18 March 2011

Not Alone in the Universe

There’s big excitement in
our household this week as my darling daughter, elder edition, took the stage in a principle role in her high school’s production of the musical Seussical. My baby belted to a full house the duet Alone In the Universe in front of unspeakably proud parents (the link is a generic rendition, no recording allowed at her show). On today’s eleven plus miler, I couldn’t get that tune out of my head. Alone in the Universe. Except that a couple hours later, I found out I’m not.

Oh, how nice, you’re thinking. He actually has a friend, you’re thinking. He’s not entirely a freak, you’re thinking. Well, no, that’s really not the point here. In real life (whatever that is), I’m not at all alone in the universe. This is about my Run Marlborough quest.

I already knew that one of my club buddies has taken up the challenge since I more or less goaded him into it on New Year’s Day, but he’s more on the quiet side, not prone to public ramblings like that which you currently read. And I feel somewhat responsible for his burden, which I think he’s enjoying but if he’s not, that old Catholic guilt is ready to step in on me. What have I done to him?

No, more fun than that is I’ve discovered there is another here in my city engaged on the same quest entirely of her own volition. Crazy as I without my coaxing. Kin, perhaps.

Another club-mate dropped me a note recently that a reporter from the local daily had called her, knowing that she was in the know about local running goings-on. Did she know about some lady he’d heard was seeking to run every road in Marlborough? Well, no, she did not, but she knew of my quest, and set up the contact. Now, I’d just been in touch with a different reporter from that same paper for their annual Boston Marathon participant gallery, and they’d just sent a photographer to my house this morning to get a shot for said feature, when their other reporter rang me up about the Run Marlborough quest. This is getting amusing…

Truth be told, right up to the point when the (Run Marlborough) reporter called me today, I figured this was a case of mistaken gender identity (not too uncommon, this is, after all, Massachusetts). A skinny winter runner in tights, unidentifiable in cozy running top, warm hat or balaclava, shades, the works, effectively with no skin exposed, and often with voice croaky from the cold on top of that, well, I wouldn’t feel insulted if someone checked the wrong box on the runner sighting survey that day. It happens. It doesn’t affect my manliness. I swear.

(OK, I admit that such a mistake by a matronly waitress when I was a teenager prompted me to grow the dumbest looking mustache you’ve ever seen, ruin many otherwise decent photographic images, and probably pushed my chances of mating out five years, but I’m over that and it worked out in the end. So enough of that.)

But no, the reporter told me, there really is such a person, and she too has a web presence to document her dingy doings. Sound familiar?

This is just too cool.

OK, so a quick check of her web site shows that she counts roads whereas I count miles, she uses a Garmin while I’m a bit of a purist with a plain old watch, but she goes low-tech and marks her paper map with a highlighter while I have a twenty minute Microsoft Paint arts & crafts session after each run to update my online version. And a little web sleuthing turns up the ultimate irony that she works for my company’s arch-rival. Yeah, so what, this is running, not work, I can deal with that, though we may have to fight about inclusion of the –ugh on the end of Marlborough. Anyway, this is just too cool.

Said reporter promises to set up a meeting so we can compare notes on our irrational drives and he can document to the world our wacky motivating missions. Should be fun, stay tuned.

Meanwhile, how about that quest? Well, I’m having a grand time. To date, I’ve covered one hundred forty-five “unique” miles in the city and counting (out of four hundred forty total since January 1). I still can’t tell you what percentage that is toward completion, nor do I really care. I pondered calling the DPW to ask just how big a challenge this was but decided I’d rather just run. I’m guessing a good two-thirds, distance wise, but there are enough odd segments in enough odd places that I can still see adventurous roaming in my future for some time. So far I haven’t taken a run within the city limits this year that hasn’t included some new ground, but it is getting tougher as the map fills up. And that map to date looks like…

My methodology hasn’t changed. Every run must be anchored at home, either starting, finishing, or both. That was easy early on, now it’s getting tougher not just because of the logistics of reaching various parts of the city, but remembering where to go to hit the day’s target roads when I get there, and remembering what I have and haven’t covered when my route invariably changes along the way. When you get home, chart your course, and realized you were miles away and missed one small cul-de-sac, so you have to go back, well, you get the idea. More fun.

This also requires complete recollection of where I’ve gone – without that GPS remember – which is usually pretty easy despite the many dead-ends and odd turns. My mind just works that way, somehow. Though the other day I did have a lapse and couldn’t for the life of me remember whether I’d turned down a certain cul-de-sac. Irony of irony, that road was (I swear I am not making this up,) Memory Lane.

09 March 2011

The Count Shall Not Be Three

If you don’t get the reference to, “The count shall be three, and three shall be the count,” you’re sadly deprived and need a dose of the Holy Grail. Rent it, borrow it, whatever. But don’t let the count reach three. And certainly five is right out.

It’s crunch time in the roller coaster of training. Boston is a mere forty days away. Part of me feels pressure; I am clearly not in the shape I’d like to be in with a marathon so near. Part of me, says a healthy, “So what?” Last fall’s “Walk-on Marathon” was a zero-pressure joy, excluding of course the agonizing part. I’ve nothing to prove, really. So long as I come out the far end alive, kicking, and without facial scars and a broken nose, I’ll be doing OK. Go with it, enjoy it.

