31 March 2016

Coming Home

Thirty years ago, barely a year out of college, watching New England real estate prices spiral out of control, I somewhat wrongly concluded that if I didn’t get into the market soon, I might never be able to do so, and might be forced to abandon my Bay State beachhead for the more affordable environs of my Upstate New York homeland. Accordingly, I stretched my shaky finances to purchase my first home in a town north of Worcester. Now, in those pre-Internet days, you looked things up the old-fashioned way. It happened that my trusty paper atlas listed the population of said town at five thousand nine hundred and ninety nine. I had no idea how that number was arrived at, but since the place I bought was vacant, I always considered myself to be Resident Number Six Thousand, nicely completing the set in a way.

How, you ask, does this have anything to do with running, especially running as an old fart?

About four and a half years ago I received an email that changed the course of this human’s events. Shock and awe was a good description of my reaction when I was invited to run with the Greater Boston Track Club. Years of great adventures followed. Prior to that invitation, I had no idea that the National Club Cross Country Championships even existed, let along any concept that I’d be allowed in the door to toe the line in anything labelled National. GBTC put me in the ring with great opportunities, great people, and great times. But GBTC, while welcoming to us old folks, now has its heart focused on youthful talent. I hold no ill will over that; it is what it is. But I opted to seek out a team with focus on those with eyes that don’t necessarily focus so well anymore.

After a little shopping, I signed on this month with the Central Mass Striders racing team. Whereas GBTC is entirely a competitive club, CMS has a split personality, half (the large half) being a general purpose genial bunch of runners (who share many bonds with my hometown Highland City Striders), the other half comprising the competitive racing team. Like most area teams, its players come from a wide swath of New England, so I wasn’t deluding myself that I’d have a full team of fast guys to work out with on a regular basis. But CMS’ heart is indeed in based in Worcester, and a lot of the fun is indeed centered there. At heart, despite living between the much-more-recognizable metropolis of Boston and the second-city world of Worcester, I’ve always identified more with the latter. So frankly, signing on with CMS felt like coming home.

Now about that number six thousand thing: My introduction to CMS came in the form of an email from our team leader which, while incidentally introducing me to the group, was sent to list our teams for the upcoming Grand Prix series race, the New Bedford Half Marathon, which would be my first wearing the new colors. To score as a team, you need five runners. So imagine my delight when the list of our seniors was comprised of…five: four existing CMS guys, and me. Now as it turns out, there were in fact more CMS seniors than appeared in that email. But I wouldn’t know that till after the race. So far as I was concerned, I’d just put them over the top in having a full scoring senior team. I completed the set in a way. Kind of like moving into that new townhouse so many years ago, only better. Welcome home, you’re needed. Motivating, I’d say.

New Bedford arrived on one of those borderline days. A bit colder than comfortable without wearing the warm stuff, but not so cold that wearing warm stuff would be socially acceptable among the racing set. And windy, complicating the environmentals a bit more. On a day like that, it doesn’t matter how many times you’ve done it, you still can’t remember – or decide – the optimal combination of gear. I dithered. Layers? Shorts? Tights? Even shoes (I’ve amassed an odd assortment of racing shoes, yet none have truly lit my fire). I found myself traipsing back and forth between the parking garage and the YMCA (Race Central) numerous times before settling on a kit, when it occurred to me that in all this kerfuffle, I’d forgotten to leave my warm-up pants (certainly not a starting-line disposable item) at the car, resulting in yet another trot to the garage.

While all of this probably enhanced my warm-up, it left me trying to slip into the starting corral mere minutes before the gun, a risky move in a race this large. They’d shut down the option to enter the corral from the front, and we late-comers were directed around the block, bringing us to the chute – lined with an unbroken fence – far behind the starting line. We managed to squeeze through the fence, but I still needed to fight my way forward. New Bedford is a good-sized race – there would be about twenty-five hundred finishers that day – and team scoring is based on the gun, not net time, so every step behind the line can cost. By dumb luck I found myself in the shadow of one of my new teammates who made an excellent blocker, steering me to a reasonable balance between not being buried by the crowd and not being buried by the intensely competitive Grand Prix field. When the gun sounded, it was a mere twelve seconds to hit the course.

Did I mention this was New England Grand Prix? Of course I did, and though I’ve expounded on the seemingly unreal level of competition in Grand Prix events before, I need to expound on it again…because it’s unreal. At my advanced age, I don’t expect to be heading up the field in anything outside of a local romp, so it’s no surprise to see a solid stream of competitors ahead of me from the start. But let’s put this in perspective. By the time this thing ended, I’d be within about a minute of my all-time best, which, while it won’t win medals in Rio, isn’t too shabby (and of course there will be no half marathon in Rio, but I digress…). The day before, there had been another half marathon in Ashland, town number two on the Boston route. In that race of about five hundred, about a fifth the size of New Bedford, my time would have placed me ninth, in the top two percent (yes, different course, more hills, but less wind, a fair comparison). But at New Bedford, I rolled in at number two hundred and twelve. Yes, two hundred and eleven people ahead of me running what most would consider a smoking half, leaving me only in the top nine percent. So being about twelve seconds off the starting line was, frankly, entirely appropriate; any further forward and I might have become Flat Stanley.

