16 July 2009

The Boilermaker - Part 2

The Boilermaker is big. Twelve thousand runners is a lot of people even when you’re used to 27,000-plus at the start of Boston – and that’s just the 15K main event, not to mention a few thousand more in the 5K. I find it hard to comprehend where they all came from and where they all go.

The scale starts to sink in when you stop at the Thruway rest stop 10 miles before Utica and it looks like the starting area itself with so many runners lined up outside the restrooms. Woe to those non-runner travelers who happened to stop in, wondering what hit them. But Marge, where did they all come from? Why are they here? And why do they all look so underfed?

The scale really sinks in until you watch them coming at the finish line. And coming. And coming. And those are just the ones a half-hour behind me, after I finished, after I wound my way through the labyrinth of Utica streets to get the other side of the line to find Sis. There were thousands I missed. And thousands more after I left for the party – the party of planetary proportions.

But, back to the race. After being dropped near the start by Ace Support Team Sis & Phil, niece Kris quickly found a friend (how this happens amongst 12,000 runners is beyond me, but it happens) and she headed off to her “Gray Corral”, not really a corral at all, but the area for the 8,000 or so unseeded runners. I was seeded in the “Blue Corral”, the 500 runners behind the 300 “White Corral” elites. I’d felt a tad guilty since I’d turned in a seed time of 59 minutes based on last year’s pre-surgery performances, not knowing where I’d be by race day, but I quickly found that even my race-day target of 62-64 minutes would have gained me the same corral. Guilt alleviated.

Despite the scale, starting coral organization was excellent, though traffic control a bit draconian with a few over-zealous marshals. Once I found my corral, I headed off for a warm-up, only to be told on return that I couldn’t get back in without circling an extra three blocks and re-entering from the rear. I figured out this was so they could open the white elite corral to an adjoining parking lot for their warm-ups. Nice, but a little frustrating for the rest of us. To be fair, we’d been warned via the map of the starting area, though the map was a little incomprehensible, as was their map of the finish & party area – a simple arrow pointing north would be nice! Whatever, minor gripe.

What a morning! Perfect weather, among the coolest in Boilermaker history, sunny, gorgeous, a bit breezier than expected. Ready to roll on my first real long race since the surgery, Boston having been a purely recreational outing. And speaking of Boston, there in my corral, a few bodies away was none other than Boston Billy himself, Bill Rodgers, the guy largely responsible for my love of the sport. My hero from First Lap days. I’ve seen him at expos, but always behind a line of well-wishers longer than I cared to endure. Here, it was easy. I sidled over, greeted him – nicest guy in the world – and of course invited him to the 10K my club is putting on next month. Yeah, right, I know, but might as well, you never know. Even at my age, it’s still a thrill to have started the race with him. Way cool.

The ropes dropped, we did the surge-forward thing, the gun, we’re off. Uphill. Now, I’m one of these inertial runners who takes a long time to warm up – usually about 5K in a typical 5K race – so I’m not real keen on any start, but the Boilermaker is all uphill for the first few miles as you head south out of the river valley – not big, but noticeable grades. And I noticed it. I felt pretty much awful, like I was running in the high 7’s as opposed to the 6:50 pace I’d stated as my goal or the 6:40 I had in my head as my real goal. Ugh. But mile one clocked in a 6:28, surprise, surprise. I should know better, happens all the time. Well, at least I knew why it felt like an effort!

I forced myself to back off a bit, and dropped the pace for miles two and three to the high 6’s, knowing the golf course – the big hill – loomed at three, but it didn’t help much; it was a struggle, the body just wasn’t happy. And then, our reconnaissance mission paid off. The golf course climb was… nothing. Its most memorable moment? The band hammering Zeppelin as we entered the course. Just one of the seeming bazillions of bands on the course, but later Kris would recall these guys too – serious rockism. Utica pulls out all the stops and does it up in style.

