25 March 2012

(****) Lucky

Between the excitement of racing events, these literary interludes tend toward reflective themes. It takes a while for an idea to gel in my head, then a while longer for sufficient time to appear to pen said treatise, and that’s before the motivation wildcard intervenes. The result is that what comes out baked is often not what popped into my head somewhere around mile eight sometime back.

This week’s topic was shaping up around the theme of confidence. Specifically , rebuilding confidence in preparation for the Big Boston Party now a scant three weeks away. About how ludicrous it is that building or rebuilding confidence should be needed, coming off what’s arguably been the best six months of racing in my life, but how, in light of the post-Stu’s slump I’ve been feeling, it is always an issue.

But it didn’t end up that way. Instead it’s about luck. Good fortune. Guardian angels.

At Stu’s, I hammered my time and largely achieved what I set out to do, but was forced to do it the hard way, having fatigued early in the race. By persevering to the end, I pulled that one out of the hat and walked away with a cozy sweatshirt award, but it quickly became clear that I’d also done a little damage. The subsequent weeks have been a bit rough, working through a hamstring pull and the malaise that results from general abuse. All of this made it pretty easy to wonder if I’d peaked too early and blown the timing for a banner Boston. Just to add to my worries, the mercury then proceeded well into the eighties – in March! – suggesting the prospect of a miserably hot Boston, and well, let’s just say that the leading indicators tended toward the bleak side.

But the good news is that my confidence is rising. After weeks of my compulsively checking daily, the BAA finally posted bib numbers and I was pleased to see a second-corral seeding (number 1520 for those planning to follow the fun), a mild lift. A full two weeks after Stu’s, I finally pegged a decent pace on a tempo run, another lift. A set of confidence-inspiring Yasso 800s later in the week helped again; though a struggle, I nailed my target pace through the whole set. And on Saturday, when my GBTC buddy Joe the Plumber came out to sample our local hills for our last long one before the big party, we intentionally held our pace back about twenty seconds per mile compared to the usual hammer-it-out, resulting in a twenty-four-miler that was probably the easiest, breeziest run of that distance I’ve had. Feeling good after nearly three hours out, a big lift. Just what the doctor ordered.

And (****) lucky I didn’t end up at the doctor, or far worse. This is where the story turns sharp left. Really sharp. Razor sharp.

Consider all of the things you have to do to prepare for Boston, or for anything for that matter. All of the training, mileage, speed, nutrition, hydration, even learning to dress for conditions and managing the logistics of getting to the starting line. There are a couple thousand things that can and often do go wrong. Staying healthy is frequently the toughest challenge, balancing training intensity against the limits of your body; add to that avoiding those around you oozing with viruses and certainly not forgetting to watch out for trucks large and small. There’s so much to think about that you’ll never cover it all perfectly. Especially the stuff that jumps out and gets you from left field.

Twenty-two miles into our twenty-four miler, cresting a hill I run frequently and know well, two strides ahead of Joe, and after absolutely ascertaining an absence of automotive apparatus, I turned back to warn him of a steep downhill pitch coming up. He’s nursing a recovering foot injury and needed to be excruciatingly careful about the pounding of the downhill. All set, he’s good, proceed– SMACK! Tree branch to the face, left side, upper cheek and eye.

That which will get you someday will likely come from where you least expect it. You guard against the dangers you expect. You can’t guard against those you didn’t even see coming. Of course one could say that trees are a danger you’d expect, and therefore guard against, but this was a busy narrow street which I run often, configured such that anything hanging over into the street is almost certainly to be clipped off by a truck within an hour. But not this one.

Painful? Significantly. Concern for my eye? Absolutely. But my contact lens was still there, as was my vision, so after a quarter mile of running hand-to-face, I forced a return to normalcy and we finished our odyssey. Only on stopping a couple miles later did Joe alert me to my new bloody make-up job. Hey, I told him, after coming home with the broken nose three years ago, this won’t shock my wife. Leave it to a runner, he joked to her later, to come home bloody and bruised. The pain subsided, and a shower later I had a hard time figuring out where all the blood had come from, seeing no wound larger than a dot. And that is where the word lucky comes into the story.

The next day I set out to return to the scene of the crime with the intent of breaking off said woody offender. It wasn’t hard to find. But what I found was somewhat shocking. It wasn’t just a branch. It was a hawthorn-like branch, only worse. If you’re not familiar with a hawthorn, it’s not what you’d call a user-friendly tree. Its branches are lined with two-inch razor-sharp thorns. This one sported weapons in the three-to-four inch class, spaced every six-to-eight inches. Just gripping the branch to try to break it away resulted in a several highly painful missteps.

