16 January 2012


How do you describe a race so ludicrous as this other than to just spit out that we raced sixty-eight and a quarter laps (um, really more, we’ll get back to that) around an indoor square track and called it a half marathon. Two hundred and seventy-three rather sharp left turns, which left behind a never-before-seen blister count on the feet. Where does one start with an event as odd as this?

How about with a guilt trip? The quandary of this circumambulation is that it became a cross between an item in a running magazine advice column and some old fashioned Catholic guilt. Let’s back up and recall why I subjected my bones to this oddity in the first place: as a stage in the Assault on New York.

Some might say I’m opinionated. Some might say I’m overly frugal. (No, really?) Putting those together, running wickedly expensive races has never held much appeal. I’ve tolerated the high price of the Boston Marathon because it is, after all, Boston, the Granddaddy, each running a fulfillment of a dream from my younger First Lap days, and because, being right in my back yard, other than the entry fee and twenty bucks to park for the expo, there are really no other costs.

New York, on the other hand, racks up an even higher entry fee than Boston. Credit the union labor in the City, I suppose, though in all honesty, the massive logistics of pulling this off in New York City make the price somewhat understandable. Add travel cost to what is never a cheap destination, and, well, I’ve always just said the heck with it. There are plenty of other races.

But there is an undeniable appeal. Not because it’s a World Marathon Major. Chicago, looping through the Loop upon Midwestern flatness, elicits a yawn. London and Berlin, nice I suppose, but I can go to my grave without having run them and not feel unfulfilled. New York, the city I loved to hate while growing up Upstate, yet the city that can’t fail to get your heart racing, and not just because of the creepy dude in the shadows somewhere behind you… New York, I’ve come to the conclusion that at some point I’ve got to run New York.

The rest falls into place easily. In a little over a year I’ll hit the next big age group, which means this is the final year of my forties, which means hardware is harder to harness against those forty-year-olds, which means I might as well do a big race this year where winning anything isn’t a possibility anyway, as next year I’ll be mapping out races with the best age group trophies. And as it turns out, New York’s guaranteed entry standards, which allow you to bypass the lottery, are tightening for 2013. I’d still make it with my current times if I can repeat them this year, but what about a Native Guide? Assaulting a mega-event like New York is a lot less daunting with experience at your side. Enter Rocket John, who’s run New York a few times, and knows his way through the maze of twisty shuttle busses all the way to Staten Island.

Except that Rocket John has had a couple of rough races of late, and didn’t have a New York qualifier, so we had to get him one. Since New York allows you to qualify with a half-marathon, which we can slip in any time, we had to find one, and soon, since we didn’t (and still don’t) know when registration opens. And I had no desire to travel to some far-flung place for said event.

Enter Smuttynose. Fact is there are darn few half-marathons in New England in the winter. There’s a reason for that. Most sane people don’t run half-marathons in the New England winter. And there are even fewer on a Saturday, which I prefer so I don’t have to blow off my church band. But there it was, tucked in the online race listings: The Smuttynose Palooza Indoor Half-Marathon, brought to you by the Loco guy, Mike St. Laurent. Sixty-six laps around a one-fifth-mile indoor track in nearby New Hampshire. On Saturday. In January. We had a ticket for our Assault on New York.

Race day arriveth. Race day? Seriously? Somehow it wasn’t. Not only was it a strange race, but our only real target was to get John under an hour thirty for New York, training run pace, and my legs were still shredded from last week’s five thousand meters in flats. Result: Zero pressure. The whole thing was loosey-goosey, even the course, which somehow grew from the advertised sixty-six laps and change to sixty-eight plus. Seems nobody had ever truly measured that fifth-of-a-mile track for USATF certification before, and much to their surprise it took five-point-two laps to hit a mile. Well, they promised to count our laps for us, so whatever.

The Question of the Day was how to run this thing. Rocket John favored a conservative start, juicing it up later. I’m not very good at juicing it up in a race. On a training run, sure, but late in a race it just doesn’t happen. If I need a time, I know I’d better bang on out there and put some in the bank. This is where the magazine advice column comes in. Do I stick with John? After all, this was about getting him a time. Or do I run a race? This wasn’t an important race for me, but after all, it was a race with a real live race entry fee. Oh, dear running etiquette expert, what do I do?

Rocket John, ever the gentleman, seemed to give the signal to go run it. We went out together for the first mile or two, kinda’ hot. He dropped back, and I motored on, inspired by the tall guy in black hanging off my flank. Not that it mattered, we were running second and third, not in contention to win (and in this odd event with two heats, a guy in the second heat would beat us all, leaving me third overall). But the competitive part of me took over, and I determined that Man in Black wouldn’t pass. He didn’t. But John fell well off the pace, faded, and missed his hour thirty.

