27 January 2013

A Very Quick Distraction

It’s been a rather brutal week in Lake Wobegon. One would think we’d moved to central Minnesota for the temperatures we’ve seen; temperatures more reminiscent of the youthful days of the First Lap rather than those of the tepid winters of late. Such weeks just scream for a distraction to help us forget that late January has been, as it statistically should be, the coldest part of the year. And a distraction we did get, a quick one, indeed, a very quick one. More on that later.

First it’s worth noting that times like these test men’s souls, or more accurately, the part of the soul that constitutes the memory. After a number of chilly outings of late, Thursday morning I found myself in Boston proper, having stayed overnight at an overpriced hotel for a work function, a hotel that shouldn’t be shamed for trying to charge me more at the front desk than they were advertising on their web site, a hotel that, despite their lowest rate being double what I’m happy to pay, still found the need to try to charge exorbitant fees for expected freebies like internet service and local phone calls, and God forbid, if you’re a visitor from afar unlucky enough to have a cell phone that doesn’t work here, fees for calling over the pond that were simply shocking. No, they shouldn’t be shamed and should be left anonymous so that nobody knows it’s the Westin….oops.

Anyway, finding myself in the famed area code six-one-seven ironically on day six-one-seven of the streak (the long-term reader will recall this happened in Seattle on day two-oh-six, and though I didn’t mention it, was supposed to happen last week in New Jersey on six-oh-nine before that excursion was called off due to weather, but I digress), I didn’t have the luxury of waiting till the sun was high, as duty beckoned, so a sunrise jaunt was in order. If this was six-one-seven in six-one-seven, it was only appropriate to pop in roughly four in four. Degrees, that is, with a notable wind to add to the fun. One may think it unwise on a morning like to head to a place likely to be exposed to even more wind that, but being in striking distance of the waterfront at sunrise on a morning extracted straight from a Renaissance master’s painting simply can’t be ignored. The sun rose in unequalled glory from a low cloud bank over the harbor as I circled Fort Independence on Castle Island, and only a memory of that guy freezing to death in Jack London’s Call of the Wild, seventh grade English class (see, we do remember some of that stuff) kept me from circuiting the entire causeway that encircles Pleasant Bay. I figured it might be a long time before someone found my frozen corpse out there.

Four was cold, no doubt, but I recalled the night in my youthful days when I’d gone out late one night at the other four, four below. So when asked about my sanity later in the day, I referenced that night, implying that the current day’s run wasn’t really so bad. And later research into my old logs proved that I was both wrong and right, as my memory of the record coldest run was wrong, but only further proving that I was right, Thursday indeed wasn’t so bad. As it turns out, that earlier record wasn’t four below, it was ten below, the night of January third, nineteen eighty one. There’s a record I have no real desire to exceed.

By Saturday, the surprisingly well attended nine degree club run felt almost comfortable, and afterward, the sun made it actually feel warm till I got back into car and saw it had risen only to twelve. Clearly it was time to do something to stop thinking about the cold, cold, cold.

And that something was only hours away, and a few miles down the road. For that very afternoon we were treated to an event of Olympic proportion right in our backyard. The rumors that had floated for several weeks had been confirmed, and thus Darling Daughter the Younger and I made our way to Boston, braving the hazards of impossible parking, to insert ourselves into the stands at the Boston University
Terrier Classic track meet, where the organizers had assembled an all-star cast for an invitational mile featuring none other than Galen Rupp, silver medalist in the 10,000, which if my recollection is correct made him the first American to medal in that event since 1964. That race was among the most thrilling I’ve ever seen, and here was the star attraction, targeting a sub-three-fifty mile in our backyard. Three-fifty!

