26 June 2015

Wicked Early

Those who know me well know that one thing I generally am not is early. Arriving at most events in the nick of time, or perhaps a nick or two out of time, I usually refer to this somewhat undesirable habit as the “efficient use of time”. After all, those meetings never start on time anyway, right?

When it comes to race training, old habits die hard, and here too I’m not much different. Life flies by, and suddenly I realize I’m eight weeks out from a marathon and haven’t topped ten miles in several months. What typically follows is a frantically compressed training cycle that I get away with due to my overwhelming talent and dashing good looks. What’s that you say? Oh, right, just a daydream…or a horror movie, you decide.

But seriously, since I stay relatively fit year-round, save for injuries or other major training breaks, and since that base level of fitness can generally slog me through twenty-six, admittedly I do pretty much get away with it. But perception isn’t always reality. What the outside world might judge to be another strong marathon performance, I often know to have been eked out on what could have been better preparation (of course, that’s life, accepting reality is healthy!). Running in many ways makes us all better people, but as that improvement isn’t universal, it hasn’t cured my tendency to get a late start for almost everything. That’s why it’s notable that a few weekends back I made my way out to preview the front half of the course for my fall target race – over four months early.

That target is the Mohawk Hudson Marathon, which as a former resident (college days) of what we always referred to as the Hudson Mohawk region, will forever strike me as titled oddly backwards. But in this case it makes sense, since it starts in Schenectady – on the Mohawk – and heads downstream to Albany – on the Hudson. Part of my training is just getting the name right.

Not being into the marathon tourism scene, I’ve had this one in my head for a while not due to its location but because of its reputation for being flat and fast. That reputation matches up nicely to this year’s post-Boston quixotic vision of rolling the dice against the clock this fall. This is the course on which a teammate of mine made his one and only submersion below two-forty, and while that’s certainly not in any version of my future parallel universes, well, I’m jes’ sayin… And as it turns out, with Dearest Offspring the Elder now encamped at my alma mater, Rensselaer, in Troy, it turns out that the location is, well, rather handy. And nostalgic. And since we were going out to visit with DOE anyway, well, why not start to get the course into my head a bit early. Yes, I said early, that word that doesn’t generally run on my track.

When a course is described as flat and fast, it’s reasonable to ask the question of why one would care about getting a preview of it. After all, there should be no surprises, right? But there always are, and so far I’ve seen only in the first half. More may lurk, yet to be discovered, and I just want to know… Besides, I’m of a geography-centric mindset. I’m hopeless with names, but places imprint easily and tend to stick. That’s a real benefit for building the mental maps and cues that can make a big difference in the highly mental marathon game. And then there’s the opportunity to get in a long hard run early in the training cycle, since our theme is after all about being early.

Such it was that I convinced Dearest Spouse, ever supportive of my obsession, to provide support for Mohawk Hudson Recon Part One. After inserting me at the starting line at Schenectady’s Central Park, she proceeded to the next stage of our elaborate logistical plan, a meeting at Lions Park at mile eight on the Mohawk-Hudson (ooh, there’s that name order thing again) Bikeway, where Phase Two of the plan would kick in. My intent wasn’t just to scope the course, but scope it at a solid tempo pace, and knowing Dearest Spouse would not only be waiting, but was putting up with this whole charade, added a layer of motivation to put down the hammer. Always a bit slow to warm up, I settled into the course, mentally acknowledging the mild rises along the first leg which I tagged ‘stupidity preventers’ (as opposed to Boston’s downhill start, which encourages stupidly fast opening miles). By mile three, having also made mental notes of the sharp road bends that called out for running tangents, I’d dropped the pace below sevens and planned to keep it there, knowing that race day would call for a whole lot more. That’s about when the surprise kicked in.

Centuries ago the Flat-Earth believers expected flatness until you fell off the edge (and I won’t get into the whole Columbus-era myth, since mankind knew the Earth was round in the time of Aristotle). Their misguided belief offers wisdom for runners of this course, however. Around mile four at a place called Blatnick Park, a spot dedicated mostly to ball fields (its main road is called “Line Drive” – cute…) but notable to Mohawk Hudson as the point where the course joins the river, the Flat-Earth maxim comes true. Passing the ball fields and rounding a bend, a splendid panorama of the Mohawk River comes into view quite suddenly, delighting the eyes, but before you have time to enjoy it, you fall off the end of the world. Right about where that big red arrow is.

This is the kind of thing that you preview a course to learn. As hills go, it’s not enormous, but it’s big enough, it’s steep enough, and it’s sudden enough that if you don’t know it’s there – and you don’t see it coming – your quads are going to be rather unhappy with you. And you’ll have twenty-two to go. Ouch.

Topographically, the next eight miles didn’t exist, save one road crossing dip, living up to the flat & fast label after that rude edge-of-the-world shock. Being a rail trail, make that flat, straight, and fast, which called for mentally cataloguing landmarks and points of reference with the expectation that those notes will make the trip in October go that much faster both mentally and, hopefully, physically. Previous years’ faded mile markers, not always obvious, hinted that my tempo pace was holding well, but come fall, that would make for merely decent where the goal is, let’s just say (because I don’t make predictions), a little more than merely decent.

At eight, Dearest Spouse was in position as planned, and once I passed, she began executing Phase Two, walking as I continued the run. Our hastily contrived plan would work out just as expected, my reaching roughly the halfway point of the course, doubling back, and meeting her head-on (no fatalities were reported) for a warm-down walk back. Logistics are everything.

