29 March 2018

Degrees of Difficulty

And he sticks the landing!

Yeah, I guess the simple swan dive is easy, at least if you’re a diver, as might be the basic gymnastic vault, if you’re a vaulter (or, I guess, if you’re talking about the landing, you’d be a devaulter, but I digress…). It’s when you add in the ‘elements’ that things get more difficult. In those sports, and probably others, they call them degrees of difficulty. We runners have our own version of degrees of difficulty, like the number of degrees on the thermometer, the degrees of tilt in the course (fancy verbiage for hills), and the degrees of the compass determining from where the wind howls. In Stage Three of the climb up the mountain of Boston prep racing, the New Bedford Half Marathon served up an interesting combination of those degrees.

But before we get into the pain and the pleasure of the race, let me pause first and say a few words about New Bedford. Yes, they’ve got the Whaling Museum and yes, the associated national park (seeing how the place is always windy, it’s no surprise they built a seaport there; people way back when may have lived in what we now see as a black and white era, but they weren’t dumb). And yes, I’m sure they have a few other gems that I’m not thinking of at the moment.

But New Bedford is not high on the list when you think of rockin’ places or economic wonders. It’s a struggling town, struggling economically as are all New England fishing towns, struggling with more than its share of addiction issues, and, well, just plain struggling. It’s no ritzy seacoast tourist town like Hyannis. It’s worth noting that I’ve had the pleasure of doing business with some superb people there recently, and after I’d penned the start of this paragraph, but while I was still pondering whether to make such a statement publicly, those New Bedfordites told me the same thing, unprompted. It’s no secret, it’s no insult, it just is.

But therein lies the beauty. When a couple thousand people descend on Hyannis for their annual midwinter race-fest, outside of the race itself, the town yawns. Half the town is empty, being summer homes sitting lonely in the winter, and the other half of the town is just plain used to visitors. So sure, we get some support in the streets, but it’s not a big deal. But when a couple thousand people descend on New Bedford for their annual running extravaganza, it is indeed a big deal. It’s an event. Or as Arlo once said, friends, it’s a movement.

New Bedford rolls out the red carpet. The local support is nothing short of phenomenal. I can’t think of another race outside of a big city marathon with more fans along the route – and not just friends of the runners, but local residents, making a big effort to get out there and make noise. The volunteers – it’s all volunteer, but you’d guessed that – are second to none in friendliness and enthusiasm. The cops on the road – paid cops, I’m sure – are more into this race than any other I know; seriously, these men and women voraciously cheer, and this is a Grand Prix race, which means I’m nowhere near the front of the pack by the time they see me, and they’re still into it. And there are stretches where even the bars – yes, on Sunday morning – seem to spill their patrons to add more rah to the rah-rah. Add in post-race chowder and what more could you ask for?

I hear you say, “How about some decent weather?” Well, yeah, there is that. Though by New Bedford standards, this year was actually quite lovely, though still challenging. Last year’s gale found me working with a local cop to try to re-right the road closure signs downtown. Last year’s gale had a buddy comment that if the wind had suddenly stopped during the waterside stretch through mile ten, we would have all fallen down, so intense was our lean. This year, by contrast, delivered brilliant sun and seemingly mild wind. Seemingly. It’s all a matter of degrees, remember?

Twenty-five degrees isn’t really that cold, when less than three months back I was racing at five, casually marathoning at one, and running in the negatives. But factor in that this is a decent-sized endeavor – north of two thousand runners – with someone complicated logistics: parking, race headquarters at the YMCA, and the start/finish are separated by a few blocks, making for a lot of forth & back. Then add in the tweak that they close off the start line twenty minutes early and force entry to the corral from the rear, so if you want to be anywhere near the line, you’ve got to be in the corral – read, no room to keep running to keep warm – early. Top it off with the fact that you’ve got to dress for hot and cold, depending on your direction versus the wind in any given mile. And again, as noted, this one is Grand Prix, part of the annual New England USA Track & Field team and individual championship scoring, so yeah, it matters to get it right.

