21 December 2012


It’s the end of the day on the twenty-first, and despite what the Mayans may or may not have said, either we’re still here or at least our perception of reality is; apparently the Matrix has not yet been breached. I recognize that where the Mayans lived is a time zone or two away from here, so there’s still time for the big finale, but I’m betting that life will go on, at least for most of us.

On a day that began with the solstice and the various pagan rituals of the renewal of life and the coming of longer days that you may or may not have partaken in, and ended with our apparent survival, life is a good topic to ponder. It’s fragile. We know that, yet we skirt its boundaries almost daily without thinking about it, or at least we don’t like to. When those boundaries are crossed, we are shocked, grieved, thrown out of our comfort zone, and left to ponder something that shouldn’t be a surprise, since it is with us all the time. We will all lose this game in the long run (no pun intended), so the best we can hope for is to make the most of it while we can. Ride the gravy train of life experiences. Or, in economic terms, maximize the utility of what we’ve got while we’ve got it.

This column was forming in my head well before our nation entered its state of profound grief over the senseless tragedy in Connecticut last week. It was forming since about a quarter to eleven on the night following Cross Country Nationals in Lexington, Kentucky, when I became witness to the aftermath of a different tragedy, the loss of Lauren Roady, in what can only be described as an ironic, yet certainly horrible accident. One soul in Kentucky, compared to twenty-six in Connecticut, yet the holes in the fabric of those who knew her (I did not) loom just as large, holes the size of someone lost well before their due.

Celebration follows Nationals. I learned that last year in Seattle, not that it was a surprise. It’s an appropriate thing to do. The pressure to perform at your “National Best” has just been relieved hours earlier. You can you look forward to a break in training intensity for a while. Most important, though, is the simple fact that you can celebrate that one way or another: you made it to Nationals, you competed with the best, even if you couldn’t hold a candle to them, and you were a part of an event that is in effect a celebration of our sport itself. You’ve maximized a bit of your life. It’s a high. Ride it.

This year’s celebration didn’t roll off as coordinated as last year’s. The organized gala somehow didn’t materialize, so teams made for alternate celebratory venues. Having found myself in a pub of hopelessly happy harriers, I was unfortunately quickly reminded of a physical weakness in my being, that being my utter inability to discern voices above a din. Unable to communicate meaningfully, I elected to make it an early night, and headed back to the hotel with my teammate roommate. Thus it was that we were already in, when many would revel late into the night.

I mentioned last week my appreciation of irony. I’d just commented to my roommate on the unusually high volume of sirens outside our eighth floor room, something not unique to this night as I’d noticed it the previous evening as well. Must be a rough town, I remarked lightheartedly. Thus the irony when he happened to glance out the window and realized that this time, the sirens had converged on the street below our window. “You’d better come over here and look at this,” he beckoned.

What we saw sank our hearts. A street full of first responders. A victim, respectfully covered in the standard-issue white sheet. This wasn’t CSI, this was life. We amateur sleuthed from eight stories up and observed the team below investigating a parked, darkened fire truck, and had already deduced the likely scenario of a pedestrian having been hit by the fire truck before it was confirmed on the local news. Knowing it was a tragedy no matter who it was, we still prayed it wasn’t one of our extended running family. It wasn’t until morning that I learned the sad truth, that not only was it one of our family, but a young member of our family, whom I’d later learned had been married only two months prior. My thoughts went back to my uncle losing his first wife to a traffic accident only a month into his newly married life. I was too young then to understand the horror of such an event. Now, with nearly twenty years of a wonderful marriage and all the blessings it has brought to me written in my book of experience, the tragedy below took on a an even heavier dimension. It was hard to fathom being denied so suddenly, so soon.

As our nation grapples with how to respond to the very public tragedy in Connecticut, likewise our running community grappled with how to respond to this very specific tragedy in Kentucky. Just as with the aftermath of Sandy Hook, emotions ran high, sometimes edging into unexpected directions. Message boards lit up in the days that followed, mostly with grief, but with a few insensitive comments trying to lay blame on both the victim and the firemen, who when you think of it, were also victims of that tragedy. Both sides suffered the worst day of their lives; Lauren and her family for the obvious reason, and the fireman at the wheel, a person committed to saving lives, having taken one, and in the process also having taken on immeasurable grief.

While speaking of blame seemed inappropriate, the reality of the event forces us to examine the actions we take and the potential outcomes. Crossing a street on a rainy night and getting hit by a fire truck is fatal. But we can’t stop the rain, and we can’t avoid crossing streets, nor can we stop allowing fire trucks to traverse our streets. Nor is it appropriate to never travel to a race again, nor to never race, or for that matter, even run again. There are a million things that can bring about our demise. Whether you are spiritual or not, there is no denying that life is a miracle that it exists at all. And it is fragile, so easy to turn off. But we can’t stop living simply because we will at some point stop living. We can learn, but we can’t allow ourselves to lose our propensity to action.

A few days ago I headed out for a far-off business meeting. I know that each time I get in the car to travel to some distant customer could be my last. Mother Nature certainly didn’t make this trip easy, with several stretches of heavy weather providing more than a few White Knuckle Moments. But my end could just as easily happen on dry pavement down the street from home. Or who even needs a car? Several years back I managed to inflict a body-full of fabulously colored contusions (ooh, they’re at their best a month later!) right on my unexpectedly icy front porch, or should I say on each of the stairs leading off it, bouncing off every one, sailing wildly out of control halfway down to the street. Risk and danger are everywhere. We work to minimize them. But we can’t hide from life because of them, or let them get in the way of our efforts to get the most out of the life we have. We’ve got nothing but time, and less of it every day.

One of the things I appreciate about the running community is that it is filled with people who have, through their actions, made a public pledge to get off the couch, fight through adversity, better themselves, and get the most from what they have. While I am one of them and hope that my actions preach this message, I still thrive on the inspiration of other runners to drive myself. It’s a self-energizing loop when we band together to coax each other on. It starts locally, it builds regionally, and it celebrates nationally. We went to Lexington to celebrate what humans can do when inspired to make good use of the time we’re granted.

When a tragedy struck such as did that night, we mourn, and we try to learn both individually and as a society how to avoid a repeat performance, but in the end we carry on. In doing so we honor those lost, who would have wanted us to carry on, and would have been there to cheer us forward. We walk away, or in our case, run away, reminded at how fragile life truly is, and how important it is to celebrate and maximize the life we’ve got.

15 December 2012

Running With the Thoroughbreds

Chapter Four of the Four-Races-In-Twenty-One-Days Extravaganza came and went so quickly that a week has passed before I’ve finally sat down to document it for the ages, or perhaps the aged. It didn’t help that life turned from busy to insane right about the time of our Kentucky sojourn, finding myself setting foot in ten states over the course of an eight day span, with Kentucky adding a new state to the running list – been in forty-nine, been over the fiftieth, have now run in twenty. I’d like to say, “And now we rest,” but the coming week offers no such luxury. Ever onward!

I love ironies and coincidences since they are a constant reminder of how connected we all are in this world. And somehow they’re better when they jump out unexpectedly, having been there all along, silently unnoticed. Such it was that on the final leg of the Bluegrass Odyssey, having travelled for days with the team, that it was only upon driving one of my Greater Boston teammates home from the airport late Sunday night that I discovered he was none other than the winner of my local club’s race this past summer – the one I’ve served as race director and now provide scoring services for. I missed this connection because he ran in rival Boston Athletic Association colors that summer eve, and only came over from the proverbial Dark Side a few months later.

Closing the trip with a connection through our Running With the Wolves race seemed apt given we’d just spent the weekend Running With the Thoroughbreds, lining up with the nation’s best runners in the nation’s best horse country for this year’s USA Track & Field National Club Cross Country Championships in Lexington. Yes, the meet tech shirt indeed featured a steed. No, we didn’t see many of them. Mostly we saw rain and fog and rain and darkness and rain, though mercifully the rain abated for the main event on Saturday, leaving it’s calling card in the form of Kentucky mud that simply won’t come off my shoes.

Unlike last year’s excursion to Seattle, I had a feel for what I was in for this time. Still, the prospect of lining up with the best of the best was no less exciting; indeed it felt a bit sweeter having a year of camaraderie with my Greater Boston masters teammates and thus not feeling like the tentative outsider new guy. But once again, I didn’t expect any impressive placing amongst such a high-class field, and the results yielded no surprises. The funny thing about this trip is that excluding one horrible event – the tragic loss of a runner from Washington in a traffic accident the night after the meet, reflections to follow in a future post – this was mostly a fantastic trip. I say mostly because somewhere around four and a half miles into our ten kilometer race, the thought occurred to me that, “I’m enjoying every aspect of this trip… except this race!”

