20 May 2015

America Races on Dunkin’

There’s a truism in the running world that you don’t try anything new on race day. In general, I ascribe to that adage, but at some point you come to the conclusion that if you never try anything new, you’ll never figure out alternate strategies that just might be of use. And you never know what might just be of use; sometimes it’s the things you might not expect – like racing on donuts. Now, I’m not saying that racing on a diet of donuts is an advisable strategy, but it happened to work out that way, and the results were good. Not that I’m going to make it a habit, mind you.

Our local club is a generally agreeable and highly gregarious gang that spans all ages, though canted toward us old farts, and represents all abilities save Kenyan (though we did have a Kenyan for a while – not a wicked fast one but a Kenyan just the same), though canted toward the pace of normal people. Admittedly, though I try not to make hay of it, I fall mildly on the freak side of the bell curve, being one of the fleeter of feet in the throng, which can be a tad off-putting when I try to invite passing runners to join our group. But it also means that many of our group runs are for me casual traipses, a pleasant way to relax and be social, hangin’ with me mates, so to speak. I look forward to Saturday mornings, even though I’m not a morning runner, for the comradery and, of course, for the post-run donut run. Short of deep-fried Oreos, that’s about as far as you can get from health food, but hey, if all those miles don’t buy the pleasure of a donut, is life worth living?

A couple of Saturdays back, it was that time of year for the annual expedition over the Hill From Hell, or as is more commonly known, the Clinton Tribute 5-Miler, a race who’s name has taken on a whole new meaning in the post-Hunger Games era. Besides sporting a course so challenging that it has, in my experience, added close to a minute compared to other five-milers I’ve run in the same time frame, it’s also local, low-key, and not so competitive as to require a Herculean effort to rank reasonably well. In other words, it’s not a bad venue to try out something new. That didn’t mean I planned to test deep-fried rocket fuel. It simply meant trying out a “pre-run” strategy.

Since my youthful first-lap days, I’ve always been a slow starter. My high school mile was respectable, but my favorite event even then was the longest the track would serve up to a schoolboy, the two mile, and even in that, the first mile was a struggle. It was usually lap eight before the jets fired and the fun started.

Now in my ripely aged state, my condition is no different except to have become more pronounced. Mile one of any run is a jerky grunt-filled slog, and track workouts demand about a day and a half of loosening the joints before I can coax anything resembling speed from dem’ bones. In that vein, shorter races just aren’t my forte. I live by the mantra that the best warm-up for a five kilometer race is five kilometers, and I’ve sometimes done just that. So the thought hit me: since Saturday morning’s club run was a five-miler, why not stretch that strategy? After all, the race wasn’t till eleven, and five easy wouldn’t take anything significant out of me. And I hate to miss my Saturday mornings with the gang, even if I’d see some of the gang at the race later on. Which is how I ended up chowing a donut at eight-thirty. But hey the race isn’t till eleven, right?

And as it turned out, right indeed. By eleven, all intestinal vestiges of donut had moved on, and the legs were indeed loose and limber when I went out for yet another two-mile pre-race warm-up with the second set of the day’s club-mates. A couple stretches and strides after that, and it was off to the races. And hey, who knows, maybe the slow-release energy of that fat pill worked in my favor?

This race, which I’ve written of before, starts uphill and throws something insulting at you during each of its five miles. Just to shake things up a bit, this year the race starter tossed in a an additional comic slap at mile zero by mistakenly pressing the wrong button on his bullhorn, setting off its siren instead of turning it on for announcing. Yep, my bullhorn has that same button, been there, done that, laugh it off! Though we’d had no ‘runners set!’ warning, most of us in the first few rows instinctively took off, confusion and then humor setting in only a few seconds later as our brains engaged. A false start in a road race? Or simply more warm-up? Take two.

Off for real a minute later, the race itself was relatively unremarkable. Once the short-timer sprint starters sorted themselves out, I found myself in sixth at the top of the starting hill, a little better than I’m used to from my two previous outings at this roughly three-hundred-person event. A mile later, Victim One succumbed, followed by Victim Two another mile after that, leaving me in fourth at the halfway mark, where I’d stay till the end, nice from a place standpoint but by that point already a few seconds behind what I’d targeted on time. And while the top three were still in sight, I was far enough from third place to know a podium finish wasn’t likely, barring someone else’s untimely demise. The game was pretty simple from there: conquer the Hill from Hell and don’t let anyone surprise me, especially an old guy.

