Monday, February 27, 2012

Week in Review: 19-25 February 2012, and Club Challenge 10-Mile Race Report

Day by day:

19 February: 11 miles in the morning (85 minutes), in the vicinity of Loch Raven with Luke and Seth; 11 miles in the evening (80 minutes), in scary West Baltimore neighborhoods

20 February: 1 mile (10 minutes)

21 February: total 10 miles (70 minutes): ~2 mile warmup, 5x800m, 90 sec rest between reps (2:57, 2:56, 2:55, 2:56, 3+awful), 2x(3x400m), 60 sec rest between reps (83, 81, 79; 81, 79, 80), ~2 mile warmdown

22 February: 7 miles mid-day at APG with Eric (50 minutes), 7 miles in Mount Vernon in the evening after Ash Wednesday service, because God told me to (50 minutes)

23 February: 15 miles (105 minutes), mid-day, straight-through, straight-up

24 February: 11 miles (80 minutes), on a gray Friday morning

25 February: 1 mile (10 minutes), "resting up" for Club Challenge

Total time: 540 minutes
Total distance: 74 miles

A "lazy" week by recent standards, but maybe necessarily so, considering that I wanted to have something in my legs for Club Challenge. Did it work? Well, I knew you were going to ask . . .

I hate Club Challenge.

The Club Challenge 10-Mile Run is the big "running team event" in Maryland, and every year, Falls Road Running (the club I run with) fields a competitive team here, and the competition from the front of the pack to the back is as fierce as it comes in any road race.

And I like all of that, but that's where the fun stops.

The race is always the last Sunday in February, when probably nobody's in top shape for anything, on top of which, Sunday morning, which is the last morning that anybody wants to get out of bed early to do anything. It's always a little uncomfortably cold at the start, and at least half the time, it's raining/sleeting/snowing lightly. Sometimes, the wind blows relentlessly in your face (okay, at least once during every race it will do this).

And speaking of every time, there are brutal hills that don't start showing up until a little after Mile 3, after you've had the most likely unwitting good fortune to be running mostly downhill, throwing off your sense of pace and making your slowdown on the uphills seem even more demoralizing. The mile markers are completely wrong (no doubt, the host team's strategy, although for future, they need to change up which ones are wrong, and by how much, because we're starting to catch on); running with a watch is futile. It's better to just viciously, aggressively race against whoever happens to be in your vicinity, until you cross the finish line or throw up/crap yourself/pass out trying (and yes, the former two did actually happen in this year's edition of the race, although thankfully, not to me).

So besides a new pair of gardening gloves with the 10-Mile Club Challenge logo printed on them, what do you get for your trouble? Frustrated, sick, full of regret? Does any of that sound awesome?

Of course, keep in mind that the flip side of this is that you manage to triumph over all of this adversity, and run an awesome race there. And then you feel like a big shot, which might be some of the draw.

So with all of that in mind, predictably, I thought about not showing up for this race. But a combination of guilt and a vague desire to test myself (as if I needed any more of that lately) brought me to the starting line, stubbornly wearing my classic red Falls Road Racing Team jersey, because it matched my shoes better than the new black-and-neon-green numbers. (Please note that one other runner on our team did this, so I was not the only such jerk.)

The start was the typical mumbling cluster, where you could barely hear the commands, but then gradually, everybody lurched forward, and apparently, the race had started. I went out feeling relatively fast and comfortable; apparently, lighter mileage this past week had done something for me after all. Based on the chatter of the GPS-watch-obsessed around me, I surmised that I was running just under 6-minute-mile pace. It was probably bad that I realized this, because based on past experience, when I hear that number, I assume that it won't last.

When I saw Melissa on the side of the course, somewhere in the first three miles, cheering "Go Dave!" and then, about ten seconds later "Go Chrissy!" (Olympic-Marathon-Trials 1:14-high half-marathon qualifier Chrissy), I realized that that was the wrong order in which to be hearing that, and that got inside my head a little more. In the next couple of minutes, Chrissy passed me. Then, for a while, nothing I remember happened until Meg D passed me (and politely cheered me on as she did).

Then the hills started coming, and things started turning around, to some extent. While I wasn't going faster on the hills, I wasn't slowing down much, either - apparently, last Sunday's hilly trail run at Loch Raven with Luke and Seth had helped, because I felt like I was either closing in on or passing people on the hills, more on good form than on abject strength. This helped me at least feel as though I wasn't going to totally tank, as I usually do in this race at this point.

I reached Mile 5 (the marker, anyway - who knows how incorrect it was), to see one of our runners walking slowly off to the side of the course, apparently having a bad day. It turned out that what I thought he said when I asked if he was okay - "I had a cramp" - was actually "I had to crap." I wish I had known that at the time, because it would have made the rest of the race more bearable. At any rate, Meg D's neon yellow jersey and matching headband weren't running away from me as quickly as I expected, so I gamely soldiered on through the seemingly endless hills of Howard County suburbia, against the intermittent protesting of my somewhat high-mileage-battered quads.

