29 April 2019

Playing Pinball

Back in my college days, I came back to my dorm one day to find that one of my suite-mates had bought me a copy of The Soul of a New Machine, a book by Tracy Kidder that journals the creation of a new computer at a company called Data General. Bob thought it was a good book that I’d enjoy, and though none in the suite were in the habit of buying each other random gifts, he just did. It was a simple and thoughtful nicety, and I doubt he thought for a moment that I’d end up going to work for that company out of school, which brought me to New England and set my life on a path that resulted in the here and now. The world works in strange and wonderful ways. Thanks, Bob.

One of the themes in Kidder’s work was the concept of playing pinball. The idea drove the team of young designers (“Hire them young since they don’t know what’s not possible”), tempting them not with traditional rewards like fame and wealth, but simply with the chance to play again. Like pinball.

Most people don’t run. Most people that run don’t run marathons. Most people that run marathons don’t qualify for Boston. Many, if not most, people who do qualify still don’t run Boston, because they’re scattered throughout the world and most people’s resources are limited.

I’ve been blessed with a body that runs, one that runs fast enough to qualify for Boston, and in part thanks to Bob’s unprompted gift and the chance happenstances that came thereafter, the fortunate fact of living ten miles from the starting line of the most famous marathon in the world. And so I keep going back, because I can. Twelve times prior, thirteen after this year’s edition. My endeavors have won me little in the way of fame outside of my close circle of friends (a couple articles in the MetroWest Daily News over the years hardly qualifies as fame), and certainly little in the way of wealth (though I have scored a lot of goodies at the expo, the ‘wheel of rice’ being one of my annual favorite booths), but they have let me play pinball – every year I’ve been allowed to play again. All I have to do is finish, and hit my qualifying time, which in past years has been, owing to that whole blessing thing, relatively easy for me. (I’d written a rather laborious explanation of the qualifying process for the unfamiliar, but as most of you would be bored silly, I’ll skip it here and drop that into a quasi-appendix at the tail end of today’s tale.)

Relatively easy yes, but not this time. At this year’s Boston, I only closed on half the deal. Mission accom, but no plished – yet. Yes, I made it to the finish line – goal one, so to speak, but no, goal two didn’t happen, I did not chalk up a qualifying time. Oddly though, there was an element of joy even in that, because when the realization sunk in that it wasn’t going to happen, the last few miles took on an entirely different feel that was, in an agonizing sort of way, kinda’ fun.

That realization started just past mile sixteen, just after seeing Dearest Spouse at Newton Lower Falls, when she noticed I was smiling but was wise enough from many iterations of this exercise to know that wasn’t necessarily a reliable indicator. By that point, I had over eleven minutes in the bank, plus or minus, given the vagaries of mental math mutated by marathon miles, but I was already of the realization that it wouldn’t be enough. Climbing the ‘zero-ith hill’ over the freeway bridge, I said as much when Marcos, my acquaintance from the morning (we’ll get to that) pulled alongside. I hadn’t given up by any stretch of the imagination, but when you feel it, you feel it. I’d be taking walk breaks by eighteen, and that eleven minutes, built up mile by mile over the first half which had gone swimmingly, evaporated ridiculously rapidly.

A lot has been said about the warmth this year, especially in the second half. In truth, it was the humidity. Even back in 2012, when temperatures soared to the high eighties, the humidity stayed April-style reasonable. This time, even the low 60s overcast start came with nearly full humidity. I was sweating considerably by mile one. I was in heat mode from the start – every water station, a couple of sips, and over the head with the rest (though the ironic combination of low morning temperatures and no sun for the first half made those cooling pours shockingly cold, every single time). When the sun came out full bore around mile sixteen – right around the time I knew my cake was baked – the book had been written. Despite popping electrolytes, both calves went into tic-spasms, threatening to go full-on disaster mode lock-up cramp, forcing me to back off even when the rest of the body relented from its complaining and hinted I might be able to pick it up. So yeah, the warmth was a big factor (and I note, those out later caught the next weather front and instead had to deal with cold, go figure…) but the bottom line is that this came unraveled because of poor training and poor fitness. Mother Nature was an accessory to the crime, but this one was all mine.

Not that there was a lot I could have done about that. Injuries and other medical issues gave this winter a Superfund designation of toxic disaster. My total mileage for the first quarter barely exceeded some of the months I’ve turned in over the years. While ironically, the parts that worried me going in actually held up pretty well in the race, plenty of other parts rose (or fell, as the case may be) to take their place.

