23 April 2017

Maraplex


Back in grade school math, we were taught that a google (lower case) was one followed by a hundred zeroes, and a googleplex (again lower case) was one followed by a google of zeros. For decades that stuck with me in the category of entirely useless knowledge, until Google became the Brain of the Universe, and the Googleplex its home. Who knew? And what other useless knowledge will come back to haunt us in decades to come?

You’ll fault my math, but on that theme I’m calling this year’s Boston, marathon number twenty-six, the Maraplex, a marathon of marathons. I know that not only is it not a one followed by twenty-six zeroes of marathons, which is, I believe, one hundred septillion, but really, even if the unit of measure were an angstrom rather than a marathon, that would make for a race of about ten light years (if I’ve calculated correctly, feel free to check my calculations at the end of this column). Further, I know it shouldn’t just be twenty six, but in fact twenty six point two marathons, so technically I’d have to run the first five and a quarter miles of my next one to reach the Plex Point. Be gone, you people more OCD than I, this was my Maraplex, and don’t you know I’m riding on the Maraplex express, it’s taking me to Maraplex. All aboard, and enough of that silliness.

The main point here is that I managed to improve my record to twenty-five for twenty-six on the statistic of finishing these things standing up (which wasn’t a foregone conclusion this time), and despite the unusual circumstance of not yet having a qualifier for next year’s race going in, I did get my ticket punched for next year’s ball.

To recap for those who are new to this train, it’s been a tough year. Injuries begat bad training and somehow the Mojo level fell off a cliff. Having cancelled last fall’s race (New York), this year’s Boston found me planted in an early corral (thanks to my previous fall’s qualifier) among a crowd I no longer resembled, and facing not quite a do-or-die, but the uncomfortable reality that if I didn’t do, I’d have to re-do, and from here on out it only gets hotter and harder. Hotter and harder were not pleasant thoughts when this one – in April – was already hot. And hard.

Of course, as noted, I did. And afterward, my local buds all scoffed at my pre-race doubts since the results were, when graphed against the Bell Curve of Running Humanity, not shabby. But omitting the year I ran Boston on forty-two days of training while recovering from that famed foot surgery (and also omitting the fun, unofficial ‘marathons’), this was a Personal Worst for Boston, and ahead of only my very first marathon for All Time Personal Worst.

Fortunately, the Gods of Age Grouping award me an extra ten minutes for next year’s qualifier, a minor concession for the fact that the Ultimate End will then be one year nearer (but that is, after all, our job: to spit in the face of that Ultimate End and do what we can with what we’ve got for so long as we’ve got it). And with that extra ten minutes, there was no doubt in my mind. This was not a race, it was a long run, I was going to run it how my body wanted to run it, and I was going to enjoy it, and just get the qualifier. If someone offered me a beer, I told myself, this time I might just take it.

No worries. Run comfortably. Enjoy it.

Yeah, that lasted for about an hour. Remember, it was hot? Remember, I came in pretty lousy shape, relative to where I should have been?

I don’t pay a coach, and that Monday was one of the reasons why. Had I paid a coach, I’d have a lot of explaining to do, and I just don’t have time for that; it’s supposed to be fun. My Ghost Coach would have crushed me for what was probably the worst-executed marathon of my career. Without exception, every five kilometers clicked in at a pace slower than the five previous. Even coming down off the hills, progress grew slower. And slower. And slower.

To be fair, late in the race, some of that was due to the judicious use of walk breaks. It was a stated goal to improve that vertical finishing percentage. And by those late miles, it was pretty clear that a finishing time variation of a few minutes just didn’t matter. Nobody’s going to ooh and ah because you landed at something-colon-twenty-one rather than twenty-two. All this called for was a time to slap on my entry in September. There’ll be chances to notch a better seeding later.

This wasn’t the Bake Fest of 2012, when the thermostat hit the eighties, but it felt like it was on its way. It was noted that we hit seventy-four, and it was also noted that the brutal day of the US Olympic Trials in Los Angeles a year back also hit seventy four. With the sun dial turned up to eleven for the first two hours of the race, once again, like 2012, they were dropping like flies. Once again, racers were walking by the time we hit Framingham. Once again, runners were laid out flat on the sides of the course, usually being attended to, but in a few cases, seemingly frighteningly alone. It was with great relief that I heard of no medical tragedies.

