22 November 2017
There are a couple of basic rules in the running world. First, when life takes you places, take your running shoes. Second, the myth of the lonely distance runner is in fact just that, a myth. We’re generally highly social creatures, and you’re a fool if you don’t take advantage of that fundamental truth. Link up with someone and not only will the miles melt away in amusing discourse, but you’re a lot more likely to cook up adventures and expand your horizons.
This week, those adages won me an utterly gorgeous morning running the iconic bridges of New York accompanied by a new friend who made for an effective, willing, and most enjoyable Native Guide. Lonely distance runners my behind…
This is not to say I haven’t embarked on plenty of adventures solo; my running tour of London a couple years ago comes instantly to mind. But you can only do that when you have reasonable leeway and margins for error; when the downsides of something going askew rise, I often take the conservative option and stick with the known, expanding my horizons only slowly.
Thus when Corporate Employer, who has me crisscrossing the northeast and parts random on a regular basis, drops me in Manhattan, I tend to stick to the familiar. From my usual camping spot in Midtown, I pick my way uptown to Central Park, loop the reservoir, then head back south, dodging commuters pouring out of the Port Authority and Penn Station, to get back in the nick of time. Since I don’t go to Gotham just to hang in the office – it’s always for meetings, usually with clients – screwing up the plan would result in a rather embarrassing and dramatic late entrance.
But last week opened a window of opportunity, and that window unfolded in a surprising – or perhaps not so surprising, given the basic truths I held evident earlier – way. The day’s meetings were slated to start a bit later than usual. Ah, an opening to try something different.
Still, getting there and back – and hopefully having a few minutes to locate a childhood friend’s name and have a few minutes of reflection, wasn’t a given, even though I plan these things within an inch of their lives. Call it OCD.
Decoding Google Maps along Manhattan’s west side, where docks and piers and parks and highways intertwine like loosely wound DNA, isn’t a certain science. Most uncertain, I couldn’t quite tell if the sinuous strand, clearly labelled at some points, but not so clearly labelled at others, did in fact extend all the way south. So it was that on attaining the trail at 26th Street, I took the stereotypically un-male action of asking the first guy who passed by if indeed this was the Greenway (to which I expected his reaction to be, “Duh, there’s a river if you go thirty feet further west,”) and if indeed the path continued all the way to the end of the island. I’m not sure I communicated that last bit, the important bit, all that well, but I took his lack of warnings of death, doom, and destruction to imply that I wasn’t really off base in my quest. And, feeling a bit like a moron, but mostly wanting to respect his privacy, I took off.
Funny thing about running in New York City. Unlike back home, where it’s an event to see another runner, a rarity to see one heading your way, and a lottery-ticket day to find one heading your way at your pace, in New York there are thousands out on any given morning. There’s always someone going your way. It’s not even that hard to find someone reasonably close to your pace. But faced with this plenty, most of these masses don’t strike up conversations with folks they don’t know. I suspect it’s a matter of practicality. We’re social, but we do like some me time, and with these multitudes, if you chatted up every passing compatible pacer, you’d never have a moment to daydream – or think up blog topics. Folks need some space. Which is why I took off.
A half mile later, he caught up. A few miles later we were buds. It happens. Serendipity.
Introducing myself as being from Boston piqued interest since he was looking forward to his first Boston in the spring. From there, stories spewed forth (one quite notable: he’s got an amazing hundred mile week – which he did in five days! – under his belt – check that out here). He soaked up my chatter without complaint while regaling me with his. Runner chat. Miles melting. Faster pace than I’d do on my own. I needed that. But by the time we reached his office in Lower Manhattan (he’d run-commuted that day), pretty much all I knew was that he was an attorney from Brooklyn, and we’d had a good run. That alone was enough and had made for a great morning.
Ah, the consequence of decisions. Nearly a decade ago I picked the name for this literary serial, with one criteria being that it would be simple to pass on verbally, key since few can spell my name right on the first try. When we parted outside his office I shouted the name of the blog. His email showed up shortly thereafter; connection made, simplicity worked. Good decision.
Oh, and yes, after a wrong turn (how can you miss a hundred-story office tower? I did it…) I got my ten minutes of reflection at the memorial, and found my old friend’s name. Powerful.