Having seen just about everything that Marathon Monday can dish out, this year we were treated to a new twist in the form of lines of thunderstorms, not the mild kind, but the sky ablaze with fireworks kind, that seared my ride to Hopkinton into the memory banks. Having been invited by clubmates to join them at the center for the charity they supported (the Michael Lisnow Respite Center, a fine organization worthy of your support), I traded in a couple extra hours of sleep for an earlier departure to get to the comfort of a roof and real bathrooms a quarter-mile from the center of town – and a front-row seat to the early-morning dousing and light show. As we wended toward Hopkinton through torrential downpours, visions of last year’s swim hung like dread, though the air was much warmer. Later I’d learn that runners were shunted from the eternal mud-pit of the Athlete’s Village into the high school – a first – due to the storm, and rather ironic since in the days leading up to the race, the Boston Athletic Association tried to sucker me into paying extra for such a privilege. But by race time, the rain had passed, the skies almost hinted at clearing, and spirits rose along with the humidity.

Coming to the start from a house in a different direction than the Village, a house that had been filled with mostly wave three and four charity runners, was an entirely odd experience. When one of the few wave-two runners I’d met there, Marcos, opted to stay back to run with his friend in wave three (he’d later change his mind and we’d meet up briefly, remember him at mile sixteen?) I just left the house and walked east alone, no announcements, no fanfare, no crowds. With wave one loaded and leaving as I approached and only a few stragglers hurrying down from the Village, there was no human wave, just eerie calm. If I hadn’t met up with a local woman while we weaseled through security and walked together up the hill to our corral, it would have been an entirely solo affair. We were, in fact, the first people to re-enter corral three after wave one left, so we intentionally stepped in together to give us both the bragging rights of being first – certainly the only first I’ll ever earn at Boston.

Besides hanging with mostly charity runners at the house, the kind of folks where you have to convince the nineteen-year-old running his first marathon from wave four that qualifying for next year really shouldn’t be Goal One, coming from the Lisnow house also brought an entirely different vibe. I’ve always understood why people enjoy running Boston with charity teams, but I’d never experienced it firsthand. It’s not the same international feel of the Village, which I love, but a warm and friendly with-a-purpose and welcoming feel. An impromptu ceremony broke out for a woman running only days after finishing her chemotherapy (the Lisnow house is not a cancer charity, this just happened to be…) and I found myself wearing a supportive armband in her honor. The resulting sunburn stripes – since nobody foresaw the second half conditions and nobody brought or was passing around sunscreen, even at the start – was almost comical. But the unique under-armpit chafe it caused, unknown to me till I hugged Caitlyn, a friend and training partner who by fate arrived in the finish chute nearly simultaneously, which suddenly mixed her sweat into the wound (say ‘yeeeeoooow!’) turned out to be the most annoying injury of the event. Minor, or course, compared to the likely permanent damage my joints are feeling, but a reminder of that cancer patient’s journey every time I stretched my arms for a week.

Interlude: The people you meet. Somehow I discovered that the woman marshalling corral three was a tennis friend of the best man from my wedding. The world works in strange and wonderful ways. Back to the tale.

And as these things happen every year, we were off, and the cylinders were firing nicely. Though the alarm bell of heavy sweating went off – manageable – I was clicking off miles with very low effort about forty-five seconds under my needed average pace, which sounds like a lot, but with the back-loaded Boston hills and an expectation of an Epic Struggle due to the poor training season, it was a prudent investment. My cranial accumulator counted seconds in the bank, two hundred, four hundred, six hundred, nearly seven hundred, and it wasn’t hurting. Till rather suddenly, around fifteen, it was. Dearest Spouse was right. I was smiling as I passed her at sixteen, but I knew the Ogre of Poor Training already had his hands around my ankles.

All momentum was gone by the top of the first hill. Eight miles to go is far too soon for that tipping point. By the time a friend offered me pickle juice – yes, I know some people are into this, but not me (thanks anyway, Adam) – around nineteen, I was struggling, though still holding hope that the bank account might still let me eke out next year’s qualifier. But seemingly each time those thoughts came around, the calves would start to cramp again (despite the electrolytes I’d periodically popped) and the air would come out of the balloon again. Once over Heartbreak, I pretty much knew the BQ was gone, and I decided that if any Boston College student was offering a brew, I’d take it. Sadly, that did not occur.

