07 January 2018

Who Was That Masked Man?

On a good day, I can run into someone I’ve met many times and be utterly clueless as to their identity. That’s why, as Dearest Spouse likes to remind me, I went into a sales-related job (engineering, mind you, but still sales engineering). My local clubmates will confirm this failing; it takes at least four or five meetings of a new arrival for me to recall them, and God knows I try. My more distant clubmates who I see only infrequently will laugh even more heartily. Every time I show up for a Squannacook event, it’s like meeting a whole new crowd. They tolerate me anyway.

That’s on a good day. But it’s been absurdly cold of late. So add multiple layers of clothing including face-obscuring and ear-muffling headgear, blinding sun mixed with eye-slitting wind, and perhaps a good dose of fogged-up shades, not to mention enough fabric to disguise the most basic body shape clues, and all bets are off. I could run – and chat – with you for a couple of miles and still not have a clue who you are. Don’t believe me? Ask my CMS clubmate Scott, with whom I did just that while warming up for yet another go at the Freezer Five on New Year’s Day. I swear it didn’t even sound like him, let alone was it possible to see who was hiding under all that breathable fabric (note, that’s me, mid-race, under the blue fabric and the red hat, but you’d never know). Only two miles later did I figure it out, much to my chagrin. Let’s just say I’ve grown accustomed to the embarrassment of my typical delayed revelations.

In that vein, it’s no surprise that I had no idea whom I was facing off against at the end of that race, and had no concept that it mattered for anything more than using that unidentifiable heavily-clothed object as motivation to shave a few more seconds off my clocking for the day. But I can elevate garden-variety cold weather masking to an art by piling on my special brand of cluelessness.

As it turned out, it mattered quite a bit, and even more after a surprise sweetener was piled on a bit later. But at the time, all I knew was that I was dragging a pair of legs that had just run a marathon the day before through a five miler that started at five degrees into a biting and sapping headwind. By the end, at least I had that wind to my back, but on the final small hill – usually my strong point – the masked man I was chasing put ten yards on me and I momentarily figured I was frozen toast. But we’ll get back to that.

Yes, I’d run a marathon the day before, and yes, I counsel all my running friends not to race for a while after a marathon. But let’s be clear; that marathon, the rapidly-increasing-in-fame Groton Marathon, was by no means a race, so none of the requisite micro-tears lacerating various muscles, none of the quad burn, none of the typical damage that the body-consuming effort of a raced marathon brings on. Still, it was twenty-six miles on the legs.

And I should note that running the Freezer – my seventh outing on that icy venue – was a fallback of sorts. For the last month or two I’d entertained the somewhat whacked idea of following up Sunday’s marathon with another on Monday – another casual event to be sure, but still fifty-two miles on the legs. Groton is held on the Sunday after Christmas, and the New Year’s Boston Marathon run is held, as you might guess, on New Year’s morning. This year’s calendar put them back-to-back, offering up a special challenge for the feeble of mind. But when Monday morning’s forecast was for four below zero and significantly devoid of the warming power of sunlight at six in the morning, I opted to defer this year’s Boston run and await the tropical five-degree sun-drenched (and windswept) relative warmth of the Freezer’s eleven o’clock start.

Groton hadn’t exactly been an overheated sweat-fest. A largely unidentifiable group of a dozen and a half heavily wrapped bodies set off at nine at one – nine in the morning, that is, with one whole degree on the thermometer. But the air was mostly calm and the sun was bright and frankly, we were pretty comfortable – at least till we hit the three-mile westbound stretch through Ayer, when the air decided to be most decidedly not calm and we were most decidedly not comfortable – but that too passed.
As is typical for the Groton gala, few of those who started intended to run the full distance; all were welcome to pick their poison, whether full, half, quarter, eighth, or a few miles down the road with the dog. But also as is also typical for Groton, the Squannacook crowd took good care of us enroute, with replenishment thankfully kept in warm cars after the first pre-cached goodie stop served up GatorSlushies and SnickerBricks. (Snickers, I must say, once warmed above Brick form, make for terrific fuel. What are the forms of matter? Plasma, gas, liquid, solid, and SnickerBricks.) A whopping four of us wheeled in from the full course at ten degrees to be greeted with a warm car and hot chocolate reportedly sporting some Irish enhancement. Ahh…

While this was entirely a casual slog, it did provide a notch of confidence restoration. Boston now looms about a hundred days out. I hadn’t touched anything over twenty since Gate City, and on that day, the part over twenty was best forgotten. So though we stopped and tanked up every five miles or so, it was still a decent indication of whether my body would revolt in the high miles. I remembered to click the watch for our stops this time, and was pleased to see that each segment actually got a little quicker, culminating in the last five where I had to be a little antisocial and break ahead of the group to stretch out that chronically complaining left knee. This was no speed fest but let’s just say, net of the breaks, I feel good about heading into Boston ’18 without yet having a qualifier for Boston ’19. And of course, we all got Chris’s signature medals…

It really wasn’t the thought of launching on another one only seventeen hours later that stopped me. Nor was it the thought of having to rise at five in the morning to do so (full disclosure, Dearest Spouse and I did not make it till midnight on New Year’s Eve, so I would have had plenty of sleep). It was the thought of doing that at four below zero in the dark that pushed me over the edge. Five extra hours and nine extra degrees was a Faustian bargain – because by running the Freezer, I’d actually have to try to run fast – but I bought in.

