27 April 2016

Bad Math

This was a war of attrition, and I knew it early on. By mid-race, I had already fallen into a mantra, seconds for miles, seconds for miles, seconds for miles. If that makes no sense, realize that’s not exactly what I was grunting to myself, just the template. I was in math survival mode early on: how many seconds I had in the bank to be spread over how many miles remaining, all with the aim of slipping down Boylston Street with another coveted two-colon-anything Boston finishing time.

At my stride cadence of about one-eighty, a breath per three strides (yes, after enough miles and with a high enough OCD rating, you figure this out), dropping each numeric value into two breaths, grunting out the status like, “Sixty…Nine…For-Two…Point-Two”, I’d remind myself about fifteen times a minute where I stood. Would I ever be able to mail it in? Or, more likely, how much margin of error did I have to just squeak it out?

At twenty four, it looked good. My example above was real: Sixty-nine for two-point-two. That sixty-nine seconds I had in the bank was down from somewhere north of one-eighty, but even after the hills had taken their inevitable toll, well, sixty-nine was pretty healthy. Give the nine to the last point two of a mile, the precise math on that part being more than my overheated brain cared to deal with, and with sixty left over that’d be a generous buffer of thirty seconds per mile, or the hint that holding seven-twenties would bring me home with a few seconds to spare.

But just a few minutes later, at twenty-five-point-two, when the cowbells clang gloriously and incessantly and someone perpetually announces, “One mile to go!” my watch inexplicably decreed that I had nothing in the bank. Zilch. Zip. Zero. Say what? If nothing else, I’m usually pretty accurate on mental timekeeping. This was a mark on me. How’d I screw that one up?

Resigned to a fully respectable but never as satisfying three-colon-very-little, I grunted my way through the Mass Ave underpass, that moment when you realize that spending five hours in brilliant sun does indeed make you a bit snow-blind, resulting in a dozen seconds of seemingly pitch-black terror, hoping the course repair crews haven’t left any cracks or potholes, then climbed back into the sun, heaved my way up the final grade of Hereford Street and, on hitting Boylston for that final stretch, cursed myself because in ten official races, I’ve yet to commit to memory the actual distance from that last turn to the finish. A glance at my watch hinted that perhaps my earlier screw-up had itself been a screw-up, and perhaps I still had time to reclaim a spot in the land of sub-three. I cranked up the closest thing I could muster to a kick – which really didn’t resemble a kick in any sense of the word – and made for those distant finish line arches.

I didn’t make it in time. Eighteen seconds separated me from another notch in the two column. My math had failed me. Friends would later console me on the near miss, but it wasn’t even my closest near-miss – that one came five years back when the gap was only seven seconds. But really, I didn’t care. Given the day it was – a day described by one of my fellow race-day journalers as “sneaky hot”, a day not nearly so bad as the 2012 Bake-Fest but, similar to that year, a day when most of my compatriots saw ten, twenty, or even more minutes added to their expectations, three-colon-very-little was just fine with me.

You know you’re in for a tough one when you’re sweating while standing still in the starting corral. The forecasted low sixties start clearly felt closer to seventy before the party started, and with nary a cloud in the sky, and the New England early spring providing no foliage and no shade, ol’ sol had a field day. Seven layers of sunscreen (hey, I just kept slathering it every time it was offered!) kept the red out, but of course did nothing against the baking action. Within a few miles, I was cranking through bodily hydration at an alarming rate.

The forecast promised relief by the time we arrived in Boston, but as is often the case in life, be careful what you wish for. Cooling winds, which typically pick up as you top the hills in Newton, came early and made their presence known by downtown Wellesley. The heat abated, only to be replaced by a stiff headwind that seemed immune to the usual shielding thickness of Boston’s crowded field, somehow always catching me with an unlikely gap between myself and the next nearest tall person. But insidiously worse, like a desert zephyr, that wind carried a drying power far in excess of expectations, sucking moisture from all with dangerous efficiency. Having already enacted my heat strategy of head dousing at each water table, I’d find my hair already dry within a half-mile of each soaking. Only the geeky headband kept some cooling moisture in place.

