28 July 2015

Chasing and Racing Away the Summer Slump

Summertime, and the living is…so far as running goes, usually associated with a slump. It happens every year, and though I’ve learned to expect it, it never fails to alarm me that once again, this could be the Beginning of the End, the start of that inevitable slide to oblivion (which is rather presumptuous of me to maintain that I’m not in oblivion already, but…). By the numbers, July hasn’t looked all that bad in terms of average training pace, until I cast off the rose-colored glasses and acknowledge that there have been more days of “no time” in the log than days where the run felt good enough to make it worth worrying about how quick the day’s miles passed.

And so we do what summer demands: run slow, run at ungodly hours of the morning to avoid the heat, run in interesting places to substitute fresh for fast, and of course, shake off the cobwebs with a few races. The slow part is easy. The ungodly part, not so much, but I’m getting better at rolling out before six, though I swear I’ll never enjoy it. The interesting places part comes by the luck of the schedule, earlier this month hitting three other states in a ten-day stretch, including a jaunt to my native Upstate New York for a family wedding. It seemed like a cool idea to run up the roads to the top of the Watkins Glen gorge and take the rim trail back down, and the deer and fox crossing my path on the way up seemed good run omens, but the reality of a muddy winding trail with a fatally high and unprotected drop into the yawning canyon on the left just didn’t work out as planned. Interesting? Yes. Fresh? Yes. Comforting? Not by a long stretch.

Which leaves the last bastion of battling the blahs, the summer race. And what better place to race than on a reasonably shady course in a beautiful park alongside ponds filled with blooming water lilies, that is, well, in a somewhat less than garden community of the Commonwealth. OK, so you can’t have everything perfect, but if it weren’t for the Level Renner 10K, I’d probably never have the adventure of going to Brockton. Truth be told, I can’t tell you if the rest of Brockton lives up to its reputation, but D.W. Field Park is a pretty nice place. Of course, two thirds of it is in Avon anyway.

By just my second trip to this venue, it’s become a favorite. It’s mostly because the folks from Level Renner who put it on do it solely for their love of the sport. That shines through. This is a by runners, for runners race. They’ve dispensed with the crap and focused on the important stuff, notably including actually reporting on the race as a race first – pretty rare in this age of overpriced and over-swagged corporate for-profit events and endless 5K runners-look-like-ATMs fundraisers. Instead, you get reporting on the race with videos and commentary on the action, interviews with the winners, and actually paying attention to the fact that our sport, while inclusive and welcoming to all abilities, is at its heart, competitive. Thanks to that attitude, while not a big event (though they doubled this year over last), the field oozes quality, and quality provides the competition that inspires better performances.

All that was great, but overhanging mini-Grand-Prix-style motivational atmosphere was an entirely different kind of atmosphere, a crushing one with heat pushing the mid-eighties and humidity close enough to fully saturated that my warm-up left me a soggy sorry sight. Probably two thirds of the course is indeed shaded, which technically helped, though we were too far gone even before the gun sounded to truly appreciate that positive aspect. So, into the woods, but bring a paddle or a bucket or something because it’s wet in there.

The bad news is that a camera malfunction left Dearest Spouse with only a couple of shots of the tail end of my warm up with training partner Issam, also known as He For Whom a Blog Name has Never Stuck, and a few burst shots of the start, including a bit of goofiness (see zoom) when I noticed her snapping away. After that, kaput.

The good news is that a camera malfunction left Dearest Spouse without pictures from later in the race. The videos posted on the Level Renner site make clear you didn’t want to see that, anyway. It wasn’t pretty.

The last I’d see of my training partner was during that warm-up, after which he blew my doors off by a couple of minutes and erased my local club masters 10K record. Ever humble, he’d typically not even report the feat to the record master, but to my view, records are there to be broken, so once I managed to recover the ability to speak afterward, he gained my lauding, admiration, and insistence on recognition of his feat. The guy is just plain tearing it up.