The indoor track at Boston University is supposedly one of the fastest (it holds my somewhat less-than-light-speed Second Lap mile personal best), and the facility is among the finest, with ample room for spectators. Good thing, because the place was packed solid, not only with the many club and collegiate athletes of the major meet in progress, but with hordes who’d made the same pilgrimage as we, simply to see history in the making. The crowd which, by sheer physical facility limitations, was smaller than the massive stadium in
London, was to a man completely tuned into the significance of what was happening on the oval. That crowd spilled from the seats, jammed the rails of the bleachers, packed the perimeter of the track, and through sheer numbers of athletes, managed to almost fill the infield as well, and generated an energy level I haven’t experienced live in years, if not decades. That crowd roared louder and louder on each circuit, reaching new crescendos as the first pacer dropped as planned at eight hundred meters, the second pacer stepped aside four hundred meters later, leaving Galen alone to drive the last four hundred meters in fifty-eight flat while the house exploded. The Cubs winning the World Series would not generate the concentrated energy inside that building. It wasn’t electric, it was nuclear.

Rupp missed breaking three-fifty but came close enough that nobody left unsatisfied. Three-fifty-point-nine-two, the fifth fastest indoor mile in history, and the second fastest by an American. And following him, at three-fifty-seven up,
four more clocking under four, and the final, sixth runner, clocking four flat. I had to explain to Darling Daughter how merely sixty years ago it was considered impossible to break the four-minute barrier, and here we’d just witnessed a race where essentially everyone did it – and the guys who’d just run three-fifty-seven were essentially ignored!

While Darling Daughter, the Biggest Fan of the leading runners of our day, was understandably in heaven (as was, to our amusement, the young lady sitting behind us, clearly of the same mindset – who needs rock stars when you have these guys?) I was no less in awe. Rupp and his coach Alberto Salazar, just a few feet from us, not for an expo appearance, but making history on a track that I’ve run.

Suffice to say that we pretty much forgot that it was cold outside.

My video of the race, admittedly not of professional quality, can be seen on YouTube at this link. It’s worth the five minutes, just to absorb the energy of the moment. Enjoy.

13 January 2013

Zero Dark Thirty

When we can motor through the dark times, it makes the normal days seem like a breeze. That this week brought its challenges makes emerging on the other side that much sweeter. No, nobody died here, no diagnoses of deadly illness, no unearthly conflagrations, or anything, but suffice to say there have been easier weeks, and Wednesday was the zenith of days we could have done without.

Overriding everything is the simple fact that it’s dark. It’s winter, even if it did push fifty degrees today. Here on the eastern edge of the time zone, the sun just doesn’t shine much, especially in the afternoon, so plan your runs carefully. It’s that annual time that I call the Sixty Day Challenge, also known as the Dark Period: January 1 till I declare virtual spring on March 1. Come on, you can make it thought sixty days of anything, right? Count off the six day chunks, another ten percent done, bang! It’ll be spring.

But during those sixty days, it’s dark, wet, sloppy, icy, dreary, cold, windy, and did I say dark? With a job that takes me places, exciting and vibrant places like Wednesday’s destination of a small town in Maine (no insult, truly lovely people to meet and hopefully not infect), well, momma always said there’d be days like this. Actually, she didn’t, but she should have. Suffice to say that I’m not a fan of being out for a run at five thirty in the morning because that’s my only chance with a long day on the road in front of me, when it’s dark, wet, sloppy, icy, dreary, cold, windy, and did I say dark? But there I was, my own little version of Zero Dark Thirty, battling through the pre-dawn blackness, just without the guns and terrorists, and on the streets of Marlborough rather than somewhere in Pakistan. (Disclosure: No, I haven’t seen the movie, so if the comparison is weak, sorry, but what else do you write about on a week like this?)