Oh, Catholic guilt! What have I done? Did I let him down?

Truth is, had I stuck with him, I couldn’t have spurred him to make up the nearly five minutes by which he missed it. Then again, had we gone out slow and conservative as he’d planned, things could have turned out very differently. We’ll never know. Assuaging my guilt is the knowledge that he’s got another half planned in March, which should leave us enough time to get into New York, and I can pay him back by joining him for some major training before then.

Meanwhile, in the race… With John faded, distance growing between me and the Man in Black, and the leader well ahead, the rest became a mental game. Count the laps into each mile (with the mile markers scattered around the track due to the newly discovered five-point-two formula), click a split. There really was no other way to deal with this. You can’t simply follow the lap count to sixty-nine (they counted the first quarter lap as one). You’d go loopy. It’s like climbing the big hill back to the house at the end of my training runs. You have to break it into manageable chunks.

Besides, I had to keep track, since the race organizers’ promise to count our laps itself got lapped. In a race where we lapped people continuously, electronic counting was the only possible way to make this work. But John and I had inadvertently rung up a lap during our warm-up. We thought it would be cleared before the start, but the previous relay heat ran slower than planned so we started before they finished. Result: No clearing of the system possible, and Rocket John and I had an extra lap on the boards. Intrepid race management tried to fix this mid-stream, but didn’t get it right. Further, I fouled up my watch as well, and didn’t realize that in re-syncing, I de-synced.

Six laps to go. But they announced I had eight. Say what? Four laps. They said six. I’m done. They say two more. No choice but to run two more, we’ll sort it out later. And later we figured that we both had it wrong, each by one in the opposite direction. So yes, I ran a half marathon that was about thirteen-point-three miles long and my last-lap kick was for naught once we pulled the splits and realized we had to shave off that last circuit. It cost me a perhaps half a dozen seconds in a race where I landed only a dozen clicks off my best, south of a buck twenty-three. But clocking that in a rather casual effort on somewhat shredded legs can’t be a bad thing. And besides, they made it up to us; the Smuttynose was on tap (forgive me Father, I sinned and spilled one!) while we cheered on our friends in the second heat.

11 January 2012


In retrospect, I really didn’t need this race. It was a somewhat foolish race. I’d raced twice the week before, I’m racing the week afterward, I didn’t need yet another. But it sounded like fun, if your idea of fun is subjecting yourself to pure agony for a while. And it was fun, at least other than the agony bit, and other than a few days later feeling in real life what I appeared to be in a photo taken by Dearest Daughter the Younger: Splinched.

For those unfamiliar with the term, splinching is Potteresque (from J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter world) for accidentally leaving a bit of yourself behind when you pop into or out of one place to somewhere else directly, skipping the pesky spaces in-between. Efficient transport, if it could be done for real. Apparating and disapparating as it’s known in that space. But if not done just right, you splinch, which is not a good thing, unless you like parting with an arm or a leg.

DD the Younger recently saved her pennies to treat herself to her very own digital camera, which Dear Old Dad thought was a bit odd since there was one in the household at her disposal, but her artistic side wanted to experiment with video and image features that the stock unit didn’t provide. In short, it wasn’t cool enough. OK, Dad can handle that, set a goal and execute. Fair enough. One said feature of said new gadget was the ability to take panoramic photos without the annoying need to paste together eight images that inevitably don’t match up due to lens imperfections and operator tilt. Push the button, scan the scenery, and the camera locks on to stable points as you pan, meshing many strips of image together into one glorious whole.

If you’re a runner, or the offspring of one, or, in this case, both, this leads to an obvious question: What happens when I aim this at Dad as he races past? And the answer is really rather amusing. Most of the time you get a mess, but now and then you get the timing just right, and you get Dad, or at least parts of him, many, many times (twenty-five in fact as seen here, click on this one to see it larger) as he slogs on by. And he’s never in those pesky spaces in-between. Indeed, not knowing any better, you might think he was apparating repeatedly. And sometimes, when only bits of him appear – a leg here, an arm, half a chest without a back – you might say he splinched.

