30 August 2015


It’s one of those weeks when the way the article started just wasn’t working. I thought I’d have your attention with a title punning bear – as in the one that ran across my path a few weeks ago in New Hampshire – with bare – as in the attire in view while I strolled South Beach in Miami this past week. But no matter how I twisted my prose, it just wouldn’t work. Despite how much I wanted to slip in that ursine encounter, a first while running (though certainly not a first while hiking) as notable news, I just couldn’t get from there to the real tale at the top of the ticker, the absurdly hot, humid, and horrific experience that is running in Miami in August.

All creative writing aside, the bear part was exciting, despite lasting only a moment during my run in our favorite little berg of Franconia, New Hampshire. While cruising an obscure road in this obscure town, my attention was drawn to the passage of that most frightening of vehicles, the dreaded Rental RV, all the badness of a lumbering and ungainly box on small wheels combined with the inexperience of a newbie pilot. Smokey, a bear of notable girth, must have had a death wish to have dashed when he did, perhaps fifty yards up from me, but far fewer in front of the wily Winnie. All indications were that he made it back into the woods, where bears will do what bears will do, and I returned to our favorite White Mountain lodge with a fun story.

Oh that the presence of beloved New Hampshire-style mountains, or any elevation change for that matter, and the crisp forty-nine-degree air of my morning runs in their midst could have been even slightly in my presence this week. Sadly, that was not the case. Some months back, Corporate Employer laid out a selection of dates when I could sink my teeth into some compelling technology training. Of all options, only one week remotely fit between the maze of scheduling reality. The problem was that the venue was Miami, and the week was in August. I fully expected this combination to be a seriously suboptimal slating selection, but having no other options, I clicked that box. Had I realized just how suboptimal, I might have taken dire and irrational measures to have done otherwise.

From this…

To this…

Once arrived in Dade County, all creative writing aside, the bare part was a rather visually entertaining span, enjoying a stroll with Niece and Spouse on the famed South Beach with its remarkably low clothing-to-skin ratio. The heat was pressing but still novel and made bearable by wading knee-high in the bathwater-like surf. It’s notable that this excursion took place before actually trying to run in the area; before I learned just what I was up against. It’s also notable that Niece and Spouse – who are known to run at times – choose to live in this place. What I’ll be saying from here on, including commentary about humidity rotting the locals’ brains, is meant with no disrespect for said blood kin. It’s just, well, true.

That bare reality quickly gave way to Monday morning’s first run of the week, which quickly revealed a minor detail I’d forgotten about: Miami is a lot further west than you tend to think. In the summer months, it’s second nature to me that getting out early isn’t a problem daylight-wise. But in Miami in late August, sunrise has already crept to seven, a bit of a challenge when corporate breakfast starts thirty minutes later, and the real corporate fun a mere thirty after that. And it’s also the case that the closer one goes to the Equator, the faster darkness turns to day; there is no extended dawn. In short, sunrise at seven means very little light till darn close to seven, so one must rise in the depressing blackness of night and hit the mean streets under cover of sodium vapor lamps to cover any respectable distance before the bagels are gone. But in a land of heat and humidity, that would seem to be a good thing anyway. After all, it’s coolest before dawn, and that must be a comfortable time to run. Right?

In a word, wrong. While daytime temperatures never exceeded the low nineties – a level we top regularly in New England – the humidity and resulting absurdly high dew point made the mornings hover around eighty with literally saturated air – nearly one-hundred-percent humidity. Back home, early morning track workouts in the summer-damp low seventies are bad enough. It’s hard to describe the heaviness of the air when you set foot outside the climate-controlled confines of the hotel into the Miami miasma. It almost pushes you back inside. It’s so dense, it’s always on the verge of exploding. The old song says that L.A. is a great big freeway. Miami, on the other hand, is a great big thunderstorm, as the sky tries to shed itself of summer on a constant basis, with storms visible across the vast, flat horizon almost constantly for days at a time.

