30 December 2011

And Now For Something Completely Different

Movie and musical themes keep running through my head that zero in on what could be seen as ironies or could be seen as a train running a little fast on a downhill grade. Picture the movie drama (the film has been made, I don’t recall the name, never saw it); he’s going too fast, will he make it to the valley safely? Or will there be a spectacular fireball, consuming countless extras and movie props, and of course our hero?

A simpler image is the end of the Blues Brothers movie: the demise of the Blues Mobile. Admittedly this low-brow flick still stands as a favorite; my tastes are not entirely cultured. What a vehicle! Cop tires, cop motor, cop suspension, and it pulled off amazing feats, but when it reached its limit, the end was sudden. Instant, violent disintegration. Everything fell off at once.

Notwithstanding the easy comparison to the finale of a bad day marathoning where only the wheels fall off, I sometimes wonder if I’m not pushing my body like the Blues Mobile, only to have everything fall off at once. Knees buckle, ankles snap, heart myocardially-infarcts, lungs implode, a gelatinous blob is left pulsating on the race course somewhere, best removed with liposuction equipment. OK, it’s not likely, but should it happen, man, what a way to go.

Am I pushing a bit hard? Well, the year closes with a list of notable events, most of which I didn’t foresee coming. Since I’d failed at covering two thousand miles in the previous years, I skipped that in favor of the odyssey of running every street in town. Perhaps I was too busy studying maps to recognize the long-term change in intensity that set in, and here at year’s end I’ve covered not two thousand but twenty-six hundred miles, averaging fifty a week. Beating my thought-to-be out-of-reach annual record from age seventeen. Surprise.

At the end of the Marlborough map coverage, along came, quite by accident, a streak of running every day that now stands at two hundred and twenty-five days and, winter-be-willing, offers a shot at that other seemingly untouchable youthful mark of three hundred seventy five days. Can’t say it’ll happen, but even being this far in, surprise.

After scraping the three hour mark at Boston and serving up a heat-slowed Buffalo, I could have reasonable expected my pre-surgery marathon PR was a memory. Along came Bay State. Surprise. And following on that, racing with Greater Boston. Surprise. In Seattle. Big surprise. In the Nationals. Absurd surprise.

All of which leads me back to the question: Is this a reasonable new reality, or a path to implosion, Blues Mobile or otherwise? Another musical theme kicking around the cranium is a far lesser known one: an old Harry Chapin tune called Mr. Tanner. No relation to Rocket John, this Mr. Tanner is an ordinary local Ohio guy blessed with a rich voice, who at the urging of this friends cranks it up a level and sings a concert in New York. The big time. Except he’s good, but not big time good, and he comes home chastised to nothingness by the critics and loses his will to share his talents publicly.

That tune certainly went through my head on my way to Seattle. But I didn’t come home in disgrace, and the body hasn’t imploded yet. And frankly, I don’t really care if I get beat up a bit on the bigger stage. I’m just glad to have the opportunity to be there.

So to the last theme, borrowed from Python: And now for something completely different. Last night I treated myself to a pair of spikes, or when said metal bits are removed, racing flats. (Actually, my cross country team treated me with their generous season-end gift certificate.) I haven’t owned a pair of these since high school. Slippers with weapons, as Keith at the running store called them. And tomorrow I’ll test them out, racing a 4 x 1600 meter relay on the indoor banked track at Boston University, the first time I’ve raced a mile since high school. It’s been over thirty years. I have no idea what I can do, but I’m eager to push the body and try to find out. I feel like a kid again! Granted, a kid with achy bones and cholesterol meds, but you get the idea.

The movie and musical themes can make you worry, but it’s up to you to push past them, ignore the pessimism, and continue to drive to new adventures. Aging doesn’t have to mean retracting from the abilities of youth if you don’t let it.

Come to think of it, all the Blues Brothers really needed was a good mechanic.

16 December 2011

Going Loopy in Seattle

So first, let’s get one thing completely straight. This was the National Championship (technically, the USATF National Club Cross Country Championships), but there weren’t any entry standards. Given the right circumstances, mainly a club willing to have me and my willingness to get my bones to Seattle, I could have run in this at eight minute pace. Or slower. Indeed, in the masters’ race, there were plenty who did, seeing as the masters race includes not just us forty-somethings but fifty-, sixty-, and seventy-somethings. The race video reveals more than a few departing the starting line at a leisurely pace. So getting into Nationals wasn’t in itself an unattainable feat.

That being said. when I report that I finished 152nd of 356, frankly, so what? Reporting that I didn’t embarrass myself, beating about a third of those in my five-year age group (48th of 68), well, that’s nice too. It proves that moderate-size-fish-me stepped out of my local small pond and dove into an ocean of serious competition. It says I ran a respectable race but, as expected, I’m nowhere near the apex of this game. No surprises.

