15 June 2018

Mutual Aid


[ Ed. Note: It’s a two-fer. Yeah, really two stories here, and yeah, I really should have split them into two posts for the attention-span-challenged among us (read, all of us). The timing didn’t work out that way. So hunker down and slog your way through; hopefully it’s amusing enough to keep you away from Words With Friends for a few minutes! ]

This weekend a collection of my clubmates will be taking on New England’s famous “Just One Hill” race up the Mt. Washington Auto Road. Sadly, this famed and fabled event often conflicts with summer travel, so I’ve never put my hat into the lottery for an entry, though some day I’ll have to give it a shot. After all, what could be more enjoyable than a race that Dearest Daughter watched from the one-mile mark last year and reported to me that she’d never seen more people looking so destroyed in any race, let alone at the mile mark.

I had a little taste of what my clubbies will be up against during that ten-states-in-ten-days odyssey I mentioned in our last esteemed episode. Part of that ramble involved a couple of days on business in South Carolina (so now you know where that neighborhood was that I railed about), after which I high-tailed it to Great Smoky Mountains National Park because, well, because it was there, or at least near to where I was, and because I’d never been there, and because it’s got mountains, and mountains are what I do, at least when I’m not running.

Since the purpose of the trip was discovery, I’m glad I was in a rental car, since it’s pretty likely that I shaved a half inch off the brake pads while navigating the serpentine route I chose to get from here to there. You can get from here to there quite quickly via the interstate, but really, what’s the fun in that? I opted for an entirely ignored stretch of pavement that gets you from South to North Carolina via an obscure corner of Georgia that most Georgians don’t know exists: Route 28, check it out. There’s no state highway that connects it to the rest of Georgia, just a county road.

Being geographically (and let’s face it, generally) nerdy, and having already run that morning in South Carolina, those ten miles passing through Georgia naturally called for another run. Not that I hadn’t run before in either of these states – I had – but the prospect of running in four states in two days seemed cool, so I detoured to a dirt forest road along a stream, not by any means deserted as there were campers and fishermen out, but certainly not a heavily travelled byway, and popped in a few miles of hill climb before resuming the absurdly curvy roads to Cherokee, North Carolina, my remote outpost for the next couple nights. In theory, I’d awaken the next morning, run in North Carolina – also a state I’d previously run in – and double again with a run later in the day on the Tennessee side – finally a new entry on the states-I-have-run-in list (I’ve been in forty-nine, Alaska beckons, but before this trip, I’d only run in half of those). Thus the plan, four states in two days.

But the next morning with the weather looking iffy at best (and having seen what a fierce Smoky Mountain thunderstorm looked like in the last hour of my drive the evening before) I opted to forego the North Carolina run and hit the trail early to beat the storms. Hours later, seeing what I would run up against, clearly it was a wise decision. After about nine miles of delightful (and rain-free) hiking on the Appalachian Trail, which straddles the state border, I headed to Laurel Falls, recommended by a ranger as a good trail run that met my criteria that it had to be on the Tennessee side. She mentioned it was a hill, but seemed to sense that I wouldn’t freak out if it was REALLY a hill, and thus she left out the details, but I’d caught a glimpse of the elevation profile in her trail guide and had a hint of what I was getting into.

Lauren Falls is one of the most popular hikes in the park. To handle the traffic, the crowded first mile-point-three up to the falls is paved and a decent climb of about three hundred feet per mile, enough to provide a challenge to your average national park visitor but not all that tough. Other than slowing at the falls to avoid knocking people off the trail, I opted not to stop on the way up. Past the falls, I picked my way past a soggy spot and set back to running the next one-point-eight to the first trail junction, which I’d deemed to be my turnaround. The obligatory selfie for Dearest Spouse back home revealed a rather worn countenance.

Well then, hello there. It’s a good thing that the forest was intensely lush and beautiful to offer some distraction. It’s also a good thing that I didn’t see a soul once past the falls, because heavy breathing turned to grunting turned to cursing for a junction that simply wouldn’t arrive. Later analysis on my funky smartphone hiking app would peg this stretch at a rise of six hundred and ten feet per mile, or about twelve percent grade. Though I’ve been training in the high sevens, the best I could muster was somewhere around eleven minutes per mile. And the ride down wasn’t much faster; at that grade, caution – remember, not a soul around to hear you yelp if you go down – dictated a seriously low-gear descent, at least till back on that lower paved section when I could open it up a bit. Truly an inspiring outing, and running state number twenty-six in the books.

But here’s the thing: I struggled up the steep part of that grade for just under two miles. My clubmates this weekend will be heading up the Auto Road which likewise averages about a twelve percent grade, but for them, it’ll last over seven miles.

Whoosh. I wish their cardiac muscles well.

It occurred to me that I was a bit of a fool to have initially planned to start the day with the North Carolina run. The hike and hill-climb run double was quite enough for one day, especially following my South-Carolina-Georgia double the day before. I settled for notching the North Carolina run the next morning, so four states’ runs took three days rather than two, and doubled that one up – third day in a row – with a power hike (most certainly not rain-free) up another significant summit before skedaddling to the airport and home. Successful journey.

But really, that’s not what I came to talk about. That’s just to paint the picture of the abused body I hauled into last weekend’s race (and of course to relate a terrific adventure; abuse often brings that reward). Sure, there were a couple weeks between then and the race, but business travel didn’t exactly make them relaxing, so when Saturday dawned, I had little in the way of expectations.

