26 February 2010

I'm Crazy Ain't I?

Really, any coach, any authority, any doctor would have said it was stupid. Even to myself, I’m convinced I’m a bit of a sick puppy. But it just happened, and it felt good, pretty much up to the last few miles, I’m tickled that it happened, and I survived. So, so what? I’m a bit crazy, ain’t I? Enjoy it.

Just two weeks ago I was lamenting all sorts of aches and pains. Yet Tuesday I broke my personal record for weekly mileage. That’s not a plan you’d find in any “Best Advice for Runners” book. It just happened, granted, with some extra effort on day seven.

In my last posting I’d noted how the spring weather we enjoyed last week inspired me to turn it up a few notches with some lunch-hour double-digit jaunts, followed by the pleasant surprise of my clubmates wanting to go long Saturday morning. So by Saturday I was on a 10+ mile-per-day pace for the previous four days and I’d already arranged with Rocket John (you do remember Rocket John, right?) to do a long one on Sunday. The gears started to whir and click. This could be cool. But first I had to deal with one of those anal retentive harsh definition things and soften my view of the world. Go with me on this, it was good for me to let go a bit.

I knew that my log recorded my biggest week in the Second Lap era at 79.45 miles, cranked out in the fall of ’08. But I also knew that my log counted Sunday to Saturday weeks. Something deep in my psyche defined that as a week. But something else floating through my neurons said, “Says Who?” The part saying that was, of course, the part that knew I’d started a mileage tear on a Wednesday. Really, who says a week is anything other than a seven day span? It’s just a cultural definition. And I wanted a shot at that 79.45 miles. So I resolved that a week was seven days, period. One hump surmounted.

But if I was going to take a shot at it with a week that started on Wednesday, well, fair’s fair, I’d have to re-run the previous stats, since I’d only counted Sundays to Saturdays. Lucky, I’m obsessed enough that my mileage log lives in a spreadsheet, so it wasn’t too hard to run a column adding up each successive seven-day span. And I got a surprise. The mark wasn’t 79.45, it was 84 flat. Oh… Umm... Ah…

Step back a moment here. All of this is ludicrous to begin with. Never mind that I shouldn’t have been contemplating such numbers so soon after feeling wounded. Beyond that, the whole “arbitrary numbers over arbitrary periods” thing is rather absurd. But then again, without that absurd concept, why would we race, or care about a four minute mile, a three hour marathon, or anything? Right. Over that hump On with the show.

Second step back moment: Truth be told, my real record wasn’t even 84, it was the fact that once, in August of 1980, back in those First Lap days, I made the assault on the summit and turned in a 100-mile week. But that was (a) in my younger days, and (b) a planned assault. What I had here was a rather accidental opportunity to surpass my modern mark. But, while 84 was only five more than I’d been expecting, at four days in, 42 down, need an extra five was a lot. No matter. I pondered all this even before my planned Sunday long run. And a storm was forecast for Tuesday. It might all be moot, anyway.

Sunday came breezy but beautiful. My wife dropped John and I off a few towns away for a “simulated Boston” – big downhill start and primarily eastbound to catch the wind. We had a glorious day, adding the optional extra loop near the end to clock nearly 21 miles at close to 7-minute-flat pace. I beat the crap out of a toe or two having forgotten to trim the nails, but otherwise all was good. And just like that, I was now at 60-something for five days. Sixty-three, I thought. But I wasn’t sure, as it got fuzzy in my memory, and that’s where it started getting weird.

Two days to go. But Monday was not conducive to running. A three hour drive to an eight-hour meeting in Albany and another three-hour drive home. No time. But record or not, fourteen hours of sitting just screamed for escape, so I packed the bag and was changed and out the door ten minutes after the meeting ended for a nine-miler through the western ‘burbs of Albany as the sun sank to darkness. With my day-glo jacket, flasher light, headlamp – works better handheld, but you get the idea, ID tag – just in case, I’m getting this opportunistic running thing down pat. And my co-workers certainly got a charge out of seeing Batman charge out of the building in tights.

And then it got really weird. I’d forgotten my exact mileage total to date. Monday was a late night coming in from Albany. I didn’t boot my laptop, which is where my log lives, so I couldn’t check that key number. Tuesday, another meeting in Providence, returning home mid-afternoon to the pleasant surprise that the expected storm hadn’t yet arrived and I could squeeze a “late lunch hour” run in, but I’d have to get out there to beat the weather. I had some long-overdue hardware repair to do on the laptop so I didn’t want to boot it up only to have to shut it down again right away, so once again I couldn’t check that key number, which left me in the odd spot of making a dash for this record yet not really knowing how far I needed to dash. And it wasn’t trivial, either. Remember that extra five miles, from 79 to 84? I would need a good 13. I thought. But I wasn’t sure.