Somewhere in here, another runner in an orange shirt and gray shorts (so I have no idea what team he was running for) passed me, and asked "didn't you pace at the Richmond Marathon?" I said yes, and he said "I recognized you from the back," (creepy), and then "You had a rough finish there, didn't you?" to which I replied simply "yeah, it happens sometimes," and then, he took off, end of conversation. Nice demoralization tactics, jerk.

But I wasn't slowing as much as I typically do at this point in the race, and, compared to the runners around me, I seemed to be maintaining a lot more strength. Fortunately, thanks to a pack of about four or five runners from different teams that, from mile 7 to 8, were, quite literally, bearing down on me (as in, relentless footsteps, inches behind me), I had sufficient motivation to keep pushing. A little after this, one of the Falls Road girls passed me, breathing like she was flirting with a heart attack, and I decided that enough was enough of that, so I stepped on the gas and really passed her hard, and somewhere in that surge, I passed Ryan and Remus (bad and whatever days, respectively), and, before I had a lot of time to think about anything, I was nearing the finish line, and some random lady was calling out times at some random distance from the finish line, and I heard "1:01:47" and vaguely suspected that my vague 1:02:30 goal was out of reach, but that wasn't going to stop me from making one final push. (Plus, even though I was supposed to let her pass me, I wasn't about to let heart attack girl beat me after I put that much effort into my surge, and besides, the Falls Road women were probably going to win handily, anyway, and one point would likely be irrelevant.)

Nearing the finish, hating every second.

1:03:57, just in time to see Joel, aka "Barf," living up to his nickname and puking his guts out in the grass to the side of the finish line. It was an impressive show - usually, people puke once, and feel a lot better, but I saw him puke twice in succession, nothing but bile, and he claims to have puked twice more after that on his way to the gym.

Also, speaking of purging, orange-shirt jerk, who finished less than a minute ahead of me, saw me at the finish, and amended his statement to "I appreciate that you were out there pacing not a lot of people do that sorry if what I said during the race came off sort of mean." Apology accepted, or whatever.

For my part, I wasn't feeling too terrible, which I suppose makes sense, because I ran this race at what is roughly marathon pace for me these days. I took a pair of gardening gloves, ate a couple of banana chunks, a really gross Star Wars lightsaber Berry Go-Gurt, and a styrofoam cup of suspiciously warm water, and then went out for a warm-down before the awards ceremony, where Falls Road swept everything (Men's Individual - "C-Rad," 52-high, Women's Individual - "Christy," 1:01-high, Men's Team, Women's Team), which is kind of neat, although as slow as I ran, I can't claim too much credit for this victory (except maybe providing some motivation for our faster girls).

Which brings me to a point that I thought about making earlier, but now seems like the time to bring it up, which is that officially, the 10-mile is my WORST distance. Taking my time from the race, 1:03:57, my new 10-mile PR, and putting it into one of those fancy "race time prediction calculators," my PRs at shorter distances are all slightly faster than this time projects (10-15 seconds faster at each distance, depending on what calculator you use), and my PRs at longer distances are all more significantly faster than this time projects (about a minute for a half-marathon, which is a bad indicator, anyway, since I've only run one half competitively, and a whopping ten minutes for the marathon).

So with that in mind, this performance fits right in with everything else in my life lately. While it's unsatisfying on its own, in the grand scheme of things, it could be a lot worse, and there's so much other stuff that's so much better than it (most notably, the all-day bar-hopping embarassing-Facebook-moment-producing after-party, and not having to run this race again for another year), that it's not really worth dwelling on.

In that sense, it becomes, to temporarily abuse a word, a "challenge." But not the kind of obsessive, life-consuming challenge that makes you horribly disappointed when things fail to go your way; instead, the kind that sits in the back of your mind, resurfacing just often enough to both motivate and inspire you to do just a little better. And with as much of the former sort as I've seen lately, this is exactly the kind of "challenge" that I needed.

So, for that, thanks to everybody who in some way made this experience possible, because, as I reflect on this now, as much as I still really hate Club Challenge, I can't wait to take another crack at it next year.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Week in Review: 12-18 February 2012, and The Lost Art of Devotion


12 February: 10 miles (70 minutes) on the coldest Baltimore morning this winter, 10 more miles (70 minutes) on the coldest Baltimore evening this winter.

13 February: 1 mile (10 minutes); sick stomach day.

14 February: 10 miles (70 minutes) at lunch with Luke, in my makeshift Ritz "compression-boxers" outfit.

15 February: 1 mile (10 minutes); whatever.

16 February: 11+ miles at lunch (80 minutes), including 3 miles at high-5-minute-mile pace with Luke and Brent; 3+ miles in the evening (25 minutes).

