22 November 2017

Expanding Horizons

There are a couple of basic rules in the running world. First, when life takes you places, take your running shoes. Second, the myth of the lonely distance runner is in fact just that, a myth. We’re generally highly social creatures, and you’re a fool if you don’t take advantage of that fundamental truth. Link up with someone and not only will the miles melt away in amusing discourse, but you’re a lot more likely to cook up adventures and expand your horizons.

This week, those adages won me an utterly gorgeous morning running the iconic bridges of New York accompanied by a new friend who made for an effective, willing, and most enjoyable Native Guide. Lonely distance runners my behind…

This is not to say I haven’t embarked on plenty of adventures solo; my running tour of London a couple years ago comes instantly to mind. But you can only do that when you have reasonable leeway and margins for error; when the downsides of something going askew rise, I often take the conservative option and stick with the known, expanding my horizons only slowly.

Thus when Corporate Employer, who has me crisscrossing the northeast and parts random on a regular basis, drops me in Manhattan, I tend to stick to the familiar. From my usual camping spot in Midtown, I pick my way uptown to Central Park, loop the reservoir, then head back south, dodging commuters pouring out of the Port Authority and Penn Station, to get back in the nick of time. Since I don’t go to Gotham just to hang in the office – it’s always for meetings, usually with clients – screwing up the plan would result in a rather embarrassing and dramatic late entrance.

But last week opened a window of opportunity, and that window unfolded in a surprising – or perhaps not so surprising, given the basic truths I held evident earlier – way. The day’s meetings were slated to start a bit later than usual. Ah, an opening to try something different.

Before about two weeks ago, few non-New Yorkers knew about the Hudson River Greenway, but yet another deranged soul with a rented truck slapped it into the national consciousness. I, on the other hand, had been eying it for an ambulatory excursion for some time, with the intent of finally – sixteen years later – visiting the Trade Center memorial. How I’ve missed getting down there for so long was mysterious. How I finally had a chance to get there so close after another attack was ironic.

Still, getting there and back – and hopefully having a few minutes to locate a childhood friend’s name and have a few minutes of reflection, wasn’t a given, even though I plan these things within an inch of their lives. Call it OCD.

Decoding Google Maps along Manhattan’s west side, where docks and piers and parks and highways intertwine like loosely wound DNA, isn’t a certain science. Most uncertain, I couldn’t quite tell if the sinuous strand, clearly labelled at some points, but not so clearly labelled at others, did in fact extend all the way south. So it was that on attaining the trail at 26th Street, I took the stereotypically un-male action of asking the first guy who passed by if indeed this was the Greenway (to which I expected his reaction to be, “Duh, there’s a river if you go thirty feet further west,”) and if indeed the path continued all the way to the end of the island. I’m not sure I communicated that last bit, the important bit, all that well, but I took his lack of warnings of death, doom, and destruction to imply that I wasn’t really off base in my quest. And, feeling a bit like a moron, but mostly wanting to respect his privacy, I took off.

Funny thing about running in New York City. Unlike back home, where it’s an event to see another runner, a rarity to see one heading your way, and a lottery-ticket day to find one heading your way at your pace, in New York there are thousands out on any given morning. There’s always someone going your way. It’s not even that hard to find someone reasonably close to your pace. But faced with this plenty, most of these masses don’t strike up conversations with folks they don’t know. I suspect it’s a matter of practicality. We’re social, but we do like some me time, and with these multitudes, if you chatted up every passing compatible pacer, you’d never have a moment to daydream – or think up blog topics. Folks need some space. Which is why I took off.

A half mile later, he caught up. A few miles later we were buds. It happens. Serendipity.

Introducing myself as being from Boston piqued interest since he was looking forward to his first Boston in the spring. From there, stories spewed forth (one quite notable: he’s got an amazing hundred mile week – which he did in five days! – under his belt – check that out here). He soaked up my chatter without complaint while regaling me with his. Runner chat. Miles melting. Faster pace than I’d do on my own. I needed that. But by the time we reached his office in Lower Manhattan (he’d run-commuted that day), pretty much all I knew was that he was an attorney from Brooklyn, and we’d had a good run. That alone was enough and had made for a great morning.

Ah, the consequence of decisions. Nearly a decade ago I picked the name for this literary serial, with one criteria being that it would be simple to pass on verbally, key since few can spell my name right on the first try. When we parted outside his office I shouted the name of the blog. His email showed up shortly thereafter; connection made, simplicity worked. Good decision.

