22 April 2018

Frozen Food Department

[ Ed Note: As is often the case, postings on marathons themselves become marathons. Pace yourself, there’s a lot to this story! ]

A week later I cannot begin to figure out how to describe this experience. The usual question I get is, “Have you warmed up yet?” to which I reply with a crack about having completed the swim portion of the event (funnier if you know how weak a swimmer I am), and thinking to myself that every subsequent blast of wind since that day has evoked a PTSD-like sense of dread.

I’ve run twelve Boston Marathons and twenty-eight marathons overall, plus a few more I think of as unofficial. I’ve run over a hundred and fifty races. I’ve gone hypothermic several times. But I’ve never seen or experienced anything like what hit us last Monday. Nor has anyone I’ve spoken with. Not veterans of twenty or more Bostons. Not those who remember forty. Many have said this was the grand-daddy of all one hundred and twenty two, so far as the impact on the runners.

If you’ve been under a rock or just don’t follow this stuff, the perfect storm intruded on our party. To a runner, purgatory is cold rain, and hell is cold wind-driven rain, and perfect hell is all of the above escalated to a level of intensity that drops both jaws and internal core temperatures. Anyone who has qualified for Boston has run and raced in cold weather, in rain, in snow, in wind. We get it, we deal with it. This one was different. I’d rather race in the single digits – been there, done that, just a few months back. I’d rather race in snow on a thirty degree day – snow gets you wet, but most blows by, brushes off. Neither penetrate like cold, wind-driven, heavy rain.

Boston rained from the start, rained for the duration, and only ceased raining to allow interruptions of stunning downpours that exceeded the definition of rain. Marathon Monday (dubbed Monsoon Marathon Monday by a friend) dawned with a fresh coating of snow and ice on the ground, barely rose above that frigid temperature by the start, and never attained even the slight warming that was forecast. As I passed mile twenty-four, the thermometer still read forty-two – and that dial would drop even lower by the time friends passed it later. The fateful day started with a true-to-prediction stiff headwind that proceeded to deepen its attack throughout the race. The Weather Channel had forecast finish line sustained winds at nearly thirty with an ominous orange GALE WARNING banner on-screen, while the local TV news pegged expected gusts at forty-five. Neither were overstated. All were head-on, save for the brief two blocks of Hereford Street when ironically the canyons of the city spun the tempest around. A tailwind rarely registers as anything other than the lack of resistance. The intensity of that one-minute long hind quarter boosting reprieve spoke volumes of its power.

No clothing worthy of an attempt at racing the distance could stop the assault. Those who opted for the shelter of more clothing simply accumulated more refrigerated coolant against their skin. Those with wind gear became sailors, which might have worked well if they’d had the time and space to tack their way upwind, but that wasn’t an option. Slower folks in the charity-runner range may have enjoyed the luxury of worrying less about minimizing their clothing for speed and performance, but paid through their extended exposure time. And the post-bombing elimination of the Hopkinton baggage check once again haunted this race; save for throw-aways, my wardrobe choice had to be made by seven in the morning while my front yard was still white and icy.

I opted for minimalism, recalling the 2007 Nor-Easter race when temperatures rose more than expected, and the 2015 gale, when similar, though as we’d learn, nowhere near as intense, conditions brought on hypothermia but not until well past the finish line. Racing shorts, one long-sleeve wicking shirt with a racing singlet atop, a thin beanie, and glove liners for some protection but minimal water absorption. And cheap throw-away expo shades to try to keep some of the liquid bullets out of my eyes. Of all that, only the beanie truly worked as hoped.

It goes without saying that the dry shoes I’d brought to the Athlete’s Village and donned on my way to the starting corrals were wet shoes – at least not muddy, but still wet – by the start, and soaked shoes by the mile mark as attempts to avoid not just puddles but pools and streams and floods quickly became impossible to win. So drenched was the course that runners often coagulated on the non-flooded paths between tire depressions, leading to more traffic dodging and more bump-and-grind than I’ve seen in a marathon ever. That was just one more ingredient in what would quickly become an energy expenditure equation that couldn’t be balanced.

Things got weird fast. Within a mile, my numb legs made me question whether I had, in fact, put on my shorts that morning – something I’d joked about while Dearest Spouse drove me to the race, being buried in voluminous quantities of pre-race warmth and unable to recall what sat at the bottom of that seven-layer taco dip. Cruising Ashland, I was certain that said shorts had to be drenched and must be riding up to my hip joints, giving those interested in well-aged thighs a cheap thrill, because I simply couldn’t feel them. You shouldn’t have to look down to verify the location of your clothing, nor should subsequent downward reconnaissance reveal a truth entirely in contradiction to what your nerves are telling you. The shorts hung normally, it was the legs that really weren’t there.