Meanwhile, back in the cheap seats, I duked it out with perennial rival Bad Dawg. To call our relationship a rivalry at this point is my second sin of presumptuousness in a single column since it’s usually a rather one-sided contest these days with me on the short end, unless I can catch him on a tough day. Never more than a few strides off my flank, by about a mile and a half in, with the temperature gauge already pointing toward overheated, he slipped ahead – my only question being why it took him so long – and settled thirty to forty feet up. Over the course of the next four miles I watched in frustration as he first stopped by his parked car to take a slug from a cached bottle, then stopped at not one but two water stops for the full ingestion approach, and despite my uninterrupted efforts, I still couldn’t catch him. On some dimension somewhere, that’s just wrong.

But with under a half mile to go, with not just my feet but also those of the runner nearest me exuding resounding squishes on every stride from the absurd amount of sweat drowning every inch of our beings, my ersatz rival succumbed to what I’d learn later was in fact his tough day – he having raced a mere three days prior. On the last turnaround, literally working not to slide out of my inundated insoles while cornering, I slipped past him. But with the third and final ascent of the course’s sole hill between us and the end, no part of me expected it was over. Utterly tapped, that climb seemed so absurdly slow that I couldn’t fathom why I had yet to be overtaken. Only when topped out did I dare break my cardinal rule of never looking back and do so, knowing my opportunities to come out ahead on this scorecard were mighty few, and being damned if I’d give it up in the last tenth of a mile.

I know I placed a lot more importance on that micro-victory than did he, since it’s been a somewhat rarer occurrence to put a check in my column, so learning just how big the gap was at the end took on a somewhat irrational urgency. Dearest Spouse, who’s Priority One was to corral my wilted remains into the shade post haste, didn’t immediately connect that that my seemingly dazed wandering back toward the chute was in fact entirely lucid behavior with purpose. As noted, irrational purpose, but purpose none the less. Pointless, too, since I didn’t see the gap anyway.

Two minutes prior to my finish I’d lost my local club’s masters 10K record, but to my pleasure, on a day that could make molasses flow (or perhaps just rot), I’d sliced a fair chunk off my local club’s seniors 10K record, one that I already owned, but one that I made a little bit harder for my training partner to snatch away when he gets old and crusty like me. Combined with surpassing my target time and age-graded performance, it was a fine even if disgustingly sweaty way to break through a couple layers of that summer slump.

How long is it till September?

22 July 2015


Consider the lowly asterisk. One of only two characters that have been bestowed the Sainthood of its very own telephone key. It’s a graphic that has largely lost its identity in the smartphone era, being known to most of the current generation as merely ‘star’. And of all the commonly used symbols in our life, it’s probably the one that almost nobody draws accurately; for that matter, few even agree on how many points it should have.

But oh, it’s power. This diminutive glyph has the power to destroy what people have worked a lifetime to achieve. Roger Maris never got over his asterisk. As the man who finally, after thirty-four years, broke Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record, he found his achievement demeaned with an asterisk. Growing up as a baseball fan (in Upstate New York, so pardon my not being a Red Sox fan back then, but at least I followed the Mets and despised the Yankees even then), I always remembered that asterisk after Maris’ name. Yeah, he broke the record, but he did it in the recently lengthened season, whereas The Babe had eight fewer games in which to set his mark. So slather that man’s reputation with something worse than a scarlet letter! Give him an asterisk!

Well, I got my own asterisk last month, along with twenty-some of my Greater Boston Track Club teammates, at a rather unusual and significantly enjoyable event, the Somerville Road Runners Club Challenge Cup Marathon Relay. We earned our asterisk fair and square, and we’re proud of it. Of course, the race officials just called it a disqualification, but we’re OK with that. To us, it’s a glorious asterisk.

This one fell into my favorite category of races: accidental events. Or call it a pop-up, unplanned, and therefore unable to generate great angst in the lead-up, since you don’t have much time to think about it. And besides, if you didn’t know you were racing it just a few days before, would it really matter if you tanked anyway? No pressure, just fun, let’s go out and test the wheels.