Like 2012, every table, every bottle, every ice bag, every sprayer (including one open hydrant we all agreed was a bit shockingly cold and far more soaking than we expected). By the time Dearest Spouse captured my withered visage at Newton Lower Falls, you could have squeezed me to water a small third world village. And like 2012, that soaking did manage to keep the core temperature under control while the rest of the body unwound, slower, slower, slower.

In the end, it just doesn’t matter. Someday I will fail to re-qualify, or I will fail to finish, and my string of consecutive Boston Marathons will end. Face it. I’ll never make fifty like one man achieved this year unless I run it till I’m ninety-three. Even twenty-five is highly unlikely. The last one is going to happen, and when it does, I’ll have had a good run, and there will be no shame. So soak it up.

Around mile twelve it occurred to me that this was Boston Number Eleven and I’d never gone in for the fun of the Wellesley scream tunnel. Soak it up. Plant a few pecks on a few cheeks!

Around mile fifteen it occurred to me that I run past Dearest Spouse each year with a shout and a wave, but nothing more. Plant a big one, just don’t twist the knee in the process!

Around mile twenty four it occurred to me that, dead tired or not, I’d never really played the crowd. Pump those arms! Get ‘em yelling even louder! It really works!

Soak it up. With three miles to go and forty-six minutes left to qualify, take a couple of walks so as to be coherent when Boylston rolls around. Really, if I couldn’t cover those last three in that amount of time, I didn’t deserve to be invited back

Amazingly, around that point, my local club Highland City Strider buds caught sight of my valiant struggle and snapped a picture that made my stride appear deceptively competent. It lies. I was far past burnt toast. It was agonizing, really from about seventeen onward.

After one last stroll coming out of the Mass Ave underpass, I slogged nine-plus pace up Hereford and onto the holiest stretch of running on the planet. I believe it took three or four hours after that to cover those last four blocks.

No brew ever tastes so good. (With annual thanks to the Amazing Squannacook River Runners for their Amazing Annual Boston Bash!).

You Can’t Make This Stuff Up Department

Thirty thousand runners, and it’s uncanny. For the third year in a row, as I hopped on the bus to the Athlete’s Village, a random friend coming from a completely different direction hopped on right behind me. Even more amazing, it was the same guy as it was two years ago, my bud Joe from my Greater Boston Days. It’s like we planned it. Company at the Village makes it a lot more fun.

While there, we tracked down first-timer Syracuse Daniel whom I’d met at Mohawk Hudson and have kept up with on his run-up to Boston. Unfortunately, the heat beat him up at nineteen. Chalk it up to experience, no shame considering what we were up against. There will be plenty more.

And on the topic of Mohawk Hudson, continuing the spree of ‘you’ve got to be kidding me’ moments, Jan, whom I’d met at M-H and realized then that I’d previously met him on the trails of the Adirondacks, and subsequently ran into again at the starting corrals of last year’s Boston, ran up alongside at mile nine and somehow managed to pick me out of the crowd by name. How?

As did CMS-teammate Eric, who I wasn’t even sure was running, but who sidled past at twenty-five and called out through my late-race stupor. Through through the oddities of chip timing, he ended up a few seconds behind me in the final tally, but photographic evidence would show that what he lost in seconds, he made up in on-course brews. Well done.

I insist on getting out the day after for a few miles, wicked pissah slow, to keep from turning into a rubber band. That I did Tuesday morn, which, mind you, was a perfect chilly day for a marathon, but Nooo… we had to hold it on Monday… Before I went out, I foolishly posted to my club-mates asking if they were planning to get together that evening. By the time I came back in, someone chimed in to host, and next thing you know, more than a dozen were coming. So, yeah, I um, did a double the day after, new record, nearly eight miles total.

But the best fun bit to come out of the day had to be from my Highland City Striders. The reason they caught me at twenty-three was because they were volunteering and had been assigned street crossing duty, but they were told to shut down the crossing during the most crowded period of the race. When they were in action, some enterprising soul captured their efforts in time-lapse, and the unique method used this year to get fans across the course literally went viral. At last count, the video has been picked up my multiple running magazines and has racked up over one-point-eight MILLION views. Check it out here, it’s worth watching. Mesmerizing, in fact. I have to say, I’ve never known anyone who’s gone viral before! And the funny thing is that I noticed the boxes painted (with tape) on the street, but since the crossings were shut down when I came through, I had no idea what they were for.

