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.

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.