27 November 2015

Odd and Unexpected

Yikes! A month has slipped by. You can, of course, thank me for the time you’ve gotten back while not reading what I haven’t published. It’s not that there haven’t been random ideas swimming around in my head (though I am in no way a competent swimmer, which saves me a lot of money by keeping me away from triathlons), it’s just that those ideas haven’t seen time to jump from neuron to (electronic) paper. So let’s start catching up on those random thoughts by starting in an odd place and making our winding way to an unexpected place.

I experienced an odd moment a couple of weeks back. Really, we all did, but I’ll wager most of you didn’t notice it. Just before two in the afternoon a couple Fridays back, it occurred to me that we hit 1-3-5-7-9-11-13-15, or, in military time, 13:57:09 on the 13th of November 2015. Yes, it’s nerdy, but that is what I live for, and I am proud that one of my running friends figured it out when I merely mentioned ‘odd moment’. Our type sticks together.

That odd moment was appropriately timed, hitting during an episode of wild New England weather where I’d left the house in shorts (and thankfully at least long sleeves) for an unseasonably warm and sunny fifty-seven-degree November afternoon jaunt, only to find myself periodically pelted with wind-driven and seemingly frozen rain bullets as waves of doom sped over skyward. But just as that odd moment was about to arrive, the sun returned to deliver one of the richest double rainbows of recent memory. And to make the moment odder, unbeknownst to me, at that moment Dearest Daughter the Younger was enroute to reconnoiter the course for the next day’s cross country championships, and DDY’s peeps, following behind, caught the Japanese Rainbow, where instead of a pot-o-gold, there’s a Honda at the end. Odd moment indeed.

And so we segue from odd bits peppered by weather to the family theme peppered by weather. DDY’s cross country meet, wrapping up her high school career, was notable mostly for its bone-chilling wind. But otherwise the weather gods have smiled upon our clan of late. Dearest Spouse wrapped up her Couch-to-5K program on the finest of gorgeous fall days. Her ‘graduation’ race, a small gathering of current and recent C25K grads, was a bit anticlimactic, she having read ahead and already run not one but two 5Ks during the term of the program.

Having already run earlier that morning (and of course eaten a donut, this was, after all, a Saturday) and not seeking any more miles for the day, I arrived with every intention of hanging in the shadows; after all, this was Dearest Spouse’s day, not mine. But the program organizers pointed me out to a sixtyish gentleman, one of the returnees, who was seeking a pacer to drop his time. Several lame attempts at hiding later, I found myself coaching him down the rail trail, doing my best to distract him from the coming task of coming back up. Shortly after we spun around for the uphill return, Dearest Spouse surprisingly appeared, not nearly as far back as I’d expected, or, for that matter, as would be good for her pace. Puzzled, but with no intention of getting in the way of her day, I focused my concerns on my charge, chatting up a blue streak to continue my strategy of distraction, and brought him home well ahead of his ambitious target. One charge down, a happy guy, and one spouse, who’d seemed to have gone out too fast, to go.

As it happened, my assessment wasn’t wrong, but it wasn’t so much DS as it was her young running friend who’d gone aggressively rogue on the outbound leg – dragging DS along for the ride – and was now paying the price on the back nine. This event not being in any way competitive, DS stuck with her, and once again, the coaching team of Cattarin & Cattarin (this time the other half) found itself coaxing a charge back up the hill and across the line. Two charges down, the second one not so happy, but DS perfectly happy and fully graduated.

And then, what’s a C25K grad to do, but…sign up for another race! Quick, before rational thought talks you out of it! …which gives us a segue from family peppered by weather to family racing in general, which brings us to that most populist of events in running, the Great American Turkey Trot, or, the non-Catholic way of confessing and atoning for your dietary sins before they are committed.

The road to any starting line is pocked with potholes (especially in New England), and DS managed to find one, taking on the true nature of a runner by somehow popping a calf muscle a week after C25K and experiencing that injury-versus-race-date angst that only a runner knows. She healed in time. I, on the other hand, went the other direction. On top of the nagging left knee injury courtesy of that ridiculous (but fun!) White Mountains trail run, which was piled on top of the chronic left knee as yet unidentified annoyance, everything went achy again down south on both sides. Why? Who knows? Bad glucosamine? New shoes? Age? For whatever reason, I’ve been a hurting pup. Strike One! Thus I was looking at the Stow Gobbler 5K as a family outing, not a serious race.

Not a serious race means not tapering or resting, so on top of the aches and pains, Thursday arrived on the heels of four ten-mile days, two of which were at least partially hard workouts. Tired legs. Strike Two!

