31 January 2011

Tricks of Cartographic Geometry

Hump Day has come and gone, and it’s all uphill from now on. I can smell spring. I can smell it through the three feet of snow on the ground and the foot and a half that’s coming in the next two days. In my twisted logic of enduring the dark days of winter, which I call the 60 Day Challenge, January 30th is halfway home, Hump Day, spring is on the way. Of course this year I probably won’t see it when it gets here as the windows will be buried in white stuff. But no matter.

Yes, it’s been quite a winter, like the mythical white-out of my youth in Upstate New York when the snow piles were so high and it was miles to school uphill in both directions and so on, you know the drill. We’ve just wrapped up the snowiest January on record since the cloistered winter when my oldest daughter was born, a winter when it seemed to snow six inches every three days. This year, it’s more like a foot once a week whether you need it or not. Same result, we don’t need to travel to Utah, we live in our own version of Canyonland. The roads are narrow and visibility is nonexistent. Never mind the piles at the driveway corners, there are places where the simple roadside plow piles are higher than my head. I’m depending more than ever on the graciousness of local drivers, and I’m happy to say that their politeness is entirely unlike what you hear about New England drivers. Perhaps it’s pity.

And into this I blindly dove into my Run Marlborough 2011 quest. What was I thinking?

I was thinking of a grand tour of my city. And I’m getting it, though it’s tougher to plan good routes than I counted on. Besides daring death in the sinews of our streets, I’m hitting plenty of spots where the plows’ best efforts just haven’t cut it, no fault to them.

One characteristic of my city that’s become rapidly obvious is that eighty percent of all streets built in the last thirty years are cul-de-sacs. Sounds good in the real estate ad: quiet street, no traffic. Translate to Run Marlborough 2011: Must run each one out and back, double your mileage, and with no traffic on them, the snow hasn’t melted. Winging a circle at the end of a cul-de-sac sounds simple. It’s not. They’re all ice, and any running turn on ice shy of a quarter-mile radius brings about fears of a do-over of Robert Cheruiyot’s horrible fall at the end of the Chicago Marathon. OK,that’s a bit of a stretch, but suffice to say it’s dicey. And forget about your pace.

Ice aside, Marlborough’s plethora of dead ends adds to the geometric challenge of the quest. It’s easy to look at the map and say, oh, it’s about five miles to the furthest extent of the city that way, so I can hit the far end with a ten miler. But it doesn’t work that way. Ten miles gets you there and back, but unless you plan a lot of ten milers, (in itself not such a bad idea) you simply won’t cover many streets. A run a bit back served as a fine example. I targeted a few streets on the northwest edge of the city. Once there, about five miles out to reach and cover those two streets, I started wandering back. Being early in the quest with very little “blue space” on the map (I’m coloring in the roads I’ve run in blue), every road is an oyster, low hanging fruit. And every road is lined with cul-de-sacs.

So, do you run them now or skip them? The mission of the day accomplished, I’m just heading home. But if I skip them, well, there’s no way back to them – they are, after all, by definition dead ends – except to retrace the road I’m now running, which means the miles back home really aren’t very effective toward reaching my goal as I’ll have to cover them again. But if I run them now, well, there’s a lot of them, and as noted, each one gets doubled – out and back. Reality is I am not recovered from my nearly two month break, and I am certainly feeling these longer runs, so there’s a limit to what I can take. Not to mention that special treat of playing Cheat the Zamboni at the turnarounds.

Long story short (and since when have I ever made a story short?), or really, long story long, that mission to hit two streets on the far end of town – a ten mile jaunt – easily turned into a full half marathon, even skipping a ton of the ‘sacs. Likewise, Saturday’s run from the gym after the upper body workout, already feeling a little rubbery, saw dead ends and other various oddities of real estate turn a swoop through the southwest corner of the city into another thirteen miler.

