29 January 2010

Not Vegas

This week I was faced with a good news / bad news scenario. Given that choice, I prefer to try to extract and enjoy the good news.

It’s January, which traditionally means a big company meeting, in and of itself is neither good nor bad news. But since last year’s meeting was canceled because said company was in bankruptcy, the fact that we’ve been bought by another firm and are having a meeting certainly edges us into the good news category.

The bad news is that it’s being held in a big casino hotel, which means having to navigate to and from meetings and events through and around the twenty-four hour a day cloud of rancid cigarette smoke emanating from the unavoidable casino, not to mention the pathetic sight of the slot addicts churning their life away, a quarter at a time, any time you care to look toward them. Not an attractive atmosphere to a non-gambling runner.

The good news is we’re not in Hell. Er, I mean, we’re not in Las Vegas, our usual venue. Instead we’re in Atlantic City, that famed Monopoly board, come to life, sort of, on the New Jersey coast. Atlantic City wants to be Vegas, but fortunately it doesn’t really succeed. Yes it’s big, and it tries hard to tell the world that that is so, but it still pales next to Vegas. From my hotel room window, I can watch the Vegas-like light show on the neighboring high rise casino – which, whether you like casinos or not, is unarguably cool – but it’s still not Vegas. It’s a smaller, somehow friendlier version, not quite as packaged. How do I know this? Well, it’s anecdotal, and we’ll get back to that.

Plus, of course, it’s got an ocean, and a boardwalk. Not just a boardwalk, but the Boardwalk. So the good news is that there’s a real interesting run just begging to be had. But the bad news is that we’re cooped up in one of the few hotels not on the boardwalk, indeed, several miles away. It’s a fine facility (aside from the gambling and smoking bit), but it’s one surrounded entirely by highway ramps, impenetrable by pedestrian access.

An aspect of this running thing that I truly appreciate is that on any given day, the act of going for a run is very green. Yes, I know that our shoes are made of petrochemicals, as are probably more than half of the synthetic fibers we wear, and yes, I know we travel for races and so on, but we’re not firing up the ATV and grinding ridges in sand dunes or sucking down fossil fuel in our speedboats. We’re just stepping out and manufacturing sweat. Driving to a run is something I like to avoid. I frequently run to meet my compatriots for club runs, though admittedly I’ve hitched a ride home on plenty of occasions. So being trapped in a hotel with no non-vehicular means of escape just bugged me.

Make lemonade, dude, get over it.

We planned our trip to have a morning off, and co-worker Bruce and I drove out of said freeway-bound casino and parked at a boardwalk-bound casino. In minutes we were on the famed walk on a spectacular morning, forty-ish, a bit of a headwind as we headed south, with the sun rising over the rather active spray of the Atlantic to our side. I’d planned our start point to get us out of the casino zone quickly, so soon we were enjoying the neighboring beach homes as well, having left the Majorly Tacky stuff behind.

In the early morning in Vegas you might see a jogger or two, but mostly you see the stragglers from the casinos, bleary, hung over, and visibly distressed from the walletectomies they’ve just endured. If you can get away from the casinos in Vegas, you see beige concrete, no road shoulders to run on, and dry dusty scrub, interrupted only by the beauty of the distant mountains. But on the boardwalk heading south out of Atlantic City you see people who actually want to be there, walking or running, all enjoying the aforementioned sunrise and sea spray. They greet you. It’s refreshing.

Of course, the hills on the course are murder. We did notice one spot with a lump, perhaps three to six inches of elevation change. And we did have to detour once to get around the “screw crew” as we named them, the team that methodically replaces boards as they wear out. Now there’s a job: replace a few boards every day, and by the time you get to the end (the boardwalk is over five miles long), it’s time to start over. Lifetime employment. And the twisting and winding course? Following this course was tricky. We did have to negotiate a bend. About three degrees. Bring a map.

OK, so you don’t run the boardwalk for big topological variety. You run it to soak up the ambiance. And it’s pretty easy on the feet, too.

We reached the south end, a block south of Washington Street (where the Atlantic City Marathon is forced to depart for city streets on its course to the end of the island and back), stopped for a few photos, then meandered back north, detouring onto a pier over the water, and later onto the beach to stick our fingers in the Atlantic. I’m not a big one for lots of stops during a run, but let’s face it, we were tourists, plain and simple, and figured we might as well enjoy it. Then, back to the casino zone with a finish at Brighton Park. A fine run, indeed.

