09 December 2009

Scene of the Crime

I’ve told the story hundreds of times, maybe more. I’ve referred so many people to the famed blog posting, “Paying the Price at Wineglass” that the bits on the disks where it is stored on that anonymous blog server in the sky are worn out. But I’ve always wondered, what really happened? So given the opportunity, I went back to check it out.

I am, of course, referring to the great Wineglass marathon tragedy of last fall, that fateful day when the foot went snap and the face went plant and life became utterly more complicated within a span of just under three hours.

My standard story is this: The finish line was on a downgrade, at the line where the asphalt of the pedestrian bridge met the brick walkway of the park. I tripped over that junction – the spot sis had pointed out the day before as a hazard that someone would fall over – and had nothing left to catch myself. Not knowing that one big toe was out of commission from what I didn’t yet know was the snapped tendon from 50 feet into the race, my brain didn’t process why I wasn’t able to catch myself. It’s like stomping on your brakes when you haven’t seen any warning lights and not comprehending that they’re not working. Splat. Faceplant.

What haunts me to this day is the word “collapse”. Was it a trip? Or did I simply crumple at the line, utterly spent, pushed well past the point of prudence, yet somehow maintaining myself mentally until that point? That latter option is frightening indeed. It speaks to the horrors of what might have been, the headline that could have happened, but thankfully didn’t. I know there’s an element in me that’s probably capable of such an excessive push. Did I bring it on myself? Or, did I simply trip, as I’ve always hoped was the case.

The day of the race, I really couldn’t get a close enough look. Even after being patched in the med tent, runners continued to stream through the finish for hours. I really couldn’t interfere with finish line operations to the extent needed to really examine the scene of the crime.

And since then, I’ve wanted to do just that.

The Thanksgiving Pie & Glove race came within 3 blocks of the crime scene, but that was mid-race, and afterward we had a big dinner to get home to. The next day, however, we took the kids down to the Corning Museum of Glass, which I hadn’t visited in probably 15-plus years – and well worth a visit if you’re in the area. The museum is exactly one block north of the north end of the famed bridge.

By the time we’d finished doing the museum thing, the weather was windy, gray, and spitting, but I would not be denied. We slogged across the bridge (nice shot of it, by the way, in the January 2010 issue of Runners’ World). For my wife and nephew, this was a silly adventure. For me, I was trying to get back into my head that day last October as I trod this same approach and almost stumbled across the bridge. Across the flat mid-section we went, and down the other side, not seriously down, but still down.

And there it was. The end of the asphalt, the start of the bricks. I half expected to see a 2-inch lip, something obvious, something that said, “Of course you fell over this, you idiot.” But that really wasn’t the case. The lip was pretty much flush, indeed, more of a depression than a lip in many places. There was, however, a pretty significant hole where a few bricks had long since gone AWOL. Not quite on center, not in a likely spot for crossing the line, but possible. Was that it? Did I cross the line a little right of center – quite feasible – and more or less fall into the hole, lose my balance and go down? Quite plausible. Or perhaps I just…crumbled.

I’ll never really know. I looked at it from every angle. We took twenty seven 8x10 color photographs and added circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one to be used as evidence (this was, after all, Thanksgiving weekend, and we had played Arlo’s classic as we travelled through Stockbridge, Massachusetts a couple days prior). Including the imaginative shot of how steep the downgrade seemed in retrospect…

…but of course wasn’t:

I analyzed and reanalyzed in my head, even re-enacted if for the prime time crime shows...

But I’ll never really know.

I just want to make damn sure I never do it again.

03 December 2009

Infecting Your Family

What will any of us leave behind, beside a trail of debris and greenhouse gasses? Can we each put a little positive nudge into the world? Thanksgiving morning made it seem that way. It would appear I’ve contributed to the infection my family, and happily, not with H1N1.

Ah, Thanksgiving, that uniquely American tradition where families battle traffic to gather around a meal that, as sis put it, takes a day to prepare and twenty minutes to destroy. Never mind that it’s made up almost entirely of things that weren’t at the legendary (and some would say mythical) first Thanksgiving feast. Just another excuse to fatten America.

Unless you’re a runner, in which case it means that if you can’t find a race that morning, you’re downright depressed. The Thanksgiving Day race is another uniquely American tradition designed to alleviate the guilt of what you’re about to do to yourself at the table in a few hours. It’s the next best thing to going to confession, and you don’t have to remember the script. Bless me Father, for I am about to eat too much, I will therefore insert 5 miles between me and that upcoming meal.

We’ve developed a culture of haves and have nots. The haves can’t live without their caloric pre-burn, the have nots wouldn’t think of such a ridiculous thing to do on a holiday, especially when the weather is usually pretty rough. Or perhaps I’ve got it backwards. The haves eat it and keep it and have it, the have nots burn it off. Whatever.

When you’re the runner in the family of non-runners, you try to find a way to sneak out on this family-centric day to get to your race. You’re leaving all that family behind on that day when you’re all supposed to be together. It’s a perpetual guilt game. Did I mention guilt again? And confession? Yes, I’m Catholic, I can’t help it, it’s genetic.

There is another way. Infect your family. Give them the bug. Make them itch.

Now, I don’t claim full credit for what happened last week, but I can’t deny some influence. I’ve already mentioned that niece Kris has taken up our mental illness. We ran the Boilermaker this summer, and she’s rumbling about doing a half marathon. Her siblings have stepped out for a few here and there. My daughters have put in a few miles on the school cross country team. My wife even admits to jogging a few miles when few were looking. Finally, sis has been walking, and has hinted at picking up the pace if her knee would behave. And in fact, out Thanksgiving outing was in fact her suggestion. The ultimate test of infection! I wasn’t the pusher, she was!

What a formula! Rather than wallow in calories all day, eight of us piled into two cars and headed for downtown Corning, New York on Thanksgiving day for the annual Pie & Glove 5K, a very casual race where everyone gets a pair of the finest gloves – you know, the kind that it doesn’t matter if they’re left or right, they’re all the same – and the prizes are, well, as the name implies, more calories. At five bucks a head, it’s easy to bring the whole family. As we pulled away from sis’s house in the chase car, it struck me how utterly cool this was. Almost our entire family was off to the race, and not just to watch. Infection accomplished. Healthy obsession planted. Seeing everyone with numbers pinned to their shirts was simply way cool.

The race? Plenty of fun. Iffy weather turned into fine weather. Once again, I overdressed. Seems taking last winter off for the surgery completely trashed my ability to accurately dress for these things (me, overdressed, in blue and tights on the left in this picture). I’ve got to work on that. The turnout of 800 somewhat overwhelmed the organizers. It appears we’re not the only family shifting to a healthy outing on T-Day. It’s all good.

My race was mediocre, a couple seconds over 19 minutes, but after taking the equivalent of a few weeks off for that pesky leg injury, I had no complaints, and that injury was nowhere to be felt. Sometimes a good race is what you need to shake the bolts loose and move on. The rest of the clan? Well, performance-wise we would have taken no team trophies, not that there were any. Nor did we win any pies, not that we needed any with three waiting for us back home. Nephew Brian ran a respectable race. The rest, moving in clumps, did a little walking, a little jogging, a little more walking, a little more walking. Since one niece was working on about three hours of sleep, the clumps tended to slow – hey, it’s Thanksgiving, you’re home from college, you’ve got limited time to see your friends, so you don’t sleep much, and you don’t exactly feel your best the next day. OK, I was young once too. But she covered the distance. And even sis with the bum knee gutted it out.

After then we all went back to Alice’s and had a Thanksgiving dinner that couldn’t be beat and we didn’t even have to pick up the garbage. (No, sis isn’t named Alice, that just seemed to be the right thing to say.) And we only put on four pounds that day, rather than the usual five.

27 November 2009

Unexpected Gifts

My family, like millions of others, gathered around obscene piles of calories yesterday to pay note to, but not truly appreciate, the overabundance that surrounds us. I, like millions of other runners, knew that meant but one thing: I’d better get out there the next morning and burn it off. And with that came the best kind of gift, the unexpected one.

We love to complain about things, we rarely take note of that which falls into our laps in the positive column. And we are poorer for that lacking.

Last week my family participated in the annual Thanksgiving interfaith service held in an area church. We were there mostly because both my church band (we call ourselves the CME, or “Contemporary Music Ensemble”) and one of my daughters’ choirs (this one, made up of CME kids who help us out setting up and tearing down each week and are therefore known as the “CME Roadies”) were performing. One of the pastors who spoke brought up a study where, to over simplify, it was found that people who say thank you are happier than those that don’t. They, in short, appreciate the gifts that come their way. And they are richer for it.

Gifts don’t have to be big to be important. Sometimes the small ones have a big impact.

The weather forecast for this morning was horrible. Cold rain, probably windy, ugly and uncomfortable. With a mere 7 hours till morning, the radar map showed a large patch of unpleasantness that simply wasn’t moving and wasn’t predicted to do so. Setting the clock to rise ahead of the rest of the houseful to venture forth into that expectation wasn’t a highlight of my evening. Listening to the rain spatter off the windows as I drifted off emphasized the gumption that I’d need into the morning to avoid rolling over for another hour.