As expected, all of this added up to a typical slow fade, though playing the experience card helped keep things under control, limiting that fade to an extra minute tacked onto each subsequent ten kilometers. While the desiccating power of the wind was unexpected, I return to my opening statement: This was a war of attrition, and I knew it early on. So besides pulling out the heat management stops, it was a day for math early and math often to stay in the game.

What puzzles me still is where I went wrong. At the halfway point, my bank account seemed to match my split time; showing a healthy balance that held a decent chance of tiding me through the positive second-half split that’s almost inevitable even on a good day on Boston’s course. But from there? Like a forensic accountant, I’ve scrutinized the data. One error was obvious and amateur: I had three hour pace pegged incorrectly in my head by a second. That might not seem like much, but times twenty-six miles, well, you do the math. That accounts for twenty-four of those sixty-nine seconds I thought I had left with two-point-two to go. And mile twenty-five was no gem, making another withdrawal of another twenty-two seconds over three-hour pace. But even that should have left me with twenty-something to spare. Instead, I had nothing.

I’ll never know what went awry, and frankly, it doesn’t matter. Overall, it was a grand day with plenty of good moments that easily overrode the loss of a few minutes thanks to conditions that at least, unlike last year, didn’t threaten us all with hypothermia. And results need to be put into perspective. The local paper runs the results of all runners from the thirty or so towns in its coverage area (though this year they oddly omitted my own burg, burying it the next day in the cheap seats of the back section). The long listing – perhaps four hundred runners (I haven’t counted) – is heavily tilted toward the area’s high concentration of charity runners, so times are typically on the slower side, yet still the smattering of qualified, more competitive runners is easy to spot with a scan through the page. This year’s scan screamed, “Hot!” It’s telling that a mere eight sub-threes graced the page. It’s telling that my overall age-group placing rose from sixty-fourth last year to thirty-fourth this year, despite running over a minute slower, and my overall placing rose likewise. And it’s satisfying that somehow, like that year of the Bake-Fest, I fared fairly well under the sun, bad math and all. Rack it up, Boston number ten, we live to fight another day.

Fun Tidbits!

It’s A Small World, After All:
(Shout out to Sis, who knows I HATE that song!) How, among thirty-thousand of your closest friends, do you run into so many people that you know? One: Like last year, I’d been on the bus to Hopkinton less than a minute this year when a companion, this time a fellow local Highland City runner, walked on. Cool! Company at the Athlete’s Village! Two: At the Village, I ran into a Maine runner from our New Year’s Day Boston Marathon run. Three: Leaving the village, it was a friend from the Carolinas whom I knew from the Buffalo Marathon and hadn’t seen in at least five years. Four: Near the corrals, it was a New York runner I’d met at Mohawk-Hudson last fall – when we’d realized we’d already met a year earlier on the trails in the Adirondacks. Five: At mile three, it was one of my new Central Mass Strider peeps, who joined forces with me for a whole bunch of miles. Six: In the finish chute, I turned around to find my training partner “The Brit” right behind me. And we even found his wife for a post-race picture! Seven: And leaving the finish area, yet another companion from that New Year’s run, a youngster who thanked me for the ridiculous amount of unsolicited advice I and another old guy had given him that morning in prep for his first Boston – which he nailed in an absurd two-forty-six. Way to go, Patrick! Eight: Were there more? Probably, my memory is only so good!

Number Ten! This was my tenth consecutive Boston Marathon, all run as a qualified entrant. Sadly, the days when ten years would grandfather you for life are long gone. Instead, as I understand it, I’m now granted early registration and exemption from the cut-off if my qualifying race barely squeaks in under the qualifying time. So far, I’m ahead of the qualifying standards by enough that neither of these offers a significant benefit, but there may come a time when I’ll be happy to have the bennies.

Welcoming The World: One of the things I love about Boston is the opportunity to welcome the world to my backyard. I love asking people where they’ve travelled from, and responding to their reciprocal request by saying, “Ten miles north of here.” I love being able to offer up course advice to those who’ve never seen the route. And I love hearing runners’ reactions to the course and their experience. This year’s top moment in that category came around the half-mile mark, a favorite spot of mine where you first get a glimpse ahead and can see the endless mass of humanity ahead of you, even when you start near the front of the field. The guy behind me let out a loud, southern, and genuine, “DANG!” I knew instantly what he meant.

