27 February 2013

Twice Chilled

It’s like being a twice-baked potato, except it’s the opposite, and last I checked, I’m not a potato. It happened again, and at this rate, my body should be acclimated for an Arctic expedition. Or at a minimum, perhaps I’ve reversed some of the effects of last spring’s Boston Bake-Fest, an overheating that I’m convinced has made me more sensitive to the cold ever since. The torture that brings on these thoughts came about on Sunday on Cape Cod, just a few sea miles from the previous week’s bodily refrigeration on Martha’s Vineyard.

Traditions die hard, and this one nearly made me die the hard way. For the fourth year, my local club, the Highland City Striders, fielded our men’s masters’ team at the Hyannis Marathon Relay. For the fourth year, Rocket John took the first leg and I the third, in a race where it’s two laps to the marathon and two legs to the lap, so our legs in fact share the same start and finish points. Our tradition has been that after he runs his leg, he hangs out at the exchange zone at Craigsville Beach while our second man returns to the starting point, hands off to me, and I return to that same exchange zone. He, by then typically damp and cold, daringly jumps out of a warm automotive shelter and joins me for our ‘warm down’, running the back half of the course which comprises the second and forth legs. We always tease our anchor man that our plan provides insurance: should we find him dead on the course, we can take the baton and make a run for it. This year, he wasn’t the one we should have worried about.

Hyannis is not a small event, and the larger an event gets, the tougher the decision gets as to whether the show goes on when conditions turn ugly. This one nearly didn’t get off the ground. The Weather Gods predicted doom, gloom, not to mention plenty of white stuff and at one point winds exceeding the speed limit on secondary highways. Faced with those possibilities, several thousand of us breathed a collective sigh of relief when the day was upgraded to merely windy, cold rain. Ah, what fools we can be when our perceptions are subconsciously biased. Windy cold rain…Martha’s Vineyard, Wineglass Half, I know that’s not pretty, but relative to what we’d feared, hey, not so bad, right? And oh, did it rain! Buckets, I tell you. John set off in nothing less than a downpour.

But twenty minutes before my leg, the Gods smiled, and it slacked. Mind you, it didn’t stop, but slowed enough that aided by a seriously fashionable trash bag, I was able to warm up and take the handoff in a not entirely soggy state. As I always coached my cross-country team, running in the rain only stinks when you start. Once you’re in it, you’re in it.

Seven miles and several cross-country-like stretches later (where we had to divert through sideline mud pits to avoid minor floods), I’d clicked off my leg to the beach, and found myself thoroughly saturated. To avoid the chill, John and I hit the back six quickly.

Cue the deep, ominous music. The rain picked up. The wind strengthened. And the temperature dropped. It was like Martha’s Vineyard all over again, but far wetter. It wasn’t a warm down, it wasn’t even a cool down. It was a repeat refrigeration, but unlike the previous week, I didn’t head straight for the shower, and that mistake nearly finished me. Instead, back at post-race party central, I tried to re-warm with copious hot soup while still cloaked in soak. Lesson to self: staying in wet stuff, dumb idea. Hot soup to no avail, violent shakes encroaching, a club-mate handed me her room key and ordered me to the shower. By the end of the interminably long walk to that furthest-most room, I’d reached the seriously ugly stage, nearly unable to strip away drenched frozen layers, barely reaching warm water. Not wanting to alarm me, she didn’t tell me until I returned that my lips had been blue. And I should note that I wasn’t alone. Others, including GBTC buddy Joe, who ran a far stronger training-run full marathon than he planned, told me of similar experiences. It was just one of those seriously ugly days.

But amidst the drama was the almost anti-climactic happiness of yet another hand-painted fourth clam shell, the unique award of the Hyannis relay, as once again our masters team topped a weather-thinned field for the win. No, there wasn’t much competition, and no, we didn’t match last year’s time (given the conditions, that wasn’t a surprise), but once a post-race scoring glitch was ironed out it was clear that we’d left no doubt, bettering the next-nearest team by well over a half-hour. Twice chilled within eight days, but four wins in a row, a growing set of clams, and spring, I insist, arrives Friday.

On A Different Note, Thirty-Two Years Later Department: The encouragement of a great coach sticks with you forever. Back in those schoolboy First Lap days, our distance man for winter and spring track was a guy named John Perry. I couldn’t tell you his qualifications, I couldn’t tell you whether he was truly a great coach from a technical perspective, but I can tell you that he knew how to motivate. During the winter track season of eighty to eighty-one, while we roamed from improvised to inappropriate venues (such as the ‘track’ at the Domes at Elmira College consisting of duct-tape markings circling the tennis courts, don’t impale yourself passing around the net posts!), While we raced around those somewhat dangerous circuits, Coach Perry would scream in his unique hoarse voice that still rings in my head, “Lift and DRIVE Mr. Cattarin!” “Pick ‘em up and put ‘em down!” To this day I still think of those phrases as mantra.

