21 December 2016

Team Sports

In my less-frequent blogging cadence of late, I’ve had more time than usual to ponder episode titles. This is primarily because I’ve needed more time than usual to find something compelling enough to garner ten minutes of your attention. I was settling around the theme of “Damage Control” until it became clear that it’s a bit overused, considering my history. Instead, the question became, why so much damage this time?

Ten years ago I had the joy of having a hernia repaired. To this day I still wonder if I really needed the work. Yeah, there was a small lump, but it caused no discomfort. A decade later, the repair still aches from time to time (though oddly, it hurts less after more intense races and workouts, go figure), but I do tell people that I feel cooler in the summer, since I have a screen installed.

A week after that internal incursion, I asked the doctor when I could resume running. His answer, which I’ve repeated so many times that you’ve likely heard this story, was a classic. Well, said he, basketball and sex, I don’t advise those, because you’re playing as a team, and you won’t want to stop. But running, and, uh, the other kind of sex, heck, you’re on your own, so if it hurts, you’re going to stop, so go for it. He was right, but he was also wrong, because he forgot about the fact that running is often a team sport. Which gets us back to our latest saga…

The problem with injuries is that they beget injuries. Second only to coat hangers, which we all know breed in dark closets, an injury has the power to create more woe as we compensate and work to recover. I’m no stranger to these secondary wounds; I fully expect that while coming back from one issue, I’m likely to overstress something else weakened in my training lapse. The trick is to make these follow-ons of lighter and lighter intensity until finally you break out of the cycle into a state of relative health, meaning that only a few things hurt only a little bit on a typical day.

Thus I wasn’t the least bit surprised that after taking four weeks off through November to once again offer the knee more time to heal, something else would go bump in the night on my return. Jumping into a Thanksgiving Day turkey trot race, having logged a mere three miles the day before as a shakedown, was not exactly easing back into it. But knowing that I wasn’t capable of racing hard softened the risk profile considerably. Besides, this was a family outing with Dearest Spouse and Dearest Daughter the Younger, who’d run even less than I, not a real race. Right?

Still, after that ho-hum outing at the Stow Gobbler where yes, I exceeded my exceedingly lame goal of not falling more than a minute per mile off last year’s pace, I had indeed racked up some hit points. This time it was the right calf, strained and a bit sore. Yawn. So I pulled a muscle on a comeback? Whatever. Show me some real news.

Unfortunately, by Monday, said calf was still complaining on a six mile ramble, which itself wasn’t too concerning since that left six days till this year’s edition of the Mill Cities Relay. Ah, you say, I see where this is going. You said relay. Team sport. Like sex. Well, not really, but you get it.

More unfortunately, a once-in-more-than-a-decade event was set to roll in Monday evening. Three words that Dearest Spouse and I were both eagerly looking forward to and simultaneously dreading: Whole. House. Carpeting.

What’s the big deal? So you have to move a few things? Well, for any of you who have done this, you know that ambivalence here is bunk. Days of packing, thanks mostly to DS, softened the blow, but still the amount of stuff to be hauled out of the blast zone made for quite the stair workout on a still sore knee enhanced by a complaining calf. And then came the furniture…oh, the furniture. Half the house from Side One to Side Two. The next night, the whole house from Side Two to Side One. And the third night, half again from Side One to Side Two, then sort out the wreckage and rebuild our lives. All that pushing stresses – you guessed it – your calves.

I wasn’t foolish enough to stack running on top of those daily leg strength workouts, but the day after the dust settled I hit the roads for a test drive on the calf, and…? Oh. My. It started sort of bad, and it got very bad, and I even took a walk break. Oh. My. And only three days left to heal.