Picture this: I head out, seeking to break a record that’s rather ludicrous to begin with, that I shouldn’t be shooting for having come off injuries, with the opportunity arising quite by accident (someday I will plan to hit that 100-mile week, but this just popped up randomly), not knowing how far I have to go – and changing my course mid-run didn’t help either, and, quite frankly, once I got up around the 80-mile total mark, feeling pretty used up as I climbed one of the biggest hills in town. Ludicrous. But wouldn’t it totally stink if I got home, measured it out, added it up, and came up a quarter mile short? You bet it would. And so I ran on, and on, and on. I ran based on time, adding on an extra few minutes just to be sure. And after the measuring and accounting, there it was: over the top, 85.65 miles.

Ludicrous, yes. But satisfying. And even better, I checked my log from my youthful days and discovered that other than that planned 100-mile week, my top mark in those days was 84.7, posted in April of 1980, which meant I hadn’t surpassed it before, but I had now. That made it sweeter.

Ain’t I crazy?

20 February 2010

From Springing to Spring

So far as the global environmental crisis goes, an early spring is rather concerning. So far as our mental states go, an early spring is exciting and invigorating. I’ve gone from a state of springing to a state of spring in the last few days, and to put it mildly, I’m pumped.

It’s been rather rough the last few months, injury-wise. Last fall, I strained my calf just a week or so before the Mount Desert Island marathon. Barely a month later, it was the mysterious lower leg tendon injury. Recovered, I enjoyed a month or so of relative solidity, only to be dashed again by somehow spraining (one might guess?) an ankle doing the supremely dangerous act of getting out of a chair at a conference. I always said that conference food will kill you. And while nursing that one, the left hip decided being healthy wasn’t hip, and went south for a while.

In short, while awaiting spring, I’ve felt like everything in me has being springing loose. Twang. I’m pretty convinced these are all aspects of still being out of balance now that my right foot is permanently altered in its function. A fine rationalization, but it doesn’t get you past the pains.

On top of all that, it is, of course, the Dark Period, that time of the year when we northerners yearn for sun beyond 5 PM. And while we’ve been spared all that much winter precipitation, it’s just seemed windier and starker than usual. The 60-Day Challenge is in full force.

All of this has taken its toll. Anyone who knows me knows that why I’m sometimes nicknamed, “Slightly Obsessed.” It’s true, but only slightly. I don’t fret over my training plans. Unlike many, I don’t worry about this week’s mileage, or exactly what day I put in that twenty-miler for the next marathon. But I do record every mile, I do measure to the hundredth (more or less) to accurately track my training pace, and I do track and use my monthly mileage goals for training incentive. So while I don’t fret when I have a sparse week, which will happen in the real world, I do get antsy when I hit the middle of the month with barely fifty miles on the meter. Which, with the ankle, the hip, and all that, is what happened this month. A lousy fifty three miles by Valentine’s Day. No love there.

Time for the tide to come in. And it did.

The ankle forced many missed days, but seemed on the mend. The hip? That Supreme Expert of Health Care, Google, provided a consensus that didn’t say stop, but instead just said to reduce the inflammation, in short, dose up on Vitamin I (ibuprofen), and adjust your stride to take some stress off the joint. Worth a try. Vitamin I is a regular regimen, but I hadn’t really given much thought to my stride.

And just like that, the outlook turned to Spring. The sun, slowly getting stronger, higher, and staying around longer, seemed to pass a threshold this week that signaled my brain to lighten the mood. Thursday brought a glorious forty five degrees with brilliant sunshine. I opted to challenge the injury a bit, and popped in a lunchtime twelve miler, taking care to consciously shorten my stride, and Mr. Hip got hip. Almost no pain. And down to shirtsleeves by mile six. Shades. Spring, physically and mentally.

That was it. The chains were off. There’s part of me that says, don’t screw it up, don’t over do it, and there’s part of me that says, live it, love it, and burn up some miles to make myself feel better about the abysmal first half of the month. Friday, another ten, barely noticed anything in the hip. And another brilliant spring-like (if a bit windy) day. This morning, another dozen with my club under glorious skies once again, and only about a minute where I even noticed I had a hip. Just like that, the month is saved, my mental outlook is saved, it’s spring.

Well, OK, I admit, it’s still a month to spring, but for me, spring starts March 1, no matter what, by definition, and we’re only a week away and it feels like March 1, so whether you think I’m crazy or not, it’s spring. The key thing is I’m pumped.

