26 December 2015
One might say I get around. Life is short, there’s no need to always hang with the same crowd, though doing otherwise does result in a crowded dance card. But life’s also a balance, so I try to keep space on that card for events from the various clubs with which I’m affiliated. That means sometimes racing in Highland City Strider green, sometimes racing in Greater Boston red, and occasionally donning the Squannacook River Runners’ blue fish when I can offer a boost, such as is the case for the Mill Cities Relay.
Mill Cities, twenty-eight miles over five legs from Nashua to Lawrence, is at its core a contest for bragging rights. It’s a closed competition for a geographically select group of clubs with a complicated (though entirely logical and perfectly suited) scoring system engineered to identify the Top Dog Alpha Male of the running clubs of the Merrimack Valley. And believe me, there are some pretty heavy hitters in the fray.
Getting back to that Mill Cities scoring system, the key is that while quality is key, quantity matters too. Going up against clubs that run in elite circles, Squannacook isn’t likely to be in the running for the top prize, a truly artful (and heavy) steam-punk style trophy built of antique mill gears. But each team entered in each of the many divisions racks up points, so the more the merrier, and the Squannies make a big deal about turning out as many club members and teams as possible. So while this is a fun event with great people, I also figure that jumping in is a boost to this great club who so generously host their terrific post-Boston Marathon party every year and welcome me as family, despite my relatively infrequent appearances in their midst.
At Mill Cities, the top three teams in each division win a coveted brick, yes, a real brick, supposedly recovered from a New England mill (though I can’t vouch for that level of authenticity) and adorned with a fine engraved plaque. The last time I ran this event I joined with a Squannie co-ed team and yes, we managed to brick (in this event, bricking is a verb). This time however, despite being paired with the best the Squannies had to offer, our “Fire Eatin’ Fish” were competing in the men’s masters division, always one of the toughest groups. Our chances of landing a brick were slim to none, and we didn’t disappoint. No brick was to be in our future, though our solid finish as the fastest Squannie Fish was a mark of pride.
The last time I ran this race three years back, I’d run the opening leg, a five-point-four mile segment that started with what we called the “Scooby-Doo start” on black ice that seemed to make our legs spin without much actual motion. That day, too, expecting no great outcome (though we did, as previously noted, end up bricking), I’d run an unofficial personal best at the five mile split, if a split is to be trusted – a best that still unofficially stands. This time, conditions were notably better – ideal, in fact, sunny, fortyish, and windless – and just about the same thing happened.
This year I’d volunteered for the fourth and longest leg, a nine-and-a-half mile stretch from Lowell to Methuen. I’d given the club an attainable though aggressive predicted pace. But with recent aches and pains, that prediction was looking rather daunting. And with my leg following a short and quick two-and-a-half mile leg leading into Lowell, the team would have little time after dropping our man to get me to the next exchange zone, so just getting warmed up and loose – all the more critical considering my rather arthritic state – was also looking rather daunting. The only answer was to simply run that short leg as well, just as a warm-up. Hopping out of the van a stop early, I managed to confuse a few racers, but hit my exchange zone primed to go.
Racing a later relay leg is a different game than racing off the starting line. By the fourth leg, thirteen miles in, teams are spread and scattered. Runners taking the baton alongside you might be fast runners on slow teams, slow runners on fast teams, or even runners on the “sunset” teams in divisions that run only the last three of the five legs. You don’t have anyone to key off. You’re not certain if there will be split markings. You’ve got no reference point to set your pace. But you’ve told your team that you’ll run a pace that really needs those things.
With the spread-out field, even the choice of whether to reel in the next guy is dangerous. You have no idea who he is, and this is, after all, nearly a ten-mile run. Going out whole-hog in the first mile based on the guy in front of you might not be the best idea. One could argue that this would be a good time to have a GPS watch, but that point is rather moot, since I don’t. That point is also rather moot because on creeping up alongside a competitor about three-quarters of a mile in, the pace she reported from her supposedly trusty GPS struck fear in my heart that I was far behind my forecast pace, yet later data would prove her report far-fetched at best if not outright wrong. One could then argue that my choice to remain a relative Luddite without GPS on my wrist has not been a bad decision.
By the time I found a split marking at mile two, my fear of being well behind my forecast vanished, replaced by a new fear of having indeed gone out too whole-hog when instead it became apparent how far ahead I was of forecast. That fear was amplified as the course grew excessively lonely, dropping to a lovely riverside trail, a truly terrific running space, but insulated from traffic, landmarks, and to a large extent, other runners. This quickly became a mental battle of me versus me and me only, nobody but my own head to drive the pace and damn the torpedoes. I’d later describe my race strategy as running the first mile really hard and holding on for the next nine.
But like my last Mill Cities, something about this race made things click. Yes, conditions were optimal. Yes, leg four is technically downhill, though in dropping only thirty-five feet over ten miles, I call that flat and really not a factor. Yes, it was a mental fight, but one that I was winning, as the splits kept clicking in ahead of forecast, with more time going into the bank to cover any late fade. By the nine mile mark I was quite toasted, but could have mailed it in to make my pace, being far ahead of the prediction that I’d earlier thought would have construed a good day.