17 February: 20 miles (140 minutes), all over APG, just because.

18 February: My "running devotion day" - 10 miles in the morning (70 minutes), 10 miles mid-day (70 minutes), 10 miles in the evening (70 minutes), walking everywhere in between (about 13 miles of walking)

Total time: 685 minutes
Total distance: 97 miles

A couple of crummy days dragged my weekly mileage total back into double-digits (albeit high double-digits), but all things considered, I am okay with this.

Now, some words about devotion. Allow me to wax Catholic for a moment here, unpopular though it may be, since I think there is some value to be found here . . .

A "devotion," in the Catholic context, is an act, often centered around a particular object or artifact, repeated periodically, as witness to the faith. All of that amounts to a resounding "who cares," unless you realize that in the Catholic tradition, believers are (or, should be, anyway) acutely aware of the inherent reality in an apparently symbolic act. (Huh? Keep reading . . .)

The doctrine of transubstantiation (the belief that the bread and wine used during the celebration of the Mass, become, during consecration, the physical body and blood of Christ) is the most dramatic example, but even more mundane "devotions," such as reading and meditating on a passage from the Bible, from the Catholic perspective, share this quality. Giving time and self to the devotion results not only in the symbolic appearance of the act, or even just the tangible consequences of the act, but, most importantly, and most uniquely, the often unnoticed, but very real intangible transformation of the participant and the larger world through the act.

Which, by way of providing something concrete to clarify the conceptual, brings me to my running devotion. I'd been toying with the idea of running three 10-mile runs in one day, one in the morning, one at mid-day, and one in the evening for a while now. Not because it would necessarily be difficult or challenging, but because I felt that the experience would be meaningful somehow.

I hadn't set a date for it, but considering all of the turmoil this past week, this past Saturday just felt like the right time for the devotion - for one full day, to give myself to running (and, generally speaking, bipedal motion - I went everywhere on foot that day, walking 13 miles before, during, and after runs), and to see what would come back to me. I also decided, last-minute, to take a picture from each run, to try to capture the energy of the moment. And here's what happened . . .

Awake on my own at 6:30 a.m., after a 2-mile 2 a.m. stumble with a friend back to my house from Max's in Fells, addled by too many "value" Belgian beers, in a slow blur, I rolled out of bed, leaving her still sleeping soundly, to wrestle on running gear, tend to the cats (fortunately, the one that followed us most of the way home decided not to follow us into the house), and numbly lurch those few steps forward into my first 10-mile run of the day.

As I headed east, flooded with fresh daylight, the light fullest of possibility, I turned last night's memories over in my mind. Liking ice cream on Tuesdays, the "Eating Disorder Warehouse Supercenter," subjecting China to genocide, five abortions, one "on" a person in an act, and somewhere, amidst all of the dark humor, the little light of a genuine "I love you," from a friend, to a friend. And then this happened:

7:17 a.m.

And the shadow that I had been chasing was overwhelmed by the orange glow of the still-breaking daylight, and the ivy on the brick an abandoned building on the east side of Baltimore. And it occurred to me that, even here, there was far too much light in the day to dwell on the shadow. Now westward bound, the subtle warmth of the sun bathing my back on an otherwise cold morning, I headed home. The first run.

A few hours later, my friend trounced unceremoniously down the stairs, and, dangling a metal water canteen from a carabiner, I escorted her, in her huge green-plastic-framed accidentally-hipster sunglasses, down Eastern Avenue back to the Legg Mason building, as we pondered, among other things, why the birth control ring hadn't been adapted as a suppository yet.

Because there was no reason not to, she gave me the tour - all of the typical office cliches, but surrounded by amazing views of downtown Baltimore that I had never seen, that made me wish I had brought my phone. After cleaning out her "dumpster car" (because if you accidentally leave perishable food in a closed car overnight, it ends up smelling exactly like a dumpster), laughing all the way (because a car that smells like a dumpster is just plain funny), she drove me out of the dim garage, and dropped me off at the Polish monument at Harbor East, and I walked the 2+ miles back to my house alone, arriving at about the right time for my second run.

This time I felt a little more solid, and even the climb up the north side of Patterson Park on Baltimore street felt bearable. As I descended towards downtown, I came across this:

1:30 p.m.

Sun high in the sky, illuminating equally the lavish Legg Mason building in the background, and the vacant lot in the projects, surrounded by a barbed-wire-topped fence where I stood. And it turned out that, in the light of day, everything, no matter what it was, all together, all at once, could be something beautiful.

With a new awareness of my place in all of this, I weaved nimbly south on Charles Street, narrowly avoiding a low-speed car crash (and leaving the dozens of other onlookers as the witnesses), through the bustle of the Inner Harbor, along the waterfront promenade, and back to the east. The second run.

A leisurely 1+ mile walk to Panera and back to re-fuel, and I returned in time to finally get around to charging my iPod shuffle. As I sat on the purple carpeted floor in my basement, vaguely feeling the daylight dim, my anxiety grew as I could feel the heaviness in my legs. Even with the music, this might be unbearably uncomfortable . . .

