Thursday, May 5, 2011

Go Time.

Three and a half tons and whaddya get ...
I've got 7,300 lbs of stone piled up in my front yard. Actually, the pile is probably mostly on Betty's lawn. She's a very understanding neighbor, and by now realizes that I aim to make the house look so much nicer than it did when it was occupied by 20 years of renters (to include 8 years of housing the UVM hockey team).

My brother, Josh, and I went to the sand and gravel pit on Monday and loaded them all into the truck by hand. It took us about two hours. In the process of screening out piles and piles of earth into smaller and smaller grades of sand and gravel, these beauties get discarded into massive heaps. To a stone mason, these become piles of precious jewels. We climb up and down, discarding those that won't stack well and pick the best ones ... coveting them for a second like Gollum and his precious before tossing them into the truck. We try to place them in relation to their size. The largest land toward the cab and the smallest toward the tailgate. Then, when they arrive to my front yard and we dump the bed, those that will get used first end up accessible on the top of the pile.

At least that's the plan. I'll end up dismantling this pile soon enough as I look for that next stone that fits in the spot I've created for it with the stones that have been placed before.

If you were to find yourself at my friend Charley's work site, you'd see rows of stones neatly lined up according to the functionality of the stone itself. And, for those of you in Chittenden County, Charley is still quite in business and would be the only stone mason I could recommend to you for work you might have in mind for your own property.

But I like a pile. I like looking into the pile and spinning each stone around itself with my mind. Like I'm looking three pieces ahead in a game of Tetris to plan how that piece will fit within the layers I've already created. I've always been good about this sort of visual manipulation. It's a genetic gift handed down to me from my mother who can pack an RV to the absolute fullest for a week long journey through the state parks of Wisconsin. And, then, she'll recall just where every piece resides as each of her four sons peppers her with specific requests for the Simon game, a deck of cards, or the raspberry Pop Tarts. (I embellish here a little bit. My mom would never allow Pop Tarts). Ask my family about the requirements I have for loading the dishwasher.

And of all the stones I've been asked to use, I like these best. These are the glacially deposited stones that would have eventually worked their way to the top and into the fields that farmers plowed hundreds of years ago. These are the very stones that became the boundary walls between properties. They feel "right" as I stack them into a wall today ... a wall that will well outlast me. So much more appropriate than the pallets of stone shipped here from out of state. And so much more appropriate than the boxes of manufactured stone purchased from the large box stores. Do yourself a favor if you're considering any stone work for your own home. Hire a crafts-person who knows the trade to either build from local stone or to teach you the fundamental principles involved with dry stone walling. You'll be well rewarded and will understand, within a matter of a few minutes of handling the stone yourself, why this just makes sense.

I walk by this pile of stone each day I leave my house and walk to work. And then, again, when I return at the end of the day. This weekend, I'll select the first stone from that pile that will begin the transformation from pile to wall. I'll be deliberate as I place myself in the zone ... one stone at a time ... and begin the work of creation. It'll feel awkward at first, like the first few steps that lead into the warm up mile of any run. And then I'll find my groove ... and my pace ... and I'll let it happen.

And I'll share what I come across along the way.

Friday, April 22, 2011

2011 Boston Marathon Race Report

If you’ve read my race report from the 2009 Boston Marathon, you know that I didn’t really have a great race. I made the rookie mistake of going out too fast and I death-marched it in from mile 16. I learned a lot from that race, and remain a believer that all of our experiences serve a certain purpose. That race taught me to hold myself accountable to the training plan a bit better and realize that “natural ability” comes from hard work. I’m not a 3:10 marathoner by default; I have to work for it. Similarly, I won’t become a sub 3 marathoner without listening to the lessons along the way.

I didn’t qualify for the 2010 race, so I was especially grateful to have qualified again for 2011 … and that I was able to register. Registration for the 2011 Boston Marathon closed in approximately 8 hours, leaving many qualified runners unable to capitalize on the dream they worked so hard to attain. Having had such a terrible experience with the course in 2009, I set an early goal to do anything I could to enjoy the course this time. For me, that mostly meant putting in the hours and the miles to train. As anyone who has done it will tell you, training for an early spring marathon (such as Boston) is especially challenging, as you log a majority of your miles in the dark and cold. In Vermont, that also means snow and ice packed sidewalks that prevent you from getting a true read on what your current paces might actually be.

I began my 18 week training cycle in mid-December and soon realized that it was coming even harder than it usually does. This proved to be an especially nasty Vermont winter with record snow accumulation and I was soon confined to very specific roads that I knew provided at least small stretches of decent traction. Later in the cycle, I ran a 24 mile training run by repeating the same 3 mile loop 8 times. But by late January, I was already not enjoying myself. My paces weren’t coming and I was starting to resent the race itself. I belong to an online community of runners that share their love of the Boston Marathon with me and we virtually train together all year long. Many of us have met, in person, at various races around the country, and they have become some of the truest friends and training partners a runner could wish for. So I knew I’d be in good company for Patriots Day … I just wasn’t feeling the mojo of the training cycle.

So I kept a promise to myself regarding my ‘A’ goal for this year’s race … that of enjoying the course. And that enjoyment was going to include the training period. I adjusted my goals for the race and decided to allow my hometown race (The Vermont City Marathon) to become my goal race at the end of May. I announced to my virtual training partners that I’d be backing off and would start with anyone who was planning to run a 3:30:00 marathon. I soon realized I’d have a good amount of company with friends who were either targeting that benchmark for the first time or who were backing off from their own plans for various reasons, including injury and life balance. One friend in particular, my buddy Amy from Ohio, asked if I’d help pace her to a sub 3:30. Amy and I also ran together on a team for a 200 mile relay race across the state of New Hampshire this past fall. Bingo. I have my plan for Boston.

Training went well and I had a great indicator with the New Bedford Half Marathon in early March, running a 1:29:12 (6:49 pace), my second fastest half marathon to date. I spent the training cycle experimenting with new nutritional plans prior to my long runs and the half marathon. The plan was incredibly successful, and all components of the training cycle seemed to be coming together perfectly. The only challenge remaining was structuring things so that I could stretch out the build to peak for a May marathon while still racing, to a large degree, in Boston. But I was thankful to be going into the event knowing that I pretty much had a no-fail plan for enjoying the weekend. I’d be running with friends and really enjoying an incredible celebration of the sport in a city that really knows how to roll out the red carpet for runners.

