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.

Many choose marathons to provide structure (or excuses) for their tourist wanderings. I’ve never been of that persuasion. While I’m not above taking advantage of an interesting location or course, I’m fairly practical when it comes to choosing my races. That should be fairly obvious from the introduction to this treatise, since I’ve never met anyone who’s booked a vacation for the sole purpose of going to Nashua.

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.

Cutting straight to the spoiler, the outcome resembled a singularity, that point where there is no longer a rational solution to the equation (I threatened to name this column after that term, but was talked off the ledge by less nerdy members of my family). Or perhaps it looked more like a vertical asymptote, an even nerdier but probably more accurate term. Translated, utter disaster ensued as the function Pace approached the limit Finish Line. But still, there are almost always golden nuggets to pull out of every day on the race course.

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.

Sir Cape Breton and I motored the first loop in comfort, laying down a pace that made me smile, accompanied by casual banter. We rounded the second loop with equal ease, generally having a good ‘ol time; after all, despite being a stranger to this town a mere two weeks back, by now, with my course preview and having heard tales from my clubmate who’d lived in this loop’s neighborhood, I was a virtual Native Guide to my Canadian friend. Into the third lap, on track for the personal best he sought, I threatened him that if he didn’t beat me, we Americans would take Trudeau and force our orange haired embarrassment on his nation. But as we approached downtown for the third time, my fitness was showing its rough edges and I knew my tempo run was over. It was time to settle back for some self-preservation. I wished him well, made sure he took the correct turn out of downtown for loop four (he almost missed it), and let him fade ahead as we hit the pleasant footing of the canal towpath.

My only serious complaint about this race was the dearth, or perhaps just the invisibility, of the mile markers. I’m old school, no GPS watch, so I rely on these things. I missed a full ten markers enroute. Key to the story of my demise, four of those misses came heading out to and coming back in from that fateful loop four, so it’s hard to truly dissect the crash, but it really doesn’t matter. After sixteen, things went south rapidly. The plan to drop back a half minute per mile lasted a mere mile or two before the minor drop back turned into a full-blown drop back and punt.

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.

Singularity. Vertical asymptote. Ski jump, but going uphill. Call it what you want. Even before the hills came crushing down at twenty-three and a half, my wheels were gone and my mile splits were rocketing off the chart. I actually had to adjust the axis scaling on my standard marathon splits graph. The rest is a foregone conclusion. Walking the ugly hill. Walking the not so ugly hill after that. Walking the last little bump to the high point on the course. Heck, even walking parts of the downgrade heading back in. When at last the finish clock came in sight, it was dangerously close to a ten-minute boundary that would have been nice to beat. Didn’t. Missed by three seconds. Whatever.

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.

I’d entertained thoughts of slicing ten minutes off my Boston time for next year’s seeding. I managed three. But hey, three’s better than nothing, a small improvement, and considering the rough ride of the last year, an improvement nonetheless.

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!

And lastly, how about finally finding my way around a town that I’ve missed for thirty years? It may not be the Great Wall of China (same weekend, different clubmate covered that one), but it’s still a nice place to get to know.

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