Now, most of my accidental events have at least been on the radar screen, just waiting for the opportunity to jump in to arise. Consider that first Martha’s Vineyard, or last year’s Lynn Woods, both races I knew about before the last minute chances to toss my shoes in the ring. But this one? Never heard of it. And considering the nature of the beast, twenty-six legs of a mile each (save the first one which included the extra point two), it was an event for which I was ill-prepared at best. What, me, race a mile? It’s been three and a half years since the last time I did that. It’s not something I remotely train for. The potential for comic outcomes was vast.

Yeah, let’s go for it.

The call went out a mere three and a half days before the gun went off. Our intrepid team organizer took on the audacious task of assembling a team of twenty six in a mere three days. Merely thinking he could pull this off at all pretty much defines the word chutzpah. And impressively, he did pull it off. Mostly.

Pulling together the twenty-four runners that he did in that period of time is nothing to shake a stick at. And being a couple short wasn’t really a problem, since the rules allowed for two to run a pair of legs (though the repeat offenders were supposed to have been the slowest on the team, which would have put Old Relic here, running in the midst of the gaggle of Young Hip and Fast GBTC speedsters, at serious risk of having to experience twice the agonizing fun). But we fell down on our female count, where the rules said we needed at least eight to run at least ten legs, but came up a few short at only five. As a result, we knew going in that our efforts wouldn’t count. We decided we didn’t care (which also meant we didn’t care who ran the double legs, which mercifully saved my legs!). We’d run it anyways, just for the fun of it. After all, shouldn’t this all be just about the fun of it?

We ran it, we smoked it, and we wiped the other teams off the track. And indeed, it didn’t count. Yeah, so what?

The irony of course, is that had we had our full complement of fast women, I and my fellow masters would probably have slid off the roster in favor of the younger faster guys. There was no rule requiring a certain number of antiques on the team (hmm, suggestion for race organizers for next year?). So perhaps an asterisk was the best I could get. I’ll take it and be proud to be associated with the team that earned it.

As for the race, though I had only three days to think about it, I conveniently had the chance to hit the track the morning after signing up. It’d been so long since racing on any track, I frankly had no idea whether to attack this in road racing shoes, or the odd red slipper-like featherweight things I’d picked up recently and wasn’t sure what to do with, or dive in head first and strap on those track spikes I bought years ago when I barely tasted the indoor track scene. A couple of shoe changes later, it was pretty clear that my aged gait wasn’t going to take to the spikes in three days flat. I settled on the red monster slippers. Likewise, I wasn’t at all sure how to prepare for racing a mile, knowing that my warm-up requirements have gotten longer and longer, and that I don’t hit full speed until about number three or four of any track interval, and that with twenty teams shuffling twenty-six runners, there’d be no space on the track for those kind of warm-up shenanigans. When race day came, I found myself leaving the stadium over and over, trying to simulate leg-loosening repeats over a series of mini-warm-ups. I can’t say I was anywhere ready by the time my nineteenth leg rolled around.

Meanwhile, our GBTC Speedy Young Turks and Fast Sleek Women were embarrassingly running up the score on the rest of the teams. I knew that in the end, nothing would matter, but teamed with guys running four-twenties and thirties, and ladies smoking low fives, I had to at least strive for respectability. Besides, we’d been promised a barbeque by Coach Tom if we beat his youthful marathon best of two nineteen. Never mind the unattainable win, we wanted the burgers. I targeted five and a half as an attainable – and mostly unembarrassing – goal.

Snap, it was over. Accustomed to marathons, firmly of the belief that a five-K is way too short and fast for my tastes, the mile barely registered. Click, a lap, a little quicker than desired but of no concern, just back it off a hair. Click, the second lap, a little too slow, noticing that by leg nineteen, runners of all abilities spread into an almost uniform paste over the track offered utterly nobody to key on. Click, the third, always the toughest lap of a mile repeat in a workout and no different here, yet a second quicker than the previous, in good shape. Click, the last one, solid, closing with pleasingly even first-half-second-half splits, and as a bonus beating my target by a few seconds. Hey, I’m just getting warmed up. It’s over?