Yet even in the darkness, lights can shine. Who’d have thought that at such an awful hour I’d meet up on the road with a potential new training friend, an ultramarathoner recently moved to town, camped within a mile of home base, also out at such an unpleasant hour? You just can’t write off the dark days, because good can and will come from them. We’ll have to watch this one. Meanwhile, back to the dreariness…

Such inspirational serendipity was a good reward since not only was it dark, we, sloppy, icy, dreary, cold, windy, and did I say dark?, but to add to the joy, I was well into a bout of significantly unpleasant ill-health, being that several trillion energetic little viruses had decided to hold a swim meet in my veins. No, not the flu (yes, I had my flu shot), no, this was not all that horrible save that at some point this week I wheezed up the contents of, and possibly the structure of, pretty much both lungs. This wasn’t near-death, but neither was it fun. No amount of sit-ups at the gym can prepare your abdominal muscles for the pain induced by days of horrendous hacking. All day, all night (so sorry, dearest spouse!), and at five-thirty in the morning, on the roads, when it’s dark, wet, sloppy, icy, dreary, cold, windy, and did I say dark? Add to that the day’s exhausting excursion to Maine, and I was looking and feeling my best. The rest of the week was pretty much a wipe out.

I really can’t complain (no I’m not complaining, merely journaling, right?) It’s a benefit of the running life thing makes one relatively healthy, and as a result I don’t get sick too often. This bout just laid down a challenge: beat the little buggers, and don’t let them break you in the process. Damn the phlegm torpedoes, half steam ahead, run, albeit slowly, right through it. No chest cold, no matter how nasty, is going to break the streak now having exceeded six hundred days, right? So wheezing away, I forced out a few miles each day, and frankly, those were the best minutes of each day, the only times that really cleared my head. Take this as a reminder for the future: sick, miserable, get out there anyway if you can. It can only help, assuming it doesn’t kill you.

After several days of death trots, the invitation arrived in my inbox for a long one on Saturday with my training partner who oddly prefers the title, “Problem Child”. In this case, his choice of a nickname was appropriate, seeing as his invitation left me with a vexing problem: taking him up might be either brilliant or insane, depending on your perspective. Seeing as I’d broken the proverbial emergency glass on Friday and reached for the old leftover Hi-Test painkillers to knock down the fire in my throat, and popped one as late as five AM on Saturday, planning to bang out high double digits at noon may not have been the brightest idea. Or maybe it was?

Not being a total fool, I planned a small loop for us as a test ride, to be extended to the long loop if the cylinders fired. Five miles in at a decidedly casual pace, we decided it was working, and continued our traipse into the next town south, over many hills and more than a few dales, finishing up seventeen miles later, still on the manufacturing side of an atypical volume of unmentionable bronchial secretions, but feeling like I’d returned once again in the land of the living. Or in short, there’s nothing like a good run to cure what ails you.

A distracted week of darkness, illness, duress, and finally success, and, hey, look at that! We’re more than twenty percent through the Dark Period! How’d you like that?

01 January 2013

Good Enough

You’ve all heard the old one about the guy who says he’s just flown in from (pick your favorite distant location), and man, are his arms tired! Closing out the year, admittedly I felt a little of that, though not necessarily in my arms. Somehow I managed to eke a run into the schedule every day of 2012, stretching the three-mile-minimum-per-day streak to five-ninety-three when the ball dropped in Times Square. In doing so, the log tells me that I covered over twenty-seven-hundred miles, toed the race starting line twenty-two times, and notched personal bests in ten of those contests. Nice numbers, but other than the streak, they got reset to zero last night at midnight. It’s a new year and we start our obsessive counting all over again.

So after all that, man, are my legs tired! Or so it seemed for the last few weeks following the rapid-fire four-races-in-twenty-one-days episode of personal abuse that culminated at Nationals in Kentucky. I’ve shied away from the early winter indoor track meets, thinking, probably rightly, that the legs needed some downtime, and knowing for sure that the pesky Achilles did. But when January First rolls around, it is, after all, our duty as runners to uphold our own special version of insanity, and race on New Year’s Day. For me, tradition says it’s time to head back to my old neighborhood from the eighties and race the Freezer Five.

