Sunday, March 25, 2012

World-Running: 7 Miles Through Charm City with Jesper Olsen

It's a few minutes past noon on a Sunday, and I'm running through the boarded-up, graffiti-riddled West Side of Baltimore City. Pretty typical. Except that today, I'm not running quite as aimlessly as usual. I'm looking for somebody, and I have some questions.

A friend last week had given me a tip that one Jesper Olsen, who was "running around the world," would be coming through Baltimore sometime this weekend:

After pacing back-to-back marathons (3:30 at the National Marathon, then 3:15 at the Shamrock Marathon the next day) last weekend, I was hardly feeling like running all week, and waited until Saturday night to e-mail him, not really expecting a response. Secretly, I hoped that he wouldn't respond, so that I wouldn't feel forced into another obligatory run.

But surprisingly, he replied around midnight, three hours after I had sent the email. He was planning on running through the city along Route 40, passing through the center around noon. Perfect (I suppose, still not feeling totally up for the task). My golden opportunity to find out, first-hand, what probably everybody wants to know - why on earth is he doing this?

Our email exchange was minimal, so I am really not sure what I'm looking for, but I know as soon as I see it that this has to be it. An average, unassuming man, in a neon-yellow windbreaker and black wind pants, bent over beside a white Prius parked in a driveway off to the side of the road, just east of Martin Luther King Boulevard. I get closer, and the "WORLD RUN II" sign on the side of the car confirms my instinct.

For a second, I think that maybe he's sick or tired or ready to hang it up for the day, and I have my "out." But he turns around, smiles at me and shakes my hand, and immediately sheds his pants - it's getting warm, he says, in perfect English through a thick Danish accent.

We loiter for a few minutes, so that he can change into a fresh pair of Asics (with bright blue laces that suggest that this spring's bright-color trend hadn't been lost on him), stretch his calves, and introduce me to his support driver, Morten. After a brief discussion of the plan for today - to run through the city, stop somewhere on the east side, and prepare for a longer segment tomorrow - we're off.

He immediately apologizes for the "slow" pace, to which I respond that there's no need to apologize. We naturally settle into a compromise of a little over 8 minutes per mile, splitting the difference between his typical running pace and mine. I reassure him that, although Route 40 had its problems, his two greatest urban-running challenges, difficult-to-follow signage and a lack of sidewalks, are not among them. And then the chatter begins.

Just one question about "how exactly does a run around the world work" sets off an excited litany of the places that he's been, as if this weren't the second time over that he was doing this. He started almost four years ago, in June 2008. Heading south from the Arctic Circle through Europe and Africa, then back north through South America into North America, he is now on, relatively speaking, the final stretch of his journey.

Each day, he runs with cell phone tucked away in a pouch in his hand, a phone which gamely continues to function in spite of its cracked touchscreen, a casualty of a fall during a mudslide in Colombia. The phone functions as communication device, camera, and, most importantly, GPS to track his route. He marks his point at the end of each day, and returns to that point at the beginning of the next day to continue his trek. Days on end of this have conditioned his body to be comfortable with up to 50 miles a day, although not every day is that long. Today is an "easy" day - only about 15 miles, enough to get through the congested city streets, and back onto the highway, a comfortable place for him to run tomorrow.

Our banter jumps from his curiosity about ultrarunning in America (he's amused by the fact that we insist on running ultras on trails, while in Europe, roads are the more accepted surface, and he's perplexed by the 100-mile distance, a product of our English measurement system that falls awkwardly between the 100-kilometer race and the 24-hour race) to bits and pieces about places along his most recent journey. Romania and Syria are a lot nicer than the media would want you to believe. Ethiopia and Kenya will never develop because they are far too reliant on aid from the United Nations - the people let fields lie fallow because "the UN will help us." Not a problem in some other African countries, where they are industrious by modern standards, yet still manage to hold on to their old traditions - traditions in some cases as wild as the king wearing a leopard skin and dancing about with his similarly inadequately-clothed attendants for two days before the harvest can begin. I get the feeling that he can go on for hours this way.