Yeah, big deal, I hear you saying. We’ve all run on those really hot days.

Yeah, big deal indeed, I say. Even those really hot days up north just don’t have this feel. And those really hot days don’t come one after another after another. And when they do, we (well, most of us) have plenty of gear to swap in and out to assure we start fresh the next day. On this weeklong excursion, travelling light, I’d brought one pair of running shoes. While I prefer to rotate a few pairs, I can get by without that luxury now and then. I really hadn’t thought it would be a problem. Ah, the things we learn.

Morning One: About six miles, heading south. In the urban desert of the Hotel Zone, nestled against the south side of the airport, options for attractive running routes are limited at best. A couple miles of leg-crushing concrete (coupled with time-sucking waits for freeway-like traffic to clear at major intersections) brings me to the brief relief of a parkway-like drive in Coral Gables where I can enjoy a quiet and traffic-free expanse of leg-friendly macadam and puzzle at the wonder of locals out walking and running in long sleeves, pants, and even sweatshirts. Did I mention the humidity rotting the locals’ brains? By the time I’m plodding back hotel-ward, I’m in full drench with accompanying chafing, and am fully toxic and leaking heavily on arrival. Jerry, the hotel doorman, rushes to supply not just a bottle of water, but a well-chilled one, the first of what would become a daily kindness leading to some fun chats and I’m sure his amusement of their novelty of the week, el corridor loco. That small kindness was appreciated more than you know. Well done, Sofitel Miami. (On another note, the concierge actually did have a prepared map for joggers. Their two mile route wasn’t enough for my needs, but I can count on one hand the hotels I’ve stayed in that recognize and cater to people’s desire to run on something other than a hamster cage in the fitness center. Again, well done, Sofitel.)

Morning Two: Weather.com pegs the humidity at well over ninety percent and posts a ‘feels like’ temperature of ninety, and that’s in the pitch darkness a half-hour before dawn. I get an earlier start, not due to any temperature advantage (there is none) but to make it to the office closer to on time, yet somehow an extra mile soaks up that advantage. But I think I’ve got the system all figured out, stepping into the shower clothed, washing the togs, hanging to dry in the air-conditioned room. I should have suspected coming trouble when even a tech singlet wasn’t completely dry by evening.

Morning Three: Dressing amidst the sparkle of the pre-dawn streetlights outside my hotel room, I can’t help but notice that while I’ve got dry clothes, my shoes are more than a bit damp, but I’ve no alternative, so onward. With an even earlier start, I intend to venture further toward what looks like an attractive golf-course-skirting avenue, but it’s so dark, and Coral Gables has a habit of using street-level painted concrete blocks for street signs (Niece had warned me of this!) that I miss my turn and, while certainly finding some nice neighborhoods, don’t really hit my planned route. Worse, that evening, despite them having sat in the air-conditioned room all day, I realize my shoes aren’t merely damp, they’re soaked. Leaden. Not just wet, but briny. Salt doesn’t evaporate. Problem. I call the concierge and ask for a fan. Housekeeping arrives in twenty minutes and I leave my little brine-buckets in a zephyr overnight. (Well done, Sofitel Miami.)

Morning Four: I’ve now proven that salt does not evaporate, not that I didn’t know before. Sad shoes are somewhat dryer, lighter, but by no means dry, and downright slimy. I’m anticipating a planned evening run with a local club arranged by a co-worker, but knowing the way the week has gone work-wise, I figure that’s a gamble, so to be sure I don’t miss the day I head out on a short jaunt. (As it turns out, the evening run indeed does not happen, so it was a wise move.). Turning west for a change, I’m delighted to cross an overpass, the first hill I’ve encountered other than a meagre three-foot rise in Coral Gables and the ramp to the front door of the hotel. It’s not much, but my legs appreciate the change. (I can see a distant hill from my hotel window. It’s a landfill. Look very closely under the red arrow in the photo below… Otherwise there is nothing to break the monotony of the Miami topographical desert.) Even on a mere five-mile slog, I’m squishing in my shoes and my pointy bits are screaming from every morning’s soaked-and-heavy-fabric-induced abrasion. But Jerry has that cold one on arrival…

