08 March 2010

Just What the Doctor Ordered

Sunday was a milestone, the close of a full year since returning to running after the Big Slice foot surgery. A year is a long time to keep feeling like you’re working on a comeback. At some point you have to either get there, or change your destination. Sunday’s occasion was Stu’s 30K, and the result was that I’m pretty close to getting there.

To be sure, I’ll never really be back the way I was before that tendon went snap (remember the movie Airplane? I’ll never be over Mucho Grande…but I digress…). That repaired tendon is strong, but not like new, and in the high miles of those long, hard runs, I certainly feel podiatric unpleasantries – nasty foot strain, hot spots & blisters from just not running quite like I did before, and the worst part, a predisposition to foot cramps later on, when relaxing. But that’s the new normal. Deal with it and move on.

Moving on has meant trying to get back to the level of fitness I had before the surgery. It’s been a tough fight. Back in 2008 when I first met Rocket John, we turned in a couple of 15-17 milers in the mid-6:40s, which blew me away at the time. Next thing I knew, I blew away the three hour barrier at Boston that spring. John and I popped in a 21-miler a couple weeks back at close to 7-minute pace, but the thought of returning to cruising in the 6:40s was mere wishful thinking.

Until yesterday. Stu’s was just what the doctor ordered, not just for my body, but for my head.

Stu’s 30K (named after a former race director) has been a Central Massachusetts classic for over 30 years. Classic in its uniqueness – how many 30K races can you name? Classic in it’s field – it is effectively the Pre-Boston for much of Massachusetts’ top running community. Classic in its execution – run like clockwork by our friends of Central Mass Striders. Classic for its weather – often disastrous, but this time, perfect. And most of all, classic for its course – which is effectively all hills.

Stu’s circumnavigates the Wachusett Reservoir, which was built over 100 years ago to slake the thirst of Bostonians. Wachusett flooded what had been the center of West Boylston, forcing them to move the town uphill, and leaving as the only sign of the old town a famed old stone church, just a shell today, but a well known landmark and the logo for the race. Stu’s ambulates over the rolling hills that surround the lake with only a brief flat stretch along one edge, before climbing away to pad the distance to spec, of course adding another hill in the process. As West Boylston was my home for six years in the 80’s and 90’s, I know those hills well. But the worst – or best? – part of Stu’s is saved for last. Returning to Clinton at mile sixteen and a half, you find yourself alongside the top of the dam that holds back the lake, at the elevation of the finish and a mere mile away – if you could cross the dam. You can’t. Dam.

Instead, you scream your weary and rubberized legs down a hundred and fifty foot drop, only to have to buy it back. But not just once, twice. Mile seventeen greets you with a hundred foot climb, then another drop into downtown Clinton, and at seventeen and a half, yet another hundred foot climb, steeper. How sweet, just when you’re fresh. We live for this stuff. Eat ‘em up, boys & girls.

I’ve been aiming for Stu’s for some time. Three years ago it didn’t fit the schedule. Two years ago I was signed up and paid before the schedule changed and got in the way again. Last year it wasn’t till two days later that I hit the track for my first post-surgery miles. Finally! This year it happened. And what a year for it to happen! A brilliant, sunny, perfect 45 degree spring day, marred only by a moderate headwind for the outbound leg, just an addition to the challenge.

Out the gate a lead and a chase pack quickly formed. With a field of this caliber, both were a bit hot for me, but I stuck with the chase pack for a little drafting benefit. Mile one: 6:14. Excuse me? Well, at least that was on one of the few flat sections… Sanity quickly took hold, I latched on to a couple guys chasing the chasers, and we settled to the higher sixes as we chewed off the first ascent.

Mile five was a patented Stu’s screamer, plunging down to lake level, my split likewise plunging down to ludicrous level, another sub-6:20. That one surprised – and alarmed – me a bit, but all systems seemed nominal, in NASA-speak, so on we trundled. Still, the coming climb from the lake to the center of West Boylston brought back memories of a 5K I’d run last spring that finished by heading up that section, and that one had hurt. I wasn’t keen on a repeat.

What a difference a year makes! Like that, we were through the center of town with surprising ease. Having by this point missed splits at two, three, and four, (and I’d miss again at six), I wasn’t entirely certain of my pace, so I wasn’t quite certain if I should be worried – either too fast or too slow, but the passing hills were starting to convince me that the year’s comeback work might have worked. Fret not, just run.

On the long rise up Route 140 I felt downright strong. I hit the half in 62:40 and starting doing the time banking math: for my target of 2:08, roughly 3-hour marathon pace, about 6:53/mile, I had a minute and a half in the bank, and with those last hills in Clinton, I figured I’d need it.

My Ace Support Team was out at about mile ten. And after years of Death-Warmed-Over racing pictures, we finally nailed it: I felt good, I even tried to smile, and my wife and daughters got some killer shots there, and at their several additional stops as we leapfrogged our way back to Clinton. Finally! Some decent race shots! And what a team!

Round the bend at mile ten, screaming down another Stu’s patented downgrade, I’ve got a good one going here, and what? Never in my life have I had a shoe come untied even on a training run. And now? Can you believe it? OK, it’s only twenty seconds, but really!

Resume cruise-control. After the wardrobe malfunction, everything clicked. Miles eleven through seventeen, which, to be fair, trended downhill, clocked in the mid-6:30s. The second 10K came in faster than the first. Ho boys, we got a good one going!

When it came into sight, I yelled loudly, “DAM!” just to have some fun with the runner behind me. Poor bloke, didn’t know the course, and really thought we were almost done. Cruel world we live in.

Past the dam. Feet are getting tender. Scream down the other side. Here it comes. Final Insult Climb One hurt. Down the other side again, into Clinton. Final Insult Climb Two really hurt. Mile eighteen came darn close to eight minutes in a race where my slowest mile had been seven flat.

And that was it. The eighteen mile mark, the hill flattened, and I chased a youngster in at high speed. I couldn’t catch him, but I didn’t care. That last zero-point-six-four came in at kickin’ 5:25 pace. Grunts emanating, lungs hissing, limbs flying, body fluids spraying, and that line went by in 2:04:49.

Holy cow. I can still do this. I wasn’t at all confident in hitting my goal of 6:53 pace. Instead I hit 6:41.8, roughly 2:55 marathon pace. With negative splits. Of course, in a marathon I’d still have 7.6 miles to go! But even Heartbreak Hill doesn’t hit you like this course. Whether I can or can’t hold that for the whole distance next month – well, only time will tell (pun intended) – and if I do or don’t, it doesn’t really matter, because I feel like I’m back in the ballpark. Mentally, this was an incredible boost.

I think “comeback” needs to be adjusted to “came back”.

Related News Department: You may recall that one of the redeeming attributes of Dr. Foot Doctor was that he got it – his wife runs marathons, so he understands the twisted running mind. As it happened, Mrs. Foot Doctor was at last week’s Hyannis festivities and was also at Stu’s, just proving that she’s as warped as me. She related to me that Dr. Foot Doctor and his partner, Dr. Partner Doctor, apparently won a prize of some sort for their submission on my case at their recent conference. To which I hoot, “Way cool and many congrats!” And to which I note that now I’m not just a case, not just a certified case, but apparently an exemplary certified case. Woo hoo!

Two Thirds of the Ace Support Team

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