But that year he also held out a special carrot. He spoke constantly of an elite meet to be held at Princeton University at the end of the winter season that he wanted a few of us to qualify for and travel to. Along with those commands to lift and drive came a new refrain, “We’re gonna’ go to PRINCETON!” To a high school kid, it was exotic, it was exciting, it was worthy of busting our butts to achieve.

Alas, we never went to that meet (I never learned if we missed a cut-off, or by how much, or…?). Other than a quick drive-through perusal while on business in Trenton early in my career, I really never even went to Princeton at all…until last week. Being as it is now college touring time for Dearest Daughter the Elder, I found myself in that wealthy, beautiful portion of New Jersey so that DD the E could tour the Disneyesque campus of that hallowed ivy. The morning before our campus tour, I embarked on my own, striking out on the peaceful Delaware & Raritan Canal trail for a few miles before diverting to downtown Princeton, then plunging into the disarmingly beautiful campus. It was easy to get somewhat lost in the myriads of pathways crisscrossing the expansive school, but it was a joyful kind of lost, soaking up the perfectly manicured scenery at every bend, and confident that when I found myself spit out on the other end, it would be easy to find the canal for the jaunt back to the hotel we’d dubbed Forward Camp Princeton. That interlude of lost lasted probably only ten minutes, but it was a ten minute span I’d waited thirty-two years for, since that winter of eighty-one. Lift and DRIVE, Mr. Cattarin, we’re gonna’ go to Princeton. Maybe it wasn’t the track, maybe it was just the campus, but thanks, Coach, I finally made it, and I was thinking of you.

19 February 2013

Multi-Dimensional Goodness

A true New England classic, the Martha’s Vineyard 20-Miler boasts the slogan “No Weenies”, aptly accompanied by the familiar red circle-with-a-bar international NO symbol cleanly stomping out that word. Ironic then that I found myself wearing that race shirt, complete with that logo, the next day when I sought the shelter of an indoor hamster cage run (a.k.a. treadmill) for the first time in over a year. Yes, I weenied out, but given the brutal icy wind blowing the day’s fresh snow across ugly sloppy roads, and mostly having just thawed from the previous day’s experience, well, my disdain of those wide-belted devices was trumped by a whiff of sanity.

This bending of a core principal (Outside!) was induced by the final miles of Saturday’s 20-Miler, when racing into a wind-driven stinging sleet, already soaked by nearly fifteen miles of precipitation, having lost most feeling in my arms and weathered a couple of rounds of frozen and re-thawed eyelids, I found my legs so cold and numb that I feared they’d stop working and I’d stumble. While I staved off repeat of the Great Wineglass Tragedy, I was pretty close to non-functional crossing the line. Rarely have I beelined so rapidly to the rejuvenation of a hot shower. Suffice to say that the race director didn’t lie in his race-eve email warning that the weather would, in a word, suck.

I’d already concluded that we did it right last year, jumping in less than twenty-four hours before the starting gun, already knowing we faced a day of wind but one mainly dominated by relative midwinter warmth and sunshine. Not so this year, when Rocket John and I opted to take the early-bird registration discount months back, which left us feverishly fretting the forecast. Frankly, the angst probably wasn’t worth the ten bucks we each saved, but then again, had we not committed, with the forecast as it was, we’d probably have opted out. John, who suffered an injury-ridden rough day, probably wouldn’t have minded, but despite the extremity refrigeration bonus, I’d have missed out on a good one. Ya’ never know, if you don’t toe the line, it won’t happen!

A good one it was, and on so many dimensions. How do we count the ways? There’s the sheer adventure of the planes, trains and automobiles-style complex journey, or in this case, boats, buses, and automobiles. This is not a simple excursion, though the organizers make it as easy as possible. There’s the enthusiasm of the volunteers, never such a cold and wet lot putting on such happy faces – and their uncanny ability to have your checked baggage ready and waiting when you walk in the door to the school is nothing short of exemplary customer service. Then there’s the ‘Old Home Days’ atmosphere, this being an event for the die-hards, and indeed the die-hards make their appearances creating a reunion of sorts. And not only old friends reunited, but new friendships made, bonds enhanced by the joy of us veterans sharing our logistical knowledge of this odyssey with the first-timers who, unlike at most easily-manageable races, can really benefit from the guidance. But that’s only the start of it, because this race has some pretty serious legs and it’s long enough to generate the excitement of a developing drama.