I haven’t done a lot of pacing, but that was to be my role for this race. And I took it seriously. I’ve learned, in the few times I’ve done it, that there is a fine line between helping somebody run their best race possible and micro-managing it to the point of really tarnishing the experience. The first time I really stepped into the role, I was helping my friend Meg land a PR at the 2010 Vermont City Marathon. We actually both had very similar goals, so I was really going to be trying to run my race on a course I was very familiar with while providing support along the way for another runner. In that race, I really only had to rein Meg in from going out too fast in order to help her capitalize on what can be a phenomenal negative split course (the act of running the second half of the marathon faster than you ran the first half). I managed to do just that and repeatedly suggested that Meg “dial it back” when her splits started creeping into the territory of too fast. I ended up letting Meg go at the half way mark and, ultimately, dropped out of the race at mile 20 with GI issues. To this day, she gives me far too much credit for the amazing race she ran that day … unleashing herself slowly from the 18 mile mark for a beautiful finish.

When my friend Tom, who gets far too many cameo appearances in this blog, asked me to pace him on a training run a week out from Boston, I agreed. Tom has a half marathon coming up and is looking to break 90 minutes. He asked if I’d run 12-14 miles with 6 or 7 at his goal pace of 6:50 per mile. We met up on a Sunday and did just that. You can read about that run in my “Taking Care of Business” entry found below. The short story is that we pretty much nailed our paces and I got too practice tapping into my sense of when to push and went to pull as a pacer.

Again … pacing really straddles a fine line. If done well, you’re really just there for support as your runner does all of the hard work he or she is capable of doing. You’re there to remind the runner of his or her skills and then help the runner make the best use of those abilities that they’ve honed. 

The Race
Athletes Village - In Quieter Times
I like to get to a race early. I just don’t like the stress of battling the crowds to find a place to sit and relax prior to the start. For the Boston Marathon, runners are transported from Boston Commons to the town of Hopkinton on school buses that leave as early as 6:00am. Marianne dropped me off at the Commons at around 5:30am and I met up with two friends, Jeff and Tom … both of whom are also on my Reach the Beach relay team. We got onto the second bus scheduled to depart and were soon on our way. We arrived at the Athletes Village when it was still calm and staked out a spot where we would soon be joined by approximately 40 others from our online community. If you ever have the opportunity to run the Boston Marathon, I think you are best served to have a solid group of friends with whom you can hang at Athletes Village. In many ways, sharing that pre-race excitement is one of the best moments of the entire weekend.
Amy did all the prep work for the race itself. We followed the advice of another member of our online community who has put together an amazing spreadsheet tool that allows the runner to input a goal time and what type of race is most likely going to be run (slow start, fast start, fade at the end, etc.). We tweaked it once or twice and came up with what we thought would be a solid plan for getting Amy her sub 3:30.
The Boston Marathon holds approximately 27,000 runners and starts them in waves of 9 corrals each. This year, they used three waves, instead of two, for the first time. I was scheduled to start in the first wave, but we’re allowed to back up to join friends, as long as we don’t move into the first corral. Another friend, Stephan, and I had access to the first wave, so we went down to watch the start and avoid the rush of the second wave of athletes leaving Athletes Village, checking their gear, and finding their way to their own corral. Stephan was also going to join the 3:30 convoy, and we had agreed to meet up with Amy and a few others at the back of her corral.

Stepping into the role of pacer allowed me to really enjoy the morning of the race. I remained absolutely relaxed all morning long and did not have to spend time coaching myself with reminders of my race plan. My job was to remain mindful of the splits that were listed on a pace band around my wrist and gently pull or push Amy into a place where she could capitalize on the potential she had harnessed for the day. Amy is a no-nonsense, speak your mind type of person with a heart as big as you could possibly imagine.  She contributes daily to the online forum and goes out of her way to welcome new folks into the fold. Having spent 24 hours (albeit in a separate van) with her as we traversed 209 miles across the state of New Hampshire, I went into this with a pretty good sense of what she could handle if I needed to kick her in the ass a bit should the going get tough. And the going always gets tough if you’re running a marathon to the fullest of your potential. I was ready for this … looking forward to it, actually.

As planned, we gathered at the back of Amy’s corral and were joined by a few more of the finest of our fold. Andrew, Eamon, Kari, Ron, Will, Shan and her husband Rob, Ron, and Nikki … who found her way to the front of the corral behind us so she’d be right there with us when the dividers dropped. I don’t think I’m leaving anyone out. But we didn’t all go out en masse. We all had a common goal of hitting the 3:30 mark, but everyone pretty much had their own plan. Andrew and Eamon knew they were going to drop back or out at some point (Eamon is returning from an injury and Andrew just wanted to hang with the cool kids). Stephan is enjoying a return to the game after being diligent about nursing some stress fractures back to full recovery. Kari likes to run her own race. But we were all there at the start, enjoying the magic of the moment and the amazement of our cross-country fellowship together.

You don’t always hear the gun sound. This is especially true in the really large marathons. Suddenly, the crowd is just moving forward and you jump into action. And that’s how it started for us. When you’re a middle-of –the-pack marathoner at a race as large as the Boston Marathon, you’re simply never going to find yourself in your own space. You’re always going to be in a crowd. So I really just decided to work on keeping a sense of where Amy was and, from there, a secondary sense of where the others who had joined us were.  I wear a GPS unit on my wrist that tracks my current pace for every mile, and I kept a pretty watchful eye on our pace as it compared to the plan written on the band around my wrist. As a pacer, I wasn’t necessarily tuned into how the race was making me feel as much as I was tuned into sticking to the plan. It would be my job to hold us back or spark us into action as needed. I’m a large marathoner, so I thought I might also be able to provide a wedge, of sorts, as we pushed through the crowd of runners in front of us … creating a wake of space that Amy could follow behind before it closed off with those we were leaving behind.