But this morning I awoke to silence (other than that pesky clock). No wind. No rain. And it looked bright outside. Twenty minutes later I was outside in brilliant dawn sunshine. Blue skies. Entirely calm. Cold, but pleasantly so. In short, a complete surprise. An unexpected gift.

I headed north from sis’s house into the hills I’d seen on the maps but had never run (or driven) before. While mayhem ruled at the malls far away on Black Friday, I labored up Veterans Hill, chalking up some serious elevation gain over the course of a few miles, not a car to be seen. Just perfect solitude on a perfect morning, with the valley below filled with fog banks and stillness.

A turn onto a tiny dirt road I’d seen on the map and again, delightful solitude. A few rustlings in the woods that sounded big enough to be deer reminded me that it was a good idea to be wearing my day-glow jacket. I was thinking traffic and dusk when I packed it, I’d forgotten about hunters. But I had it, all good. The only other sound, a flock of turkeys flushed from a field fled airborne across the road ahead. All good. No, all perfect.

Over four miles without a single car. On a perfect morning.

By the end of the eight miler, my legs were rubberizing, victims of yesterday’s turkey day race and the nearly three week break leading up to it due to that nasty tendon injury, which I have decided was indeed a tendon injury, which – with another check in the gift column – seems to be healed and a thing of the past. A last push up the hill back to sis’s house.

The day started right with a perfect morning, an unexpected gift. Notice these, and be happy.

22 November 2009

Is it or Isn’t It?

Dr. Cattarin reporting, here. I gave in and went to a real doctor, and the outcome was exactly as I expected: inconclusive. So now I ponder, is it or isn’t it busted, and how, and how long till it’s fixed? Remember “What About Bob?” It’s time for baby steps, baby steps…

Not being able to stand the suspense, I booked a slot with my favorite orthopedist. He’s a favorite because he runs, and therefore he gets it. The first time I saw him several years back after my first marathon, we did the runner chat thing, and I recall his comment about the ultra he’d done many years prior: “I think that one did some real damage.” Pretty amusing coming from an orthopedist. On this visit Dr. Ortho reported he’s shifted to triathlons. Not just the garden variety, but the whole hog, the Ironman strain. The guy’s got drive.

Of course my ulterior motive in stopping in to see him now and then is to get him to join our club. To date, I’ve failed in this quest, but why quit? Nothing would beat having his expertise as close as a Saturday morning rail trail run away. Perhaps that’s cheating, or perhaps that’s health care reform and cost containment?

Anyway, Dr. Ortho poked, prodded, palpated, massaged, and manipulated. He snapped a shot of my leg, which of course showed nothing, since a stress fracture won’t usually show up, but it’s a good idea just in case, it’s a ticket to convince the insurance company if we want to move on to a bone scan, and it did show a heck of a cambium layer on my tibia, which, with a little translation, is a good thing and says, in short, that I run. I found it reassuring that all this effort does produce something medically noticeable besides wounds.

And in the end? Well, hate to say I told you so, but, he couldn’t say any better than I. He agreed that the characteristics pointed toward a tendon issue, though there was plenty of room for doubt. Having found no sharp pain spots, the chances of a stress fracture diminished – welcome news – but, well, we just don’t know. The prescription? Take another week off, pop the Vitamin I, give it a go, and report back to headquarters. Aye aye, Cap’n.

And so about a week later (yeah, not exactly a week, but this isn’t an exact science, either) I trod the neighborhood for a couple of miles. And it felt OK. So the next day, I cranked it up to three and a half. And it felt OK. I think. Maybe there was a twinge? Maybe I’m paranoid? Today, four and a half. Same inconclusiveness. Popping extra meds for recent dental work clouds the picture even more. Life doesn’t happen standing still, and things don’t happen one at a time; there is no control group for comparison.

And so I’m really not much further along than I have been. I still don’t know what the problem really is, whether it’s healed or not, and if not, how long it would take. My stated goal is not to worry about running next week, but worry about being able to run ten years from now. Having just turned the corner on my post-surgery recovery after many months of work, the prospect of letting my fitness level slip due to another long break makes it really tough to focus on that long view. Just keep telling yourself, don’t be a fool…

11 November 2009

Calling Dr. Cattarin!

I’m not a doctor, nor do I play one on TV. (If you don’t get that reference, you’re not a masters division runner.) But here we go again, back on the injury train, and back in that agonizing mode of deciding whether to play doctor or use a real one.

Some things are complex, others are simple. Some are simple but have complex bits. Others are complex but have simple bits. No question the human body is complex, but there are bits that are simpler than others. If your computer fails, it might be hard to figure out why. But if the failure is because the table it sat on collapsed, well, that’s pretty simple.

At what point is something simple enough that a reasonably educated and knowledgeable person can figure it out?

The facts are simple: two weeks ago, about five miles into my run, I had a sudden sharp pain near the bottom of my right shin. I didn’t scream or collapse or anything like that, but it wasn’t subtle. It faded within a tenth of a mile or so, but over the next few days it came back on every run, getting worse as the week wore on. So by week’s end, I decided to give it a rest.

After five days off, I jogged a mile. Not bad. So the next day, I jogged two miles. Not bad, either, just a little discomfort. One more day of rest, then Monday I went for a ‘real run’. A few miles out, it started in spades. And of course, by then, I was a few miles out. By the time I got back, well, crap, it hurt a lot. And it continued to do so for the rest of the day. And a lot the next day. So there’s clearly something going on. But what?

Now, here’s where it gets perplexing. Brains are complex. Hearts are complex. Feet are complex – and boy, don’t I know that from last year’s adventure. Joints and muscles are complex. But try to think of the simpler parts of your body, and the lower half of your shin, just a few inches above your foot, will be near, if not at the top of your simpleton index.

Fact is, there’s not much going on there. A pair of bones and a few tendons skirting by, and that’s about all (neglecting, of course, blood vessels, nerves, and subway lines). If you were in the tougher neighborhood around back, you’d be in Achilles territory, a trouble spot if ever there was one (which, thankfully, has not been an issue for me). If you were somewhat further north up the leg, you’re in shin splint zone. But down bottom around front? Really, it’s pretty dull. Not much action. Nobody writes academic studies about that locale.

So if it hurts there, you’ve basically got three options: the bones, the tendons, or something totally weird. At least so I think. Remember, I’m not a doctor. But remember, I’ve had a little experience dealing with the anatomy of the lower appendages after last fall and winter’s adventures.

Assuming that nothing from the alien category is going on, the question boils down to, is this a tendon or a bone problem? Tendon problems supposedly come on slowly with increasing irritation. So they say. But I of course know better, having had one suddenly snap last fall. Then again, that one had been irritated for months, and it did come on slowly. This case came on suddenly. That rules out a mis-located shin splint, too (or Medial Tibial Stress Syndrome, to be precise), and besides, I know them, this isn’t them. Yet the pain feels, well, tendon-y. Or does it?

The bone? Well, it’s not sticking out the side of my leg, so it would have to be something more subtle. Stress fractures do supposedly come on suddenly. Really, I read it on the Internet, it must be true. Sounds like we’ve got an ID, detective. But not so fast. Niece Kristin (of the Boilermaker fame), who’s about 90% of the way to being a physical therapist, which means she’s actively studying this stuff and probably knows it better than those just practicing it, notes that theory is quite debatable. So too, she reports, is the theory that they can be ferreted out with a tuning fork, which I tried last night with no results whatsoever (conveniently, since I play in the church band and hang out with musical types, said device was easily available). Yet, the pain feels, well, stress fracture-y. Or does it?

To be a doctor, or not to be? That is the question.

If I choose not to be the doctor, we play the game. Wait to see the real doctor, who will likely order a bone scan or MRI. Argue with the insurance company about paying for the test. Schedule, then wait for the test. Wait to see the doctor to discuss the results, which will be – guess what? tendon or bone. By which time, it’ll be halfway healed, and I’ll be out a lot of time, hassle, and some coin.

The kicker, of course, is that the recipe for either ailment is pretty much the same: rest, ice, ibuprofen, the usual suspects. Perhaps double down on the calcium supplements if it’s the bone (I already added some vitamin D to the mix just in case, it helps the absorption of the calcium). There’s no magic dust here. All that diagnosis, and it doesn’t change the outcome a whit. Heck, I coulda’ told you that.

I can be the doctor and life will be a lot easier.

But, what if I’m wrong? What if there is something weird going on here? A bit of anatomy I’ve neglected? A rare but terrible syndrome? After all, I’m no stranger to weird medical issues. And what if there is some definite action to be taken, without which it will never heal, I’ll slowly grow fat, lose my sanity, and live out my life watching the Home Shopping Network?

If I only knew…

06 November 2009

Quiet Week After the XC Big Finale

It’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon. Sadly, my mileage total for the week is a virtually non-existent one mile. And I admit, I didn’t even measure that, so it might have been short. And I didn’t even pen a blog posting. But a down week now and then isn’t a bad thing, a cool down, since it came after a big one.