Now, Mill Cities, which I run with my ‘alternate’ club, the Squannacook River Runners, is not, at least for us, a terribly competitive event. The Squannies are fun but not terribly competitive group. But it does carry an element of pride, and coming out in force enhances not only that pride but also the team’s overall score, so it’s all hands on deck. I’d committed, and, having cancelled on them once before, was determined not to let them down again. Oh, and did I mention that while they’re not a terribly competitive group, despite having warned them of my reduced racing ability of late, I once again landed on the Fire Eatin’ Fish, their semi-competitive men’s masters team. So while they weren’t expecting amazing things, I wasn’t about to serve them up a rambling amble.

Sunday morning came, and despite three days, Mr. Calf wasn’t happy, but a bit of Vitamin I, a lighter warm-up than usual to reduce the day’s total distance, and a reasonable pace akin to the Gobbler, alias far slower than last year, seemed a recipe for survival with team-satisfying results.

I should have seen the omen when, after a brief warm-up, I got down on the pavement to do my odd crab-leg hip extensor and quad stretch, a pre-race favorite, and managed to cramp up badly, in of all places, my shoulder blade. A moment of levity ensued where what could only be described as a notably attractive lady, who was in fact a trained nurse, came to my rescue with just the right touch to relieve the agony. (A moment of greater levity ensued an hour later when I learned that my teammate had captured the moment in a true blackmail-qualifying image…) But really, pulling out your shoulder, of all things, before a race?

Oblivious to the warning lights a’flashin’ down in quality control, I set off on a nearly perfect sunny and cold morning, which would have been entirely perfect but for the unexpected headwind making the effort tougher. Keeping the pace under control, hopefully protecting that weak leg link, I’d scoped a landmark at mile one knowing the course was notoriously unmarked, and was pleased to find myself on precisely the reasonable pace I’d targeted. Pleased for about four more seconds.

One of my favorite movie moments is near the end of the Blues Brothers, when after their epic chase of a hundred and six miles to Chicago, with a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, and of course, wearing sunglasses, the Bluesmobile instantaneously disintegrates on the plaza in front of the Cook County Collector of Taxes. I’ve often envisioned something similar happening to me. What happened about four seconds past the mile mark wasn’t quite that, as it only involved one part, but it pretty much instantaneously disintegrated. There was a moment, not really a pop, but sudden, and obvious. The calf was butchered into veal. Badly. Ouch.

In a relay like Mill Cities, you start your leg at some random moment based on the performance of your teammates and the random mixture that makes up every other team. There’s really no logic to how fast the people you encounter will be going. You blow by slowbies and get eclipsed by eagles. You tend to keep score of your ‘net kills’, how many you pass compared to how many pass you. Having the fifth and final leg, said randomness was only magnified, and by then, the field was sparse, but there was one in my sights. I caught him three quarters of a mile in. Score that as Plus One. Then it was veal cutlet time.

Short of walk breaks during the Death March stages of some of my less enjoyable marathons, I don’t recall being reduced to a hobble in a race. Now, a mile into a mere four-and-three-quarter mile leg, I was indeed hobbled. How slow, I do not know. Plus One returned the favor; back to Net Zero. I figured now was about the time my team would come by in the van, just to enhance the joy.

Saving a bit of face, by the time my teammates came by at mile two, I’d effectively beaten the cutlet with a meat tenderizer enough to stretch it out and stabilize my stride. On what they call a hill at mile three, not really a hill by my standards, I managed to regain a bit more dignity and use the grade to re-take my first kill and add a few more. The calf was screaming but working and I did, after all, have a team waiting at the finish. The final long, lonely final stretch to the finish, an almost eerie strip along the longest deserted mill in the world, entirely devoid of people, no spectators, no competitors, made for an odd challenge; maintaining what little intensity I had just for the sake of the team and my wounded pride.

Basketball and sex. You’re with a team, you won’t want to stop. Running? You’re with a team, you won’t want to stop. But hey, race done, pace below expectations, but Squannies happy, beer flowing, tables overflowing with pasta, merriment all around. A good day. But crap, the leg hurt. And crap, this meant more time off.