The Boston Marathon is notorious for luring the racer out to a faster-than-what-is-wise pace. The first four miles offer a nice downhill terrain (for the most part) that feels amazing on fresh legs that are fueled by the enthusiasm of running THE BOSTON FRICKIN’ MARATHON. But the prudent runner will hold back in these miles and feel as though the pace is contained, if not outright stifled. If you’d like to read a report from a runner who wasn’t so prudent, go ahead and read my 2009 report.

So, in these four miles, my only role was to participate in the enthusiasm of running an amazing race with some amazing friends and occasionally reminding Amy to ease up. We had created the pace plan with the knowledge that the crowd would keep us from finding our paces in the first couple of miles. We then planned to ease into what should average as an 8:00 minute mile pace. The spreadsheet we used to calculate our actual splits capitalizes on the topography of the course and encourages the runner to race at a fairly consistent perceived effort … allowing a little faster speed on the downhill portions (without overdoing it and thereby trashing the quads), and then easing up a bit on some of the climbs (such as those famous hills of Newton).

Mile       Goal Pace            Actual Pace
1              8:24                        8:16
2              8:10                        8:03
3              7:56                        7:55
4              7:53                        7:56

When I paced my friend Meg during the first half of her running of the 2010 Vermont City Marathon, a mantra evolved. I asked her to “Dial it Back” countless times as she likes to forget the fact that she has 26.2 miles to race … not just 18. She likes to let it out from the start and see if she can hang on. She’s a competitor and worries that she’ll leave some effort unused at the end of it all. Marathoners have a short memory of what miles 22-26 feel like and we go into a race convinced that we’re going to be stronger this time. But it’s the evolution of the mantra that I want to spend some time considering here.

I don’t know where they come from. But I always seem to find myself with a few words that move me through a given moment of any race. I rarely, however, get to utter them out loud. To utter them, though, was my job on this day. Given Amy’s own benchmarks for this training cycle, I knew that she had her ‘A’ goal well within her for this race. This translates to also knowing that I wouldn’t have to do much of any sort of coaching for the first 13-16 miles of the race. A well prepared marathoner who is well in tune with his or her capabilities is going to have no problems, aside from going out too fast, within those miles. Unless, of course there are factors outside of your control, it’s the auto-pilot zone and you’re mostly just calming your nerves into adherence of the plan. This was, for the most part, a no excuses kind of day with regard to weather. The sun was out but was not oppressively warm. The temps started in the high 40s and didn’t exit the 50s. And we had a tail wind for most of the route that would show up occasionally but almost always provided relief rather than obstruction. Amy had been having some hip pain, and I knew that was on her mind, but, for the time being, I only had to reign her in. I made an effort to keep her to my side or run quietly behind her and only occasionally had to suggest that we “hold up” a bit.

Mile       Goal Pace            Actual Pace
5              8:04                        7:59
6              7:58                        8:00
7              7:58                        8:02
8              8:03                        7:57
9              7:59                        7:57
10           8:03                        8:03
11           8:02                        8:03

Even the non-running reader will recognize those as auto-pilot miles. We were in the zone, having some laughs with everyone in the group, and getting it done. At the 15k mark (mile 9ish), we pulled ourselves together for a photo opportunity for one of the professional photographers along the course. There are countless reasons for us to be smiling here and I’m thankful to have the camaraderie we share captured as it is here. These are the moments that feed us as a tribe. 

From here we move into the famed scream tunnel of Wellesley College. The women line the runner’s right hand side and advertise for kisses, a fabled requirement for graduation. Maybe, someday, when I pass beyond the “creepy older dude” phase and back into “that guy looks way too hot to be 65” I’ll offer a peck on the cheek. But once I get these hamstrings moving, a sudden stop is probably not a good idea when I’ve got a job to complete. I did run right along the barricades that separated myself from these stewards of enthusiasm and high fived my way through 800 meters of ear splitting cheers.

And here, for me, is where the race begins. Others will instruct that the real marathon begins at the 20 mile mark. I think most people will adjust that number down to the 16 mile mark for the Boston Course. But, for me, after the anticipation of the scream tunnel, I know it’s time to find my focus, check my paces, and prepare myself for the hills of Newton. 

Ahead of those hills are a few opportunities, according to our pace guide, to buy back a little more speed by coasting down some hills. I knew, going in, that it would be my job to switch gears when needed and flip the switch we all have to find a few seconds per mile. So I’d do just that. In addition to keeping an eye on the paces, I would also try to view ahead for the path of least resistance that still followed the tangents of the course (the most direct route while navigating curves and corners). Our group was, for the most part, passing people consistently along the entire route. This is the sign of a very well-run race. We weren’t blowing by them, but we were slowly reeling in the runners ahead of us at a slow and easy rate. As the race progresses, this becomes more and more a sign that you managed yourself incredibly well. So I’d try to point quickly with where we’d be going while occasionally suggesting that we “get some back” or that “he wants a little more now” … “he” being g-mack, the online community member who provided the pace guide. Not necessarily mantras, but a quick little communication to make certain I’m on the same page with Amy.
But the best parts of the race, for me anyway, were those moments where we were just running in sync with one another and the surges came intuitively. There were times when we were just on the mission and communicating without much more than a subtle move in any particular direction.

Mile       Goal Pace            Actual Pace
12           7:53                        7:51
13           8:00                        8:06
14           7:58                        7:57
15           8:03                        8:00
16           7:41                        7:43

Stephen, Amy, Me, Shan, Andrew, Nikki
Eamon dropped off around mile 14 and shut things down to preserve the recovery he has made through an Achilles tendon injury. Andrew faded back shortly thereafter and enjoyed the remainder of the race at his own pace. Will was moving slowly ahead at his own pace and Shan and Rob had fallen back as well. Kari stopped early in the race to tie her shoe and would remain just a minute or two behind us while running her own PR. Also at about mile 14, Amy mentioned the hip pain that she had been concerned about in the weeks leading up to the race.

When you’ve had a race ending injury, or an injury that robbed you of some significant training miles, you become hyper-aware of a return visit from that very injury. If, at mile 14 of a marathon, you’re suddenly having your focus pulled as you consider whether or not this is the same sort of pain you have been worried about, you run a significant risk of blowing your plan. The marathon is at least as much a battle of your mind as it is a battle of your muscle. On some days, it’s more a battle of your mind.