The race was, in a word, a fatigue-fest. We scoped the course on Friday (in the rain) and knew it was non-stop hills, but I’m a hill runner, and expected it to be thoroughly manageable.
It’s good for the psyche to be utterly wrong from time to time. Manageable became mangleable. Save brief stretches about a half-mile in and in the final half mile, there was no flatness to be found. Up, down, up, down, up, down, yeah, this course was like a jump rope (bad pop culture reference, but fitting). No downhill was long enough to provide recovery for the next up. By the halfway point, I was toast, first lightly tanned, then deep browned, finally burnt and crispy.

At least I remained vertical throughout. Having foolishly not brought my spikes, thinking they were heel-less track spikes which would shred my calves (and which, ironically, I had yet to actually use with spikes actually installed within), it was clear on our course reconnoiter that going spikeless would leave one feckless. A quick night-before pilgrimage to the local running emporium produced only another set of track spikes, but having come this far, I wasn’t about to let a little wardrobe duplication spoil the day. Armed with some serious foot-mounted daggers, I violated Rule Number One, never do anything in a race you haven’t tried before, and raced in shoes I’d first run in only twenty minutes prior to the gun. Not landing in the mud was worth the price of a blister and some delayed-action arch fatigue.

Traction, however, did nothing to combat the fatigue, the sagging pace, and the generally unexceptional execution of this race. I didn’t go out particularly fast, but still I got slower, and slower, and slower. At the five mile split (recognizing that distances in cross country aren’t entirely accurate), the clock read a full two minutes behind where it stood at the same distance a week prior at Mill Cities. Race photos reveal more than my usual Death Warmed Over look; on that day I’d have to say the microwave failed, leaving more of a Cold Congealed Leftover Death Just Out of the Fridge look. It wasn’t pretty. But I wasn’t the only one; slow times and creeping fatigue took their toll on much of the field (I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that this syndrome also hit my rival EJ “Bad Dawg”, resulting in another check mark on my side of the tally). Place-wise, I actually moved up a hair compared to last year’s Seattle festivities relative to the size of the field. The change versus the overall field wasn’t statistically significant, but within my age group it was a pretty decent bump. Always find something positive, right?

Team Greater Boston Old Guys broke no records, but held our own, especially since our number one speedster was forced to jog it in after trying valiantly to overcome a painful injury. Yet in a race like this one, place doesn’t matter so much as being at the place, being a part of something big, exciting, and just plain cool. I had a chance to reflect on that for Eric from LevelRenner.com, and to my amusement, my commentary graced the last minute or so of his race coverage (note, the video on his site at this link seems to work better in Internet Explorer rather than Firefox). To even more amusement, he closed his video with a quick clip of EJ, ironic in that he can’t have known of our rivalry. (There’s that irony thing again.)

And just to put some punctuation on the big, exciting, and just plain cool aspect, the fact is that when you go to these events, you just never know who you’ll meet, chat with, or even end up on a run with. The morning after, seeking a few easy miles of recovery, I found myself bolting a ten-miler through Downtown Lexington and the University of Kentucky Arboretum (a lovely spot, really) with a world-class runner I’d met casually in the lobby of the hotel. You just never know, and the next thing you know, you’re running with another thoroughbred. Relish the experience.

Side note: A full thirty years later, this event brought on a pleasant reunion with a friend I ran with in my high school First Lap days. There’s a great story of a wild night at the races that’s the topic for another night…

05 December 2012

A Brick!

It’s Chapter Three, and it just occurred to me that this rapid-fire adventure of four races within a twenty-one day stretch actually spans four states. How cool is that? It started in Westfield, Massachusetts, the next race five days later was in Corning, New York, and this latest began in Nashua, New Hampshire. There’s barely time to write this before the plane leaves for Kentucky for Chapter Four, the finale!

An odd outgrowth of the phenomenon of getting to know so many people, as I wrote about a few weeks back, is that I’ve accumulated clubs along the way. Starting with my local and beloved Highland City Striders, I found myself signing up for various clubs for various good reasons. The Squannacook River Runners have invited me to their post-Boston-Marathon party for years, so it just seemed fair to join their club and support them with a few bucks in dues.

Membership has its privileges, so they say. In this case, there’s an interesting race known as the Mill Cities Relay, named for its course along the historic Merrimack Valley through the cities that drove the American Industrial Revolution. I’ve had my eyes on it for years, but curiously, you can’t run it unless you happen to be a member of a club in the Mill Cities Alliance. While Greater Boston and Highland City are my primary affiliations, neither is a Mill Cities club. But Squannacook is.

Squannies are very much like my local Striders. It’s a great group of people, though not a highly competitive club, save a few people here or there, one of whom we recently recruited to our GBTC Masters team. But they turn out in droves for Mill Cities, grouping themselves on teams with fish-themed names in keeping with their club’s ‘river’ name. I tossed my hat in, and found myself on the Fire Eatin’ Fish, a rather killer team with my fellow GBTCer Mark, his wife, and two more strong racers. I also found myself in a very cold and icy parking lot at a very early hour Sunday morning with nearly sixty Sqannies getting psyched before heading to the start in Nashua, where I was lined up for the opening leg.

There’s a side story here. I’d run a relay with a Squannacook team long ago, in 2006, the Fred Brown all-the-way-around Lake Winnipesauke classic. That day too, I’d been assigned to a team with Mark (that’s when we met), and had likewise drawn the first leg. And while I delivered a strong leg for my team, it didn’t start out so smoothly.

What happened is hard to explain without drawing a map, but suffice to say that in scoping out the course the night before, I didn’t have time to drive the last half mile, and that was critical. On race morning over one hundred teams lined up in a driveway to start the journey, the first stage of which was to run fifty feet to the road and turn down the course. The problem was that my internal compass knew we were facing south and needed to head west, which meant turning left, and I never questioned this assumption. I lined up on the left side of the field, eyed the fence post at the corner, and focused on getting around it before the crowd tried to make the turn. I succeeded wildly, rounding the post and heading west before everyone else…because everyone else headed for the other post and headed east, as the course looped around itself before going westward ho.

The embarrassment of taking any wrong turn in a race can only be topped by doing it from the starting line, somehow not noticing that a hundred others all went the other way. I still marvel at that gem. And while my team was forgiving, I still wanted to make this one go right, and go well. The Squannies deserved nothing less.

But this one started on a rough note as well. Though I pretend otherwise, I am admittedly quite OCD. I get to the race early, I sweat the details of my extensive warm-up, I manage various functions incessantly, I get my head into the race. They say it’s healthy to let go. Being at the mercy of your club and your team’s schedules means letting go, admitting you can’t control everything, and making the best of it. Sometimes it works out. Sometimes you find yourself arriving barely in time, standing in a long line for a single stall, trying to warm-up by jogging in place while waiting, and subsequently bursting toward the starting line, barely staying upright across the ice-glazed parking lot to the line, relieved that the start is delayed five minutes giving you time for a few strides, but that’s it. Crappy warm-up, tense, just not in the space. Healthy? Debatable.

Fortunately, it didn’t seem to matter. The brick dropped – yes, they start this race not with a gun, but by dropping a brick which we presume came from a real mill building – and once we executed what my frequent rival EJ Bad-Dawg called a “Scoobie Doo” start,
where your legs spin on the slick, icy ground, but you don’t actually move right away, there was no question which way to go this time, and we seemed to be going fast. The forecast of high thirties was off by a good six to eight degrees, making for a foggy, dank, chilling, and most importantly, hazardous day; the bridge over the Merrimack at the half-mile was frighteningly treacherous.

Once we found traction, nobody could ask for better running weather. Windless, cold, and fast. Frankly, I had no idea how fast. I’m guessing by the fact that the four- and five-mile markers were so clearly painted that there were in fact ticks at the one- and two-mile points, but I zoned right by them. For twenty minutes I was either flying or dragging, who could tell? The cylinders seemed to be clicking well, but whether that was because of a good day or simply because I wasn’t making much steam, I couldn’t say. Five-point-four to the exchange zone, just go, don’t look at your watch if you haven’t seen any markers, what’s the point?

When one appeared at mile four, what appeared on my watch said fast. When another appeared at five, what appeared on my watch said personal best by a quarter minute over this summer’s run at Carver. With another point-four-one to go, it wasn’t a five-miler, so I’ll call it a “distance class” personal best, the second new mark in two races. And to sweeten it, on this day I took the check-mark in the EJ Rivalry column. It’s all good, save a bit of a muscle strain from that Scoobie Doo start, or the poor warm-up, or both.

But the day’s fun was not yet done, indeed, only beginning, this being a relay. For the next couple of hours we did the relay-logistics thing, barely making it in time for the shortest leg, embarking on a wild goose chase for rocket fuel for our anchor man, and generally enjoying the fact that everyone on our team turned in smokin’ performances. Two hours forty-six after the brick dropped, our caffeine-fueled fifth man crossed the line sealing up a solid second-place finish among twenty-four teams in our co-ed masters division and winning us a coveted brick. Yes, like the device that starts the race, the trophies here are also made from antique mill bricks. It’s just so appropriate.