The week prior was in all truth, pretty exciting. The kids' team I coach at my daughter’s middle school capped off their season with two meets in a week. In their first meet of the week, a dual against a local charter school, well, they lost again. In fact, they’d lost every meet before then as well this year. In fact, if I were an NFL coach, I’d have been canned after the first week or two. But the reality is, I was more proud of them that Monday than ever. They came up short on the team score, but every single one of them came up on the winning side of their personal performances. In a season that lasted a mere five weeks – and that included practices, where we could only meet a couple times a week at most, it’s hard to really make a difference in their fitness levels. But it worked. They all got faster. Some by a bit, some by a lot. They all got the lesson that this is a life sport, and can be a ticket to good health forever. At least I think they did.

A few days later we trundled all the way to far off Worcester for the Central Massachusetts Catholic Conference Championship meet. Remember, these are middle school kids, and we do this on zero budget, so to get them to a real live invitational style meet was, well, as we say here in New England, wicked cool for them. Two hundred kids from eight Catholic schools. And an absolutely perfect fall day. Cool, sunny, brilliant colors along side Lake Quinsigamond, simply perfect.

And they loved it. They truly had a good time, when they weren’t inflicting pain on themselves during the race. These kids have really shown heart, and that day was no exception. On the starting line, we noticed that one of the boys had written himself a note on his hand earlier in the day. Next thing you know, half the team was writing inspirations to themselves on their hands like “Don’t stop!” and,“Left, Right!” – reminiscent of the famous blonde joke where they take away her MP3 player and, lacking the continuous mantra of, “Breathe in, breathe out,” she passes out.

And then a really cool thing happened.

They didn’t lose. For the first time this season, they didn’t come in last.

No, they didn’t win, not as a team (don’t be silly). But they came in sixth of the eight teams. They beat two teams. I guess Coach gets to keep his highly paid job (note to humorless IRS agents: that’s a joke). I’ve said all year that it’s not about winning, it’s about fun and fitness. But not coming in last was a sweet cap to the season, on top of the sweet cap of three individual medalists.

Our top boy, who’s won everything he’s looked at since the second race of the season (and really only didn’t win that first race because, in my view, he didn’t know he was supposed to) ran away from a hundred other boys to win the whole thing. Powerfully. With four tenths to go, as he passed me, I warned him that Number Two was closing slightly. The burst he put on up the final hill would bring tears to any coach. Psychological devastation. Number Two knew he was beat. And Nick cruised home to gold.

Perhaps even more pleasing was Meaghan’s second place age group medal, both because her upward trend through the season made it completely deserved, and because we weren’t expecting it. When they passed through the 6th, 5th, 4th places in her group, we figured she hadn’t medaled. Then the announcement of second place. Shock and awe. Justice served.

And tops on the pleasing scale? Without question, Ethan’s age group medal. He’s just in 5th grade, but this kid easily had the biggest heart on the team. Kids like him are why people like me enjoy this job so much.

All of the kids on the team gave me great joy to have the chance to work with them an influence their lifelong view on fitness just a little bit. I say thanks to all of them.

So, what about that one mile week for me? Well, it was good to have last week’s happiness to carry me over, because I’ve been rather bummed personally. Early last week I yanked a tendon just north of my right ankle. How? Dunno, just one of those things. Running along with a surprisingly and pleasantly fast co-worker, bang, funny pain, a couple dozen strides, it was gone. But over the next couple days, it was clear I’d done something. I tried to run through it for a few days, but by the weekend realized it wasn’t going to heal with continued training. So I’ve been on forced furlough for a few days. This morning I hit the roads to see how it was doing, and it wasn’t doing all that well, so after one lonely mile, I’m back on the couch for a couple more days. Not debilitating, mind you, but with no big races looming (that upcoming Thanksgiving 5K is not what you’d call high pressure), there’s no point in forcing the issue. Let it rest. Have a quiet week.
And that’s the news from Lake Wobegon, where it’s been quiet this week.

Shout Out to That Pesky Butterfly: Check out the comment on my last posting where Sean, from the Police Chase 5K back in September, checked in from – where? – Columbia. No, not the town in Maryland, the country. Thanks for the note, Sean! The calf is fine these days, replaced by the ankle, as noted. Aw, it’s always something… With your posting I can now claim readership on three continents! Drop me a direct line at secondlap@comcast.net so I can send you that spreadsheet.

22 October 2009

MDI Race Report: Ashes Over Rust

Note: As usual, this being a marathon report, it’s a marathon, longer than my usual posting. Train well and you can get through it without hitting the wall.

I’m leaning on Neil Young for a theme for this race. Hey, hey, my, my. It’s better to burn out than it is to rust. I came, I went out hard, I burned out, but that’s pretty much what I intended (say what? read on…), and I’m happy with the results. And with that, the Marathon #10, the Mount Desert Island Marathon, is in the books.

First, the Executive Summary

The tally: 3:13:18, midway - 5th quickest – of my 10 marathons.
The rank: 25th place out of 602 finishers, 5th in the men’s 45-49 age group out of about 60.
The assessment: This was as far from negative splits as you can get. So what? I’m happy.
The damage report: Unscathed, save that blister on my thumb from the fuel belt bottles.

Next, Why Did You Do That?

What’s that, you say? I intended to burn out? Well, not entirely, but I intended to push my envelope and see what was in the tank, provided that that troublesome calf was ready to roll. And thankfully, it was, so I did. I was fully prepared to accept the consequences.

For some insight into this, I turn to the kids I coach for a moment. On the team there’s a young gent who typically runs strong, but clearly leaves time on the course. He flies across the line with strong sprint finishes and a smile on his face. I love his enthusiasm, but I’ve been coaching him to learn from these experiences about testing his body’s limits. Clearly he’s got some in the tank at the end.

And that’s what experience is all about. Racing is an iterative process. When you start, you don’t know what you can do. You don’t know how fast to push the early miles. You don’t know when the tank will run dry, when the wheels will fall off. You only learn by doing trying it.

The scholastic cross country season, when the kids are racing once or twice a week, is a perfect laboratory for learning limits. Each time you toe the line, the memory of the last race is mere days old. You can build that experience base quickly. Beyond school years, local 5Ks (a.k.a. barbeque excuses) offer a similar opportunity. You race perhaps once a month and you can get that feel for what you can do and how hard to push.

The marathon is a very different story. Unless you’re crazier than the typical marathoner, you run the it twice, maybe three times a year at most. There’s a long time between events during which your condition will, by definition, change, and in my case that change has been dramatic over the last year. With so few races, there’s not a lot of chances to incrementally tune your effort. You might work to knock off 10 to 20 seconds on each successive 5K, but if you work to knock off just a minute or two on each marathon, it’s going to be a while before you find your limit, or, in my case, work your way back down to where you think your limit is. You’ve got to go a little on the bold side, at least until you think you’re running near peak. Otherwise, face it, years pass, you age, your peak rises to meet you before you drop down to reach it.

And on that philosophy, I went out intentionally aggressive on a course that the race organizers warn calls for conservatism, a course they say runs more like an ultra. After all, last year I ran three sub-three-hour races, and this year I started with my stroll at Boston. Sure, my only hard goal was to leave MDI with a Boston qualifier for 2011, but for me, that’s 3:30, and that wouldn’t really be much of a step to get back to the low 3’s and prepare to see if a drop into the 2-zone might again happen someday. No, I needed to see what condition my condition was in.

Dawn Brings Joy – No Rain!

The weather was forecast had been downright frightful, with a Nor’easter coming in. But it took a page from my book and was late in arrival, and was replaced by the most gorgeous sunrise I’ve seen in a long while. Arriving in downtown Bar Harbor, we gathering runners found it downright comfortable. I stripped off the tights, and as it turned out, I guessed right. With a slight NNE breeze, the low-40’s air was chilly only during the brief stretches when we headed north.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen quite so casual a start. It was refreshing. MDI isn’t a big marathon to begin with, and with a chunk of the field taking up the early start option, it was even less crowded, the most stress-free marathon start I’ve experienced. We up front types didn’t even see the need to crowd the line, as nobody was crowding us from behind. Mellow. A blast of the cannon, reminiscent of my first marathon at Cape Cod back in 2005, and we were off.

I don’t think I’ve ever had quite so casual a race, either. No jostling in the first mile. No frustrating fruitless hunting to link up with a pace buddy. We’d already chatted around at the start, so I went off with Ed, and we stuck together for eleven miles. It was truly enjoyable. The miles clicked away, up and down the hills, past MDI’s stunning mountains and seascapes, while we jabbered it up with each other and those who drifted in and out of our coffee klatch. Truly the joy of the run. We hit ten miles at 6:53 pace, 3 hour pace, which I knew wasn’t in the cards, but hey, it was time in the bank, and I’d see how far it lasted. Besides, the calf was holding out, and it would survive the day.

Pulling into Northeast Harbor around mile twelve, I backed it off, dropping the pace to the low 7’s. Ed hammered on, running negative splits for the second half, finishing an impressive 5th. I already knew I would find my tank capacity soon, and have some seriously hard work to do ahead.