This is where I hope my read on how well I can push Amy is spot-on accurate. I knew, going in, that my role was mostly with the mental side of things. I’ve pushed plenty of people around the track as we have taken on some grueling interval workouts … and I like to think that I have a pretty good sense of when they have more to give and how that compares to when they’re done. And they’re not always physical indicators. You can push a person into one more lap at a killer pace despite the furrowed brow they’re giving you as they finished the previous lap. But you have to sense when it’s time to cool down.

For Amy, it wasn’t time to cool down. She knew it and I knew it … this was a hip niggle that was there just to mess with her and we best get rid of it. She was fine. Cue the mantra.

“Your hip hurts in Ohio. It doesn’t hurt in Boston.”

In other words, this is the Boston Marathon and you came here to run it.  Let’s do that. 

Mile 16 provided, for me, one of my favorite moments of the race. This was to be the fastest mile of the race and required a very deliberate flipping of that switch. Amy and I confirmed the moment and I brought us to the pace, which, in turn, brought an obvious different feel to the effort. We were stepping out of the auto-pilot zone and about to take the wheel for the rest of the race. As Stephen picked up on the shift he asked “are we supposed to be racing this mile?” Amy answered with a quick “yup”.

And we were off to finish the Boston Marathon.  

From here it becomes a matter of finding out whether or not your deliberate attention to running your pace rather than those which would have been offered the early downhill miles would be enough to allow you to navigate the hills of Newton that will last through mile 21. But we’re not going back to auto-pilot mode from this point on. We decide to run these miles and to run them as we’ve been asked to run them.
So you count the hills. One. Two. Three. Four.  Only they don’t go that fast. 

Mile       Goal Pace            Actual Pace
17           8:14                        8:08
18           8:11                        8:11
19           7:49                        7:50
20           8:05                        8:12
21           8:21                        8:27

And, although the uphill sections of the Newton hills are what get the press, it’s the downhill sections that have you wondering about your resolve. Stephen pulled back at about the 18 mile mark. I don’t even remember it happening … but he finished his own race and I’m thankful to have gotten to know him a bit better. It was the first time we had raced together.

 Cue the Mantras:

“Let’s do what you came here for.”

“3:30” She responded.

“Screw 3:30. You came here for a 3:29. Let’s go get it.”

“Focus on your form and your head will follow.”

I’m pushing Amy now … and keeping a feel for just how hard I can do that. So far, there is no indication that I’ve crossed that tenuous line. She’d say something to indicate that she was fading and I’d promise her that “it’ll come back. It always comes back.”

A key to running a marathon you feel good about is going into it with a promise that you know some things about the race. One of those things that you know … and I mean that … it’s science … is that your body is going to respond to the stress in waves. You can think your way out of fatigue. Even when you’ve drained your body of all the fuel it had … to the point that you’re feeding on fat stores … you still have more to give. So you remind yourself of that. That you’re going to feel better in a few minutes (relatively speaking).

Heartbreak Hill is the last of the Newton hills and takes you to the 21 mile marker at Boston College. Nikki absolutely floated up the hill and I knew she was off to finish a strong race. So now, it’s Amy and I for the finish. After you crest Heartbreak, you’ve got another downhill section that pairs amazingly well with the energy of Boston College. And the energy of Boston College surpassed that which we received from Wellesley College. The last time I ran these miles, I was in absolute pain and struggling just to finish the race with dignity. This year, I’m having the very race I wanted to have. I’m drinking in the course that I’ve shared with a number of friends and continue to share with the now determined friend looking to land at 3:29.

And it came back.

I found myself suddenly transported to mile 3 where I’m once again encouraging Amy to rein it in. In hindsight, I’m wondering if I should have just let it ride in those moments. I think we did the practical thing by holding ourselves back, but I wonder. We ran the mile in 7:51, but I was watching the pace and I know we could have popped off a 7:30 or better.

Mile       Goal Pace            Actual Pace        
22           7:46                        7:51

At this point in the race, the streets themselves are screaming. The city is alive for you and you’re trying to match the gift with whatever you can.

“Four Miles, Amy. You can put up with anything for four miles.”

Mile       Goal Pace            Actual Pace
23           7:57                        8:07

I’ve been an educator for my entire adult life. I believe the finest instructor remembers what it was like to be a student. And I know what’s going through a marathoner’s mind at mile 23 when you’re on the absolute edge of where you’ve been trying to get. And I need to stop that.

“There is no B goal, Amy. Don’t give yourself a B goal.”

“What did you come here for?”

Mile       Goal Pace            Actual Pace
24           7:56                        7:48

That’s what I’m talkin’ about. You find it. Take what’s yours.

Marianne and Sully are waiting for us at mile 25 … just before the overpass. Sully’s handing out cannolis for whoever will have them. I tell Amy that we’ve got cannolis at mile 25 and then we grit it out to the finish.  I plan to make my way over to his side of the street to grab one, but I’m not letting Amy get there.

“A 3:29 tastes better than a cannoli.”

I can’t believe I said that out loud. But it needed to be said.

As it turns out, Marianne and Sully are just a tad off from where we stood last year … when I handed out cannolis myself. And I hadn’t completed my drift over for the hand off. I make eye contact with Sully and, just like Amy and I have been communicating without words, I know he’s good for the toss. But I look over my left shoulder and see far too much traffic. I call him off the pass like Curt Schilling shaking off a sign. That hurt.

Mile       Goal Pace            Actual Pace
25           7:56                        8:10
26           8:02                        8:04
26.2        1:37                        1:40

I wish this had the ending you’re hoping to read. I really do. I wish I could tell you we turned right onto Hereford, then left onto Boylston and across the finish line with seconds to spare. In truth, I knew we were going to be painfully close. I just didn’t know on what side of 3:30:00 we were going to land. So we ran.

“It’s going to be close.”

I crossed the line at 3:30:19 and Amy at 3:30:20. I stopped my Garmin and, for a second thought we had done it. But Amy’s face told a different story. I suddenly realize that I hadn’t switched off the Auto-Pause feature, and my timer stopped during the two pit stops I made along the way. But the race clock kept ticking. 

