26 April 2014

Brilliantly Stupid

Let’s cut right to the chase. Based on everything that led to this point in cosmic history, I was supremely less than confident about how Monday’s Boston Marathon would turn out. Three-thirty was my re-qualifying time. Three-twenty made it safe, considering the way the registration system works. Three-ten was a stretch. Three-flat? Surely, you jest! (Or, as I like to pose to waitresses when they dangle the prospect of dessert, “Shirley, you jest!” Sadly, the current young generation doesn’t get that old Airplane crack.) So do you go for the safe bet, re-qualify with time to spare, or do you roll the dice and see what comes up?

By any sense of sanity, I ran an intensely stupid race on Monday. Blast early, suffer late. But if questioned under oath, I’d have to admit that I did it quite on purpose. Had I penned in advance the expected outcome based on this reckless plan, I would have predicted it to turn out pretty much as it did, though a bit slower. And mind you, despite the title of this post, I’m not claiming brilliance for doing this. I’m just saying that given the circumstances, stupidity may have been the most brilliant option.

There was no way in the place below Purgatory that I’d come anywhere near last year’s personal best. My goal was far more plebian: just stamp my ticket for next year’s dance. Under the system, once you’re in, you can still improve your seeding with a better race after registration. So the smart strategy would be simple: don’t push it, don’t flame out, just get it done. Notch a three-twenty, a hair under seven-forty pace. Barring disaster, that should be a breeze, right? After all, we cranked out twenty-four at seven-fifteens three weeks ago, and seven-fifteens buy you three-ten. So run seven-twenties, even and steady, just get it done, room to spare.

But anyone who’s run Boston knows it’s nearly impossible to run even and steady. The downhill start makes a giant sucking sound, drawing you like flies to, um, sticky goo. And anyone who’s ever started in an up-front corral knows it’s nearly impossible to avoid the pace of the pack. There wouldn’t be soul in corral two running seven-twenties. Or corral three, or for that matter, probably four. Besides, I figured I had more in the tank than that uber-conservative three-twenty, and if I really went out uber-conservative, well, you’re not going to get all that back. So live a little, right?

You can see where this is going. I willingly gave in to the power of the Force. Just let it go…

I could have written this story in advance, or just paraphrased the one my old friend Chris Russell wrote years ago during my first marathon: You can run your even [fill in target pace] and get your [fill in target time], or you can go out hard, suffer mightily, and still get your time. Which results in better stories afterward? And that’s pretty much what I did and how it went, except that it bought me ten minutes on the good side, turning that three-colon-one-something into a rather pleasing three-oh-seven-flat (yes, the first time in twenty marathons that my official time ended in zero-zero).

Given the shape I was in, of course I was a bit off in the head going out in six-thirties, but I thought if it as restraint, considering the pace at which I’d thundered out of Hopkinton in previous years. From corral two, that leisurely amble left me treated to a constant stream of frontrunners passing by. But the dismay of riding the slow lane was tempered by reminders that life is getting better since last fall’s train wreck. I hit five miles in the same time as I’d run the entire Freezer Five back on New Year’s Day, and seven in the time of my seven mile leg at Hyannis in February. That was progress, and this was – really – restraint. But then it was time to get real. OK, you banked some time, now just back away slowly, don’t make any sudden moves, and nobody gets hurt.

By mile eight, Part One, the stupid part of Brilliantly Stupid, was done. While I enjoyed a steady stream of teammates catching me, chatting it up, and leaving (our new Greater Boston singlets conveniently have our club name on the back as well, which makes it a lot easier to distinguish our red from everyone else’s), I got a hold of myself and dialed it back closer to sevens. But by then, it was obvious that Part Two of Brilliantly Stupid, the “Suffer Mightily” part, was absolutely coming. I was already feeling it and knew the next two hours would be a long haul. Amusingly, I mentioned to one of my passing teammates that it was the kind of day I’d be taking walk breaks. I say amusingly because that never actually happened, as certain as I was of its inevitability.

