19 January 2019

Double and Nothing

I’m at the age when things are supposed to start to slow down. Retirement (oh my, that word!) is within a ten-year window, hopefully sooner, and life’s priorities should be shifting toward enjoying things in the twenty-or-so years before bodily functions slow down (far more than they already appreciably have) to a point where some things become considerably impractical. So how come two months have passed since I’ve had the time to take a breath and pound out some storytelling? The busy level of late has been rather frenetic, but today I have a block of brilliantly uninterrupted time – since I’m not connected to the Internet – yes, airplane time. Clatter away, keys, clatter away.

To be fair, part of the issue is that there are fewer stories to tell. I’m racing less and spending more time managing a knee that almost certainly will never truly get better, and you, dear reader, get rather bored with prose about yesterday’s training run. But I haven’t been devoid of stories altogether, and yet still, my production schedule lags.

I missed altogether relating stories from this year’s instance of the Mill Cities Relay, but to be fair (again, do you see a pattern here?), there were fewer stories than usual from that soggy outing. Our team found itself separated at birth due to various participants’ weekend time conflicts, meaning we never were all in the same place at once, somewhat diminishing the team fun aspect of the day. The weather was ugly as it is wont to be in early December, and though the steady rain magically slowed a minute before the start of my opening leg, it paid me back after our third-leg man wanted to run a warm-down and I, nearly dry after playing team driver for the last two legs, foolishly agreed. The skies opened and we re-drenched ourselves, thus arriving waterlogged and shivering at the bash at the finish line, but still had a fine time. No brick (top placing teams at Mill Cities are awarded bricks – really), but that was to be expected.

Oh, and that opening leg I ran? Well, it rolled in faster than I expected, but considerably slower than last year. Which takes us back to that, ‘things are supposed to slow down’ bit. And they have. I vacillate between thinking I’ve gotten way slower (which I have) and that I’ll get whomped any time I show my face at any moderately competitive race, and alternately deeming I’m really not that out of it, scanning the race articles in the back of New England Runner and seeing that the senior division times are still often in line with my reality. I know I should just go ahead and race anyway, and to be fair, I’ve got four and a half future races already in the chute, so that will come. In the meanwhile, it’s fun to just kick back, enjoy the sport for what it is, and take part in some activities that don’t require speed, pain, and suffering.

Like running two marathons two days apart.

I haven’t told many of my non-running friends about this one. The few to whom I’ve mentioned it are certain I’m overdue for the looney bin. My running friends, on the other hand, know of goofy things like the seven-day, seven-continent, seven-marathon challenge, and see just doing two as relatively tame. Well, some of them, at least. Other of my buds often run ultras, where twenty-six miles is just the warm-up. For them I just said that I ran a fifty-two miler over a span of forty-nine hours. Even at the ‘go slow and survive forever’ pace of an ultra, that’s absurdly leisurely.

The end of the year offers an interesting opportunity for this kind of lark. The last Sunday of the year plays host to the Groton Marathon, a loose conglomeration of crazies from the Squannacook River Runners, where participants are welcome to run anywhere from a couple of miles to the whole banana. And New Year’s morning brings another tradition, the New Year’s Boston Marathon, where a different loose conglomeration of total loonies, goaded on from afar by the Maine’s somewhat legendary Gary Allen, gathers at six in the morning in Hopkinton on New Year’s Day – an hour when some have yet to go to bed from the previous night’s revelry – and proceeds to hoof it into Boston. Depending on the vagaries of the calendar, these two runs fall anywhere from a week to a day apart.

A few years back, I did the double, though that year granted the reprieve of a six-day separation between the two. Last year, on the other hand, the calendar decreed a back-to-back, Sunday-Monday combo. The allure of that stunt had me mentally booked in for weeks beforehand, but last winter’s deep freeze forced a level of sanity. Groton that year went off at one whole degree (that’s Fahrenheit, for my one likely Canadian reader), though under a warming sun. But the next morning called for minus four at oh-six-hundred, and with no sun to temper the chill for at least an hour, I flat out chickened out. So this year I’d have to settle for the two day span, Sunday and Tuesday, but I figured it still qualified for mildly wacko.

To those who insisted that one must be certifiable to even think about doing this, I could constantly explain that these weren’t really like running marathons but were instead more like running very casually for five miles or so, stopping for goodies and chit-chat, running another five till another stop, and so-on. Not what I think of as a marathon where I’m typically pushing from start to finish, only stopping if forced to do so, and utterly spent by the end. That explanation certainly didn’t work well for my non-running friends, and didn’t even work well for many of my running friends for whom a marathon is just that – a few miles, a break, a few miles… Yeah, I know. Just go with me on this; these weren’t killers.

Groton kicked off a big twenty-six degrees warmer than last year’s edition, with about twenty starters posing amidst the pile of cut trees and construction debris that kept us just short of our traditional start point (fear not, we doubled back a tad at the end to ensure the full distance!). That count would dwindle to nine who covered the full route – but that was a record by a factor of two for the now six-year-old event and included our first vision-impaired runner and our first female, who, in the spirit of Jock Semple, we offered to bowl off the course about six miles in (oddly, she declined).