It’s standard procedure that I anti-trash-talk before a race. My clubmates expect that I’ll groan a bit about what hurts, how I’m not feeling great, and that I’m not expecting fireworks, then the gun goes off and we’re, well, literally, off to the races. Since everything is relative, when it’s a Grand Prix race, all that anti-trash bodes truth once I’ve had my butt thoroughly kicked. But when it’s a local race, not against the New England elite, I rightly take some tongue-lashing about my grousing once I’ve sorted myself to somewhere near the front of the small pond pack.

Saturday, however, things really did hurt, coming off that series of adventures just related, and I really was not feeling great, and I really was not expecting fireworks. Yeah, I know, I know, you’ve heard it before. This time, though, the lower joints were complaining loudly, which might or might not have been enhanced by a different pair of shoes I’ve been using, and I was so out of it that the highlight of my warm-up was a senior moment where I didn’t even recognize my warm-up buddy emerging from his shrubbery stop. Certainly there was nothing in that warm-up that hinted at the ability to move faster than an ungraceful lope. But whatever. I plopped myself into the second row behind the line and once aloft, tried to fire up the engines while what seemed like a far larger lead pack than usual for a local race (mind you, a large local race, but still a local race) rocketed away.

By the first turn, only a quarter-mile or so in, I found myself chatting with Shirtless Youngster, loping much more gracefully alongside. This is not supposed to happen. Not the shirtless part or the youngster part or the graceful part, but the chatting part. There’s an old saying that if you can sing, you’re running too slowly, and if you can’t talk, you’re running too fast, but that’s for training purposes only. In a race as short and fast as a five kilometer, there’s no way you should be, or be able to be, chatting. Grunting, maybe. Chatting, no. But there we were, and it didn’t bother me, since I really didn’t think I was moving particularly fast that day, so hey, chat away, enjoy it.

But a funny thing happened. Wizened Old Goat and Shirtless Youngster bonded a bit. It cemented at the mile mark where the race clock reported a number quicker than I figured I was up for and likewise quicker than Youngster apparently felt prudent. He muttered something I can’t quite recall, but it equated to an expression of one of those “Oh crap” moments. Truth is, the race clock was wrong by about ten seconds – they’d started it late – but my watch revealed that we were still moving quicker than I’d counted on. I found myself almost reflexively falling into Coach Mode. Don’t panic, young Jedi, it’s only a 5K, stay with it. No, I didn’t actually call him a Jedi, but it would have been so appropriate since at that moment we hit a downgrade where I did say, “Gravity is your friend,” but it would’ve been better to have uttered, “Use the Force…of gravity” (groan now).

Bob Seger’s Night Moves lyrics come to mind, “I used her and she used me and neither one cared” (OK, adjust the gender, you get it). Yeah, I was coaching him now, as we picked off a few runners and finally crept past the two front-runners of the State Police recruit team, this being a race in honor of a fallen state trooper whose comrades had come out in impressive force. But I was also drawing off him. The trick in a 5K is maintained intensity. In longer races, you can often find a moment to back off just a hair, catch your breath a bit, and plan for renewed pushes later. No time for that in these sprints; it’s go, go, and keep on going. My best 5Ks have been those where I resisted my body’s natural desire for that back off and instead reminded myself that it will all be over in a matter of minutes. So the fact that I was coaching this kid meant that I had to stay with him as well, at least until the inevitable final sprint came around.

Later I’d learn that he was drawing off me not only from the coaching, which thankfully didn’t annoy him, but also from the fact that being a race run by my own club on my own turf, and by my being the first of my club to appear in the pack, well, it was like Cheers in that everybody knew my name (good thing too, since one of the course marshals was Dearest Spouse, and it’d be a sad day if I looked so bedraggled as to not get her recognition!). Local fame is nothing more than that – local – and for what it’s worth, it’s certainly enjoyable, but to a young guy, this probably seemed a bit like being linked to the town’s Kenyan.

And we were still chatting. During this sprint. Which again, was not supposed to happen. Which does make me wonder, pondering this post-mortem, if there was more in the tank, but that will remain unknown. Meanwhile, just past the two-mile mark I told him that my being at least thirty years his senior meant that he absolutely had to beat me with his youthful finishing sprint, lest I be highly disappointed in his mettle. In the comical moment of the day, he doubted I had thirty years on him, so I quizzed him and found that indeed I was wrong – it was almost forty. A third of a mile from the end, I shooed him ahead on his barely ripened legs and enjoyed watching him put five seconds on me by the finish mats.

He couldn’t tell me his actual personal best, having had racked up his previous times on notoriously inaccurate cross-country courses, but I think he walked away happy. And I walked away a bit amused, having just shaved a few seconds off my season best and picking up another Slightly Fossilized Division win on a day when I didn’t think the engines had the remotest chance of kicking in. And I’m quite convinced that coaching, glomming, teaming, whatever you want to call it, made it happen. So thanks, Youngster; you made it fun and we pulled off a decent outing via our little Mutual Aid Society.

The next day, I should note, my legs were unusually shot, a rarity after a short race. I guess this was the final layer on top of a wedding cake of abuse, so it’s time to back off the racing for a bit and let some cells regenerate.

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