20 May 2016
Change of Fortune
The punchline of this story for some reason demands to be said with a quaint (and obviously faked) British, perhaps slightly East-End, accent: I won a pottery! That sounds so much more appropriate and interesting than to say that I won a hand-made dish. Really, it’s a lovely pottery, useful, too. Face it; you can’t eat your breakfast out of a trophy. So I’m good with this, and that’s a good thing, because the effort of getting this bit of clay, awarded for winning my age group (and above, for that matter, but I dither) at the Sugarloaf Marathon, left some damage in its wake.
Let’s back up a bit. Though I hinted at this coming adventure in my last article, I hadn’t truly fessed up to it. And so I hear you say, “Wait, another marathon? Didn’t you just run Boston?” To which I say, yes, of course, a mere three weeks and six days earlier (or, if you want to go OCD and compare starting times, even less than that, but once again, I dither. I’ll stop. I promise).
So next I hear you say, “Why?” (Actually, I hear you say things that are far more impugning of my mental stability, but I promised not to dither anymore, so I won’t discuss those things.) And to this I say, because this one is quite well known to be a fast course, I’ve always been a bit curious just how fast, and I was egged into it by a certain colorful running personality from Maine who hinted that Boston training can be translated to a five-to-ten minute time gain when doubled down with the “Boston Sugarloaf Double”. Provided, of course, that you can stay healthy. And since you have to plan these things months in advance, when the time comes, that’s a crap shoot.
The plan was straightforward: two weeks of Boston recovery, pop in a moderately paced long run to refresh the legs to the idea of another marathon, then two weeks of bringing the mileage back down in something loosely resembling a taper. That taper would be interrupted by the Clinton race, well, because it’s Clinton and it must be done, but it would also be handy to remind the legs what quality, speed, and hard effort feels like. Just don’t break anything. And it almost worked.
At the midpoint of the Marathon Interregnum, the twenty-two miler came off as planned with low effort, not that my legs didn’t recall having done a marathon thirteen days prior, but it was eased that day by a slow finish owing to my companion’s fade. That fade served me well, protecting the legs from overload, and served him well as well, as he’d accompany me to Maine and, having gained both conditioning and experience from the outing, pop in his first marathon in a highly respectable time.
Clinton came a week later with no apparent ill effects. But a couple days later, with time short before our Maine departure, something went south in the left knee. It was nothing I could put my finger on; there was no “Oh Crap” moment, but somewhere things started hurting and power faded rapidly – and rather strangely – in the left leg. Of course I knew this when I wrote of Clinton, but discussing readiness for an adventure not yet disclosed didn’t fit that narrative, so I left that bit of kvetching off the paper and quietly nursed my wounds, hoping for a late-week miracle healing.
But right up to the day before, as we scoped the course and soaked in the Maine scenery on a sunny, gorgeous, but downright hot day (knowing race
And the knee? It hurt a bit, but not bad. It worked, but not well. We sliced through the first four on target pace for a good day, but I could just tell that it wasn’t right. I could feel I was compensating for the lack of power. I sensed I was running the engines way too high for the splits that were clicking in.
Worse, somewhere in the first mile or two, a small, wiry, and decidedly male-pattern-bald guy went scooting past, showing little expenditure of effort. His hairline said, “Fifties!” though his overall package was a little more vague. With my alert system already alarming over the fuel burn situation, I had to concede – barely ten minutes in – that if this guy was over fifty, my shot at taking the age group crown was probably torpedoed before the ship had been launched.
So bad had already gone to worse, but tragedy was just around the bend. We cruised the village of Stratton, where at least I began to see the surprising amount of course support on what I expected to be a lonely run. Still on pace but wearying early, we commenced into the hills. Sugarloaf is pretty much the opposite of Boston. Whereas Boston front-loads with downhills and hits you with the climbs late, Sugarloaf knocks off the climbing early, then gives you the ride of your life, with big downs (sometimes too big) for miles before flattening out, though still trending gently down, save for a few late insulting bumps in the twenties, all the way into the village of Kingfield.
From our recon the day before, I knew the work started around mile six, hit a big climb in mile nine, and topped out around ten. Six came, then seven and eight, and the ascents were mild, but the rain went into overdrive, and by the time I was expecting to see the big one I knew was ahead, stuff was numb. That already powerless leg was feeling almost anesthetized – I reached down to feel my laboring thigh and felt…nothing. The body said Uncle! and this was at what, mile eight?