In a week, I’ll join my club as we descend on the Hyannis Marathon in droves, covering all the events one way or another. I’ll be the third leg on our masters relay team, striving for one of their uber-cool clamshell awards. Ought to be a real good time. Then, guess what? The next day, it’s March 1, and it’s official. Spring.

08 February 2010


You’ve got to take it when you can get it. Sometimes that means taking it even when it’s hard to get. On those occasions, sometimes you just get it, but sometimes you win the lottery and get more than you’d expected.

Life and running don’t always work together harmoniously. For everyone the challenges are a little different, though for most, work is probably the biggest challenge. Fitting your run around your working day generally requires (a) the ability to rise at an ungodly hour, (b) a locker room and shower at the office and time to use it, or (c) a highly understanding family that doesn’t mind re-arranging dinner for your evening run. In the winter, you can pretty much rule out (a) and (c). Even if it weren’t pitch black by 4:45 PM, it’s just, well, damn cold. And don’t even talk to me about a treadmill. I’ve no desire to emulate a gerbil.

But I’m lucky. I’m blessed with a job that allows great flexibility in that when I’m not out with customers, I’m working from home. So long as I’m careful to aim the video camera high enough, and keep it just enough out of focus, my shaggy appearance isn’t too frightening to those on the other end of the never-ending conference calls that define much of my professional life. I can rise, work, and wait for those precious winter mid-day hours when the sun is high – relatively speaking for the northern latitudes – and the temperatures rise – again, relatively – then find an hour between calls and take my “lunch hour” (the actual hour swings wildly around the clock) on the road.

Except, of course, when I can’t, when my real work kicks in, which is to be on the road, seeing people, pressing the flesh, hoping to provide the engineering legs needed to sell our stuff. Then, it’s catch as catch can. And in a good news, bad news scenario, business is up. That’s good news for prospects of continued employment, but bad news for midwinter runs, which means I either start missing more workout days, or get creative. I’ll take creativity for $200, please.

This week I found myself in Portland, Maine, speaking to a conference. It was a morning engagement, so option (a), the cold dark quickie before work, wasn’t going to fly since I was out the door at 6:30 AM. It’s a two hour ride – about 120 miles – to Portland, so if I rapidly skedaddled out the door and raced for home, I could conceivably – if all went well – be in my ASICS by 3. (Fear not, the time is always made up late at night. Remember that working at home thing? It really translates into never leaving work.) But all was not so simple, as additional conference calls scattered through the afternoon closed most windows of opportunity. No, you can’t ask six people to move their conference so you can go running. Just not cool. Keep it invisible, don’t let it impede on the real work to be done, or else it doesn’t happen.

But the beauty of doing business by phone is invisibility. Once I’m done with the “in person” phase of the day, it no longer matters what I look like. So it occurred to me that if I can sneak in a lunch hour run at home, and if I can sneak in a lunch hour run when I’m in our local office – which thankfully is locker & shower equipped – what’s to stop me from doing it in Portland?

So I did rapidly skedaddle when the conference ended, but not back onto the freeway. Instead, it was to a spot in the far reaches of the parking lot behind one of those convenient New England Parking Lot Matterhorns, more commonly known as a big pile of snow, where I could discreetly slip on the tights and become Running Man. My boss recently restructured our group and asked me to double up with the other senior guy to become our “Batman and Robin” team. I laughed at the time and told him that would be easy, since I already wear tights.

And since this was no accident, it was all planned, I had the destination scoped. Portland is a city focused on the sea, and the New England coastline being never straight, provides all sorts of seascapes and opportunities for great runs. In Portland, an arm of the sea extends inland to a bay known as Back Cove, and the city has provided a fine path circling it and connecting to other routes as well. I’d never seen the route, but a little web surfing told me it was a promising option, easy to get to, and highly regarded. But my plan was nearly foiled when another call I had to take started and ran late, leaving me watching the clock, seeing my window before my next call getting smaller and smaller. At last we finished, at last, free to sneak in my run!

Small World Interruption – Not So Fast Department, or, you can’t go anywhere without being recognized somehow. I was eager to go, go, go! But first, I was stop, stop, stopped by Bob, the man parked in the next car over, who’d noticed my Appalachian Mountain Club window sticker and lobbied me a bit on his cause for protecting Maine’s North Woods. As an ardent hiker, environmentalist, and lover of national parks, I can’t fail to pass on the link to his editorial calling for a feasibility study for a new national park, but in fairness I must also point out that the AMC itself doesn’t (yet?) specifically endorse his view as policy. Perhaps they will. Meanwhile, you go, Bob!