If that were the end of it, it’d be bad enough. But by late in the week, with no improvement and in fact worsening pain, I’d discovered my foot had turned all shades of a nasty rainbow. This was no simple strain but must have been a real live muscle tear – and a bleeding one at that – meaning weeks to heal. Worse, my head went into overdrive, fearing a recurrence of those post-op blood clots from three years ago. Dearest Spouse was about to have me committed over my near frantic worrying. But how can you not worry about something that, should it happen, can kill you? The chances of that outcome seemed so slim as to be unworthy of the big medical bills for a fishing expedition, but if you’re wrong…?

Two weeks hence, the rainbow has faded, the pain lingers though lessened, and I so miss the roads. It’ll be another long haul to come back yet again, this time with that pesky knee every haunting, but Boston is only four months away, so let the healing accelerate.

Damn team sports.

16 November 2016

No York

It’s oh-so-difficult to fire up the motivation to write about running when you’re not running.

In the seemingly unending story of, “What I didn’t do on summer vacation”, despite the fact that it’s no longer summer, add to the list that I did not, as planned, go to New York City two weekends back, and I did not, as planned, run the New York City Marathon, and let the record be known that I am not, as is to be expected, happy about those facts. So stop spreading the news, I didn’t leave on that day, and I wasn’t a part of it nor did I even start it. No York, No York.

Call this Strike Two, but unlike the unlikely Cubbies, I may not have three strikes to work with here. Four years ago, my first attempt at checking the “You’ve Gotta’ Do It Once” experience box that is the New York City Marathon was cancelled by a highly unpleasant female named Sandy. This time the enemy lay within; the body betrayed, the cancellation replayed. And of course, as it would turn out, the weather on marathon morning was…utterly delightful. Figures.

Dearest Spouse was enduring a marathon of her own with my constant vacillations on whether to make the trip; vacillations which endured for months and reached a fever pitch in the weeks leading up to the big event. On one hand, the entry fee, and New York’s is considerable, was paid, and was gone no matter what I did, so why not use it? On the other hand, travel wasn’t cheap, and by the time I opted to go if I could find someone to split the hotel cost, everyone had their plans set. But on the third hand, while I knew I couldn’t race it, a Boston Qualifier for 2018, when I will have the benefit of a new age group offering up a forty-minute cushion over my last marathon, seemed fairly easily within reach, even if the day devolved to race-course tourism, so why not spend a few bucks and go for a tour? But on the forth hand (I think I’m into feet at this point), even that relaxed (for me) time goal wasn’t at all a certainty.

Oh bother.

About ten days before, it was time to excrete or get off the cooking utensil. I headed out the door with the intent of loping an easy twenty (yes, ten days before marathon day, because at the pace I was targeting for both that run and the race, tapering wasn’t a big worry). It was decision time, do or die, and… the answer clearly was die. Yeah, it might have just been that day, and the next day I might have been fine, but for the sanity of Dearest Spouse, that day had to be the deciding day, and that day’s run was utterly horrible. By five miles my body was in revolt. The next four, returning on a short-circuited course, wouldn’t have even made my relaxed qualifier pace. Yeah, it was that bad. Come home, don’t reconsider, save yourself for another day, click the button.

And it was over, as was my fall racing season, which consisted of exactly one outing (though to be fair, I will slog through a turkey run next week). That one outing, the John Tanner Memorial, was a decent but not terribly encouraging outing, though the point of it wasn’t so much the race as to honor our dearly missed John and do some good in his name.

So long has passed – it’s that writing motivation thing again – that the details of that race have faded, which isn’t terribly fair to the organizers of a fine event. Unlike last year, when in retrospect I felt a tad embarrassed, having showed up to be competitive against a field that was mostly out for a pleasant outing, I came at this year’s race a little more casually, partly because I had to. Coming in on utterly terrible training over the summer; poor mileage, no quality, big gaps, and body parts that were still not healed or healing, my expectations were pretty low. When one of the two kids who put up a bit of a fight last year showed up on the starting line, I was ready to hand it to him right then and there.