But he was all in on this, which found me rising earlier than I prefer to meet him in the dawning light along the Hudson. The early awakening was well worth it; now teamed with a Native Guide, here was a chance to expand my horizons without the risk of getting hopelessly lost in the spaghetti of Lower Manhattan (I can handle the Midtown grid, but Downtown is worse than Boston!). Remember, I had to have my butt in a seat for a meeting.
The Brooklyn Barrister picked up on my eye for the iconic, and planned a classic New York river-spanning route. I’ve walked the Brooklyn Bridge a couple times, and it’s long been one of my favorite urban walks, period. Running it added another notch of delight. Running back across the Manhattan Bridge, a structure with all the charm of unplanned steam punk inbred with organic graffiti, with trains roaring by ten feet to our right, but with a stunning view of Roebling’s masterpiece and the morning sun setting the Financial District afire, was simply sublime. And it’s worth noting, that sucker is a pretty serious hill, too. You don’t really get that till you’re coming down the other side and see that you’re above the roofs of the fifteen-story buildings on shore. Nice workout, indeed.
As for those photos, hey, you might as well milk it, right? Hours later, when the conference room of colleagues was zoned from a full day of endless blather and slideware, I ended my brief speaking bit by announcing, “And now, your moment of Zen,” flipping that bridge shot onto the screen. Few in the room got the Daily Show reference, but it had the desired effect – both a satisfying break to the day and a reconfirmation of my status as the slightly crazy one in the room – since they knew how I’d harvested the image.
Horizons suitably expanded, I returned to my usual park loop the next morning, finally remembering – as I’ve meant to do for a long time – to pack the phone for some snaps of the sun rising against Central Park West. More bliss. But now I’m dangerous. Now I know that Brooklyn is in range. I might never make another New York meeting on time.
13 November 2017
A few weeks ago, you’ll recall, I won a local race. My local buds laughed when I sloughed it off to light competition. But really… You want proof? How about this? A week back, I dove into the deep end and ran a race labelled ‘Championships’. You can bet that the word ‘win’ doesn’t appear in this story. Do a ‘Replace All’ on ‘win’ and insert ‘thrashing’. It’s good to have perspective.
A week prior, the back, out of nowhere, caught me from behind (go ahead, groan). I don’t often get the spacious luxury of a king-sized bed, so while out in Syracuse to visit Dearest Daughter, that Montana-sized motel mattress was a treat that left me refreshed and ready to meet a local friend for a Saturday morning ten-miler. Ten minutes out of bed, without warning, I couldn’t bend over. Go figger. I’m not one prone to back problems, so this made no sense then, and with tinges lingering a full two weeks later, it makes no sense now. On the bright side, my companion had seriously over-indulged the night before to celebrate his advancing years (he’s finally more than half my age), so he didn’t mind our brutally slow start, and as me achin’ back loosened up I found that for the next week, my only relief would be when I was running, so naturally I ran a whole lot.
Prior to that, it was the foot that injected a bit of drama. What appeared as an odd bruise in an odd spot initiated by an odd pair of shoes that only hurt at odd times left me worried that I’d done far worse and cracked one of those multitudinous mini-bones. Just to be safe, I commissioned a portrait, and Dr. Foot Doctor assured me today I’m merely the proud owner of an osteophyte, or for you normal folks, just a bit of an irritated bone spur. Carry on.
There, buried in the back of the closet… The good news? They were far more comfortable than expected. The bad news? The trails I’d chosen were a bit technical in places, and I repeatedly hit rocks which tossed one leg wildly into the other. Not spike-side-first, which would be ugly, but with enough blunt force trauma to do some damage. Ooh, that’s gonna’ leave a mark!
So into the lion’s den I went, riddled with a variety of maladies, but not about to let them stop me from indulging in a complete denial of age. There’s an odd joy in running a cross country race when you’re halfway through your fifties. Go ahead, act like you’re a teen-ager, slog through trails and woods like your high school days. Age and bodily damage be damned. I’d missed it, and it was good to get back out there. Never mind the odd logic that getting back out there meant jumping into the championships; odd indeed when I hadn’t run a cross country in years. Start big.