Now, about that comment on Atlantic City being a little smaller, a little friendlier, a little not Vegas? As we pulled out, the garage attendant smiled and asked us how our run had gone. There’s that moment where you wonder, how’d she figure that? Yes, we had running gear on, but cold weather gear, and being in the car, really didn’t scream “runners”. Our puzzled looks quickly brought on the explanation, “I was coming into work and saw you running out onto the Boardwalk.”

Cool. Kinda’ small town, in a way. That would simply never happen in Vegas.

The next two mornings I was restricted by time to a much less exciting venue, what looked like – on paper – to be a rather miserable route: a mile-long path from my hotel to the next one. But this being Not Vegas, even that turned into a bonus. Frankly, while not long, lacking in hills, and quite windblown on the return trip (which explained the nearby turbines which I always like to see), the path turned out to be a delightful meander along the bordering salt marsh. At the turnaround point, the view extended under a bridge toward the open ocean, where lap by lap I was treated to a magnificent boiling orange sunrise. Wednesday’s was truly spectacular, a giant orb framed by bridge and sea. Of course, I wasn’t carrying the camera Wednesday, it always works that way. Thursday’s, with camera in hand, was merely sublime, yet still a treat, especially for one like me who is rarely truly conscious at the hour of any sunrise, sublime or not.

The conference itself? Legitimately optimistic, something I haven’t seen in corporate life for quite some time. Call it all good news.

23 January 2010

Club Empower

You’ve heard me rant on the power of running clubs. Here’s another dimension: they empower, too. Empowerment is a funny thing. It represents power that exists because you believe it does. In a way, it’s an angle on confidence.

Here in Massachusetts we just sent a guy to Washington who, while he’s been involved in public life for many years, was basically an unknown. Suddenly the world knows his name, because he happens to be that vote #41, and the world knows American politics and knows of the debate on health care. I’ll bet he has occasionally pinched himself throughout this election, wondering how he landed in this critical spot. I’ll bet he has asked himself if he’s truly worthy of being the hinge on which one of the biggest issues in the country revolves. I’ll bet he’s had to come to grips with his level of empowerment, and he’s accepted it.

His case is unusual in that it is so well known, but the basic premise is extremely common, when you stop to think of it. In how many of our daily actions do we take for granted the power we’ve been granted – or have granted ourselves? In how many endeavors are we empowered – or do we empower ourselves – to change the world?

Most of us wouldn’t think of plowing up a strip of land and laying down a highway. Or pouring a footing and building a skyscraper. Or any number of other things. But someone did all these things because somewhere along the way they decided they could.

Heck, I sometimes question where I got the power to stop being a kid, leave home, marry someone (are you KIDDING?), have my own kids (say WHAT)? How is it that I can just walk in and buy a car? Wasn’t I just taking a 7th grade algebra test? (Yes, it was a long time ago, that’s not the point.) Somewhere along the way we empower ourselves by accepting the fact that we can do things that seem, well, grown up, huge, beyond us. Create a corporation for your running club and take legal responsibility as a corporate officer and – gasp – ownership with the IRS? You bet. A little scary, but I could, and I did. And someone on the other end decided that they could, they had the authority to set up the laws under which to do this. Yes, we start getting down to the whole ‘government of the people, by the people’ thing, but that’s not really the point. As we grow and mature, we start to realize that there is no ‘them’, they are we and we are they. And they thrive on we, and vice versa. It’s all about being empowered. As a person. As an entity. And that gets us back to the club.

Who suddenly decides that we’re going to put on a race? Not go to a race that someone else puts on, but make an event that someone comes to. That we’re going to create an event, create a traffic ruckus on the roads, ask people and businesses for money, print t-shirts, pay cops, get EMTs standing by, engrave awards, become the authority that crowns a champion? We do, because as a group we come to recognize that we aren’t visitors in the fabric of our society, we are the fabric. The newspapers don’t exist without news, and it’s up to us to decide to empower ourselves to make some news. I used to think it was hard to become news; now I recognize that the media is just begging us to do so. Empower yourselves, make some news.

Now, my local club, the Highland City Striders, is young compared to venerable old area institutions like the North Medford Club, which has been around since Nero fiddled. And we’re small and relatively unknown, even compared to local pillars like the Central Mass Striders of Worcester (er, that’s Wistuh to the locals) or the legendary Boston Athletic Association just down the road a piece. Who are we to do big things?