I’m not complaining. Indeed, I’m celebrating. I’m seeing bits of town I’ve never seen. (Sadly, the newer bits are excessively boring, far too many in-your-face McMansions.) I’ve yet to run a single one of my ‘standard’ courses since the start of the year. And purely by these geographical accidents I’m stretching my distances back upward after that long break through October and November. Surprise, a hundred and sixty miles this month. Ba-da-boom. Eighty two of them ‘unique miles’ in the quest. It’s a cool adventure, a great motivation, and it even comes with the fun of an arts & crafts session afterward, coloring in the map.

Quest on, Wayne.

16 January 2011

I Hate To Say I Told You So

If you’re in the running community, there’s a good chance you’ve heard by now that the 2011 Boston Marathon sold out in a record of something close to eight hours. Not weeks or days, but eight hours. Unprecedented, right?

Well, I hate to say I told you so, but I told you so.

I haven’t gotten around to telling my part of the story till now, but it’s worth telling. For those not attuned to this process, I’ll provide a little history first. Until two years ago, Boston registration was a leisurely pursuit. The problem was qualifying, not signing up for the race. Once you’d qualified, sometime over the course of the winter you strolled over to the Boston Athletic Association website and signed up. No big deal. But that changed in the fall of ’09. The 2010 race filled rapidly and registration closed by mid-November after only about nine weeks. Shock and sadness hit the procrastinator corners of the running world.

Happily, no shock or sadness hit my corner. I registered promptly, got into the 2010 race, and came out of it with a 2011 qualifying time by a comfortable margin. So while others were banking on good performances in their fall marathons last year to get a qualifier, I fretted not about my summer of injuries and just noted when registration would open, October 18th.

Reality always intervenes. We are beholden in many ways, to our families, to our communities, and in a large part to our employers. So when the folks who write the paychecks say you are condemned to go to Hell (Las Vegas) for the annual rah-rah conference, you really don’t have a choice. And the date of the conference? You guessed it: October 18th (or, to be more accurate, it started on Sunday the 17th, but that’s not the point).

Now, being in Vegas, I could hope to take advantage of the time zone, since registration opened at 9 AM Eastern, and pray that at 6 AM Pacific I’d have a computer in front of me and I’d be able to register. But I wasn’t willing to take that chance. I could have also hoped to just wait a few days and sign up on my return, but it’d be a solid week’s delay seeing as we’d planned a hiking trip to Zion National Park after the conference. And I knew, I just knew, that I wouldn’t have a week.

How did I know? Two simple factors. First, think out of the box, and second, think logically like a lemming.

Nobody conceived of Boston selling out instantaneously because it hadn’t happened. In fact, I can’t think of any race I’ve participated in doing that. I’d say it’s pretty rare in the running world, though I guarantee there are plenty of data points to prove I’m wrong. But a co-worker of mine who’s into ultra mountain bike racing has told me plenty of stories of races he’s tried to enter – races which, considering the support requirements and course limitations of off-road cycling races, are much more limited in size. He’s told me stories of five hour sellouts. So, think out of the Boston box and recognize that it certainly could happen here.

But why would it? That’s easy, because people were surprised by last year’s November sellout, and they won’t wait this year. In effect, last year’s closure re-wrote the rules, which now read, “Do it right away, or else.” And it’s Boston, so they’ll make it a priority to do so. Like lemmings. Smart lemmings, in this case.

And just to add an exclamation point to this perfect storm, let’s not forget that Icelandic volcano that kept a whole bunch of runners away last year. They’ll certainly be back with a vengeance.

I hate to say I told you so, but I knew it would happen.

So a few weeks before Registration Day and before my Journey to Hell, I wrote to the BAA and explained my predicament. Folks, I’m going to be out of town with no laptop, uncertain if I can even get on a computer and even if I can, I’ll be held captive in meetings all day, and I know in my bones that this race is going to fill up fast. What can I do?

There are few documents in your life that you feel are worthy of framing and hanging on the wall. In my office? The college diploma. The proudest of the awards given to my ancestors. The stock certificate good for thousands of shares in my bankrupt former employer. And I am tempted to add to this list the email I received from the BAA, who politely replied that it would be entirely unprecedented for the race to fill up in three days, and that in effect I had nothing to worry about.

They never saw it coming.