Mount Desert Island is nearly bisected north-south by Somes Sound, the only true fjord on the east coast, deep and gorgeous. And ironic. Northeast Harbor – where we were – and Southwest Harbor – where we needed to be – are a mere mile or so apart, except for the minor detail of the Sound. Yes, you have to go around. So we headed north out of Northeast Harbor along the utterly gorgeous Sargent Drive, which hugs the west edge of Norumbega Mountain as it skirts the Sound (that’s Sargent Drive along the east side of the Sound, seen from St. Sauveur Mountain on the west side). The views of the western summits across the water are sublime. There are few places in any marathon that can compare to the beauty of this spot. It’s running nirvana, even before I add in how much I love this place, having hiked almost everything on the island many times over. Nirvana for the eyes, nirvana for the mind, but cold nirvana. Heading north, that slight breeze felt more then slight. At one point I swear I could feel the shrinkage.

Sargent Drive climbed away from the Sound, back to the main highway, which continued to climb gently but steadily. By seventeen, it was hard work, but all systems were functional. Nineteen loomed with what in my view is the worst hill on the course, a moderately long but rather steep pitch as the highway curves around the top of the Sound. It arrived, I chugged, and it was done, still holding my pace in the bottom half of the 7’s.

But in Somesville, the rollers started to win the battle. Passing my cheering section of one, I told my brother-in-law’s wife that I wasn’t in great shape for where I was in the race. I’ll forgive her for the “You look great!” and “You’re almost there” comments. Good intentions, even if she lied on both counts. Within a mile I walled out. Hey, hey, my, my. Burnt. Ashes, not rust.

Finishing the Battle

If Wineglass taught me anything last year, it is that yes, you can hurt yourself. Your mind is stronger than your body, and given free reign, it can and will drive your body too far.

By mile twenty-one, the tank was drained. My injured calf never failed, but the hills had taken their toll and really both calves were flat out empty. Though I was on pace for a nice 3-oh-something, I let prudence and reason trump raw desire. Through miles twenty two through twenty-four I took four or five one-minute walk breaks. Splits for those miles were ugly of course, but not all that bad, as I kept the breaks to exactly a minute to maintain the discipline to keep moving. I knew the time lost would blow me out of 3-oh and into 3-teen-something, but I also knew that not taking the breaks could have simply blown me out, period. I probably lost ten to fifteen places through this stretch, but lived to tell the tale.

Approaching Southwest Harbor was like coming home. It’s our annual vacation hangout, and I just love the town. One of my favorite runs in the area is Lurvey Springs Road, a gorgeous gravel forest road, which brings me out onto the highway at Echo Lake, so reaching that point put me on home running turf, a huge mental lift. From there, it’s not far to the final summit at mile twenty four and a half, and it’s a screaming downhill into Southwest. The last third of a mile or so into downtown is a slight upgrade, an ugly slap, but so what. Hammer it home, done.

With the walk breaks, I crossed the line in pretty good shape, but was wobbly enough to get the red carpet treatment of a large sturdy volunteer to hold onto and a fabulous wool blanket in the med tent. I learned long ago that the med tent is your friend and is well worth a visit. The volunteers are saints. My thanks go out to Cort and Ann for their fine repair services.

So, no 3-oh-anything, no age group prize, no great glorious results, but I’m happy: 25th place with a 3:13. Realistically I know that course probably adds five minutes, which adds a little more satisfaction. After the surgery, the break, the leisurely stroll at Boston, the summer’s battle to regain my condition, whether I ever return to the sub-three-hour zone or not, I’m back in the neighborhood.

Aftermath – What a Bullet We Dodged

The storm didn’t hit the island until nearly 3 PM, when I’d cleaned up, packed up, and was hitting the road. Heading home via the inland route, I managed to avoid it for another two hours. Good thing, as this storm brought the earliest recorded snowfall to many parts of New England, wildly flinging snowball-sized flakes. Once it and I converged at Augusta, the rest of the drive home was misery. All in all, I’d rather relive those ugly late miles than do that drive again. I spent plenty of time on the ride home contemplating what a different race it would have been had it arrived on time.

The morning after, I was feeling pretty good, good enough to get out for a few mile shakedown. The knees are a little tender, there’s a little muscle burn, and that pesky blister on my thumb from the bottles, but otherwise the old body withstood the punishment.

Six months to Boston!

18 October 2009

MDI Flash!

A quick report from the front, after the battle. The full report will follow.

This is number 10 for me, so what’s the big deal? Yet my heart was racing last night, pulsing away at 52 as I lay down to sleep, rather than my usual 41 (which is, I note, still not in the league of the famed Chris Russell, who camps in at 36 and carries a ‘do not revive’ order should any misinformed EMT think that’s abnormal). Why be tense?

Because this one was sort of a meter to the future, that’s why. My first post-surgery for-real, serious (or at least as serious as someone at my level can get, which isn’t very) marathon. This wasn’t running Boston on 42 days and 140 miles of training post-surgery just because I was already signed up and I live there. This was training for (well, more or less) and running a race of my choosing. This was rebuilding my confidence at the marathon distance.

I woke at 3:30 AM, not part of the plan, it just happened, and I was overjoyed to see stars outside the window rather than blowing trees and an impending gale (and yes, I went back to sleep). Driving into Bar Harbor, I was treated to the finest sunrise I’ve seen in a long time. Never mind that I’m not usually awake to see sunrise. This one was truly spectacular. All of this was about a strange thing that happened. The feared storm fizzled. Hanging out in Bar Harbor before the race (where, I note, parking was easier than any other marathon or even most local races I’ve attended), everyone’s talk was about the fortunate turn in the weather. After all that planning and indecision, I ditched the tights at the last minute. I guessed right. Other than a cold stretch heading north into the wind from about 13 to 18, it was a comfortable and excellent day for running.

The race? Well, the full report will follow, but I ran 3:13:18 the hard way. Not even close to a well executed race strategy. The last five were pretty much awful, punctuated by five one minute walk recovery breaks, which blew out the stretch goal of three-oh-anything, but I’m happy. Besides my ever standing primary goal for any marathon which is always to finish, my chief goal for today was a Boston qualifier for 2011 (2010’s already all set). That bar, at 3:30:59, was met easily, so the pressure is off for next year. Goal two was sub-3:20, to get back in the game, so to speak, of racing marathons. The stretch goal was three-oh-anything. I’ll happily take goal two.

Damage? I’m sure I’ll hurt a bit from this one, I can feel it, but really nothing to speak of. I scored a nice blister. Last night, on my thumb. From cranking down my fuel belt bottle tops too tightly. Of course, I’ve yet to take off my shoes. I may not have any toes, we’ll have to look and see.

More extensive report to follow…

17 October 2009

MDI Race Eve and Still Flummoxed!

Today was a picture perfect day on Mount Desert Island, Maine. Trouble is, the race wasn’t today, it’s tomorrow. And picture perfect tomorrow will most certainly not be. Whatever will I wear to the ball?

To say that Maine weather is unpredictable is downright trite, but of course, it is, and trite or not, it must be dealt with. New England weather in general is unpredictable, and Maine is the king of New England on that scale. Plus, we’re on the coast here, on an island, and our next weather visitor is a Nor’easter, the kind of storm that roars up the coast (not surprisingly, heading northeast), putting all weather forecasts made in Bangor or parts further distant high on the distinctly useless scale. The present best guess is that the rain will hold off until afternoon, all the more incentive to run faster to finish in the morning, and that we’ll have strong and gusty winds which, as luck will have it, shouldn’t be in our faces. But you know how wind is; even when it’s not in your face, somehow, it’s in your face.

Bottom line: I’m certain I won’t know what to wear until I’m well beyond the starting line. And since my usual Ace Support Team didn’t make the trip (I do miss them…), outside of disposable items I’ve got no place to ditch excess clothing until mile twenty. I’d better guess right.

Had the race been run today, well, it was a grand day. One of the clearest, crispest days I’ve seen up here, calm, and perfectly pegged in the low 50s. My family has vacationed here annually for 14 years, and I’ve heard the legend that you can see Mt. Kahtadin from the summits of Acadia. Today I finally experienced it. Yes, the day before a marathon I hiked a mountain. No, it wasn’t a big mountain, and it wasn’t really my intent, and maybe it was not so smart, but I did. My intent was to hike a trail along a cove that’s always closed when we come here in the spring due to peregrine falcon fledging season. I set off with my host for the weekend to hike the cove, and at the far end we made the snap decision to return over the summit for a loop. Up top we got our reward: Kahtadin, clearly visible. What a day!

If hiking a mountain wasn’t enough the day before, a little later in the day I linked up with my friend Steve (remember Steve, from the White Mountains hike?), and we added a few more miles on foot. Being a seasoned local guide, how could I not give him the tour of Bar Harbor, including walking the famed bar to Bar Island since the tide was out? Steve’s here to power walk the MDI Marathon, so a few miles of walking today were nothing to him. I, meanwhile, was mentally adding the total miles for the day and wondering if this qualified as a bit much before tomorrow’s big effort. Time will tell. And my time will indeed tell.