Chalk up another New England classic, clearly on the bucket list of must-do races, worth every minute invested. Add to that another personal best, and I’m itchin’ for Chapter Four, Kentucky here we come.

01 December 2012

Not Quite A Pi(e)?

There’s a famous, and upon examination mostly untrue, story that over a hundred years back, the Indiana state legislature came up with the brilliant idea that pi, that mathematical constant that makes things round, could be, well, modified. The popular story goes that they passed a law defining pi precisely with very few digits, rather than the endless decimal it really is. The truth, at least according to Wiki, is nothing of the sort, though what they were actually trying to do was, from a mathematical perspective, nearly as silly, if not quite as obvious to the ordinary soul.

This is, however, a good lead in to the question of how big a pi should be, or in this case, how long a pie, specifically a Pie & Glove race, should be. Advertised as five kilometers, the truth appears to be that we didn’t get all the Pie we thought we were getting. But I’m ahead of myself…

Where we are is Chapter Two of the rapid-fire sequence of late fall races, Chapter One – the Return to Westfield – having been related a couple of nights back, and Chapters Three and Four yet to come, though come they will, and soon. It’s a busy time. And to think, one might expect a little period of rest after the fall marathon. Not this year.

Following that Sunday in Stanley Park, it was a mere four days till Thanksgiving, the one day when a surprisingly large percentage of America gets off their butts to do something physical in order to assuage their guilt over the looming feast. To this I say, outstanding! The explosion of turkey trots is one of the few trends of late that is actually good for America’s health, even if it’s only once a year. It’s like seeing the church packed on Christmas and Easter and thinking that it’d be nice if those people actually showed up the rest of the year, but then thinking twice and just being glad that they still found it important enough to come at the holidays, in defiance of Santa and the Bunny. As a result, many of these races are huge, growing mostly from the mid-pack on down, though my trot of choice, the Pie & Glove in Corning NY, also sported a strong field up front, offering up plenty of human anchors to hold a pace.

Now, two races in five days isn’t necessarily a good idea, but on the other hand, if it makes (and keeps) you sharp, and if the old bones can sustain the punishment, so be it. I banked on the bones and bet on the theory of sharpness. And it paid off with a personal best, though one laced with a let-down, it being not quite what I’d thought it was.

How can a personal best be a bit of a disappointment? When it’s not the blowout you thought it was, the blowout you’d been waiting for, the blowout you felt was real, until you found out it wasn’t. But at the end of the day, it was still a personal best, and a key one at that, one that confirmed that the previous wasn’t a fluke.

And the apparent blowout seemed plausible. Really. A cold, nearly windless day. A fast course, entirely flat save an out-and-back over the mild bump of a river bridge. Enough time beforehand to run the whole thing for a real warm-up (and still jump behind the registration table to help them work down the two-block-long check-in line). And mostly, the right state of mind, confidence that last month’s long-awaited 5K best signified that the readiness was there to cash in for a real breakthrough.

You can’t spend much prose on a 5K, as it happens too fast. Mile one came faster than any previous road race mile one, but it didn’t worry me, all cylinders were clicking. For mile two, it became a mental game, latching on others and reminding myself that I didn’t need to back off after the quick start, and it worked, the second marker
arriving a second faster than the first. On the home stretch, I focused on the word ‘intensity’ and refused to relent. Being mostly an out-and-back, one eye hunted for Darling Spouse, Dearest Daughter the Younger, and a pair of cousins, this being a family event now turned tradition, while the other eye glued onto moving reference points, no, not just gluing on but apparently picking up the pace and passing a number of them in that last mile. Darling Spouse, whom I didn’t locate in the outbound crowd, did spot me and reported that I looked, well, intense. Her word. I guess the focus thing worked.

Rounding the last corner gave me a somewhat breathtaking glimpse of something I’ve never seen at the end of a 5K, the show clock reading sixteen something. With a person standing in front of it, the something part was obscured, though I knew it must be a large something, and sure enough, sixteen changed to seventeen before I crossed a few seconds later. Just seeing sixteen blew a few mental circuits. Not crossing till it clicked over didn’t really matter; I was still in at more than half a minute ahead of that October personal best in Acton. A half minute off a 5K is hard to fathom, but the splits bore it out, and the kind of day it was made it believable.

Quick chatter among the early finishers hinted that the course was indeed short, but only by a bit. At only a bit short, adding a few seconds would still make it a blowout. It was enough to make me not care that I’d missed third place in my age group – and a pie, the real, not the mathematical kind – by a mere three seconds. (We got one anyway as thanks for sis’s volunteer efforts.) I was floating.

But things that float often sink. Back at sis’s ranch, out came the laptop, up came the mapping web site, and the truth sunk in and sunk my state of floatation. A bit short stretched into quite a bit short, and the huge breakthrough melted into merely a six-second personal best. And that’s how a personal best can be sort of a disappointment. Not that I won’t take it happily, it’s still a best, turned in four days after Westfield, and a nice confirmation that Acton wasn’t a fluke.

I’m just sayin’…

This Pie was a little shy of being full-sized. Maybe the measuring wheel was made in Indiana a hundred years back?

29 November 2012

A Douglas MacArthur Moment

Seeing as it is National Condiment Day, I’ll try to catch up (get it, catsup, or ketchup as you wish) with recent events over the next few evenings. It’s been a busy stretch with two races in five days and lots more to come in the very near future, so prepare yourself for an blog-o-rific onslaught. And no, it’s not really National Condiment Day; I just invented that for literary fun, though I relish the thought of such an event. (Groan.)

Let’s start this evening with Chapter One, Return of the Jedi, in which our intrepid Greater Boston squad once again travelled west to Westfield, Massachusetts (which would seem odd if we lived further west and had to travel east to Westfield, but I digress…) for another round on the Stanley Park course. We’ll move on to Chapter Two in a couple of nights.

Having had less than a stellar outing there four weeks earlier, this was a Douglas MacArthur moment (“I will return!”), returning to Westfield seeking vindication after an enjoyable but mediocre race a month prior. This time the old-fashioned butt-kicking I’d tasted four weeks earlier by running in an open-age race (there being no masters event that day) would be replaced by an old-fashioned butt-kicking of racing in a masters race, but one comprised of New England’s best, this round being the USA Track & Field New England Cross Country Championships. And indeed, place-wise, it was a pretty good butt-kicking, but place aside, I make no complaints about the day, it was essentially all good.

Last time out on the Stanley Park course, irrational exuberance sucked me out with the youngsters, neglecting reason and minor details such as having run a hard twenty-three only a few days earlier. Hitting the mile in five-forty-two wasn’t really a bad thing, but hitting it at that clip feeling entirely out of control of the race certainly was. That day, the rest of the run was a struggle, plain and simple, punctuated by the dual insult of hyper-extending my ankle twice on the same spot on the course – you’d think I’d learn… In the end, ringing up the 8K in a full thirty and a half minutes was nothing to be terribly happy about, though my companions and I didn’t let our respective mediocre races get in the way of being happy about what was otherwise a fun day. Besides, we knew that… We Would Return (thanks, Douglas).

This time, calculated exuberance put me at the mile in an identical five-forty-two, but feeling entirely in control. I voiced some good-natured exasperation about the quick start (at least for me) to the runner next to me in a purely psychological play, and then proceeded to leave him behind. From that point on it was only positive gain, picking off another few places with calculated bursts, losing none, and feeling solid.

Coming out of the woods for the last time, I’d already taken the relatively easy place gains, and a solid fifty yards separated me from the next pack forward with less than a mile to go. Making the second-to-last turn, one of them inched closer back to me, or me to him, impossible to say, but while I knew I could probably catch him given enough runway, quick mental calculations hinted that there just wasn’t enough race left to do so. I couldn’t help but thinking of Tom Derderian’s history of the Boston Marathon which I’d just finished plodding through (it’s out of print but available used, I happened to read the original edition), in which he describes many years’ races from the perspective of the second-place chaser, gaining on a fading leader late in the race, knowing he could catch and win, but simply running out of race. Now, with Tom himself (coach of our GBTC squad) somewhere behind me in the field, his words came to life, except that rather than conceding to the rapidly vanishing remainder of the course, they lit a spark. With perhaps a hundred yards left to go (pardon me, meters, this was a metric-measured 8K, not a five-miler), and perhaps twenty meters of gap remaining, rationality departed. Why not?

I can’t recall an all-out sprint like the one that erupted from some unknown place within since, well, I just can’t, and that’s not forgetting some of the more memorable all-out sprints. Maybe it was because Darling Spouse and Dearest Daughter the Younger had made the trip, and the alpha-male in me decided to show off. I can’t say why, or how, but ten meters from the line, I picked up one more place, much to the surprise and chagrin of my target.