All that aside, the reality was that last Saturday afternoon I did stand at the start of the National Championships. Not exactly on the starting line, as each team’s starting box was about one-point-four people wide, so as fifth man I was a few feet back, but certainly at the starting line. Just being there? Wicked cool. Racing with the likes of these guys? Just like the commercial: Priceless. And qualifying standards or not, I was there because I’d run well enough to be asked. I’ll take it!

Running with a team with the historical cachet of Greater Boston is somewhat heady in and of itself, even though they’re all normal folks, and nice ones at that, who’s company I truly enjoyed on the trip. But leaving the hotel on Friday for our course scouting expedition, jogging in a pack of twenty-five-plus bright red Greater Boston jackets through the streets of downtown Seattle heading for the light rail was an unexpected high. Runners tend to be individualists. Buck the trend. Don’t follow the crowd. We’re different. But when it is your crowd of like-minded individualists in a visible show of force on the other side of the country, it’s all about team, and it’s a rush.

Seattle’s serious lack of winter daylight seemed to bring race day about that much quicker. Thirty-seven packings and re-packings of my race-day backpack later – who says I’m not obsessive-compulsive? – we were walking into the Jefferson Park golf course (with many thanks to City of Seattle for allowing us to trash their golf course). First surprise: An admission fee! Not for us, of course, but imagine that, people would pay to see us run! Second surprise: A real-live printed on glossy-coated dead trees program! With our names in it! Now, in the age of instant publishing, seeing your name in print has long lost its luster, but still, the Wicked Cool factors kept stacking up right alongside the myriads of cool jerseys from teams across the country. Nationals!

The starting line stretched wide across the second fairway, making a drive for the green rather tricky. Sixty starting boxes crammed into a hundred and fifty feet at best; really one person wide, though some teams tried putting two on the line. But even to get there, one had to pass through the officials’ tent and be inspected for proper and complete labeling; this race carrying more identification requirements than any I’ve seen before. Besides the standard front-side number bib, we were also required to wear a second copy of our number on our left hip, an age group identification bib on our backs, and not one, but two chip tags, one on each shoe. In other words, they’d be able to track us down if we ran to Oregon.

From there, five two-kilometer loops. The first a little different, the next four identical. No hills to speak of beyond a few mild slopes. Simple. So simple, that as a marathoner, I didn’t care when I learned the race was ten, not eight kilometers. Yah, another lap, so what?

Well, five laps is a lot when you’re burnt by the end of the second, that’s what.

Obviously my goal here was to run the best I could, deliver the best place possible for my team, and walk away proud. But wrapped inside was another nugget: a score to be settled with a rival from neighboring Lowell, a rival who’d beaten me the night we met this past summer, and to whom I’d returned that favor at the New England Cross Country Championships. This was the rubber match. Beat “Bad Dog” E.J. Period.

Turns out the Lowell team started only a few boxes to our left. Within a few hundred meters, as I danced and jumped to stay upright in the starting rush, memories of being gored by spikes in high school (from which I still carry scars) returning to haunt me thirty years later, I’d picked up E.J.’s distinctive gray locks to my left. By the first turn he’d dropped in a stride behind me. Game on.

The reality was that I wasn’t in this race from the perspective of a serious contender. I’ve already noted my unembarrassing but unimpressive finish places. I was at capacity, all cylinders firing, not much more I could do if the earthquake hit and I had to run faster to escape the collapsing ground just to live another day. Had someone, anyone, crept up on me to pass, I can’t say that I wouldn’t have let them.

But not E.J. He’s not getting by. No matter what.

In his mind, a similar scenario. Anyone else, would he, could he have hung on? Unlikely. But for him, let Cattarin go? No way. No matter what.

And so it went. Loop one. As I told my cross country kids, run the first one hard and say, “Oh crap, I’ve got four more to do!” Loop two. Oh crap, there are really three more? This really is ten kilometers, not just five easy loops. Agony set in rapidly. E.J. stuck like glue. Some guy in the woodsy section of the loops kept screaming, “This is NATIONALS! Show ‘em what you’ve got!” The course slicked up, this being Seattle it was damp to start and became more so as the drizzle accumulated, and first one, then another runner went down in front of me on the lower turn; without spikes I now had to choose my route carefully, step light and sure, as well as sprint like the world was ending. Four loops. Hang on. He’s going to smoke me on the final stretch, I just know it.

But I won’t let him. Flail. Break things. Risk permanent heart damage. Whatever.

A teammate watching my finish (after all, I was fifth man, and as epic as this was for me, they were all done minutes earlier) said simply, “You were all over!” The booth review of the tapes makes it look almost smooth (for those of you who actually followed the video link, it’s about sixteen minutes into the show). All I can say for sure is that E.J. was ten feet back. Two out of three, game, set, match. For this year at least.