This was the thing that had assaulted my face. The tiny dot-sized wound, less than a half-inch from my eyeball, now had a clearly identified source. The shudder I felt at what would have happened had I been a half-inch shorter, or in a slightly different stage of my stride, or given any tiny variation of the scenario, was nothing less than chilling. I doubt the best ophthalmologist would have offered good odds on repairing what those daggers could have done to my eyeball.

It’s easy to say I had the bad luck of running into the branch. That’s the half-empty view. I’ll take the half-full. I was lucky – damn lucky – to run away with my eyesight, as lousy as it is, intact. Somebody was watching over me.

If I can survive that, Boston should be a breeze.

14 March 2012

Boston in Red

[Ed Note: This article was written for the Greater Boston Track Club newsletter.]

The Boston Marathon again looms, a mere five or so weeks away. Again, I’m working the long runs into the schedule. Again, I’m planning out the preparatory races, trying to balance maximum conditioning with maximum health and readiness. Again, I’m not exactly fretting over the weather, since there’s nothing I can do about it, but let’s just say harboring healthy concerns as usual.

There are a lot of “agains” surrounding this, my sixth Boston and sixteenth marathon. But this one stands out. There’s nothing whatsoever “again” about the fact that this will be my first Boston wearing the red jersey of the Greater Boston Track Club. I have to admit that even in my advanced years, I find that to be pretty exciting.

The irony is that before getting that email last fall inviting me to run with GBTC, I was pushing for a team effort, trying to convince my local club, the Highland City Striders of Marlborough and Hudson, that we should register as a team. One might say that enthusiasm was muted. I love my local cub for its character (and its characters), its camaraderie, and its encouragement and fun, but it’s not by nature a highly competitive group. They didn’t seem all that worried about scoring Boston as a team.

Enter GBTC. I got what I hoped for, indeed much more. Ironically, instead of leading the team of locals, it’s pretty likely that I won’t notch a scoring top three time amongst the depth of the GBTC masters (hey, age fifty isn’t far away for me, wait till next year!). But no worry, scoring position or backup, ready to notch in if someone has a bad day, I’ve got my team, and it’s not just any team.

As a high school cross country runner in Upstate New York in the late seventies, I watched what was happening in Boston with awe, drawing inspiration from the world-class runners of the day. After a nasty illness heading into college knocked me off the roads and trails, decades passed before I returned to running, and it was twenty-five years before I finally ran that marathon I’d wanted as a schoolboy. Less than two years later, there I stood, qualified and lined up for the famed Boston Marathon, another youthful dream fulfilled. Of course, after that long wait, the famed Nor’Easter race of 2007 was somewhat of a slap in the face, but really, who cared, it was Boston!

Now, just a few years after that, it’s not just Boston, but Boston for the home team, Boston in the shadow of those who lit my fires me long ago. Seriously, how many people get the chance to grow up and live that dream? (Wait a minute, grown up? I’m not sure I have yet – I still feel like a kid in a candy shop.) What a ride it’s been!

In the brief time since I joined the GBTC last fall, I’ve been re-introduced to the fun of cross country, come back to the intensity of track racing after a thirty-year hiatus, and had the opportunity to toe the line wearing a nationally known club name at a national championship meet. Of course I can’t match the big boys, but it’s heady stuff just the same, and most of all, it’s been fun. Even a few personal bests have tumbled in, driven by the uplift of being surrounded by confident, competitive, and capable comrades. And that’s after just four months.

I’ve been warned – or perhaps that’s not the right word – excited – by some of the other GBTC people telling me that running Boston with Greater Boston plastered across your chest is different. You’re the home team. The crowd responds. Frankly, I can’t wait to find out just how true that might be. Boston crowds are amazing to begin with. How they continue cheering so long after the truly fast guys have passed mystifies me, but they do. How they amplify those cheers for the home team might just carry me over those rugged spots, like that last lump over the Pike at mile twenty five, in my view the worst insult of the course.

Boston Number Six, Boston in Greater Boston Red, will be different. Best time or not, it’s lined up to be the best ever.

09 March 2012

A Good Bad Day

This month marks seven years since re-entering the world of compressing midsoles and obsessive recording of distance. In seven years, I’ve been remarkably fortunate in that I can’t think of a race that was truly a train wreck. Somehow my ever-aging body has managed to pull through, and while not every race has been exemplary, most have ranked at decent or above. Or at least decent enough that I can pull some positive out of the mush.