But a few miles later, the opposite developed. Now, my exposed quads insisted they felt the presence of fabric – tights, track pants, whatever, hard to tell – but the unmistakable sensation of fabric brushing over them. Again, the visual confirmed a complete neural disconnect, they were, indeed, still quite (as intended) naked. All I can fathom is that the winds were strong enough to drive sensation down hair follicles below the upper layers of chilled numbness. Weird.

While they may have been transmitting wildly corrupted data from their sensors, at least the legs worked – not terribly well; in the cold numbness I simply couldn’t break beyond a tight, choppy stride, but they worked – at least through the first twenty or so miles. Hands, on the other hand, rapidly became useless. Manipulating the zipper of my mini-pouch became a quarter-mile effort. Simple actions like clicking off splits on my watch became an engineering challenge; fingers failed and only a thumb was strong enough even for that tiny motor function.

And then there was the acoustics. The wind drove even sounds into cognitive dissonance. Repeatedly I puzzled why runners approaching me from behind were carrying cowbells, only to realize that the sounds were coming from the dedicated drenched devotees lining the course – out there even in these conditions – right alongside. Fool me once, it’s a curiosity. Fool me repeatedly and there has to be physics involved, probably mixed with a dose of reduced brain capacity.

Meanwhile I was already shivering; not superficial oh-that-gust-was-cold shivering, but deep, core, inner shivering. By Framingham. Mile six. Twenty to go, and the winds were nowhere near their apex. My mind, usually focused on the math of time in the bank and pace required to reach any of several goals, could think only of the rate of heat loss and whether there’d be any fire in the soul by Boylston Street. And no sooner would my racing efforts start to turn up the thermostat ever so slightly when the skies would open – about every twenty minutes – in unspeakable deluges that instantly saturated every pore and bloated every liquid-holding fabric fiber with the equivalent of an ice bucket challenge.

Despite all this, I was having a pretty good race. How’s that you say?

After the horrendous traffic of the first mile, partly an artifact of my first-ever second wave start (I’ve always been in the first) and partly an inexplicable mix of incompatible paces by people who had supposedly been seeded by time but now were reacting to the conditions in a myriad of unpredictable ways, I settled into a target pace range that would bring me back to the first wave for next year’s race. Save for a slight and entirely acceptable slowdown on the first Newton hill, I held that range till Heartbreak. On target, cylinders firing.

At mile eight, one of my rocks of the race, perennial fan Cori was there, as always, come thick or thin. I’ve been doing this race so long that she’s gone from single (might have that timing a little off) to married to mom to her kid being old enough to make a poster in my honor (though sadly I didn’t see it till later). That kind of support and spirit keeps me coming back.

Around mile twelve, I picked up a CMS teammate, a young woman I recognized but didn’t know well, and glommed on to her steady pace under the theory that two CMS jerseys were better than one and it might give us both a boost, and perhaps even a few hoots from the crowd. About the same time, while tracking her, I passed my New York buddy the Brooklyn Barrister, up for his first Boston, and having what I’d find out later was a day that hurt to even read about – worse than even what the weather dished out. It wasn’t till I’d overtaken him that he spotted me, but being slightly blinded by the dim and rain-streaked light of the cheap shades, I was hesitant to spin around to see him for fear that I’d trip over something I could barely see, instead shouting and hoping he’d join me. “I’m laboring!” was the last I’d hear from him till he recounted his own personal nightmare a few days later.

At sixteen, Dearest Spouse was out there. I’d given her dispensation to skip this one, but love and dedication know no bounds. I couldn’t even give her the joy of sidling left, out of the shortest tangent path, to swing closely by, as everyone was huddled on the right, on the inside track of the curve. Even though drafting wasn’t terribly effective, not drafting was worse. Swinging wide into the wind just seemed unthinkable.