Oh, and yes, after a wrong turn (how can you miss a hundred-story office tower? I did it…) I got my ten minutes of reflection at the memorial, and found my old friend’s name. Powerful.

The story would typically end there, but this one is just gathering steam. My New York trips aren’t usually all that frequent, but oddly, this week brought me back for a couple mornings – read, a couple potential Big Apple runs. I let my new acquaintance know, but didn’t want to push his schedule. Hey, we just met. Let’s not take this too fast, now…

But he was all in on this, which found me rising earlier than I prefer to meet him in the dawning light along the Hudson. The early awakening was well worth it; now teamed with a Native Guide, here was a chance to expand my horizons without the risk of getting hopelessly lost in the spaghetti of Lower Manhattan (I can handle the Midtown grid, but Downtown is worse than Boston!). Remember, I had to have my butt in a seat for a meeting.

The Brooklyn Barrister picked up on my eye for the iconic, and planned a classic New York river-spanning route. I’ve walked the Brooklyn Bridge a couple times, and it’s long been one of my favorite urban walks, period. Running it added another notch of delight. Running back across the Manhattan Bridge, a structure with all the charm of unplanned steam punk inbred with organic graffiti, with trains roaring by ten feet to our right, but with a stunning view of Roebling’s masterpiece and the morning sun setting the Financial District afire, was simply sublime. And it’s worth noting, that sucker is a pretty serious hill, too. You don’t really get that till you’re coming down the other side and see that you’re above the roofs of the fifteen-story buildings on shore. Nice workout, indeed.

Did I mention that this guy also burned a wicked pace that left me not only with the most miles I’ve ever dared sneak in pre-New York meeting, but quality miles at that. My watch told me we’d been moving, even before trying to guess our actual moving pace considering traffic and my insistent photo stops. Thanks indeed, this was Just. Plain. Awesome. One of those signature runs that you’ll remember and relish for a long time.

As for those photos, hey, you might as well milk it, right? Hours later, when the conference room of colleagues was zoned from a full day of endless blather and slideware, I ended my brief speaking bit by announcing, “And now, your moment of Zen,” flipping that bridge shot onto the screen. Few in the room got the Daily Show reference, but it had the desired effect – both a satisfying break to the day and a reconfirmation of my status as the slightly crazy one in the room – since they knew how I’d harvested the image.

Horizons suitably expanded, I returned to my usual park loop the next morning, finally remembering – as I’ve meant to do for a long time – to pack the phone for some snaps of the sun rising against Central Park West. More bliss. But now I’m dangerous. Now I know that Brooklyn is in range. I might never make another New York meeting on time.

13 November 2017


A few weeks ago, you’ll recall, I won a local race. My local buds laughed when I sloughed it off to light competition. But really… You want proof? How about this? A week back, I dove into the deep end and ran a race labelled ‘Championships’. You can bet that the word ‘win’ doesn’t appear in this story. Do a ‘Replace All’ on ‘win’ and insert ‘thrashing’. It’s good to have perspective.

Just getting there was half the adventure. Having finally turned in my first month of decent mileage in a long time, my body registered mild protest by sprouting a series of flesh wounds designed to test the soul. Back, foot, knee (though not what you’re expecting), oh hell, torpedoes be damned, carry on. I showed up for the thrashing anyway and had a grand time if not a terribly good time.

A week prior, the back, out of nowhere, caught me from behind (go ahead, groan). I don’t often get the spacious luxury of a king-sized bed, so while out in Syracuse to visit Dearest Daughter, that Montana-sized motel mattress was a treat that left me refreshed and ready to meet a local friend for a Saturday morning ten-miler. Ten minutes out of bed, without warning, I couldn’t bend over. Go figger. I’m not one prone to back problems, so this made no sense then, and with tinges lingering a full two weeks later, it makes no sense now. On the bright side, my companion had seriously over-indulged the night before to celebrate his advancing years (he’s finally more than half my age), so he didn’t mind our brutally slow start, and as me achin’ back loosened up I found that for the next week, my only relief would be when I was running, so naturally I ran a whole lot.

Prior to that, it was the foot that injected a bit of drama. What appeared as an odd bruise in an odd spot initiated by an odd pair of shoes that only hurt at odd times left me worried that I’d done far worse and cracked one of those multitudinous mini-bones. Just to be safe, I commissioned a portrait, and Dr. Foot Doctor assured me today I’m merely the proud owner of an osteophyte, or for you normal folks, just a bit of an irritated bone spur. Carry on.