Hell came, Hell went, purgatory loomed. After HfH, the course takes a stride-killing hundred-and-sixty degree turn before screaming down the Dam Hill (which isn’t a mild curse, in fact it rockets down alongside a big dam) before yet another climb, alias Purgatory, back to downtown. So far as mental challenges go, the Dam Hill is the worse of the two. With speed not being my forte, I’m simply not a strong downhiller. And coming off HfH, it’s second nature to back off, recover, and gather your wits when the gravity assist kicks in. But that’s not racing. Racing means maintaining the intensity, staying away from the comfort zone, defying the pain. Sure, it was downhill, but it was downhill at mile four. You have no excuses. I broke my brief reverie and re-lit the engines.

Fourteen seconds separated me from an eighty-percent age-group rating, a standard I hold as my “A-List” of success, but hindsight reminded me that on any other course, I’d have likely arrived at the line a lot sooner, so I walked to the nearest beer satisfied with my race and in line for one of the oversize trophies from this land of misfit toys for my Senior class win. But more pleasing was the comment from finisher number five, who unbeknownst to me was bearing down, or perhaps bearing up, as we made that u-ey at the top of Hell. Thinking he might have some ripe picking in his sights, he told me he was surprised to see me break it open on the Dam Hill. Really? It was noticeable? On a downhill? Dam(n). How’d that happen?

I’d like to say training, mental toughness, maybe a boost from the pre-run strategy, but… Maybe it was the donut?

07 May 2015


One of the coolest (or actually, warmest) moments of my Patriot’s Day adventure came when I stepped into the shower at the post-marathon party at the Marriott, glanced at my watch, and realized it was only one forty-seven in the afternoon. Doing the math, since it took me four minutes to cross the starting line and a minute shy of three hours to reach the end, that meant it was a mere forty-four minutes from the relief of the finish line to the relief of the gloriously restoring hot cascade. Being after the race, I guess you might call that not just math, but aftermath.

All heaps of praise due to the Squannacook River Runners for this annual delight (the shower, the party, and their willingness to haul in my bag of dry stuff since the Boston Athletic Association abdicated that responsibility) aside, the aftermath of Boston has been, save that first forty-four minutes, a romp of motivated glee. Oh, but that first forty-four minutes…

This year there was no lingering in the post-race processing chute. Within five minutes of finishing, hypothermia set in, thanks to the cold rain and wind. Seeing as the only solution is to get out of wet clothing and into dry, and seeing as how after the bombings, the BAA moved the bag check clear to the Common for those coming from Boston in the morning and completely eliminated this crucial service for those coming directly to Hopkinton, I’d say I told you so, but it would sound old at this point. They didn’t listen last year when they got a free pass with good weather. Perhaps this year having seen legions of dangerously chilled runners, they’ll take note and respond.

It’s only two and a half blocks from the finish line to the end of the post-processing chute, during which journey one gets a medal, and slightly-less-than-entirely-useless heat cape (only slightly less useless than a mylar heat sheet), and various forms of post-race nourishment. Other than the effectiveness of the heat-cape (and to that, well, what can you do? we can’t expect mink), the BAA does a seriously admiral job at this process and supplies plenty of goodies served up by thousands of awesome volunteers. But even on a moderately decent day, your body is dehydrated and generally shot, susceptible to the elements like no other time in your usual life. On a day like this year’s Patriot’s Day, violent shaking is a certainty.

I’d made it to Berkeley Street and turned to double back toward Copley Place and the Marriott when a keen-eyed medical sweeps volunteer spotted my utter blueness and sternly and wisely redirected me to the mini-med tent they’d set up at the corner of St. James for a warming session. Entering the tent reminded me of an old Monty Python sketch where the hapless victim is led into a flat by a voluptuous blonde (perhaps I was hallucinating?) only to be dumped into a small room filled with previous hapless victims. The tent was packed to the gills with soaking, shuddering, colorless people incapable of holding the cups of hot coffee being passed around (and to think, I’m a tea drinker…). Soaked through with no option to change into dry clothes, being out of the rain mattered little, though at least it was five or ten degrees warmer in the tent. After fifteen minutes, just enough to reduce my personal Richter scale below 6.0, I made the mad dash (or more accurately, shuffle, being the fastest I could muster having just run a marathon) through the weather to Copley muttering a mantra of, “So cold!” to the amusement of passers-by.