What did happen, while nobody was looking, was that an expected cool day changed character entirely. The forecast of fifties and rising wasn’t entirely wrong, but the sun turned up the heat far more than anyone expected. Later I’d learn that this insidious sneak-it-in-when-nobody’s-expecting-it heat would be the comeuppance of numerous comrades. By Framingham, it was apparent that while this wasn’t the Bakefest of 2012, it was another day for constant dousing. By Natick, I was a moving Poland Spring, nylon togs shining with complete saturation. It’s an art to douse yourself while avoiding your shoes. It’s also an art I haven’t entirely mastered.

The next eight miles held together as the only “normal production” part of the race. The half crept by at two-fifty-seven pace, though I’d already slowed and didn’t for a moment think sub-three was an option. By the time I blew my family, tossing my bottles (but not my cookies) in Newton Lower Falls – conveniently at the end of a serious downhill so they see me at a good moment – I knew the grind was on. Into the hills, slowing another half-minute per mile, and tellingly, starting to grunt. The crowds in this emotional year were exceptionally loud, an enormous relief: in a crowd like that, nobody can hear you scream…or grunt.

By then I was already doing the mental math, figuring the pace needed for each stacked goal, anything to distract, grunting mantras like, “Fifty-one for six-two” and other mindless machinations of measures. At seventeen, over the first hill, teammate Joe caught me and commiserated, “That was just the warm-up for the coming eight-mile jog.” It’s testament to the mental fog setting in – for both of us – that neither noticed we had our math wrong. Hello! Seventeen and eight don’t make a marathon. Briefly I was pleased with my prospects of hitting stretch goals, when along came eighteen and the realization that I was, in fact, a confused soul. Yeah, suffering mightily.

But considering my expectations way back at eight, what surprised me most was that somehow, whether by gritty determination or just utter foolishness, those expected breaks never materialized. It was the frog in the pot of heating water syndrome. One thing after another kept pushing off the moment that my will would break. Just get over the Newton Hills. Just get through the Graveyard. Break after Cleveland Circle…crap, can’t do it now, my Greater Boston team will be out cheering near twenty-three, can’t be walking when they see me! But there went twenty-three, haven’t found them, maybe they’re at twenty-four? Still missed them? Twenty-four and a half? Oh, fer cryin’ out loud, almost at Kenmore, why break now? Just grind it out…

None of my previous nineteen were easy. They were all marathons, every one of them, and they all hurt. Yet somehow this one seemed more determined, more grinding, more utterly, ridiculously, stupidly, over the top. That, it has to be said, is the essence of the marathon run competitively. Based only on time, Boston number eight was middling, hovering just around the mid-line of my previous races. But based on the feeling of redemption, the boost of confidence of getting back in the game, throwing Brilliantly Stupid at this one turned out to be just the ticket.

[Ed. note: Random stories from the day will follow in a future post.]

Thanks to Rich Blake of Coolrunning.com via jimrhoades.com for the photo from mile 19.

20 April 2014

Parking Wars

Peace has settled in by the fact that I’m going for a run tomorrow and nothing I can do will really change the outcome, save avoiding hot chili tonight. Peace has also settled because I know the only thing I need out of this race is a so-so performance to requalify, after which I can work on a placement-improving time in a fall race, if that’s in the cards. In fact, the only thing that’s really got me sweating is navigating the crowds tomorrow in a Boston that’s a third bigger than usual, and if yesterday’s expedition experience to the exposition was any example, that could be a surprisingly competitive event.

The Boston Marathon expo is always packed to the gills, a safety hazard just waiting for an unfortunate event, and our time there yesterday showed no exception. But we knew we were in a different class from the start, when my usual target parking structure put out the unwelcome sign, no room at the inn. Knowing that Dearest Daughter the Younger had made plans for our day, meaning that we didn’t have the luxury of trolling for something better. Against my better judgment, but operating under duress, I bit the bullet and pulled into the Pru Center garage.

I’m frugal in both my personal and business lives. There are few cases where my attitudes differ between those realms, but parking is one of them. If I have to take a meeting in the city, I pay (or let the company pay) what it costs to park in the city, which in Boston can be absurd. But in my personal life, I’ll blow the fifteen minute walk to cut that price in half. So it killed me to think that I was eating close to forty bucks just to pull into the place, especially since I knew from experience that once in, there would be no place to park. Yes, a garage that charges a small fortune yet has no space. You can wait in line and let them stack your car twelve deep but we knew we needed to stop at the vehicle for Part Two of the day’s adventures, so that wouldn’t work well. So we trolled…and trolled… and trolled…looking for anyone leaving.

