24 October 2015
I’ve had plenty of years in which to do plenty of foolish things, but last week’s escapade ranks high on the list of what I like to call DDTs – or Don’t Do Thats (which are closely related to DTTDs, or Dumb Things To Do, but that one doesn’t roll off the tongue quite so easily, and I admit I stole both of these terms from a co-worker in the eighties, but whatever…). Less than seventy-two hours after crossing the finish line at Mohawk-Hudson, I found myself summiting Owl’s Head in New Hampshire’s White Mountains with Dearest Daughter the Younger on an eighteen mile odyssey that included fifteen miles of trail running. If that isn’t a DDT, I’m not sure what is.
Most of my compatriots already think me a bit daft for not only running a warm-up before a marathon (no, I don’t do a warm-down afterward), but insisting on running the next day. In my defense, I claim age, both from the sanity perspective (it’s long gone) as well as the tied-in-knots effect. Without a warm-up, I won’t hit stride till mile two or three, an unaffordable delay in any race, even a marathon if you’re racing it. And nixing the next day’s outing generally means subsequent days will find me twisted like the rubber band on those wind-up airplanes we played with as kids. Well, at least we old farts played with them; now they’re powered by some derivative of fossil fuel and lithium ion batteries, but ours had rubber bands. And we liked them.
Though most who’ve run a marathon really don’t want to hear this, my post-race days usually aren’t too bad. One result of high-mileage training is that the distance of the marathon doesn’t cause too much distress, though the intensity certainly can. Day-after damage varies based on the pace of the event, the nature of the course, and so on, but other than a little forty-eight-hour burn (that tendency for muscle soreness to peak on the second day after), I’m not usually in the “Oh My God It’s A Staircase” set. Yup, it was a big race, I ran hard, I hurt a bit, I run it off slowly and gently over the next few days and try not to do anything truly stupid like racing within a week or two.
So it was this time. Following Mohawk Hudson, I felt pretty good – in fact, remarkably good. No real damage and only light muscle aches. A gentle trail run with Dearest Spouse the next morning, followed by a couple of mile walk in the woods later that day, meant that Tuesday’s forty-eight-hour mark was as close to a non-event as one could wish for. Which left me with a problem. DDY, diligently working her way through New Hampshire’s Four-Thousand Footers, had had her eye on a certain obscure spot known as Owl’s Head for some time.
It’s about nine miles in with eight stream crossings. But this is the fall, when water levels are low, and it hadn’t rained much of late – at least where we live. After burning a tremendous amount of time searching for a crossable spot of the largest flowing obstacle (the GPS trace of those minutes was rather
We had no unrealistic expectations of getting though this journey anywhere close to dry. We were simply relying on enough relative speed so as not to care about our saturation state (certainly one’s pace on White Mountain trails, especially inbound grading uphill, can’t be called speedy, but speedy relative to a traditional hiking assault.) While trying to avoid the mud, rivulets, rivers, and various joyously hydrated surprises, we cared less and less as the day wore on about missteps. Early day cries of, “I got it!” (meaning wet), faded to simple acceptance of a constant state of wet.
18 October 2015
Magic happened around mile five of last week’s Mohawk Hudson Marathon. Just after screaming down the quad-crunching descent from Blatnick Park to the Mohawk River, a coffee klatch formed that turned what had started as a decent but tenuously nervous race into a day for the record books. No, I didn’t eclipse my all-time fastest marathon, but on an age-graded basis (and as a Certified Old Fart, I love age-grading) it was my best. Indeed, on nearly every measure, but one in particular, this one was Almost Perfect.
Many marathons, this one no exception, provide pace groups to assist runners to reach their goal times. But I’ve never seen a race with a pace group targeting sub-three hours; there generally isn’t enough depth in the field to make it worthwhile, and besides, folks in that zone usually have very specific goals. But by mile five, we’d built a cadre of at least a half-dozen, maybe as many as ten, all hammering so solidly and steadily, that we declared ourselves to be the two-fifty-five pace group.
It’s a beauty of the sport that while we’re competing with each other, we’ve got each other’s backs. At the simplest level, it’s trading off gels and beverages and the like, but at the deeper level it’s like hooking yourself to the outside of a moving freight train. You’re not sure it’s safe to continue to hold on, but you know that jumping off is going to really hurt, even if you aim for a soft landing spot. So you draw energy off each other, tell yourself to damn the torpedoes, and motor on.