Which brings me to my final point: For anyone who has ever volunteered for this race, thank you. You’re incredible. Period.

Post Script: For you overachievers:

1 and 26 zeroes: 10^26, 100 Septillion
1 Angstrom = 10^-10 m
100 Septillion Angstroms = 10^16 m = 10^13 km
1 Light Year = ~ 10^12 km
Thus a Maraplex (in Angstroms) would be ~ 10 Light Years
(not counting the 0.2, rounding error)

14 April 2017

Fish Story


You’ve heard the fish story about the one that got away? Well, if I was trying to get away, I’d be captured pretty easily at the speed I’ve been moving. But this really is a fish story of sorts, and it’s true, really, I swear it, though all the literature and Google searches of the world would tell you otherwise. Put it this way: if I told you that aspirin would give you a headache, you’d think I was a bit off, but that’s pretty much what we’re talking about here.

If I had to boil down what ails me, there’s the busted stuff – the weak left leg and wobbly knee that defy explanation and the right foot that’s explained as manageable plantar fasciitis – and then there’s that other thing, that mystical force that’s holding back all efforts to perform, that anchor dragging me to speeds easily eclipsed by hordes, that anti-Mojo. That’s the one that alarms, because that’s the one that might force me to admit that time is passing.

I took up the discussion of said sadness with Dr. Lady Doctor during the Annual Physical Ritual, and we agreed that a good sports med doctor might do me well. On her recommendation, I trundled off to see Dr. Coach, so named here because he reminded me a bit more of a coach than a doctor and made known that he enjoyed that role. I found him pleasant and laden with wise advice, to be fair not much that I didn’t already know, but wise nonetheless and wrapped in a layer of motivation that had the potential to do some good. A trip to the pharmacy and an online order later, I possessed a pile of goodies awaiting use and consumption.

Admittedly, the lovely foam roller grew lonely quickly (yet looks colorful on our hearth), and the knee icings quickly gave way to the realities of a busy life. But some bits of advice stuck, like higher weights and fewer reps at the gym, and those turmeric capsules proved quick winners.

And then came the fishy part. Hit the fish oil, it’s a great anti-inflammatory, said Dr. Coach, four to six thousand milligrams a day. That’s a lot of fish oil, when one Lake Erie-sized pill packs a mere twelve hundred.

Let’s stop for a minute and focus on this inflammation thing. One of my favorite George Carlin bits was his discussion of flammable, inflammable, and non-flammable, and his wonder of why there were three terms. After all, said he, either the thing flams, or it doesn’t. But do I? On the question of flamming, every specialist I’ve seen suggests my woes are of the inflammatory sort, and thus anti-inflammatory actions are the answer. I don’t doubt them; I agree inflammation plays a big role, but it seems to me that stuff like the weak leg and the wobbly knee must have something mechanical or neurologic at their core. Still, flummoxing the flam can’t be bad, right?

Ever the scientist, I started with the turmeric for a week on its own so as to judge each addition to the mix separately, before hitting the Famed Fish Fry in a bottle. Turmeric, I’ll say again, was an instant winner, showing positive effects within days. Then it was time to add the Pacific Pufferfish Pills. Double down on the anti-flams, it should be all good, right? Save this one little detail to kick off our fish story. I’ve got a history.

Back in 2012, I gave the stuff a try, simply because everyone, every publication, every report, indeed everything in the known universe bellowed forth on the amazing graces of these oily gems. Being less scientific than I should have been on that first try, my logs didn’t record the details, save for this gem from a fateful day in September: “Decided to suspend fish oil. No reported side effects, but only fish oil correlates with the onset of the slump.”

Hmm. But one data point does not science make.

In December of 2013, with the blessing of Lady Doc, I set out to make science by replicating the study, this time logging the experiment. By early January, there’s the entry: “Quitting fish oil, think it’s doing the same overall stiffening again. Strange, opposite of what it’s supposed to do.”