But what a race. Amy set a new PR by 5 minutes. And I like to think that she’s still got something to chase. And she will. And she’ll catch it.

The Truth
It would be far too easy to read this race and assume that I gave without receiving. Don’t do that. Maybe I’ve written the race report to bring you to that assumption, but I need you to go back to what I wanted from this race. I wanted to enjoy the course and run with friends. And in the process, by deliberately placing myself in the company of such outstanding friends, I received far more than anything I gave.
Those first 14 miles are, without comparison, the finest miles I’ve ever run in a marathon. To be running in the most celebrated marathon in the history of the sport, looking left and right with some of the finest friends and training partners who truly get what it took to be there … for a runner, it doesn’t get much better.

And, to date, I have never run a marathon that well. I’ve run them faster, but I’ve never run one that tactically well. We ran nearly perfectly even splits the entire way. The second half of the race took a mere 17 seconds longer than the first half of the race took us. I’ve never done that before. And I was able to do that because I obligated myself to run the race with another runner.

And isn’t that the best way to take any journey?

Saturday, April 16, 2011

What the Tough Races Teach Us: Part II

I wrote a race report shortly after finishing my first running of the Boston Marathon in 2009. It was a tough race that left a bad taste in my mouth. I'm heading back to run the race again this year ... this time with the goal of enjoying the course with a number of good friends while pacing one of them to her new PR (personal record).

I re-post that race report here as a prelude to what I hope to be a much more enjoyable report I'll write a few days from now.

Originally posted to Facebook on April 20, 2009:
When I ran track in High School, I ran the distance events ... the 2 mile. At one meet, our 400m (440 yds back then) runner was sick and the coach asked me to step in. I think I ran it in 72 seconds or something like that ... it was ridiculously comical. There is a picture of me in the yearbook from that year ... running that race. The caption is "the agony of defeat". It hurt ... not the caption, but the race. But that race has also since added context to all of the great races and amazing finishes I've had. Without the pain, we can never truly appreciate the glory.

I don't think it may ever be possible to finish a race and mirror the feelings I had as I finished the race that qualified me for the Boston Marathon. That qualifying race, as most Boston qualifiers will tell you, was the true moment of celebration for the entire event. But we keep chasing that moment. It's what keeps many of us out there training through the dark mornings, the sub-zero weather, and the heat of the summer. That chase is what keeps us coming back for more even after the tough races.

When I toed the line (figuratively speaking, as I was five corals back from the actual line), I knew I wasn't in the shape I was for my qualifying race. Accordingly, I knew I didn't have a 3:10 in me. But I knew I trained to the best of my ability. That's different from training to my full potential. For this training season, I took on a job search, a complete renovation of our second floor, and a trip to England. These are not excuses, but merely a recognition that we sometimes sacrifice a bit of the race in order to maintain ultimate balance in the rest of our lives. I'm truly surrounded by the gift of an amazingly supportive and enthusiastic family that excuses me when my running sometimes interrupts that balance.

In my last note, I indicated that I was intending to treat the Boston Marathon as the victory lap that it truly was. A celebration that I accomplished the qualification. Although I didn't intend for that victory lap to take me 3 hours and 50 minutes, I was allowed the opportunity to run with the worlds finest runners in the most historic race. I'm actually disappointed in my time ... and a bit embarrassed. So I'm hoping this blog will encourage me to stay in the celebration moment and to keep my gratitude close at hand.

Even if I had met my goal of running a 3:20:xx, I think the highlight of my weekend would have been meeting and hanging with so many great people I've met over the past months on the Runner's World online discussion forums. We got together Saturday night, and then a few more of us were able to connect on Sunday night as well. It's amazing when you can walk into a room and instantly surround yourself with great discussions and people who truly understand what it took to get there. These are people who know what I've done every morning this past winter as the alarm sounded at 4am. They know how that moment felt. I truly hope to stay connected with some of these friends for a long time and share marathons again in the future. I've got to especially get to the midwest and run Green Bay and Chicago.

As for the actual race, I'll share with you the brief blow by blows. I had hoped to go out at a 7:30 pace and then see how I was feeling at about the 16 mile mark before determining my end strategy. I secretly hoped that I'd have enough left to climb the hills of Newton and then finish strong for the final 5.

I had difficulty reigning in my pace from the start ... a classic rookie move at Boston ... and was lured into a quick start by the downhills of the first four miles. I managed to squeeze the brakes enough to stay in the 7:15 range, but would pay for those extra seconds later, trading them for minutes in return.

By the half way mark (1:37:xx), I was still on mark to finish in the 3:20 range, but I knew I didn't have a repeat in me for that second half. I just didn't know how long I had left. Just past the half way mark, I saw a friend from the forums walking along the sidewalk. Jason had started in the second coral and is an outstanding athlete. It was tough to see him walking, and I knew it probably meant he was not looking to finish. He's been battling a muscle injury and it had started acting up. I did a quick u-turn, and did my best to hand him some strength ... but I could see the disappointment in his face. He graciously offered me his remaining Gu pack, but I still had two left. Given that a few others from the discussion forum had to sit out altogether due to injury or last minute family concerns, I really wanted to finish in spite of my own pain and honor the request given to us a few days before the race that we finish it for those who couldn't be there. It really became an invaluable source of motivation in the final 5 miles. That's another thing fellow runners hand to one another with unselfish ease. Jason, for what it's worth ... you were a significant part of that for me today.

I had hoped to see my family in the 16-17 mile range, but was unable to locate them. By then, my legs had seized up a few times and I knew I would be in for a very rocky finish. I was struck, though, at how deflated I felt when I didn't see them. As it turns out, they caught my attention at mile 20 and I actually stopped to have a few words and to let them know that I was fading pretty quickly. I'm so glad we were able to see one another ... it's just something special to have loved ones on the road for you.

There's not much to the rest of the story ... it just wasn't my day, and I crashed hard. If you know anything about marathon racing, you can subtract 1:37:xx (my first half split) from 3:50:xx (my final time) and calculate a disastrous set of what we call "positive splits". The answer to that equation will translate very easily to anyone who has been on a marathon course as a very painful race. But when you've used up all you've got by mile 16, you're not going to find it anywhere but over the next few days once you cross the finish line. And, if you're lucky, you'll be given the opportunity to chase it again in the next race (my next opportunity happens to be at the Vermont City Marathon on May 24th).