From the start in Schenectady, I wasn’t certain what I had in me. The ghosts of the achy and ugly months of sub-optimal training leading up to this race pointed to a conservative run, though my heart had targeted this one since the spring for a blow-out performance on a flat and fast course. The perfect foggy forty-five at launch, which would rise only to the mid-to-high fifties when the sun broke through, hampered only by a surprisingly strong headwind at various points, was a siren call to let ‘er rip. But the head kept saying no, don’t be a fool, the body isn’t ready to let loose, just be reasonable, turn in something respectful, and go home sated if not truly satisfied. The only pre-race decision I could garner was a non-binding pact made during warm-up with a young gun named Dan. We agreed. Nothing stupid. Conservative start. Aim for seven-ish.
That much I pulled off. Not seven, but not too far below it as to make me nervous. But things heated up as things do, so by the time our gang coalesced, the gremlins were running amok in my brain clanging alarm bells. Did it really make sense to be burning this pace? Clearly, this was work, and having clicked off fewer than a fifth of the distance, a whole lot of me was saying that this developing race plan really wasn’t a good idea.
So why was this race Almost Perfect? Certainly the result speaks for itself. Clearly the weather, save for that pesky headwind, was ideal (and the post-race warmth made chillin’ by the waterfront with A-One Support Team Dearest Spouse toasty and comfortable). Socially, it was one of the most enjoyable race alliances ever. Then there was the surprise of learning I’d won my age group (and, as it were, topped all older competitors, avoiding that annoying asterisk) – a surprise as I’d learned only the day before that this was the USATF Adirondack Grand Prix marathon. And above those bits was the fact that this the most evenly paced marathon I’ve run, ever, with effectively even splits, a mile-split range spanning less than thirty seconds, and finally, after twenty-three tries, a marathon with every mile under seven minutes. All of that was great, but none of them alone made this one Almost Perfect.
What made this one so satisfying was the mental victory. As the pseudo pace group formed, the back of my head was nothing but doubts that I’d sustain that pace past the halfway mark. I went with it anyway, knowing that the bulk of my marathons have unfurled in survival mode. But this one took a far different path.
As that halfway mark nears, the course is forced to deviate from the flatness of the Mohawk-Hudson bike trail by the stark barricade of the Adirondack Northway. Dropping sharply to duck under the freeway, it quickly climbs back to the rail trail on the other side. Throwing caution to the wind, I found myself powering up the grade, still questioning my sanity, but by now listening to a new mantra that simply said, “Why stop? You don’t have to.” At this point the bulk of our squad began to scatter; we were only three or four when we hit the actual halfway point, so close to two-fifty-five pace that had we actually been the pace group, we’d have been doing a knock-up job. And then we were two, just Utica Joe and I, powering over the mild rise around mile fifteen, forcing each other not to waver not by any desire to beat each other but by that unspoken knowledge that each was each other’s mobile anchor. By the time he finally dropped back at eighteen, my cumulative pace had dropped to its fastest point of the day.
Almost Perfect because it was a mental triumph on top of the physical win. Almost Perfect because after Boston, which was probably my best-executed edition of that race, this one, though on an undoubtedly easier course, came off, from an execution standpoint, even better. Almost Perfect because, let’s face it, none of these will ever be entirely perfect, so this is about as good as one can hope for.
Killer Award? Race officials made clear that awards would be presented at the scoring tent immediately, no ceremony, no shipping them home, so I swung by on the off chance I’d won some swag. Having learned at the expo that the race was USATF Grand Prix, I really didn’t expect anything. It was a moment of glee to learn that not only had I placed a lot better then I’d thought, but that I had in fact won my division. Step to the next table to get your award! And then, it was a moment of disappointment to learn that my award was…a hat. Well, um, OK, I suppose it’s a lot more useful than a plaque and doesn’t have to be dusted, so a hat and some honor, OK, I’m good with that. Though I wish they’d put the Hudson Mohawk Marathon logo on the front. It’s a small gripe in an otherwise fabulously run event. Kudos to the Hudson Mohawk Road Runners Club.