Lesson to self: Don’t be so harsh. No, this ramble wasn’t anything stellar, but it wasn’t a horror show, either. The first mile clocked in close to six, far quicker than I expected from achy, tired, out-of-shape legs. A downright duel was on by a mile-and-a-half, not with last year’s kid but with a different collection of unknowns. I snagged a half-stride lead for a brief while until a twenty-something opened up a gap that wouldn’t close.

By the turnaround, I’d settled into a solid third and spent the next ten minutes weighing the old racing instinct against the newly aggressive self-preservation instinct. My head was wrapped more around trying to remember how many jugs of maple syrup I’d seen on the awards table – a truly sweet award if there ever was one – and how they’d be allocated – top three? – age groups? – rather than contemplating dropping a hammer (if indeed one even existed, which it probably didn’t) to go after the two guys ahead of me. Opting for the amber bottled proverbial carrot on the stick, I did a little on-course math, reset expectations, and gave myself a modest goal of clicking in within a minute of last year’s time.

The nice thing about modest goals is that they’re easier to hit. Fifty-nine seconds over last year wasn’t a thrill in the record books, but it checked the box on the artificial goal, still meant being the top old fart in a race that didn’t distinguish between young’uns and old farts, and did, in fact, ring the bell at the syrup table. The ending score was quicker than expected, but not quick. This, it seems, may be a hint that I need to act a bit closer to my age.

But alas, that mildly brightish spot back in early October did not translate to readiness a month later. Hopes that shaking out the cobwebs would put me on a path for New York not only didn’t pan out; rather I’m now two weeks into another full stop – Dearest Spouse is putting in more miles than I! – and hoping for healing that to date continues to be elusive. The left knee alternates between fine and pain, but worse, it feels a bit like a dangling pendulum post-run. The right heel jumped into the fray just to be irksome, as if it knew that this was an optimal time to gain maximum annoyance. It’s disappointing to be sure, not just for me, but knowing that it’s tough to put out my usual upbeat positive message in these screes. And that’s the real reason for the motivation gap. I’ve no desire to be a doggie downer for you.

So, No York. But to pull out some badly needed positivism, I’m not dead yet. There are detours and curves in every road, some extreme, and some, like the one warned of in this, one of my favorite signs located just a town over, not so serious. Only time will tell which kind I’m dealing with. There have been comebacks before. The game’s not over. Let’s see what happens in the next inning. After all, even the Cubs can win it all.

24 September 2016


Once you start, it’s an ear worm you can’t get out of your head. It’s summittime, summittime, sum- sum-summittime… except that it’s already over. Summertime passed rapidly, so long as that ‘rapidly’ adjective isn’t applied to my pace on the roads. Summittime too has passed, with a satisfying goal achieved.

For one accustomed to racking up over two hundred miles a month, logging four, yes four (well, technically four and a half) in July and barely ninety in August has been downright agonizing, and this month is likewise lacking in linear legwork. The pizza-to-miles ratio is out of kilter and the body knows it, but worse than the few extra accumulated pounds is the passage of the six week mark when my body typically responds to changes in training levels and the bottom falls out of any attempts at rapidity. It’s all uphill from here to get back, though hope springs eternal; and based on yesterday’s better-than-usual-of-late outing, there may be another life ahead. I’m not dead yet.

Ah, but that uphill, now there’s an idea! While the mileage was down on behalf of the crackling (both) and painful (left) knees, along came the opportunity to clock in an alternate form of workout. In the last post, we left a little cliffhanger (pun intended) on Dearest Daughter’s Determined Deathwish to finish off her New Hampshire (White Mountains) Four-Thousand-Footers before heading off to places collegiate. As the last minute inserted note in that last posting said, yes, we made it in time, with less than forty-eight hours to spare before her departure, completing an ambitious odyssey. Such is the way that summertime this year became redefined as summittime.