At times, I strain to hear over the traffic, and through his accent, but he chatters incessantly the whole way, skipping child-like over puddles and other low obstacles. It feels as though he's playing, although it turns out that not all of his skipping about has been harmless. In Kenya, he attempted to jump over spikes blocking a road, caught his toe, twisted, fell, and thought for sure that he had impaled himself. Turned out that he had merely punctured his right bicep on the rusty metal, far away from modern medical care. Two failed repairs later, the doctors warned him that if he didn't have it treated properly, he might lose his arm. Finally, in Cape Town, South Africa, he found treatment, at which point it turned out that he had malaria, and his immune system was dangerously depleted. Mostly undeterred, he pressed on through South America.

Against the backdrop of his near-death experience in Africa, our run through Baltimore's slums hardly seems dangerous anymore. In fact, Jesper delights in our unconventional route. He could have run through the Inner Harbor, or Fells Point, or Canton, or any number of typical tourist attractions. But he's more interested in seeing the "real" city, the way most people actually live, the things you'll never see on TV. When he talks about dodging rocks thrown at him by African tribesmen en route to Kenya (which he later learned was because wherever they set their tents, they considered their property to defend to the death, and therefore, he was inadvertently trespassing on dozens of people's property as he ran by), I can't help feeling that my late-night runs down Monument Street have suddenly become significantly safer in comparison.

Jesper, jogging out of Baltimore City on Route 40

We clear the residential section of the city, and run along the left side of Route 40, into the commercial and industrial zones. His chatter drifts from his harrowing escape from rock-throwing African natives to what life on the road is like. Taking a cue from my marveling at how, after all of the remote places that he's run, he's somehow here in Baltimore, on the roads I run every day, he shrugs this off, and says that the truly unique part of his experience is the passing through. Each day, new places, new faces - this, he says, is far different from the way we typically socialize. His experience is now far removed from life in Europe, where people are reluctant to move 50 miles from their hometowns to take a job, or even America, where people are tolerant of perhaps a few major moves in a lifetime. He briefly considers the thought of returning to "real" life, after so many years on the road. After the dozens of vivid pictures he's painted since the start of our run, he seems at a loss for words here.

But not for terribly long, because, as the road dips and climbs, so do we, and the running has gotten slightly more challenging, calling for a little more verbal distraction. He seemingly hasn't lost a bit of the bounce in his step, but our conversation returns to running, closer to the task at hand. We're somewhere in the middle of a discussion about training strategy when he, seemingly without warning, announces that it is time to stop for the day, at the obscure intersection of White and Pulaski. (I later discover that this is almost exactly 7 miles from our starting point on the other side of the city.) It's slightly further than he had planned for today, but he is now satisfied that he will no longer be dodging cars at intersections every 100 feet, and ready to call it a day and rest up for tomorrow.

His support vehicle driver, Morten, has pulled off to the side of the road, and he takes our picture next to the street sign before we go our separate ways. Jesper wishes me luck at the Umstead 100 next weekend, and says that perhaps he'll follow along online, so that if at some point I feel tired and ready to give up, I can think about "some crazy Danish guy" watching his progress. He tells me that I'll do well, since I appear to have plenty of "energy," based on the way I was pulling him up the hills on Route 40 (something that he would not want to have to contend with in a race, he says). I tell him that I do train on these, so I have a slight advantage, and wish him well before I head back the way I came, 7 miles back to my car.

Our stopping point for the day.

As I trek back, alone, the dozens of things that I could have asked him occur to me: what does he do in his free time, where's the best food, who are the friendliest people he's met, even my original question as to why he even started doing this in the first place? And I consider the wisdom he's imparted - the body adapts to the task, things aren't what they seem to be on TV, some parts of the world may seem strange, but people are people - and I feel as though none of this is surprising.