Location, Location, Location! Since I’ve started running with the Greater Boston Track Club, the Boston Marathon has taken on a new dimension. The amount of cheering you get wearing a Boston singlet in a Boston race is downright uplifting. But this is Albany, New York, and though I consider it part of my home turf (from my college years and now Dearest Offspring the Elder’s college years), it’s not home course advantage. When our pace gang had dropped to only Utica Joe and I, it was he, wearing a Buffalo Bills shirt, who constantly pulled the cheers. And he wasn’t even from Buffalo! And me? I remember one guy yelling, “Go Boston!”
It’s a Small World After All: One of the early members of our pace group, Jan, hailed from the High Peaks region of the Adirondacks. A little chit-chat established a common link, a mere one degree of separation, in that he was friends with my neighbors who have a mountain lair in the area. That in itself was amusing enough, but a later exchange with said neighbor turned it up a notch. Turns out I’d actually met Jan and his wife on the trail in the ‘dacks a year earlier. Just goes to prove one of my maxims: be nice to people, you might run into them again! (Find Jan at http://www.adkrunner.com/)
Start Early on the List: I lost track of Dan, with whom I’d made the “Don’t be Stupid” pact during warm-ups, almost immediately after the start. I was happy to learn he’d hit his goal of breaking three hours for the first time. He said it was on his bucket list. I don’t know many twenty-five-year-olds who already have a bucket list. That’s marathon mentality: Start your preparations early!
Personal Touch: It’s always nice to have a local contact when travelling to an out-of-town race. A few months ago an Albany area runner looked me up for reasons unknown and we struck up an email friendship. What’d be the chances we’d actually be able to find each other and meet before the race? Easy! Hang out in the port-a-john lines and you’ll see everyone. I’m happy to report that Alex exceeded his goals by a considerable margin.
Recovery? Damage was amazingly light. Dearest Spouse and I went for a casual trail run Monday morning and a short walk in the forest later in the day. This recovery would have been easier than almost all previous marathons. Would have, but for the foolishness of three days later. But that’s for the next posting…
09 October 2015
Mayhem starts seem to have become the rule this year, first at Clinton, then at the Police Chase, and again this past weekend, where an oddly narrow start lane created when the timing company laid out only enough mat for about four of us to toe the line became even odder when a faint shout of “GO!” emanated from somewhere behind us and started the stampede. No race officials out front of the pack, no ‘Runners Set!’, no warning whatsoever. The two youths (or ‘two yoots’; I simply cannot write ‘two youths’ without thinking of My Cousin Vinny) standing beside me took off like banshees as yoots are prone to do. I could stand there, argue that that might not have really been the start (and probably get trampled), or just go with it. Be free, spirit, just run.
Thus started the third annual John Tanner Memorial 5K, and thus I found myself instantly playing catch-up, ten to fifteen yards behind. Wizened Old Goat Mentality quickly calculated Option A, these yoots were for real, and if so, there wasn’t much I could do about it, or Option B, these yoots were typical yoots with unbridled enthusiasm that would burn out within a mile. As it would turn out, there was an Option C which would come to pass, being a bit of both, as they’d end up coming in numbers two and three, but only after a taste of Option B and a display of some yootful indiscretion.
A quarter mile out, Yoot One came back quickly to me and was dispatched, but Yoot Two held his lead. Another quarter mile and I’d erased that to pull even, in doing so prompting his indiscretion. While ours is generally a gentlemen’s sport (was it only two weeks back I called out to correct my competitor’s wrong turn, leading to my own thrashing at his legs?), it’s still a good idea to stay a bit aloof, and keep your intentions and your mental state somewhat to yourself. Ah, the follies of yoot. On pulling even, he blurted out, “Man, your fast” (or maybe ‘Damn’ but I won’t irritate his folks by recalling the exact word) to which I simply replied, “No, I’m old.” Mystery gone, it was clear we were in Option B mode, and merely a half mile in I already knew it was time to put him away. Another tenth up, with a small rise and a turn coming, one small surge opened the gap which was never to close.
Not surprisingly, I haven’t won a lot of races in my running career. But of the few I’ve won, I can’t recall any that were on a purely out-and-back course. I have to admit that the experience of leading all the way through the back half of the out-and-back was, frankly, a lot of fun. Many times I’ve grunted a cheer when the leader, who’d already made the turn, passed me by. This time it was my day, and once past the few running breathlessly near the front of the pack, nearly everyone chimed in with a huzzah or two – or a bit more, like the folks walking outbound, cracking jokes (about themselves) about seeing me already returning before they’d hit the mile mark. Their support was a big lift – and also a solid clue, since I didn’t hear any cheering behind me, hinting there weren’t any yoots – or anyone else – sneaking up for a last-minute surprise.