The good part of the story is that they’re good folks, and when I insisted on not waiting, they provided a paper application which I could have at their office by the 18th, which of course I did. And off I went to Hell, where that Monday night my wife told me the news of the eight-hour sellout. By that evening, the BAA site which would typically list about forty entrants between my town and its neighbor Hudson listed exactly one. Me. Shock and awe.

The picture has gotten a little brighter. It took them a few weeks to work through verifying the web entries, and that count has now risen from one to eight between our towns, but it’s still only eight, instead of fortyish. Sadness, because it won’t be quite the same without the big local contingent.

So in the end, I’m in. And I’m in because I refused to believe what the BAA believed about their own race. All in all, I know it sounds a bit arrogant, but I can’t help finding that a bit funny. I hate to say I told you so.

The irony here is that despite holding one of those prize entries, if things don’t heal up pretty soon my participation will be in jeopardy anyway. But I’ll still have a fun story to tell.

11 January 2011

A Bear of An Opportunity

It’s that magical day, 1-11-11, and at 11:11:11 AM this morning I was…running. And at that very moment…nothing happened. Maybe I have to wait for 11-11-11.

Time is a funny thing, even if you’re not enthralled by Stephan Hawking and some of the more twisted cosmology articles in Scientific American. To paraphrase one of my favorite movie lines from A Fish Called Wanda, yes, I do read it, but no, I don’t always understand it. Apart from cosmic oddities and time zone confusions, the time that really matters to a runner is the time of daylight (other than on Reach the Beach weekend, of course). Once daylight is gone, the complexity of getting in a run rises steeply, so we tend to squeeze every moment of daylight we can find.

Last week found me in one of the nicer sections of New Jersey, so I’ll spare the Jersey jokes except to note that when I was there last summer, I found it quite annoying how local planners decided that in an upscale area, straight sidewalks were just so passé and had instead installed artistic yet inefficient zigzag versions. Aside from the hammering that a concrete sidewalk already imparts on your legs, add to that some lateral hammering on your knees as you try to stay in-bounds on their pedestrian mini-golf course. I’ll take my chances and run in the roads, thank you very much.

But this time of year, those sidewalks are irrelevant under the snow, and the challenge is daylight. With an eight-to-five training session, there’s sorry little sol-time left for a run. On Day One I tried the early morning approach, but even equipped with Day-Glo and a blinky light, I had to delay my start until racing commuters had an even shot of noticing me hugging the sidelines of their tracks. That made time tight enough that I decided Day Two would have to be a rest day, sans run.

Or would it? To my delight, they released us from our bonds of learning earlier than planned with the generous intent of letting us beat the traffic. Not expecting this, I wasn’t equipped for a run on the run, but as I made my way north toward the New York line, it occurred to me that I just might be able to squeeze one in. But where? Seriously, I may be addicted, but not to the level of wanting to make a rave run through some non-descript Jersey suburb.

A little mental cogitation brought the Hudson Valley into the realm of possibility, and Bear Mountain State Park popped into my head. Beautiful mountain setting high above the Hudson, far enough from New York City to be free of crowds and pollution, vast vistas, perfect, if I could make it in time, with that daylight clock ticking. But that is, after all, why God invented Google, Droids, and GPS, right? Voice command to Google: Sunset Poughkeepsie New York Today. Like magic: 4:30 PM. GPS: Take me to Bear Mountain, how long? You’ll get there about twenty after four. Hmm, no time to spare, no restroom stops, need to dig the clothes and blinky light out of the back lickity-split, should have 30 minutes of dusk before blackness, most certainly do-able, the challenge was on.

I must confess that while strategizing and fighting traffic, not realizing the sound was turned off on the Droid and not noticing the reminder that popped up, I completely spaced and missed a conference call I was supposed to be on at four. Well, it wasn’t critical. Carpe Diem.