But within a few steps, I could feel the energy release, and, as if I hadn't run a step all day, I bounded across the grass in the park, towards the sunset, looking for my chance to capture the dying light:

5:30 p.m.

And as the sun set, unaccompanied by any of the brilliant colors that I had hoped for, and night fell, my pace quickened nonetheless, as I passed people on the streets just beginning their prowl for that ambiguious "good time" on a Saturday night. Even in the darkness, there was an energy waiting to be captured and channeled. Running low-6-minute-mile pace, joyfully, I passed a group of photographer-types, bulky DSLR cameras hanging from heavy straps around their necks, and, as the panorama from the end of the pier at Fells Point came into brilliant view, I felt the light of a camera flash behind me.

I slightly regret now simply smiling back at them as I headed inland - a picture of me, in a bright red shirt and tiny black shorts, heading off into the dark blue backdrop, might have been something worth keeping. But it might be worth even more in its mysterious life elsewhere. Soon enough, I was home again, closing out appropriately enough to Rage Against the Machine's "Tire Me" on my iPod shuffle, and happy to rest. The third run.

Restless legs and a restless heart moved me to walk 2 miles back to Fells for pizza and people-watching, and as I came full-circle on my cold, solitary, sober walk home, I felt strangely satisfied.

Nothing obviously remarkable had happened today. And I could still feel remnants of of the past week's emotional roller-coaster. But as I reflected on the energy I had drawn from different sources throughout the day, the path ahead became clearer.

Because ultimately, devotion gives an act deeper meaning, and a life beyond the apparent life of the act. Too often, people act in ways to pacify, to appease, to divert, to delay, to self-medicate. Acting this way makes you a victim, subject to the whims of the world, struggling to keep head above metaphorical water.

But devotion to an act - true conviction to its cause, its substance, and its outcomes on all levels, breaks the cycle of victimhood. My running devotion made present the light and the energy that brings beauty to my life, and also gives back energy to others, not only in obvious ways, but also in ways that I may never even know happened. And in that way, my destiny becomes a matter of choice more than chance.

So if there is a single point here (and there probably isn't, but because we grasp for resolution, always, there needs to be at least a reasonable approximation), it's that if you're feeling lost and unfulfilled, maybe you should get off the damn internet and find a devotion - something, anything, that you can do regularly and purposefully, that brings new positivity into the world. And just let the meaning reveal itself.

Or, just watch this video. See if I care.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Special Valentine's Day "Who Wants to Get Cat-Pantsed?" Edition

EDIT, AND APOLOGY: In the original version of this post, out of frustration with this situation, and by no means due to inherent malicious intent, I revealed information about the girl in question which she considers private, and not appropriate for this forum. My frustration is no excuse for this, and I have since removed the private information. I apologize for any damage that revealing this information may have caused, or may cause in the future, and I hope that those who read this information, if they were to meet her, would be sympathetic to this matter, which she is in no way responsible for, and is in no way her fault, since she is, as this post has always held, a special, beautiful girl, and deserves to be treated as such.

I'm taking time out on this very special holiday to write an entire post on this blog that, rather than using the "r" word over and over again, until you wish it were something that humans weren't capable of doing, talks about some *gasp* feelings . . .

I was working on this pair of pajama pants as a thoughtful, hand-made gift for a girl that I thought (and still think, honestly) was a particuarly special, beautiful member of the species.

However, over the past couple of weeks, to make a really long story really short, it seems as if she is no longer interested in this sort of romantic gesture. So I didn't actually finish the pants, since as much as I would enjoy finishing the job from a practical standpoint, my heart is no longer fully in it. (Sad face.)

But that's where you come in! Because I am sure that lots of girls would appreciate this sort of Valentine's Day present, but are unlikely to get it, one lucky girl reading this blog could be the recipient of this quasi-failed show of affection!

So of course, you want to see the goods:

Front View:

Back View:

Drawstring Detail:

Applique Detail:

These pajama pants, modeled after the pajama pants that I got after finishing second in the 2011 6-Hour Pajama Run this past July in New York (link:, are, as described by the previously-intended recipient who at one point wore them, "so comfortable," and, to paraphrase, "steal-able." They are a thin, yet warm, flannel-textured acrylic with all-over blue-and-yellow plaid pattern, and contrasting "atom red" stitching.

The waist is both elastic and contrasting red drawstring (unique, limited-edition yarn), and fits my 28-inch waist fairly comfortably. If your waist size is in the 26-28 inch range, they should fit just fine. If by some miracle of nature your waist is smaller than that, I can take the elastic in. (Sorry, no fat chicks.)

The butt features the letters "TKBI," cut from a cartoon-cat patterned cotton broadcloth, appliqued with contrasting "atom red" thread - or they will be, when they're finished.