Given any other day on any other course, number one probably would not have come up on the dial. I hit the line twenty seconds ahead of my last outing two weeks back and more like forty when adjusting for what appeared to be a slightly long course, but while relatively good for me, I’d have been relatively toasted – by quite a bit in fact – in most fields. This was no Grand Prix event, so winning wasn’t a fabulous feat. But on any given day, it’s all about who lines up. And while it’s nice to notch a win, it was even better to notch a win at John’s race. Having sat out the first edition, volunteering but injured and out of the action, and having missed the second due to a conflict with last fall’s marathon, it was about time to run the race honoring my dear lost friend, and extra sweet to come home with a trophy emblazoned with his name.
After all, this one really wasn’t about the competition, it was about John, and John’s passion for a little boy suffering and succumbing to from a rare disease. It was about that boy’s family and extended family – including John’s – continuing to come together to bring about some good in the world in working toward a cure. Readers of this column know that I’m not a fan of races designed solely to extract dollars from runners for a cause. That’s because nearly all of those races have nothing to do with a runner. This one, on the other hand, is very different. These folks didn’t decide to hold a race just to raise money. They decided to hold a race to honor a passionate runner, who himself was passionate about advancing the cause to cure Batten’s Disease. In light of that, a little mayhem at the start is trivial; it merely adds character to an event well executed.
And John was, in a unique and special way, literally there with us. A brave soul named Cheryl made the trip from Pennsylvania to run (run/walk, but who’s counting?) her first 5K with her son…and a piece of John’s foot bone transplanted into hers, curing an injury that previously had refused to heal. We think of donating a heart, a liver, a kidney, but John and his family’s generosity offered up all usable tissues – and Cheryl was living, running proof that gifts like that make a big difference. In truth, John’s wind was at all of our backs.
But there was yet more fun. Dearest Spouse, always fit but typically not one with a hankering for running, made the exception and gave in to our special obsession, and in John’s honor, made this her goal race. She has, in fact, been hitting Couch to 5K sessions now for over a month. Despite having not yet graduated the program, and having not yet exceeded twenty minutes of straight rapid propulsion, she kept herself in gear for over thirty to finish in an ironic time of thirty-one-oh-seven. I rarely quote specific times here, but this one deserves it and is worthy of the label ironic because if you do the math, five kilometers happens to be exactly three-point-one-oh-seven miles. Exactly ten minute pace. Yes, you just heard me mention that the course measured a bit long, so she was really going a bit faster, but it’s more fun to ignore that for the moment and enjoy the coincidence.
The belly laugh moment of the day was reserved for the ride home, and came from my neighbor who’d joined us for the trip out and stoically withstood his chronic hip pain to turn in a respectable showing on the course himself. As he related it, when I sailed past his outbound trek on my inbound leg, the woman he happened to be running with at the time let out a simple, “Whoa!” to which he replied, “Yeah, I’ve gotta’ ride home with that.” Somehow the use of the objectified ‘that’, rather than ‘him’, struck me as seriously funny. If it doesn’t hit you that way, well, trust me, it was, and you had to be there.
Meanwhile, on Another Topic: The official Boston Marathon results book arrived in my mailbox a month or two back and I’ve been meaning to point out two fun bits since then
02 October 2015
You’re never ready for the next race. Once you accept that, the rest isn’t exactly easy, but it’s a little more palatable. With just over a week left before my fall marathon, I’m nowhere near where I imagined I might be when I hitched on for this one last spring. But Dearest Spouse put it in proper perspective, noting that I could fret about how well I’ll run and what place I might snag, or I could just go run a marathon and enjoy it (at least to the extent that one can enjoy the late miles in any marathon). Making that mental shift is harder for me than it should be, but some effort in that department, and maybe a little reliance on some race magic, should get me through.
It’s been a rough couple of months in Lake Wobegon, and though I don’t live there, it’s been rough here, too. The best laid plans of catapulting off a solid Boston, training hard over the summer with a plethora of quality tempo, bursting into a fall race brimming with energy, and therefore signing up for one of the fastest courses in the east, well… Those plans pretty much just laid down and died. As of a couple weeks ago, I was considering bagging the whole thing. After all, why dump good money into travel costs for dubious results?