Old Friends, Club Friends, New Friends on the Vineyard
There’s a healthy competitive club presence here, with my Greater Boston crew fielding five and some clubs up to a dozen. While we didn’t take the new club participation trophy, we’ll claim the bravery medal, as one of our own was probably the only soul brave enough to run this in merely shorts and a singlet. I think they’re still chipping poor Jon out of his personal ice block.

Moreso there’s a healthy competitive presence in general, with a lot of experienced runners who know tactics and appreciate competitive teamwork. This year’s race developed much differently from last year’s, where the top ten all went out hard and fast. This year’s start was so leisurely by comparison that despite my promises not to go out too hot, I had to hold back so as not to lead the pack around the first bend. Two of my GBTC teammates soon forged away, and it was only that promise of conservatism that made me hold back with the chase pack, which in retrospect was the smart option. But by mile three I wasn’t so sure, as we lumbered a loping six-thirty-four pace – already putting me behind my hoped for six-thirty average.

I needn’t have worried. These guys knew what they were doing. As soon as we rounded the tip of Oak Bluffs and put the wind at our backs, we dropped the pace twenty to twenty-five seconds and made a game of it. Easily the most enjoyable stretch of the race, for seven miles we as competitors worked as a tight team to hold a solid tempo and put plenty of time in the bank, hitting the halfway point a few seconds ahead of last year’s irrationally exuberant start.

But at ten I miscalculated slightly, having placed myself on the road to avoid the snow of the bike trails and not returned to the trail in time for a turn which snuck up sooner than expected. I found myself on a wide trajectory that broke the pack magic, and suddenly I was alone in a self-motivation exercise as the rain picked up and the air grew colder. The next few miles were tough mentally, no longer carried by or carrying the pack, but the teamwork wasn’t finished. Anyone who’s run this race before knows that the second half is tough not only for being the later miles, but due to the prevailing winds, the gentle but long upgrades that never seem to offer up the favor of downs, and the somewhat mind-numbing sameness of the scenery once away from the coast. Thus when Tom from competing club Whirlaway caught up with me around mile thirteen, he well knew he’d be better off with the motivation of two rather than simply pushing forward alone with that far left to go. Between that and his just being a wicked good guy to help drag me along, together we held the splits to respectable, if not first-half levels, until he motored on with two and a half to go, close enough that we each could find the will to finish it under our own steam. While he put nearly a minute on me in those last two miles (my nineteenth was abysmal), it’s pretty clear that teamwork benefitted both of us.

My mental math told me a Personal Record was in the offing, though after that snail-like mile nineteen I still had some doubt. Twenty was a screamer though (or perhaps the nineteenth mile marker was misplaced, which seems a little more likely), and the clock read a surprisingly smaller number than expected – well under two-oh-nine and a big personal best by more than a minute – far better than I’d expected on the starting line. For the second year it was good enough to take top honors my age group, a nice boost being less than six weeks away from moving to the next one. Greater Boston’s team of five cleaned up, winning the overall men’s, three age groups, and a second place age group; five out of five medalists, not too shabby. More important though was the fact that this year’s race was simply smarter, with a conservative start (still no negative splits, but at a roughly sixty-three – sixty-five split, not too bad) and more teamwork, bringing a better result.

Fitting that after all of this that Old Home Days served up a final chapter on the boat ride home when we met up with Chris of RunRunLive fame, the very Chris whom I’d met not far from the mainland side ferry terminal while running Cape Cod seven-plus years back, and who inspired this blog. Thanks for the brew, Chris, who knew they actually served the good stuff on the boat? Chris is raising bucks for Team Hoyt for Boston, consider dropping some coin in his till on his web site.

And so it was that after this somewhat epic day, when Sunday dawned snowy, sloppy, but most importantly, windy as all get up, gusts well over forty, it was, after all, the day after, not the day of, and I’d already legitimately earner my No Weenies shirt and medal. Nothing says you have to push into a near-suspended-animation experience daily. But having said all that, I must admit that amidst the boredom, faced with two large screen televisions each tuned to farm-team pro, er, excuse me, college basketball, both just far enough away so as to make the scores unreadable, and of course having no headphones to hear the commentary, yes, amidst that and the warmth and sweat of the great indoors, the bruised arms from whacking the channel changing squawk box, the amusement at people mounting and dismounting their mills within ten minutes, indeed, despite all that, I must admit I got a pretty darn good workout in on that hamster cage.