Nevertheless, I’d rather be in my best possible shape going in if for no other reason than to reduce the length of the agonizing portion. (How is it we manage to minimize that bit when wistfully reminiscing about these races? Perhaps it’s the ultimate denial. But I digress, as usual.) So it’s that time when I need to cram in the long runs that I wished I’d started earlier but know there were perfectly legitimate reasons I didn’t. And it’s that time when I really don’t want interruptions to my training, which means it’s the time that work goes haywire. Life is like that. Make lemonade.

January and February, despite being deluged waist-deep in white stuff, in truth turned out half decent. A buck sixty per month, average training pace sneaking slowly down, culminating in a fun day at Hyannis and a coveted clamshell award. And just like that, it’s spring, at least by my March 1 definition. Sun shining, daylight savings time almost here, weather warming, open season for easier-to-schedule training runs, joy and bliss run amok.

You wish. It’s never that easy; it’s always something. March first arrived gorgeous, sunny, mid-thirties, a great day for running, so I thought as I headed to the east edge of my city to cover some new Run Marlborough quest turf, flying, loving every step. You can see this one coming. How I hadn’t noticed the wind buffeting my back is beyond me. Call it endorphins. But the long westward slog home into the chilling gale sidled well beyond the edge of brutal. Botox was never so effective. Complete facial immobility. Or as I might have tried at the time to say, something sounding like, “faaaa-haaaalll immmaa-irrriiiheee”. I seriously worried about black frostbite spots. Happy spring!

Just another day escaping the office, I suppose, but it set up what rapidly threatened to be one of those training interruptions I so don’t want right now. Miss a day, that’s rest. Miss two, that’s stiff. Miss three, and on day four you feel you’ve lost ground. At least I do. Miss the fourth and, well, things get mental at that point. So when the next day dawned with even stronger wind and I sat it out, the count was one. The next rolled in utterly gorgeous, but I found myself chained to my desk, and traveling in the evening to boot. The count was two. Friday jarred into existence at five AM in a hotel room in Connecticut with a serious prospect of the count becoming three, three becoming the count, and so on. Hurl the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch into my training continuity.

One must creatively resist. The day called for an achingly early rendezvous with the work wonks, a hop to Hoboken (at least rewarded with a beautiful view of the Big City, bad cell phone photo with finger almost cropped out), and a Friday escape back north ahead of traffic. The plan was simple: sneak one in on the return-trip after splitting from my work buds. Like all of these opportunistic adventures, timing was everything. Get in, get out, get the run in mid-afternoon before the late afternoon conference calls came around, and the count shall not become three. A little night-before research works wonders. The plan was set. The primary and alternate targets identified. The go-bag packed. The expected timing choreographed.

But the customer decided to not stop talking. For an extra two hours. When the customer wants to talk, you listen. He pays the bills. When you’ve traveled that far to see him, you really listen. It’s a long way to come back the next time. By the time we walked out in the shadow of Manhattan, the plan was shot. The count was headed to three. Having escaped New Jersey, fed ourselves, and parted ways, it was pushing three thirty, the bewitching hour after which I’d be locked in conference calls till five. Darkness would arrive shortly thereafter, not the time for strange locale adventures. Damn the torpedoes, put on the tights anyway, you never know.

Forty minutes later, target in sight. And that target was? Well, sometimes the most intriguing places are right in front of you. Anyone who’s driven the Wilbur Cross Parkway through Connecticut knows the tunnel (though probably few know it’s now called the Heroes Tunnel, after “heroes of all kinds” following September 11). It’s not long – a mere twelve hundred feet, but it is the only highway tunnel in New England, outside of the urban tunnels of the Boston Big Dig. I’ve passed through it hundreds of times. And always wondered…what’s on top? The answer is West Ridge State Park, Hamden, Connecticut, and I intended to check it out. But with the target in sight, traffic was crawling past a fender bender, and the Bluetooth in my ear carried dynamic discussions of deals to do, dashing dreams of discovery.

And then, a funny thing happened. A rare, almost unheard of thing happened. An event so cosmic, so unexpected, I could hardly believe it happened. An hour-long conference call suddenly ended only twenty minutes in. The count shall not be three, provided of course that the mountain wasn’t still covered with a foot of snow, still a distinct possibility.

A few minutes post-call, I’d found the park entrance on a surprisingly tiny street with utterly zero fanfare. This is not, apparently, a real popular spot. Gated and deserted. But plowed, or at least one of the two roads from the entrance was plowed. I’ll have to come back some time to check out the other.

Being gated at the bottom meant starting with a hill climb. The perfect therapy after twenty-four hours of travel. Within a few hundred yards I found myself running over the highway tunnel entrance, cars flying at me at seventy yet missing by thirty feet of vertical. A few switchbacks and the ridge was attained.

Spectacular? No. Pleasant? Absolutely. Scattered views through the trees for miles and miles, hampered only by the haze of the low sun, the highway a distant trace, lakes to the west, the skyline of New Haven to the southeast. Plowed, melted, clear and dry soft pavement, the way roads become almost spongy when rarely used, lined with patchy snow. Quiet and entirely abandoned save one lone soul out for a walk, foolishly absorbed in his cell phone and MP3 and paying dearly with a near coronary when he didn’t see, hear, or otherwise sense my approach. Out for a few miles till the plowed section ended and snow and ice overtook the footing, signaling time for the back portion of the out-and-back. Reverse ridge run, scream down the switchbacks, back in the car as dusk overtook the shady glen of the park entrance, and two more hours with the heat cranked to melt the sweat on the ride back home.

Another small victory over the forces that get between man and fitness. At least this week, the count shall not be three.