Post-Race Peeps: A huge shout-out and thank-you to my peeps from the Squannacook River Runners who again threw a terrific post-race party! I always feel a bit guilty knowing that while I’m a member, my distance from their home turf makes my participation in their events sporadic at best. And yet they welcome me back every year! You are truly good folk, even if you did catch me stuffing my face shamelessly! (Better is the shot of the Squannie finishers trying to break the massage table!) Dropping in to help out at your Groton Road Race is the least I can do to say thanks!

New Team: Goodbye Greater Boston red, hello Central Mass Striders blue. The irony is that had I raced in red, I’d have finished second on their masters team and would have again enjoyed seeing my name in the team section of the results book for their fifteenth place finish. Racing in blue, I ranked only fourth for CMS, about a minute outside of the scoring top three, and lost out on that tiny (and I mean tiny) bit of ink. But the non-scoring members of a team are there if someone flags, an important mission, and that support was provided to a far better sixth place finish. Top ten. Cool.

Ink. Sort of. Speaking of ink, the local press sent over a reporter and photographer a few weeks before the race for their series of profiles on runners with the longest streak in each town. These guys did fine work, penning an enjoyable article and managing to snap shots that made even me look pretty good. Plus, they even managed to get the blog title into their piece! But oddly, the article never appeared in the daily rag. It did show up in the weekly edition (which few read) where it was printed rather larger than life (must have been a slow ad day), but it didn’t appear on their web site until after the race. Go figure. But enjoy it here.

And Finally, Abuse of the Cloth: Admittedly, this story is a bit longer than a tidbit… Avoiding for the moment the issues of security and the lack of baggage checks, it’s a given that you’ll dispose of some clothing before the race. Since our local Salvation Army store closed up, Savers is now the purveyor of choice for “rental clothing” that gets used, tossed, reclaimed, and re-donated, probably to be back on the rack for your next race.

For four bucks each I scored a lovely Ohio State hoodie, an honor in light of my Ohio family heritage and the many OSU fans among the clan (though with the warmer temperatures, this one didn’t go to the race and lives on for another day!), and a pair of Florida State Seminoles sweatpants. I had my niece in mind on this second find, despite knowing she graduated from, and lives near, the University of Miami; hey, it was still Florida, right? Wrong, she informed me, this constituted treasonous behavior, cavorting with the enemy. In response, I promised to duly abuse them before discarding.

As it turned out, my gang settled on a patch of grass at the Athlete’s Village next to a gentleman who happened to be from Gainesville, Florida, or to translate to people who live in places with hills, a Gators fan. Yes, to him the ‘Noles, as apparently they’re known, were also the enemy. Gleefully he joined me as we rent the offending garment asunder before tacking on a few good stomps as a final insult, then slam dunked it into the nearest waste receptacle, all of this documented by club-mate Dan for the satisfaction of said Floridian niece. Yes, it was a bit wasteful, but hey, it was fun.

14 April 2016

Shunning Shelter

A couple of days after my last race, I was hit by a rather powerful metaphor. No injuries, I’m pleased to report, but it did make for a good lead-in to the tale of that outing.

Dearest Spouse has rightly given up trying to stuff freshly laundered (thanks of course to her) running wear into my overstuffed bureau drawers (which border on explosive failure due to years of race shirt accumulations and expo bargains). The Monday after said latest race, we were treated to half a foot of sticky April snow, which, glued to the roads as slush ice in the twenty-five degree air, made my trip home excruciatingly slow, and thus made the stack of short-sleeve running shirts and shorts she’d left me to stow all the more ironic. There were no cold-weather items in the mix; no long sleeves and no tights, because just three days earlier I was actually getting mosquito bites while chatting with a fellow runner after a warm afternoon rail trail run. The bugs were out, then back to winter. Go figure.