Did I mention it got hot? The sun was, quite surprisingly, blazing. The wind – even the promised tailwind – was gone; no cooling from any direction. But still, fleeting thoughts of just-maybe-I-can-still-pull-this-off kept popping up. And calf cramps kept knocking them down.

By Beacon Street it was Game Over. For only the second time in my thirteen Bostons, the other being the year I’d just had my foot surgically repaired, I got to the space of It Just Doesn’t Matter. I walked when I felt like it. So what? I smiled and waved and joked with encouraging spectators. Why not? I looked left and right and saw scenery I’d never noticed. Why’d it take me so long to do that? And when I got to the (brilliantly orchestrated) pedestrian crossings that my local Highland City Striders club was operating at miles twenty-three and twenty-four,
I celebrated: high-fives all around at the first one, though I made a show of it and kept running, and full stop, hugs all around at the second. Once again, one of the best race pictures ever came about when I wasn’t actually running.

After one last walk on Hereford Street, I made sure I was running around that last fabled corner (way too many overpriced race photographers there to do otherwise) and settled in to jog it out. But in a last burst of pride, I noticed that a ten-minute increment was creeping closer on my watch, and, despite being in the ‘purely for the joy of it’ zone, that racing brain kicked back in and told me I’d be less than happy with myself if I let the clock tick over. One final burst down Boylston brought it home with seven seconds to spare – against a meaningless number of course, but hey…

Did I mention it got hot? I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve finished a marathon and not needed a heat sheet, though I took one anyway. Within hours it would be raining and cold and nasty windy again, but for the moment it was the tail end of the steam heat that had just generated the worst positive splits (positive is a bad thing, my non-marathoning friends…) in my recorded history, but gave me a walk to my ‘other local club’ – the Squannies party – without the usual shivering. Whatever.

As for Boston 2020, at the moment I am out. I’ve got another marathon planned in a few weeks and another chance to snag a qualifying time, but if the couple of weeks since the race are any indication, my chances, quite frankly, don’t look so good. My body is just not happy these days. There’s always the charity route, and though I loathe the idea of hitting up my friends, if I thought that this was a temporary thing and that a big recovery loomed, I might consider if for a year. Frankly, I don’t, so I probably won’t. And as I’ve stated earlier, if the streak ends here, it has been a hell of a ride, and I’m good with that.

Ironically, for my recovery week, Dearest Spouse and I headed to Seattle to visit Darling Offspring the Elder (hint: never fly out of Logan the Wednesday morning after the marathon), and during that trip, in between lots of amazing food and some very slow recovery runs around Capitol Hill and Volunteer Park, we paid a visit to Seattle’s Living Computer Museum. Besides a fabulous and warm-memory-evoking display of a Digital PDP-8, the machine on which I cut my teeth, which in a way led me into my college, which led to the literary gift from Bob, which led me to New England, yada yada, there was also one of the original Data General machines, the Nova (opening photo, above). That one pre-dated my time at the company, but that was the machine who’s successor, the Eclipse, was built by the team that coined the term ‘playing pinball’. Full circle.


Here’s a little explanation on qualifying for Boston, and how it’s different when you’ve got a ten-year streak going.

It’s well known that you must run a certain time in a qualifying marathon to gain entry to Boston, and that your qualifying time, or “BQ”, varies by gender and age. But owing to the popularity of the race, there are many more BQs than can be accommodated. To avoid the typical rush like what happens every time a block of tickets opens up for Hamilton on Broadway, the Boston Athletic Administration devised a creative and fair solution. Simplifying the story a bit, once everyone who wants entry has registered, they rank entrants by how far each is ahead of their own BQ, then fill the available slots from the top down, biggest gap of actual versus BQ wins. An old guy like me can get in if I’m five minutes ahead of my BQ, whereas a young guy who ran considerably faster than me still might not if he was only one minute ahead of his BQ. In the years since this system was devised, the gap, or the cut-off, needed to gain entry grew so much – this year it was close to five minutes – that the BAA just shifted the qualifying times down by five minutes across the board for next year. That just brought reality into the process for the typical applicant, but for us ten-year people who weren’t subject to the cut-off, we just found our qualifying standards tightened by five minutes, because there’s another piece to the puzzle. Once you’ve completed ten consecutive Bostons, you’re given the opportunity to register early and skip the cut-off. We ten-year folks can get in just by making it on the nose. This was a big advantage when the cut-off grew large. Now that the qualifying times have dropped across the board, our reality has caught up with everyone else – for now. Chances are good that even with the new standards, the cut-off will grow again.

