01 April 2013

Emotional Power

And thus endeth one of the tougher weeks of my life.  Monday a week back Rocket John was laid to rest by his family and friends.  Heart-wrenching doesn’t begin to describe the day.  But the only thing worse than a funeral for a tragically lost dear friend would be an empty funeral for a tragically lost friend, and thankfully this was not one of those.  The outpouring from all walks of his community was tremendous, loving, and healing.  John, having stopped traffic so many times during his runs to dash across roads, slither through snow-narrowed streets, or simply take over the pavement in his many races, would have been proud at the amount of traffic interrupted by his huge procession, with hundreds making that long last trip down the roads with him.

More healing came from the unique power of the web, with its ability to meld the knowledge of individuals into an ever-improving collective whole. Amazingly, barely half a day after posting last week’s tribute, my words found the very man who was present at John’s final moment at Mile Twelve in lower Manhattan.  Learning how it happened, knowing it was immediate and without suffering, made the impossible weight of our loss a little easier to bear.  Our prayers follow John always.

Now our challenge is to pick up and move forward, for ourselves and to honor John’s memory, and harness the emotional power that his memory imparts upon us.  And in that vein, it was a pretty powerful week, starting with one of the most remarkable training runs ever, riding over a big personal milestone, and putting an exclamation point on that milestone with a few additional notches in the record book.  I suppose emotions can drive those kinds of results.

The weekend of the wake we assembled what I’ve just decided to call the Toxic Trio for our final long training run before Boston, then only three weeks out.  Whenever I’ve gone on long runs with GBTC buddy Joe the Plumber, we’ve driven each other to paces far beyond our plans.  Similarly, it’s been a rare run with my local road companion, “Problem Child” Issam, where we haven’t beaten the tar out of each other.  That of course is the magic of training partners:  the power to drive yourself far beyond what you’d do alone.  But put the three of us together, and it became downright dangerous.  Two weeks earlier we’d teamed up for the first time and tasted the possibilities.  This time it turned mildly frightening.  Despite our constant self-chiding to slow down, we turned in twenty-four miles at three-hour-flat marathon pace, far faster than any pre-marathon training run in my history book, with the final miles, at least for Issam and I, who knew John so well, emotionally charged both internally and verbally at the end.  It was crazy, it was inspired, it was confidence-building, it hurt, and it would have made John proud.

Only days later came that day that had been creeping ever closer…and suddenly there it was.  When I was a kid, I couldn’t imagine being as ancient as thirty-seven when the millennium would turn.  It was forever in the future.  Thirty-seven was a big deal?  Now, with plenty of warning, I hit the big half-century mark on Wednesday.  Fifty.  Whoa.  And though it really didn’t worry me as it does many people – after all, for a runner it simply means a new age group, a chance to race against the older guys – I couldn’t ignore the fact that John didn’t make it.  But our challenge is to pick up and move forward, and harness the emotional power.

It was no coincidence that my first contest in the Senior age group (”Senior”?  Are you serious?) was just a few days later.  I’d planned it long ago, a return to a local favorite, the Tri-Valley Front Runner’s Boston Tune-Up 15K.  To make it fun, TVFR offers customized bibs, and I’d registered with the requested lettering, “I’mFifty”.  To make it sweeter, Race Director Gary Atlas, a true class act in New England racing if there ever was one, did me one better and assigned me number fifty.  Of course, he admitted that a bib that read, “I’mFifty 50” did seem to imply that my chances in the race were somewhat iffy.

In a race where the competition is always stiff, and where a local fifty-plus ace usually shows, I knew it wasn’t a simple task to snag the win in my new age group.  But two fortunate events coincided:  that ace didn’t show, and Problem Child did.  Well, of course he did, we had travelled down together, along with Darling Daughter the Younger (more on her later) and Ace Support Team Dearest Spouse, all to enjoy near perfect conditions.  But as I said, Problem Child did show – not just at the race, but off my left elbow at the one mile mark.  Not realizing he was only a stride or two behind me from the start, he made his presence known, and we enjoyed seven glorious miles of Duel-In-The-Sun style reciprocal motivation, reminiscent of the day we met.

Huffing a pace that left both of us unable to vocalize anything meaningful,we once again shared the mutual understanding and respect for our simultaneous competition and cooperation, punctuated by the occasional elbow bumps that only emphasized the bond and drive between us.  I knew that without him I’d have dropped off the pace, and I also knew that the day might mark the changing of the guard, when the Young Turk (well, technically, he’s Moroccan, but you get it) finally beats the grizzled vet (no, I’m not really grizzled, but again, you get it).  As much as I’d respect the probably inevitable day when it would happen, I was simply too stupid to allow it on that day without a fight.

Through miles five and six, I found myself a quarter stride off, uncertain if I was sagging or simply subconsciously letting him break the breeze.  Through the rolls in the course, we’d trade that quarter stride on each other.  At seven, he seemed to fade a stride, but immediately recovered, the battle rejoined.  Mile eight, still too far from the end to truly kick, a gap opened.  His fade?  My surge?  I had then and still now have no idea, but I didn’t expect it to be over, and indeed it wasn’t.  Approaching nine he pushed again, to no avail.  The guard didn’t change that day, but he didn’t care.  Having run the race of his life, having blown minutes off his time, and having pushed me to blow another quarter minute off mine, we scooped up the wins for both the forties and the fifties.  Cool.  First race in the fifties, first win, and a personal best.  John would have been pleased.

But our troupe wasn’t done.  Dearest Daughter the Younger, having never run more than seven and a half at a shot in her life, succumbed to my suggestion and signed up.  As promised, once recovered, I gathered a few friends for a reel’er’in mission, and a’backwards we did go, to the amusement of many, catching up to DD the Y around seven and a half, and escorting her home to nine-point-three. Cranking out the final mile with a smile on her face as big as someone finishing their first marathon, she once again proved that half the battle is showing up, and being the only one who showed up – yes, out of three hundred forty-some people, only one female youth – she too snagged her age group win.  Three runners in one car, three first-place medals.  Not too shabby.

And just to put an exclamation mark on the week’s emotional rollercoaster, what better way to scream to the world that fifty doesn’t mean you’re finished than to finish the month with a personal record high mileage count, closing out Sunday with over three hundred miles for only the second time in my life.  All of this in a week’s span.  And only two weeks til Boston.  This one’s for you, John, your emotional power will drive us.

(Thanks to Ted Tyler from Coolrunning via jimrhoades.com for the finishing photos.)

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