Morning Five: For my last hurrah (the sound I’ll make when the plane leaves the tarmac to head north), I re-study the maps so that even in the dark, this time I can find that golf course. I’m rewarded with a view of a grove of utterly gorgeous baobab-like trees (which may indeed have been baobabs, but I’m no botanist) [Ed note: No, silly, BANYAN trees, not baobabs!]. In the endless expanse of sameness that is Miami, it’s the first truly sweet view of a week’s worth of running. I stretch the last morning to eight miles, not really caring if I’m a few minutes late at this point. I know that without drastic action, the TSA won’t allow me to bring my weaponized footwear on the aircraft, so this morning I step in the shower shoes and all and bathe everything down to the insoles before leaving them for a final morning with my good friend the box fan till late checkout during my last morning at the office. By noon, they’re sufficiently disarmed and cleared for transport.

Six hours or so later, I step out of the terminal at Logan and luxuriate in reasonably dry, low seventies air that feels like nothing less than heaven. The next morning, back with my local peeps, our easy club run in mid-sixties is a joy. The preceding week seems surreal, a bad dream.

Those poor shoes, washed of their load of salt, are currently enjoying a respite in the disinfecting northern sun, but something tells me they will always whisper, “Squish!” on every future stride in memory of their southern trauma. Let’s face it, Miami is for winter.

04 August 2015

Sounds Great

An old adage reminds us that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. That conflicts with a different old adage (or perhaps it’s an idiom?) that suggests we should take things at face value. And while seemingly unrelated, I’ll toss in yet another old adage that says that ninety percent (or some similar made-up percentage) of the battle is simply showing up. Actually, there are a lot of old adages. With the number of them I’m spewing here, I’m sounding rather adagio, a punny bit of irony since that means slow, and this is a column about racing which one would hope to be fast.

Where on Earth is he going with this?

Through a quirk of fate, I’m holding a medal that says I finished second in the USA Track & Field New England Championships men’s masters’ five-thousand meters. Wow, lil’ ol’ me, the second fastest master on the track in New England? That’s quite a title. Impressive even. Sounds great.

Ah, but remember, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

So here’s the dirty little secret. Seventeen people showed up for the race. Seventeen. Nine were fast young guys who unsurprisingly finished first through ninth overall. One was a woman. Yeah, one. And she won the women’s race. Funny that. That left the other seven of us to comprise the entirety of the masters race. I didn’t quite grasp these numbers at the time, but later analysis, as they say, eked out these truths.

It’s worth noting that the entire New England Championships meet had been slated for two weeks prior but was postponed due to ugly weather. It’s a near certainty that plenty of people who’d planned to compete found their dance card unexpectedly shuffled. The starting line probably lost two or three competitors for every one of us last-minute hey-why-not-jump-into-this entries.

Still, we’re told to take things at face value.

Second out of seven isn’t as impressive as second out of a hundred and seven, but to be fair, the seven that did show up were solid athletes, competitive enough to follow USATF events, confident enough to consider jumping into a meet labelled “Championship”, and daring to race five thousand meters on the glaring transparency of the track rather than anonymizing crowd of a community road race. Let’s face it, the typical field of one hundred seven or even one thousand seven would fall a little differently on the bell curve.

So then it’s true: ninety percent of the battle us just showing up.

But I really had no intention of doing so. Once again, I was sucked in at the last minute through the positive peer pressure of my Greater Boston club-mates. Another spur-of-the-moment decision made on legs still recovering from the Level Renner only days earlier. And like that marathon relay a month earlier, with no time for niceties like reconditioning my legs to operate in track spikes, which sure would have been nice on that Friday night’s wet, slick surface. No, there was no real prep for this other than behaving myself the night before.