I hit the mile in a split that could make me nervous, especially considering the traffic I’d fought and thus the extra effort it took to nail that time. And yet there was a sea of humanity in front of me. I picked off a few of them in the hills of miles two and three, traded with a few through the middle miles, and lost a few slots later, notably to a pod of a half-dozen or so and to The Brit, my training and travelling partner, who eclipsed me around seven just as the legendary late-course wind picked up. But from there, I’d only move up, picking off a few, one-by-one, through the late miles.

My brain wasn’t working well on pacing. For some reason my head kept measuring the remaining miles against a target of eleven, not thirteen, and I really had no bearing on what splits related to what finishing times. All I could mentally muster was to count seconds in the bank below an hour-thirty pace, since that’s half of three-hour marathon pace. Knowing I’d hoped to subdue that mark fairly significantly, it was comforting to know that my bank account was growing even in the tough windy miles; still, a little more brainpower could have gone a long way.

Instead, after mile eight’s momentary downwind letup, that brainpower was engaged in scanning for a moving wind block as we turned east and then north for the upwind ride along the white-capped sea. The block I found was moving slower than I’d have wished, but a little back-of-the-envelope cogitation told me I’d be better off slacking the next mile and getting half of it paid for than trying to fight it out solo. My unwitting target caught on quickly to the plan and turned witting, and we traded off air resistance abuse duty till things calmed down by coming ashore through the seawall gates. It was a bit of a Faustian bargain, but well worth it.

All that remained, other than about three miles, was the last hill I’d been warned of by so many. I’d done my homework, studied the course profile, and knew it wasn’t much – perhaps a hundred feet over nearly a mile. But I’d been told that in true Heartbreak style, it hit you at the end, mile twelve, when you’re toast. No study would answer the question short of the up-close-and-personal kind.

Rounding a bend, there it was. And? I laughed in its general direction. I offered it no respect. I began shouting – yes, shouting – to tell it, to tell those runners around me, to tell the world that you are not a hill. You are a mere bunny slope. And I proceeded to slay it, dropping my pace down to early race levels, mentally finding the power to drive right though it such that when the last turns arrived just before the finish, my form – at least to me – seemed utterly shot, all energy spent just at the right time (though the professional race photo that I actually paid for just to get a good shot in the new CMS Blue still looked pretty good). No point in leaving it on the course, right?

As a team, we didn’t win. We didn’t come close. Fifth place, in fact, and that twelve seconds delay to the start that I’d worried about had no consequence whatsoever. But our fifth would have been at least seventh without my grunting, wheezing roll across the line in a time that, on an age-graded basis, ranked as my best half, and slotted me a solid number two for the Boys in Blue. More importantly for me was the simple fact that we actually had a seniors team, a real-live full scoring team, a team that someone organized and made an effort to fill out. That was, in a word, cool. And motivating.

Welcome home.

Follow-Up Department: Yes, the clamshells arrived! Shell Number Six now stands in honor with its compatriots in the cluttered realm that is my office, my lair, and my lonely writer’s garret. Someday I must meet the artist, these things really are nicely done!

14 March 2016

Delayed Gratification

Wait for it…

Wait for it…

The clamshells have yet to arrive, though unlike the Eugene Half Marathon’s never fulfilled promise of award-by-mail delivery (you think I’ve forgotten?…think again!), I have faith that those prized hand-painted quahog trophies will arrive any day now. Victory Number Six is in the books, even if it took hours to discover that it wasn’t nearly as hard to notch as we’d anticipated and even if we – as yet – have nothing to show for it.

Winter in New England means it’s time to plod to Hyannis for the only thing that happens on the Cape between the Cape Cod Marathon and spring. Blown away by last year’s absurd concentration of blizzards, the Hyannis Festival of Oh So Many Events returned this year and broke out on a day oh-so-typical of this year’s Quasi-Winter, that is, it was barely winter at all. Brilliant sunshine and mild air made for a far more inviting than usual day to bask with over two dozen of my local club mates, though the weather’s racing-worthiness was another matter, sporting the fiercest winds I can recall in my six trips to the party. But wind or not, traditions must go on. And the real challenge, frankly, is how to tell the story of number six in a way that makes you, dear reader, want to relive this dream yet one more time.

So we’ll start with the differences, namely that this year’s Highland City Striders Masters team had little in common with any previous year’s team. There’s an old yarn about an eighties band who replaced their entire group during the course of a single tour (and of course I can’t recall who it was, but I’m sure you’ll all remind me). Certainly our team has undergone changes over the years, most notably with the tragic loss of Rocket John, but for five previous appearances, Captain Dan got the band back together, yours truly held the beat, and we filled in a couple more roadway musicians, usually for at least a span of a couple years each, to get that winning sound back each winter.