To put this in proper perspective, this wasn’t exactly a case of stealing victory. It merely notched me up from thirty-somethingth to thirty-somethingth-minus-one. And as it happened, finishing eighth on my team, it was entirely meaningless so far as the scoring was concerned, but from a confidence and satisfaction perspective, it was entirely priceless. Not to mention just plain clean fun. More importantly, this time the finish line arrived three quarters of a minute earlier than the month previous, at a hair under six minute pace on the trails, and this only two weeks after Manchester’s hill and wind punishment. No complaints, and scratch the word essentially, it was all good.

It’s satisfying to return. Just ask Douglas.

No time to bask, though, because Chapter Two lingered a mere five days later. We’ll save that one for the next episode.

17 November 2012

I Know Everybody!

One of the best aspects of the running community is that it is truly a community. Most runners are highly social beings, and within a certain radius that tends to expand the longer you run, you find that you have a good chance of either knowing that runner you see heading down the street, or have enough common running friends that it’s easy to enter their circle. It’s like LinkedIn without the hassle of spam and invitations from people trying to sell you insurance.

Better, even if you don’t have any common connections, typical runners generally won’t care if you join their parade; indeed, they’ll welcome the company and invite you into their mobile coffee klatch, resume unseen. When I came back to the sport this was one of the first good memories to come rushing back, and now, years later into that expanding radius, it’s truer by the day.

With a big race tomorrow, yesterday’s plan was easy miles, and so it was, at least for the first two. With that widening radius, it was really no surprise yet still an unexpected pleasure to have run into a favorite training buddy. Hey, like the title says, I know everybody, right? Serendipity struck, we linked up, and so much for easy miles! We hammered the next six at a hard tempo pace (midway through meeting yet another club friend, we know everybody, right?), at least until we backed it off a bit on the final hill. I may pay for this in tomorrow’s race, but who can refuse the mutual drive that partners like him offer? And there was more to come.

Less than sixteen hours later, having foregone the usual Saturday morning local club donut run in order to transport Darling Daughter the Elder to a school function, said school being twenty miles away, I was debating the morning’s strategy. Run from the school (being dressed and ready to go), then wait, mildly damp, till she was done? Drive home in-between, wasting an hour and fuel but having the option to sneak in the run and shower? Or just hang out with a good book in a coffee shop, knowing the afternoon’s slate might make getting the run in a little tricky? None seemed optimal.

Like manna from Heaven, the answer was given. Navigating Worcester just a mile from her school, we started passing voluminous clumps of runners out for a casual Saturday morning slog. As we drove by I scanned for familiar faces without obvious success, but I had a suspicion of who they were. To Darling Daughter, wondering if I really knew these people, it was easy to say in jest, “Sure, I know who they are, after all, I know everybody!” I didn’t really know if I knew them, but I knew it would be easy to know them. Seven and a half years of running will do that to you. Now the choice of when to fit in my run was easy. Drop daughter, run from school, find runners.

A half mile from the school I found them, turned onto their route, and started having a ball. Chatting up the first guy I met, my suspicion was confirmed that this was indeed the training group out of the Worcester Central Branch YMCA that I’ve known of for a few years since they sent a large team to my local club’s Wolves 10K a couple years back. This isn’t your typical Couch to 5K program, it’s a Couch to Marathon, and it succeeds. These folks aren’t fast, but they sent forty-two people to the Marine Corps Marathon three weeks ago. I’d guess that was a significant chunk of the group, almost all of whom tackled a major race this fall. Impressive on all counts.

I proceeded to hopscotch forward, gabbing a few minutes with individual runners or groups, then moving on to the next batch, getting great stories and making connections along the way. One lady had just completed her first marathon, experienced the not-unexpected dread that she’d made a big mistake somewhere around mile twenty, persevered, and a few weeks later was already revved up to do it again. Another turned out to have worked for my daughter’s school and had a niece there who, as luck would have it, parks her coat every day in the locker next to Dearest Daughter the Younger. More proof: it’s not just me, she knows everyone too!

My plan was to hang a right and head back – after all, there’s that race tomorrow and while this was an uber-relaxed pace, I had no intentions of great distance – but said plan was foiled, having linked up with about the sixth group, this time three ladies, two of which (if my memory serves me right) had run our Wolves race. Jabbering away, the planned right became a left, and before long I found myself at the Worcester Y, the termination and gathering point for those finished with the mobile portion of the coffee klatch. My three companions-of-the-moment quipped to their gang that they’d picked up a boy, a rather amusing thought that I hadn’t heard come my way in, oh, decades? And there in that gang was none other than their leader Andy, who did in fact know me from our team-captain-to-race-director chats from that Wolves race. I was greatly amused at the thought that what I’d said to my daughter had pretty much come true.

After a few minutes of friendly chit-chat, I extricated myself before they proceeded to the sit-down phase of their coffee klatch, knowing that without a cent on me I’d be at their mercy to beg a cup of tea and not wanting to imply the need for such generosity. The slog back up the hills to the school was solo and non-social, but carried the glow of what the running community can deliver. What started as a morning missing my local gang, wondering when and where to get my run in, was instantly transformed into a great day by the welcoming community of runners everywhere.

But it’s not just me, it’s you, too. Whether you know them or not, when it comes to runners, you really do know everybody. Go out and enjoy their company.

10 November 2012

Alternate Hell

Imagine you’re holding a party, and you get a few unexpected guests. What do you do? Now imagine you’re holding a party, and you get over four hundred unexpected guests. Now what do you do? I’d lock the front door, bar the back entrance, and run for the hills. But the folks putting on the Manchester City Marathon rolled out the red carpet, welcomed a huge number of New York City marathon refugees, and pulled it off nicely. Of course, we really did have to run for the hills.

Four hundred additional runners (and some sources said more) in a large race wouldn’t be a big deal. Manchester is not a large race. Last year’s full marathon had fewer than four hundred finishers. Granted, when you add in the half marathon and relay, the refugee influx didn’t double the whole event, but they certainly added a hefty percentage. And while it’s not hard to let a few hundred more people run down the street, it is hard to suddenly increase the amount of everything from refreshments to port-o-johns on barely twenty-four hours notice. But they pulled it off.

I’d already commented on how they’d run out of yellow full marathon bibs and had to issue me a blue half marathon number. The extent of their extension became clearer Sunday morning when I found many running not just with re-purposed blue bibs, but with generic plain white bibs with generic plain red numbers – in other words, whatever the timing company could find in the back closet. Where they came up with extra finisher’s medals (or even if they had enough), I know not. Granted, we were a huge financial windfall to them, but it would have been very easy for them to complain or simply shut off the spigot. Instead, we were welcomed every step of the way.

In these unique circumstances, a unique environment emerged. Wearing my “Refugee” bib on my back made it into a bit of a party, especially through miles seventeen and eighteen, where we full marathoners rejoined the slower half marathoners in their final miles, giving plenty of opportunities for others to enjoy my backward-facing statement as I weaved through that crowd. In retrospect, it was a smart move: their encouragement was pretty desperately needed, because the reality was I was already several miles past toast status.

The irony of the day is that in the big picture, it was a great day. But the race itself? Pretty lousy. One of those days. Seriously ugly in the high miles, and the high miles started way too soon. Hell, really. I escaped the Hell of a crippled New York to slog through my own personal Alternate Hell in New Hampshire. But hey, we came, we ran, we celebrated our circumstance, and we loved it.

I can blame the course, I can blame the weather, I can blame the week’s accumulated stress, and I can blame myself. Since this was an election week, I’ll vote for all of the above. They all played their parts, resulting in a time that most yearn for but I yawn for.

Manchester is not flat. That itself isn’t a big problem. Hills are in my DNA from youth, and continue to be a strength springing from the significantly lumpy area where I live. But Manchester’s hills are not nice hills, they’re city street block-to-block jut-up-and-down-rapidly hills that break your rhythm on the way up, and drop off briefly and steeply, giving nothing back on the way down. They’re a net loss both in both directions.

Layered on the challenging course was a wind that seemed to grow in intensity as the day progressed. Blasting from the northwest, it made forward progress feel at times like plowing through Jell-O, first insidiously sapping us throughout the first four miles, when our freshness masked the extra effort we were expending, and later, returning for the kill.

At fourteen we turned west, into the wind, and the real brutality commenced. At fifteen, turning north, we discovered that we thought was brutal was just the warm-up. In the space of a single mile, the torque needed to drive into that wind wore a two-inch blister up the middle of my left foot. I felt it happening, tried to compensate, but there was no hope for defense. By the time we turned a corner at sixteen, mercifully escaping the worst of that gale segment, my day was effectively over. In that two mile stretch, I went from functional and cruising to burnt tempest toast, put a fork in me, fully baked, and, oh yeah, still ten to go. And still the wind would return to haunt us, notably in a last ditch insult at twenty-five plus, blasting us full-force along the Mighty Merrimack River. Despite the flat ground at that point, ropes and crampons might have been useful.