That night before had included a casual pub run with my local Striders peeps. While just a fun run, I’d previously used it as a hard tempo to gain training value from the evening’s outing before the evening’s ingestion began. This time, knowing I'd signed up for the USATF race a mere twenty-four hours hence, I vowed I'd stay with the front of the gang and go no faster. The irony is that when I looked at the comfortable pace that gang led, it occurred to me that I'd need to slice off a full six minutes to hit my goal the next night. Admittedly, that was a bit daunting. Adding to that was the mild amusement that in neither my youthful nor my aged Second Lap days had I ever run a five-thousand on an outdoor track. I’d done it indoors once, several years ago – a dizzying twenty-five laps – but never on the outdoor big oval. There’s something about the immediate feedback of lap splits that changes the race. For the better or worse, I couldn’t say.

With the small field and the fact that the rest of the meet’s events were slated to be held in the next day’s high sunshine, the race itself took on the feel of a hard workout, so without pressure that two misfires of the starting gun led only to amusement rather than any level of competitive stress. The third time being a charm (another adage?), we began our twelve and a half slippery circuits.

Holding no illusions of matching my best times from younger days, I targeted lap splits that would deliver an eighty-percent age-graded performance. After a quick opening lap and a half, I settled in behind teammate Kris while we clicked off four more right on target – or at least my target. He’d seeded in at thirty seconds faster, so I knew he wasn’t where he’d like to be. When the next lap sagged oh-so-slightly, we swapped spots; it was my turn to pull our train for a while.

Mentally this was an interesting game. Twelve and a half laps, and I was not racing for any position but merely for a target time, so no strategy, surging, or fighting for position. Just even laps, hold it steady, count it down, simple…and still I managed to lose count. Go figure. I could blame the young fast guys lapping us, but sadly it was nothing more than a mobile senior moment.

Recovering my mental position, we’d knocked off three more, each a second ahead of target, but Kris was fading and would fall back I know not how far, as I had no need check; so far as I was concerned he was an ally, not a rival, in this game. With three to go, simple wasn’t so simple any more as fatigue grew, but somehow the certainty of the track – the known exact distance as opposed to the vagaries of a road course – made the countdown more manageable as the next two barely held to plan. Last lap, any semblance of form rapidly decaying, still focusing only on time, knowing I was ahead of my target but still seeking all I could squeeze out, suddenly the guy who’d led me by a wide margin all along was coming back, that margin narrowing…and meanwhile I sensed that Kris too was coming back to me, the three of us converging as the finish drew near.

No dramatic position changes would occur, but we three tightened the gap enough to make it interesting to the end. Having arrived with a goal time, and having shaved ten seconds off it, and having not really registered the demographics of the field, I gave no consideration whatsoever to the outcome of the competitive side of the race. I was fat, dumb, and happy (or perhaps skinny, sweaty as hell, and happy). That guy in front of me, Matt, and my teammate Kris proceeded to slug out a few laps of warm-down amidst pleasant runner chatter.

And then, a funny thing happened. Reminiscent of that moment in Arlo Guthrie’s Alice’s Restaurant, when the Sargent came in, pinned a medal on him, and told him, “You’re our boy!”, I jogged back to the finish area and found my utter oblivion interrupted when a race official handed me a medal. I can’t remember ever finishing a race and not checking my place, not knowing what hardware might be coming, and having to literally ask, “What’s this for?” It simply never occurred to me that in a race called the New England Championships that I’d win anything. “Second place,” was the official’s answer.

No kidding.

I know the truth. My time was satisfying for me. I hit my eight-percent age-graded goal. But it wasn’t anything spectacular. And yes, I’d finished second among the masters. Out of seven.

But hey, second in the USATF New England Championships? It sure sounds great.