Sunday, April 26, 2015

Every year is unique…this one was no different

As much as I like to believe that after running 18 Boston marathons that the next one will be easier, it isn’t.   It could be age or it could just be nerves but for some reason I can’t put into words every 
marathon morning carries both excitement to be there and nervousness at what’s ahead.  

For those of you that have read previous year’s blogs of race day you know that often what defines the day is the weather.  I’ve  run in the remnants of a hurricane with winds so strong they blew over the porta-potties (nasty).   There was the year the temperature hit 90 degrees and they considered canceling the race.    Spectators brought out garden hoses and ice to cool down the runners (you’ve got to love Boston spectators).    There was a year when it snowed the day before the race and runners were standing in muddy slush in the staging area before the start.  While there have been perfect sunny 50 degree days sprinkled in over the years this was not one of them.

I had the luxury of staying with the Burnett family the day before and it was perfect…great food, great company and a warm bed.    When I left for Boston the next morning to catch a 6AM bus to the start the temperature was in the 30’s with the promise we would warm up to a toasty  mid 40’s during the day.  Rain would start late morning and continue throughout the day with winds picking up as we got close to Boston (in our face of course…we wouldn’t want it to get easier).
Hopkinton is a small town so they close down the roads into the area by 7AM.    Buses pick up runners in Boston for the hour trip out to the start staging area, attractively called the athlete’s village.    Picture several sports fields with a large white tent in the center, hundreds of porta-potties lining the perimeter and 10’s of thousands of runners milling around looking for a way to stay warm and burn off nervous energy.      Security is high since the bombing 2 years ago including scanning all runners entering the village and restrictions on what you can have with you.    In prior years you could keep a bag of clothes with you and as you left the village to head to the start you could have your extra clothes and personal items placed on a bus that would meet you in the finish area.  With the changes in security this was no longer possible so what you wear or carry with you either travels the 26 miles with you or gets discarded at the start.  You see some pretty creative outfits as people wear old clothes and cast offs to stay warm before the race (more on this later).  State Police, National Guard, canine units and swat teams are all there to help assure the safety of the runners.   They were polite, supportive and ever vigilant.  It felt good to have them there.

Last year’s marathon was one of the largest fields as a result of the bombing the year before.   This year’s 30,000 runners were a step up from the normal 26,000 and as a result there was an additional wave added to the staggered start.    The wheelchair racers go off first (you do not want to be running in front of a wheelchair racer on a downhill).    The women elite runners go off at 9:30 followed by the elite men and the first wave of 7500 runners at 10 (and yes, most of us are sitting around since 8AM waiting for the start).  There are 8 corals/wave and runners are staged in corals based on their qualifying times.  Corals are a good name for the process of packing the runners into the starting areas.    To get to the starting corals you have to walk almost a mile from the athlete village (because of course you need a warm up before running 26).    On the way, athletes are peeling off all the warm outer clothes they brought and tossing them to volunteers who are filling thousands of trash bags that will go to charities.   A nice way for runners to empty their closets and the needy to get some warm clothes.

Wave 2 goes off at 10:25, Wave 3 at 10:50 and Wave 4 at 11:15.   By the time Wave 4 leaves the elite runners will be past the half way point.    I was in Wave 3 and as I headed down to the start it began raining.   One of the tough decisions is deciding what to wear.  With the cold and the rain this year it was an easier decision…hat, gloves, nylon wind pants long sleeve shirt and a light rainproof windbreaker.   To stay warm and keep the rain off while waiting for the start I wear a designer trash bag over my outfit.  Very stylish.    One last run to a porta-potty and I’m ready.

I knew going into this race that I was not going to run fast enough to requalify.  I have been injured off and on over the last 4 months and there was no way to get the kind of performance training in that I would need.   My strategy was to go out slow and try to avoid aggravating any injuries in the first half of the race and then take the second half based on how I felt.   The rain didn’t change any of this for me; I just made more wet sloshing sounds as I ran.
There are no better crowds than the Boston Marathon spectators.   Rain didn’t matter…they were out there cheering like always.     You have to love the creativity, like the guy at around 16 miles with the sign “1 million inches travelled, 660,000 to go”.  Or the people who normally hand out orange slices or ice, switching to hand out hot coffee and tea.    There are a number of places along the route that play music, live and recorded.    This year one was playing the Boston Red Sox theme song Sweet Caroline by Neil Diamond.    As if to pile on the pain, it stuck in my head for the next 5 miles.    And then there are the Wellesley girls.  You run the gauntlet of a quarter mile of hundreds of screaming college girls with signs reading “kiss me I’m …” (you fill in the blank; it gets more creative every year).    I swear some of the old guys just run the race so they can stop there and get a little lip.