But in the end, I can’t kick anything but myself. I knew about the hills, and while the intensity may have surprised, I knew about the wind. Damn the torpedoes, I went out full speed, crossing the half on two-fifty-one pace. Such audacity (here, a euphemism for stupidity), hammering a major PR pace on a tough course on a tough day, well, shame on me, I should know better. Once through the gauntlet of fifteen and sixteen, my error obvious and unrecoverable, the day’s goal shifted tectonically from a decent time to merely protecting a 2014 Boston qualifier less twenty minutes, the new gold standard to assure easy early registration. Two-fifty-one to three-ten is a lot of space, but the outlook was ugly enough at that point to imagine the evaporation of even that big a cushion. Happily, crossing in three-oh-four, it didn’t.

Friends offered up the rationale that the week’s ups and down would have taken a toll on anyone. I’d concede there may be some truth to that. By the time I toed the line, I did feel like I’d ridden the roller coaster. So I guess it’s fitting that the roller coaster week, hanging on the edge of each day’s news from New York, would end in the roller coaster day, hanging on the edge of staying vertical on Manchester’s roller coaster topology. This is how it turned out. Life’s like that. Move on. Number eighteen is in the books. Time-wise, it’s not one for the record books. But on the whole adventure dimension, it won’t be forgotten anytime soon.

03 November 2012

The Marathon That Wasn’t

And just like that, it was off.

Really, the timing was incredible. I’d been meaning to get an email out to my work team since Thursday morning, as some of them are in the New York City area just might be out to offer a cheer or two. As things go, life and work got in the way, and it was Friday evening before that task saw the light of day. At 5:29 PM, I hit the send button. Literally three minutes later, Dearest Spouse walked in the door and announced, “It’s cancelled.”

With the trepidation I’d been feeling, which she knew I’d been feeling, I knew she was kidding me, except for the funny fact that she wasn’t. The other funny fact was that the radio station she’d had on in the car finished up a tune, announced, “The New York City Marathon is cancelled,” and rolled right into the next hit. No fanfare, no commentary, not even a hint of excitement in their voice. That, I’d guess, was the one and only time that this announcement generated zero excitement.

Hardly anyone in the Northeast, if not across the country, is unaware of the controversy that was brewing about the City’s and the New York Road Runners’ decision to move forward with the event. As I wrote only a few days ago, only a city like New York would have the chutzpah to try to pull this off in the wake of the one of the worst disasters in history. But also as I wrote, if they believed that this would be a positive sign to lift the spirits of the city, I would back them, and I would be there.

Nevertheless, I harbored plenty of doubts. How could they truly do this without diverting resources from the recovery, as they claimed? Private coaches to the start are the easy part. Traffic and security require law enforcement, whom one would think would have their hands full at the moment. I fully expected we’d face protestors, and during this week’s taper runs, I’d gone over in my head what I might say to them, how I might react. But frankly my concerns went deeper to basic safety. Desperate people do desperate things. It would only take one fanatical individual to create a significant incident during the race, and one can only image what form that might take. I’m not big enough to throw or receive a tackle, and that’s on the mild side of what could have happened. Granted, that could happen any year at any twenty-six-mile-long arena, but this felt like walking into a Coliseum lurking with potential lions. The official announcement email later confirmed this concern as an element in their decision.

When I realized that my bride-turned-messenger wasn’t joking, disbelief was mixed with relief. Doubtless she shared that sentiment.

The media, predictably, whipped this to frenzy status. It’s not worth recounting. You saw it. And you saw that virtually every commentator found blame somewhere. Almost to a tee, they were all smarter than the people in the middle who made these calls.

I won’t stand with them. I won’t blame. I won’t second guess.

This was an impossible decision all around. I refuse to fault Mayor Bloomberg or the New York Road Runners, no matter how inconvenient the outcome. They did what they thought was right when they made those decisions, given the information at hand. Was it reasonable to think the city could pull out of this and shine as a beacon of resilience, and would there have been value in that? Possibly yes. What changed between that decision and the subsequent one on Friday to call the game? The way I see it, in a word (well, two words), Staten Island.

Did we know how bad it was on Staten Island when the decision was made that the show must go on? I think back a few days, and I would have to say no. Remember, with the Twenty-Four-Hour-Nonstop-Fill-That-Airspace Media, we hear everything as it emerges. We saw every piece of “breaking video!” within moments of its creation. To my recollection, we didn’t see the devastation of Staten Island until somewhat past midweek. Then we knew. They were still finding bodies with the weekend just hours away. That undoubtedly changed the equation.

We also experienced the hazards of social media. While I’m not a big participant in the space, with no Facebook, Twitter, or other significant medium in my fold save this non-real-time blog, I certainly see where these tools can be valuable. But I also see that they can lead to emotional and often flawed decisions. Sometimes it is better to let things soak in for a while (no flood-related pun intended), let them ponder and stew, before rushing to judgment. Is it possible that the timelines of recovery had been worked out to expect that by Sunday morning, the days would be far brighter than they were on Thursday, when it was reported that tens of thousands gave their electronic thumbs up to the downfall of the Marathon? Is it possible that the impact of the now-famous generators moved into Central Park for the finish line operations were well known to be entirely inappropriate and inadequate for the recovery efforts, a proverbial drop-in-the-bucket that really wouldn’t have much impact? (It was said they could power four hundred homes, but were there really four hundred homes with infrastructure ready for them to be plugged into?) Is it possible that those in the know really had worked out that the impact of the Marathon wouldn’t materially affect recovery efforts? And is it possible that the fury aroused by this instantaneous yet mono-dimensional communication channel excluded the ability for these hard questions to be properly considered, and instead created an environment where one spark could set off mayhem?

I can’t say what the answers are to these kinds of hypothetical questions, but I can say that when social media allows for what is in effect an instant electronic riot, staged by people who may are not in the middle and most likely do not have the facts possessed by those who are, flawed decisions can be made. I’m not saying they were made. I’m saying they can be made.

It’s as simple as this: I am confident that the people who were in control of the decisions had best interests in mind and made the best decisions they could with the information they had at the time. I highly doubt there was any ill will or evil intent going on here. In the end, those decisions resulted in a whole lot of inconvenience and cost some runners and various businesses some money. Put that in perspective against the people who lost their power, their homes, or their lives.

I won’t second guess. This is how it turned out. Life’s like that. Move on. Of course, I’d really like it if they’d send me my bib and my shirt, just for kicks.

And so we move on to Plan B: An hour north of here, there happens to be another marathon tomorrow, and so I and many other New York City Marathon Refugees descended on the extremely welcoming even if somewhat beleaguered staff of the Manchester City Marathon at today’s expo. So many of us arrived that they ran out of yellow full
marathon bibs and started issuing us blue half-marathon bibs instead, assuring us they’ll handle it on the accounting side. I took the liberty of spicing mine up, blotting out the “half”, and making it at least partially yellow.

Manchester is not New York. The crowds will be smaller, but they will cheer us just the same. The course is ludicrously more difficult, so our times won’t be as spectacular, but we’ll share that much more satisfaction at the finish. Ironically, the weather is forecast to be, almost to the degree, the same. We’ll have a grand time, especially if today’s small but welcoming expo was any sign. I walked in wearing the bib I’d created for my local club’s morning run (and may wear on my back
tomorrow), and had more fun conversations than at any pre-race event I can remember. Tomorrow, the refugees will run, and while New York City heals, we will have a fine day that happens not to be in New York City. This is how it turned out. Life’s like that. Move on.

01 November 2012

Sandy In My Eyes

Obviously I’m not the only person who’s seen the irony of a storm that whips up and rips up sand being named Sandy. Still, Monday morning when I braved out (OK, it wasn’t that brave) into the pre-storm spray to log the day’s streak-minimum three miles, I couldn’t help think of the metaphor of the bully kicking sand in someone’s face. The immediate someone was of course myself, taking the spray, not sand, head-on, right in the eyes, the usually-shielding running hat being utterly useless in the face of the fringes of a tropical cyclone, but the bigger someone has been the whole east coast, notably New Jersey and New York City.

What a year to have decided – long ago – to run the New York City Marathon.

A couple of days ago, as Sandy approached, I fretted that I’d indirectly coaxed my niece into the claws of Mother Nature as she attempted her first full marathon at Marine Corps in Washington as Sandy menaced. But Sandy politely held back just long enough, deluging areas just east of DC while leaving the marathoners somewhat blown but quite dry, and Kris can now put the “Marathon Finisher” sticker on her gravestone when the time comes. Sadly, that was the end of Sandy’s patience. You know the rest of the story. In short, it wasn’t the Marine Corps Marathon I should have been worrying about.