Who are we not to?

A few weeks ago we gathered at one member’s graciously opened home for our annual Christmas party and ludicrously goofy gift exchange. There under the tree, along with all the little surprises brought by all, was one monstrous package, which the hostess assured was not part of the party, but a special item for herself. Foolish me, despite being intimately involved with the club’s activities, I didn’t stop to think, and simply believed her.

At the conclusion of our Yankee swap, the last person was instructed to attack this mysterious monstrosity. And there, there, there it was, that $2,500 race show clock that we’d all worked so hard on our summer race in order to raise the money to gain this first material evidence of our arrival on the scene of running clubs (and that I had written the check on the club account for – how silly of me to have not figured that one out!). Nothing says ‘official’ like that big, beautify clock ticking away at the finish line. Cool. We’re official.

Stop to think about it. No one of us would ever dream of dropping that kind of coin on something like this that would bring little benefit to any single one of us. But a bunch of people who just like to run empowered themselves to form a club, go legal and form a corporation, set up a big race, solicit sponsors, do all the yada yada, and now, where no legal entity stood a mere two years prior, stood this big beautiful physical evidence of empowered people taking action, because they decided they could. And now they’re that much more empowered to do even more down the road. Just like our new Senator, I’ll bet many of us have stopped to pinch ourselves and ask how we got to this level of – well – empowerment. I certainly have.

This, in some way, shape, or form, is how the Boston Athletic Association got started. Will the Highland City Striders ever be as much of a pillar, as well known, as well respected, as the BAA? Probably not, but that’s not the point. Everything starts with people who empower themselves to do it.

Hats off to everyone who had a part in this, and hats off to everyone who decides they have the power to take action, build something, accomplish something, do good. Empower yourself, and better yet, band together and multiply your empowerment.

14 January 2010

A Very Larry Day

There are legends out there amongst us, entirely unknown to us. Then one day we realize just who that person was, we shake our heads and mutter, “Wow.” One of those legends died last month. This weekend, the running community came out to say thanks, in a way, for being who he was.

Larry Olsen was a local legend, a coaching legend, a regional legend, maybe more. I didn’t know him all that well, so I can’t elaborate too much, though plenty was written about him on the tragic occasion of his death. There’s an extensive article on him in Running Times, and many more including the local newspaper, the Boston Globe, and at least for a while, a list of even more links on the home page of the Tri-Valley Front Runners. There’s no point in my repeating the many things these articles have to say; you can – and should – read them for yourself.

A ways back in my porting “Who Knew?” I wrote about how you never know who that person is who just passed you by. I only met Larry once, and he gave me a serious “Who Knew?” moment. It was at the Whitney 5K in Hudson on a hot evening in July of 2008. I had no idea who he was, only that a guy significantly older than me kicked my butt that night. As did four others, but they were all kids save one close to my age. Getting kicked by this senior was, well, like getting kicked.

Then came the cool part of the hot evening. Whether he asked or I asked, I don’t recall, but the net result was that I went for a couple of mile warm-down with this unknown. And I realized that I was in the presence of greatness. He was casual, entirely unpretentious, but told some amazing stories of racing against the greats like Rodgers, of records he held, and so on. What was even more amazing in that he could tell these stories without coming off the slightest bit self-consumed. He was instantly likeable. I left him still not really knowing who he was, but knowing that he was a heck of a runner and obviously had been for a long time. I heard a bit more about him here or there, but thought little more of that evening until early last month when the news came through our club pipeline that Larry had died, collapsed due to a heart attack while running at age 63.

We don’t like to think about that kind of thing happening, but it does. Runners’ World ran an excellent article a few months back exploring the phenomenon of runners collapsing during races, and revealed studies that do show that even we healthy runner nuts are indeed at an increased risk of heart attack while running or racing. But when we’re not running, we’re healthy as hell, and our overall risk, averaged out, is far below the populace as a whole. Yes, running can kill you, but yes, it’s extremely good for you.

Larry died doing what he loved. In a way, that makes the RW article’s point even sweeter. We will all have to go sometime. Most of us would like that sometime to be quick, rather than an agonizing decline. So run your heart out, stay healthy, and yes, you may literally run your heart out.