The Squannies as usual provided terrific support with goodies at the stops (like this one at mile seventeen amidst the delightful sunshine), any and all needed logistics, and even companion runners for those flagging a bit. And of course, at the end they supplied their classic Sharpie-labelled Christmas ball ‘medals’ which in their bulbous form don’t easily fit on any medal rack (yes, after nearly fourteen years of racing, I finally got a medal rack – thanks, HCS Dave! – and instantly filled it beyond capacity with another equivalent collection to spare). We constantly goaded each other to slow down, stick together, save our energy though the first twenty miles before letting ourselves open it up a bit at that point. From twenty-three, my cranky knee was, like last year, insisting that I pick it up to reduce the stress that the slow pace seems to induce, but unlike last year, fortunately one other participant was of same mind, so when we dropped the hammer a bit and finished it, we were able to insist that we’d tied for second, since there really should be no winner of this event.

Monday, I rested. I’m crazy, but not entirely stupid. Besides, six in the morning is early.

New Year’s Eve wasn’t pretty if you were a Times Square or downtown Boston reveler. But the rains quit somewhere around five, and other than a few leftover spits, six arrived with wet roads but reasonably warm temps and a benevolent western zephyr that, while rarely actually felt, certainly must have offered a boost on our trek to the Back Bay.

Unlike Groton, this one isn’t really organized as a stick-together-group run – it’s show and go and figure out who’s there to run your pace on the fly. I vocalized my intended comfortable but faster than ambling pace, and two youngsters seemed to imply they’d be in that neighborhood, but when we set off at that raw hour (watch us goofballs go here), they were gone in a flash. I’d later learn they nearly broke three hours that morning. Instead I found myself in the company of two quite reasonably paced companions, one who intended only to run the first ten miles back to her home town of Natick, and another young lad who’d notched a few ultras but never a road marathon.

Call me a sap but I truly love the instant camaraderie that springs from being randomly coupled with a bunch of like-minded and like-paced runners. Though one of my companions lived a mere two towns away, I didn’t know her from a hole in the wall (though later, at the Natick Goodie Stop, an old runner friend would drive by, recognize me, tell me he knew her, and I’d realize we were only One Kevin Bacon Degree of Separation apart), and the other young lad was equally, if not moreso a stranger. No matter. By Ashland we were chatting it up and enjoying the ride.

Though this is a casual event, like Groton, there is enough organization behind it that our ‘race director’ for the day, Walter (of Mile10Connections), set up a full-fledged aid station in Natick, and later at the finish line. Amy left us in Natick, and Rob got a head start while I continued to jaw it up, so when I hit the road again, I had to add a little oomph to reel him back in so as to continue giving him the verbal tour of the course. After another aid station set up by his folks in Wellesley, I dragged him into the hills as he started to flag, his hips unhappy with the extended asphalt mileage.

By Boston College it was apparent he needed to tone it down, and it was apparent, thanks again to That Damn Knee, that I needed to turn it up. Knowing that his dad was leapfrogging to ensure his upkeep, I split off at the graveyard and, like at Groton two days earlier, turned on the jets. Beacon Street wasn’t exactly fast, but it felt fast, it felt strong, it felt downright fun to power past people on the street knowing they had no inkling where I’d started, and it felt seriously satisfying to confirm that at a marathon plus twenty miles into the next one, there was plenty of gas in the tanks to run this thing in for real. After all, a big reason for doing this was to convince myself yet again that marathons were still in my grasp if not merely in my blood, and that my joints, while possibly not thrilled at the prospect, were more than up to the task. And while neither of these would have re-qualified me for the next Boston Block Party, the running time (exclusive of those goodie stops) for each wasn’t far off the mark.

Best of all, the end turned into a bit of a party – just like Boston should be. Walter not only laid out a delightful spread (with help from a friend of his who owns and runs Pancho’s Taqueria in Dedham, who supplied fabulous homemade salsa, shameless plug!), but he being of the Boston EMS Heroes (yes, he was there on that fateful day in 2013) called out one of his on-duty squads who parked their unit at the finish line, lights flashing. Nothing beats cranking down Boylston Street – in (light but very much real) traffic – because, well, dammit, you’re finishing the Boston Marathon, and they can just go around you, and there’s an ambulance up there making it an event just to prove it. And just under forty-nine hours since we ambled away from the Groton Senior Center, I had two marathons – not the kind that count in my race list, but two marathons nonetheless – in my pocket.

At the finish I learned that the two youngsters had raced in and already left, but I hung for over an hour in the unbelievably warm fifty-degree-plus glory of New Year’s Day (consider that the weather was far better that on Monsoon Marathon Monday!), welcoming Rob and myriads of other runners who’d run various portions of the course (none that did the whole thing, at least that we met), including some I knew from previous adventures, before Walter graciously delivered me back to Hopkinton.

What a way to start the year!

So there’s the double part of the title of this episode, but what of the nothing? Usually it’s double or nothing, but in this case, it was double and nothing. After the double marathon and a few more days of easy runs, I had to admit that my body did complain a bit – mostly foot strain, toe bruises (almost all from the second marathon, guessing that my form was breaking down a bit in the late miles), foot cramps, and so on – and I was more or less forced to take a few days of nothing and lie low. The nothing part.

A small price to pay for some big smiles to remember some big miles.