Daring youth did this one in shorts and singlets. For me, the older I get, the colder I get, so even tights, a double shirt plus the racing singlet, and my haute couture contractor-grade trash bag atop that couldn’t stave off pre-race shivers and shakes. I wasn’t alone; in a telling scene, ten minutes before the race virtually nobody was near the starting line, since it was in the shade. A half-block back a gaggle of shivering runners huddled in the northernmost diagonal slice of sunlight peeking over the downtown edifices. The two young ladies who belted out pre-race anthems certainly had impressive pipes, but on days like this, one would have sufficed; I’d be perfectly happy if God Didn’t Bless America and the bombs simply burst in the air. Let’s just get moving and generate some heat!

Funny things go through your head when the gun goes off. A quarter mile in, while still surrounded by hordes of people who’d mostly kick my butt in short order, it occurred to me that in my pre-race dance, flitting between parking, the Y, warming up, stripping down, and of course the port-o-john, I’d never even looked at my shoe laces since dressing at home hours earlier. Typically I don’t don the lightweight racing shoes till I’ve reached the venue, so I know that I’ve tightened and tuned, but this time I’d fiddled and diddled with different shoes at home early that morning, seeking the one that would least agitate the large patch of missing skin behind my left heel, courtesy of a snowshoe outing in somewhat ill-fitting boots a week prior. Now, as we barreled north into what was proving to be more than a mild breeze, instead more of a face-freezing wheeze, crap, those shoes felt loose. It was kind of a, “Did I close the garage door when I left?” moment. There’d be nothing worse than losing a minute or two before we’d even hit the mile mark. Pray to the God of Friction and hope for the best…and yes, they held on.

Go to a race once and you’re experienced. Go to a race twice and you’ve got it down cold (in this case, pun intended). This being my third outing, it was my civic responsibility to pass on tribal knowledge, and I’ve coached a number of people, including the fast young lady who carpooled down with me, that the hills on this course aren’t severe. Two early on, when you’re fresh, and one at the end, long but not steep, a welcome chance to fire up different muscles for that last push to the finish, but nothing to worry about.

Wrong, and Wrong.

Wrong Number One: Yeah, there are three up front. Small sin, I know, but I should know better, and staring at number three, I knew I’d lied to her. I also knew she wouldn’t care, but to an OCD type, that’s a mark. And amidst those climbs, remember those degrees of difficulty? The opening stanza, heading north, is almost always into the wind, but as we curved to the west, I got the hint that the northeast wind I’m used to was in fact decidedly northwest. That doesn’t sound like much of a difference, but it would prove important in the final push. At this early stage, it just made those two, no, make it three early hills a bit tougher than planned. Yeah, but we’re fresh.

No worries. Miles four through seven brought southbound shelter, the wind seeming to vanish but actually gently padding us from behind, our skin no longer abased but instead warmed by the almost-spring sun, an utterly lovely stretch save the fact that there’s no rest, you can’t break the intensity. I pondered the absurdity that this crowd, myself included, considers a half marathon to be relatively short; by five miles in you’ve only got a mere eight to go, so you’re thinking borders along the lines of speed as opposed to survival. I had a little help on that count, having heard on the ride down that a clubmate had run a solid time in a half earlier that morning a few states to the south. While his time was utterly irrelevant to mine, I knew that our racing capabilities have been similar of late, so I put his pace into my head as a benchmark. Having lost a bit in those opening hills, the southbound stretch was the perfect opportunity to bank precious seconds against that meaningless but focusing goal, knowing that I’d need them in the gnarly bits to come.

