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.

The Introduction

I'm now a blogger. I've been here before. I've set up the page, decided how I'd present myself, and then never really let it take off. I put myself out there plenty already, so I don't know why I've never persisted with an actual and ongoing blog page. But, I'm going to actually let this one take off. Manage your expectations, please.

I'll start with the title of my page. I wanted to capture two of my passions that I thought would end up sourcing many of the thoughts that eventually find their way to this page. As noted, I'm struck by the different energies that associate with long distance running and dry stone walling. I'm practiced at both endeavors but am only really now starting to explore how and why they suit me.

5K Summer Trail Series, Catamount Family Center. Williston, VT
I've been a runner since High School. Mostly. I've had some dry spells, but that's where it really started. I joined the Cross Country team thinking that the sport would have me better prepared for the winter wrestling season. Yeah ... I was a wrestler too. You'll note that I've not found a way to include that within my blogging aspirations. This is probably the last time I'll mention it. But I fell in love with just about everything that associated with running for my XC team. The camaraderie between runners, I've found over the past 30 years, has simply not changed. When you walk into a room full of runners, you're instantly part of the team. Regardless of what your best times might be in any given event, you belong. I found it was true that first day I walked into the locker room of Roncalli High School, and I find it's true now when I show up at any given event.

In the running circles to which I currently belong, my weekly mileage is average. I know plenty of people who run far more than I do, yet most people I meet would put me into the camp of high mileage runners. I currently peak at around 70 miles per week when I'm in the thick of marathon training. 40-45 miles a week usually feels about right if I've got nothing to train for (which is rare). So I'm moving a lot ... usually very early in the morning ... and, unless I'm running the trails around Chittenden County, I'm not gathering a lot of moss (see what I did there?).

And I'm a dry stone waller. I stack stones, without the use of any mortar, into permanent walls and sculptures. Hopefully, I've done a good job and have created walls that will last far longer than I will. A few years ago, I had left my career in Higher Education Administration and immediately realized I made a bad move into city government. I was miserable and took any excuse I could find to leave the office over my lunch hour. Often times, I would walk into the nearby Borders Books and look through books on landscape design. I'd take the ideas and try my best to apply them to the house we had recently purchased. Along the way, I found the stone work of Dan Snow and learned that he worked out of southern Vermont. I contacted him, expressed a longtime interest I had always held in stone work, and asked for his advice on how to best learn the craft.

In addition to being an amazingly gifted stone artist, Dan is also a tremendous mentor to anyone who wants to learn. He soon put me in touch with the various workshops that instruct according to the principles of the Dry Stone Walling Association of Great Britain. I learned the fundamental principles and began walling as my full time profession. While the business didn't last the recession, I retain an approach to walling, guided by these foundational skills, that is patient and deliberate. I place stones in a way that allows them to find a permanent resting place within the context of an intricately laid wall. A stone that is permanently placed ... rather than rolling ... gathers a patina of character. The observer realizes that each particular stone has found itself sitting exactly where it needs to be. If placed well, it looks confident and secure.

I'm curious about the energy that exists between these two endeavors. Between the ongoing and consistent movement required to be a lifelong runner, and the stone that has been placed to be a deliberate and unwavering component of a permanent wall. One step at a time or one stone at a time, I'm building to something. I'd like to be  as equally deliberate as I learn from that journey.

In the months to come, I'll be completing a significant stone wall in front of my own house. For a long time, I was only building for other people. I'd like to chronicle the completion of that project. At the same time, I plan to evolve into an ultra-runner. I've set my sights on the Vermont 50 mile race that occurs each fall. In order to accomplish that race, I'll need to take some very definite steps toward higher mileage. I look forward to any company you might want to provide.