I held no delusion that I’d be anywhere close to competitive in a field of ringers, but you can’t get faster in races without racing, so might as well start somewhere. Besides, in this game, even the seventh man contributes, so why not jump in when you just might boost your team, even if you are slow guy? Further, it was good to show my Central Mass Striders team that I really did exist in the flesh, not just in emails, since right when I signed on was when I fell off the cliff and stopped racing.
It’s worth repeating, there’s nothing quite like a cross-country start. In a road race, unless it’s small (read, the competition probably isn’t deep), you’re corralled well behind the fast guys. But a cross country start is egalitarianism brought to racing. For about half a minute as we thundered across the field at Boston’s Franklin Park I was actually in the race, a race labelled championship.
Reality of course took over quickly, and I found myself well back in Central Oblivion, separated from all ahead or behind, in the rear position of a mini-pack of three. Time is more or less irrelevant in cross country – a small comfort of which I’d remind myself when I pulled in two and a half minutes slower than my last time around this circuit, six years prior – rather, it’s all about place and team scoring. Since one of the parties in my mini-pack was an old Greater Boston teammate who I knew was a spry young forty-something who therefore didn’t matter in my fifties-plus race scoring world, my focus became the third guy of our private party, a runner from Greater Lowell who, through some pre-race humor, had revealed himself as worthy of fossilization.
All of this sorting took place quickly, and then? Nothing happened. It’s an eight kilometer race, mind you. Other than a bit of grunting, we just soldiered on in peace, knowing that the game is one of positioning for late race moves, hoping to pick up a place or two and boost your team.
Again, perspective: I’d walk away from the field of combat having finished two thirds back in the field, yet somehow, I was still thinking strategy. This was our little skirmish in the bigger war. I wanted that Lowell guy. I vowed that if I didn’t take him and we landed behind his team by a single point, I’d have to devise some unspeakable self-punishment. You don’t get that in a road race.
With about two kilometers to go, I’d put a few yards on my former Boston teammate, and made a move on Lowell. Though it wasn’t a windy day, as soon as I passed, it sure felt that way, so I backed off; might as well let him do the work. Besides, the last loop over Bear Cage Hill awaited, and I’m nothing if not moderately confident on a hill.
While biding my time, quite by surprise – since I’d thought we’d been all alone in our Gang of Three – a pair of interlopers loped past. Remember that tune, Hot Rod Lincoln? I said boys, that’s a mark on me…
The second interloper got away with his caper, but he’d turn out to be a spry forty-seven, so he just didn’t matter. The other three I chalked up as slayed. So yes, the truth is that I ran sixty-ninth, or I can just say that I took three out of four whom I was actually racing. It’s perspective. It was still a thrashing, but with a small victory extracted from the wreckage.
Oh, and for the record, that point I added to Greater Lowell’s score with the late race take-down didn’t make a hill of beans of difference, but it felt good just the same.
17 October 2017
It’s usually a process. Run a race, let it sink in a few days to allow the salient points to clarify, ponder a few days more on angles to make the story interesting, spend the inevitable additional period waiting for people to post pictures so I can spice up the tale for my quasi-readers who only look at the pictures (you know who you are), find time to start writing, and a week later if I’m lucky, two weeks later if I’m busy, you get the latest ponderings on my little slice of the universe.
Not this time. It’s fast track. Pen the piece promptly. Get it out the door, before it’s too late, before I change my mind, before I inevitably convince myself that no, sorry, this weekend’s wonders were not, in fact, a turning of the proverbial corner. Yessiree, tell the tale while the glow still emanates, while the aura lingers, while I still think things might be looking up.
The race win was a foregone conclusion after about a quarter of a mile. Of the hundred and twenty participants, a good half were walkers, and a good half of the rest were casual joggers. Of this I can be relatively certain, because we, we being myself and the second- and third-place finishers, opted to jog the course for a warm-down, and it being an out-and-back, we had a first-hand view of a good portion of the field (and endured an endearing amount of runner-style catcalls: yes, we were indeed doing it again, ten whole kilometers; no, we didn’t have to pay twice; yes, we’re somewhat crazy – frankly, we loved every minute of it).