In the days following the disaster we watched to see how this would play out regarding the NYC Marathon. The physical and logistical problems were obvious. But the emotional angle was, and still is, trickier.

Physically, much of the city remains without power, not to mention other damage. Logistically, the Staten Island Ferry, slated to shuttle twenty-four thousand of my friends to the start, is out of commission, which is largely irrelevant since you cannot get there anyway with no subway service to lower Manhattan.
The Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, the route to the start for the other twenty-three thousand friends, is now on the NYC Duathlon course as the swim segment, and I’m not a strong swimmer. Other problems abound, ranging from traffic to the simple question of whether enough restaurants will get enough shipments of chow to serve up enough pasta on Saturday night. I’m packing my granola bars.

Emotionally, there’s the big question of whether this is the right thing to do at all. People are suffering. Basic needs are unmet. And we’re going to put great efforts into holding a race?

But New York Road Runners’ head cheese Mary Wittenberg made a couple of good points, appearing on the Today show this morning. First, the decision was made only with Mayor Bloomberg’s approval. Second, logistical changes were made to avoid the use of public resources, notably, all transport to the start will be on private coaches. And finally, the economic impact aside, she pointed out that the marathon is a symbol of the triumph of human spirit. Letting it go on will hopefully serve as an inspiration to New Yorkers everywhere that not only can life go on after the disaster, but that the city and the country will recover, because of the spirit that drives nearly fifty thousand people to push themselves to the limit. It seems to me it’s a far more motivating statement than George W. Bush’s admonition to go shopping after 9/11.

I can understand the symbolism. It jives with the message that I often try to convey in these pages about taking the active choice, taking control, and making positive things happen for yourself and those around you. You are heavily influenced by what you see around you. Perhaps we can help to deliver some hope to those who need it.

After all, New York City is a place that defies logic, defies itself. I’ve often said that it succeeds in spite of itself. When one ponders the difficulty and cost of getting anything done there, one has to wonder how anything does get done there, or why it is done there in the first place. But to borrow the oft-used quote from Jurassic Park, life will find a way. Sure, the source wasn’t a bastion of philosophical wealth, but they made a good point.

Growing up in Upstate New York, we had a strong love-hate relationship with New York City. By the time I became old enough to be politically aware, the Big Apple was going bankrupt under Ed Koch (who now has his name attached to the Queensborough Bridge, mile sixteen on the course, or the 59th Street Bridge if you’re a Simon & Garfunkel fan). We figured that the tax dollars we sent to Albany were simply dumped into the river to float uselessly past the vortex of The City. Not long after, our governor Hugh Carey, a Brooklyn native (who as of two weeks ago has his name attached to the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, which would have been our route to the start had it not become an ersatz aqueduct)
seemed to fuel the Upstate-Downstate feud by coming to our city to scoff at a local looming environmental disaster, uttering the now famous phrase, "I offer here and now to walk into Binghamton, to any part of that building and swallow an entire glass of PCBs." Needless to say, there was no love lost between “us” and “them”. For a time, I even rebelled against the very label, “The City”. After all, Boston is a city, too, right?

I got over it. The fact is, there hasn’t been a single time in my life when I haven’t felt at least a little bit of awe and excitement upon entering the City of New York. Granted, that comes with the trepidation of the hazards and aforementioned inconveniences of doing anything in the city (which I try to communicate as a reality check to Darling Daughter the Elder, thinking of college and star-struck by the place), but face it: you can’t fly in and see the skyline, drive in over a grand bridge, or even ride the rail in and marvel at the length and breadth of the catacombs though which you travel, without recognizing that it’s an amazing place, even with all its dark and seamy undersides.

Leave it to New York City to have the chutzpah to try to pull this off after what they’ve been through.

I’m still somewhat split on it, but they’ve said that the show will go on, and so I will be a part of it, part of a show of support for a resilient and strong city. Even if I’m not yet quite sure how we’ll actually get there. Life will find a way.

27 October 2012


A couple weeks back I snuck out for a lunchtime run, which isn’t unusual seeing as I’m fortunate enough to work from my basement office and enjoy a two-flight-of-stairs commute on days when I’m not seeing clients. Granted, I pay the price on other days, but at least in my office there’s no worry about whether amenities are available like a post-workout shower.

On that particular day I sauntered down to the high school track and proceeded to launch into the workout prescribed by one of our Greater Boston coaches. The day’s excitement was a series of twelve-hundred-meter runs at a target pace that shouldn’t have bothered me, but on that day felt entirely unworkable. After one, I groaned at the prescribed number and questioned whether I’d hold out, especially doing the workout solo with nobody to egg me on. Deal with them one at a time, I told myself, and eventually I clicked off the appointed count, pleasingly picking up the pace a second or two on each. Completion of this most minor goal – one workout – brought satisfaction.

A bit less than halfway through this test, onto the field arrived a high-school phys-ed class. I half expected to be expelled in a frenzied concern that I might be a child-molester, but neither the instructor nor the students seemed to care about my presence. Slog on. And observe.

What I observed was that the activity of the day was Ultimate Frisbee, and what ensued was a seriously low-energy version of what could have been great exercise. The cones were laid out, half of the participants donned the obligatory red pinnies, and they were off…slowly. Well, some of them, at least. I counted twenty-two students in the class. I counted ten who actually played. The other twelve – over half of the class – were excused for some reason or another.

Keep in mind that all walked onto the field. None were on crutches, in casts, or otherwise visibly impaired. I can bet that my assessment of bodily functionality was wrong on at least one or two of them who probably did have some sort of ailment or legitimate woe. But I’ve got to question twelve of twenty-two being considered unfit for fitness. Four sat in the stands and soaked up the sun; call it Vitamin D therapy. The other eight split into two groups of four and “walked”, a word I place in quotations because the pace at which they edged around the track wasn’t measurable.

Unmolested, I continued my twelve-hundreds, pausing for two minutes between each to regain some oxygen and sanity. During one such pause, when a group of boys happened to happen by, I casually inquired obliquely, “On injured reserve?” They responded in the positive. My lighthearted invitation to them to join me on the next rep met with expected incredulity.

It’s probably wrong for me to judge, but I can’t avoid it. There’s simply no way that fifty-five percent of that class was unable to play a seriously low-energy form of tossing the Frisbee. With no specific knowledge of each individual case, the blame can be distributed in all sorts of directions: the kids themselves, parents, teachers, administrators, the culture of lawsuits, you name it (at least the culture didn’t overreact and kick me off the track!). But in the end it’s really easy to observe that it’s little wonder we’re facing a fitness and obesity crisis amongst our population.

Contrast this to what I observed on last Saturday in a park near Springfield, where over a hundred athletes gathered to relish in the joy and pain of racing across fields and through trails at the Western Mass Distance Project’s Cross Country “Festival”. A festival might be an odd description, through a festival has music, and Zeppelin blasted from the sound system as we raced from the field start, and a festival gathers friends, which certainly qualified, and a festival has people doing what they love, so perhaps the word fits the bill. People come willingly to a festival.

None of these folks showed up because they had to. No phys-ed grades were on the line. And while there were a few cash prizes available, the reality was that few were in line to claim them. The rest were there for the love of the sport, for their own fitness, for the sheer fun of it. No t-shirts, no swag, and as with most trail-based courses, not even an assurance that you could compare your time to anything else you’ve run in your life. Just come out and run, and they did, with the friendship aspect uniquely captured in a multi-team group shot after the main event (and this was only the men, there were more) (go ahead, try to find me, I’m in there!).

Frankly, it was a pretty mediocre race for me as well as several of my traveling companion teammates. Coming off the previous week’s race and a mid-week hard twenty-three miler, the last big one before New York, I was feeling the pain of a number of bumps and bruises, and my performance reflected that – it certainly wasn’t one to write home about. My compatriots found themselves in similar situations. To add to our results ambivalence, we all found something a little odd about the course splits which seemed to imply that every one of us tanked wholesale in the last mile. But we simply didn’t care. We enjoyed a gorgeous day in the park doing something healthy, running around with friends.

I got to thinking about the motivation of this group compared to the motivation of that phys-ed class. I often told the middle-school kids I used to coach that if I didn’t run every day that something hurt, I’d rarely run. As much as I stepped onto the field in Westfield with various bits hurting, I can make a pretty good guess that a lot of those other guys, even the young, hearty and hale ones, were in similar stance. But unlike the fifty-five percent in that gym class who for the pain of a hangnail (I theorize, of course) copped out, here the bruised and battered dove in instead. We make these choices every day: dive in and play the game, or sit out and go stale. I make the point in regard to fitness, but you can extend the metaphor to any life endeavor.