Which leads us to Wrong Number Two: That last hill? Yeah, it is a big deal sometimes. Those ninety degrees from northeast to northwest meant that while mile ten, the usual gnarly bit heading north along the water, was windy as usual (though not nearly so ugly as last year), the respite that usually comes by passing through the floodgate (shown on a lovely summer day, courtesy of Mrs. Google) and back inland didn’t show up. Instead, the wind aligned itself straight through that floodgate portal, and straight at us as we steamed just west enough of north to turn that last ‘no big deal’ hill into a long, agonizing, extended gnarly bit.

Let’s just say that it was strong enough and cold enough that even wearing shades, my eyelids were frozen enough that a good hard blink at the wrong moment would have probably flung a frozen contact lens into the gutter. And let’s just say that in pictures from that climb, well, I pretty much look like hell frozen over.

But once you top this thing, it’s only a quarter mile, half of it downhill, let it fly, body parts flailing, wild abandon, and it’s done. My carpool companion carved out her best and took our local club record, which she proudly held for exactly seven days before it was taken back by her club rival. I set no records but closed it out more than respectably, nearly an age-graded best (because, let’s face it, real bests are probably long in my aging past), and had the pleasure of learning I’d notched the fifth scoring slot as our Central Mass seniors team ran away with the win in this year’s first Grand Prix team competition.

Meanwhile, my local clubbies keep me sane, or I drive them insane (the fun pose in this shot was my idea), or we meet somewhere in the middle while this bodily-abusing crazy climb to Boston nears its finale. One more push, one more tuning race to go, then on to the big dance to Boylston Street. The gods are actually calling for decent weather for the last of this four-race series. So, with fewer degrees of difficulty, can he stick the landing?

17 March 2018

Stu’s is a Rite of Spring?

Mother Nature is cackling uncontrollably. That is, of course, when she is not weeping.

A current theory – just a theory at this point to my understanding, though one that makes good sense to my fairly scientific mind – is that the rapid melting of the north polar ice cap and the significant warming of the Arctic (which is much more significant than changes at the mid-latitudes) is contributing to increasing instabilities in the temperature differential that maintains the location and flow of the jet stream. This weakening of the control mechanism results in wild fluctuations of the stream, leading to extreme weather patterns including the now-famed Polar Vortex and its cousin, our ten-day deep freeze around the turn of the year (remember the one-degree Groton Marathon?), and yes, these late season whopper storms.

So yes, as you read in our last episode, I declared Spring! a couple weeks ago. And yes, I (more accurately we, Dearest Spouse is an awesome teammate) shoveled two feet of white-tinged Spring! this week. And yes, this was the third whopper in twelve Spring! days, the first landing my neighbor’s spruce in my side yard, the second so heavy and wet that had I not gone out at midnight with a twelve-foot aluminum pole (in a lightning storm, mind you) to knock down snow, half our trees would now be nude (and in that one, an hour later, the lights went out on Broadway, allowing us to finally test that generator we bought years ago), and the third storm? Yeah, two feet, at least. And we had it easy. Oh, those poor blokes on the sea-level-rising coast…oh my. Spring!

Somehow, the seas parted in the middle of all of this, and a gaggle of brave souls embarked on the famed lap of the Wachusett Reservoir known as Stu’s 30K. Eighteen-point-six miles of pure joy, interrupted by what one might euphemistically describe as a smattering of hills. That is, if one were as utterly blind to reality as…well, I won’t go political here.

Stu’s is basically an Old Home Day, tough enough to only draw out the die-hards, not fashionable enough to generate the hordes of a marathon, and strategically placed to serve as an ideal training race for Boston and, as a bonus, usually catch the crappiest of weather – a distinction it shares with Hyannis and New Bedford (which is forecast to kick off tomorrow after a thirteen-degree overnight low). Three hundred and nineteen people finished, plus the (fairly small) relay, plus those unfortunates who didn’t reach the end, so let’s call it four hundred, and it seemed like a solid two hundred of them were Best Buds. Look at it as a grand reunion and the outcome almost doesn’t matter. But the outcome was positive.