Just like that, we were over the top and screaming down the other side, going sub-6 for mile five, clicking 33 minutes flat through five, 6:36 pace, and suddenly the morning had turned around like I never expected. Sure, I was working hard, but I was ahead of my private target with more downhill than up remaining.

And then, since this was becoming a roller-coaster day, along came mile seven in roller-coaster style. I’d warned Kris about seven the day before. At its start, the city boulevard turns briefly into a freeway. I’d warned Kris that car-scaled roads play games with your mind. You lose the perspective of houses passing by. The crowds thin. The same distance that would fly by on a city street stretches mercilessly. And it did. She later agreed completely with my prediction. But worse, having checked out this part of the course in the car in a thunderstorm, we’d both missed the insidious upgrade that followed the freeway stretch and continued into mile eight. It caught me off guard. My cruise mentality took instant hit points, and minor agony ensued till the summit.

But the eight was another screaming downhill, even screamier than I’d expected. I’m not a strong downhiller; I have to force myself to stride out and take advantage of the hill – more speed, but more work, too. Which made nine, tough already, that much tougher. Nine hands out a slow rise late in the game, a lung-burner, a test of will. I had a good one going, better than I’d hoped for the day, and here was where I’d keep it or lose it.

Over the last top at nine miles. All downhill to the end. The sun was brilliant, blinding, making any hopes of locating Sis & Phil pointless. Lungs screaming, sporting my usual death-warmed-over look (that’s me in green at 9.2). Yet it’s funny, no matter how we’re hurting, snippets of our surroundings stand out. I suddenly noticed the fresh tar over the previously exposed trolley tracks just before the finish. That one was for me, Mr. Faceplant of Wineglass. I’d promised Sis I wouldn’t do it again, and the Gods of the Boilermaker heard me and helped assure no repeats. Cool.

It’s easy to see that this is the biggest event to hit Utica all year. Other races construct elaborate finish chutes, and pull them down by the end of the day. In Utica, the Boilermaker finish is permanent; a glorious cast iron arch that stays all year, reminding the locals that once a year, the world really does come to them. I passed under that sign in 60:37, well ahead of my 62-64 minute target, having turned in an average 6:30 pace and gotten elation in return. It still didn’t feel like last fall, it didn’t feel like a cool easy comfortable stride, but most likely my recollection of what it felt like last fall, before the injury, before the surgery, is unrealistic. Memories can be rosy. I’ll bet it hurt back then, too. Bottom line, I was a happy guy.

And Kris was a happy girl. She made it home right on her target. She’d wanted an hour and a half, and she pulled in at 1:29 and change. Best of all, before we left town, I heard her say she wants to do a half-marathon. Yes, this disease is infectious! Of course, the biggest party you can possibly imagine, complete with more Saranac on tap than you’ve ever seen and a killer flyover, afterburners and all, by the guys out of Rome Air Force Base, didn’t hurt. Nor did knowing that half her classmates ran it as well – and yes, she somehow managed to find them in the sea of humanity – which made an even better event for her. You couldn’t script a promo for running any better.

14 July 2009

The Boilermaker - Part 1

If you’d asked me before I started my Second Lap about some of the iconic far-away races I’ve since run – take the Charlottesville 10-Miler and the Stowe 8-Miler for example – I would have stared at you with a blank face. But the Utica Boilermaker? That’s one that’s always been on the wish list since those high school First Lap days.

I feel like I’ve shared a connection to this race. Back in the spring of ’78 I was a high school freshman in Upstate New York, I had just started running, and the Utica Boilermaker was born as an instant hit. I recall my friend and running mentor Cliff extolling it in its early years. It quickly became a big destination for runners in my local crowd. It was one of those talked-about races. And I’d forgotten until I read the race program that I’d had the privilege of having both of its second year champions in my circle. I shared high school track and cross country miles and colors with women’s winner Cindy Girard, and ran with as well as wore the decidedly low-tech jersey of men’s champ Tom Carter’s Lechner’s track club (that’s me in 1980 in the hot yellow shorts and geeky socks running for Lechner’s). Tom was an awesome runner back then, and as of the last time I saw him last year, he still is. Oh, and there was that little bit about dating his sister, too, a truly nice young lady. The Boilermaker. It was cool back then, and who knew it would become world-famous?

