:

With a first- to second-half variation of under a minute, this was close enough to be called even splits, and it felt good, a race to the end, under control, no death shuffle. It’s been a long time since I’ve powered through mile twenty-four! It’s been a long time since I’ve had a race like this, period, a race like no other. And best, a race like this resets your mind as to what might be possible down the road…

13 April 2015

Positive Side

It’s easy to look at last week’s race and focus on the fact that in this year’s edition, my fifth go at this local classic, I ran a Personal Worst time. It takes a little more thinking, and some would say over-rationalization, to find the positive side. But I’ve done that thinking and I’ve found that positive side – indeed, several of them. Go ahead and paint that label of over-rationalization across my face. I’m happy with the day, and I’m stickin’ to it.

The ambling party du jour was the Tri-Valley Front-Runners Frank Nealon Boston Tune-Up 15K, which winds through the up and un-up undulations of Upton. This race is a winner. It’s a club race held for runners, by runners, and priced to recognize that we’re runners, not a ready source of cash for a charity we don’t care about or a for-profit promoter. It’s well run, supported by a terrific team including a guy named Gary – who can’t love that? It’s a superb course, scenic, quiet, and moderately challenging, well matched for its timing just before Boston. It draws a reasonably strong field inspiring a solid effort. And lastly, oh, the goodies! So many post-race comestibles, with…soup! I’m smitten with any race with soup, and this one doesn’t just have soup, but a plethora of volunteer-made varieties warming with multiple flavors. Fittingly, rather than yet another shirt to stuff in the overstuffed shirt stuff drawer, this year’s giveaway was a soup mug.

OK, you get it, I love this one, which is why I’d run it four times previous (which would’ve been five consecutive save for a conflict last year). It’s also why returning is a tough prospect, as that strong field, excellent course, and brothy post-race incentive have eked some decent outings from my aging legs. So I did my homework, mined my logs, listed those four previous circuits, and seeing what I was up against, groaned. The worst of them rang in at twenty-two seconds per mile faster than my previous ten-miler Amherst outing in February. The best seemed entirely out of reach.

And as it turned out, not only was that best performance indeed entirely out of reach, but I didn’t even equal the worst – and that worst was only as bad as it was since that particular year I’d lost a bunch of time with an errant shoelace. So yes, this year’s was a Personal Worst, but there was no question this race had a big positive side.

Let’s start with the fact that while I needed – and failed – to pick up twenty-two seconds per mile from my Amherst pace to match my worst Tri-Valley, I did pick up…twenty-one. Yeah, it was close. You can quibble about this versus that: Amherst is unquestionably a tougher course, with its hellacious hill at mile three – which at least offers payback at six – but then piles it on deeper with another at eight (and let’s not forget the mud and snow). But Tri-Valley sported high winds which, as is usually the case, never felt as though they were behind you, but instead knocked you for a loop at the worst moments. Said zephyr spun up precisely at the hill at four and a half, utterly demolishing anything resembling good form, and later lined up perfectly to entirely negate the usual final mile pace-enhancing sprint. I can’t claim any scientific analysis, but times across the board seemed a bit slower than usual on that course. So call it a draw, or at least recognize that the course didn’t give up those twenty-one seconds per mile. I had to buy them with a bit of old-fashioned pain, or in other words, six weeks bought me a pretty good bump.

Though satisfied, I wouldn’t characterize this as a strong bout of racing. Once the positional dust settled by mile one, I’d went minus two for the duration, giving up two spots and gaining none. Armor Chink One came quickly by mile three, and though I was able to keep in contact, even closing a bit late in the race at least until he noticed and responded in kind – I really had no race in me. Armor Chink Two, around mile six, wasn’t even a contest. Hot youngster seemingly bounding with energy swoops in effortlessly, knocks me out of the top ten, and cruises on toward his next victim. Hey, at my age, what can you do about that? But then again, at my age, I’ve got at least twenty years on the dude, so there. And I did hold off another challenge in the final half mile to walk away with some racing pride, seal eleventh, and take ownership of the trophy for the fifties – an aptly themed engraved soup ladle (well played, Tri-Valley!). But that was the extent of the racing for the day. It was mostly an exercise in gritting it out against gravity and the elements, battling tired legs – but being able to keep those tired legs in overdrive.