07 April 2019

Train Wreck A’Comin’

It was a typical Thursday night evening club run, the kind we call ‘After Dark’ before Daylight Savings Time rolls around (gloriously), reduces our need for blinky lights, and turns them into ‘Into the Dusk’ runs. I consider these to be fun outings, three-quarters social and one-quarter workout. Though it’s true that if the right people show up, the run can morph from the a casual jog into sort of a quasi-fartlek, with the ‘fast gang’ pouring it on for stretches before circling back (amid shouts of “Swarm!”) to recoagulate the group. Never are they the kind of workout that makes you hurt the next day (summer hills and track arrived this week just to offer up that possibility).

But this time, by a couple miles in I was first skipping the out-and-back stretches up the bonus-hill cul-de-sacs, then limping alone back to our host’s home to nurse my woes in some of his home-brews among good friends, feeling sad, annoyed, conflicted, whatever. Boston was then just over two weeks away and I was out of commission. My right calf, which had twinged a bit on two earlier runs, had gone full-out pull, strain, tear, whatever; it just damn well hurt enough to tell me without a doubt that I was out for a least a few days. Having just hit a birthday the day before, that coming on the heels of my annual ‘return to running anniversary’ (fourteen years), and thus already feeling somewhat aged, then having had to deal with a plethora of other issues over the last few months, it was a good thing that home-brew was there (thanks, Mike) to prevent a Full-On Funk.

Let’s put it this way: lately it’s kind of like I’m standing on a low hill, staring out to sea, and I can see the tsunami coming. There’s not a lot I can do about it, not even run away, since running, it would seem, is one of the things I’m not doing so well at the moment. And now Boston is barely more than a week away. The train wreck, she is a’comin…

Over ten years ago I set out to write this blog with the theme of documenting the ups and downs of running later in life; ‘later' at the time I started writing loosely meant over forty, or in short, not a kid. The clock ticked, the bell tolled, and now I find myself documenting an entirely different kind of ‘later’, this one being what is unmistakably the start – or perhaps well into – the inevitable decline of aging. I’ve lamented many times in this column that it might be coming. I’m done with that ‘might’ stuff. It’s here. So let’s just deal with it. (And I’ve used way too many single quotes, so I’ll stop now.)

To begin with, I did something I rarely do. I went off for our weekend upstate New York visit to Dearest Offspring the Younger without a whit of running gear in my bags. No gear, can’t succumb in a weak moment and go out for a run, only to re-injure. Witness protection program. Forced healing, if you may. Nearly a week after the Calf Nelson, I finally gave it a test run, and yes, the calf came back, but by now it’s nearly certain I can’t save myself from the product of an entire season of bad training. Certainly not in a week before Boston. And certainly not with a knee that’s progressed pretty much beyond the point of no return.

Enough of that, at least for a few paragraphs. Look at the bright sides, right? That’s what I always try to do here. The bright side that my last race produced what I consider one of the best race photographs ever, so outstanding that I actually paid the photographer a few bucks to get a licensed copy to post it here without guilt. A photo that was so great because… I wasn’t racing. We’ll get back to that story later, but for now, just soak up the joy of me with the chowder ladies. You serve chowder (especially good chowder), I will come to your race. You insist that I take some home to Dearest Spouse, I will pose for a photograph. And no matter what happened on the course, I will leave happy.

Before we got to that chowderrific day in New Bedford (or New Beffuhd, as I often call it), I had to pass through the perennial rite of winter, the Hyannis Marathon Relay. Back in my college days, my service fraternity used to get a chapter award every year from the national organization, since all you really had to do to get it was to fill out the application which showed that your chapter was not, in fact, dead, and that you had, in fact, performed some service. And like magic, your H. Roe Bartle Award would arrive, the award you got for asking. Hyannis has almost become that: if you show up, show that you’ve made an effort to run a decent pace (e.g., you are not dead and you have performed some running), you will win your division in the relay. Which we did, for the ninth time. I need a bigger shelf for the clamshells.

Actually, two funny things happened this year, besides yet another year of dismal cold, rainy, and windy weather. First was that we actually did have some competition, and while our team’s time was off from previous years and was still enough to win our ninth masters’ division clam shell, there was actually a team within ten minutes of us.
Second was that we weren’t really masters. We sort of screwed up. To qualify as a masters team, everyone has to be over forty. We were all, as it turned out, over fifty, which meant that while we were perfectly legal to race as masters, we should have raced as seniors so as to avoid the withering competition of the young’uns. Oops. No matter, we ran off with it anyway. And a good time was had by all, as usual, except for the fact that they did not, as they usually do, have chowder after the race. Boo. Hiss.