And therein lies the rub. Stop reading for a moment (but do come back when you’re done!) and Google “fish oil side effects”. Don’t stop there. Try every combination you can think of, using words like ‘negative’, ‘stiff’, ‘ache’, you name it. You’ll find worries like bad breath, stomach issues, and so on, but you won’t find anything about it doing the opposite of what it’s supposed to do, that being, cause more inflammation. (If you do, tell me!) But that’s exactly what it did. Both times. How, you ask, would I know that inflammation was the problem? Rather simply because a serious dose of pharmaceutical-grade anti-inflammatories freed things up pretty quickly, both times.

So it was with some trepidation that I opted to give it one more shot, trust Dr. Coach, let myself believe that both prior tries were flukes, that the Internet must be right (it always is, right?), and that this time the stuff would work. Just to convince myself, I bought a really big bottle of the stuff.

First fishy week, one a day. With the size of these things, just lifting one is an effort, let alone swallowing it. And? Come the weekend, my twenty-one miler was a Personal Worst. In and of itself, that might just be a sign of the times. After all, I was trying to fix something here, so we can’t go blaming the fix for what might be a representation of the problem. Right? But I was already wondering. It felt familiar, and not in a good way.

Second fishy week, upped it to two. And? Come the weekend, the most appropriate race possible for this experiment rolled around, the New Bedford Half Marathon. New Bedford is the epitome of a fishing town, right up there with Gloucester, though with a strong tinge of whaling. New Bedford’s signature post-race hospitality is – you guessed it – fish. Fish sandwiches and chowder, a perfect accompaniment to this fish story. Perfect, except that the race was an utter disaster.

It’s pretty dismaying when, knowing this has been a tough year, you set a seriously low bar of merely being within ten minutes of last year’s finish time, and then, by slogging in ten and a half minutes over, you don’t even make that. To be fair, I will blame the most intense wind I’ve ever raced in for two or three of those minutes, but the rest were all on me. I held it together, sort of, for the first half, but the fade started before the full gale set in at mile nine. The next mile along the water, with white caps on the white caps, was downright intense. Consider that it was the kind of day where, even inland at the downtown start line, I spent part of my warm-up helping a cop prop up the DPW barrels and road closed signs that couldn’t withstand the onslaught. Down at the sea, the blasting brutality had us leaning so far into the wind that one racer later commented that had it momentarily stopped, he’d have done an instant face-plant. By the time I moved inland to escape the worst of the tempest, I was a demolished, a tourist at best. Personal Worst didn’t begin to describe this one. But I wasn’t ready to blame the fish just yet.

Third fishy week, three, and I found these puppies were ruining my dinner by filling my belly with the sheer amount of liquid I’d have to gulp to succeed in getting them down. And this only got me to thirty-six hundred. To meet Dr. Coach’s bar, I’d need to reach four or even five of these plugs, washed down by a quart or two. This was getting ridiculous. But it’s all in the interest of science.

And? The following weekend, my last long run pre-Boston, a twenty-three miler, was even worse than before. Not only was my pace and ability moving backwards, my legs felt like they were, too. Yet another Personal Worst, even Worster than before. The only way things could get Worster still would be to do this run again in Worcester. (Sorry. That just happened. I couldn’t stop it.)

Science is established by replicating studies and repeating results. By now, it was time to call the game. Science had been made. Fish oil, the great anti-inflammatory hailed the world over, except for me. For a moment I pondered whether perhaps I was swallowing the capsules ass-end first.

Now do you remember I mentioned that if I told you that aspirin would give you a headache, you’d think me a bit off? You’d perhaps think I was telling you a fish story?

In the middle of this, Dr. Coach’s office billed out a stratospheric number for our twenty-five minute consultation. When I came out of shock, I knew that adventure was over before it had gained any momentum, so consulting with the good doctor on this fishy episode was right out, leaving only one solution: the nuclear option. Time to pull out my favorite industrial strength anti-inflammatory, my ‘ibuprofen on steroids’, except that steroids aren’t legal and this stuff is. (I checked. You can’t be too careful.) This is ‘break glass in case of emergency’ stuff, and this was one of those moments. And yes, things are better somewhat, but I can’t get back all that lost training.

Now, only days before Boston Number Eleven, without a qualifier in my pocket for next year, and without a decent log run under my belt, I’m glad that Boston is all about hunting unicorns and not about catching fish.

Oh, and if you want a mostly unused really big bottle of fish oil, let me know.