And so Saturday a crowd of perhaps 150 to 200 runners converged on the high school in Hopedale, Massachusetts for a memorial 5K. Technically, it was a fun run rather than a race, which was rather obvious since everyone wore Bib Number 1. But it wouldn’t do Larry honor not to put some effort into the outing. Being a fun run, the start was leisurely, and I had the fun of leading the pack down the hill and past the small crowd at the school before a few others joined me for the blustery northbound leg. I settled back a few places, running with a couple of high school kids who shared more stories of Larry while we all voiced our excuses for the day. One of them said he’d swam for two hours that morning, one said he’d already run a track meet that day, my excuse was just that I was old. But they were quick to correct me – not compared to Larry. Old meant nothing to Larry. It’s a great lesson to take away.

Another group passed us as we attacked the hill past mile two. I couldn’t hold them, but I left the youngsters behind. Perhaps as Larry might have done. Indeed, as Larry had done to me back in July of 2008. The run wasn’t scored or timed, but I was near enough to the front of the pack to count out 7th place. My time was unremarkable but satisfying, as I equaled my mark from the Thanksgiving 5K without really working too hard and on a hilly course.

And Larry had one more “Who Knew?” moment to deliver. Legends do that, they rub off on people who don’t expect them. In this case, our club squad of four included a young lady who literally joined our club in the van on the way down. She’d just moved here from college in New York State, and had grown up in Europe. I may not have known much about Larry, but she had utterly no idea who he was. She was probably the only person in the race so entirely unaware of Larry’s legacy.

And she won it. Go figure. Score one for our club!

No, it wasn’t a race, and no, there was no scoring, but they did award some Larry mementos to the first male and female finishers. And that’s how a most unique “trophy” – a picture of Larry racing – landed in the collection of a new-to-the-area young runner. A trophy that will probably hold more motivational power than any golden plastic man screwed on to a piece of cut rock ever could.

It would have been nice to know Larry better, but it’s still sweet to have sidled into his life however briefly, join in Saturday’s celebration, and carry his inspiration onward.

[ Thanks to Ted Tyler from Coolrunning and JimRhoades.com for the race photos! ]

02 January 2010

New Year’s Merriment, Parts One and Two

Your Blogster has been on Christmas break the last three weeks and has some catching up to do! So pardon the length here, the words are just spilling out all over! And hopefully I’ll get a few more stories out in the next week or two.

We’ve started 2010 with a bang. Actually, it was more of a swoosh, followed by a crunch, but we’ll get to that in a few paragraphs. We’ve got New Year’s Merriment Part One to cover, first!

But first, let’s get something straight. I don’t really care that technically the decade doesn’t start until 2011 (think about it, we started with the Year 1, so the first ten years ran through the end of the year 10, well, you get it). I’m just glad I no longer have to struggle every time I try to refer to the current decade as the, well, the Ohs? Good riddance. Instead, I’ll struggle with what to call this decade until it becomes the teens in ’13. The Tens?

No matter. After last year’s surgical hiatus, I was cheered to return to one of my favorite races, the Central Mass Striders’ New Year’s Day Freezer Five in metropolitan (not) Sterling, Massachusetts. Why is it a favorite? Let me count the ways: First, hanging with the running crowd is reason enough to like any race, but hanging with the crowd that’s not hung over on New Year’s Day says these are my kind of folks. Second, CMS puts on a good event, plain and simple. I like these guys. Third, it’s an accurate course. Frequent readers will know how much I appreciate that. Fourth, it’s in my old stomping grounds, just a mile from my old home in West Boylston. And finally, one key word: donuts! Homer Simpson would be proud.

This race is legendary for bad weather. Two years ago we started the race in the clear, the snow started falling right after the gun, and by the finish a mere half hour later we were in full blizzard mode. Look close in this photo from that famous day and you’ll note I had to remove my shades as they were icing up faster than any hot breath could clear them. Last year, though I wasn’t able to race, the wind howled and the race lived up to its name. But this year? Perfectly gorgeous winter day. About 30°, calm, and just a bit of slush from an overnight light snow.

I invited Rocket John to join me on the trip, pretty much assuring I wouldn’t win a coveted age group sweatshirt award, but in my current shape I didn’t expect one anyway. He and two others from my club, along with a co-worker on whom I’ve rubbed off a little of this insanity, and about 220 other non-hung-over souls converged for some winter fun.