Now, stomping over mountains on rough trails isn’t necessarily the kindest thing one could do to injured knees. But the climbing was, I figured, good for strengthening that atrophied quad, and the descending was, let’s just say, done as gingerly as possible. My current Physical Terrorist didn’t entirely agree, but she settled for the lesser of two evils while doing her best to calm the inflammation that she’s convinced is the source of much of my woe.

Thus began the adventure that led DD and me over thirty-three summits in a dozen outings over a span of only forty-four days, culminating at one of the most spectacular spots in the Whites. For her, it was a major life goal realized. For me, it was a trip down (or, more accurately, up) memory lane, relived and relished. Though by cutting back on my running I felt as though I lost track of many big doin’s around town, I traded my knowledge of the latest local road construction for the delightful familiarity with the northern landscape that only comes with the exertion of many miles. It’s a comforting, satisfying mastery that grows exponentially as the trails and summits add up, culminating in the ability to stand atop a mountain, look around, and not need the map to get your bearings. There’s no substitute for accumulating the experience.

So while I typically avoid chronological journaling, I break my rule here and provide a brief tour of those forty-four days that took DD from twenty-six to forty-eight qualifying summits. Come along on an adventure…because next time, it’ll just be about the run once again.

Excursion One, Whiteface & Passaconaway: It’s July but it’s cold, damp, drizzly, and foggy, on these forested, viewless summits, nothing to see here, move along, just whiteness from the overlooks. The steep climbs up Whiteface make me wonder how I got a troop of boy scouts up this one in back in eighty-nine. (Answer: There were steps bolted into the rock then; they’re gone now – note the holes in the rock behind my pack.) Summits twenty-seven and twenty eight.

Excursion Two, Willey & Field: Mt. Tom is usually included when the Willey Range is taken down, but DD bagged that one years ago on a day when the family tired after just one of the three planned peaks. This time we assaulted from the south so as to traverse the stairs DD had built last summer on her month of trail work, then it was up ten impressive trail ladders and a long (long!) loop back through Zealand Notch, because, well, why not turn a few miles into sixteen? Summits twenty-nine and thirty.

Excursion Three, Moriah: Because we just didn’t want to come home… An impromptu overnight, complete with a Wal-Mart run for basics like toothbrushes, so we could knock off a simple one the next day. Met a number of Appalachian Trail thru-hikers who we’d see again and again in coming days. Summit thirty-one.

Excursion Four, the Wildcats: To start a planned five-day stretch, it was up the steep and rocky ridge of Wildcat in a foggy drizzle. Five summits, two count as Four-Thousand-Footers, but unlike my last trip over them twenty-three years ago, they’re no longer labelled. With multitudes of ups and downs, we’re never quite sure if we’ve hit the high points till reaching the final A summit overlooking Carter Notch as the clouds gave way to glorious mountain sunshine. Summits thirty-two and thirty-three.

Excursion Five, Jefferson, Monroe, and, oh yeah, that one: DD is missing two Presidential summits, one north, the other south of Washington (which she’s already tagged), so the plan is to knock them both off, skirting the ‘Rockpile’ on the way. After a phenomenal cliff climb up Caps Ridge, the delightful morning turns Presidential Fierce, and a happenstance link-up with another hiker leads us to summit Washington anyway, since he’s never done it. Sixty-mile gusts reclassify the adventure into the Epic Zone and we’re feeling cold in our cores as we reach Lakes of the Clouds to recover. Toss in Clay and Franklin for a five-summit day and we’re glad to have snagged a lift back to our trailhead parking. Summits thirty-four and thirty-five.

Excursion Six, The Twins and Galehead: It’s been twenty-four years since I last stayed in an AMC hut and it happened to be Galehead. Since then the hut was entirely rebuilt so it’s sort of inaccurate to say I finally returned, but the logs are still there and I managed to find my entry from May of ninety-two. We return to visit neighbor Greg who’s working croo, and take an easy day of three summits on a brilliantly perfect summer day. Summits thirty-six, thirty-seven, and thirty-eight.