And let’s add an insult to this fracas. Ever organized, DS not only planned our day-before early number pickup, but went so far as to set out said tags for quick access in the morning. Terrific planning on her part, as usual. But the execution on my part was a bit lacking. The good news? I figured out before we got to the race that I’d left mine behind. The bad news? We were almost at the race by that moment. So while we had enough time to get back home for the pickup, my pre-race routine was considerably less than desired. Crappy warm-up. Strike Three!

This is, of course, a setup to segue from the general family racing theme to the unexpected place. But by now, based on the structure of this column, you knew that.

It’s not unexpected that when the race starts, I take all of the reasons why this should be a lousy day and toss them aside. Somewhere inside, that racing mentality commands this to happen. What is unexpected is that the results didn’t look like the aftermath of a three-strike lead-in.

There wasn’t a moment of cruising in this one. Being a Turkey Trot, where everyone and his brother shows up for their one race a year (and good for them), the crowd was large – almost a thousand – and the stampede off the line almost seemed Grand-Prix-like. At least forty or fifty leapt out ahead by the quarter mile. Though many faded in the next quarter, just holding pace with those who didn’t seemed unusually hard. I repeatedly forced myself to stick with this clump or that just to hold the intensity, because my body had no interest in doing so otherwise. But the clumps kept disintegrating as more and more fell off the pace, making holding that intensity difficult.

Mile one clocked in quite reasonable for a decent race, but knowing how hard the start had been, my head told me I’d already started the long fade. Mile two’s number, also quite reasonable, somehow didn’t pierce the fog that said this was just another ho-hum outing. Had it, I might have seen an opportunity to really slam the hammer rather than simply hold on. My bad on that one.

With three-quarters of a mile to go, both the women’s leader and a gentleman whom I knew to be masters class (this race had no fifty-plus division) crept up, crept past. Letting the woman go was easy. Letting the master go, being fairly sure there were no others ahead of us, was a bit tougher, but cognizant of all the slightly busted parts, and leaning on those tired legs, it seemed the rational thing to do. And hey, he’d recognized me on the starting line and said he’d actually read the blog, so call it a bit of charity in my heart. And we both got the same cheesy medals. And I made a new friend. So really, I’ll take second. What’s not to love?

I caught the woman, who told me flat out that she had no intentions of sprinting in, and that it was all mine. Really, I said, what’s to have? I was just figuring I’d photobomb her finish-line victory shot. I slugged it in with her a second behind.

The unexpected part? In my mind, I think of times I’ve run in years past, and don’t tend to think that years past were in fact years past. New ages should bring new expectations, but it wasn’t till later in post-analysis that this became clear. On crossing that line, the time on the clock was decent, but not exciting. Only later did it become clear that I’d just turned my best road 5K since hitting age fifty (two and a half years back) and not only my best age-graded 5K since fifty, but my third-best age-graded 5K, period. On three strikes. And to sweeten the day, DS, who’d previously run every one of her 5Ks at roughly the same pace, sliced off a minute and a half. Sweet.

So there you have it, a month, boiled down to a few pages, from the odd to the unexpected. It’s always an adventure. Time for turkey.t

01 November 2015

Arbitrary Events

There’s something inexplicably attractive about borders and edges, both physical and logical. Admit it. How many of you have visited Key West and not gone to that street corner with the odd nautical marker that claims to be the southernmost point of the continental United States (never mind that it’s on an island, not a continent, and there are clearly some rocks below the monument that stretch further southward to the water). Yep, done it, and also did South Point in Hawaii, and even the end of the odd spit of land that sticks out from Canada into Lake Ontario, which isn’t the southernmost bit of anything other than the odd spit of land it sits on. But this isn’t about points of land or southernmost things, it’s about arbitrary designations in general, and the pleasure we derive (at least us OCD types) from reaching and crossing them. And I’ve had a couple of them of late, all of them arbitrary, all of them enjoyable.

Probably the easiest of recent oddities to make sound somewhat sane was crossing the milestone of twenty thousand miles. It’s a cool round number, very big to some people, embarrassingly small to others, but interesting enough. It came about on a trail run and of course warranted a selfie at the moment of momentous mileage, after which it was rapidly forgotten and the slow slog began to what I hope will become thirty thousand (admittedly, I’ll probably first take note when the total equals the circumference of the Earth, which again only a nerd can find cool and interesting).