But I never ran it. We had our own 15K in town, the Forks XV, site of my fastest long race ever, and still being run today, so hauling off to Utica for a 15K didn’t offer any real uniqueness to me. Being in high school, I wasn’t really in the mode of traveling to far-flung races, though there were a few notable exceptions, stories for another day. It never happened, the First Lap ended, and the long drought descended for that 25-year vacation.

Until one of my running club-mates suggested we organize a club trip to…the Boilermaker! That nascent idea was suddenly thrust into reality. Of course, I’m in!

Well, not unlike last year’s “club” expedition to the Stowe race, which turned into a massive team of, uh, two of us, this year’s “club” expedition turned into a massive team of, uh, three. OK, that was a 50% boost, I’ll take it for what it is. But since the other two had their own family and friend agendas, it turned out not to be a club expedition at all. Call it a club catalyst effect, instead. Ahh, so what, I’m in, and free to pursue my own family agenda.

That family agenda centered on my niece, a recent convert to the mental deviance of running. I’d mentioned in my last post that this was her first race, but forgive me, I lied. She’d run a 5K last fall; this was to be her first long race, at this point for her a challenge purely for the distance involved. Knowing that I share at least a bit of the blame for her new affliction, it was pretty exciting to me to see her bite this one off. We worked out some pretty elaborate logistics to join up, plans made far easier by the interest and help of my sister and her companion Phil, who’d been my Ace Support Team for Wineglass last fall. I had to promise to them I wouldn’t fall on my face again.

I love small local races for their simplicity, ease of logistics, and, I admit it, the chance to score an age group spot or a good raffle prize. But I love the big races because of the magic of assembling so much talent in one place, and the fact that most of that talent is packaged in the most unassuming people you’ll meet anywhere. Unlike typical overpaid sports superstars, elite runners blend into the scenery as normal people, because they are, other than their extraordinary abilities. Kris got a quick taste of this defining aspect of our sport quickly, over lunch at the Subway (after, I note, we’d arrived in Utica 10 minutes apart, having converged from 350 miles distant, not bad timing, eh?). We struck up a conversation with a runner type and her family, only to discover she was in fact an elite master, one who’d shared the vaunted church basement with Kara Goucher & Company at the starting line in Hopkinton, one who rubbed elbows with the fabulously talented top women of America. Yet she was more than interested to chat as any other runner. It’s just that kind of sport, and that’s one of the reasons I love it.

After hitting the expo – somewhat of a disappointment for a race the size of the Boilermaker – Kris and I set off to reconnoiter the course, partly on wheels, partly on foot. We popped in a four miler, looping over the biggest hill on the course where it climbs above the valley through the city golf course. The course profile on the web made this one look like a killer even to me, the “seasoned runner”. Facing the challenge of the distance, let along the hills, it had given Kris considerable apprehension. “Know your enemy,” I told her, and it was a lesson worth learning. We came, we ran it, we laughed. Piece of cake.

The skies poured forth their fury as we scoured the rest of the course (comfortably behind the windshield) and made our way back to Base Camp Syracuse – Kris’s apartment when she’s in school – for dinner with Ace Support Team Sis & Phil. Forces of nature – more storms, and a foolish neighbor loudly unloading lumber late on a Saturday night – staged a conspiracy to ruin our early sleep, but failed to hamper us. Four AM would come too bleeping early…

Next posting: Race day

10 July 2009


Oh my peeps are in distress. Yes, all six of them, if I have even that many readers. I’ve been delinquent in my postings, and I must make amends. Bless me Father, it’s been over three weeks since my last post. Here are my adventures. (What, you wanted sins? Not here, this is a family friendly blog!)