Also on tap was a quick stop at the expo, small, but who can complain when there’s a bottle of Bar Harbor Brewing Company Ale tossed in your goodie bag? The race staff was overly helpful and accommodating – at least I thought so, and later I learned that others agree. That evening at the pasta dinner, the race director, like me a Gary (and like me, decidedly not short-winded, I think that name does it to you) talked up the crowd to announce the Runner’s World will announce in their January 2010 issue that MDI was voted not just the most scenic marathon in the USA, but also the one with the most enthusiastic volunteers. Touché! And burp. Good stuff.

And despite the fact that I’ve driven these roads hundreds of times in the last 15 years, I still toured the course. I’ve seen these roads over and over, but I haven’t looked at them from the eyes of a runner, and you have to do that. The stretch from Seal Harbor to Northeast Harbor, for instance, rises and falls and rises and falls and… Driving, who cares? Running, I wanted to know how many times. Mentally, that’s key. Know your enemy, make it your friend. Three rises and falls, by the way. Other roads I know like the back of my hand change their character considerably when viewed through the marathon lens. Mile 19 is going to be a bear.

And my readiness? Heck, I just don’t know. After not running since Sunday’s jog, I put in three or four on Thursday and Friday, and again this morning along a beautiful wooded road sticking out into Long Pond. These felt pretty good, but the calf still feels a bit weak. Will that muscle, no longer tender to the touch, hold up to the rigors of 26 miles of hills? How hard should I hit it? What can it withstand? Will tights keep it warmer and happier or just make me too warm and unhappy? The temperature is forecast right on that tights vs. no tights edge, starting in the 30s, rising to the 40s. I’d opt for no tights, but this is the Maine coast with a storm coming in, there’s that wind… It’s 8 PM the night before, and I don’t know what I’m wearing to the ball.

So, my prediction for tomorrow? It’s simple. I have no idea. Let’s go for a run and see what happens.

14 October 2009

Really Bad Timing

This is not good. It’s Wednesday, a mere four days to the Mount Desert Island Marathon, and I’m sitting here at my home office desk with a heating pad on my right calf. I know it’s the week to taper down my training, but this is not what I had in mind.

Training for any race is always a delicate art of peaking readiness and performance while staying healthy. Short of last summer’s foot problems and the subsequent dramatic episode last fall, I’ve been pretty lucky on that count. Yeah, I felt like crap in April, but September roared in with the readiness signals, and as MDI approached, all systems looked “Go!”

Last Thursday morning’s run was a hugely satisfying confidence builder, a nine-miler at sub-6:50 pace that even marked a course best time. In short, I was psyched, I felt great, and I hammered it. In the last miles the now infamous right calf complained a little, so I tread carefully, but it was nothing I was really worried about.

I planned one last mid-distance run the following day, and I wanted it to be a strong effort, so I called up Rocket John (of previous posting fame), and we set out early Friday at slightly slower than John’s usual patented Banshee pace, since, after all, this was the last serious run, the start of my real taper, at T-minus 9 days and counting. And while I was aware of the calf and was treating it carefully, all systems were, in NASA terms, nominal.

Three miles in it turned ugly. Maybe it’s because nobody outside of NASA has ever used the word “nominal”.

Understand that being the slightly obsessed type, I rarely stop during a training run, save for events like railroad crossings actually containing a train, intersections actually containing a tractor trailer, or something that really hurts. I stopped. And there were no trains, trucks, or tracks. It hurt. Not like screaming, Oh My God, it’s alive and it’s got my leg in its jaws hurt, but enough. Stretching and massaging didn’t do much, so we cut short and jogged back at a more human pace. And then began the worst part, the waiting and wondering.

If I take a couple days off, will it heal? If I run again, will I re-injure it? If I take a week off before the marathon, will I be a stiff, klutzy, non-functioning runner? I know my conditioning won’t go away in a week, but I won’t feel too smooth after a week’s break, either.

I gave it a couple days and jogged a few dog slow miles on a dirt track Sunday evening while coaching my middle-school cross country team. Since my Coach identity was egging them to run for a half hour straight – something most of them had never done – we’ll call it setting an example. But it was circumstantially reasonable; I was going slow enough that even my non-runner wife jogged along for a couple of miles (she admitted she hurt, but only a little, a couple days later, but was quite satisfied – way to go girl!). And the leg didn’t feel bad. But not fixed, either.

And in daily life, it’s not bad. I know it’s there, but nobody would suspect I’m injured. However at present, I don’t really care about daily life, I care about a marathon in a few days. A marathon where I’m not really worried about my time, but I’d like something respectable, and most importantly I’d like to have an enjoyable day with all parts functioning at the end. After last fall, I know what the alternative is, and it’s no fun. At present there’s most certainly a very tender spot halfway up the calf. My mind vacillates between “nasty strain” and that ugly “tear” word. But who can tell?

So now it’s Wednesday night, and save for that three mile jog, I haven’t run a step since Friday morning. I can’t imagine toeing the line for a marathon not having run in the week prior. I’m just crossing my fingers that a couple more days will do the trick. Cross yours, please.

Interesting Tidbit: I’ve been meaning to sneak this one into a posting somewhere and keep not getting to it. So I’ll get to it. In the, “Shirley, you’re joking, stop calling me Shirley,” department, I had a rather interesting run a couple of weeks back. A few hundred yards out from home I started sounding like a one-shoed horse, clop, step, clop, step, clop, step… Naturally I suspected I’d picked up a rock in my shoe, it happens all the time. When the opportunity of rough spots in the pavement appeared, I scuffed a few times to dislodge it. No dice. Hmm, perhaps it’s not a rock, it won’t come out… I started thinking back to a few years ago when I picked up a surveyor’s nail – point up, into the midsole, but fortunately angled so that it stuck out the side rather than into my foot. I tried to feel for any discomfort in my shoe, but all was well. With no discomfort, I saw no need to stop, but that pesky clop, step, clop, step, clop, step just wouldn’t go away. I finished the eight miler and finally lifted the hood for a look around. I expected to find a well seated pebble in the tread.

My shoes of choice are Asics 2100 series (and I usually buy last year’s model on cheap closeout online, why not? They were good enough last year, right?), but I often will try something different just for variety. That day I happened to be wearing a pair of Mizuno Waves, which happen to have an unusually large yawning pit directly under the heel. Nestled so tightly, with such a perfect fit that I didn’t even see it at first, wasn’t a pebble, but a rather large granite boulder, a full inch by five-eighths – after being worn nicely smooth on one side.

Consider that. Eight miles with a very large rock directly under my heel, and I couldn’t feel a thing. If it weren’t for the Victorian carriage ride sound, I wouldn’t have suspected a thing. Shoe technology is really pretty amazing when it comes right down to it.

09 October 2009

Industrial Arts

Two Saturdays ago I held my own Industrial Arts class, playing with nasty chemicals and common building materials. And what fun we’ve had with the results! A mere thirty nine dollars and seven cents procured a few lengths of PVC pipe, a pile of various connector bits, a can of nasty glue, and some orange safety tape, and with that, we’ve already classed up four races within ten days.

This is all about a simple finish chute. Something you don’t think about as you approach, cross the line, and move through it. But when you don’t have one, somehow it just doesn’t feel like a race. And for middle school cross country runners, often not quite attuned to how races work, not having one in times past has left some of these kids downright confused as to where the finish was and what to do. Last year’s head coach (of my daughters’ school’s team) set down a couple tiny little cone-lets, and we had kids wandering off in all directions rather than taking their high-tech popsicle sticks and getting scored. They just didn’t get it. So, you need to herd cats? You build a cat corral.

This year the team is my project, so as coach I was determined not to let this happen again. No sir, we’re going to make these events look official! I figured it wouldn’t cost much, but I was shocked when a visit to the local Home Depot revealed just how cheap this project would be. $39.07 built six stands, enough for a short chute, and procured enough tape to last for probably 20 races.

All that remained was my shop class day, where I learned two key things. First, cutting a lot of small segments of seemingly harmless PVC pipe generates an unbelievable amount of statically charged plastic sawdust that sticks to everything and won’t biodegrade. So I found myself vacuuming my driveway. And my lawn. And myself. And second, when they say that nasty PVC cement is flammable, well, yee-hah, no kidding. I spilled a bunch of it and didn’t want to just leave it, so what’s a closet pyromaniac to do but make it go WHUMP!? (Fear not, or at least fear only a little, I was outside!) Kids, don’t try this at home. Way cool.

A couple days later, we beta tested the setup at a 4-way meet at a neighboring school. Not my meet, but the meet director was tickled to have a real live finish chute. It was at times comical, but by and large, it worked (though we did decide a few spare bricks would work wonders for stability). We quickly confirmed that basic knowledge of racing is not evenly spread. One kid crossed the line, took a hard right turn, and missed the chute entirely. Hard to do, but he did it. A bunch of kids kept right on running – full blast –all the way through and out the other side, right past the popsicle stick dispensing coach, simply not understanding that they could stop after the finish line. Well, that’s why we have middle school cross country. You have to learn somewhere!

This week, it’s simply been, “Have Chute, Will Travel”. Sunday The Chute debuted at a real live race, Marlborough’s Main Street Mile, a one mile all-down-hill haul-butt screamer we hold every year here. It was now officially veteran equipment of a real road race. Tuesday, another away cross country meet; I brought my team, I brought my chute, and we livened up the party! And today, finally, for what it was made, we hosted our first home meet and had the finest finish line in town. Ten days, four races. Under forty bucks.