My immediate goal was to make it to 16.5 miles where my family was waiting for me.  My twin grandsons at 4 haven’t missed a race since they were born.    Having survived that far, my sister Terry jumped into the race to run the last 10 miles with me.  She was terrific.  It was like having my own concierge.  She would get me water,  pass me jelly beans and at time run in front of me to help block the increasing wind.    She even tried at times to hold a conversation with me.   I think I managed to grunt an occasional answer.     From 16 to 21 is a series of up hills that come at a really bad time (the last of which is the famous Heartbreak Hill).    The wind had picked up substantially (20 mph) as we got closer to Boston and was particularly brutal among the hills.    You know it is windy when you go to drink at the water stops and the water blows back in your face. 

From beyond the hills it was the normal grit your teeth, find somebody tall to run behind to block the wind and just count off the last 5 miles.    It turned out to be one of my slowest marathons but then again I was just happy to have made it through uninjured.     It will go down as a memorable one not because of the race itself but because of the people who supported me along the way.  Not only the ones that were able to brave the cold on race day, but also the ones that sent words of encouragement and donations to Help in the Nick of Time.

To me those are my heroes.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

That which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger

Image result for Marathon hitting the wall
Yeah, right.   Who cooks up this stuff?   Clearly not a marathon runner. 

Actually it was Friedrich Nietzsche.   He also said “It is not a lack of love, but a lack of friendship that makes unhappy marriages.”  I can relate to this one.    Pam and I are coming up on 40 years next month and she is still my best friend.  She says it is because nobody else will put up with me and as far as she is concerned I’m still on a trial basis.    I think I’ve finally softened her up and this could be the year she decides I’m a keeper.

I think a more appropriate saying for a marathoner would be “That which doesn’t kill us leaves one hell of a scar”.      Marathons are never pain free at least not for me.   How painful they will be is a function of four parameters:  how many injuries/battle scars you carry into the race, how soon the pain starts during the run, the degree of the pain, and the recovery time.     It’s a sad fact that the earlier you have a problem in a marathon, the slower you are going to go and the longer you are going to be out there dealing with the pain.   It is why experienced marathoners know to hold back for the first half of the race.   The only thing worse than being half way and knowing you’re already cooked is knowing it at 10 miles.  It makes for a really long day.

Anyone who knows anything about marathons has heard about the infamous “wall”; the point in a marathon where a runner crashes.     Runners describe it as “someone hoisted an elephant on my shoulders” or “my shoes were suddenly made of cement”.     I’ve been there and it’s not pretty.    The science behind this is pretty straight forward.   By the time you get to 18+ miles you have pretty much burned through all the carbs/glycogen you have stored in your body.   At this point you need to start burning fat instead.   There’s just one problem….well maybe three.  You need oxygen, water and glycogen to help burn the fat.   It’s wall time.    You are now sharing your oxygen with your fat burning oven and your muscles are screaming for more.    You also are syphoning off some of your body’s already depleted water supply to burn the fat.    The equivalent of eating a mouthful of peanut butter covered pretzels without anything to drink (try it…I dare you).  

If you happen to be running the Boston Marathon it is at this point that you realize you are in the midst of the 5 miles of Heartbreak Hill.    It’s one of the reasons the Boston Marathon is considered one of the toughest. 

Of course the “wall” isn’t all physical, there is a strong mental component as well.    I love the Yogi Berra quote “Baseball is 90% mental and the other half is physical”.    As the body seizes up and the pain increases, the mind struggles to keep the body from stopping.    In the end it’s not typically the body that fails, but the will to keep pushing the body.  I guess that is the rational side of the brain. 

Despite a couple of dozen marathons,  and knowing better, I went out too fast last year and spent the final 10+ miles fighting with myself to finish.   In a week I’ll get another chance to do it right.  But this year injuries will rob me of any chance of finishing under the qualifying time for next year.    Instead this will be a race with the goal of avoiding the wall, staying healthy and finishing (preferably before dark).

Nietzsche had one quote that I think marathoners can relate to. 
“To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.” 

One week to go!

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Maybe I need Runners Anonymous

Image result for addicted to running
I can’t count the number of times I have had conversations with runners who never intended to be runners yet found themselves religiously out pounding the pavement.     All of them have two things in common; none of them would think twice about stopping and all of them have stories about injuries, sore muscles and suffering through unusually cold morning runs.   And they are quick to tell you about them if you are unfortunate enough to suggest you are the slightest bit interested.

Some of the best stories are how they got started.  Lost bets after imbibing too much in the local bar,   a challenge to  one’s manhood or womanhood by a lifelong competitive “friend” or sibling,  an attempt to stave off the aging process (I can verify this one doesn’t work),  or just simply the goal of losing weight.   Some are the result of life changing events; an illness, a death in the family, a divorce or a near death experience. 