We can’t fool ourselves into thinking that our choice to dive in makes us invincible. The fact is, we’re all going to reach our end someday, and we may reach it in ways that surprise us. Runners do have heart attacks, runners do get cancer, diabetes, and all sorts of other mean, nasty things, and one of those things will beat each and every runner, some well before we’re due. Contradictorily, some of those who loll, laze, live hard, and generally take the course frowned upon will see their hundredth year and beyond. Statistically there’s really no logic to it.

But isn’t it worth putting up the good fight and enjoying knowing that you’re stretching your odds? Which side of the contrast do you want to be on?

Shout-Out, or perhaps a Bail-Out, to niece Kristin, about to embark on her first full marathon within hours. Your first marathon is always a memorable adventure, but it will be hard to top this one: she’s running the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington with Hurricane Sandy bearing down on the city. This will truly be an interesting day. Send the Marines, put a smile on your face, and have at it. You will have unbeatable water cooler stories on Monday, that is, if you can get back to your water cooler… Go Kris!

14 October 2012

Clean Sweep

This one has been a long time coming. Forty-nine months to the day, to be exact. Not that I started counting back on the 13th of September, 2008, when last I recorded a 5K Personal Best. But having come within seconds of that now nearly antique mark several times, most recently this past June, this quest had long passed the threshold of frustrating. I don’t consider myself a terribly effective short-distance racer to begin with, and knowing that speed is the first thing to go as you age, this was the runner’s equivalent of a biological time bomb.

Why, you ask, would it matter? After all, it’s a given that at some point, each PR previously set will become my last PR ever set. I certainly won’t be cracking these times when I’m eighty. I could die a satisfied runner with the numbers already in the books, right?

Yes, except for this one item. It was a matter of pride. You see, my local club, the Highland City Striders, maintains a list of club bests, and before yesterday, I owned all the masters marks (for that matter, all of the marks – period – since nobody in other divisions had bettered them)…except one: that pesky 5K. And just because I had all the rest, I wanted that one, too.

For that one, the record belonged to a club-mate who’d recorded a performance from years before I knew him, indeed several years before what we often think of the “modern incarnation” of our club, which has gone through several phases of life stretching several decades (and since we have utterly no knowledge of top performances notched in those earlier generations, this is an entirely artificial accounting, but…), his in fact being the only record on the books not from the “modern era”. That mattered not. What mattered was that his performance was precisely ten seconds faster than the mark I hit back in September of 2008. And when I came within ten seconds at age forty-five, I looked forward to clipping off those seconds and snagging that spot in the books in short order. Instead, a month later, that famed foot tendon snapped, and it was a long time before I was even coming close again, years that by sheer aging shaved speed potential.

Cut to the present day, and reality was that the months were ticking away to when I’d miss that shot. Age Fifty looms in under six months, and while I can snag the “Best Overall” time any time I’m capable from here to eternity, my window to own the age forty to forty-nine masters records was closing. And winter, with unpredictable racing conditions, also nears. It was pretty much now or never.

Never will never come, because Saturday was now. It’s done. The barrier is broken, the forty-nine-month Personal Best drought broken at age forty-nine, and with enough to spare to snag that club masters record. And so for the time being at least, I’ve got the clean sweep: five-K, five-mile, ten-K, ten-mile, half- marathon and marathon.

I don’t kid myself into thinking that this is either important or eternal. It’s neither. Our local club is a wonderful bunch that I love to run with, but it’s not a highly competitive crowd. In contrast, I’d never touch a single record in my Greater Boston racing club, where one of my masters compatriots just aced an incredible two-thirty-six marathon. And besides, someone will come along and better these marks. After all, that’s what records are all about. But for the moment, it’s a fun achievement.

This momentous event unfolded in the hamlet of West Acton, Massachusetts, which I like to call Wacton, at their Oktoberfest 5K, a largely local affair but made interesting by two twists: an invitation from one of my Greater Boston friends, a local resident, to join the fun, and the discovery that both my neighbor and his son planned on tackling those mean streets. Said neighbor was embarking on only his second race, having pulled off the impressive feat of dropping sixty pounds in nine months, and said neighbor’s son is none other than the famed Intrepid Young Hiking Partner. These things are always more fun in gangs.

As races go, this one had some quirks, most notably that the course crossed a commuter rail line a quarter-mile from the start, which forced us to hang around till the expected train passed through – notably late. So much for timing your warm-up. And that start, when it came, was a little confused, with one-too-many commands confusing us Type-A Obsessive Compulsive folks toeing the line. I’d have to say it was the first mass-false-start I’ve ever seen at a road race, and yes, I and about fifty of my closest friends probably got a second’s jump on the actual command to Go! And another second’s jump before they managed to get the gun to fire. These things happen and matter little. What did matter is that the course was advertised as wheel-measured accurate, and my post-race checking proved it to be spot-on. That, combined with a cold, crisp, and sunny (if a bit breezy) morning, made for an ideal day to assault a forty-nine-month hunger pang.

As is often the case in local races, by a quarter-mile in we’d already pretty much fallen into our finishing order. GBTC Long Tall John ran away with it, we let some other guy come in second, followed by yours truly, Kristen who’d take the women’s title, and another GBTC teammate Kris, incognito in black but solid in performance. With no mile markers, chasing a time was challenging, especially after breaking from Kris, and later Kristen before the two-mile mark (and there was a Kyle hanging around briefly as well, so while this may have been a 5K, I was surrounded by 3Ks, which was OK) (groan). In the battle of the Ks, Kris would outkick Kristen, giving Greater Boston a pleasing one-three-four finish. And both of those guys would give me a serious shortness complex in the post-race snapshots.

The homestretch was insidiously mildly inclined with a sprinkling of headwind tossed in for spice, and featured a slight bend in an otherwise straight shot such that the finish wasn’t visible until it was too late to make up any lost time. In other words, it wasn’t even worth glancing at the watch. Just go, go, go some more, and hope, and… crossing the line the show clock read three seconds under that club record! It was done!

Officially, they actually pegged me at five seconds under that record, a full fifteen off my previous best. I might quibble about whether I deserved those last couple of seconds based on the confused start, but it mattered not, it was done. Ironic too, since when I wrote of the last time I set that PR, way back in ’08, I closed that piece with a suggestion to “lighten up, and go slice 15 seconds off your 5K.” If I’d only known it would take so long!

04 October 2012


A few weeks back, while still mired in the Interminable Slump, the annual Forrest Quasi-5K was fast approaching (I call it the Quasi-5K because everyone knows it’s considerably over 5K, though with a great picnic afterwards, nobody cares). I couldn’t fathom racing anything, let alone a short one that would require – gasp! – that I’d actually have to run fast. But having won it the prior two years, I felt there was sort of an expectation that I’d defend my crown, the tiny little local crown that it was. What to do?

An obvious solution appeared: Darling Daughter the Younger had the desire to dip her toes in that puddle. Double bonus! Family time, and the complete elimination of all pressure to perform. Race day came and I ran a warm-up with my local club-mates merely for the fun of running a mile with them, certainly not due to any need to warm up. Race time approached without a care in the world; no timing of that last bathroom stop, no chugging a gel fifteen minutes ahead, no last-minute strides or stretches. Just hang with the crowd, chat it up, and, oh! They said go, let’s go for a run. This must be how the other side lives. It’s really not bad, not bad at all.

The irony is that a couple days before the race, along came what has proven to be the dramatic end of the Interminable Slump (hereby rechristened the Terminable Slump). There was great rejoicing, but the plan was in place, the Forrest would not be a race. Time was irrelevant, no watch, no worries. Darling Daughter scored an age group medal, making the day and unqualified success. And a fine day was had by all at the famed picnic. I’d already considered the day a total winner, having just relaxed and soaked it up, and then when I pulled down the pictures from my mini-camera I’d carried during the event. I was treated to this absolute gem of one of my local club-mates in action.

One word came to mind: Joy. Anyone at a hundred paces could tell from this shot what was going through her head. Indeed, when I sent this to her, she responded, “I did not realize how much fun I had had until I saw this picture!” And therein lay a great theme: Step back and recognize the joy that our sport, our lifestyle, can bring to us, if we let it. Fast times are great, but there is so much more, and so I share a few tidbits on my mind.

The Joy of Letting Go – Because We Can! This is, of course, what started the whole theme. The fact that we don’t have to push every day; that we can just go out for a day of fun, and leave it at that. It just doesn’t matter, so enjoy it.

The Joy of Excess - Because We Can! On the other hand, we do crazy things. A good portion of my running friends just experienced another Reach the Beach, that thirty-hour two-hundred-plus mile odyssey through New Hampshire. I skipped that one this year, but celebrated the end of the slump by hitting DAY FIVE HUNDRED of my streak, and that day turning a planned twenty-three miler into the longest run of my life, twenty-seven-point-two. Yeah, a marathon and a mile, and too bad it didn’t count or I’d have my Boston Qualifier less twenty for 2014. Excess? You bet. Love it, because we can.