Had I been in his shoes, I would have had the same reaction he did: win or lose, neither of us would have run the races we did without each other. For me, it was a minute and a quarter off my best ten kilometers, though to be fair I haven’t run all that many of them. And it wasn’t embarrassment, or humiliation, but instead exhilaration.


Final Irony Department: Following on my previously reported Nerdism of my annual mileage effectively matching the crow-flies distance from my front door to Jefferson Park, another nerd-like bit arose: Saturday’s race was day 206 of my streak, and those of you who knew all the area codes before they proliferated into an unmemorizable morass know that 206 means Seattle.

05 December 2011

Dad, You're Such a Nerd!

One of the biggest races in my life looms a mere five days away. I’m not nervous, I’m nerdy. At least that’s what Dearest Daughter the Elder said when I told her what I’m about to write here. Frankly, she’s right. I celebrate cerebralism ceremoniously.

That race is the USATF (USA Track & Field, so technically it’s “USA-TF” but I always find myself thinking “US-ATF” and wondering why there aren’t Federal agents knocking on my door looking for booze, smokes, and guns, but I digress…)…right, where was I…USATF National Club Cross Country Championships in the Land of Dampness called Seattle. Where, I note, the weather forecast looks cool, crisp, and fine for Saturday.

I’ve come to grips with my presence at such a lofty event. In recent races I’ve played with the age grading system and the fact hasn’t escaped me that my times, scaled to my lofty age, edge to the high end of the seventies on the performance level percentage scale, where eighty percent is labeled “national class”. So while I haven’t truly hit national class, I’ve come close, and therefore it’s not absurd to show up at a national level meet. But adding the word “championship” to that meet knocks me back to the absurdity classification. On the other hand, subsequently adding the word “club” brings me back into the realm of “the bouncer won’t kick you out at the door, because you came with these other guys”. True, I am “B Team” relative to the level of the top performers on the Greater Boston Track Club Masters team, but the fact is that I’m ready, willing, and able to travel to be a part of the team, filling out the fifth man spot, and fifth man is just as important as first man when it comes to cross country scoring. My job is simple: run my heart out.

That settled, I’m just hoping that my heart isn’t constrained by some of the other achy bits of late; the right hamstring, the left hip, the left knee, all complaining a little of late, but when is there a time when something isn’t complaining? It’s called age, and we deal with it. Last week I hit the track with local training partner Issam to hammer out mile repeats, and the results were encouraging. My target then was simple: make six minute miles feel comfortable, because my goal in Seattle is to string something close to six of them together, which would deliver a ten kilometer personal best by far and hopefully a decent placing for Team GBTC.

Uh, yeah, that’s ten kilometers for this race. Up till a few days ago, I’d thought it was eight, like the New England cross country championships. Suddenly I figured that out. Not that I mind at all, longer to me is better, but I did find it a bit embarrassing to be planning to travel all that way and not even know the distance of the race. And on the topic of traveling all that way, we get to the title of tonight’s posting.

It occurred to me the other day whilst clicking off the miles that an amusing irony was hanging out there, just waiting to be identified by the truly obsessive compulsive type that I am. I had an inkling that some numbers were about to line up. On return from my run, I hit the web to test the theory, and sure enough, there it was…

From my doorstep to Jefferson Park, Seattle, site of Saturday’s festivities, as the crow flies, two thousand four hundred and sixty five miles. For those of you seeking the instant replay to verify the call on the field, we can zoom in a bit without giving away too many state secrets to verify this is the actual point to point distance. From my doorstep…

To the starting line in Seattle…

Two thousand four hundred and sixty five miles.

And here’s the nerdy bit. As of this morning, my mileage total for the year is two thousand four hundred and eleven miles. A mere fifty four miles short. Not exact, but pretty darn close. Had I noticed this a week or two back, I could have piled in a few more and made it perfect, but at this point it’s too close to race day and the body needs some rest, so I’ll settle for a few short runs between now and then and end up around thirty miles off. Still pretty close, within a margin of error, close enough to point out the irony. I’ve literally run to Seattle.

Telling Darling Daughter this brought on the title comment. True. Guilty. Nerdy. Proud of it.

But fitting. It’s been a year that’s brought a number of satisfying racing successes and already by far a Second Lap annual mileage record, and barring injury, will shortly bring an all-time record surpassing those youthful days. All of this led up to the call up to the GBTC team, which opened the door to toe the line at a race called National Championship, which I’ve come to grips with but still feel a big “wow” every time it comes through my head. All those miles, about two thousand four hundred and close to sixty five of them… Indeed, this year I’ve run to Seattle.

Let’s race!