I found this picture to be quite amusing, and a couple days later I found it to be downright prescient. Because a couple days later my hamstrings were screaming in a way they haven’t screamed in a long time. I’d better back up a bit here…

Running with Greater Boston hasn’t really enhanced my training, since I don’t live in Boston where most of the workouts occur, and the time and logistics of getting there make it relatively unworkable. But racing with them, even in this short time, has brought plenty of new and interesting adventures: cross country races including the trip to Nationals, returning to the track for the New Year’s Eve mile, and this past weekend, a chance to hammer out a 5000 meter on the track. Ponder: Why is it that we never call it a 5000 meter on the road, and we don’t call it a 5K on the track?

By any name, this was to be the first time I’d ever run 5000m on the track, and even though I knew I’d be slow relative to the field of youngsters, in light of recent racing personal bests, I smelled a breakout. I consider this distance to be a sprint, and it’s been pretty much constrained by what appeared to be a natural speed limit. Put it on the track, controlled environment, following on the quick mile of a week back, and perhaps it might be time…?

The simple answer is that it didn’t happen. The emotional answer is that it was a poorly executed race. The complicated answer is that it still could have been my best five kilometers, despite not being the ultimate fastest, and despite having come in dead last.

Yep, dead last. So far behind the young fast guys (who lapped me incessantly) that they were lining up the next race when one of the officials happened to notice that, Hey! There’s still a guy out there! Now, considering they had an official dedicated to counting our laps, and he was dead accurate, I can’t quite figure out how this got by them, but whatever. They moved out of my way, and I crossed the line dead last, nearly dead. Not so bad as dead last in a road race of hundreds, this was merely seventh of seven, the result of a thinned field of numerous no-shows and the eighth guy, the only other master in the race and someone I would have bettered, dropping out in a generous gesture to give me the honors.

Poorly executed? First lap, too fast. First mile, too fast. Second mile, on target but now lagging, gasping. Third mile? Flesh barely congealed to the bones, falling apart, grunting, pace falling through the floor. Final result? No PR. Four seconds over my best. But we’ll get back to that.

I’d though the track would be a controlled environment, a way to even the pace, remove the vagaries of the road, reel in that breakthrough. Instead, it was relentless. With no ups or downs, it offers no momentary rests for the weary bits. And on a two-hundred meter oval, twenty-five laps, one or two seconds per lap cause an insurmountable change in the result. You’re constantly and cruelly reminded of how you’re falling apart, the difference between cruising and falling apart being separated by mere seconds. When the laps rose to forty-four seconds with nothing in the reserve tanks, I knew I was toast.

But the irony is that being four seconds off my best on a guaranteed accurate course makes this arguably my best, despite my dissatisfaction with the course of the event. My fastest was on a net downhill course. And numbers two and three, both two seconds between the fastest and last weekend’s, were on the same course known to be wildly inaccurate, those times resulting from my best estimate adjustment courtesy of Google satellite photos; in short, they might be quite wrong.

Matters not. Like the mile a week prior, I now have a track 5000m under my belt, and a place to work from. Clearly more track workouts are in order to improve that speed limit. But the adventure of trying this new event was what attracted me from the start. What we runners see as fun is a little different from the rest of the world. No regrets.

Now about that splinching bit… I can only theorize that racing a full five kilometers in the Hot New Shoes, the Saucony racing flats / spikes is to blame. I can only guess that the lower heels on these minimalist tires changed my leg geometry enough to stretch the living daylights out of everything on the back side, resulting in hams on rye a couple days later. Slice my legs out, I think they’ve been splinched. And in this condition, I note, a half marathon coming in three days? Yeah, whatever, bring it on. It’s what we do.

05 January 2012

Busy Weekend Bits

Last weekend’s bang-bang racing double made for more stories and tales than a mortal human could absorb in one sitting, even one used to my verbosity. Having told the tales of the tape a few nights back, I offer here some tales of, well, amusing bits.

Reunion: Saturday being an open meet, you never know who you’ll meet (pun intended). It would be easy to say that pretty much everybody was there, though that’s a bit of a stretch. Let’s just say there were a number of surprises, all pleasant. Besides a great turnout from my newly adopted Greater Boston club, also present was a customer of mine with whom I’ve tried to line up a run for some time, a young lady who ran on the track team I coached a few years back, and most pleasantly, one of my biggest smile-generating coaching subjects, Nick.

Coaching middle school teams at a small Catholic school is, as I’ve noted before, is generally not an exercise in high-brow athletic accomplishment. It’s a joy of course, which is why I’ve done it, but the focus is on fun, fitness, and personal improvement, not championship attainment. Yet each year I’ve had the pleasure of having one or two gifted athletes, offering the chance to push those few a little harder in the limited time we got together. These are the kids that you can push harder because they want to be pushed, they respond, and they grow into it.