"TKBI" stands for "Tiny Kitten Brand Industries," the clothing company which, for legal purposes, my cat Ash (aka "Tiny Kitten") owns. Here is a picture of Ash:

Ash Ninja Racecar, Professional Business Cat

As it turns out, that sort of applique work is labor-intensive, even on a sewing machine (which may partially justify the ridiculous cost of the "real" NFL jerseys), and in my emotionally weak state, I got tired and frustrated and quit. But for you, I'll finish the "KBI," which is well over 75% of the applique work - the "K" alone has 11 distinct stitch lines! And besides, who wants "Tiny" on Valentine's Day, anyway?

Also, the pants that these were modeled on had pockets, while these do not, but I am willing to sew pockets into these for you, maybe even made out of some sort of cat-themed fabric, if I have enough left.

So start the bidding with whatever you have - every manner of favor will be considered on an obscure, arbitrary, and highly subjective scale. Good luck!

(Okay, to be very real for a moment, and brief about this, the relevant point here is that the r-word - notice that I didn't say it - is cathartic, in a way that is comfortable and familiar to me, since I've done it so many times, under so many conditions. But range of expression relative to the r-word, and, for that matter, any creative pursuit, is inherently limited. Making clothes is another means of creative expression that, for reasons to be left unexplored right now, appeals to me. But being unfamiliar with the emotional aspects of this, and having it currently tied up in difficult emotions to begin with, makes this sort of creative expression difficult for me, but appealing nonetheless. So once I can finish these pants, I can move on to other things, but for the moment, they're just going to be a fuzzy little roadblock on the couch in my basement, the same way my cats are all the time when I try to do anything.)

And speaking of cats, happy birthday to Maddie Maverick Airplane and the late Relay Ricky Racecar. We still miss you, Relay. (Maddie, keep up the good work.)

The Maddie Cat, aka Madden (2012 Video Game), for different

Relay, aka "The Rao"

Alright, now I promise I'll stop seeming this sort of crazy, and go back to being the normal running kind of crazy. Enjoy the rest of your Valentine's Day!

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Week in Review: 5 February - 11 February, and Mid-Maryland 50K Race Report

Cold, hard numbers:

5 February: 2.5 miles (17.5 minutes) to Our Daily Bread for a service project, during which I saw a guy punch another guy square in the jaw, causing him to drop like a rag doll. Then, 2.5 miles (17.5 minutes) back home, wearing "nice clothes" (jeans, button-down shirt, and a Ben Sherman jacket) on Monument Street, narrowly avoiding getting jumped by four high-school-sophomore age boys (race redacted) - clearly a case when you're "asking for it" by dressing a certain way. Finally, 10 miles in normal running clothes in normal places (70 minutes) - what Super Bowl?

6 February: 10-ish-mile lunch run with Luke (70 minutes)

7 February: 10-ish-mile lunch run with Luke (70 minutes), then my return to Tuesday Night Track - 2+ mile warmup, fast "minutes" (1-2-3-4-5-4-3-2-1), with 1 minute running "rest" between - intervals at high-5-minute-mile pace, "rest" at low-7-minute-mile pace, 2+ mile warmdown, for about 10 miles (70 minutes) total

8 February: 10-ish-mile lunch run with Luke (70 minutes), then 10 more miles in the evening (70 minutes) with the Wednesday night Canton run crew.

9 February: 5 miles at the end of the workday (35 minutes), waking me up for a night with Me Talk Pretty, Hawthorne Heights, The Young Electric, and some other bands at the Legendary Dobbs in Philadelphia (a pretty legendary night . . .)

10 February: Doubled, on a theory - 6 miles (40 minutes) at around noon, then another 6 miles (40 minutes) at around 7 p.m.

11 February: Mid-Maryland 50K in 4:29, follwed up with 7 miles (49 minutes) in light snow and whipping wind around the Inner Harbor

Total Time: 888 minutes
Total Distance: 120 miles

Warm, gently massaged memories:

I didn't want to run the Mid-Maryland 50K.

But this year, I set a goal to run a race of at least 50 miles in length every month. Unfortunately, when it comes to ultrarunning, February is the cruelest month (except for the Rocky Raccon 100, but it would have been 2 weeks after the Beast of Burden 100, and the race director didn't seem keen on late entries, although with the number of people that asked me about it, I'm regretting now that I didn't at least try, but anyway . . .), and so it seems unlikely that I'll be able to meet that goal this month. But I can maybe at least run an ultra every month this year, and 50K is pretty much the legal minimum for an ultra. Plus, this race was close (shortest drive ever to an ultra for me - just under half an hour) and cheap ($50, registering online 3 days before the race). And, theoretically, the course, 5 10K trail loops, was flat and fast, so maybe a chance for a PR.

So whatever, I entered.