Which brings us to one of the things that I love about our sport: the people, even the stars, are just so normal. Nice people, approachable, unassuming, generally not coddled, cloistered, or distant. Thus it was that we inadvertently tried to weasel a parking place from two of the greatest female runners in the country.

Four ladies by their car, could be packing things up, hard to tell. Window down, hey ladies, you coming or going? Coming? Ah well, we’ll keep trolling, no big deal. But this is one of the reasons I bring Number One Fan, also known as Dearest Daughter the Younger, along on these adventures. To me, four normal people. To her, instant excitement. No, I hadn’t noticed it was Kara Goucher and Lauren Fleshman. But then, I don’t recognize half the people I meet. Heck, that’s why I’m in sales, right? DDY, on the other hand, was right in tune.

We offered up quick and polite greetings, which they and their friends returned, and as we trolled off again to our eventual somewhat less-than-legal (but who’s counting at forty bucks a shot) slot jammed between a pillar and a maintenance door, we laughed at our coincidental meeting. Right, DDY taunted, you just tried to steal Kara’s and Lauren’s parking spot.

Like I say, people in our sport are so normal. No town cars or coddling treatment here. And I’ll bet it took them twenty minutes to find that spot, just like us. Plus we got a nice wave of recognition when we greeted them again as they hustled in past us inside the hall on their way – likely a bit late due to the parking – to do their appearance.

Besides her annual pilgrimage to enjoy sixty seconds chatting with her Number One Idol Ryan Hall, DDY also lit us up on a casual group run being led by none other than her Ryan’s wife Sara. Thus it was that bellies stuffed with every energy-food sample known to running man, lugging bags of goodies, we slipped back into Pru Parking Purgatory to make the Clark Kent-to-Superman transformation, and emerged ready to run – on a nearly perfect, save a bit windy – Boston spring day.

Did I mention how people in our sport are so normal? Sara, like Ryan, is simply a delight, a truly kind and sweet person, at least when she’s not voraciously kicking your posterior on the course. About twenty or thirty runners of all ilk gathered, including her parents, again the nicest people, and off we plodded for a few miles around Our Fair City. Taking our turns chatting with the Main Attraction meant having plenty of time to chat with a lot of other cool and interesting people from around the country. DDY had her time with Sara, chatting about the work of their Hall Steps Foundation and the project that she, DDY, is thinking about organizing for service in Haiti next year. Truly a pleasant afternoon!

In what other sport, I ask you? Just show up and shag flies with the Red Sox? Skate with the Bruins? Take passes from Tom Brady? Unless you won some sort of radio station contest, I don’t think so… I love our sport.

But back to the crowds. Topping the parking wars, topping the impenetrable crowds in the expo (where some booths had Congo lines just to get in!), it was apparent that this year is a dimension larger. Trying to jog down Boylston on our way to meet Sara, I’ve never seen the finish line tourists so thick. If this is what it means to field thirty-six thousand versus the usual twenty-four thousand, I just hope they’ve booked a lot more porta-johns for the village tomorrow. It’ll be interesting indeed!

Peace. Joy. Run.

11 April 2014

Of Two Minds

Ideas for this column morph between the time that they are born, which is often on a run, and the time that they end up on this page. Tonight, I wrote the word schizophrenia, thinking of the common belief that the disorder involves a person being of two (or more) minds. A quick search revealed that it is not, in fact, the same as multiple personality disorder, and in any event, I can hear the howls now from the mental health community that my use of these terms lightly is not politically correct. Whatever… it’s a good thing that not many people read this stuff.

In any event, I am clearly of two minds in these two weeks leading up to Boston. Mind One says I have turned a corner, I’ve broken out of the depths of my post-surgical, post-clot training funk and am in fact ready to turn in a respectable, though certainly not exceptional, performance come Patriot’s Day. Mind Two keeps finding things that are hurting, breaking, failing. You could call this a simple confidence problem, but with Boston number eight and marathon number twenty on the horizon for ten days hence, I've done enough of these that I’m pretty much past worrying about this stuff. Yes, there is a small bit of pressure about re-qualifying, but given Boston’s dismaying changes this year, failure on that count wouldn’t be the end of the world. No, these two minds are based on real crossed signals.