But hey, at my age, I also have the joy of leaning back on the glorious age-grading tables, and you’d better believe I take that advantage. And the answer to that riddle is? By the Holy Tables, this wasn’t a Personal Worst after all, but rather smack dab in the middle of my previous four outings, with a rating just north of the golden eighty-percent, the first time I’ve cracked that barrier since the day the bombs blew at Boston. I’ll bite on that one for a positive side.

All statistics aside, the reason I’m attaching the positive side label to this is easy: Hard Core March, which was truly a lot of hard work, appears to have paid off. First in the breakthrough run on the Boston course a week back, then in dropping the pace so much at Tri-Valley compared to a mere six weeks back, and just for a bonus, with a few other tellingly positive recent workouts. Experience has taught that my aged bones require a spin-up time between turning up the training heat and seeing the results. January and February started turning the corner from the injuries and breaks of last year, and probably, in hindsight, made Hard Core March possible. March appears to have delivered.

None of this is any guarantee of a good Boston. But whether the payback appears on Patriot’s Day or not, the satisfaction of knowing that even with a few more years on the odometer, I’m battling back again toward competitiveness after this latest round of setbacks, is reward unto itself.

[ Ed note: Thanks to Ted & Mary Tyler for the photos via JimRhodes.com / Coolrunning. ]

03 April 2015


[Ed Note: This post was written for Level Renner's Boston Legion series, but of course finds a home here at home as well!]

Serial marathoners know the game. Our mileage rises in the spring and fall leading to our typically biannual races, and falls off in recovery. It’s a cycle occasionally interrupted by the inanity of stuffing in an extra outing, perhaps to make up for a bad day at the office, or just to hit a different venue without skipping a beloved favorite, but it’s a cycle just the same, sometimes so cyclic that it might seem you’ve fallen into a rut. And then, if you’re lucky, along comes the breakthrough.

The breakthrough doesn’t happen on every marathon cycle. My last significant one was a full two years back, leading up to Boston 2013. That day, my training partners and I set off for an easy twenty-four, and instead hammered the fastest non-race twenty-plus I’ve ever logged. Three weeks later, I sliced two minutes off my personal best and spent two hours of elation until the bombs blew. But since then, a series of injuries have made subsequent marathon cycles a struggle, and the build up to this year’s Boston hasn’t really been inspiring.

Until Sunday, when I hit the breakthrough.

It wasn’t as fast as the epic breakthrough of 2013, but I’m one surgery, one brush with mortality, several injuries, and two years older. It’s not that I’m resigned to never regaining that peak of 2013, but I certainly don’t see that return, if possible at all, coming in the near term. Nevertheless, Sunday’s breakthrough achieved everything one could hope for in that Last Long Run, and it came as a very pleasant surprise at that. Breakthrough.

I’m sure there’s plenty of hard-core science surrounding the training value of the long run. Frankly, I’m too old at this point to really care. Gaining an extra two-percent advantage from some highly technical advancement in technique is still not going to win me an age group crown at Boston. It’s not that I don’t have the drive to push to my maximum, it’s simply that running, and running marathons, is a lifestyle that I enjoy, and a lifestyle that needs to fit into the rest of my life with only moderate adjustments. So I don’t adhere to training plans that direct specific workouts for specific days. I know in my head what I need to accomplish, and I know how much time remains before race day. Given work schedules, weather, and how the body feels, I’ll get it in.