Heartbreak hurt, Heartbreak slowed me, but Heartbreak didn’t kill me. Shortly thereafter, cold killed me. The heat equation hit zero balance coming down the back side, and systems began to shut down. Past the Graveyard, through Cleveland Circle, those repeated dousings had taken their toll. Staying vertical became the challenge. I knew my hometown club, Highland City, was manning the pedestrian crossings at twenty-three and twenty-four. That bit of coming familiarity was a bigger boost than you’d expect; it was cathartic to holler, “This SUCKS!” to friendly faces, especially one friendly face who was, to my spirit-lightening humor, wearing a rubber-ducky kid’s swim float around her middle. Little things. Thanks, peeps.

At forty kilometers it was walk or fall. I stumbled from there to the twenty-five mile mark, a mere two tenths of a mile that seemed to take a lifetime. Irony of ironies, there happened to be a timing mat at both forty kilometers and twenty-five-point-two miles – the mile-to-go mark – so this lowest point was forever memorialized in a really bad pace readout. One more brief walk coming out of the Mass Ave tunnel, that Divine Wind of Hereford, about six years to get down Boylston Street, and it was over. Requalified for next year. If I lived that long, which at that moment, wasn’t certain.

The human body delivers far beyond what anyone can expect of it.

Crossing the line, my core temperature must have been low enough that even the gigahertz of my brain’s processor had slowed. My vision, already obscured by the throwaway shades that I could never find a calm enough stretch to discard, flickered as if the frame refresh rate on the video screen had been turned down by half. My legs wouldn’t have held another few seconds past the moment a medical volunteer appeared to provide support. From him to the next volunteer to the wheelchair scooping me up just as I was going down – not knowing if I would faint, vomit, cry, or all three – to the slightly warmer environment of what I’d later term the Frozen Foods Department of the medical tent, probably took less than a minute, but who knew? Time wasn’t registering. Another volunteer stripped my sogginess from the waist up, piled on layers of Mylar (and thankfully one real blanket), and put a cup of warm sugared water in my mostly non-functional paws. I have no idea how long I stayed, and the ordeal wasn’t over. Having finally displayed just enough motility and lucidity to gain walking papers, there still remained the task of navigating the finishing chute and picking my way through barricades and crowds, hauling a bag of leaden clothing and clad only in soggy shoes, soggy shorts, and a couple layers of thin film (sadly, without that one real blanket).

But I’m here, writing this. I survived, as did everyone else. I had it bad, but others had it worse. A record number hit the med tent, but nobody was lost. I made it to that Finest Hot Shower You Will Ever Experience, also known as the Squannacook post-race party (unending thanks to them for their efforts of bringing this together every year!). My time wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great either, but frankly, nobody cares. The winning times were the slowest in decades. Most of the elites dropped out. Speedsters I know all faded out in the high miles, not, I suspect, because of the traditional wall, but because, I’ll bet, their core temperatures collapsed as did mine, and they too found it nearly impossible to function. But I did, and they did, and still some absurd number like ninety-five percent of those who started, finished.

The human body delivers far beyond what anyone can expect of it.

They’ll be talking about this one a decade from now, maybe multiple decades from now.


Like most marathons, there are too many stories to fit in one marathon-length narrative. Here are a few bonus tidbits.

Mud Shoes, Dry Shoes: In a pre-race email, the Boston Athletic Association relaxed their stringent policies on what could and could not be brought to the Village and clarified that a pair of dry shoes would be allowed and indeed would be recommended, expecting muddy conditions at the Athlete’s Village. (Long-time readers will recall how I took them to task on this very issue in 2014 and their then-stalwart response; this message was welcome and long overdue.) The sea of mud, exceeded in my memory only by a legendary hike in the Adirondacks, delivered as promised. By the time I’d forded the muck pit and shoehorned myself into a patch of space, I was pleased to see that many heeded the call and wisely equipped themselves. What I didn’t expect was to then see people all around me donning those dry shoes while still in the tent – while still needing to re-cross that Rubicon to get out of the tent. I can’t tell you how many people I advised to wait until they reached pavement before making the switch. I just can’t explain this gap in their logic. (Further note: While I was changing in the Hopkinton High parking lot, someone with a BAA jacket came by and did an impromptu video interview – no idea where that landed…)

Of All The Gin Joints, You Picked This One:
Yes, I shoehorned myself into the middle of the mob-scene of the tent in the Village. Yes, I found a patch of ground, laid down an old Mylar sheet, and invited another runner to share the space. Safe and dry till it was time to leave for the race, right? No, suddenly a torrent came down on the middle of our Mylar, and looking up, amongst the vastness of the canvas, was one hole – yes, one – that had been taped up, and that tape had just come loose and yes, it was right atop us. Go figger.