Excursion Seven, Garfield: My fourth time on this one and our intent is to continue up the ridge, top Lafayette, and sidle down past Greenleaf to our car parked at Canon. But threats of severe weather and a surprisingly and suddenly strong wind coupled with an evil looking sky turn us around at Garfield’s summit. We bail, hot-foot it down the Death-By-Boredom Garfield trail, and find a serious dearth of ride opportunities. The sketchy guy who kindly shuttles us back in his decades-old pickup truck has to move something off the seat that seemed to have been alive quite recently, but a ride’s a ride. Summit thirty-nine.

Excursion Eight, Cabot: One of Mother Nature’s bad jokes, Cabot, so far from anything that we ended up crossing a covered bridge into Vermont to get there, offers little excitement on a clear day, and even less on a cloudy one. A challenging climb to The Horn makes it interesting, though the out-and-back traversals of The Bulge add nothing but meaningless work. We’re only fifteen minutes from the car when the skies open with such ferocity that we’d have been drenched had we been only a minute away, but it makes for good chit-chat when we meet up later at a store in Berlin with hikers we’d chatted with who’d gone out the opposite direction and just beat the rain – and who turn out to be USATF Grand-Prix racing types. Summit forty.

Excursion Nine, Isolation: After five days at sea, we’re pretty tired, but after yesterday’s deluge, today’s forecast of perfection can’t be missed, so we book another night and hit the trail from Pinkham at the crack of dawn to tackle Isolation, as far from anything as its name suggests. Eschewing the usual Rocky Branch route that I’d slogged through back in eighty-eight (and which we’d learn was an intolerable mud pit after yesterday’s rain), we opt for Glen Boulder over Slide Peak, returning over Boott Spur. It adds thousands of feet of climb on both ends, but it’s spectacularly beautiful on a spectacularly amazing day and we’re spectacularly whipped by the end, but the sight of clouds pouring over the Presidential ridge was astounding. Summit forty-one.

Excursion Ten, Carrigain: It seems everyone leaves this for last, because although it’s five miles up Signal Ridge, it’s an easy five miles, so they can bring their friends, and besides, the last mile is magnificent. The four leading up to that spot, though, are rather interminable. We instead take the long way in, circling around the mountain through Carrigain Notch and ascend via the steep, challenging, and much more fun Desolation Trail. The summit is busy and beautiful, with views to what we’ve decided will be our finish line on the Bonds. Summit forty-two.

Excursion Eleven, The Kinsmans: Being easy to get to, right off the highway on the close side of the hills, we knock these off in a few hours, not hitting the trail till near mid-day. The South peak amuses with a unique summit cairn throne of stones. On our second trip over the North peak, returning from the out & back, I convince DD that a particular boulder looks like the true summit. She’s tired and reluctant but I goad her to scramble to the top. Back in the car, she sheepishly reads me the trail guide which we hadn’t carried which, sure enough, advises the peak bagger to be sure to climb that particular boulder to touch the true summit. Summits forty-three and forty-four.

Excursion Twelve, Zealand and The Bonds: Dearest Spouse, ever sporting, rises in the middle of the night so she can drop us at the Zealand trailhead before seven as this will be a one-way traverse. We’re enjoying the expansive views on the ridge above Zealand Notch before nine and the viewless summit is check-marked soon after. From there it’s off to one of the most amazing stretches of trail in the Whites, over the open alpine ridge of Guyot, West Bond, Bond, and onto the truly sublime flat-topped but vertical sided summit of Bondcliff. It’d been over twenty-nine years since I last stood here, a place with a cliff so iconic that it graced the cover of the AMC guide many years back. I looked about as terrified standing on that cliff this time as I did last time, but DD strode confidently onto the ledge for her victory shot, having completed her quest from the first to the last summit in a little under ten years. Summits forty-five, forty-six, forty-seven, and yes, forty-eight. Huzzah, I think they say. And then the long walk out the other end, to find that Dearest Spouse, not wanting to join us for our twenty-mile traverse, had herself covered fifteen miles that day on her own. Huzzah, I think they say, indeed.