And then… around a bend, there, there it was, the big one, right around eight-point-five. On a good day, a mere hump to work through. But on this day?
That was pretty much it. Game over. Not even an hour into the race, I was done, toast (well, cold toast), killed, defeated, mentally as well as physically. Never before could I recall a marathon where the curtain dropped so early. What I’d previously defined as a bad day – say, struggling by sixteen or so – had just been blown out of the cold rain. A new standard had been set. I was to be a tourist for nearly eighteen more miles. Mile nine clocked in a minute off pace. A slowdown I’d expected, but decimation? That added minute felt like four, and there was more climbing ahead.
But fate, she is fickle, and not always in a mean way. My day was not over. Not by a long shot.
A hundred miles to our south, friends and neighbors labored through the Maine Coast Marathon under sunny skies but battling obscene winds. We were cold and drenched, but at least enjoyed calm air. I’d feel wind only once all day, and it came precisely at the right moment.
In my head, I expected one more big climb before topping out around mile ten. With each broad bend in the highway I anticipated the groan I’d exude when it came into view. But contrary to my recollection of the profile, the climbs were mild, and to my somewhat confused surprise, I spied the highway downhill warning sign ahead announcing the summit.
I can’t make this up, really. At that moment there came not so much a divine wind, but at least an inspired puff. It lasted no more than half a minute, but that brief tailwind combined with my realization that I’d topped out, there was no more major climbing, I was still alive, and, as a bonus, at the ten mile mark, I was still twenty seconds ahead of three hour pace. Having missed that golden mark at Boston by fewer seconds than that, just the idea that it might still be out there.... well, kids, maybe, just maybe, we can bank enough on the downhill roller coaster ahead, and…
It was off to the races. Linking up with a couple other racers, we dropped the pace and cranked up the intensity. The halfway mark passed with a minute in the bank. Then, through the big drop from fourteen through seventeen, it was a good thing there was a small airport next to the course because flight was a good description. I knew the free ride would end well before the end of the road, but now, not an hour since falling into the toaster, I’d done a mental one-eighty. It ain’t over till it’s over. But that ain’t the half of it. Hang on for the rest of the ride.
Seven miles is a long way to go when you were declared dead over an hour ago. Seven miles is a long way to go when you know that your knee, indeed, your entire left leg, wasn’t working right at the starting line. Seven miles gives you time to think about how at this point, you, or for that matter, most people save the front-runners, no longer care about position in the race and just care about holding it together for forty more minutes, thirty, twenty, up those last mini-insulting rises at twenty-two and twenty-five, into Kingfield… At this point, position is irrelevant, right?
Sugarloaf is a course on which you cannot get lost. You travel twenty-six-point-one miles on highway twenty-seven (there’s some irony there), and then make exactly one turn onto a side street, through an extended chute, and over the finish line which on a good day would be in a pleasant fairgrounds-style field though on our day was effectively a mud-pit. One turn.
I made that turn. And there he was. Male pattern baldness.
You’d think I would have seen him before the turn. You’d think I would have noticed I was closing on him. You’d think it wouldn’t have been a surprise. But I didn’t see him. It was a surprise. Entirely.
But there he was. And while I was hammering it home, he was doing the Death Shuffle. It’s easy to spot. I’ve been there. When you’re there, there’s really no escape.
I blew by him so fast that I put twenty seconds on him by the finish, which was only about four hundred feet away.
I then spent a half-hour sitting in what passed for a med tent, not only over-chilled but far more woozy than usual, trying to come back to reality. I’d slipped in two minutes under three hours, but the effort felt like I’d just challenged the Kenyans on Boylston Street. So it wasn’t till a good forty minutes later that I wandered over to the results postings to learn that he was, in fact, fifty one. He was, in fact, second in our age group. I was, in fact, first. Damn.
Now, days later, the quads are recovered but the knee is a bit of a mess. I am wondering if there is, in fact, much cartilage left in there. Time will tell.
But my, my, what a fine pottery. It ain’t over till it’s over.
Congratulations Dept: To training and travelling companion Thor and to club-mate Judy, both of whom notched their first marathons! I warned them not to make any judgments about their second for at least a week!