Rubber Ducky: I’d see my clubmate with her rubber ducky float down at mile twenty-three, but I missed my chance at the village. As a last-minute extra layer of pre-race warmth, I’d pulled an old terry bathrobe out of our basement heading-for-donation bin. Once ensconced in the tent and having removed my rain layers to expose this fashion, I took a walk over to get some snacks and suddenly realized how appropriate it was to be wearing a bathrobe while we were all taking a bath, so to speak. The crowd soaked it up (groan, pun intended). Oh, if I’d only had a bath brush or a rubber ducky.

Wrong Date?
Why does it seem every year that Saturday morning before the race turns into a delightful morning for a marathon? Happened again this year. The day after wasn’t bad, either.

Small World: I always love the variety of people at this global event. Sitting directly around me in the tent at the Village were people from Montreal, Paris, Monterrey Mexico, and Portugal. Closer to home, at the last port-o-john stop near the start, I asked the guy in line with me where he was from and he answered, “Binghamton, New York!” – my home town. My amusement at that multiplied when the guy behind him then said, “Me too!” Technically, the second guy was from about twenty miles away, but who’s counting. And no, they didn’t know each other.

Field Day for Bargains! I’ve never seen more stuff – and in this case, lots of good, expensive stuff – discarded on the course. As clothing soaked up more and more water, it was abandoned. The quantity of fancy running gloves was staggering. But the only thing I’d like to retrieve is the discount coupon promised by the marketing director of a major trail shoe manufacturer that I met on the bus to Hopkinton. Whoever you are, I know your brain was probably erased by the day’s experience, but if you read this…trail season is upon us!

07 April 2018

Time for a Nap

Well then. Four races in six weekends, with a solid, if not somewhat agonizing, twenty-one-plus-miler tossed in on the weekend between the last two, It brings to mind one of the few phrases I know in French: Je suis tres fatigué. I give no assurances that I spelled that correctly. Indeed, my French is so poor (read: close to non-existent) that I used to threaten to try to speak it to win arguments with an old college buddy. Faced with the prospect of hearing me butcher the tongue, he’d give in rapidly on almost anything.

But yeah, I’m a bit fatigué (fa-tee-gay), or tired (if you too don’t speak the unpronounceable or don’t care to pull up Google Translate). Part Four of the Race-Your-Way-To-Boston Training Plan is in the books. This last episode was a bit long – but we’ll get back to that later – and it wasn’t that great (though the number crunching hinted it wasn’t that bad, either). But it’s in the books, and Boston now looms a mere nine days away, and there’s not a damn thing I can do about it.

True to form for New England, the lead-up to Boston has been anything but comfortable. Just yesterday, well into April, my evening run was comfortable only due to a liberal piling on of heavy clothing, a lesson learned the previous evening when a howling wind turned our club run into what felt like the coldest outing all winter, even recalling the Groton Marathon at One Big Degree. I’d say it was me, but pretty much everyone was cursing from start to finish. So of course I expect the Boston forecast, currently on the damp side of the fifties, to turn evil and soar to the seventies or eighties by Patriots’ Day. That’s just how we roll, and there’s not a damn thing I can do about it.

The week leading up to this last racing episode was probably more exciting than the event itself, at least if you’re a nerd. Besides hitting a landmark birthday which wins me more time on my Boston qualifier (which already happened, since it applied to this year’s race), and besides crossing the anniversary of restarting this lifestyle, I hit an obscure milestone during that long run a couple of Sundays ago. The run wasn’t as smooth as I’d have liked for the last pre-Boston long one; one of my Squannacook buds came out seeking new scenery and a decent pace and I struggled to provide the latter. But about four miles in we had a solid Nerd Moment when I passed, cumulatively since starting up running again thirteen years ago (I don’t include the youthful days since my records are sketchy at best), one lap around the planet. Twenty-four thousand eight hundred and sixty miles. At least that’s if you measure over the poles. Since the Earth bulges slightly at the Equator (spinning will do that to you), it was another fourteen miles to that related milestone. Crossing both marks on the same twenty-one-plus miler conveniently eliminated the niggling question of which day to peg it to. Now I guess you could say I’m truly on the second lap.

But nerdly joy alone couldn’t get us up the simulated Heartbreak Hill I’d tossed in for Adam. I’d warned him that any run from my place pretty much had to end uphill, and Hosmer Street at mile twenty-one pretty much did us both in. Being a week off New Bedford and having struggled through most of the day’s slog (we’d later argue over who was killing who), I was burnt toast by the end, but save that one last race, the Boston training cycle was in the can.