08 March 2017

More Than a Clam Shell


A few weeks ago – no, wait, it’s already been seven weeks, time is flying – I happened to overnight in a small burg on the New York-Pennsylvania border. That morning I hit the roads for a January-chilled seven miles that crossed the border twice (good thing, or I’d never have gotten back to the hotel), and was pleased to see that my pace had finally taken a bump in the right direction, offering a glimmer of hope than an exit from this extended slump spiral of injuries and lousy training might be on the horizon. Owing to the seeming trend-altering nature of the morning, and the geographically notable nature of the course, I’d coined the title of my next posting, “State Change”, but I figured I’d best hold on publishing for a week or two before declaring any sort of victory against this ongoing malaise. It was a wise choice; there was no real change in state.

And so the beat goes on, and with nothing to report but continued ‘meh’, so I haven’t reported of late. It’s always my intent to make this column upbeat, to dig a pearl of positivism from the experience of fighting off aging though Our Beloved Sport, but the reality is that it’s been tough of late. I know that the calendar will catch up with all of us, and I too will slow down, but this latest round hasn’t been that gradual decline. Rather it’s been sudden and difficult to explain, so I haven’t accepted it as the inevitable erosion but instead am still fighting it as a temporary – if extended version of temporary – bump in the road. Or in short, I'm not giving in, and in the meantime, I’m not going to write just to whine.

But it’s Hyannis time, so it’s time to extend my neck from under my rock and tell a story. Better yet, this year it’s a double-decker story, one of my race, a struggle against this ongoing discontent, and a second of a tremendous personal achievement to be celebrated. Not mine, mind you, but I had the honor and joy of having a little nudge in its creation.

First, the struggle.

So many weeks ago, Boston was still months out, and my only interim test was our annual club expedition to Hyannis to vie for our annual masters’ relay clam shell trophies. Surely by Hyannis, the state would change, and surely I’d then be feeling better about Boston creeping nearer. Stop calling me Shirley. It hasn’t happened.

Heading to Hyannis, the best I could say was that that ugly bleeding calf muscle tear from Mill Cities was finally feeling patched up. Early in the healing process, I’d tried a fancy laser treatment offered up by Dr. Foot Doctor. (Remember him? He hasn’t graced these pages for a while.) Said good doctor invested a fair penny in this wonder, a multi-wavelength cold laser (technically a multiwave locked system, or MLS laser, see CE Lasers) which is designed to both reduce pain and stimulate healing. Whether it works through science or simply through fear by its rather imposing targeting device is left for the patient to ponder. While being confident in its capabilities, he’s been struggling to identify a paying patient base, so his offer was simple: try it out, and if it works, write it up. And so I tried. And the first time, it seemed to have a positive impact, reducing some of the pain and – I liked to think – possibly speeding some healing. Subsequent treatments seemed to have diminishing effects, so after a course of four or five sessions, I had a hard time offering a solid endorsement, but I wouldn’t call it a failure, either. I’d bet it may have initiated speedier healing, and it may be effective for some people, and I will happily provide you contact information if you’d like to give it a shot. Still, full healing, for me at least, still took a solid eight weeks.


So, Hyannis came about with a whole calf, but still a knockin’ knee, a hurtin’ heel, and overall frightful fitness. But it’s a low pressure event, so it’s a good opportunity to test the pipes.

Let’s cut right to the final scene, where unlike at the Oscars, the correct winner was announced, and again it was us. Tom Brady has only five championships in his seven tries. We’ve won all seven of ours. Granted, Tom Brady gets the crap kicked out of him by worthy opponents, and we, well, we’ve faced some opponents, a couple of times even worthy ones, but this year, we placed first in our division of precisely one team. A somewhat hollow victory, but tempered by finishing in the top ten percent of all teams in all divisions, and after all, a clam shell’s a clam shell. Just assembling the team and showing up on the starting line is, of course, part of the battle, and no other collection of old farts was willing and able to do that, so we’ll take it.