The night before was total routine - less than 10 minutes to lay out cold weather running outfit A, and post-race warm-jeans-and-button-down-flannel ensemble B, and put together my bottles and pills. (Perhaps it's a little disturbing how dialed-in all of this is now.) I went to bed early, got plenty of sleep, left the house on time, arrived an hour before the race, and had plenty of time to do everything I needed to do, including take this picture:

Which is how it looked before the race, and why I was, even more than when I woke up and forced myself out of the relative warmth of my bed, dreading this race. All that snow, and still coming down - over the course of 4 or 5 hours, that would make clothing wet, heavy, and useless at best (burdensome at worst). But again, whatever, I was here, and so were Serge Arbona, Christian David Creutzer, Henry Peck, and Mike McGonagle, ultrarunning buddies. Time to run a race.

The race director gave us about two minutes of instruction, joking that he marked the entire snow-covered course with a white line yesterday (as it turned out, he really wasn't joking, which meant the course markings were nearly impossible to see - good thing there were a lot of signs). Then, with little fanfare, except for all of us shouting the word "Uno!" in a nod to the pizza sponsor, not the card game, we were off.

(Oops, wrong race. The other side of the sign was supposed to be directing vehicular traffic to the start of the race. Apparently, the race director thought nobody would be foolish enough to drive the wrong way to the start. *raises hand*)

The race director kindly ran the first loop with us, to blaze the path and help prevent people from getting lost. So I stuck with him and a small pack of front-runners for our loop around the fields before we entered the woods. But within the first couple of minutes, I could tell that something was horribly wrong. My quads felt like they were bleeding out, badly, for the first time in a run since the Fire on the Mountain 50K debacle (see this: . . . I am just now realizing the funny coincidence that was my relentlessly burning quads). Maybe it was that I wasn't warmed up, maybe that I haven't been on trails much in the past month, maybe something silly to do with uneven surfaces and muscle activation and whatever, but the point is, it was awful. I was struggling to picture the rest of the race continuing at this level of pain.

So I started falling back, and, predictably, within the first half of the first loop, Arbona, Creutzer, and McMonagle passed me, in that order. When Mike passed me, he asked how I was doing, and since I don't pull punches with that sort of thing, I didn't hesitate to tell him that I felt awful and this was going to be a long day. He was kind and reasonably encouraging as he passed me.

But really, it was going to be a long day at the rate that I was going. The second loop came, and this was the worst. All of the parts of the course that were muddy the first time were even muddier, and some parts that were only sort of muddy had gotten worse, all from a bunch of people trampling through the mostly narrow single-track for some reason. (By the last loop, conservatively, 70 percent of the course would be slippery-to-ankle-deep mud - not exactly a fast surface.) The second loop was the worst, since I knew we were still in half-marathon/training run territory, and there was no chance of anybody falling off pace at this point, so I would continue to struggle along.

Fortunately, the course was scenic, and offered a good amount of variety - it was seemingly in short, distinctive, mentally-manageable sections that made each loop feel a lot shorter than it actually was. Also, I could console myself with thoughts of A FRIEND who was also running a 50K today, under far hillier conditions, and solidarity with MY FRIEND'S pain was some consolation, since other feelings that I had kicking around at that point for various reasons were anything but.

Eventually, I reached the end of the second lap, and I saw Mike coming out, which was surprising, considering how poorly I thought I was doing. Maybe I had a chance to catch some people after all. Mike asked again how I was, and I shouted "TERRIBLE," and, just like that, whatever demon was afflicting my quads had been exorcised, and suddenly, I felt "normal" again.

I felt my pace quicken on the third lap, and the amount of grunting increase (it seemed to help release the pain, so I really wasn't worried about who was hearing me at that point). But darned if the race hadn't somehow gotten faster - the first woman was not far behind me, and at this point, I was resigned to defining success as not letting the first woman pass me and not letting the overall winner lap me. So I pushed harder, and, at one point, fell with first woman not far behind me, and I've never gotten up and mumbled "I'm fine" to the nearest runner (who asked if I was okay) more quickly. Mud and roots came and went - the third lap.

I started my fourth lap optimistically, especially since one runner who was ahead of me was dawdling at the start/finish aid station (the lone aid station in the race). But somehow, he, like everybody else that day, was super-fast, and caught up to me and passed me within the first mile after the aid station. So much for that. I kept pushing, and feeling a little more human (albeit sore from slipping and sliding so much on the mud), but other than lapping lots of other runners, I wasn't passing anybody. I couldn't even see anybody close enough to pass. The lap ended, and I ended up right where I was.

Fifth and final lap - surely somebody will slow here. Nope, everybody is super-fast all the time. I had finished the fourth lap in about 55 minutes, and was hoping to go a little faster on the last lap, especially since I had finally shed my soaking wet outer layer (which, it turned out, probably weighed upwards of 5 pounds, and probably had not been helping my cause earlier in the race). But in spite of my pushing, and my lighter load, I still came through in just about 55 minutes for my last lap, and I still didn't pass anybody who was ahead of me. I came through the finish line, 7th overall, 4 hours, 29 minutes, and some-odd seconds, ripped off my teal Baltimore Marathon Under Armour recycled-fabric long-sleeve shirt (still best shirt ever) in discomfort and frustration, my brief shirtlessness causing small-scale stare-age and swoon-age by the females in the vicinity of the finish line (yeah, I just said that), before putting on the very dry, somewhat warm, long-sleeved finisher's shirt.