But I kept my promises. I celebrated hard with the women of Wellesley and their wall of sound. I ran that gauntlet with my hand held high for the high fives.

I took the Newton hills to the best of my ability ... but I leave them knowing that I can give them better.

I took a tasty brew from a kind red-haired young man at mile 23. I didn't have much left in me at all right then, but he and his crew knew what I needed and gave me some strong encouragement as they handed me the red Solo cup. Cheers, indeed.

I turned on the Hereford and quickened my pace ... then left onto Boylston with an even greater renew to my vigor. I finished with the strength I could muster, but the crowd gave me the welcome of a king. It truly was a fine victory lap ... albeit considerably slower than I'd have liked.

But I want a re-match.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Taking Care of Business

We don’t always just go out and run at whatever speed we’ve got in us. Readers new to the sport might be surprised to learn that we’re not always out there pushing our heart rates to the max. Alternatively, they might also benefit from realizing that there is joy to be found in doing just that.

One of the things I most love about running is the camaraderie of those that share the passion with me. My absolute favorite time of the year is the 18 weeks during which I meet up with 200 (or more) other runners for a weekly 5k trail series that begins in May and lasts well into October. We meet up every Tuesday night and run wherever the fine and sadistic people of the Catamount Family Center tell us to run. Ahead of and immediately following the race we fellowship and purify ourselves for another week of the daily grind.

I run mostly by myself for the rest of the week and the rest of the year … in between the races, anyway. But, occasionally, I’ll join another or a small group and share a run along with some conversation on any topic that finds itself fitting of the pace. Recently, my good friend Tom Weaver asked if I’d consider having a Sunday run with him to include finding 6 or 7 miles at the pace he hopes to run his upcoming half-marathon. Tom intends to give a sub 90 minute performance a serious attempt. He knows I’ve got a Garmin that will give us the feedback we need for those 6 or 7 miles, and we’ve not had a run together in some time. I’m only a week out from the Boston Marathon, but I’m not running Boston as a goal marathon this year. I’m saving the Vermont City Marathon, at the end of May, as the race in which I’ll attempt to best my PR (personal record) for the 26.2 distance. So I figure I can handle 7 miles at pace in the midst of my scheduled 12 miler a week away from my run from Hopkinton to Boston, MA. Additionally, the task will give me an opportunity to practice being a pacer. I’m pacing another friend as she breaks through the 3:30:00 milestone with her running of the Boston Marathon.

Tom picked me up at 7:30am and we parked the car at the local High School … at about the mid-way point along the Burlington bike path where we’d be running our pace miles. We took three warm-up miles to the top of the bike path where a foot bridge crosses the Winooski River into Colchester. Along the way, as it should, the conversation came easily and we discussed Tom’s recent trip back to the Midwest where he traveled to bury his father-in-law. Tom tells (and writes) a good story, so I enjoyed the time.

I’m struck, though, at how we switched to business once we found our way to the point where we’d turn around and step into pace. And this highlights another thing that the reader new to running might want to realize. We all have this switch. But just like any new switch you find, you never quite know what it’ll do until you flick it. And that takes deliberation. 

For the runner switching to his or her half-marathon pace, you swallow hard and realize that you’re about to decide to make the run hurt just a little bit. You follow through on the commitment to which you bound yourself when you signed on for this particular run. To switch from a casual 8:15 minute per mile pace, turn around, and start firing for a 6:50 pace, you have to be intentional. Conversation stopped and Tom and I were suddenly focused on the task at hand … mindful of our leg turnover, our breathing, our form. I would occasionally check the GPS attached to my wrist for instant feedback on our pace, and prod Tom with the mile splits … 6:52, 6:58, 6:51. Other than that, we were quiet and stayed the determined course. We were taking care of business.

And we did. We called for focus and found it … finishing the tougher miles at Oakledge Beach where Lake Champlain was pounding out whatever remained of its frozen shoreline. We caught our breath, turned around, and instantly fell back into conversation about whatever needed to be discussed as we nodded to those we didn’t know along the way doing the same thing.

That’s the business and balance of running. Finding joy where it’s needed on either side of determination.

Friday, April 8, 2011

I Got You Babe

This is a love story.

There’s really no way for a 44 year old man to write what I’m about to write without provoking valid and concerning reaction. But I’m a fan of Christina Aguilera. I’ve realized, for some time, that she’s got incredible talent. And I can listen to just about anything she has out there. Granted, I wouldn’t be able to point you in the direction of her Mousekateer stuff, but she’s got legitimate pipes. And it really is about her talent. Trust me; she ain’t no Patti Smith as far as relationship material is concerned.

And I’ve been crushing on Cher for as long as I can remember. Seriously … her variety show is probably one of my earliest television memories. About that time, Sonny Bono was touring through our home town and the hospital at which my parents worked wanted to present him with a special thanks. My dad, as I recall, edited the hospital newsletter, so I got my picture taken presenting him with a cast taken off some employee from the knee down. Upon it was written “Break a Leg, Sonny!” If you look closely at the picture, you’ll see my eyes wandering the perimeter looking for her.

But when Marianne placed Burlesque at the top of our Netflix que, I played it cool. “Oh … sure … I’ll watch it with you.” I mean, it’s really only fair. That’s what relationships are all about and she’s endured countless movies that I’ve needed to see – mostly dealing with running legends and documentaries concerning corporate greed.

When Marianne and I first met, we became fast friends. As children of the 70s and 80s, we’d recall our odd memories, quote our favorite sitcoms of yesteryear, and we soon realized we were quite compatible. Karaoke was involved, and she already knew all the words to “I Got You Babe.” This was going to work out just fine. But Marianne took Cher admiration to an entirely new level. Honestly, I pretty much just backed off and let the master show me how a fan should really behave. She had the Cher doll saved among her childhood treasures … long ago having lost the costumes (nothing to see here, folks) … and she could sing along with songs I had never even heard. She can do the Cher hair toss, too.