At last! Free! Dashing counterclockwise from the parking lot at the south end of the cove, I figured I’d knock off the least attractive part – along the highway – first. Even that part was sweet. The trail hugs the water of the cove and is largely protected from the highway only a few feet away.

At the east edge of the cove, another trail departs for an out-and-back around the peninsula that forms downtown Portland. Once away from the dip under the highway and past the obligatory wastewater plant, this path winds through a strip park along the shore, past a tiny city beach, paralleling the tourist narrow gauge railroad before joining the downtown streets at the ferry terminal. Portland is, as I mentioned, a city of the sea, and from this path, the views of Casco Bay and the harbor islands and interesting bits like Fort Gorges, a civil war era emplacement, made up for the somewhat biting north wind off the water.

Returning to the main cove circuit, the trail takes a momentary rest from its peacefulness to cross Tukey’s Bridge on a pedestrian & cycle path separated from the interstate by a mere concrete barrier. The bridge portion of the trail is much maligned by local cyclists and is often overcrowded in the summer, but fully workable on a mid-day weekday in February, and quickly delivers you back to the Olmstead-designed cove path.

Since the path is marked every quarter mile, I couldn’t resist the fun of pushing a mile hard. While pounding out a 6:01, I raced past – who else? – Bob, who now has an advocate down south for his plan. I guess I was pretty easy to spot, but it was still fun to be recognized while on a run far from home. After that mile, I planned to slack back and finish the circuit, but there ahead of me was someone else moving at a hot clip, and, well, I just couldn’t resist that fun, either, so I hammered another one to catch him before finishing. Bonus! It made for a fine workout, on a fine trail – indeed, all in all far better than I’d expected.

A little sweaty on the ride home? Sure, but with nobody else in the car, just crank up that heat to about 80, and those sweat-induced post-run chills fade into the haze of another fine day on the road, brought to you by a little adventurous opportunism.

Grab it when you can.

04 February 2010

The Other Troy

Ed Note: Yep, this is a long one. Deal with it.

Winter arrived a bit early in New England this year – nearly a foot of it in early December with more following soon after. But since then it’s been light going. No matter. Whenever the snows fall, I’m reminded of a wonderful memory – a summer memory – from those First Lap days, through an odd running leftover.

We race and we collect countless mementos: t-shirts, jackets, medals, hats, you name it. After a while they proliferate so prodigiously we have to figure out what to do with them. Mini-industries have sprung up to sell you Stuff Management Systems, and running is no exception. My medals hang on old unused curtain swag hooks in my office, so no, I haven’t invested in the medal racks for sale in the back of the running magazines.

I’ve still got a box of ribbons and trophies from those high school days, as well as a couple of binders of newspaper clippings. They could make an interesting topic some day, but not now. I’ve got snapshots of me well into my twenties, still sporting race t-shirts from those days. But eventually, all the clothing faded out, wore out, yellowed, shrunk, waxed the car, or simply vanished – except for one item.

Deep in the basement hangs my ‘shoveling clothing’: an old jacket, battered pair of gloves, and a hat, all of which live near the garage door, ready to go to battle and be abused by the New England weather when it’s driveway clearing time. (No, I don’t own a snow blower, nor, for that matter, a lawn tractor, or even a self-propelled mower. Indeed, most of the time I use a human-powered squirrel-cage-style push mower. Call me stubborn. I’m like that. It’s highly correlated with the running mentality. Not that I complain when the neighbors help out with their snow machines. Well, I do when there’s only two inches of the stuff and, well, I digress…) Back to that shoveling hat. Stitched into its very being the words, “TROY PA”, along with a zillion little reflective fibers, and therein lies a story. That hat is a relic of the last race of my First Lap days. A fond memory indeed.

When the idea of telling the story of the hat came to mind, it took me a while to figure out when the event actually happened. There’s a running joke (no pun intended) in my household that in my memories of youth, everything happened in 1972. In reality, it didn’t. And in my memories of First Lap running, everything happened in high school. Again, in reality, it didn’t. But running records beyond those days are sparse, and it took some hunting to track down the details.

After my high school running days came my near-death experience with meningitis, then off to college in Troy. That is, Troy, New York, home of dear old Rensselaer, more popularly known as RPI, a famed engineering school where, as the old overused saying goes, the men are men, the women are men, and the sheep are scared. I suspect the pickin’s still aren’t prime, but likely aren’t as sparse these days as back then. But again, I digress.