So winning this wasn’t really an issue – indeed, it was almost more of an embarrassment (but hey, they had prizes, so somebody had to win it, right?). What was an issue was that for a reasonable effort level (reasonable being defined as, yes, the Death Warmed Over look that I so wished for just a week ago returned, but no, no medical attention was required), I finally turned in a time that didn’t make me grimace. On an absolute level, I have to get used to bigger numbers on the time clock than in the old young days, but still, it wasn’t bad, and when run through the age grading calculator (my savior of growing old), this one chalked up quite nicely, darn close to the magic boundary that’s always defined a good race for me.
We’ll politely neglect to mention that it’s a forgiving course, with only a few mild rolls (and pretty darn accurate, only a hairbreadth long) and that the weather was nearly ideal. Just go with it. Quick. Before I change my mind.
So it was that off I trundled with some nice swag after enjoying what is essentially an extended family reunion, celebrating the life of my lost training partner John Tanner, and the Noyes family’s foundation to advance research to cure Batten disease which claimed their son Nicholas, whom John passionately supported. As I’ve often stated, I’m not big on charity fundraiser runs, since most are just a way to focus on the funds with no connection to the run. This one, on the other hand, honoring a dedicated runner like John, is an apt memorial, and is put on with tremendous dedication and a lot of love. For one day a year, I am honored to be treated like extended family. So yeah, I knocked off Nicholas’ cousin by the mile mark, but the title, well, sort of stayed in the extended family.
All that aside, I’m trying to convince myself that the physical therapy work – or as it’s billed to insurance, therapeutic exercises - is starting to pay off. The pain isn’t gone, not that I really expect it to go away entirely. The weakness isn’t gone, but it is maybe, sort of, perhaps, kind of, mildly abated, and yes, that I do hope to see go entirely. Plenty more obscure balancing exercises on one bent knee are in my future. Soldier on.
So quick, before the next string of two or three utterly horrible training runs where everything hurts, fatigue lames the leg, pace drops off the cliff, and my mood goes back into the sewer, quick, publish this one, and let’s hope this is a hint of better times ahead that maybe sticks.
07 October 2017
Until quite recently, the Meh dial has been turned to eleven. (I hate to digress right after my opening statement, but if you don’t get that reference, go here, it’s worth it, it’s a classic.) My trusty Ironman POS (Plain Old Stopwatch) gave up the ghost a while back. It decided I’d run a seriously long workout and simply stopped cold. Not died, as in, dead battery, no display, kaput, no, it just stopped (it was, I suppose, a stop watch, right?). No combination of rhythmic button tapping would budge it from its assurance that eighty five hours earlier I’d started to do something.
It occurred to me that if time really stopped, as my ex-watch insisted, that would make me immortal. But as those three weeks of timelessness drifted by, I had to admit that immortality is overrated. Going down that path means there’s no need to work hard to stick around, but the topic of staying on this planet a lot longer inevitably turns political, so I’ll skip it for now. Suffice to say I can’t just give it up like that. I’ll opt out of immortality and keep up the fight. Meh be damned.
The fight has been notched up to full swing of late. There’s a line in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s (utterly brilliant) musical Hamilton where Hercules Mulligan raps, “When you knock me down, I get the [f-bomb] back up again.” Getting back up again is never easy, but I’m trying (some of my co-workers would concur with that statement, though perhaps with a different meaning). So while it’s been a Summer of Silence in the blogosphere, all has not been silent in the background. Doctor Number Three has me working hard with a new Physical Terrorist, and last week it was time to go public, so to speak, and hit the race course again.
Race? For real? Calm down, these are merely baby steps. Start small, start local, start with the Forrest, our local three-point-two mile five-K, a race with almost more medals than people, as well as plenty of burgers and beers afterward. And, as it happened, complete with eighty-five degree heat under intense sun, in late September. Fall, global warming style.
The result? A Personal Worst. Worst ever on the Forrest course, even adjusting for the long course and for that new pesky traffic island they mistakenly sent us around. Second worst five click race ever. Though, if you slap on the age-grading tables, it only hit the bottom quartile, and after all, it was hot, he said, knowing that the heat really didn’t have much to do with it. So I guess you can pull out some redeeming qualities for the first race outing in many, many months.