And isn’t that how it goes with the one you’re meant to love forever? You’re suddenly taking on all sorts of new interests you didn’t even realize you had? And you balance one another on a new adventure? Yes, that’s exactly how it goes. She taught me Cher on a deeper level, musical theater, and baked mac and cheese from scratch. I taught her road races, dog breeds, and Joey Ramone. 

And tonight, we sat on the couch and watched absolute and glorious camp together. Perfect.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Where I Belong

I can usually tell when I walk into a runner’s house. There’s always some indicator. Sometimes, it’s glaringly obvious … a pile of shoes, each pair having seen some action very recently.  Or other signs … various forms of moisture wicking gear strewn about or drying on a door knob, race bibs sitting on the end table from last week’s event, etc.

And sometimes it’s not visual, but you can just feel that you’re among your clan. It’s more of a feeling that suggests there is something far more responsible for the energy of the place than anything else. You don’t get that feeling when you walk into a baker’s house (not that they throw of an offensive vibe … quite the contrary), or a seamstress’ house (what’s the gender neutral term for seamstress, aside from tailor?), or a gardener’s house. But I feel it when I walk into a runner’s house. It’s an indication that the other things can wait. That they have waited. The “itch” that suggests this homeowner has some miles to complete at any given time.

To the casual, non-running observer, it may seem something out of balance that suggests priorities askew. But to me, it confirms that this is a place I can hang … and that these people could hang with me. In my house, the obvious indicators include that pile of shoes, contributed to by each member of the household (one of them throws heavy objects more than she runs, but she does it in very close proximity to the track), this morning’s gear hanging on the door and drying on the radiator, and balls of newspaper pulled from within a pair of shoes that took on a bunch of glorious puddles.

And, in my house, running takes priority over the everyday cleaning and straightening that might show up in “normal” homes. I’d rather find time later in the day to load the dishwasher and sort the mail. Or vacuum. Or dust. Right now, I’ve got some miles to run.

For me, what strikes me most about noticing these noticeables upon entering a runner’s house is the fact that I feel the balance that results from their practice. And it’s a comfortable balance to sense.

Marianne and I are in the process of reinventing our living room. The reinvention started when our house became cat free and we realized that we could replace the couch they had destroyed. With a nod to The Weavers, who inspired us with the realization that you really could still expect visitors after making bold choices, we designed the reinvention around a fabulous red leather couch that will take another 3 months to arrive. But it’s a mighty fine piece. In the meantime, we’ve been snagging up the deals as they speak to us and are two chairs closer to the completion of the project. The rest remains a vision quest of sorts to include a sofa table and two lamps.

Last night, as I unrolled the rug we had purchased, I allowed myself to revel in the moment. This is the finest this rug will ever look. I lay across it and just looked at how it worked with the plan. Soon, it’ll accumulate the loss of priorities as it receives the traffic of two large and long haired dogs and the impact of countless sweaty post-run stretch sessions. And, as good as it feels to color the floor and actually pay attention to how it all comes together, I know that, before too long, it just won’t matter so much. Not as much as tomorrow’s workout and this week’s mileage. 

And plenty of people will feel as comfortable as I do when they walk through the front door and not notice. These are the people who sit well with me.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Fellowship V. Binney Mitchell

I had a great half-marathon race this past weekend. And I've already written about it on the Runner's World discussion forums. But that's not what I most want to get down into my new virtual diary. Perhaps I'm a little too eager to get some content into my new blog, but I want to recycle this race report from my Facebook notes. It provides an account of my favorite race from this past summer. For me it absolutely captures the camaraderie of my hometown running circle that I mentioned in my introductory post.

Originally posted on Facebook - September 14, 2010. Enjoy.


It’s easy to hate Binney Mitchell. You wouldn’t want to hate him in the real sense of the word, but in the sense of the word that we used to hate our best of rivals. The rivals that, as adults, push us to find the best in our own performances. But it’s easy to hate Binney Mitchell. When Binney Mitchell shows up to a race, I know that any thoughts I might have been having about placing first in my age group are pretty much gone. Actually, any thoughts that anyone was having about possibly winning the race outright are significantly challenged as well. Binney Mitchell shows up in his flowing salt and pepper hair that hasn’t even considered thinning out and you know the race has been defined a bit differently. John-John once called Binney Mitchell dreamy. If we were pimples and I told you I’d been hanging out on the back of Binney Mitchell’s left shoulder, you’d know I was fibbing.  Chuck Norris, in his not-so-confident moments, wonders out loud to Binney Mitchell if it might not be time to shave his beard clean off. Binney Mitchell is an outstanding runner.

If you go to the Facebook page for the Fellowship of the Bull (and I hope that you do), you’ll find that we’re a “fellowship of runners united by proximity of finish in the Catamount Tuesday night cross-country series”. We “compete” each week for a bronze sculpture of a bull that once sat atop a Mexican bull fighting trophy. My friend Tom acquired The Bull from an e-bay auction. It really is a fetching prize. With only two races remaining of the summer series, The Fellowship approached Binney Mitchell and asked if he’d be interested in competing for The Bull. He would, of course, need to handicap himself appropriate to his average finish times. Binney Mitchell quickly accepted the challenge, and we all spent the day sorting out the specifics of the wager.

The Catamount Tuesday night series offers three courses over the course of the season and we rotate through the Pink, Yellow, and Blue trail blazes depending on weather and trail conditions. Toward the end of the season, the Pink course morphs into the Invitational course that becomes the official XC race course for the local high school. Binney Mitchell’s fastest time on the Pink Invitational course is 2 minutes and 37 seconds faster than my season best on that course. My season best on the Pink Invitational course is 12 seconds shy of my all-time best and 14 seconds shy of the Fellowship recent best set by my younger brother two years ago. The Fellowship settles the wager and Binney Mitchell agrees to begin his race 2 minutes and 30 seconds after the gun sends the rest of us on our way. I figure I can run 8 seconds faster than my season best and the added incentive of landing a spot or two in front of Binney Mitchell in the age group standings might be enough to nudge me past Josh’s Fellowship best time.