So the next time you finish a race, take a look at that equipment around you. You might be at a fancy race with fancy expensive equipment. Or you might be at a down home event, and I’ll bet the gear was built in someone’s garage. Take the lesson home. You can do this for your club or your team. It’s cheap, it’s easy, it’s only slightly chemically hazardous, and you’ll elevate your event to a cooler status.

Other Tidbits for the Week: It’s nine days till the Mount Desert Island (MDI) Marathon, and the ten-day forecast is calling for good weather. That’s too bad, since it’s usually wrong. I was feeling great and ready until yesterday when I hammered out a hard fast 9-miler and my right calf started feeling strained. Today that strain turned into a plain old muscle pull, or whatever you want to call it, but it’s quite tender and painful. I’ll have to slack off a few days to get it healed quickly, and hopefully still have a few days back running to stay loose before the marathon.

The race organizers at MDI tell you to think of it as an ultra due to the hilly course. I know the island well from many, many visits, and it is indeed hilly, but I live and train on the hills, so bring ‘em on! Goals for the race? As usual, I keep them rather tight to myself, but the basics are simple: Goal 1: Finish and have a great adventure. Goal 2: Get a Boston qualifying time for 2011 (I’m already set for 2010). And Stretch Goal? Well, there are a couple of levels to that, and I’ll tell you what they were after the race.

01 October 2009

Heck of a Week, Heck of a Month

Thirty days ago the world looked dreary. Today, well, face it, it still does. Earthquakes! Tsunamis! Roman Polanski! But, the heck with the world. So what if we’re still not sure the recession is waning! So what if my bankrupt company is being sold and I’m crossing my fingers for continued employment! At least so far as my running and fitness level, thirty days has made a surprising difference. It’s been a heck of a month. Suddenly, life is good.

Being the obsessed type, I do of course keep a log, and in it I force myself to write a quick summary at the end of the month. Sum up the month in 40 words or so. Not quite as hard as summing up the year, or summing up your life (side thought, how’s this for a gravestone epitaph: “He went sub 3, now he’s sub 6” But I digress…), but still, this task makes you think a little bigger than just writing down each day’s run. At the end of August, I wrote:

A struggle. Body never really felt good all month. Average pace slowed. Fell short of mileage target, but still matched last month, and missed a few days due to NH hikes/knee wrench. Can’t commit to MDI yet.

Then, as I wrote last week, something clicked. And today I closed out the month with an 8-miler at 7-minute-flat pace that just felt grand, tallying up 214 miles in a month where I’d targeted 165, and that at a quick average pace. After that horrible August. 30 days, complete turnaround. Go figger.

To make it better, the month closed with a fun week. Friday we kicked off cross country season for my daughters’ middle school with our first practice. I can’t officially be the head coach, since I can’t be sure my work will allow me the time, so our other coaches hold that title and provide greatly appreciated help. But effectively, I’m the coach this year, and I’m having a ball. I’ve had my fun setting up a meet schedule and pulling the team together, and the kids have already repaid me with their positive attitudes. Positively infectious, I tell you, though not at all like that H1N1 thing.

Saturday was Runner’s Arts & Crafts Day with industrial materials and nasty chemicals. Seeing as how I’ve now got a cross country team, I figured we’d raise our stature with some real live equipment, so for forty bucks I built a set of stands for a finish line chute out of ubiquitous PVC pipe. For a thrill, we held a controlled burn of the spilt glue. Can you say, “Whump!”?

Sunday brought soggy fun at the 25th annual Forrest Memorial 5K, which as everyone around here knows, isn’t 5K, it’s more like 3.2 miles. Details, I know, but it makes you feel better about your time. That aside, the event is a local tradition to benefit the Special Olympics, and the organizers put on a fine party afterward. It’s all about the food, of course. Being a Sunday event, it’s a bit of a rush to make it over after Mass, but I had enough time to jog the course for a warm-up, only getting mildly soggy as the day’s rain subsided somewhat for the race.

Once again, it was pretty easy to pick out the fast guys ahead of time. There were two this time, accurately pegged in advance. Out the gate, they, I, and about four or five rabbit imposters kicked up some rooster tails in the rain, then, by a quarter mile out, the race was pretty much over. The imposters dropped rapidly, the fast guys took off, and I went for a run, not realistically thinking I could hold the pace of the fast guys, and never to see a challenger. I can’t recall a race that settled to finality faster. By a half mile in, I told myself that it was me versus me, and tried to hold a hard pace. With nobody in sight, I crossed the line in 3rd place, taking the masters, but in a fairly leisurely time a solid minute behind the fast guys and a minute plus ahead of #4, a good friend from my club. In a strange twist, I finished a 5K not entirely wiped out, thinking I had something left, wondering if I should have challenged myself to go with the fast guys. Matters not. Fun day. And my club took home a plethora of hardware. And I capped it off with a double workout with the kids on the cross country team a few hours later. In the rain. Because we love punishment.

Monday, hit the magical (at least for me) 200 mile mark for the first time in a year. To celebrate, I stopped in to visit Lady Healer, my PT, to revel in recovery. It was a year ago this coming weekend that the foot went snap. And a year later, I am feeling like I’m back.

And today, the kids ran their first cross country meet. The score? They got slaughtered, who cares? They had a ball, and frankly, so did their coach. We even tried out that fancy new low-tech PVC finish chute. Worked pretty good, save for the kids who thought they were supposed to run full speed through it. Ah, naïve youth!

All this fun in one most excellent week to close out one most excellent month. It’s almost too much to take. What more could you ask for?

21 September 2009

Something Clicked

The human body is amazing. It takes a while to happen, but when your metabolic level decides it’s ready to shift, it shifts. Just like that. Click. For me, something clicked in the last two weeks.

When I took my break for surgery, it took six to eight weeks before my body really shifted to a slower metabolism mode, then, Click! Then the pounds started to accumulate. When I started running again, it again took six to eight weeks before my body figured out what was happening. There was another good click back around May, and the pounds started to melt. Then reality caught up and the summer slump kicked in. But it looks like that’s clicked away in grand style.

I wrote a couple weeks back that I was forcing myself to mentally turn a corner on September 1 and break out of my August slump. I wrote about the Labor Day rocket ride run with my friend John that shook me out of my zone of comfort – or misery, depending on your perspective – and convinced me that it’s time to stop thinking about being in recovery mode, and start thinking more like training as usual. Sure, my times are off from last year, and sure, my foot will never be the same. Suck it up, move on.

And the last two weeks have been, well, cool. Sweet. Satisfying. Fun. Something clicked into place, and the machine is working again.

A few days after the Labor Day rocket ride, I actually burned a PR on one of my training courses. Not a “post surgery best I’ve done so far on recovery”, but a real live PR.


A few days later I popped in the next episode of my patented Extremely Compressed Fall Marathon Training Program for the Terminally Procrastination-Oriented. Unlike my first fall 20-miler which wasn’t awful, but smelled a bit like misery on toast, this one was at a decent clip, and more importantly, a consistent clip, all the way up the hills back to home sweet home. It actually ranked as one of my faster 20-milers. Yeah, we obsessive types keep those lists, we know.


My average daily, ‘whatever’ runs have been faster. I’ve been feeling better. Even had a few episodes of cruise mode – that great feeling when you suddenly notice that you’re not even noticing that you’re running, you’re just out there enjoying the scenery or whatever.


And this morning, out early for a 16-miler with none other than the John the Rocket. I wouldn’t even have considered suggesting a 16-miler with him a few weeks ago. Today, well of course it was hard work, of course it hurt at times, and I made it nastier by back-ending the route with all the big hills. But we smoked 16 at 6:52 pace, and better, we held that pace evenly, even up the hills.


Four weeks to the Mount Desert Island marathon. I’m not expecting great things. But I feel like I’m back in the game. I’m no longer questioning why I’m spending the bucks to go up and run it. I’m excited about it, instead. My enthusiasm has also clicked back into place.

Side Note – Taking things Head-On: In the, “You’ve got to stop using your head!” department, it didn’t sound like a click, it was a solid thunk. As if my face-plant into the bricks at Wineglass last fall wasn’t enough, I managed another blunt head trauma at that most dangerous of all venues – the company softball game, a week or so back. My own stupid fault, of course. I tried to duck in behind the second baseman. He caught the throw, swung around to tag, and my face met his shoulder. Hard. Stars. Lying in the dust. Crack in the tooth enamel. Nasty sore neck. He was, of course, bigger than me. Most people are. Duh.

That’s Type A for you. Should’ve just accepted the fact that I stink at softball, and that I was out at second. But no…Joe Runner here needs to compensate for his lacking skills by at least running the bases fast and beating out those dribbler hits. There is a deep meaning here. This is, of course, why I started running as a kid in the first place. Because I stink at softball, baseball, football, basketball, foosball, and every other sport that includes a ball or requires coordination or physical skill. Accept it, remember it, don’t make these stupid mistakes. I run, that’s my gig. After all, even Michael Jordan couldn’t make it on the diamond.