Nick was my star of the Class of 2010, and now, as a sophomore at a nearby Catholic high school, he’s met significant success in various sports but has now gravitated to a running focus. Makes my heart all warm and fuzzy, it does… I’ve cheered as I’ve heard of his exploits since graduating from my team. And there he was, cheering me on for a change!

Nick, your coach is very proud of you!

Collecting the Forward Payment: On the topic of never knowing who you’ll meet comes this interesting story. Back in November, the USATF New England Cross Country Championships was my first race with Greater Boston. I arrived somewhat lost and confused, not exactly the deer in the headlights since it was daytime, but not far off. My apprehension was quickly broken when another GBTC master recognized me and pulled out of his back seat the shirt I’d designed for the Wolves race I’d directed for my local Highland City Striders club a couple years back.

At Saturday’s meet he related that something stuck in his head from that day and he’d finally remembered what it was. He recalled my race so fondly because I’d made a point of mailing him his medal after he’d had to depart shortly after the race. The irony was that there had been debate in our club on whether to do this, with several advocating that if winners couldn’t stick around for their awards, well, too bad, not our problem. My take? You callous fools. How hard is it to mail a medal and make someone happy? I exercised race director’s discretion and mailed the uncollected awards.

Two years later, I was now teammates with the recipient of one of them. He remembered, and appreciated it. And I was so pleased to know that a simple act brought happiness. It’s common to talk about paying it forward. Just do what feels right. It might come back to you.

Wicketh Funnieth: I hath to thay, thith ith my favoith thtory.

Sunday marked the fourth time I’ve run the Freezer Five, and the third time I’ve scored a masters award. There are a bunch of things I love about this race, but I’ll mention two in particular. First, I love the awards, which are both useful and cool, being sweatshirts with what I think is a great logo, and second, I love the awards, because they’re consistent yet varying, so I’ve built up a great colorful collection which just increased in size by fifty percent. As you can see, I now have three: 2007, 2008, and 2012.

It wasn’t until a couple days after the race, however, that I noticed something a little amusing…

2007 saw the 26th annual Freezer Five. Sweatshirt award pictured.

2008 saw the 27th annual Freezer Five. Sweatshirt award pictured.

2009 saw the 28th annual Freezer Five. I missed it due to foot surgery.

2010 saw the 29th annual Freezer Five. I didn’t make the podium that year, still coming back from the surgery break.

2011 saw the 30th annual Freezer Five. I missed the race that year.

And then…2012 saw the 31th annual Freezer Five.

Look closely at that sweatshirt. Yes, the thirty-oneth. Not making that up. Thirty-oneth.

Ah well, I love this race anyways. And I’m looking forward to seeing if next year is the thirty-tooth.

Finally, Absolution: Finally, being, as noted, Catholic, I must offer a confession. Forgive me readers, I have sinned. I looked it up, and discovered I’d lied. As it turns out, I ran a few open meets the summer after my freshman year of college, the summer of ’82, just as my First Lap of running was coming to its faded end. So no, it wasn’t quite thirty years since my last competitive mile, merely twenty-nine and a half. And it wasn’t high school. And you don’t care. But my conscience is cleared. Now I’ll go say a few Hail Marys and we’ll call it a night, OK?


02 January 2012

Bang Bang!

Two common phrases contradict. Go out with a bang. Start off with a bang. So, which is it going to be? Why decide? Bang Bang! Do ‘em both. I can’t recall the last time, if ever, I’ve raced on successive days. Certainly I’ve never done it in this weekend’s style: race the last day of 2011, then again the first day of 2012. The result? Last year, out with a bang. This year, in with a bang.

Two very different bangs, though, both superficially and on a deeper level. Superficially, a mile on the track versus five on the road – something new, something old. Deeper, flat out flooring it versus a mental game of persistence – something raw, something cranial. Still, bang bang.

Saturday (make that 2011) saw my return to competitive racing on the track for the first time in about thirty years. Or as Greater Boston teammate Joe put it, “The last time you raced a mile, most of the people in this building weren’t born yet!” And there were a lot of people in the building, the event being the “Mini-Meet”, which was anything but mini, at Boston University’s delectable 200m indoor banked oval. Mini? How about fourteen heats of the mile with about a dozen in each? How about my forecast of 5:15 placing me clear down in heat ten? (And yes, it’s fastest to slowest.) This was not mini by any means.