I’d say that’s just New England weather, but this year I’d be echoed with similar chants from just about everywhere. I’ll avoid going political this time and simply call it an observation. That day, having been out since morning and faced with dangerous dimly lit late day road slop, I did at least find the sanity to take a zero and chalk up a rest day of healing. I wasn’t quite so smart that previous weekend, though.

Mankind has spent millennia seeking better shelter and higher levels of comfort. Why is it that we find it so noble, so boast-worthy indeed, to forego these advances which not only make our lives more pleasant but clearly have worked to our advantage on the survival scale? Ah, simple question, simple answer: because we’re runners. Or morons. Or both.

Working backwards from our late season snow day (yes, Dearest Daughter the Younger had a snow day off from school in April), the previous day had been simply manic, starting with another white blanket, warming to melt the coating rapidly, and sucking me into the trap of a seemingly pleasant mid-afternoon run which instead turned into bone chilling squalls and brutal winds. And the day before that was merely hypothermic: rain, wind, and forty; my definition of miserably ugly (you are recalling at this point the short-sleeved laundry and mosquito bites?); or in other words, a perfect day for a race, provided it was reasonably short, and with ample shelter available thereafter. Fortunately, the Frank Nealon Boston Tune-Up met both of those criteria: at fifteen kilometers, not short by many folks’ standards, but not long enough to bring on serious exposure, and blessed by a toasty warm high school cafeteria base camp ringed by the elixir of the gods, hot soup.

To give you an idea of how attractive a day it was, two of my club-mates came to the race, looked at the weather, decided that since their target summer race in Quebec includes huge staircases, they elected to just stay indoors and run the school stairwells. Smart people, they, but the rest of us wandered out to prove to the world how much disdain we held for shelter, warmth, and comfort.

Having already decided I’d humor my local club critics and wear local club green for this one (no, they’re not serious critics, but I have taken on some good-natured ribbing for running a nearly local race in my racing club colors, rather than my local club colors, over the years), I’d forgotten that my local club shirt came from a generation back when tech shirts checked in with the thickness of light steel plate. Looking at the race photos, I’d guess to have been carrying an extra five pounds just in the shirt, stretching into an elasticized sail of numbing proportions. It’s a special feeling when your shorts are so glued to you that, well, need I really describe that part?

While sailing the Seven Seas of Upton may have been uncomfortable, conditions really weren’t too bad for racing; certainly overheating wasn’t a problem. And the results really weren’t that bad, either. On this, my sixth outing at this venue, I knocked a half a minute off last year’s finish, landed my second-best age-graded performance (within a point of my top rating from three years back), and once again took the seniors’ division crown. My random stranger warm-down companions were duly complimentary of my age-to-finishing-place ratio. Yet all in all it was unsatisfying. It felt poorly executed, too hard early, too much of a fight the rest of the way, too little at the end.

Upton is a reasonably challenging course, studded with rolling hills that always exceed my recollection of the previous year’s pain. Even splits aren’t a reasonable expectation. And to be fair, the race’s title, “Tune Up”, reflects the reality that this effort is only two weeks prior to the Big Show in Boston, so this race is, to my mind, the official start of the taper (not that I’ve ever been good at that maneuver). In short, blowing out everything isn’t a goal. But while an adrenalin-fueled quick first mile isn’t something to get uptight about, this time that quick first mile wasn’t really all that quick and it was followed by a progressive fade to moderately so-so at best, if not so-so by the actual splits, then so-so by feeling far less than All Powerful. Holding ninth at the mile, I’d lose six places, one of those with only a quarter mile to go, usually my time of strength, and regain only one for a fourteenth place overall finish. Not bad, but uninspiring.

But this was, after all, a tune-up, and if nothing else, it was a hard outing in a training cycle that‘s been fine on quantity but short on quality. I have to remind myself that age grading matters; the count of sun cycles does keep increasing. More so, I can’t expect to feel rocket-powered every day, so let’s get that day of struggle out of the way now before Patriot’s Day arrives.

Besides, how does that phrase go? A so-so day at the races beats…? And even a bunch of foolish drenched rats who have shunned modern comforts can be made happy with soup.

Photos courtesy of Ted Tyler via JimRhodes.com