This was not a race-to-the-death. This was a race to remember what a race was; after all, it’s been since May, and Gate City wasn’t exactly a speed festival. Baby steps. Solid, not crazy, since there wasn’t any crazy in the tank, and no reason to spend it if there was. I wasn’t going to win it, and there weren’t any old farts around to threaten the masters category, so just drive it in, keep it steady, be happy with solid, don’t do anything stupid. Heck, I didn’t even look all that bad at the finish. I’ve really got to work to re-polish that Death Warmed Over look back to perfection.
Not that Death Warmed Over is a goal, but if I can regain that look because I have managed to fill the tank with some crazy, I guess that will be progress. Meanwhile, just to start warding off the Meh, I’ve gone back to the medical world to let them practice some more, since they hadn’t nailed it on the first two tries. Both Doctor Number One (who I very much like) and Doctor Number Two (who I was rather wishy-washy on) insisted there was nothing wrong with that left leg other than inflammation! inflammation! inflammation! Doctor Number Three, looking at the very same image as One and Two, not only saw the sub-kneecap cartilage flaw (which he insisted was not caused by running, thank you very much, it just happened, stop telling me how running trashes knees), he also saw the notes that the radiologist had apparently appended to the image that neither One nor Two had pointed out. Howzat? Three’s theory is that the discomfort that flaw creates may have been making me subconsciously disfavor that leg for a long time, bringing about the atrophy all have detected. His approach is all about strength. Inflammation is an afterthought.
Is it working? I’d like to think I’m sensing a bit more strength, my mileage is up the last couple weeks, my pace is improving, and I’ve even had a couple of hard training runs that felt pretty darn good. Yet fatigue still hits early, I’m nowhere near ready for hard core Grand Prix racing, and just finishing Boston this spring seems like the daunting goal that most normal people view it as. But as Masochism Mike rightly points out, it took me a long time to get here, and it’s going to take a long time to get out. Living in one dimension, he calls it, and it’s true, we runners are very good at going forward, but really could use a lot more strength in other directions to keep things strong, in line, and happy.
Immortality would make these struggles entirely unnecessary. But immortality would be a cop-out. If we don’t have to keep fighting for it, what’s the fun?
04 June 2017
The funny thing about Nashua, New Hampshire, is that for over thirty years I’ve lived less than an hour away and I’ve driven through it hundreds if not thousands of times on the freeway, but save for some just-off-the-highway shopping stops in those annual desperate pre-Christmas weeks, I’ve really never been there. Sure, the Nashua River Rail Trail, which I’ve run, starts in the city’s rural southwest corner, but that’s like saying you know New York City because you’ve been to Staten Island. No offence to the Island, but it ain’t Manhattan.
It’s not that I haven’t laid eyes on the place. I recall detouring through downtown one day, having gotten a bit lost trying to sidestep highway traffic and there was one business meeting at the country club. A few times I’ve zipped through town with my Squannacook Mill Cities Relay teams (since Nashua is, after all, known as a mill town), once even starting the first leg in the city, but not being the driver, I hardly knew where I was or where I was going save to pilot a quick skip – whether in the van or on foot – over the river to neighboring Hudson. Manchester I’ve wandered. Concord I’ve roamed. Portsmouth I’ve, um, portaged? But Nashua has always been an odd-duck hole in the map.
No more. And despite the fact that for years I’ve often referred to it as “Nausea, New Hampshire”, based solely on the phonetic similarity, I have to say that after this adventure, I rather like the place.
So why did I run the Gate City Marathon in Nashua a couple weeks back? One word: Insurance. Oh, and one other word: Motivation. The insurance part was for me. The motivation was for a clubmate gearing herself up for her first twenty-six miler in a town she called home for five years..
Insurance is a terrible product. Either you pay for it and you don’t need it, or you need it, which means something ugly has happened, and nine times out of ten the process of using it isn’t pleasant. This race was Boston insurance, my premium paid up well before April’s race, to ensure I had a slot for Shot Number Two since I was going into Boston in the unusual and uncomfortable situation of not already having a qualifier for the following year. If I needed this, something ugly had indeed happened on my way from Hopkinton to Boston.