And since good things, or at least things, come in threes, add another to the list, the knee. But not the usual perpetual knee woes; oh no, this one was self-imposed and downright creative. To explain this we must jump ahead four squares and let on that the race labelled ‘Championships’ was in fact the USATF New England Cross Country Championships. And I haven’t run a cross country race in years. And when it rains in a cross country race, spikes are a really good idea. And the forecast said it might rain. And when you haven’t worn spikes in a really long time, and you think you might need to race in them, it’s a really good idea to test them out.

There, buried in the back of the closet… The good news? They were far more comfortable than expected. The bad news? The trails I’d chosen were a bit technical in places, and I repeatedly hit rocks which tossed one leg wildly into the other. Not spike-side-first, which would be ugly, but with enough blunt force trauma to do some damage. Ooh, that’s gonna’ leave a mark!

So into the lion’s den I went, riddled with a variety of maladies, but not about to let them stop me from indulging in a complete denial of age. There’s an odd joy in running a cross country race when you’re halfway through your fifties. Go ahead, act like you’re a teen-ager, slog through trails and woods like your high school days. Age and bodily damage be damned. I’d missed it, and it was good to get back out there. Never mind the odd logic that getting back out there meant jumping into the championships; odd indeed when I hadn’t run a cross country in years. Start big.

I held no delusion that I’d be anywhere close to competitive in a field of ringers, but you can’t get faster in races without racing, so might as well start somewhere. Besides, in this game, even the seventh man contributes, so why not jump in when you just might boost your team, even if you are slow guy? Further, it was good to show my Central Mass Striders team that I really did exist in the flesh, not just in emails, since right when I signed on was when I fell off the cliff and stopped racing.

It’s worth repeating, there’s nothing quite like a cross-country start. In a road race, unless it’s small (read, the competition probably isn’t deep), you’re corralled well behind the fast guys. But a cross country start is egalitarianism brought to racing. For about half a minute as we thundered across the field at Boston’s Franklin Park I was actually in the race, a race labelled championship.

Reality of course took over quickly, and I found myself well back in Central Oblivion, separated from all ahead or behind, in the rear position of a mini-pack of three. Time is more or less irrelevant in cross country – a small comfort of which I’d remind myself when I pulled in two and a half minutes slower than my last time around this circuit, six years prior – rather, it’s all about place and team scoring. Since one of the parties in my mini-pack was an old Greater Boston teammate who I knew was a spry young forty-something who therefore didn’t matter in my fifties-plus race scoring world, my focus became the third guy of our private party, a runner from Greater Lowell who, through some pre-race humor, had revealed himself as worthy of fossilization.

All of this sorting took place quickly, and then? Nothing happened. It’s an eight kilometer race, mind you. Other than a bit of grunting, we just soldiered on in peace, knowing that the game is one of positioning for late race moves, hoping to pick up a place or two and boost your team.

Again, perspective: I’d walk away from the field of combat having finished two thirds back in the field, yet somehow, I was still thinking strategy. This was our little skirmish in the bigger war. I wanted that Lowell guy. I vowed that if I didn’t take him and we landed behind his team by a single point, I’d have to devise some unspeakable self-punishment. You don’t get that in a road race.

With about two kilometers to go, I’d put a few yards on my former Boston teammate, and made a move on Lowell. Though it wasn’t a windy day, as soon as I passed, it sure felt that way, so I backed off; might as well let him do the work. Besides, the last loop over Bear Cage Hill awaited, and I’m nothing if not moderately confident on a hill.

While biding my time, quite by surprise – since I’d thought we’d been all alone in our Gang of Three – a pair of interlopers loped past. Remember that tune, Hot Rod Lincoln? I said boys, that’s a mark on me…

Bear Cage Hill. It’s not big, but your second trip over is just before the mad dash to the finish. Strategically placed, let’s say. On the way up? Lowell, nailed. One of the two interlopers, taken down. Greater Boston buddy, not mounting a final challenge. On the way down? I’m not a downhill guy, I have to consciously tell myself to let go, let gravity, let flail, nobody’s awarding points for style, just stay upright. Off the hill, empty the tanks, Death-Warmed-Over, finish it.

The second interloper got away with his caper, but he’d turn out to be a spry forty-seven, so he just didn’t matter. The other three I chalked up as slayed. So yes, the truth is that I ran sixty-ninth, or I can just say that I took three out of four whom I was actually racing. It’s perspective. It was still a thrashing, but with a small victory extracted from the wreckage.

Oh, and for the record, that point I added to Greater Lowell’s score with the late race take-down didn’t make a hill of beans of difference, but it felt good just the same.