The chowder had to wait for the New Beffuhd Half Marathon a few weeks later. Unlike Hyannis, New Beffuhd came around with the finest weather I’ve ever seen at that beloved race – so fine, in fact, that the legendary wind late in the race was for once almost non-existent. Despite this, it was a somewhat miserable day. How? Let me count the ways.

I should note that I actually ran a pretty good eight mile race. The only trouble is that this was a half marathon. The wheels started coming off at eight and things got progressively uglier as the miles clicked by. I was hoping that nobody captured me on film (er, pixels) late in the race, but sadly someone did ensconce for eternity my complete collapse of form, dignity, and hope.

Those high miles were the culmination of a myriad of woes, some previously documented here, some held in the deepest folds of darkness. You’re tired of hearing about the knee. You’re not surprised when I tell you the other one hurts at times, too. You haven’t heard me complain that my back has been acting up for months, on and off, but it has. And you won’t be surprised when I tell you that a week back (this has nothing to do with New Beffuhd), a strange sharp shooting pain attacked my right upper pelvic bone while on a short run over to the gym. So sharp it stopped me cold. So strange that the best Dr. Google could suggest was that I needed to have my uterus removed, which I think would be a significant challenge for the medical community. And stranger, the next day it was gone, completely, nary a wisp of recollection, never to return.

But the thing that’s making me feel old is that a few months ago Lady Doctor read me the scroll of reality. Those nagging cholesterol and blood pressure threats that we’ve been ignoring on the theory that enough exercise heals all wounds, well, as one’s age advances they grow on the risk charts, and the time had come, she said, that we had to do something about them. Exercise alone wouldn’t absolve her medical concern; it was time for low-dose meds. And though she hand-picked solutions described in the medical literature as ‘exercise tolerant’, within weeks of introduction I was a slobbering hopeless mess. Well, perhaps not slobbering, but all remnants of performance pretty much went to hell rapidly. Backing off on them helped a little, but it just seems that some damage of age has been induced.

And that was going through my head, if not my veins, while I plugged up the final hill at mile twelve, looking so obviously ragged that runners passing me were shouting the kind of encouragement that you toss at the hapless. Bless them. They meant well.

Perspective time: I’m battling age and wear and tear. It’s nothing compared to my friend Tom who’s battling cancer. And while this ended up as a Personal Worst for me in the half marathon, somehow I still almost scored for my team, rolling in less than a minute out of the money. And let’s face it, no matter how slow I thought it was, few of my non-running friends would find it at all understandable to hear me complain about how long it took to run a half-marathon, since that’s something they just don’t even consider doing on any given random weekend. Yeah, things hurt. But they do for most people my age. Deal with it.

So Boston looms, I’m more or less permanently injured, and I’ve run only a few more miles in the entire first quarter of this year than I have in some months. Whatever.

The reality is that all I have to do is finish Boston to keep my thirteen-year streak alive. Re-qualifying is the goal, and in any other year that wouldn’t be too hard. But if I don’t re-qualify, I’ve got a backup race already planned a month out. I’m hoping to make that just a fun outing with my clubmates, but it can turn deadly serious if it must. And if that fails?

Again, perspective time. When I started this whole Second Lap adventure, running a marathon wasn’t the goal, the plan, or even on the recipe list. When finishing a marathon turned into marathoning (my definition of having done more than one), qualifying for Boston wasn’t a realistic prospect. Surprise. That happened. Then it happened again. And lather, rinse, repeat, it kept happening. But it’s not going to keep happening forever. And it’s extremely unlikely that it will happen long enough to nudge myself onto that famed page in the Boston Marathon program listing the longest streakers. Heck, to make twenty-five, I’d need to keep this up every year till I’m sixty-eight; not saying I don’t want to be running then, but still chunking out Boston every year? Unlikely.
So it’s going to end, and when it does I will walk away, head high, smile on my face, and say, stealing the Douglass Adams line, “Thanks for all the fish.” There’s no point in lamenting. I never saw this coming (well, OK, I did dream, whatever), it came, and it’s been a helluva’ ride. And besides, there’s plenty of fun on our casual group runs and there are plenty of other adventures to tackle.

So let’s go see if this turns into a train wreck. Oughta’ be fun, in its sick sort of way.