Then a funny thing happened: it got even better. That last half mile – and I’d previously measured (and later re-measured) the leg as a legitimate nine-point-five – flew by at what the watch said was four-twenty pace. Laws of physics aside, that not being possible, it became apparent that those mile splits I’d been watching had been a bit long, which explained their gradual stretch compared to the highway mile markers. Had I known that mid-race, I might have dialed it back. Sometimes it’s better not to know what you’re doing so you don’t have the chance to remind yourself that you really can’t – or at least shouldn’t – do that. Ignorance can indeed be bliss.
When I mashed the numbers later, out popped a few surprises. Shaving that nine-five down to fifteen kilometers (nine-three) at the same pace put this one a mere quarter minute off my best. And stretching it up to ten, again at the same pace, would have minted a best-ever gem (recognizing that estimating upward is risky; one could tank in that extra half-mile). In either case, there was a personal trophy just for growing older, as on an age-graded basis, this one topped both charts. Seriously, who saw that one coming? Atop Mohawk Hudson and a surprising turkey trot, it’s turned into a rather surprising fall, especially considering how sore and achy I’ve been.
14 December 2015
It’s barely after six in the morning. This isn’t early for some, but it is for me, a certified night owl. And only a small number of hours after battling ugly weather on the freeway for hours, it seems even earlier, sinisterly early. But I’m dragging myself to consciousness, stumbling across the hotel room, momentarily having to think to remember where I’ve woken up.
I’m hundreds of miles from home, somewhat unexpectedly, which isn’t unusual. My job does that now and then; though I’ve usually got a good deal of control, or at least advance knowledge, over where I’m going and who I’m seeing, on occasion a surprise pops up, like yesterday, when it became known that my presence at today’s event would be of assistance to further the mission. Stuff a bag, hit the road, battle the wind, the rain, the invisibility only a dark and wet highway can create, not the bright sunny ride that sometimes makes this job feel like a great adventure, but the hard road fight that sometimes makes this job feel like an adventure of a different, less pleasant sort.
It’s bleak and barren out there. From my hotel window I can see the dim gray overcast of pre-dawn, the still-wet pavement from last night’s tempest, the trees still shuffling from remnants of the wind that made a new set of tires on the Thruway feel like bald rubber on an oiled runway. My phone tells me it’s still drizzling and barely forty, certainly not cold, but when mixed with rain and wind, nowhere near inviting, either. And though I’m in my native Upstate New York, a place I still revere for its unequalled beauty, the particular spot I’m in holds no great scenic charm, just mostly straight paths through mostly flat farm country, and at this time of the year, it’s barren, heading for winter’s hibernation, utterly devoid of the green and life that makes this place what it is. In short, it’s really attractive to sleep another hour.
But I’m here for two nights, and tomorrow’s forecast is no better – perhaps worse. A day off is fine, and one might say that after last night’s exhaustive battle, needed, but if the forecasters are right, that might stretch into two, and on the other hand, after last night’s exhaustive battle, stretching the legs might be just the ticket. Not to mention that the day’s plan has the word ‘meeting’ written in every slot until the evening, when ‘consumption’ is certain to take precedence. By day’s end, I might regret it if I don’t do this. Then again, I might regret not snagging that extra hour of sleep. This yin and yang could hold me in a state of indecision all day, if I let it.
The balance is broken by the word expectations. Expectations drive me out of bed, through the morning ‘shock-the-system-into-reality’ routine, and out the door of the hotel to the puzzlement of resort-goers who don’t come to this place for physical exertion. Expectations that are both mine and those that spring from others I know I’ll encounter today, which of course are still mine to either hold or ignore, but real nonetheless.
After nearly eleven years of the running lifestyle, this is what I do, and hope to continue to do for as long as I can do it. I place this on myself, but do so willingly knowing that the reward for the effort, the planning and logistics, the bearing of unpleasantries like weather and worse, is a worthy deal. I accept that there will be days when taking that first step will be seriously unattractive, but that backing down from that starting hump represents a small mental defeat, likely inconsequential, but the tip of what could snowball into decline. Is that fear? Or is it just a self-motivation mechanism? I accept it as the expectation I place on myself.
I also accept that after these many years, those around me have expectations as well. It’s not for me to run in order to please them, but it is for me to run in order to inspire them. Over many years, I’ve had the joy of knowing that my actions have helped to light that fire in many of my colleagues. And later in this day, my colleagues, who in part define me by this lifestyle, will inevitably bring up the topic. They’ll ask if I’ve been out for my run, shaking their heads in amazement or pity or both when I respond affirmatively and, in answer to their guaranteed follow-up, add the detail of, yeah, eight or nine miles. They too know the ugliness of the weather and the fatigue of travel and the open-road nothingness of the surrounding area which must be traversed to ring up those distances. They’ll turn to others, our customers, or new colleagues I’ve yet to meet, and expound on my human-driven escapades. Conversations will erupt about others’ attempts to break out of corporate-induce physical inactivity, and invariably, in a gathering of this size, some will express intent to get out there and start doing something good for themselves.
I don’t like to let them down. I don’t like to let myself down. So I head into the gray, wet, chilling, forlorn pre-dawn and start pounding the miles toward the next hamlet over, where I might get some scenery other than a road shoulder and a farm field, before pounding my way back. I’m out there, driven by expectations, and an hour later, pulling in just in time to clean up and make the end of the pre-meeting breakfast, I’m very satisfied that those expectations have done their job.