11 May 2016

Hilly Clinton

No, it’s not a political statement, it’s just an annual tradition that this year turned out rather politically pun-worthy (don’t we drop Rs in New England?). If it’s May, it’s time for the Hill From Hell, or really, the collection of hills ranging from purgatory to hell that comprise the Clinton Tribute.

I return to this race because it’s on our local club racing circuit, which isn’t really a good excuse because I tend to miss most of the races on that circuit anyway. I return to this race because the local paper that organizes it actually has a habit of reporting on the racing aspect of the event – a rarity when media outlets usually only speak of the charity seeking funds. I return to this race because it’s a fun townie event, even if it’s for a town that isn’t my own. But mostly I return to this race because it’s one of the toughest five milers in the Commonwealth, and let’s face it, I love pain.

Four hills in five miles, with only the first ranking below the level of ugly, and that one begins at the starting line to really get your circuits humming. It also has the convenient effect of tuckering out the townie tots by the top. I love the fact that the kids turn out in force for this – it’s good for the future. I’m annually amused by the irrationally exuberant few who always insist on having their moment in the sun, or in the case of this year, the gloom, by leading the pack for the first two blocks of elevation gain. Then they die. Then the real fun begins. This year was no exception.

Clinton comes around three weeks after Boston, just when the legs are just starting to feel human again, so why not insult them with a little vertical racing? This year brought an added twist: it came in the middle of what technically should be yet another taper, because yes, I’m embarking on a lark of spring foolishness by running a second marathon within four weeks, the “Boston-Sugarloaf Double” as I’ve heard it referenced. Three weeks and six days post Beantown (as it was on a Monday), or in other words, a mere week after Clinton, I’ll be slicing through the wilds of Maine, doing it again. Why, you ask? Good question, but we’ll leave that pontificating until a future episode. Suffice to say that while I intended to race Clinton, I didn’t intend to blow out anything along the way – neither times nor bodily parts. Preservation was a specified goal.

I recently had the fun of mentioning to a local reporter that the fun of being old is that you can enjoy it when you beat the young guys, yet have a good excuse when you don’t. That being said, my only real goal in this one was to beat the really old guys and go home with another of the absurdly oversized trophies this race bestows, because I have such an excess of flat spaces needing to be filled in my basement office. That outcome would come to pass, though not for lack of really old guys vying for small town glory. In fact, though the overall field was somewhat thinner than usual, there was a plethora of us relics. In a statistical oddity that happens only in small town races, five really old guys – seniors in their fifties like me – would cross the line before the first of the moderately old guys – masters in their forties – made it home. This day, the really old farts ruled.

That thin field also boosted the surprise of the day, my best placing in four outings at this venue. Lining up on the inexplicably narrow starting line timing mat (only ten feet wide, while the field was lined up across the entire wide street), no obvious players were in sight save my friend John. He noticed it, too. But never knowing who might be the wolf in sheep’s clothing, or for that matter who might be in earshot, we kept our whispers low as I suggested that this one could be his; my presumption being that though it’s happened on rare occasions, I had no expectation of landing in front of him that day. He agreed, he went for it, he was never challenged, and he won it. Well done. I’d roll in behind him in second place, but forty-two seconds back, an eternity. It wasn’t close. And though John was lonely throughout, getting to my spot involved a little more work.

Once the youth had gone hari-kari by the top of the starting grade, I slipped to the inside of an early competitor on the first turn, edged into third, and the game was on. John had already opened a sizeable lead, and though I knew he sometimes had a tendency to fade late, he gave no hints that that was the cards on this day. The guy in second also looked strong and was opening it up so quickly that once we’d plunged down the first drop to the mile mark, the gap probably exceeded sixty yards. Rationalization set in quickly: another marathon in a week, don’t break anything, third still smells pretty good.

Change set in just as quickly. Barely a quarter mile later, when the course turned vertical again, Number Two’s strength showed its softer side. By the top of that second hill, as we made the turn onto the only significant flat stretch of the course, I’d rapidly shrunk the gap to mere feet. Bag rationalization, go for strategy. It was clear this guy beat me up on the down, but I guessed I could wear him down on the up. And ups we had a’plenty. The Hill From Hell loomed.

I crept past on the flat, turning Number Two into Number Three, peppering our brief meeting with a little chit-chat, establishing he was local and well aware of our looming trip to Hell. So while I had perhaps ten yards on him entering Hades, I had no element of surprise. Holding second would require hammering hell hard. Up we go, kids. And may I say, it didn’t escape me that the sponsorship sign on the three mile marker, halfway up the Hill From Hell, was courtesy of a funeral home. Nice touch, Clinton, nice touch.

Somewhere from the depth of my memory that’s incapable of recalling what I did on Tuesday, I recognized a tree that I knew to mark the top, and gave it a burst over the summit, not having any idea how successful I’d been at opening the gap. I needed it to be large enough to hold on through my weak zone – the obscene screaming descent ahead. That drop starts in earnest before the course takes a one-eighty, a tough enough maneuver on the flats, but far worse when trying to wring everything out of the downgrade. Still, in exchange for that highly inefficient swinging turn, it offers the benefit of seeing how far behind your rivals may be.

Did I mention that change sets in quickly? My plan, concocted only minutes earlier, was to open it up on Number Three enough to hold him off through the plunge, knowing that if things got tight, the fourth and final hill should give me a last chance to cement my spot. But my post-hairpin glance back up the hill revealed a surprise: Number Three was now Number Four; the new Three was none other than a club-mate and occasional training partner from virtually next door (OK, down the street) whom I knew was a killer on the hills.

Crap. Now that fourth hill insurance policy meant nothing. My plan was kaput.

Forgetting about the ‘don’t break anything’ directive, it was all-out on the dive, all-out on the last climb, and the full Death Warmed Over look crossing the finish, turning the last mile – which to be fair included the second half of the Killer Plunge but also that final insulting dead-legged climb – into by far the fastest of the day. A little number crunching would reveal that the drop in my last mile split, compared to my average for the first four, would exactly equal the seventeen seconds that separated me from my club-mate. Go figure.

OK, so maybe John won it easily, but I’d say my race was a bit more interesting. Perhaps even more fun.

Then again, it was worth asking, this was a taper?

Amazing Department: A new award was created this year. The Ed Powers Award will be given each year to the oldest finisher. It was named after its first recipient, Ed Powers, who at age NINETY completed Hilly Clinton in sixty six minutes at thirteen minute pace, before hopping almost spryly to the stage to collect his honor. And consider, nine people finished behind him.

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