Now I am on a mission. Every minute counts, especially since I haven’t been in the park since, well, I’m not sure if I’ve ever been in the park. Near the park, yes, but in it? So I know not where I’m going, save what the Gods of Google Maps can serve up, nor where to run. But I imagine parking near the summit and running the roads up top, soaking up the views as the daylight fades. And all is going to plan. Traffic is with me. I’m picking up a few minutes, pulling into the park with daylight to spare. No gate, no fees, good thing, I’d hate to have to pay for forty minutes. I’m following the park road up the side of the mountain, beautiful woodland and, frankly, nothing else. No place to pull off and park. No visible trail markers (even if the trails weren’t snow-covered, running unfamiliar trails at dusk would be a really bad idea, it wasn’t the plan, but it would have been nice to know they were there). And worst: the roads I’d seen on the map leading to the summit and other interesting spots? All gated, unplowed, inaccessible. Excitement turns to dismay. All I can do is drive.

I’m down the other side toward the river valley, hopes of grand views crushed. I find the “recreational center” portion of the park, eerily abandoned in the cold months. Darkened buildings, maintenance vehicles scattered in a big otherwise empty parking lot. And – what’s this? – a runner next to his car in the far lonely stretches of that lot. I wish I could say he too was heading out, and that I had a serendipitous run with a native guide, but he’d just finished up and was leaving. He did offer up a few tips, and the comfort of knowing I wasn’t the only whacko running the park on a cold winter day.

On his advice, I headed north to run the paved path around Hessian Lake, civilized to be sure but still a lovely spot with cliffs rising from its west edge and crazy patterns in its frozen surface. I figured it was about a mile around and envisioned taking one lap easy then turning some near-mile repeats to put in some speed I’ve been so sadly lacking. But the west side wasn’t plowed and presented treacherous icy footing as it rose over those cliffs. Certainly no speed was in order here; indeed no second lap was in order when it became obvious that a slip while perched above the thirty-foot drop to the ice could have dire consequences.

I left the lake after one lap and traversed a half-snowed field, surprised to note that among the seemingly dead park was a brightly lit ice rink emanating the sounds of a lively puck match, then reached the main road which I’d earlier eschewed in the waning light but now saw as my only chance to log a few miles. Considering the place was effectively abandoned, I judged the traffic risk minimal and headed up the hill far enough to indeed get that Hudson Valley vista I’d imagined an hour plus earlier. It wasn’t the top of the mountain as I’d hoped, but it was a sweet reward nonetheless. A view, a workout, a day to feel good, snatched out of the hands of the expectation of a sedentary runless office and windshield day.

The rest was anticlimactic, but it didn’t matter. An easy cruise back down the hill, an added loop to gain some extra distance which sent me through the maintenance garage area – from heaven to hell in one mile flat – another run out and back on the plowed edge of the lake, and darkness was complete. The ride home, long, of course, but it wasn’t a day without sunshine, it just didn’t matter.

On Another Topic Department: Already an irony has popped into the not-yet-two-week-old Run Marlborough 2011 challenge. Through a long story that needn’t be recounted, I had a need to drop a small item at a stranger’s house – not that she was strange, just that I didn’t know her or where she lived. But I knew she was in Marlborough, and this was an obvious opportunity to direct my run into some new streets to darken another chunk on the RM11 map. With only four local runs in the books for 2011, surely this quest would take me to uncharted territory. And sure enough, the recipient reported that she lived on a small obscure back street, rarely traveled and largely unknown outside of a two block radius. But, wouldn’t you know, it was just the neighborhood I’d already woven through on my second run of the year. Go figure.

02 January 2011

Run Marlborough 2011

An idea has been brewing in my head for a few months ago, and yesterday I launched it. It’s pretty simple, nothing Earth-shattering, unworthy of much note, but should provide for some interesting times. I’m calling it Run Marlborough 2011, my goal of running every street in my city this year.

We goal-driven Type A’s need something in our sights to egg us on. For the past few years I’ve set performance-based goals, and by and large I’ve done rather well by them, save for one which has frustratingly eluded. Ran the first marathon, check, ran enough of them to feel like a real marathoner, check, went sub-three, check, even had the fun of breaking the tape in a local race this past fall, check. More importantly, got in shape, check, lost weight, check, dropped the cholesterol meds significantly, check, regained a lifestyle missing since youth that’s just plain good for my head, check. By and large, it’s all good.