Ah, that one last race. Being the rare Saturday event, it was a short week’s recovery after the long run, though I’m not sure a long week would have changed the outcome all that much. All I can tell you is that when I toed the line for the seventh time at the Frank Nealon Boston Tune-Up 15K, I wasn’t feeling like a spring chicken. But hey, the sun was shining, everyone who was anyone was there, and we were having a grand time chatting it up on the warm-ups, hanging around, and at the starting line – or well behind the starting line, since this was again a Grand Prix race; translate, every ringer in New England is in the house and you’d be a fool to line up in front.

It didn’t surprise me that they’d moved the start as I presumed they needed to accommodate the expected larger Grand Prix crowd. It did surprise me that they’d moved the start to a spot that seemed considerably farther away. And it surprised me more that they also moved the finish beyond the old one as well. Having logged a half dozen circuits on this course, I’d checked and rechecked and was convinced that their old course, which I believe was certified, was accurate. And a Grand Prix course sort of has to be accurate. So going farther on both ends didn’t add up, but, well, I’d have to deal with that later, it was time to go.

The best way I can describe a Grand Prix is that about a mile in, a mile that I covered at a stupid fast pace yet still had a veritable army in front of me anyway, a mini-gaggle of young studs from some unknown team passed by on the left. These were highly competitive smokin’ fast twenty-somethings and even they were exclaiming to each other, “Can you believe these Grand Prix race starts? Holy cow, look at all of ‘em up there!”

I look at these races as a source of inspiration for top performances, since you know there will always be plenty of people at and above your level. But on this day, inspiration wasn’t going to overcome the lead-up. Within a couple more miles, I was toast. Baked. That little pop-up thing they stick in the turkey had popped. Put a fork in him, he’s done.

Teammate Phil, whom I’d bested in our last two match-ups, caught up around two-and-a-half. I cranked it up to go with him for a half mile, but there was simply nothing in the tank. Fourth race in thirty-five days, six days since that planet-encircling ambulation, well, je suis tres fatigué. My mile splits settled back to ho-hum and I lowered my sights to a back-up time goal.

Long story short, even that didn’t happen. Each five kilometer stretched out worse than the last, and to add an insult, topping the last rise just after the eight mile mark, I cramped. Seriously? A lot of things – even weird things – happen, but I never cramp. But it was just that kind of day.

I actually didn’t look all that horrible in the finish photos, but let’s face it, by then, I’d dialed it down and dialed it in. No wow factor on this day, kids. Nothing to see, move along. Time to look forward to Boston.

The clock said “PW” – Personal Worst – and while it was certainly pretty low on the excellence in execution scale, I wasn’t quite sold that it was an the all-time bottom-scraper. There were, after all, those relocated start and finish lines. A quick casual measurement pegged the course as obviously long – not a big deal for a typical race, but surprising for a certified Grand Prix race course. Adjusted for the distance, it wasn’t quote a PW – some vindication – and subsequently applying the ‘Dude, you’re an old man’ age-grading tables, it really wasn’t that bad after all. But was I happy with it? Hey, look at the bright side, on a day like that, you don’t have to stick around to wait for the awards.

It did occur to me that these four races, Hyannis, Stu’s New Bedford, and the Boston Tune-Up, fell into a pace trend that, when plotted against the race distances (seven, nine, thirteen, and eighteen miles), actually made some sense. While not exactly aligned – New Bedford somewhat beating the trend, or Stu’s somewhat behind, depending on how you view it – one could construe that some extrapolation might give me a hint of where Boston might land. Since I don’t like to bore you with numbers (save the diameter of the Earth, which is hard to leave out), I’ll just say it was pretty much in line with what I sort of think I might kind of be able to maybe do. Perhaps.

So, readiness? Who knows. Stuff hurts, as it usually does, though I’d be a liar if I didn’t admit that stuff hurts more than usual. Seeing as I now qualify to move into most adults-only communities, I guess that’s not surprising. But I still refuse to deal with it. Indeed, I still feel like I’m waiting for my Adult Card to arrive in the mail any day now. A week out, the forecast for Boston is damp and cool with a tailwind. Two out of three (I could live without the damp) ain’t bad, I’ll hope it holds true. What I really need between now and then is to go easy this week, rest, or maybe just take a nap.