Sure enough, John rocketed off the line and rapidly opened a large lead on me. I quickly let go of the lead pack and settled into 10th, with a footsteps omnipresent off my flank. Motivation, I suppose, but I felt like lard on a cold day and was working too hard for my perceived pace. So the sub-6-minute split at the mile was a bit of a shock, and jolted me out of my mini-depression. Later checking hinted this spilt was marked a bit early, but no matter, it did the mental trick. At that point I figured I had a bit in the bank, and holding low 6’s for from then on could make it a decent day.

It’s a lollypop world, and this is a lollypop course, out-and-back save for a half mile loop at the far end. Coming out of the loop, Mr. Ominous Footsteps made his move, and I didn’t argue, especially when it was apparent he wasn’t a master. I held on, retook him at 4 miles, and he returned the favor at the top of the last rise at 4.6. But in the process, we almost reeled in Rocket John. Almost, but not to be. John took 9th, Mr. Ominous 10th, and I, 11th, 5th master. A minute-plus later, along came my co-worker in a strong 13th, followed by another club-mate just 6 seconds behind him. Had there been team scoring, we would have indeed made a statement.

I was, frankly, very pleased. My 5K times this year have consistently been a minute or more off my best. I did manage to hold low 6’s for the remainder, and clocked the five miler at 31:19, just 39 seconds off my best. I may never return to my pre-surgery times, but it’s fun to try, and here was some positive progress.
And the donuts afterward, oh, the big, glorious cinnamon roll bear claw, with absolutely zero guilt since I’d just burned a few zillion calories. It is what we live for. dOh!

And thanks for CMS for snapping the pictures – both the 2008 blizzard and the 2010 versions.

And Then, New Year’s Merriment Part Two…

The pastor of my church likes to ask the kids making First Communion, which is on a Saturday, when their second communion will be. Easy question, of course, it should be the very next day. Good habits start early, right? So After a great January 1, with warm-up and warm-down clocking in a 9-mile day, it would be a shame not to get out on January 2, right?

Well, yes, but nothing lasts forever, and January 1’s perfection faded overnight. In fact, it’s been a pretty sloppy, cold, and windy winter so far, so it was no surprise that following yesterday’s perfect weather came more snow. More than I expected, in fact. But I hauled my butt out of bed on a morning that would have been very restful had I remained horizontal, strapped on the shoes, and got out the door at 7:30, into – surprise – about five inches, largely unplowed.

My club meets at 8:00 AM, about 3.5 miles away. It became pretty clear pretty quickly that covering 3.5 miles in a half hour would be quite a challenge. Indeed, covering any distance was turning out to be quite a challenge. My plans changed about five times in the first five minutes, finally settling on heading toward the meeting point, seeing how far I got before saying the hell with it, and more than likely turning back, satisfied at getting out and getting at least a few miles in.

But a mile or two out, along came a couple club-mates in their pickup truck, and my usual, “no thanks, I’ll run there!” attitude instantly changed to, “Of course I’ll take the ride.” Which meant I was committed. Which led to a morning of great fun. Once again, the club motivates, the club makes it fun, the club is so very, very worth being associated with. Seven, count us, seven wackos showed up and headed out for 10K in the winter wonderland. Yeah, it’s like running on the loose part of the beach, only worse. No, there’s not even any hint of consideration as to how fast or slow we slogged, but who cares. It was foolish, it was liberating, it was probably pretty chilly for our one member in shorts rather than tights, and it was a lot of fun.

For us, but not for the lady in the SUV who came at us a little too quick, panicked, threw her buggy into a spin, and slide past us sideways down the road. Swoosh! Had that tree been three inches further off the road, she would have gotten away with a wake-up call. As it was, she clipped her front bumper. No major damage, but not unscathed. Crunch. We were, of course, apologetic, as was she, both parties knowing we were somewhat foolish to be out there. Chalk up a new one; in all my years of running, both First and Second Lap, I don’t think my party has been a contributing factor to an accident. Well, it was, to misuse a pun, waiting to happen.

And so 2010 is off and running, to misuse another pun. At the moment I’ve got at least a half-dozen races on the radar screen, more than usual, promising a busy and motivated stretch as we enter the Dark Period, the 60 Day Challenge between now and March 1, my official start of spring.

Winter weather? Bring it.