But somehow this thing called running always manages to surprise. A not-entirely-terrible local five-kilometer a couple weekends back suggested that perhaps, just maybe, I wasn’t dead yet. Emboldened, I of course did something rather silly and pounded out twenty-three the day after the race. It wasn’t great, but then again, it wasn’t bad, either. Then quite by accident I found myself cracking an old record and topping ninety miles for a week – still shy of that single hundred-miler from my youth, but otherwise the most I’d ever piled on in seven days. Wait, I hear you say, whaddaya’ mean, “By accident?” You didn’t notice ninety miles? Well, no, I was just running a lot trying to regain what I’d lost over that rough stretch. Heck, no wonder my legs were tired.
A family road trip to my native Upstate New York lowered the output for a couple days, with a flat and rather healing outing along the big lake in Syracuse and an intensely non-flat – but highly leisurely – outing with Dearest Daughter the Younger in Corning, a run which sported a notable DTM Ratio of 3.6 (Deer To Miles). And all of that was the setup for a swing back through Albany for more clan visitation, and key to our tale, The Test.
Back in June I’d run the first half of the Mohawk Hudson course, logging a solid pace through the initial twelve and three-quarter miles. I didn’t expect any surprises on the back half, but I know that seeing the course – even a generally flat course largely on a bike trail – adds that element of familiarity that gives you a bit of mental control, especially in the high miles. When the body is turning to rubber, you want to know exactly what ground you’ve got left to cover. So it was that after a light free breakfast at our finishing-line hotel, Dearest Spouse deposited me for a chilly forty-six degree launch at mile twelve-seven-five, then headed back to the far end for her and DDY’s run, artistically timed to correspond with my hopefully triumphant appearance on the Albany riverfront.
Sounds like a grand plan, right? The cool thing is, it worked. With about a mile to go, I swept past them on their outbound leg, indeed feeling triumphant, conveniently timed for a spin-around cool-down to meet them back on the course. NASA couldn’t have coordinated it better. We even made it back to the hotel in time for a second free breakfast before they shut things down (which, by the way, set us up nicely for a third breakfast, this one not free but hearty, with Dearest Offspring the Elder, a couple hours later…ah, one of the joys of running is an unlimited license to eat). And that arrival was triumphant because I’d passed The Test. I’d convinced myself that there was indeed a marathon lurking in me, and that it would in fact be worthwhile to toe the line in two weeks.
Right out of the gate, my crusty, creaky, achy-breaky body of recent weeks came alive. Perhaps it was the chilly start, necessitating some rapid internal combustion. Perhaps it was the light duty of the day before, hinting that if I can manage to back off on a decent taper, perhaps my overtrained legs have more in them than they’ve let on recently. Or perhaps it was just that race magic, the combination of adrenaline and the simple knowledge that now is the time to turn the knobs up. Whatever it was, the knobs turned, the engine fired, and by the time I plunged off the trail at milepost seventeen and a half – a quick drop just as nasty as I’d feared from my memories of the area – I was hitting sevens cruising south through Cohoes and Watervliet. Convenient timing brought me through a gang assembling for their Sunday morning group run – just seven minutes later and I’d have had company, but would likely have blown my pace – and about an hour later blew me across the finish line of a local race just being set up. Call that an easy win.
The familiarization aspect worked. Mental notes of rail trail tunnels, entrances, landmarks like the old street-car station. That nasty drop. Visuals and feels for the distances of the highway crossings. Answering the mystery of how to get back on the trail for the last six-plus, having driven the highway above hundreds, if not thousands of times, and having never seen the tiny underpass we’d follow – who knew? Solving the odd branch in the trail shown on Google Maps yet never referred to in the course notes. (Answer: it’s not there, your bad, Google.) And perhaps most critically, laying out the last mile in my head for that inevitable painful final push.
By the end, I’d clocked an average pace a good quarter-minute per mile slower than I’d clocked on the first half in June, and quite a bit off what I’d need for a truly competitive race. But I’d also clocked the most solidly paced training run since, literally, June. Indeed, I’m not dead yet.
I won’t tell you it’s been all peaches and cream since that day, but it’s been considerably more decent than it’s been in quite a while. The question has been answered. I am indeed in for Mohawk-Hudson. One more local race this weekend for a tune-up, a taper, then I’ll just hope for a little of that race magic to sew both halves of the course together – and to help me hold it together!