12 September 2009

That Pesky Butterfly

Somewhere a butterfly flaps its wings, next thing you know, Hoover Dam comes crashing down, or something like that. Or so goes the famed butterfly effect theory. That butterfly flapped, and once again prevented me from winning a race today.

To be fair, I won once, two summers ago. But pub runs with 20 people and no timing don’t really count, even if the wonderful hosts of those events do post the results on Coolrunning (and continue to do so, often with great and amusing elaboration). I really just can’t count that. And I’m certainly not so fast that I really should win a real live road race. But others slower than I have had the lucky day when the right combination of people didn’t show up for their own special reasons, and the resulting fickle finger of fate put them on top. Just once, that would be cool.

Today, it could have been, but for that pesky butterfly.

The event was the local Marlborough Police Chase, a perennial benefit event held in honor of a patrolman lost to the ravages of pancreatic cancer. It usually draws well over a hundred souls, and last year on its new fast 5K course (which I had some input into) I set my Second Lap 5K personal best of a few seconds south of eighteen minutes.

This year, RAIN. Cool, chilly, scare off the non-die-hards RAIN. Which dropped the field down to about sixty five. But on these days, the die-hards still come, so a smaller field doesn’t really mean it’s any easier to climb the ranks. And this year, of course, I’m just not as fast as last year. But hey, any given day, you never know.

And it would have been, but for butterfly.

Years ago two people I’ve never met, coming from different places in life, made identical college decisions. Through random chance, they met, dated, engaged, and planned the wedding, through chance on this weekend, in Worcester, not far from here. One had a friend from back home in New York, now living in DC, who happened to be a runner. That runner had nothing to do with this area, but was avid enough to have looked online for a race to keep him busy the morning before the wedding. And there happened to be a dearth of races in the area that weekend, a rarity. And that guy happened to be capable of a sub-fifteen-minute 5k.

Curses, you butterfly.

I spotted him easily. He fit the profile. Wandering around the pre-race crowd, I overheard him. He looked the part of the fast young guy, but more importantly, he was asking others about the course in a manner that I recognized, a manner that said in tone, but not words, because you can’t come out and say this even though you need to, “No, you can’t just tell me to follow the crowd because there’s a good chance there won’t be a crowd in front of me.” As I said, I’ve never won, but I’ve had plenty of 2nd and 3rd place finishes, often distanced from the winner, and I understand that instructions of “follow the crowd” just don’t cut it. Most don’t worry about it. I do. He did. I caught on to him. Busted.

I started to explain the course including the one tricky bit, and then just gave up doing it verbally and instead invited him to run a warm-up with me to show him the route. We hit the course at a good clip, and it was, for me, pretty quick for a warm-up, but my legs were sluggish from a day off and needed it, so while I huffed and puffed a bit, I didn’t mind the pace at all. We ran the whole course, had a great time chatting, and I discovered his visiting ringer status. OK, so any chance of a win was gone again, but I really didn’t expect it to begin with, and the pleasure of running with a guy of this caliber alone made for a fine day. We also got thoroughly drenched, which didn’t bother me until the gun went off, we sprinted out of the gate, and I realized that my waterlogged socks and shoes added about 5 pounds to each leg.

The race? Like all 5Ks, over before you’ve thought much about it. Out the door, Visiting Ringer took off like a bat out of the hot place. Another guy I recognized but who’s name I couldn’t recall slipped into second, and I settled into third, about 40 yards back of him, with obvious footsteps close behind. The course is a steady climb for the first half, mostly on our local rail trail, front-loading the hard work. Before we departed the trail about a mile and a half in, I reeled in #2, putting an exclamation point on my pass by taking advantage of his tactical error of positioning himself on the wrong side of the trail for the upcoming turn, and took over second place. By this time, of course, Visiting Ringer was in the next county. The return trip, mostly all downhill, was just an exercise in striding and praying, since I’m not a strong downhiller (indeed, I had a tune from my church band in my head the whole way), but nobody challenged and I came home in second place overall, taking the masters division.

Now, the humor here is that Visiting Ringer was out for a stroll, running a over minute and half off his best. I too was almost a minute off my best, but had I burned a new PR, it wouldn’t matter since he put nearly two and a half minutes between us! Kind of puts things into perspective. I may be a moderately sized fish in my local small ponds, but I’m a barely a herring in the real world. Hats off to this guy!

Within about two minutes of finishing, barely before I’d stopped breathing hard, there he was again, heading out for a warm down, and of course, I just couldn’t resist. So we ran the course yet again. The course marshals who saw us for the third time were, needless to say, amused.

Did I miss my chance to finally win a race? Well, not really. That butterfly is always flapping, and had Visiting Ringer not shown up, the winds would have shifted and something – or someone – else would have come along. And I had the chance to run a few laps with a thoroughly nice guy who also happens to be a heck of a runner, which is a win on any given day.

07 September 2009

Nix the Zone

The comfort zone is a wonderful place, if it’s the place you want to be. If not, nix the zone. Getting out of it, and getting to another place, works wonders on the head, even if the body protests in the short term.

It’s Labor Day and that means my club ran our annual Laborious Labor Day Ten Miler, a rather hilly and challenging benefit race where the entry fee is measured in cans of food for the local food pantries rather than dollars. We have a great time putting it on, the runners love the concept even if they’re not enamored with the considerable climb at mile eight, and a good time is had by all.

In a typical year, this race isn’t a question. Sure, I help out in putting it on, but I take an hour and a few minutes and run it, too. But this, of course, isn’t a typical year.

I know, I know, moan, whine, whine, moan. Yeah, but that’s all over. I banished my mental slump on September 1st. No, I still don’t feel as strong as last year, but tough nuggies (how exactly is that spelled, anyway?). Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead. Nevertheless, it’s still not that easy.

I needed a decision on go / no-go for the fall marathon, so Saturday morning I hit the roads early for a 20-miler to see what condition my condition was in. It was going, well, not bad, not great, until the need for one of those stops, yeah, one of those stops, hit around thirteen. Afterward, all momentum was toast. The next mile was like restarting a seized engine. And once the engine was running again, the last four miles were uphill. It’s not a good day when I have to verbally yell, “Finish it!” to get past each turn which gives me an opportunity to cut the run short (fortunately that day, only to myself, I don’t think anyone heard these utterances and I wasn’t hauled off and committed). I really wasn’t a happy camper, though my average pace wasn’t really that bad. But stuff hurt, multiple stuff, and hurt pretty good, so our light & easy club run looping around a local pond on Sunday was welcome respite.

Against this, a hard ten this morning? I vacillated till the last minute – not even my wife knew, because I didn’t either – whether I’d race this morning. Indeed, she and the kids walked down the street to see if I’d pass by. But against my usual hell-or-high-water attitude, I elected not to risk breaking something, and didn’t race. I’m still not sure if this was prudence or timidity or laziness. But I didn’t race.

Yeah, but I still wanted to run. Something light, something casual, something easy.

After last year’s race was in the books, a bunch of club-mates went out to run the course, and I expected I’d have that opportunity this year to get my run in today. But alas, they were all in blue jeans or the like, no plans for sweating amongst them.

Except John.

John, who lives a mere mile from me, yet rarely can our schedules line up to run together, and with whom I haven’t run since before the whole Wineglass and foot-slicing adventure. John, who pretty much as two speeds: stop and banshee, and doesn’t really have any warm-up period between them. John, with whom I’ve turned in some of my more memorable training runs and to whom, via these runs, I credit a large part of my breakthrough to the sub-3-hour marathon world last year.
John had just raced the Ten Miler just under sixty four minutes for 5th place, so I figured it was a safe bet to pop in a few miles with him. I’m not where I was last year, and I warned him of that, but knowing he’d just spent a few thousand Runner Energy Units, the pace would have to be reasonable, good for him, survivable for me.


Zero to Banshee in about 150 yards. Before I knew it, we were climbing out of the park at a mighty clip. Sure, we kept saying we’d slow down. I should have known better. John is the kind of running partner who’s either magic or poison, depending on your perspective. There’s some sort of weird chemistry that prevents us from being reasonable.

OK, after all, most of the outbound was downhill. We said we’d back it off for the climb back up to the park. Yeah, right. Later scientific analysis showed that our return pace didn’t vary much.

John actually did tire. Considering he ended up with an almost twenty mile day, the first ten of which were at race pace, no surprise there. Funny thing though, despite my not having put in a training run like this, well, ever this year, not having run this pace for this distance outside of the Boilermaker race, I had more in me at the end. Who knew?

John swatted me right out of the comfort zone I’d fallen into, the zone that said I didn’t have that pace in me for training, the zone that persisted even after the mental right hand turn I made September 1 to break out of the August Blues. I most certainly can still train like that. I just need to line up more often with guys like John, and get out of that zone.

01 September 2009

Fall Race Quandary?

It’s mere weeks till marathon season, and I’m just not there yet. August has been a somewhat cruel month. The body isn’t happy. I probably shouldn’t. But somehow I just can’t resist the fun.