Oh, the heaven of that shower. And after that shower, everything changed.

I’m squarely in the camp that adheres to running the very day after the marathon. At my age, it’s the only way of avoiding turning into a rubber band within a week. Just a few miles, nice and slow, but enough to loosen things up and assess the damage. And the cool thing is, this time, there was virtually no damage. The left quad was sore – but only the left, not the right, likely due to a bit of favoritism thanks to the left knee which has been troublesome for months (yet didn’t bother me a whit during the race). As is usual, the soreness peaked on day two, the “forty-eight-hour burn” as I call it, subsided rapidly, and that was it. Further, a week post-race, the legs were actually feeling springy, turning in some surprisingly quick outings while I wasn’t looking.

But the real boost has been mental. This one was a gauntlet, another attempt to recover from the latest round of injuries, piled on top of yet a few more years on the bones, enhanced by a day that would have been from Hell had Hell been cold, wet, and windy. I walked away from it with a solid race and a working body, and more critically, an eagerness like I haven’t felt in a long time to focus my summer training – starting now – on my planned fall race. Just to see what happens.

Mental rocket fuel.

Bonus Topic Department: How Not to Run A Railroad: While I’ve got a local five-miler queued up this weekend, a big event will be going off on the other side of the country. The Eugene Marathon and Half-Marathon returns to its usual May time slot, back from last year’s modified late-July schedule set up so it would coincide with the IAAF World Juniors Championships. Why do I care? After all, I’m not flying back to Eugene this year.

In this column, I’m generous with my praise of events, people, and actions that make our sport what it is. I’m measured with my criticism, knowing that negative words can fall on incorrect targets and can come back to bite later. But since nearly a year – or in this case, an “event year” – has passed, it’s time to register some serious dissatisfaction with the organizers of the Eugene event.

Let’s lay it out flat. They stiffed me on my award. They committed to shipping the age group awards, so as to have a chance to verify the results. I supported them in this decision, actually arguing on their behalf while, defending a race official with whom I was chatting who was accosted by a woman angry she wasn’t getting her award right then. Anytime both marathoners and half-marathoners cross the same line, mix-ups do occur, so holding off on distributing the awards isn’t unacceptable in my book. (And full disclosure, I was also glad not to have to haul it home, as my luggage was already heavy). But if you’re going to ship the awards, be sure you do it right. They fell down. My award never came.

Once again, why should I care? Let’s face it, I’ve got plenty of swag around here; enough that it’s getting hard to fit the stuff into my crowded office. What’s another third-place-in-my-age-group plaque really matter, anyway? Well, this race meant something to me on two counts. First, it was an emotional victory, being the first major race in which I’d won something since coming back from the rather jarring double-whammy of the Achilles surgery and the blood clot caper. And second, it was the first time I’d won something in a major race outside the east, which was a nice feeling, knowing I could step outside my pond and still swim. On top of that, our Oregon trip was a just plain cool adventure, and why wouldn’t I want the award that came of it?

Eugene apparently shipped the awards with no tracking information, despite the fact that tracking is free with all major shippers including the US Postal Service (I use it all the time). So when I contacted them months later, perplexed, they had no idea that the package hadn’t arrived. But they then compounded their sin by repeatedly promising to replace the award, and repeatedly failing to deliver. It wasn’t the top of my priority list, but every few months I’d check in, and after a few tries to get them to respond, get a new promise, and then…nothing. Finally they claimed the award company had gone out of business, but offered to get one up from the new company hired for this year’s race. At that point I hardly cared, but having told them why the award was meaningful to me, I told them to do whatever they felt was right.

Which was apparently nothing.

There’s a chance I might get a surprise after this year’s race, and if that happens, so be it, but let’s face it. It’s a year later. Race directors who treat their customers like this don’t win awards themselves.