The flatness continued to twelve, but interspersed with scenic river overlooks and cool green corridors. This is a truly a trail worthy of the trip, at least until the next rude shock at twelve, where the sylvan utopia is forced to deal with the reality of the Adirondack Northway, alias the interstate. Nobody reviewing the course map would find this surprising, but in my mind, you have to experience it. You have to realize that when the trail cuts left to drop you on the road that gets you past the highway, it does so with an unexpected short climb that would be inconsequential in any other venue but after having your legs drone for eight dead-flat miles, hits like about a quarter ton of bricks – and then drops you to the road just slightly steeper than your flat-tuned and suddenly-shocked legs are comfortable with. This is the kind of thing that you preview a course to learn.

Taking advantage of the newfound road, next comes the amusement of running under a signature bridge you’ve driven over so many times, but this time gaining a unique view missed by millions of motorists. Enhancing that experience is the odd fact that thanks to great engineering or simply good acoustic luck, it’s far quieter than you’d imagine for the speed and quantity of traffic passing above, oddly peaceful despite the frenetic pace just feet above your head.

Approaching mile thirteen just beyond the bridge, the meter rang and it was time to reverse, racing back to meet up with Dearest Spouse before she’d given up on me, pushing the hammer down once again expecting (wrongly, of course) she was getting impatient with my adventure, generating the kind of internal angst only I can serve up for myself. But even imaginary angst still motivates, driving me to finish the last few of the day’s fifteen at the fastest clip of the day. It was nice to know that while I’d only covered the first half of the course, the total run left a mere eleven more to the course’s end at Albany’s Jennings Landing, and though I was still shy of my target fall pace, there was plenty in the tank.

All this, and more than four months early. Wicked early. Let’s hope it pays off.

Editor’s Note: While you don’t see numbers on these ramblings, I do number them for my filing system. Though the system isn’t perfect – there have been a couple ‘special’ un-numbered entries and conversely, a couple of numbered ones that probably didn’t deserve a number balancing them out – it’s notable that with this posting, I’ve hit the three-hundred-article milestone. Assembled in a book, the collection would be a veritable tome. And imagine if you read each in a mere five minutes (a challenge considering my verbosity), you’d have wasted more than an entire day of your life. In truth, I’m honored for the few minutes you do spend soaking up these random thoughts, and thank you for your support of my other vice of writing.

03 June 2015

Days of the Dementors

I’ve long forgotten which events occurred in which of the twelve-point-six million Harry Potter films, but I do recall many of the events themselves, notably the scene where the Dementors attack our beleaguered hero and first suck the warmth and joy from his surroundings before trying to suck the joy from his soul. Until the sun finally re-emerged around four this afternoon, I was pretty convinced that the Dementors had overtaken New England for the last few days as the mercury hit levels that brought the fleece blanket out of the bedroom closet.

Back in mid-April, I and many others expounded on the brutality of the Weather Gods on the day of the Boston Marathon; the rain, the wind, the cold, the joyless souls being hauled off the course hypothermic, the remaining souls going hypothermic post-race in the canyons of Boston’s Back Bay. It occurred to me last night, tooling across town in my eco-mobile, that the car thermometer read forty-six degrees, which was, to my recollection, the temperature for Boston. And Dearest Spouse reminded me how back then we’d thought that was a nasty day for so late in the season.

But that was April. Hello, it’s June. That month that comes in like a mink whale and goes out like an opossum, or something like that. The Dementors arrived just hours before the month rolled in, the dial dropping over twenty points in the hours after my dozen humidity-swathed mid-day Sunday miles. Now, who remembers the spell that Harry used to ward them off? (Answer: A co-worker with whom I brought up the Dementor theme, quickly reminded me: Expecto Patronum!)

It’s totally wrong to put on long sleeves, double shirts, and gloves, yes, gloves, to go for a run in June, but faced with dank windy rainy forties, I don’t want to be right. Yet though the joy may have been sucked from the atmosphere, I’m finding some of it on the road.

While quantity isn’t everything, in terms of building the base and overall fitness, it’s a lot, and the odometer keeps turning, topping a mileage milestone on that dreary first of the month, the same day my latest streak – begun entirely by accident but now happily living a life of its own – hit a hundred days. And the body – excepting the left knee which has been entirely disconnected from reality, getting no worse or better through breaks or heavy training – is holding up. A co-worker asked me today about my Achilles, and I had to ask him to repeat himself. The word Achilles simply didn’t light up the neurons, since the testy tendon itself hasn’t lit up a whit of awareness in months. In short, things are holding together despite having turned up the dial to eleven.

But while basking like I’ve rarely done in the fever of a fall target race with more-or-less unrealistic hopes (which is of course motivation, but also potentially massive disappointment, but hey, I’m a big boy, I can handle it…), quality has to join the mix. Over the last few weeks, a couple of strong tempo runs have popped up, sometimes when least expected, to keep alive that go-for-broke spark of hope. An impromptu stop for a quickie run on my way home from a business meeting turned into a half-marathon at three-hour marathon pace (and the discovery of one of the finest rail trails I’ve run, Hop River State Park Trial in Vernon, Connecticut, a must-run if you’re in the area). And yesterday, despite the Dementor’s Gloom, an ordinary outing dropped into a tempo with a pace in the sixes, piercing the aerial dreariness with the satisfaction that I’m still refusing to act my age.

Even today’s, the forecasted improvement seemed to need to fight for its right to exist, and didn’t fully prevail till late afternoon. Our reward for surviving this late-season unexpected dose of despair was a perfect evening on the trails, the air a crisp sixty, the ground surprisingly solid and dry considering the volume of rain over the last three days (testament to the drought leading up to the deluge), and the filtered woodland sun seeming far more sublime than usual; its absence having made our hearts yearn for it that much more.

Clearly the trick to surviving what the Dementors throw at you is to cast your own spell, damn the torpedoes, run on, and don’t forget a good running cap to keep the slop out of your eyes.