When the gun went off in Sterling, despite that nearly two-mile warm-up, my legs just didn’t work. The lunacy of racing less than twenty-four hours after twenty-six miles wouldn’t leave my mind, but it was also entirely possible that the rock-like consistency of shoe rubber in an already minimally-padded lightweight racing shoe was playing havoc with the physics of stride mechanics.

Whatever, I bought in; it was too late to change my mind.

Outbound was uneventful. After The Sorting (the inevitable settling after the mayhem of the start), I crept past one Gore-Tex puffball and then just held my turf into the headwind, picking around patches of black ice stubbornly hanging on since our last storm. After the lollipop turnaround, the wind became a bit of an ally, but not a cooperative one. At one point, trying to emulate those mysterious one-car crashes that make you scratch your head and say, “How did they do that?” I nearly fell off the road thanks to a combination of steep crown, black ice, and a surprise gust. Nobody around me. Nothing in my way. Would’ve been good and embarrassing.

But all in all, this was just a race for the day after a marathon. The split markers were uncertain, but even if marginally accurate, my split times weren’t spectacular, which was fine, because, as I said, this was just a race for the day after a marathon. Start the new year, get one in the books, go home empty-handed but feel satisfied and smugly superior to all those hung-over blokes.

Still, coming up on mile four, there were three guys (guys? people, gender undeterminable) in a line not too far in front of me. That racing gene kicked in. Oh damn, I just can’t not do this, can I?

First one, seemed to be fading a bit, clicked him off fairly easily (yes, they’d all turn out to be hims).

Second one, took a little more work, had some time to chat. I think telling him that I’d run Groton the day before made him just say, oh, hell, this dude is off the scale, just let him go.

Third one, this guy wasn’t going down easy. Three quarters of a mile to go. Slight downgrade, into a vale of sorts, I crept up on his shoulder. Third of a mile to go, last bit on the course that resembles a hill, and I’m a hill guy, this was my time to move. And he put ten yards on me. That’s what twenty-six the day before does to you, even if you didn’t race it.

Topping the rise, staring at his back, this is where you have that, “Do I really want this?” moment. Do I care? Or, as I’d been thinking only a few minutes earlier, do I just go home knowing I’ve kicked off the new year in the right direction and be happy?

And then you have that, “Whatever…” moment and the racing gene kicks back in.

A quarter mile of straight flat to go, culminating in this course’s famous, icy, don’t-fall-on-your-*** very sharp turn into the school and the finish chute. Legs with twenty-six and a warm-up and four-and-three-quarters of a race on them suddenly and inexplicably felt loose and almost loopy. Whoever this heavily-packaged person was, he slipped behind me. Knowing I’d need to slow for that treacherous turn, I left the engines on full till the last moment, stayed vertical around the bend, and wrapped it up.

In other words, we had ourselves a real-live race. He’d put up a helluva’ fight. And then I went back into clueless zone, more or less the theme of this story.

The usual post-finish mutual pats-on-the back commenced, each of us congratulating each other, the vanquished uttering kudus, the vanquisher exclaiming how we couldn’t have finished that hard without each other’s push (entirely true), thankful that the situation turned this from just a nice way to check off New Year’s Day into a real racing story.

And I have no idea who I just raced to the death and who I’m talking to.

In fact I have no idea who that wrapped up athlete was until I’m back inside, raiding the goodie table, he walks in, and I realize not only that it’s my CMS teammate Phil, the very guy who’d greeted me when I first arrived at the race (and I hadn’t really connected who he was at that point either), but I’m also chatting with his wife who’s tending the post-race comestibles.

And I still haven’t figured out why any of this is significant.

Nor do I until a race official walks in with the first page of results, I catch a glance, and realize that Phil, who’d I’d thought was in his forties, was in fact a year older than me, and that our battle to the death was the battle for the age group. Since there’s only one award per age group, that little face-off (in the cosmic sense, though it was an Epic Battle in my warped mind) was worth the coveted Freezer sweatshirt award (my sixth, but to be fair, there were years early on when the top three in each age group got them). And to my surprise, since the men’s senior age division was the largest registered group, the race crew tossed on a gift card, a sweetener for the winner of that largest division. (And just for an exclamation point, we both knocked off the first fortyish youngster.)

I train to improve my abilities, yet none of this cures my basic inability to hold onto names. Places? Got those. Can remember almost every road I’ve been on. Meet you tomorrow? You’d better reintroduce yourself the next day. It’s just how it is.

So I can’t tell you that if Phil had been in shorts and a singlet with fully visible features that I’d have known I had to take him down for that cotton garment. Thus I’ll stick to that racing gene. If it’s in front of you, I’d advise that you go for it. You never know.