The Last Long One should be about three weeks prior, given the cooperation of all factors, but there have been times that I’ve had to push out a couple days, go out at an ungodly hour, and slip it in before work. Happily, this time the Gods smiled on us. Only one of my small gang of go-to long-run training partners was available, but I knew I could count on The Brit for a solid outing and that I would likely be the one challenged to keep up – the ideal way to push yourself just a little bit harder. With a clear forecast for Sunday, I eased off my pace for Friday’s ten-miler, and took a VDO – Virtual Day Off – on Saturday, cruising five on autopilot with my local club, my only goal being our Dunkin’s outing afterward.

While my “prep” – if you could call it that – for the long run was that mere two-day micro-taper, the lead-up was a bit more intense. Following Baystate last fall, I was forced into a two month break to heal an Achilles injury, restarting the engine only in mid-December. About the time the cylinders started firing, we all know what happened next, all nine feet of it. I managed to log decent mileage through the whiteout we called February, but little of it consistent. March became make-or-break, so I poured it on. My theory was simple: make my body completely impervious to the first ten or twelve (or more) miles. Hard Core March kicked off with a twenty-two miler, decent but not terribly strong, added another twenty-three two weeks later, again not a confidence-building outing, packed in over a dozen ten-plus-milers, and had me on a pace for an all-time monthly mileage high.

With the last long one slated, the good news was that my fifty-two-year-old body was withstanding the onslaught well, but the bad news was that my training pace, while improving, wasn’t where I’d like it to be, nor had the feeling of flying that we all crave truly come back since the injury break. And my outlook was not cheered when The Brit and I emerged from the car in Hopkinton at noon on Sunday to find the forecast mild tailwind instead transformed to a rather brisk headwind.

Whatever. Damn the torpedoes.

I’m somewhat of a Luddite, wearing only a classic split-taking stopwatch. I run by feel, take splits now and then with mental location notes, map it later, and analyze the data against my recollection of the experience. But I’m not above using extra data when it’s available, and I had two sources: The Brit’s GPS, and the convenient fact that we embarked from the starting line, giving us the convenience of Boston’s painted mileposts. Still, I refused to look for the first few miles. Enjoying the early downhill yet fighting that surprising wind, the Luddite me didn’t want to know. All I knew was that at the moment, I was feeling good, so I figured we mustn’t have really kicked it in yet.

A few miles in, The Brit’s first readout changed that view quickly. To my surprise, we were cutting close to seven flats. I held out till mile six, took a reading the old fashioned way, and confirmed. Now, while that pace won’t win any races, consider that my previous twenty-milers clocked in the mid seven-thirties, and I hadn’t logged a road training run of any distance under about seven and a quarter pace since…well, at the time I knew it’d been at least since the injury comeback, but a later scan of the log hinted it might well have been since last summer. And I wasn’t feeling the effort.

Our banter made the miles melt away, click, click, click. The Brit later compared our pace to a metronome, so consistent we were. He’d spit out an instantaneous GPS reading from time to time confirming such, but I again held off another six miles, where my device reinforced the message that we had a good one going. Clicking off sevens, click, click, click, not quite what I’d need to pop a sub-three in three weeks, but also not drawing on race adrenaline, and still not feeling the effort. Elvis Costello banging in my brain through seventeen, into the Newton hills, I had to ask The Brit if I’d missed the second one; I hadn’t noticed it. An old-fashioned split at nineteen revealed at most a couple of seconds lag on the pace through the first two. That lag vanished as we hit twenty, then over Heartbreak to twenty-one, at the quickest pace of the day. Still feeling strong.

At that clip, we’d land twenty-six in the mid-three-ohs (and it sure felt like no wall was in sight) but this wasn’t a race, and we weren’t pushing it. The confidence that hit when we clicked the split topping Heartbreak was priceless. Mission accomplished, we needed no more to prove our readiness. We dialed it back about twenty seconds per mile at twenty-one and effectively ran a three-mile warm-down, leaving The Brit with his longest training run – at twenty-four – and me with my biggest monthly mileage total – at three hundred ten, (with two days left in the month), and both of us feeling like, given a smile from the Weather Gods, this could be a pretty good Boston.