I’m in a somewhat weird zone where, despite having been doing this for thirteen years (as of next week), I have no idea what I’m capable of at the moment. It’s a pretty fair bet that my fastest days are past, but who knows? It’s a pretty fair bet that I can do a bit more than I think, but who knows? And it’s a pretty fair bet that there are a limited number of abuse sessions left in the left knee, but – you guessed it – who knows? So, bringing this down from the abstract to the rubber-meets-the-road plan, a road that I hadn’t run in six years, was, well, a pretty fair bet to be a total crap shoot. And in a thirty kilometer race, you’d better have a plan. In that light, I planted an arbitrary number representing a possibly achievable pace firmly in my mind, or at least firmly enough that it meant nothing more than thinking I’d try it out and see what happened.

Karma strikes conveniently. Trundling toward the start, a fair amble from the warm confines of the host school, Old Home Day produced a chance encounter with youngster who recalled that we’d passed more than a few miles together two springs ago at the Sugarloaf marathon. And wouldn’t you know, he had that same arbitrary number planted in his mind. Uncertainty loves company. Moral support. Or a shared journey into hell, if our arbitrary number turned out to be absurd. We quickly sealed a mutual support pact and I unleashed my usual stream of gallows humor while we huddled from the wind on the line awaiting the signal.

Stu’s first mile is flat as a board – probably the only mile in the race anywhere close to level (save a brief stretch along the lake at mile eight) – so early Irrational exuberance was almost a given. Our starting pace made a mockery of our plan; the God of Adrenalin can easily put a half minute in the bank early on, but sanity set in a mile later, and that arbitrary pace seemed achievable even as we worked the first big climb. My partner in crime drifted ahead; I let him go. I’d reel him back in around eleven when I was feeling surprisingly strong and his fortunes were flagging somewhat.

And that really is the tale of this tape. Cutting to the car crash, since locals and long-time sufferers of these diatribes all know about this one – plenty of hills going up, downhills that are steeper and shorter than you’d like and therefore don’t give you nearly the payback you’d like for the work you put in up front, and of course, the Dam Hills at the end, screaming down alongside the Wachusett Dam, climbing back into Clinton, then at eighteen miles in, climbing back to lake level to close the circuit – well, yes, we know this course borders on sadistic, the tale here was that I poked the graph at that target pace, and it worked. I beat that target pace, and while it wasn’t easy, and those late hills hurt like they always do, I wondered if there might have even been a bit more in the tank. Photos from the race lack that usual Death Warmed Over look; indeed, I look like I’m having fun – not just early on while still in a chatty pack, but even alone mid-race. To be honest, except for those last hills, I was. Even the finish shot lacks that certain post-race devastation. So as a Boston preview, it was a good omen, knowing of course that an extra seven and a half miles to reach Boylston Street will be no trivial difference.

One of the bright notes that led to this bright assessment was the relative oddity of the rather robust north wind. For the second time in as many weeks, the previous being Hyannis with its odd reversal, this day brought the leftover from Nor’Easter Numero Dos, who’s precipitation had departed days earlier but who’s winds persisted. Common sense tells you that you start this race on the east end of the Wachusett Reservoir and make a counter-clockwise lap to the west, but common sense is a bit misguided. The first half is really southwesterly, shifting to nearly due south. I had this in the back of my mind as we cruised those early miles, knowing we could be living the false dream of the invisible hand of the tailwind, only to be crushed at the hairpin turn to the north at the top of the big climb just past mile nine. The rest, save the last mile, would be into the wind.

And it was. Not terrible, certainly not New Bedford style, and even moderated a bit as we traversed tree-sheltered neighborhoods, but certainly a factor, especially late along the lake, presenting a stiff in-your-face obstruction. That screaming downhill along the dam, which should have put another half minute in the bank, just plain didn’t.

But by and large, the body held up, the pace held down, and even at Old Home Days where all of my fast buds showed up, I still managed third in the Semi-Fossilized division; third which, in my view, provided a sweeter prize than those over-achieving first- and second-placers won. Their wine and gift cards will be gone in a month, but my sweet Stu’s hat, killer cozy, seriously built for running, and sporting the crazy Stu’s course profile around it’s lip, well, that’s swag worth the pain.