I knew that I simply hadn’t known how to race that distance, and that given some practice, I’d probably slice quite a bit off my result, but coulda’ shoulda’ was meaningless, and the order of the day was just to soak it up and enjoy. To my amusement, I later found myself having run the fourth fastest of the nearly fifty fifty-plus men’s legs, not that the distinction would get me a cup of tea at Dunkin’s. But to even greater amusement, I savored the moment with a bunch of our teammates accumulated on the track to root on our last man as he closed out our odyssey out at the two hour, thirteen and a half minute mark. Three things were obvious: we’d earned our burgers, we’d bettered the next team by enough (six minutes, it turned out) that had we swapped five of our men’s legs for more women’s legs we’d likely still have won it, and that despite having just teamed for what we thought was a pretty respectable time, we knew that most respectable Kenyans would have kicked our butts entirely on their own. That kind of put what they do in perspective.

In the end, twenty-two teams found spots in the results, followed by a twenty-third, emblazoned with a prominent DQ rather than a place rank. But in my book, DQ is for ice-cream cones and Blizzards. We took it as an asterisk: what we did, but what was – and had rightly to be – taken away. Roger Maris, we feel your joy, and we feel your pain.

09 July 2015

Forest Roads

Dearest Spouse made an amusing comment recently. “In any other household,” she noted, “I’d be considered the fit one.” Living with Yours Truly, who is admittedly a tad obsessed with tallying miles and refusing to admit that trips around the sun must have some cumulative impact on the rate of that accumulation, and with Dearest Daughter the Younger, who has been touched by more than just a tad of that genealogical influence, she’s got a point. With her daily exercise routine (she’s at the gym far more often then I), healthy lifestyle (I’m not terrible, but she’s far better at avoiding nutritional vices), overall health (while I fret over my cholesterol and blood pressure, doctors can’t find hers), and toned (dare I say svelte?) physique, she’s the envy of anyone. Unfortunately, that stuff doesn’t show up in the newspaper like results from running Boston, so I tend to get the attention while she clearly doesn’t get the credit she deserves. So let it be known publicly, she’s significantly skewing America’s fitness curve in the right direction, and I won’t be a whit jealous to hear you compliment her on it.

I put that out there publicly because she enjoys teasing me publicly about my habits on outings like our annual sojourn to Acadia National Park. “Apparently,” she points out, “he doesn’t think hours of hiking are enough, so he goes running as well.” True that, guilty as charged. I do generally run on the days that we hike, and since I’ve stumbled into another streak, on this year’s trip that meant I’d be running on every day, including every day that we hiked, which was every day, save one.

But in my defense, the same thing that draws us to Acadia to hike and enjoy the forests, mountains, and coastlines of Mount Desert Island also draw me to want to be out absorbing that beauty and the smell of the pine forest as much as possible – and what better way to chalk up more tree time than to run through those forests? So for this year’s trip, I privately set myself a goal that at least part of every day’s run would be off the pavement, either on simple forest roads or the on the park’s rightly vaunted carriage road system. And to my pleasure, I went eight for eight.

From the cozy cottage we rent by the sea, it’s a brief jaunt before pavement even appears, but under my rules, an extended driveway doesn’t count. From there, it’s a minimum two miles to the closest forest road within the park, though to get there even that quickly requires gingerly stepping across the unique stone pedestrian causeway holding back the waters of Norwood Cove. Not that this is a bad thing; indeed, it’s yet another allure of the place, visible from afar yet oddly hard to actually find, hidden down a long dirt residential drive, and popping out on the far end on the back side of some country-club tennis courts, a seemingly private space where public passage is not just accepted but expected. It’s Maine, basically; there are in most cases no pretentions. Midway across the stones is a somewhat-less-than-confidence-inspiring bridge which, depending on when you hit it, crosses the tide rushing madly in or madly out, either of which carrying the force to hurt you, or, at just the right moment mid-tide, serene balance. Zen.