My summer slump arrived, well before any summer weather showed itself. June in New England was utterly pathetic. July, at least until yesterday, hadn’t been much better, though summer suddenly arrived in glory today and the weekend promises spectacular weather. But we’ll get to that in a bit.

In late June, my clan made our annual trek to Acadia National Park and spent an entire week without a clear view from a summit. For the first two days our cottage on the sea endured a storm packing constant gale force winds. Following that came more showers, fog, showers, fog, wind, fog, did I mention fog, and oh yes, it was cold. Ah, summer vacation. The good news is that we saved a lot of money on non-consumption of sunscreen. The other good news is that I’d run mile repeats with my club in a pounding rain a few days prior to our trip, so I was well trained – for the weather, at least.

Weather aside, our week in Maine offers up my version of the Rave Run, concept stolen from that certain over-glitzy magazine. Within a six to seven mile outing I can run from the cottage on the sea through the small village nearby, and be on the forest roads of Acadia. Tacking on a couple more takes me deeper and opens up trail options. Each year I venture a little further, blurring the line between our hiking territory and my running turf. The solitude of these forests is pure joy.

Friday morning found me running on some of our frequently hiked trails, emerging at the south end of Long Pond, greeting a few hikers heading in. Three hours later, showered, fed, assembled with kids, we returned to the same spot to start our day’s hike, only to meet the same hikers I’d seen earlier, now walking out, tickled to see me heading back in. My wife’s comment to them was a classic: “He feels the need to get exercise before we hike for the day.” Now, we vacation actively, so it’s not really the need to get exercise, it’s because – you know this – running is in we runners’ blood, and we crave the chance to run in different and especially beautiful spots. But her comment was still a classic.

Hard to fathom, but on our return leg that afternoon we finally saw the sun. We’d waited all week for that one glorious hour, basking on a lakeside rock. But the cool part is we just don’t care all that much about the weather up there, it’s Maine, it’s Acadia, it’s “The way life should be”, so they say, as opposed to the other bumper sticker we saw which read, “New Jersey, The way life is”.

But the slump? Well, usually I blame it on the heat. But I was feeling it before Maine, I was feeling it in Maine where there was no heat, and I’ve been feeling it since Maine. It’s not summer heat. The body just isn’t quite in the mood. Not feeling strong. Not bad, mind you, just not strong. My theory de jour is that May and early June were about breaking through on pace, getting closer to the training pace I’d left behind pre-surgery, and, having pushed hard to make strides in that direction, the body sighed. So the last couple weeks have been about backing off and working on the base, stretching in a few more miles but taking the pace more comfortably. Listen to the body. Listen to the body. That change of pace has made the last week far more enjoyable. I skipped out on the 4th of July races to keep the intensity down.

In the theme of low intensity, superbly enjoyable was this week’s Whitney Memorial 5K, a casual local race put on by our friends from the North Medford Club. With an entry fee of a mere five bucks, it’s the perfect event not to worry about, so being in low intensity mode, I hinted to my family to give it a try, and they took the bait. Both daughters tossed their hats in for their first 5K, and my wife joined the merriment as well. She prodded along our younger one, while I coached and cajoled our older edition, who managed to come in ahead of more than a quarter of the pack, but more importantly she gained the confidence of seeing that she could run the whole thing, even the hill, longer than she’d ever gone. Nine minute pace never felt so good to me!

But weather, slump, and low-intensity aside, it is summer, and there are big events to try, so I’m off in the morning to the stunningly exotic metropolis of Utica, New York, to step up to the line at one of our sport’s classics, the Boilermaker 15K. While this is a race I’ve wanted to do for a long time, the event is sweeter as I’ll be joining my niece for the festivities; my niece who’s started running in the last year not entirely uninfluenced by her old guy uncle, and for whom this will be her first race. Yeah, pick off an easy one to start off with, I say. Or, just dive into the deep end. First four miles are all uphill.

Maybe that’ll break the slump.