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.

Just getting there was half the adventure. Having finally turned in my first month of decent mileage in a long time, my body registered mild protest by sprouting a series of flesh wounds designed to test the soul. Back, foot, knee (though not what you’re expecting), oh hell, torpedoes be damned, carry on. I showed up for the thrashing anyway and had a grand time if not a terribly good time.

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.

And since good things, or at least things, come in threes, add another to the list, the knee. But not the usual perpetual knee woes; oh no, this one was self-imposed and downright creative. To explain this we must jump ahead four squares and let on that the race labelled ‘Championships’ was in fact the USATF New England Cross Country Championships. And I haven’t run a cross country race in years. And when it rains in a cross country race, spikes are a really good idea. And the forecast said it might rain. And when you haven’t worn spikes in a really long time, and you think you might need to race in them, it’s a really good idea to test them out.

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…

Bear Cage Hill. It’s not big, but your second trip over is just before the mad dash to the finish. Strategically placed, let’s say. On the way up? Lowell, nailed. One of the two interlopers, taken down. Greater Boston buddy, not mounting a final challenge. On the way down? I’m not a downhill guy, I have to consciously tell myself to let go, let gravity, let flail, nobody’s awarding points for style, just stay upright. Off the hill, empty the tanks, Death-Warmed-Over, finish it.

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.


  1. Darn kids, no respect for their elders, backing off to let me do the work? And that's Mr. Lowell to you.

  2. Peter, I haven't had a good laugh-out-loud (I refuse to use the acronym) in a while, but your comment did it - in the middle of a meeting with several colleagues who looked at me rather oddly. Loved your comment and the fact that this found its way to you so quickly! 'twas a pleasure... till next we meet!


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