I find the people in this latter group tend to be the ones that stick to it and ultimately join the ranks of us regular street stompers.    Regardless of how they started, the process tends to be similar; a small goal starts to blossom into larger goals and before they know it they are hooked.   It might start with making a mile without stopping and when they cross that hurdle, two miles doesn’t look so daunting.    Before they realize it they are asking other runners questions about shoes and injuries, which leads to an invitation to try a 5K (3.1miles).    I’ve had people tell me they could never make it through a 5K and months later they are doing a 10K and talking about doing a half marathon (13.1 miles).    Many of the first time marathoners I’ve met never though they would run a half marathon but after busting through that barrier it only made sense to go for “the big one”.  

To non-runners this “chasing the next goal” makes no sense at all and thus the frequent suggestion that these runners need intervention.  Suggesting to these runners that they should stop is likely to get you an eye roll or an incredulous “you can’t possibly mean that” look.  Taking away their shoes, running clothes or watch are likely to get you physical harm (and justifiably so I might add).    What really drives the unenlightened non-participators crazy is when runners start complaining about painful injuries but refuse to stop running (this makes my wife go apoplectic…bug-eyed, drooling, strange noises coming out of her mouth).    The truth is, if we stopped running every time we had a little ache or pain we would never be running.    When it comes to injuries, there are three types of runners: those that are injured, those that are getting over an injury and those that will shortly be injured.   There is a fourth category, those that have stopped running or are dead but we don’t count them.  

Given all this, it is understandable that anyone who is not a runner would think that running looks an awful lot like an addiction.  The  sense of loss when a run is missed, the passion for escalating activity to further and faster, chasing the runners high, and the willingness to keep doing it even when it appears detrimental to your health might be reasons why it has been suggested to me that maybe I need outside help.   

I may be in denial but I believe the reason there is no Runners Anonymous is because no one would come.   Those that are running don’t see a need for it and those that are not, aren’t candidates.    Any gathering of runners would simply be an excuse to go for another run (which is of course why we have road races).

Maybe what we really need is group therapy sessions for the spouses, family and significant others of runners.   They can share stories on how to cope with the stinky running shoes and clothes, being alone in mornings during long runs, feeling left out at running events, and cheering 101 for those occasional road races they attend.   They could learn valuable skills, like muscle massage, first aid for knee injuries, and how to tape an Achilles.

For me, I found a better answer.   I just cooped my children into running at an early age.   We are now planning our next family vacation…around a running event.

Four weeks to go till Boston.  This one promises to be really interesting.  More on that next time.


Sunday, March 15, 2015

Sometimes a little help goes a long way

Back in ancient times when I was a young runner, I often had the opportunity to run with other athletes some of whom took their competitive running very seriously.  While I enjoyed the competitive aspect of the runs, it was really the camaraderie that I enjoyed the most.    Working out with other runners made the time fly by and often we would talk through issues of work, life and family.    No matter how good you are, everyone has good days and bad and often the difference between the two is just having someone alongside helping you along.     

Fast forward to the last decade or so and I run alone pretty much all the time.   Work schedules made it hard to find a convenient time to schedule regular runs and moving separated me from the few close running friends I occasionally would catch for a weekend run.    While I don’t mind running alone, especially when I’m trying to work through particularly gnarly problems or trying to come to grips with issues like grief,  there is no question that 2+ hours  in your own head can get pretty old (unless you are particularly narcissistic).      

This weekend I had the pleasure of spending time with my sister and brother and their families.     There’s nothing like family to remind you what is important in life (and to let you know when you are screwing up).     But what I love most about my family is their willingness to give of themselves to help others. 

 I had a longish run scheduled for Sunday morning that I dreading.  I’ve been nursing an injury for several months and as a result, every run starts with the question “how far will I get before the leg gives out”.     Some days I make it, some days I don’t.   Despite the distance I had planned, my sister, a triathlete, offered to keep me company on the run.   We chatted non-stop over the entire run, catching up on family issues, reminiscing and just plain joking around.    I had forgotten what it was like to have a running partner to help make the miles fly by and take your mind off injuries.    There was nothing particularly memorable about the distance and certainly not the speed but this will go down as one of my most memorable runs; sharing some really special quality time with my sister who gave up her Sunday morning sleep to help her brother through a tough spot.

It reminded me why I’m running Boston again this year and why we started Help in the Nick of Time.    It’s pretty amazing what small gestures can do to help someone when they really need a kind word, an offer to share their load, or just a sympathetic ear.    And while this blog gives me an opportunity to moan about getting old and complain about the cold and injuries, what it really is all about is finding a way to inject a little bit of hope into the lives of others, just when they need it.    We all need help now and then and today was a good reminder for me to remember to look for opportunities to Pay it Forward.