We’ve had on and off spotty showers for most of the afternoon. As Josh and I drive to the course, we wonder how the trails would be impacted. Upon arrival, we quickly realize that the Pink course is not set up. Instead, the Yellow course has been selected. Of all the courses, the Yellow is my least favorite. The runners bottle-neck very quickly onto a set of single-track hairpin turns before immediately climbing to what is very close to the highest point of the property. I’m a terrible climber. If you don’t get in front of the crowd from the start, those bottle-necks cost you time. The climb comes very soon and drains your legs of any strength for what remains of a very challenging course. The Fellowship immediately began scrambling through the scenarios for the wager and we collectively wondered if we should push the challenge to next week when we would most certainly by racing the Pink Invitational course to finish the season. In fairness to Binney Mitchell (seriously), the Pink Course contains virtually no single track sections and he would not need to navigate so much tight traffic while racing from the back of the pack. Yes, pushing the race to next week would be the fair thing to do.

But Binney Mitchell showed up, as he always does, with a smile on his face and the grace of that guy your mom always wanted you to be a bit more like. “No problem”, responded Binney Mitchell. Let’s race it anyway.



Sure. Game on.

So the gun sounds (really, it’s just a guy saying “go”) and we’re off. Binney Mitchell steps to the side, starts his watch, and waits for the 2:30 mark. The Fellowship takes off. All along, I’ve felt a certain obligation to carry the torch, as my season best currently comes closest to Binney Mitchell’s season best. But it’s a Fellowship. We’re in this together. On the Yellow course, I know I’ve got to get ahead of the masses to the best of my ability so as not to be impacted by those immediate hairpin single track turns. So that’s what I do. I hear Tom shout that we should reign it in a bit, as we’re going out very fast, but I want to purchase as much real estate as I possibly can while Binney Mitchell is staring at his watch. I realize, as I look around, that I’m running with Catamount’s finest. Ahead of me are Nathan Fields, Matt Dall, and Jack Pilla. If there were a Catamount XC Fantasy League, these are the guys, along with Binney Mitchell, that would get drafted 1-4. And by naming them here as I do, I name the entire field that is now ahead of me. Only they’re just steps in front of me … and that’s the entire field. I’m running in the number 4 spot.  And I’m holding the number 4 spot within a few feet of the number three spot (Jack and Matt).

The pragmatist in me realizes that I don’t belong here – that I’m quite likely to crash and burn by the 1 mile mark. But the competitor in me realizes, as I’ve stated, that I’ve got to be purchasing this real estate while the price is right. So I decide to go with it for as long as I can. Besides, these Kings of Catamount are going to drop me on the climb and The Fellowship will catch up. All will be right in the world.

Or not.

The climb comes, and I’m still riding the heels of Matt and Jack. The climb finishes and I’m still there. Then, I watch these guys cruise the descent like they’re scrambling down their childhood stairs on Christmas morning. They add a little distance between us, but I’m now comfortably in the 4th spot and, at the bottom of the descent realize that Jack is still only 15 meters in front of me. We cruise a few straight stretches and I’m looking at plenty of sub 6 paces on my GPS. We take a few more hairpin single track sections and I’m riding comfortably within that cushion of 15 meters.

I can recall, very well, my first ever XC race in High School. I was on the JV squad and when the gun sounded I sprinted out ahead of the crowd and waved to my parents who had planted themselves 200 meters into the course. But it didn’t last. I crashed hard and learned that I wasn’t a front runner. But I can also recall, with equal ease, those races we all continue to chase as runners. Those races that just seem to happen – when you break through a training plateau and suddenly find yourself in new surroundings wondering if you belong. This was one of those races. I was floating. My breathing was coming easily, the turns were sure footed, and my legs would not fatigue. Runners 1-4 were slowly pulling away, but nobody was catching me and, when we’d hit a straight away, I could tell I was still within 40 meters of Jack. Binney Mitchell was nowhere to be seen or heard. Runner number 5 was within view over my shoulder as we scrambled through yet another set of switchbacks, but at mile number 2, I was holding my place as well as my pace.

This is a fascinating and puzzling place to be in a race. I’ve never been this far in the front of the pack for a 5k race (3.1 miles). I’ve never held off fatigue after such a fast start this far into a race either. I was starting to think that I actually might hold off Binney Mitchell. The runners reading this report may be able to chime in and share similar moments where they just couldn’t get their heads around where they were in the race. It really is an amazing feeling.

At approximately mile 2.25, the course takes a slight left and scrambles up a slick rocky incline. Again, I’m not the best climber, and the 5th place runner overtook me near the top of the ascent. As it turns out, he was also in my age group. The course flattened out into a short straight away and I did my best to ride his coat tails as we approached the final section of single-track trail that would switch back in direction. As I navigated the hairpin onto the single track section, I could see Binney Mitchell finally approaching us. Binney Mitchell looks like he always does … shirtless, without blemish, and cruising along in an absolutely effortless gait. I estimated that he was approximately 40 meters behind me.

I finished the single-track section and knew I had approximately 800 meters (half a mile) to go to the finish line. Here, the course opens up to a grassy trail that quickly becomes a packed gravel service road. We’d be passing a pond on our left and then making the final ascent around a curve, onto the grassy parking area, and into the chute.

Binney Mitchell wears racing spikes and racing spikes make a very distinctive sound on a gravel service road. He was back there and gaining on me. As we passed the pond on our left, just before the small climb to the finish, Binney Mitchell passed me tightly on my right shoulder, giving me a little nudge with a “let’s go” to spur me to a finish.

I wish I had been able to answer. I wish I could describe a fantastic finish that played out in slow motion where Binney Mitchell and I scrambled until the very end. Instead, I looked down and noted that Binney Mitchell passed me at the 2.8 mile mark – three tenths of a mile from the finish line. When I looked back up Binney Mitchell had already shifted into an extra set of gears I don’t currently have and, again without effort, floated away to finish 21 seconds ahead of me.

As I turned the corner and made my way to the finishing chute, I was treated to an amazing double rainbow that arched across the entire sky and over the finish line. I’m not making this up. I knocked off 1  minute and 36 seconds from my personal best on the Yellow course, finishing 6th overall (and third in my age group). It truly was one of those races that keep us all in the game. I’ll be chasing that one for a very long time.

Well … at least until next week when I try to break that PR on the Pink Invitational Course.