The one that’s eluded is purely esoteric: the two-thousand mile year. Since hitting nineteen hundred in 2007, which spurred me to aim for two grand, something’s gotten in the way each year to prevent cracking that psychological barrier: the snapped tendon in 2008, the time off after surgery in 2009, and this year’s parade of small yet annoying injuries, leaving me at a bit shy of sixteen hundred for the year. I could take another stab at it, but reality says it won’t happen this year, and worse, it’d be foolish to try. I’m still not whole. The leg is still hurting, even to the point that I might have to break down and pay a doctor to tell me what I pretty much already know. So another course is in order.

Thus was born the idea of quality, or at least variety, rather than quantity. Call it the poor-man’s fifty-state-marathon circuit. Face it: day in, day out, we all do it, we run the same roads over and over. Where I live, on the edge of a small city, I’ve got some really nice courses for those repeats, and I really don’t mind seeing them again and again. But it’s always interesting to see new places.

My adopted home of Marlborough, chosen courtesy of meeting my wife, a native, twenty years ago this year (and we still laugh at how on the night I met her I expressed my dislike of the place which I’ve now grown to love), is not a terribly small place. It’s a city of a bit under forty thousand which encompasses twenty-two square miles, but is twice as wide as it is long, making for a longer reach to the farthest extents. I’m lucky for this endeavor to live relatively close to the center, yet from my home, it’s 6.1 miles by road to the most distant road point, a fact that I hadn’t researched ahead of time, indeed hadn’t checked until a moment ago while writing this article. What I also haven’t researched is how many miles of roads my fair city holds. That’s right, I have no idea. Nary a clue. I suppose one of these days I should call up the fine folks at the DPW and ask, but I’m not sure I want to know. This is not about quantity. It’s an odyssey.

Of course, I have to impart some methodologies to define the challenge. No map is entirely accurate, but I’ve got to have some sort of standard. I spent a few minutes (OK, I admit, a few more than a few) assembling a montage of Google maps into a single bitmap covering the entire city with enough resolution to identify and mark every road. Much to my chagrin, it topped out at eighty six megabytes. Two days into the challenge, I’ve started to color in routes traversed:

In a version reduced enough to post here, you can’t possibly see the detail, but you can get an idea of the plan from the first two day’s tracings. The red lines outline my city. Home base is the end of the blue line furthest north on this map.

If the road is on Google Maps, I’ll try to run it. If I get there and it’s not really there, c’est la vie. If I find something that’s not on the map, I’ll run it as well. Parking lots don’t count, but if the map shows a road into a parking lot, I’ll try to cover it. If it’s gated, well, I have no plans to get arrested. And I doubt I’ll get a police escort to do the Interstates. But hey, by the end of the year, you never know, right?

It’s also my intent that every run will either start or finish at home, preferably both, but since I joined a gym on the west side of town for that cross training I’ve so needed (and yes, my arms hurt right now, thank you), and since I intend to run to or from the gym when I can, I’ll allow the one-anchored variety. But driving to some far extent of the city and doing a small loop is right out.

This isn’t a publicity thing or a fund raiser, but if I inspire you to give money to some good cause, so be it. What I’d rather see is a few others taking up the challenge as well. Adventure loves company.

And so on that note the challenge started with a very pleasant bang. New Year’s Day was an unseasonable fifty eight degrees and I so wanted to run, but I also so wanted to join my lovely wife for a New Year’s kickoff stroll. As a compromise, I told her I’d walk the first mile and a half with her, then depart on my run while she finished up. As we approached the spot of my departure, as if on cue – I couldn’t have planned this if I’d tried – around the corner came Bill, my runner friend of Reach the Beach and New Hampshire Marathon fame. Perfect!

Bill and I wandered the city for an hour, and on Day One already covered roads I’d never seen. There’s nothing quite like the look on the face of a resident of a dead end as you run past them with obviously no place to go. Most non-runners just don’t get it when we run by, but a quick shout of, “I’m running every road in town this year!” on New Year’s Day simply lights up faces. As for Bill, I may have my first convert.

Right now that map looks very, very big. But I’ve got three hundred and sixty three days ahead of me, and plenty to see. Oughta’ be fun.