Till next time….

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Cold and Old....a nasty combination

Image result for run in the snow
The other day I was limping through a run in 2 degree weather and it reminded me of my first car.   My first car was a second hand VW Square back (picture a stretched mini coup), standard shift for those that may remember.    The engine was air cooled, so the heating system in the car worked simply by opening up the vent to the air blowing through the engine so that it blew into the car.    I’m sure it worked great when the car was new but by the time I was the owner the vents to carry the air into the car (which ran under the car) had rusted out.   On a good day you could get enough warm air to keep the windshield defrosted and a half decent job of doing the same for the feet of the driver.  However if you were in the back seat it was like a scene from Frozen.   As luck would have it I carpooled with 3 other people.  They drew straws for the front passenger seat and the others got blankets.   Cold and old are a nasty combination.

That brings me back to one of my recent runs.   It’s a cruel reality that as I get older it just plain takes the body longer to warm up.   By “warm up” I mean the years of accumulated aches and pains of shortened muscles and ancient joints become pliable enough where my running doesn’t resemble the Tin Man after a rain storm without his oil can.      Local teenagers at their bus stop in the mornings have an interesting way of putting it in perspective with comments like “nice Frankenstein imitation” and “are you trying out for a part on the Walking Dead”.

Fair enough…it ain’t pretty getting old as a runner, but what makes it even worst is the cold weather.   I’ve put together a basic formula that goes something like this: 

-          For every decade over 40 it take at least a mile to warm up

-          For every 10 degrees below freezing, double the distance to warm up

At 60 years old and 20 degrees outside that’s 4 miles just to reach the point where little kids walking to school don’t pass you.    At 2 degrees (like it was the other morning) you can actual finish your run before you ever warm up.    The icicles hanging from your hat bear witness to the fact you barely got warm enough to work up a sweat.

I really shouldn’t complain as I really don’t mind the cold that much and there isn’t a darn thing I can do about getting old.   In fact I should be thankful that most days I can still get out and shuffle along a few miles without falling on my face or ending up in the hospital.   My running may not win any awards for speed or how it looks but at least it reminds me I’m not dead…yet.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Marathons are easy – it’s the training that’s hard

Back in late 70’ when I ran my first marathon there were about 25000 people a year running marathons in the US.   In those days, unless you lived in Boston or were training for the Olympics,  you didn’t tell people you ran marathons if you wanted to avoid the kind of strange looks given to people who talk to themselves.   According to Running USA, by 2010 that number had ballooned to over a half million (20X increase for those mathematically challenged…wish all my investments were doing that good).  At the same time, the average age for men has also increased from in the 30’s to over 40.   A few of us older guys still around from the 70’s who haven’t worn their legs down to nubs are apparently pulling up the number.   

In the late 70’s the Marathon world record for men was a little over 2 hours and 9 min (2:09).  For women it was 2:35.  By 2014 the gap between men and women dropped from 26 minutes to 13 minutes (2:02:57 vs 2:15:25).  While the men’s marathon record breaking times have been dominated by Kenyans over the last 4 years (latest was in Berlin in Oct. 2014) the woman’s marathon record has not been touched since Paula Radcliff (UK) set it in 2003.    To put the men’s time in perspective, that is averaging about 4:45/mile for 26+ consecutive miles.  Mindboggling.

Not only are marathoners getting older and faster, they are getting younger as well.    Currently in the US the minimum age for running a marathon is 18 but before that age limit was in place the record was set by a 9 year old.   In other parts of the world the limits are less stringent.  The world’s youngest marathoner started before he was 5 years old.   By the age of 5 he had run 48 marathons.  

An acquaintance recently proposed that the uptick in marathoners is a sign of some kind of evolutionary change to our DNA that is gradually infecting the brains with a form of athletic insanity like Alzheimer’s or early stage dementia.   He points to the increase in marathons, Triathlons, and mudder/obstacle runs as examples.   Still others have suggested running is becoming an addiction and it is time to start a national Runners Anonymous program (they may have a good point).    Some runners claim the health benefits will help them live longer and healthier lives.    I can provide first hand evidence that at the end of some marathons “longer” and “healthier” are not terms that come to mind.  “Shoot me now and put me out of my misery” may be more apropos.

Whatever the reason, I find myself again facing a winter of running to get back in shape for the 2015 Boston Marathon.    As usual I’m dealing with an injury that has me behind in training and fighting to get back on the roads but I’m still committed to make it to the starting line in April. 

I’m sure this will be another adventurous year!

Happy New Year!