And not too distant on the other side, into the woods! The park forest road to Valley Cove is a mere six tenths of a mile in and the same course back, such a short forest interlude for the time taken to get there and return, but carrying such an overpowering aroma as to put you miles from reality in about one hundred yards. At the end, a brief trail puts you not just on the rocky beach, but on the rocky beach in a cove so isolated as to be almost magical, a place you don’t want to depart on any day, but mostly on our last day, before heading home (with two hikes enroute), a real ‘so long Maine, I’ll miss you’ spot. (Photos are of Valley Cove from across Somes Sound and from above on St. Sauveur Mountain)

So it is for the other reachable forest roads on the west side of the island. A few miles on paved roads to get there, a few miles back, and only a brief interlude in the trees…but worth every step to get there. Lurvey Springs Road is only a mile and a half of bliss on the south side of Beech Mountain, but it’s bliss worthy of the highway run needed to get back into town (though to be fair, it’s a screamingly fun downhill romp of a highway run). The road through Hio Heath gives about two miles of solitude through woods that are frankly so flat and nondescript as to be calming in their own right, letting you forget which way you’re going or how far it is till you’ll pop out in the back of the park campground, surprising the Winnebago crowd on a misty Maine morning. All these made the week’s agenda at least once.

But the jewels of Acadia are its carriage roads, bequeathed from Rockefeller’s oil fortune, a small give-back considering the monopolistic practices he used to build that fortune. Putting politics and ethics aside, they are a delight: light underfoot, enlightening to the senses, and extensive enough to fashion some major mileage. Being on the east side of the island, we can’t reach them on foot from the cottage, but a short drive is a small price to pay to run these gems.

Sunday post-hike found us at Little Long Pond, just feet from the ocean shore, on one of the few sections of the road system I had yet to traverse (I love covering new ground I haven’t seen – new roads, new trails, whatever). Darling Daughter the Younger and I traipsed a four-mile loop heading clockwise around the pond and over Mitchell Hill with a few sublime viewpoints. After lap one, DDY headed off to snap another hundred photos (seriously, averaging two hundred a day, this kid knows how to beat the hell out of a bucket of pixels) while I spun around, dropped the pace to sevens, and cranked a hard lap in the opposite direction. Zen and satisfaction, what a deal.

Tuesday, our one day of no hiking, Maine cold, Maine rainy, Maine raw, so raw as to make me put on gloves in June, we assuaged our dismay at the weather by putting in highly choreographed long run. Departing from the famed Jordan Pond House, DDY headed clockwise on the “Around the Mountain” eleven mile loop, while I pushed the pace heading east to Bubble Pond before joining her route in the opposite direction, providing us with a Moment of Zen (Oh! John Stewart! We will SO miss you!) as we passed each other on the north side of Sargent Mountain where the views would have been sublime…save that Maine weather. Then, with the intent of covering a few more of the few remaining roads I’d yet traversed, I headed south to tie into the route of Sunday’s run, meaning the last of my sixteen miles, intricately planned to finish within two minutes of DDY, ended seriously uphill, agonizing, yet climbing on a new road (for me) through the valley of a rumbling brook so beautiful it was hard to care about the effort.

Thursday, having covered five summits in boots, DDY and I swapped them out for running shoes and set out on a purely tourist circuit on the northern quadrant of the carriage roads, arcing the outer limits of the Witch Hole Pond area. DDY wasn’t quite used to my tourist running mode and was rather surprised by our laissez-faire attitude, stopping for ponds, stopping for turtles, stopping for views, stopping for bridges, stopping for snakes, whatever.

After all, when the forest calls, sometimes you might work hard, but sometimes, you just go with it.