12 February 2013

Give Yourself Credit

Once upon a time in a different era, all of two weekends ago, back before our simply cold winter world was transformed into the Great White North following the Blizzard of ’13 (I steadfastly refuse to use the Weather Channel’s goofy storm names), an interesting event occurred, quite unexpectedly. That particular Sunday I headed out with Joe the Plumber, one of my Greater Boston training buddies, for a sixteen miler. Determined not to hurt ourselves too badly (which we invariably do when we run together), we went out deliberately slow, and were pleased to see we’d barely broken seven and a half minutes at the mile mark. Very shortly thereafter – translate, we still hadn’t really picked up the pace yet toward the frenetic finish we’d pull off a hundred minutes or so later – we approached an intersection where a runner came at us from another direction.

I’ll pause here to note how surprisingly rare it is to encounter other runners. You’d think with our numbers, we’d be tripping over each other, but it generally doesn’t happen. I’m convinced that eighty percent of them do a couple laps around their neighborhoods and never venture onto the roads that are long enough – read, more or less main roads – to actually cover any distance. Since those are the roads I frequent, well, you can see the connection here – or lack thereof. As such, events such as this I describe are unusual enough to make themselves instantly notable.

That being said, along comes said runner, approaching from the right. A young ‘un, he was, daring enough to be out in shorts on a chilly winter day, that being a characteristic of youthful exuberance, or perhaps foolishness, but now is not the moment to examine that aspect. What was notable was that to our appearance, he looked like a rocket: fast, smooth, just plain smokin’ it down the road. Not the jogger type whatsoever. Neither of us said anything as he passed through the intersection just ahead of us, where we made our planned turn seconds later which converged our routes, dropping us perhaps fifty feet behind him. And then a funny thing happened. He didn’t get away.

Our routes converged for only a quarter mile or so before he took the next right while our plans carried us straight ahead. But when he turned, he was now perhaps only forty feet in front of us. And recall, we weren’t really up to speed yet, this being early on, with fifteen miles in front of us. The implication was obvious and intriguing.

To that point, neither Joe nor I had spoken about our wordless interloper, which made it even more amusing when, shortly after his departure, we simultaneously over-spoke each other with almost identical comments of, “Do we really look like that?”

The literal answer was, of course, no, since we had twenty to twenty-five years on the kid, and no sweet teenage girl would ever ask us to the prom (and we’re both thankful for that). But aside from our, let’s say, mature features, the meaningful answer was, wow, perhaps we do.

Now and then I’ll hear from someone in town that they saw me run by, and I’ll usually think about how pathetic I must have looked at that point. A few weeks ago it happened as I was struggling up the final climb of another long one, trailing my training partner of the day by a decent margin, utterly spent while trying to pull off a major effort while enduring a major cold. I was ratted out the next day, and instantly wished my espier hadn’t seen me then. But inevitably those viewers have no such impression. Even when that person is another runner, their assessment is almost universally positive.

I’m not commenting on my svelte form here, but making a general statement. It’s easy for us to form a less than optimal impression of ourselves based on our struggles on any given day compared to our ideal vision of what we’d like to be. It’s equally easy to look at others and marvel at how smooth, how fast, how good they look, and compare ourselves negatively. What’s hard is to put those two together and accept that you, no matter your pace, your form, your style, probably look pretty darn good to the casual observer, and as I’ve often noted, just by being out there, you’re setting a great example. Look at that guy go! Man, I oughta’ do that, too!

Our encounter with the fast-looking guy lasted all of about a minute, but the lesson learned has stuck around now, more than a week later, when I think back about it. The real trick will be to pull that memory out when I really need it, like today when I found myself struggling uphill into stiff wind, body sore and tired after several straight days of ten-plus-milers following the dig-out from our blizzard. I didn’t think about it today, but I should have.

Give yourself credit. You look better than you think, even when you know you don’t look so hot at the end of a hard effort or race. Feel good about it, you’re sending the right message.

Meanwhile, about that blizzard: Yup, it snowed, and it snowed lots, somewhere between two and two and a half feet. I’m thankful I don’t live on the coast, suffered no tidal surges, didn’t lose power, and live in a neighborhood of great people who all pull together at times like this. My snow blower consists of two arms and a shovel, accompanied by six more arms of my family, whereas all of my neighbors utilize fossil-fuel-driven mechanical means. I’m not complaining, there are places and needs for both methods. We dug and blew and heaved and dug some more, helping each other for hours upon hours until the multitudinous mayhem of moguls had been transformed into a pretty patch of paved pathways. I do think they get the short end of the deal, as their machines need a lot more maintenance than mine and they miss out on the best upper body workout known to man, but I’m glad they’re there. And after all this? Well, what would you expect? Went for a run (carefully) of course!