Not that the victory wasn’t without some drama, including the ‘just showing up on the starting line’ bit. Our leadoff man crossed his signals on the race starting time, hit traffic, couldn’t find parking, and arrived a mere twenty minutes before the gun, while I was swapping bibs in expectation of having to take his first leg. Restored to my usual third leg by his dramatic appearance, I couldn’t help but notice the grey-haired fast-looking dude – decked out in a USATF Grand Prix race shirt no less – waiting alongside me at the exchange zone. Anticipating a Personal Worst even before factoring in Hyannis’ legendary wind, the guy looked like a threat, and after delivering on my promise of that Personal Worst (though admittedly still faster than I’d expected), I put the Fear of God into our anchorman, warning him of the danger as I handed off. When the divisional team count was revealed, he’d later curse me, but another respectable team time capped by that clam shell forgives all sins. The dynasty lives on.

Next, the achievement.

I’ve made it a habit of running the back half of the Hyannis course as an easy warm-down after my leg, joining up with our lead-off man who’d typically be waiting at the exchange zone (the Hyannis course being two iterations of a half-marathon loop, legs one and three are the same). Sadly, our lead-off man, after his dramatic late arrival, had to make a dramatic early departure as well due to family obligations, missing both his Moment of Zen clam shell award (thus only three of us in the team photo), and worse, his traditional back-nine (really, back-six, but that doesn’t sound as good) casual jaunt with yours truly. That left me to either abandon my add-on miles or go it alone. After a few minutes of catching my breath, chatting up other racers, and finding no interested parties, I figured I’d just slog it out on my own.

Without any deeper thought than figuring I’d better go before the warm glow of blood flow began to fade, I jumped back onto the course, randomly happening alongside a blue-bibbed, a.k.a. full marathon, young lady fighting the mighty headwind of Craigsville Beach. Not wanting to get in her space, but figuring I could dish up a service, I offered up a windbreak: tuck in if you’d like till we get back inland, away from this forlorn spot, or tell me to get lost and I won’t bother you. Not getting the latter response, I tried to provide whatever shelter my miniscule form could carve from the gale, while clumsily doing my best to not be a nuisance.

What became clear was that this was her first marathon, and she was hammering the miles with admirable consistency as she delved deeper into the twenties, the runner’s equivalent of the Death Zone on Everest, where until you’ve raced it several times, you just don’t know what to expect nor how easily it can knock you out. It was also clear that she was in the “I don’t want to know” zone, not checking her watch (at least not when I was looking), not living by the numbers, just running it, and to my view, running it well. And it was crystal clear that if she didn’t fall apart, she’d destroy her Boston Qualifying time in Marathon Number One, a feat the significance of which her non-running friends would never understand, and one for which her running friends would good-naturedly hate her.

What wasn’t clear was by how much. I’d clicked off my watch at the end of my relay leg, but my recollection of when the gun had gone off – in real time – hinted that this lady was going sub-three-ten. And while I hadn’t paid close attention to who’d passed by in the ten minutes between the end of my relay leg and when I’d jumped back on the course, I had a sneaking suspicion that she was, in fact, on track to win this thing.

What was a little fuzzy was whether I was a help or a hindrance. My offers to get out of her hair were turned down, but hey, that could have just been her being polite even in her time of agony. So I tried to leave ten feet or so of space, but hold a steady pace for her to key off, and provide bits of encouragement and marathoner wisdom, notably responding to her discomfort in the high miles with the simple adage that yeah, it’s supposed to suck right about now, so you’re doing fine.

And she was doing fine. She held it together for about twenty-five and a half before the wall closed in. That last three-quarters of a mile were a real fight, and two women passed – who would turn out to finish one-two – but my accidental acquaintance still motored in to a third place finish, clipping that three-ten mark by a minute-plus, crushing her Boston Qualifier, and picking up a prize check that in one fell swoop exceeded my lifetime cash winnings from this sport. In her first marathon. Damned impressive. Congratulations, Arianna!

I tried to stay low key and out of the way post-race other than offering up my congratulations, knowing that despite her previous acceptance of my coaching, she might well have wished to be left alone. But to my utmost relief, she was graciously thankful, which made me a happy old fart, knowing that perhaps I’d contributed one tenth of one percent (and not an iota more) to her success.

And that’s one of the beauties of this sport. It’s not just about our own struggles, victories, and even defeats, but it’s about our community, the support we get, the support we give, and the joys of being on both ends. I came home from Hyannis with a clam shell, but I also came home with a happy memory of being able to provide some of the fabric that helps us all to our goals.