In short, I have no idea what to expect come two Mondays from now. That’s kind of a weird place for me, since I’m usually fairly aware of where I stand.

There’s no question my training has – at least until the last week or so – taken a turn for the better. Only six weeks ago my training partner The Real Deal (I’m going to have to talk to him about that name, it just doesn’t flow…) had to graciously hang back while I crashed and burned on our first twenty-miler. But we hit the streets again three weeks later for a recap with far better results. This time the roles were reversed – it was his turn to flame out at sixteen – but despite that pace interruption I still sliced off thirty seconds per mile, and he too notched a big improvement even on an off-day. Merely a week after, we synced up, neither on self-destruct this time, and knocked off another quarter-minute per mile over twenty four. He flashed his characteristic strength, dropping us to our fastest miles of the day at the twenty-mile mark, and while that wore heavily on me, at the end I knew I still had two more miles left in the tank that would have produced an easy re-qualifier.

Capping that, we hit the track a few days later for my traditional pre-marathon confidence workout, a full set of ten Yasso 800s. Planning to start slow, we went sub-three-minutes from the first iteration, and finished strong with our fastest of the night coming last. Sounds great, right?

But wait. I’ve run a mere fifteen miles in the last seven days. That’s not because of any planned taper. That’s because things hurt, and not just the usual things. Yes, the Achilles is omnipresent, with all of its weird permutations, pain above, pain below, pain on the inside, outside, flipside, sunny-side. But since when have I gone out for a run and actually stopped because of an inexplicably sore knee? That’s now persisted for two weeks? No, kiddies, this is not good.

Over the last month, I’ve been pulling out all the stops. On the advice of a friend, I even tried a couple of sessions with a chiropractor. I failed to see how twelve minutes, four of which involved cracking my back, was going to help my ankle all that much (and no, I don’t think those sessions are the cause of the knee issue), so I called that quits quick. I’ve been icing bits like mad – with some positive results, I must say – that nasty lump on the Achilles is smaller than ever. I’ve returned for a few more sessions with my Diabolical Physical Torturer, getting feet, ankles, yes, even the knee kneaded, scraped, zapped. I’ve jammed balls into my feet, wrapped tapes and straps around various parts, and upped the ante on the anti-inflammatories. And still, things hurt; most worrisome is the knee, which could stop me cold on Marathon Monday.

Hanging over all of this, of course, is the unknown of the lungs. An email exchange with Lady Doctor proved inconclusive (barring enduring a lot of tests, which I got the impression would prove interesting but inconclusive), so I can’t say whether residual pulmonary damage lies between me and Boylston Street, but I can certainly say there are plenty of days that I’m sucking wind. But to be fair, the pace that comes out of those wind-sucking sessions seems to be getting quicker.

So it’s obvious there’s a zero-point-zero-one percent chance of a repeat of last year’s lifetime best (non-zero, as gale-force tailwinds could occur). And despite my training partner’s confidence in me, the odds of hitting three hours rise only slightly to perhaps zero-point-five percent at best. But re-qualifying at my gnarly age requires only three and a half hours, less a comfortable margin for the cut-off in the current system. Chances of reaching that bar? Well, which mind do I listen to? After all, it seems, I have two.

One Last Dig: After the follow-on rant in my previous post about Boston’s new security rules, I agreed with both Dearest Spouse and several of my running compatriots to let it rest. It is what it is, and I will deal with it. Boston Scared. Boston Suspected. But I can’t resist one last dig. A couple of days ago the Boston Athletic Association published a set of frequently asked questions and did say that runners can bring a pair of shoes, but also disallowed putting them in a bag which might actually keep them dry. This was, of course, in direct contradiction to what they told me on the phone, but hey… Let’s just hope it isn’t raining hard.

But better yet, today they published this colorful chart of what you can and cannot bring to the Athlete’s Village. I give them points for cheerful selection of colors and pleasant layout, but let’s see… They list six items that are acceptable to bring to the race including – I can’t make this up – a yoga mat. By my count, five of these things have nothing to do with actually running a race. And conspicuously missing from the list? Shoes.