But this year Captain Dan answered a higher calling, abandoning his squad for the allure of finishing his sixth world majors marathon in Tokyo. Seriously? Tokyo over Hyannis in the winter? Admittedly he scored the bigger adventure, and I scored the temporary management of a team of…nobody. Not one returnee. Other than myself, starting from scratch. [Ed Note: Man Number Two doth protest said recollection and reminds me that Captain Dan did pursue him, so no, technically I wasn’t starting entirely from scratch. While Number Two did indeed have Hyannis experience, this was his initiation to the Men’s Masters team. PolitiFact would rate it “Mostly True” but certainly not “Pants on Fire”!] But how hard should it be to find three old guys in our ever-growing club? How about three reasonably fast old guys who would alleviate Captain Dan’s fear that we *gasp* might not retain our crown? How about three reasonably fast old guys whom I could convince really were reasonably fast?

The first part wasn’t hard. The second, only moderately (though alleviating Captain Dan’s fears was somewhat tougher). The third took some work. I’ll swear on your favorite book of faith that I plugged in only the estimated paces that my new teammates offered up themselves, but by race day you’d have thought I put them up to facing off against Galen Rupp. Clearly the weight of Captain Dan’s potential wrath bore down on them; the fear of his everlasting scorn should he return from the Land of the Rising Sun to learn that our streak was broken. As for me, I took the stance I take every year: if someone showed up who really wanted it, we’d have a rough go; if not, it’s clamshell time. Some years it’s been a contest. Others, not so much. This one, it would turn out, was one of those others, but it would take a while to figure that out.

Hanging at the exchange zone for my traditional third leg there didn’t seem to be many old dudes in sight, but appearances can be deceiving; I’d be pouring it onto the course and taking no chances. To my delight, our Number Two Man flew into the zone ahead of forecast in what I thought was – and kicked myself later for not being certain – a surprising fifth place. Not bad for our first two old guys, not bad at all. And nobody in front of them looked remotely old.

I’d conservatively plugged in my own forecast pace at twenty seconds slower per mile than my ten mile leg at Mill Cities back in December. Politics aside, conservatism can be a good thing. The wind, always present at Hyannis and almost always to the disadvantage of legs one and three, outdid itself. Save for about a mile and a half early on, this one was an epic battle against that one key element. And while it was nice to take the stick near the leaders, the lonely sparseness of the front offered no drafting opportunities. I picked off three relay teams and a bunch of full marathoners, handed off to Anchor Man Peter, and then realized I’d merely made my conservative pace – ironically within one second total over seven miles – yet feeling demolished as if I’d run a world record.

Remarkably, other than our Number Two, who, enjoying the downwind segment, clipped about a minute off his forecast, the rest of us had astoundingly accurate days like mine: Number One coming within eight seconds of plan, and Anchor Man, who’d been the most nervous about his prediction and his contribution to the team, arriving two seconds ahead of schedule. Consider: three of the four legs within eight seconds of forecast – not per mile but for the entire legs. Now if that ain’t planning, well…

We rolled in a few minutes shy of three hours, good enough to win it most years, but no guarantee. Anchor Man knew he’d lost one relay place (which would have put us third overall if my counting was right) but was fairly certain it wasn’t to an ancient. We thought we had title number six, but with the mayhem of multiple events, you just can’t be certain, and the team results always tend to be the last to arrive…so…

Wait for it…

Wait for it…

The first sign of trouble came when the race director called us up to verify we were, in fact, a masters team. That was odd, because he knows us. He’s awarded us clamshells many times before, and even noted our repetitive dominance when he’s called out our victories. For him, it turned out, this was just a sanity check, verifying that what he was seeing, what knew was wrong, was indeed wrong.

The second sign of trouble came when our phones buzzed with the automatic emailed results that put our team in fifth place overall and listed our age as zero – yep, zero. While I kicked myself for not counting more carefully at the exchange zone, I was pretty sure that fifth was highly unlikely.

Confirmation of trouble came minutes later, when said race director officially threw up his hands. Somehow every relay team was misclassified, every placing was mistaken, every division was just plain missed up (yes, that was intentional – to paraphrase Jeb!, please groan). Rather than trying to unsort the debris on the fly, he apologetically promised to ship our awards and offered up a generous “I’m sorry” bonus for next year. Though disappointing to ourselves and many other teams, I applauded his decision to get it right rather than get it fast.

Though we didn’t have assurance of the win, we were, admittedly, slightly presumptuous in posing for an imaginary clamshell picture – really, just imagine we’re holding them – but otherwise, we just had to…

Wait for it…

Wait for it…

…for only a brief few hours, till the wreckage was cleaned up and the truth was posted online by the evening. Yes, our counting was right, third overall – even amongst the young’uns – highly pleasing to a bunch of old farts. And yes, another masters division win for the home team, number six. The only surprise was our lack of competition. All that concern, all that angst, and the other team? (Yes, it turned out there were only two in our division – go figure.) Over an hour behind us.

Needless to say, we needn’t have worried, but you never know. And having to wait that much longer to find out made the result that much more pleasing. After all, instant gratification is for sprinters.