I’d planned to run cross country for the college, but found that in my weakened post-illness days, I just couldn’t do it. It took a good six months to regain full strength, by which time my running fitness had faded into the haze of college life. And college life at RPI was inexorably linked to the identity of Troy, a once-great city of tremendous history, but clearly past its prime. Being a history buff, I liked the place, but then, I wasn’t your typical engineering student. Most others didn’t.

I still ran a bit, here and there. Call it the Fall of the First Lap. My scattered logs from those days show some weak attempts to regain the discipline I once had. I never truly succeeded, but I hadn’t yet given up on the concept. Home for my first summer, my running friends invited me to accompany them to an out-of-town race, in – of all places – Troy. But not my Troy, this was another one in Pennsylvania. To a geeky engineering student for whom the very name Troy invoked strong emotions, that was just too much fun to resist.

Troy is a tiny town in north central Pennsylvania that you won’t find on Google Maps, which oddly points you to the wrong place. Indeed, if you want to find it, search for Columbia Cross Roads and look a few miles south. Then, like now, big events in tiny towns are often the finest events around, period. In a town like Troy, an event like this is THE event, and everyone pulls hard to pull it off. In my memory, they did a grand job. It was one of the finest run races I remember from those days.

I dug through my scrapbook of running memorabilia and eventually found materials from the race in the later stuff that I’d never organized. There it was, the race application (an extra, I presume) and the course map. And what fun to review! We may have computerized scoring and all that jazz now, but in reality, our sport hasn’t changed. It’s pure, in a way.

Reading the application brought nothing but smiles. Five bucks to register, which included all the swag. Small town event touting “Large display clock at finish line”, which, considering my club’s recent acquisition, I know why they were proud. Night-before pasta dinner for $3.50. And best of all, local families willing to host visiting runners – for free. You’ve gotta’ love small towns.

But reviewing this bit of memorabilia, one item stood out. There it was… the SPECIAL GIFT! For pre-registered runners, a commemorative knit hat (a $5 value!) with a – I’m not making this up – “retro reflective stripe” (retro in the ‘80’s, consider that…) with over (count ‘em!) 750,000 microscopic reflective beads yada yada yada. Now, ignoring the slight silliness of giving out a winter cap at an August race, I must say that was one of the better five dollar bills I ever spent. Twenty eight years later those microscopic reflective beads have yet to allow a snowplow to cream me as I shovel late into the night. That hat is a true survivor, and a constant reminder of those old glory days. Even if my performance in that race was pretty average.

The race itself? Re-reading my log twenty eight years later, things haven’t changed much. Like I said, this sport is pure. I usually feel pretty beat up when pushing race pace today, and, no surprise, I did then, too. My log is a litany of complaints. The net result – 6:10 pace, isn’t far from what I’m running today – 6:16 at the Freezer Five (miler) earlier this month. Things haven’t changed much, and being 30 years older now, I can sure be thankful for that. Though one thing that has changed is that unlike those college days, I’m a bit more dedicated now and would be highly disappointed in a 24 mile week, which in those college-distracted days was a peak.

But the best part of this race? A chicken barbeque that couldn’t be beat and a nice cold one. Now, I was never much of a drinker then, nor am I much of one today, but nothing beats a cold beer after a race. Trouble was, I was a mere babe of 19. In those days, the drinking age was 18 in my home New York State, but 20 in Pennsylvania. And Pennsylvania was, at least at that time, a blue law state, where alcohol fell somewhere in the range of highly frowned upon to downright criminal on the Christian Sabbath.

But it’s one of those beauties of the running world that because we’re a well-behaved bunch, well, people just tend to look the other way. And so, having collected the biggest plateful of chicken I can ever recall, slammed onto my plate by a guy with rubber gloves pulling out massive handfuls from the 55-gallon drums in which they’d been cooked by the ton, we band of running brothers settled down to a meal that couldn’t be beat, and the beers came out from somewhere unknown, and there we feasted and sucked down a brew. Underage in Pennsylvania (well, at least me). On Sunday morning. On the front lawn of… the police station. Yes, the police station. With the local cops standing on the front porch, watching over us, the looks on their faces screaming, “Oh, if only we could join you.”

It was a classic moment that I’ve never forgotten. Slightly, deliciously, illicit running nirvana.

And that was it. My next real race wasn’t until 2005, 23 years later. To be sure, I jogged the company 5K a couple of times early in my professional career, but truth be told, I wasn’t a runner then; I was in running remission, not to re-emerge for another couple decades. Troy was really the Last Stand. Fitting that it produced the only relic to survive and bridge my two running eras.

Treasure those mementos for the memories they hold.