Oddly, my intent wasn’t to run this race at all, but to join my GBTC brethren in Lou’s Relay, an annual four-by-sixteen-hundred-meter relay extravaganza. Except our Teammate Number Four came down with an unidentified ailment and bailed. Though we could have scored a new fourth, the mini-meet was so over-maxed that had we waited for said Headline Event, the new year would be encroaching across Europe and several of our spouses would have been encroaching on our lives for our absences from home-side holiday festivities. So we jumped into the open mile.

Truthfully, this was a relief. While our relay team wasn’t intended to be highly competitive, I would have been in the slower half of the team, and more importantly it was my intent to test out the Hot New Shoes (see previous post). Racing in shoes never worn, yes, I know, bad idea, but opportunities are few, just go for it. Still, had they inflicted unbearable pain and agony, I’d rather they merely crippled my own mile than dock the team’s relay performance. So a flat-out mile was just ducky with me.

And flat out it was. Not only had I not raced on the track in thirty years, I hadn’t run on a track so small since then, either. Two-hundred-meter laps fly by so fast that with the pedal to the floor I couldn’t even think to look at my watch for splits. Bang times eight. But I didn’t need my watch to know that I don’t have the rhythm of a mile down yet. It was pretty obvious that I faded around lap six, slipping from second to my eventual seventh place 5:13 finish in the heat of fourteen, after a tenuous moment nearly going down on the last turn after being pressed against the rail by a passing competitor. The laps are small, they fool you into thinking they’ll pass in an instant, and they do, but those instants get harder and harder.

Flat out. Too fast to think. Give me some time on this one, I’ll figure it out. But, um, wow, bang.

Oh, by the way, the shoes? Like driving a turbocharged GTO. In slippers. Delightful.

Sunday (make that 2012) was a whole different, far more familiar game. A rushed return to an old favorite, the Freezer Five, a relatively flat and known accurate five-miler which, prior to this fall’s New England Cross Country Championships, was the site of my personal best at that distance. Rushed in that our church band doesn’t usually play the first Sunday of the month, but we were on, and no, of course we didn’t get the “fast” priest. Finish the last song, drop the guitar, and drive rapidly. Perhaps the adrenalin of just getting there was a boost to the system?

In the back of my mind was the nagging question of whether this was a good idea at all. Race successive days? Risk injury? Or simply die an agonizing death on the course?

Warned by a friend of a fairly stiff headwind on the outbound leg, I figured my fortunes would be boosted by latching on to a nice moving windscreen for the first two miles. And this is where this race got cranial and deep right away.

A little background here. My race performances have been doing what I call “compressing” over time, meaning my pace in the longer races is coming down closer to that of the shorter races, but the shorter races haven’t been getting much faster, they being compressed against my top speed in track workouts. I’ve seen this as sort of a speed limit, and have started work to break through it, hitting the track for a few sessions of mile repeats lately, the theory being that if I can raise the speed limit, I may be able reach a comfort zone that then allows a higher limit for the five kilometer sprint, and open up some space for compression at the longer distances to continue. In this respect, the previous day’s flat-out mile may have been a benefit.

Off the line it was apparent that others were also looking for nice moving windscreens, which made it hard to get one for myself. I’d already fought three-quarters of a mile of wind before a true drafting opportunity arose, but the pair ahead of me were holding a pace just a hair hotter than I felt capable of, and kept creeping away.

Mental game time: If I let them go, my effort goes up and my performance goes down. If I stay with them, I have to consciously turn on mini-sprints to continually close the gap, mini-sprints when I’m already at a pace I’m not certain I can sustain for five miles. But in my mind I now knew that my track speed limit had just risen, blasting away that longtime 5:30ish limit with yesterday’s 5:13. So tell myself that these mini-sprints aren’t out of the question.

It’s debatable whether I actually gained any wind advantage out of this, but it kept me glued to these guys, both of whom I eventually beat. After the lollypop turnaround, the expected return-leg tailwind reversed itself – of course, what else would you expect? – mom nature offering only more resistance. But by then, despite the lack of mile markers, I knew I had a shot at sub-thirty, a goal secretly unstated and a plateau never achieved. Place didn’t really matter at that point for anything more than pride. It was merely a game of mental will to drive up the last small hill and press home. You know when you’re pressing the limit when you need to think about whether to swallow (or otherwise eliminate) accumulating gunk and risk losing the oxygen benefit of a single breath or just let it fly where it may, but that’s pretty much where I was.

Payoff. First five-miler below thirty, and twenty-one seconds below, for five-fifty-six pace. And I’d wondered whether it was a good idea to race. Bang.

It’s Twenty-Twelve. Have a bang bang year.