Two down, two to go, halfway up the mountain. Mother Nature is clearly playing with her food, but Spring! will show up sometime, and hopefully stick around long enough to give us a non-eighty-degree Boston.

[ Ed. Note: Today marks five years since we lost John Tanner. Take a few minutes to re-read my post on this giant of a man, and keep him in your thoughts. ]

02 March 2018

A Quarter Way Up the Mountain

A week ago, the climb ahead seemed daunting. Eight weeks to Boston, knees hurting (hurting? heck, knees crunching!), the gains of last fall seeming fleeting – here one day, gone in a slow arduous slog the next, and four, yes, four planned races to surmount before – oh yeah, there’s a marathon to be run, and a marathon where once again I’m stepping in without a qualifier for next year. Just to add gravy to that rosy outlook, I fully expect when the Boston seedings come out that this will be my first year not starting in the first wave, which will make notching that qualifier just a little bit more difficult. And just to add even more flavor to that mountain, other than the first of the four slated lung-busters, they’re not short races, either.

This is a new normal. The speed I could conjure up just a few years ago really isn’t quite there most of the time, but then again, with the benefit of Boston’s age graded qualification requirements, I more or less don’t need it. I need steady, I need smart, and frankly, starting back a bit will probably only serve to knock my stubborn brain into behaving for the first five miles.

Meanwhile, there are those four races between me and Hopkinton, or at least there were. Now there’s only three, one knocked off this weekend and knocked off in decent, if not spectacular, fashion, one that simply has to be done out of tradition. My offspring had better never choose to get married or reproduce nor shall any family member be permitted to pass through the Pearly Gates on the last weekend in February so long as the Hyannis Marathon Relay continues to be held. But we’ll get back to that.

Time flies when you’re having fun, right? I must have been having a lot of fun as suddenly two months have passed with nary a peep on this story stream. I’d like to tell you of grand adventures of running prowess, but I’ll have to settle for a lot of enjoyable runs with my peeps and an unconfirmed record for my coldest run. It was hard to tell just how cold it was that day at sis’ place in the old home turf of Upstate New York, since my phone hadn’t updated in a half-hour and there was no local thermometer handy, but said phone told me that the town to the left of me was five below and the town to the right (to which I ran) was even colder at minus nine, and I was stuck in the middle with few. Degrees, that is. Anything in the neighborhood would have broken my Second Lap, (read ‘adult’) record of zero, and I’d say my teenaged maximum chill of four below was in play, but we’ll never really know, will we?

Having survived that one, it’s all ice jams under the bridge now since March first signaled the end of the Sixty Day Challenge and therefor it is, by my rules, my edict, spring. I celebrated the day in shorts on a perfect fifty-degree morning in New York City on an early morning dozen-mile grand tour of New York’s finest bridge crossings with the Brooklyn Barrister. Then a mere day later, ah, spring in New England, the wind is howling, my neighbor’s pine tree is in my side yard (on the ground, mind you, it's not supposed to be there), and bombogenesis is wreaking havoc with every utility pole and coastline in the state. If you guessed that I snuck out for a few miles in the midst of the mayhem you would of course be playing an easy bet; the sneaky little streak that I’ve said little about (since I hover somewhere between, “This is a great motivator,” and, “This is killing me,”) is now over five months old and couldn’t be stopped by a little ‘ol epic storm of record proportion. But that streak has gotten me through the winter, and the end of winter of course brings us back to Hyannis.

Winter fulfilled its contract at Hyannis, a race that more often than not runs cold and generally nasty, and this one was cold in the worst way. I often say I’d prefer to run in a twenty-degree snowstorm (or for that matter, even colder on a sunny day) than forty and rain. And as Dearest Spouse likes to quote her grandmother, “Oh, did it rain.”