But really, who cares? It’s not true that I ran my twenty-thousandth mile that day. There were thousands in my youthful days, never accurately totaled, being the days before God invented spreadsheets. Further, pages vanished from those early years’ paper logs to discreetly disguise days when running log turned more toward diary. Let’s face it, youthful musings, even when mixed with youthful miles, sometimes didn’t need to be preserved. In short, there’s no accounting for, well, days when there was no accounting. And besides, even I can’t truly accurately log every stride. So this claim of the ground I’ve covered since the start of the second lap, is entirely arbitrary, and that’s before we even get to the arbitrariness of English units of measure themselves. But hey, twenty thousand miles is worth noting. And that arbitrary event came a mere forty-eight hours after another one of a different sort.

A few years ago I set out on a quest to run every mile of every street in my city. Partly it was a way to overcome the winter blues and partly it was just plain nerdy – in short, right up my alley. But it raises an interesting question: what’s the value in running in different places? The alternative, taken to extreme, would be to circle the track – the same track – for every mile of every run ever (actually the true extreme would be life on a treadmill, the same treadmill, and plenty of people do this…I pity them). Clearly that’s not a very interesting way to go through life, so we mix it up, one route one day, another then next. It’s a short leap then to start looking to seeing the world on foot. Indeed just today I had the pleasure of adding three more to my list of Massachusetts towns in which I’ve run, having spent a few hours on the truly lovely Mass Central Rail Trail with one of my local running buds. His idea to head west to this gem (for which I thank him) delivered a delightful route and a change of scenery. I think we can all see the value in that.

While I doubt I’ll ever become a fifty-stater marathon tourist, I respect what they’re doing. I just do it on the cheap, using opportunistic runs rather than dedicated trips. That’s not to say I haven’t hauled off to some distant races, but it’s not a habit directed at the states themselves. But if I find myself somewhere I haven’t run, I’ll try to change that status. So while I’ve set foot in forty-nine states, I had, until a few days back, run in only twenty-four of them, when I found myself in Charlotte, North Carolina. I’d already run in North Carolina. Ah, but not South Carolina.

But I had no rental car, and it was a good eight miles from hotel to the border. And I had no time, this being a twenty-four-hour business trip, for a sixteen-miler – really more, since stepping over the border and stepping back wouldn’t really constitute a good faith effort of running in the state. Time to get creative, and times like these are when you appreciate having fitness-oriented co-workers. When you propose something a little odd, but targeted at a good workout, they tend to get it. They understand that things like that can be big motivators for fitness commitments.

As it worked out, one of my teammates – importantly, the one with the car – was big into Cross-Fit. Cross-Fitters, it seems, are as rabidly dedicated to their workouts as are nerdy OCD runners. So just wait for the right moment…and…sure enough, said teammate mentioned wanting to find a ‘box’, as they call their gyms, for a workout in the morning. I love a person who agrees that a hotel fitness room and its pathetic treadmill is simply not an acceptable form of exercise, barring dire circumstances. Cool. So, um, what’s the chance you can find a box that happens to be south of here? Play it cool, play it gently, then lay it on…because I’d like to run into the next state. Done properly, this sounds entirely rational to a fitness-oriented type. Cross-Fit Boy was on-board.

Meeting schedules, time zones, seasons, and route logistics found me the next morning being dropped a half-hour before sunrise on a pitch-black side street off a major arterial road in a part of the world I’d never set foot in, carrying only a scrap of paper with some route scrawlings – should my memory fail me – and Cross-Fit Boy’s cell phone number. Not that I had a phone to call him on. And he hadn’t even dropped me at his gym, as that would have added more distance than time allowed, so I’d have to find my way to that gym sight unseen, or he’d have no way to find me.

One might easily find this to be entirely absurd, and it was, but it worked.

The Carolinas are not particularly runner-friendly states. Once off the heavily beaten paths, which are equipped only with leg-crushing concrete sidewalks, few roads have shoulders. And like a fool, I hadn’t considered darkness when packing my bags (out of practice from winter lack-of-daylight mode I guess) and had no lights, let alone bright clothing. Moron. So each approaching car drove me off-road onto the hopefully non-ankle-turning dewy grass, hampering progress.

But my timing was stellar, or perhaps just lucky. As the pre-dawn light made turned navigation considerably simpler, I crossed the unmarked border and kicked the clicker to twenty-five. Sticking to my good-faith rule that this had to be more than an in-and-out, I ticked off a couple miles inside the border – certainly not in a very scenic area unless you find corporate distribution centers to be particularly pleasing vistas – before turning back to the north and executing the plan to find that gym – without even needing to reference that scrap of parchment.

Does it matter that I ran a couple miles in state number twenty-five? Well, what kind of story would there be to tell if I’d just hit the treadmill in the hotel? However you choose to motivate yourself, go and make yourself some stories to tell – even if it takes entirely arbitrary events to do so.