Mike apparently finished 7 minutes ahead of me, from the look of his watch, and we chatted a bit, during which time his lady friend Jackie (1) asked about Rocky Raccoon (okay, seriously, as soon as they open registration for that race next year, I'm signing up . . . and hoping the word really does end before then . . . kidding :P), and (2) informed me, after a significant amount of mental math, that 3:20 marathon pace was probably good enough to run sub-4-hours in a 50K (her goal, and mine, and everybody's, apparently - but this is the mystery of the 50K dance, one perpetrated in part by the fact that most "50K" races are probably closer to 35 miles than 31 miles - I'm curious to see a GPS on this one). Both completely valid topics. :)

I congratulated the people that finished ahead of me and had stuck around (Arbona and Creutzer, and that guy that I almost passed but eventually didn't), and congratulated Henry Peck when he finished about ten minutes after I did. Then I put on my warm clothes, ate pizza from Uno's, drank Dr. Pepper, and listened to 50 Cent on the radio ("In Da Club"), for some reason. And, after hanging around the finish line for a little while, I left, at 113 miles on the week - 7 more to go (on 2/11 - a great day for numbers).

(As visual evidence, a sample of the mud - if there hadn't been a few dryer gravel sections, this would have looked a lot worse.)

Back home, after shaking out my muddy clothes in the park across the street from my house, while the late 20-something neighbor guy carried flowers into his house for his girl (different lives, indeed), I sat on my front steps, lacing my house key into my black-on-black Asics 2150s, as the wind callously whipped tiny snowflakes in my face, just like this time last week. I pressed "play" on my iPod shuffle, to be shot down by a female voice that said "LOW BATTERY." This would be a run alone with my thoughts, apparently, to piece together this post to the sound of the earphone cable pounding against my chest, like a heartbeat in my ear. I cruised through the streets, totally comfortable, showing no sign of the 30+ miles that I had already put on my legs today. And as I came home, just like last week, the snow had stopped, although the wind had not totally abated, and the sky in front of my house was crazy, in the way that only the sky in front of my house can get crazy:

So if music had been playing, I'd go with Sunny Day Real Estate's "In Circles." It was not the same day as last Saturday (over twice as many running miles, and not nearly as many mall miles), but in a lot of ways, especially emotionally, it felt like it.

And, to go one further, it wasn't the same race as the Holiday Lake 50K this weekend last year (see this: . . . ), but, again, emotionally, it felt like it (although intellectually, it is nice to know that I'm in shape enough to turn out a race like I did today, even on a "bad" day). Maybe this weekend is just a bad weekend for an ultra, although the Mid-Maryland 50K is a top-notch race, on a beautiful, varied, challenging course, incredibly hitch-free for its first time, and poses stout competition to the race that Horton himself claims is his least favorite to put on. In any event, in all cases, it was a little high, a little low, a little bit of everything.

But in the end, whatever, a lot of it is just running, and the stuff that isn't is easily (if sometimes temporarily) obscured by running, even (and sometimes especially) by a bad day of running.

And as much of a mixed bag as these experiences are, they're uniquely so, and I'm thankful for everybody, "good" or "bad," who help to make them. And that's the best I've got right now. :)

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Week in Review: 29 January - 4 February, and "Training Beautiful"

Here's how this past week went down:

29 January: 21+ miles (140 minutes), all over Baltimore, feeling strangely fine

30 January: 10 miles (70 minutes) at APG at lunch, then another 13 miles (90 minutes) to, with, and from the Fed Hill run

31 January: 10 miles (70 minutes) at APG at lunch

1 February: 10 miles (70 minutes) at APG at lunch, then a total of 10 miles (70 minutes) in the evening with the Wednesday Night run from O'Donnell Square

2 February: 1 mile (10 minutes) easy, because there wasn't time for more

3 February: 5+ miles (37 minutes) at APG at lunch, then 21+ miles (185 minutes) easy-ish in the Patapsco area in the late afternoon

4 February: 11 miles (77 minutes) in the morning, under ominous skies, then 7 more miles in the evening (49 minutes) after the heavens opened up, in rain/sleet/snow

Total Time: 868 minutes
Total Distance: 120 miles


(This picture is about to have a point)

As I sit here after a cold, dark, slightly snowy, slightly spiteful seven-mile run to close out a debatably dismal day of mindless meandering, against false reassurance from "a friend" that "it should be a nice day out at least" (which I knew to be untrue, since red skies in the morning make sailors take warning, and probably piles of cat puke on the rug, too), it seems more than a little strange that the first and foremost thoughts in my mind are about "training beautiful." Maybe that's because earlier in the week, at the prompting of scenes like the above, and the unseasonably warm weather, I couldn't help drifting back to the days of my first marathon, Baltimore, in 2004, and pondering the path that led me there.