Forty and rain, worse, forty and solid, sometimes heavy rain, even more worse mixed with wind, penetrates like nothing else. There is no clothing that really defeats this, especially when you’re racing and you can’t seal yourself in a plastic cocoon (which I did at least for my warm-up, in a procured hand-me-down trash bag because I was too clueless to remember to bring my own). Once the cold water penetrates to your skin, it sucks the warmth, sucks the life, sucks the very soul from your being. Death soon ensues. (OK, that was a bit melodramatic.)

Wineglass Half 2011. Martha’s Vineyard 2013. Boston 2015. Hypothermia makes for days you remember. Hyannis breached that threshold once before, a week after that chilling Vineyard expedition, when windy cold rain left me blue – no, not sad, but blue – on return to the headquarters hotel. To be fair, it was my own fault, since I insist on the tradition of running the back half of the course as a warm-down (or chill-down) of sorts, turning my seven-mile leg into a half marathon’s worth of miles.

This one ranked on the blue scale as well, but with some special twists. On the positive side, for the first time in eight outings, Hyannis’ notorious wind reversed itself. That probably gave my largely westbound third leg a little tailwind boost (and I did turn in a decent enough pace to call this a decent enough race), but it made the largely eastbound back half – when the rain seemed to redouble its rate – rather gnarly. So when life gives you frozen lemons…? Sing. I conjured up every rain- or sun-related tune I could muster and belted out (and I mean belted) key lines whenever I passed course marshals, soggy fans, and the slower-paced half-marathoners. A favorite? La La Land’s “It’s Another Day of Sun!” Bystanders either loved it or menacingly reached for their phones.

By that point it just didn’t matter; I was soaked clean through. Somewhere around mile three in the race proper there are a couple of spots on the course that are notorious for road flooding, though even in a typical wet year you can skooch past the inky depths on the muddy sidelines. Road flood number one offered such an escape, but road flood number two, overwhelmed by the immensity of the precipitation, offered no safe alternative. Skooching looked quite certain to bring on a face-plant disaster, so damn the torpedoes, batten the hatches, we’re going in. In, as in at least seven or eight strides across, and easily more than five inches deep. As I said, just didn’t matter.

Prior to that dunk-tank experience, I’d taken the baton in a state of shock, my second leg arriving – what? – in the lead of the relay. Let’s be fair, our first leg, the Mad Moroccan, is a ringer of the first order, and our second leg, a last-minute fill-in for our injured second man, outdid himself as well. Lining up in the zone next to a couple of tall lanky twenty-somethings, I had nowhere to go but down, and indeed lost two spots over my seven miles. Truly, I felt no shame in running close, but not quite as fast, as a couple of kids half my age.

That left Anchor Danny to bring it home which of course he did, though amusingly I rolled in only a couple of minutes behind him, having foregone my usual post-leg rest-and-catch-my-breath reprieve in favor of getting moving on the back half before my blood stopped flowing and even more cold crept in. I’ve always threatened him – tongue-in-cheek of course – that if I ever caught him in his race to the finish that I’d beat him up, take his baton, and bolt for the line. This year’s cold made it almost plausible.

All the pre-race drama of finding a sub for our wounded warrior and wondering if anyone would show up to challenge our now eight-time divisional win streak was of course, in the end, inconsequential. We actually did have a competing team in our division this year who turned in a quite respectable result, but our collection of misfits somehow managed to turn in our best combined time ever and take third overall of the roughly forty teams out there. Plus, we had the longest team name of any of ‘em. If that ain’t a win, I don’t know what is. So there.

So rack up another clamshell. It hasn’t moved downstairs yet to join the collection of the seven who came before it. Give it time to absorb its new surroundings.

One down, three to go. A quarter of the way up that mountain of preparation for the annual big spring party on Boylston Street. Battered, bruised, and beaten, but still in the game. Besides, it’s spring. And I like climbing mountains.