As you serial readers already know, what happened that day wasn’t terribly attractive, but it wasn’t seriously ugly, either. I did requalify, so Gate City wasn’t really needed. But on the other hand, my seeding time wasn’t first-wave worthy, so Gate City was a chance to better it. On the third hand, it wasn’t my last chance to better that time, since under Boston’s rules, while you have to qualify before the fall marathon season, once you’re in, you’re in, and you can better your seed time well into the winter. And that presented a unique opportunity, because, in short, it meant that this one just didn’t matter. So what the heck? Go for broke, roll the dice, see what happens. Really, what’s the worst that can happen? (Don’t answer that.)
At packet pickup I was lucky to meet up with a gent from Nova Scotia targeting a time that last year would have been leisurely, but this year represented the solid challenge of knocking about fifteen minutes off my Boston time. And with the joys of a small race, he was easy to find at the start.
There was the motivation angle. My clubmate did seem to appreciate having someone to spew pearls of experience in her direction as she went through the first-marathon jitters. Frankly, the “give motivation” aspect gave me a crutch to explain my otherwise irrational act of doubling up on spring marathons, again, after last year’s injurious adventure at Sugarloaf (dose of rationality, this race had no such murderous downhills). I did tell my peeps that I’d bail if it was ninety degrees, but I probably should have chosen a better out: the weather was nearly perfect on race morning, so I had no excuse. Game on.
Gate City’s course is comprised of four loops through the city, though you run the first loop again after the second, making it also the third, before the other two become race loops four and five. Did you get that? Back up, read it again slowly. It sounds confusing, but it really isn’t except for the fact that each loop returns you downtown where you have to be sure to peel off in the right direction for the next one. The upside of this is that adoring fans can watch the start, four passes of their heroes, and the finish, without moving a muscle. The downside is that when you roll in off of loop four in tough shape with the fifth and hilly loop remaining and you run right past your Ace Support Team, you really have to summon the mind of a marathoner to not just say, “Enough!” And that’s pretty much where I was when that time came.
Before we recount the agony of that final loop, let’s take a moment here to recall that I really enjoyed my tour of Nashua, not to mention the race staff and volunteers who put on a fine event. I’d popped in a couple weeks earlier to preview the course, on foot, the only way you can really feel out a course, so I’d had a chance to absorb the many lovely neighborhoods as well as the downright delightful stretch along the canal towpath. This was the Nashua I’d missed these last thirty years. Yes, it’s got its tired mills, it being, after all, a mill city, and every town has a few less-than-pristine streets, but in the whole, it was a pleasant surprise indeed. Probably most important from my preview, I was fully aware that Gate City’s version of Heartbreak Hill came around twenty-three and a half, and frankly, having run it, it didn’t worry me.
Ha. That was on the preview when we ran the loops out of order and covered that last loop second, not fifth, and at a casual pace, not after burning the fastest sixteen mile tempo I’ve run in a year. On race day, it put the final nails in the shipping crate.
Remember that comment about needing the mentality of a marathoner to convince yourself to soldier on when things were ugly and the final hilly loop remained. It’s times like those when experience kicks in, or perhaps just stupidity, and you deny every fiber in your body telling you that it’s a really dumb idea to leave the safety and comfort of downtown and instead head out to run a loop of hills. At least I laughed at myself for being right about expecting that it would come to this.
This being a small race, it had grown mighty lonely after the half-marathoners peeled off, so despite the final loop wreckage, I lost only six spots. Post finish I learned that the last guy to smoke me, which he’d done in the last quarter mile, turned out to be over fifty. With age group awards only one deep, for a moment I thought that this might have been fair payback for my stealing the fifties division in the last quarter mile last year at Sugarloaf. Frankly, with my performance, I didn’t deserve it anyway, but the point was moot as we ended up three-four in the division.
So what about those golden nuggets? How about sixteen miles of solid tempo like I haven’t hit for a year? How about the hope that improved training can stretch that sixteen to twenty-something by the fall to maybe indeed slice off those ten minutes? And how about, despite a crash-and-burn day, still getting to ring Gate City’s Boston qualifier bell (even if I was already qualified, why not?) with plenty of time to spare? Plus, there was the fun of watching my clubmate roll in, smile on her face, first marathon medal on her neck. Well done!
23 April 2017
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.
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!
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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 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.