Just a few months back I wrote about how pleased I was that my training was progressing well following my return from the dead after foot surgery. Now, a short time later, I’m in a lull. I’ve bumped up my mileage a bit to about a buck fifty per month, but my average pace has slowed, and more importantly, I’m just feeling like a slug. Not strong. It doesn’t just flow. It’s a struggle. It doesn’t feel right, and it’s a bit worrisome. I’d chalk it up to summer heat, but it hasn’t been that hot.

Reality check: Perspective time here. Um, I still put in a hundred fifty per month the last two months, and ‘slow’ is a relative term. I recently recorded a second running podcast with my friend Chris Russell and we talked about how being knocked out of action for 5 months changes your view and heightens your appreciation for just being able to get out there. To steal the fishermen’s phrase, a bad run beats a good day at work, right? 99% of the planet didn’t pop in a buck fifty at 7:32 pace last month. As I tell my kids, suck it up. Besides, I probably hurt because I’ve spent days and days on my hands and knees installing the new kitchen floor. Or if that excuse doesn’t work, I’ll think of another, just hold on a bit.

Against this background, it’s decision time. Fall marathon season is so close, I can count the number of long runs I should have already done but haven’t. The easy choice is to skip it, take the fall off, after all, last year’s Wineglass time already gets me a plum spot for Boston 2010. My body really isn’t ready. But I’ve got Mount Desert Island in my sights, and I just want to do it.

Mount Desert Island, Maine (a.k.a. Acadia), is a second home for me. We’ve vacationed there for years, and I’ve hiked almost every trail on the island, save the obscenely steep ones (no thanks!) Running MDI would be, well, just plain cool and fun. The fact that it finishes in Southwest Harbor, the very town that is our home away from home, is even better. And it fits this year: it’s a tough, hilly course, not likely to produce a good time on a good day, but with my Wineglass time lined up for Boston, I just don’t care about time. Which is, like it was for Boston this past spring, freeing. I can be a tourist and love it.

Like most marathons, MDI’s price goes up the longer you wait. I’d hoped to decide in August and save five bucks. But I didn’t get that satisfying long run in that said, “Go ahead, you’re not stupid to do this.” So it’s September, and I’m still on the fence.

What I did get in August was a very pleasant surprise and a big kick toward doing MDI. I spent a few days in the White Mountains of New Hampshire bagging peaks with my family. I finished my 4000-footers back in 1995, but now that my kids are old enough, I’ve begun a second tour with them. Tuesday, climbing the Amonoosic Ravine Trail, heading for Mt. Washington – upon which I hadn’t set foot since it became my first New Hampshire summit way back in 1982 (!) – I ran into my old Appalachian Mountain Club friend Steve, whom I hadn’t seen in 15 years. We were heading in the same direction and as such had a few hours to catch up. If that wasn’t fate enough, we’d apparently both been sent the same fashion advice email and looked like a pair of twins (that’s him in the yellow tech shirt and faded green shorts on the right, me in the yellow tech shirt and faded green shorts in the center). And wouldn’t you know it, he’s entered the MDI marathon (he plans to power walk it). It was like God sending me a signal. Just do it, you fool.

What’s the chances…?

Six summits, including the most perfect day on Lafayette you could imagine, and a sore knee later, I left New Hampshire knowing I want to do MDI more than ever. And immediately again faced the reality that my next run felt pretty downright lousy.

But hey, I’ve got almost 7 full weeks to turn that around.

Just do it, you fool.

Side Note: It’s been a year of blogging! To the six of you that have actually read all 73 postings, I thank you for your interest. Leave a comment now and then. And if there are only three of you, or even one, that’s OK, because I’ve enjoyed writing these stories, and will continue to do so, just because. Cheers.

13 August 2009

Gentlemen's Sport

Ours is a gentlemen’s sport. Sure, we sweat like pigs (metaphor of course, my daughter the pig fan points out that pigs don’t sweat). Sure, we get caked in mud on the trails. And even blood sometimes, too. But outside of the realm of big name competitors’ vocal rivalries, we’re kind, helpful, and gentile to others even as they’re thrashing us soundly. You won’t see that in a hockey game.

Yes, of course, this applies to the women as well. I’m not being sexist, there’s just no equivalent phrase I can think of that communicates the same connotation for the other gender.

Tonight’s case in point? The 4th Annual Chuck Martin 5K in Clinton, Massachusetts. I returned to this race tonight as an experienced veteran. Having run it once before isn’t a lot of experience, but it’s enough, considering last year’s event where my 3rd-place finish magically turned into a 2nd-place finish because the leader made a wrong turn and sadly came in 6th. Most of the race is on trails. Most of the turns are marshaled. Most, but not all.

As we gathered at the start with a good-sized crowd of nearly 200, there was plenty of chatter about precisely where the course went, it being pretty clear that most had no idea. When I volunteered that I not only knew the course but was there for last year’s game of Lose the Leader, I instantly became the man to follow. Now, I’m not really a mid-packer, I’m more of a front-of-the-mid-pack, back of the truly competitive, make a splash only in very small ponds or large puddle type of runner. Truth be told, I expected to be in the top 10%, but with my continuing recovery, not being back to last year’s level, sporting that aching and damaged foot, and so on, I certainly wouldn’t publicly hint that the crowd should follow me. But they did. It’s a weird sport.

Out the gate, the starting adrenaline rush kicked in and after perhaps 20-30 seconds with one other runner alongside, I was all alone. Huh? I’m not supposed to be alone up here. Perhaps a minute or so later – time is fluid in these events – a couple of youngsters arrived to keep me company, and the one guy who looked like a serious competitor in the pack proved that appearances aren’t deceiving and bolted out front. Ahh, that’s better.

And now comes the gentlemanly portion. After four tenths of a mile on the road, the course turns sharp left onto the trails and levees along the Wachusett Reservoir. At this turn, a local cop duly stood guard, assuring no runner road pizza events. And he did that well, but didn’t consider that the runner bolting toward him had no idea where he was going. And so our leader cruised right past Turn Number One.

If kindness and helpfulness were a random event in our sport, one runner might have alerted him to his error. But kindness and helpfulness aren’t random events among runners, they’re the rule. Ours is a gentlemen’s sport. Everybody jumped in to help. A cacophony of voices rang out – perhaps a half dozen – everyone within sight and shouting range, TURN LEFT! LEFT! LEFT!

It got better. By now I was running with a pair of youngsters, with a couple more behind us, while our leader quickly recovered from his error and again put space between himself and us more ordinary folk. And then he did it again.

While missing Turn Number One could be blamed on a complacent cop, missing Turn Number Two at about six tenths of a mile could only be chalked up to, well, perhaps a missed brain cycle? On approaching a set of barriers across the trail, clearly positioned to prevent passage, in front of which was a yellow plastic tape that gave a pretty obvious hint to turn right at the barriers and follow the tape, our Beloved Leader somehow ran right through the barriers and with each passing moment compounded his error by going deeper behind the Fence of No Return.

In any other sport, those behind him would see an opportunity. Let him go. Second goof. Our turn now. His loss.

Not in our sport. Again the choir sang. GET BACK HERE! TURN RIGHT! GET OUT FROM BEHIND THE FENCE!

And as if the Gods were giggling in mirth, it got even better. The rest of the leader pack thought itself so smart. They’d gone right before the barrier. They bolted up the levee. And to my shock, they started bolting right over the top, down the other side, headed toward the lake. Uh, that was Turn Number Three. And nobody else seemed to get it. Now it was my turn to scream. TURN RIGHT! ONTO THE DIKE! Seems I was indeed, as they hinted at the starting line, the only one truly with a clue as to where I was going.

This was getting ludicrous.

And so it was that at three quarters of a mile in, I found myself leading the race. Not really supposed to happen. Cool, though. Enjoy it while it lasts.

One could argue that there should have been course marshals at these points of confusion, but Turn Number One was manned (by the Complacent Cop), Turn Number Two was bloody obvious, And Turn Number Three, well, it wouldn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the course probably didn’t plunge into the lake. But in any event, the point is that at each spot, everyone who had a clue helped out, even though the person they were helping was in the process of thrashing them soundly.

It’s a gentlemen’s sport.

Rest of the story… Our Beloved Leader again caught us after his latest mishap and retook the lead. I didn’t see any real way to stay with him, so focused on the runner who was sticking with me. At about 1.5 miles we were head to head on a wide levee. I decided to make a move, knowing it was early and risky, but he didn’t answer, and I had 2nd all to myself. Footsteps fade fast on the trails, and there was no crowd to give audible hints of the spacing behind me, so I had no idea if he would respond or others would surge. Nor did I want to look back. Nearing our emergence from the trails back onto the road, a sharper turn gave me an opportunity to glance back, and I saw no challengers. Two tenths from the finish I looked back anyway to avoid any surprises. Nobody home, smooth sailing.

For the second year in a row, I took 2nd, but this year the winner – Our Beloved Leader – was a youngster, so I scored the masters win, though in a time a full minute slower than last year. Most of that minute slowdown I attribute to just not being in the same shape as in the pre-surgery days, but then again, the entire field was slower, so it’s hard to tell. Frankly, it just doesn’t matter. It was a fun race, an eventful race, and a race that really showed off the best side of the nature of our sport.