I had always wanted to run a marathon, and when the time seemed right, Baltimore seemed like the place, and I trained dutifully for 4 months for marathon day. And, as luck would have it, marathon day was magical. After the race, I hastily scribbled notes in my running log (now strangely missing from the bookcase under the stairs upstairs, but that's a mystery for another day), trying to capture all of the beauty of the race, and all of the people who made it so beautiful: my sister Rachel, who let me crash at her apartment at the Hopkins Homewood campus the night before the race, another runner named Mark who I met during the race, who I ran with for most of the race, who called me "crazy sock guy" because I was wearing socks for gloves, Liz Krimmel, who was out for a run around Lake Montebello right when I got to that part of the course, and who made it into one of the race photographs with me, John Onofrey, who cheered me on as he walked through Mount Vernon, then came out to hang out with me at the end of the race, when nobody else was there for me, because nobody else seriously thought I could do it, or do it as well as I did it - 3:00:51, easily qualifying for the Boston Marathon (my goal), painfully short of a sub-3 hour race. At the risk of sounding ridiculous, there were so many times during that race when I felt myself moving effortlessly down the streets of Baltimore (particularly in the first half, when I was on 2:50 pace), and my heart was overflowing with joy.

But all of that isn't even half of the story. This is where the training comes in. Because for four months prior to that race, I came back to my parents' house after long, seemingly pointless days of work at APG, to suffer through training runs of upwards of 12 miles on weekdays, and upwards of 70 miles per week (at the time, nearly unthinkable numbers). My training for the 2004 Baltimore Marathon was some of the most disciplined, directed training of my life. I followed the "advanced" training schedule that I had photocopied from an issue of Runner's World exactly. Hill work on Tuesdays, speed work on Thursdays, Sunday long runs. And over the course of the training program, amazing things happened, things that may seem inconsequential in words, but are burned into my mind as beautiful experiences. I remember the long runs - going to Cracker Barrel with my family after my first 18-mile run, and the transcendent taste of the chicken and dumplings, a 20-miler the morning after my 5-year high school reunion, even now amazed that I could run that long after such a long night, having gone that distance so few times before. I remember the intervals in the warm, humid dusk at the now-nonexistent Harford Community College track, 800 meters on a minute rest, quads and lungs burning, but getting no reprieve until the 20-minute tempo run home against the backdrop of the setting sun was complete. And I remember the misery of the easy days after the brutality of the workouts. I remember 4-mile runs on Wednesdays after hard hill workouts that may as well have been 400 miles, and 50-minute runs on Saturdays when I would stagger through the last 10 minutes, shower, and flop on a beanbag chair in my room in front of the Playstation and Silent Hill.

In fact, if I were given a calendar and some time to meditate, I could probably remember something from just about every training run that I did leading up to the 2004 Baltimore Marathon. Like the contrails in the sky over APG, they still pass through my mind every so often, eventually spreading, dissipating, and being absorbed into the backdrop, to reappear again some other day. Every day of training tattooed a new, obscure memory into my mind, and so I was not just building my body, but my mind and my heart, accumulating willpower and emotion, ready to be released on race day, to coalesce into a coherent scene of brilliance (see picture above), regardless of the quality of each individual memory. Good, bad, indifferent, it all came together for a few hours to create something meaningful and beautiful.

And so, today, on my "nice day out at least," I spitefully stepped out the front door, and laced my key into my shoes as fat wet snowflakes, punctuated with frozen raindrops, fell on my face. I switched on my iPod shuffle, and sure enough, first song - "Bombs Over Baghdad" - "weatherman sayin' it ain't gonna rain." I pressed on through Patterson Park, smiling as I passed the few brave souls out walking dogs that wouldn't take "miserable" for an answer. My stride was quick, strong, and even, my breathing was smooth. I headed for the waterfront, to the promenade, as the darkness grew, to "Amen Fashion (Jesus is the New Black)," passing two other runners plodding through this unfortunate night. My turnaround point was the Fells Point pier, and as the brilliance of the neon signs across the water flashed across my field of view as I made a sharp turn inland, I felt re-invigorated. I felt no pain. Speeding down Aliceanna, then Eastern, the snow had stopped. The rain had slowed to just a few drops. "Edge of Glory" came on as I knew I had only about 5 minutes of this left. Part of me didn't want it to end. But most of me was glad that I closed out the run at 6:45/mile pace, arriving at my doorstep to dying horns in my earbuds as I unlaced my shoes - a warm shower couldn't come quickly enough. In spite of spite, I felt joy for outlasting Mother Nature, at least for tonight, and for feeling so strong under apparently adverse conditions.

Another contrail across my mind, to be revisited in a race someday. Someday, this will be nothing but beautiful.