If you’re expecting me to say that the streak is broken, the locomotive ran off the bridge, the calamity came, well, sorry to disappoint. It did not. But Sunday was at least one of the rougher days at the races, even if it did turn out very well in the end. As my darling spouse put it, “Even when you have a bad day, you have a good day.”

The good bad day came at Stu’s 30K (no, that rhyme was not intentional), gloriously only a few towns away considering the previous two weeks’ successive Cape Cod expeditions. Though this was only my second time running Stu’s, it feels like an old friend, since it passes through West Boylston, my old home stomping grounds of the 80’s, on its circumnavigation of Wachusett Reservoir. Miles four through nine and a half were once my daily commute; I could probably run them with my eyes closed. And it’s good to have good feelings about this course, since it helps you forget the fact that it’s otherwise diabolically nasty, almost all hills, with the worst as the finale.

Like the hills on this course, our bodies tend to peak and fade. Two weeks earlier, clearly on a peak, I’d run off with abandon to Martha’s Vineyard, nailing a personal best pace for the long race category. The following week brought another, a hard personal-best-pace segment at Hyannis that put an exclamation point on February. But by race day at Stu’s, the gloss was fading. Sometimes you just know, though this time I only suspected. I’d figure it out for certain about seven miles later.

Call it reckless disrespect, but popping in eighteen-plus really didn’t concern me. I targeted hitting my mostly-flat-course Vineyard pace on the hills at Stu’s. And there was fire in my legs at the start. For fun, I led it for a quarter mile, not showing off, just feeling comfortable. A fast first mile was no concern; I’d done it on the Vineyard, yah, whatever. I dialed it back a notch into the first big climb, linking up with a buddy for a while, then enjoyed the ride down the backside to the lake, up again through the center of the old home town, and headed south toward Boylston alone.

And then, rather quickly, the dial spun from Cruise to Fried.

It really wasn’t the fast first mile, the irrational exuberance, or the callous disregard for the distance of the task at hand. It was obvious in short order that it was simple case of, “You did what three weeks in a row?” fatigue. I could just feel the life leave my legs. Not hit-the-wall whole body wheels-off-the-bus-at-twenty-two style, but the clearly-there’s-no-race-left-in-these-sticks style. And this was at mile seven. Yup, it’s gonna’ be a rough one.

When this hit, I was in fifth place. How I finished in thirteenth, I’m still not entirely sure. It seemed like it should’ve been about twenty-fifth. The first notch down to sixth came rapidly, followed by, irony of ironies, none other than my rival EJ, alias Bad Dawg, who arrived perfectly timed as we came upon my Ace Support Team who aptly record our fourth meeting, this day clearly his.

Just past the halfway point the course pulls an odd sort of u-turn, offering to all the great relief of yet another hill conquered, but for me the dismay of learning that I wouldn’t be losing spots by ones and twos. Instead I was treated to the view of what looked like a massive chase pack. Ignoring for the moment the absurdity of being followed by the chase pack, it was an ominous realization. Screaming down the hill at mile ten, they swarmed, and twenty-fifth place or worse seemed a certainty. Yet the onslaught stopped around fifteen, and I bought a few back, laboring every stride.

What a turnaround, and not for the better! Flying to crushed in seven miles, followed by agony for the next five. But at twelve came magic, one of those times that can’t help but make you love this sport and the people in it. My great uncle Joe used to talk about a collection of his dearest lifelong friends who called themselves the Agony Trio. At twelve, we made our own Agony Trio, Artie, Roy, and myself, not lifelong friends, but all clearly in agony, naturally coagulating around our mutually collapsing selves, all loudly admitting our burnt toast status, all completely aware that though we were competing with each other, we were in desperate need of each other to survive no-man’s land, that stretch when you’re beyond help but too far from the end to power yourself to the finish. For the next four miles our little self-help group grunted, complained, surged, dragged each other, and refused to leave a man behind. Yes, those miles were net downhill, but not all downhill, and there’s no way any one of us would have held pace without the other two. And we did: At mile sixteen, I had held within a few seconds of my first-half stride. But man, did it hurt.

The rest was classic Stu’s. Sub-six screaming down past the dam into Clinton. Ballooning to over eight climbing out the other side. Truly awful finish line photos, Death-Warmed-Over after another round in the microwave. Days later I’m still feeling damaged. This one left a mark. Yet in the end, the clock rang up nearly three minutes off my 2010 time, my pace was a mere three seconds per mile off the flatland Vineyard, missing by target but not by much, and the race director handed over a bit of swag for my having placed amongst the old guys. Frankly, pretty good for a bad day.

Final parting random bit: How cool is it to be handed number 69, which you can (and of course I did) wear upside-down?