A part of me wanted to turn the unofficial personal best I pegged at the five-mile split in my Mill Cities leg last month into a real live “it counts” personal best at the truly five mile Freezer. The bulk of me, however, knew that the creakiness index of my bones over the past two weeks put that possibility pretty much out of the question. Mother Nature effectively sealed that assumption this morning by delivering a significantly nasty west wind, chillingly saturated with drifting snow, assuring that the opening westbound miles of the Freezer’s out-and-back-with-a-lollipop course would cure just about everyone of dreams of exceptional speediness. While you’d like to think you’d get it all back on the tail-wind-assisted return trip, we all know it just doesn’t work that way.

Piling on top of this, it seemed the Zombies ate my brain, causing me to lose sunglasses – on my head, run to the starting line without my racing shoes, and generally just not to be mentally engaged in the task. Suffice to say that I wasn’t expecting an A-Team performance. But what emerged turned out to be good enough, and a nice start to the year.

Two races embarked into the bitter wind from the starting line: the guy who won it by such an obscene margin that he was ten yards out front before we’d covered a hundred, and everyone else. Ignoring him, the rest of us actually had a competitive, hard-fought, and rather enjoyable (save the pain, of course) good-ole’-fashioned road fracas. Knowing one rival who generally plasters me to the nearest utility pole whenever we meet was out with an injury – never the way you want to get ahead, but when it happens, you factor it in – I was still rather surprised to find just myself and two others setting the pace (remember, we’re going to completely ignore the guy who won it).

In fairness, I tried to take my turn cutting through the abusive wind of miles one and two. In truth, I couldn’t quite summon the gear needed to take get out front of our mini-pack more than about a quarter of the time. It was too early to expend that level of energy, and for what purpose? The real first place was gone, well out of reach, the footsteps around me hinted that our pack was small, and those I’d seen were all youngsters. Let’s face it: in the masters racing game, if you ain’t old, it’s nice to beat you but I really don’t care if I don’t. And further, there were no mile markers on the course, (shame!), so we had no idea of our pace, and with that wind, no expectations of excellence. It was a day for good enough, race the ones you’re with, and the time will be what it may.

Circling the mini-loop at the far end of this course brings the fun of getting to see the field on their outbound leg, and for them, getting to see and cheer on the leaders. This being Freezer Five Number Five for me, it’s become an annual reunion of sorts, resulting in plenty of hoots of support from the midpack. Indeed, enough of them knew who’s who that several reported to me later a rather surprising tidbit: whereas I’d thought there were only three or four of us in our virtual leaders pack, in fact, they said, there was at least eight, ten, perhaps a dozen, all in hot pursuit of some old guy, a pied piper of sorts, leading the charge up the small rise to Sterling Airport. Had I known, I might have shouted “BURMA” and panicked. Ignorance is bliss.

One youngster broke free on that rise, and while I couldn’t hold him, in trying to maintain some contact I managed to break free from the rest of the gaggle. The leading gap widened, the trailing footsteps faded, and it looked like the finishing order was set, so long as I could summons good enough to stave off any late challenges. At roughly where I thought the mile-to-go mark should be, a watch check confirmed my expectation that nothing special was happening in the time department, only adding to the feeling that good enough would be good enough. Killing it probably wouldn’t catch the guy in front (who wasn’t’ an old guy anyway), and even if it did, he was minutes behind the real winner, the one with mutant DNA. Killing it wouldn’t hit that personal best time, barring sudden lapses in the laws of physics. So why kill it? Bring it home, good enough.

One-hundred-ten percent effort? Nope. Call it ninety-five, but ninety-five on a day when I wasn’t sure I could summons up eighty, and it was good enough. Good enough to take the masters win for the first time in this race. Good enough for my best placing in this race. Good enough that my time , while not special, wasn’t too disappointing, either. Good enough to start the year on a good enough note.

Some days, good enough is good enough, and we can be happy about that.