The Joy of Relief, Part One – Go Jump In A Lake! A few weeks back, Rocket John and I headed out for a dozen or so, and it was great – for about five miles. After that, it just wasn’t pretty. Hotter than expected, both of us fading, still a mile or two back to the ranch as we passed by a local lake, and we figured…why not? Off with the shoes, into the lake, utterly perfect. Sweet relief, and freedom like you’re a kid again. You simply can’t feel so good as when you bounce from feeling so bad. The lows make the highs so much sweeter.

The Joy of Relief, Part Two – It Feels So Good When You Stop! So what if it was chemically cured? (I just hope the cure sticks!) The slump is over! To steal a line from Monty Python, I’m not dead yet. In fact, I feel good, I feel like I’m flying. What was it I just said? You simply can’t feel so good as when you bounce from feeling so bad. An old friend used to say it was like hitting yourself on the head with a hammer because it feels so good when you stop. Relish the high!

The Joy of Great Friends – And Benefits! (No, not friends WITH benefits, this is a family column.) I’ve often said that running with friends is just a mobile coffee klatch. We get to know the best people without having to endure a golf cart. They’re active, they’re interesting, they’re involved people, and hanging with them sometimes has unexpected benefits, like last weekend when our local club supplied judges for our city’s famous annual Chowderfest. Now, this event has been a highlight of my year for as long as I’ve known about it, a veritable feast of the best we have to offer. To have the opportunity to sit as an official judge was, well, let’s just say I can die happy now.

The Joy of Living Vicariously: In a sport where actually winning is pretty rare, we certainly have rivals whom we like to race against, but we don’t worry about their successes, we celebrate them. Big or small, running friends’ triumphs lift us – indeed goad us on to our own. That’s quite different from most sports where one side wins and the other clearly loses. We can all win, and this week has brought plenty of that good news and lots to celebrate.
My accomplices in last fall’s Bay State Marathon, Kim and Ryan, crossed the line together to win – for real – the Half-Moon Bay Marathon out west in the California fog. My rival E.J. smoked a 5K personal best time that makes my mouth drool a deep shade of envious green. And my neighbor Greg, on his weight-watcher quest combined with a couch-to-5K plan, achieved it non-stop at the Forrest, and is already plotting his next conquest. They’re all an extension of the energy we share with each other, providing each other with little sparks, and I am thrilled for all of them!

The Joy of Classic Little Moments: On a totally different tack, while running past a nearby school a couple days back, I was not a bit surprised when a mother with her little ones oh-so-safely strapped in back proceeded to cut me off as she raced out of the school lot. Experience has shown that it’s usually those moms so worried about how people drive around their kids who are the worst offenders around others on foot, like me. Whatever, I’m used to it. I dodged, gave her the usual barking “YO!” and an arm-shrugful of disgust, and carried on. Only to have the mom who trailed her and watched the whole thing pull out, pass me on the street, and shout out, “You tell ‘em, Gary!” I have no idea who it was. But hey, really… cool!

And The Simple Joy of What We Do: Day in, day out, we find an hour, strap on our shoes, and just go. Many if not most days I have no idea where I’m going when I depart. I’ll decide that in a mile, when I decide how I feel, consider how much time I’ve got, assess the weather, my mood, the phase of the moon, whatever. It just doesn’t matter. We just run, and absorb the joy. So turn off your MP3, stop staring at the four square feet of road right in front of your feet, look up, soak it in, and find the joy.

22 September 2012

Nyah, Nyah! God Gave Me An Extra!

I might be premature in saying this, but we may have reached Slumpus Terminus. One word: WOOT! But first, an interesting tidbit along the way of getting there, which starts with a cut to a seemingly unrelated topic…

In my business of technology, there are consulting houses who’s very names turn heads. Needless to say, vendors such as my employer spend many cycles trying to convince these Industry Gods of our own Godliness. Said Industry Gods therefore hear an awful lot of corporate blather, and, speaking as one who cannot stay awake more than about fifteen minutes in a meeting where I’m expected only to listen and not participate, I can only imagine the scale of their agony living through endless days of Death by PowerPoint. It was thus with great mirth that I read a report from one recently, where instead of reporting on technology, they reported, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, on what to do – and not to do – when presenting to them. Rule Number One was not to put up a slide that says, “Our people make the difference.” Having worked for many firms whose corporate overview decks obligingly include this bit of inanity, I laughed out loud at the consultant’s decree that, [sic] “Unless you’ve bred some mutant DNA, we’re pretty sure that all firms that come before us have good people. Don’t waste your time claiming otherwise.” Touché!

Here’s the funny part. I’ve got a bit of that mutant DNA in me, so I learned this week. Take that, Industry Gods!

What does all this have to do with running, the slump, and the price of oolong tea in Tibet? Dear reader, think back to the Adventure of the Cardiac Ultrasound, which stemmed from seeing Lady Doc. Another outcome of said visit was a strategy to attack the Pesky Left Achilles, now in an annoying painful state for a solid six months, long enough to cross out the word acute and write in chronic in crayon. On top of the squishy New Balance shoes I’d procured a few weeks prior to ease the pounding and potentially heal the beast, Lady Doc packed me off to x-ray the heel (which turned out to be just fine) and to be made to heel at the hands of a good round of physical therapy. So as I padded around in the slipper-like Squishy Shoes, I also submitted to the skills of my new Sadistic Practitioner, so dubbed because the name Physical Terrorist (my last PT, also of the same fine firm) was already used, and because it is a kinder version of a name one of her former patients involuntarily emitted while enduring her painful goodness.

Several myofascial release scrapings (painful, but it’s good pain), and many wonderful minutes spent on the electro-stim later, progress was obvious, but a new worry arose in the front half of said abused podiatric appendage, a pain weird and strong enough to have me dreading a stress fracture. With the New York Marathon looming, I kvetched until Darling Spouse reached her tolerance of grouse and insisted I get it checked out, reminding me of our new, “Damn the torpedoes, we’ve hit our deductible!” status. Yep, she’s right on that one.

Dr. Foot Doctor (you do remember Dr. Foot Doctor from the Famed Surgery of ’08, right?) to the rescue! Here’s where the right guy makes all the difference. I could have called Lady Doc, who would have been happy to pack me back to Local Hospital to x-ray the front of the same foot (can you get foot cancer from two x-rays in a month?), and a day or two later heard that the radiologist reported there were indeed no cracks, but nothing beats one stop shopping with the famed father of foot features. No, nothing beats having the x-ray machine in the back room, then walking twelve feet to the exam room and studying the ghostly images together, working out the mechanics and strategies to recover. And nothing beats getting in on six hours notice (big thank-you!).

When all was said and done, it made sense. The knee bone’s connected to the leg bone and so on, and using such logic we surmised a pretty plausible principle for the pain, which stemmed from trying to deal with the Achilles with the Squishy shoes. It did not, I repeat did not, seem to be related to the fact that we found an extra bone in my big toe. There’s that mutant DNA. Yep, God gave me an extra one that you probably haven’t got. Nyah!

Now, this isn’t entirely rare, but it’s not entirely common, either. A little web research turned up the fact that there isn’t even a solid agreement on the number of bones that you’re suppose to have in your foot – one site said twenty-six, another twenty-eight. But several sources did acknowledge that a percentage of freaks (my wording, of course) in the universe have extras which appear in various places in the foot. My special little stowaway is known as an Os Interphalangeus, one form of the class of “accessory ossicles” (which I think are frozen drippy things that form off decorations you hang outside your house in the winter, oh, wait those are accessory icicles). Said ossicle has apparently been living under the joint of my big toe for God knows how long, never paying rent, never doing the dishes, just adding weight to my stride – at least a gram or two, clearly enough to add a microsecond to my marathon time.

But frankly, I thought he was kind of cute on the x-ray image, and I’ll let him stay.

(I trust you’re thinking, “Gee, two weeks in a row he’s showing off pictures of his innards, what a weirdo!” Guilty. I find this stuff ultimately fascinating.)

In any event, many good things came of this beyond pride in another element of uniqueness and a chance to reconnect with Dr. Foot Doctor. I walked out with the confidence that nothing was broken, a roll of kinesiology tape (no, that’s not a mystic religion), and a script for a kicker dose of anti-inflammatories that in a mere day have me thinking they’re either magic or the best placebo on the planet. And they’re not even on the World Anti-Doping Agency banned substance list! Double bonus!

But before I’d popped a single pill, I hit the roads after seeing Dr. Foot Doctor and hammered one, breaking a four-year-old personal best on a training course that I run several times a month. The power of positive thinking! Another solid one yesterday, and nearly twenty this morning, and suddenly New York in six weeks doesn’t seem like a problem.

Slumpus Terminus? I sure hope so. Let’s hope it sticks!