But as I run back down the same forsaken street that took us out to his arbitrary stopping point for today, and I picure him in his neon-yellow jacket and short black running shorts, bouncing along down the street next to me, apparently, to those who don't know any better, just another 40-something out for his Sunday afternoon fitness run, I don't feel disappointed. I consider the possibility that all of the above are just superficialities that only hint at the substance of his endeavor.

Because the look on his face as he bounds down cracked sidewalks in his bright-blue-laced Asics is not the typical 40-something fitness-jogger look of abject torture, or, at best, grudging acceptance. The look under his irrepressible shock of blonde hair is one of joy. His painful days of training and racing are behind him for now - each day, he wakes up and revels in the fact that each day, he can wake up, run to his heart's content, rest well, and run again the next day. It's something that's often lost amidst the hard-training, results-oriented running mantras that most runners follow. Jesper may be many things to many people, but my seven miles with him have made him a roving reminder to me of the joy that was why I started running in the first place. And considering my recent running malaise, I think I've found MY answer.

Good luck, Jesper, and godspeed.


Week of 11 March 2012:

Sunday: 13 haphazard miles, spectating at the Shamrock 5K (90 minutes), including some 20-ish minutes of "cooling that b*tch down hard" with c-rad

Monday: 10 miles at lunch at APG (70 minutes), 13 miles to, from, and with the Fed Hill gang (90 minutes, including 15 fast minutes on the way back)

Tuesday: 1 mile easy (10 minutes)

Wednesday: 5 miles easy, at lunch at APG (35 minutes)

Thursday: 10 miles in circles near the New Carrollton Metro (70 minutes), 10 miles a few hours later at the Mount Vernon Metro station just because (70 minutes)

Friday: 10 miles at APG at lunch (70 minutes)

Saturday: 28 miles (225 minutes); pacing 3:30 at National Marathon, plus 2 miles warmup/warmdown

Total Time: 730 minutes
Total Distance: 100 miles

Week of 18 March 2012:

Sunday: 28 miles (210 minutes); pacing 3:15 at Shamrock Marathon, plus 2 miles of "warming that b*tch up hard" with c-rad

Monday: 10 miles (70 minutes) at APG at lunch

Tuesday: 3 miles easy (30 minutes)

Wednesday: 10 miles to, from, and with the Wednesday Night O'Donnell Square Run (70 minutes)

Thursday: 10 miles (70 minutes) at APG at lunch

Friday: 3 miles easy, trails (30 minutes)

Saturday: 16 miles on the HAT Run Course, including 6x(the last hill), running hard both up and down; ~3 minutes up, ~4 minutes down (120 minutes)

Total Time: 600 minutes
Total Distance: 80 miles

Monday, March 12, 2012

Week in Review: 4-10 March, and Spectating

The running that I did:

4 March: 10-ish miles pre- and during the B&A "Trail" Marathon with Meg H, then 8-ish more miles afterwards, for some reason (130 minutes).

5 March: 15 miles to, during, and from the Fed Hill Monday Night (Race) Run, with some stupid-fast stuff somewhere in the middle (105 minutes).

6 March: 8 miles at lunch (60 minutes), track "workout" - 15 min warmup, 5x(800m, 2 min rest, 400m, 90 sec rest), 15 minute warmdown. Intervals in (2:51, 76), (3:00+, 80-ish), (3:00+, 80-ish), (3:00+, 80-ish), (3:00+, 80-ish) . . . yeah, oops, I had only one good set in me.

7 March: 10 miles at lunch (70 minutes), 10 more miles later, in part with the Wednesday Night O'Donnell Square Run group (70 minutes).

8 March: 4-ish miles with Luke after work (27 minutes), 23-ish miles with Meg H on the dark scary hilly Catonsville loop, ending just before midnight (190 minutes).

9 March: 10 sort of lazy miles (70 minutes) in the afternoon.

10 March: 10-ish miles with Luke at Loch Raven (70 minutes).

Total Time: 852 minutes
Total distance: 116 miles

The running that I watched:

While this week was not my biggest-ever week in terms of mileage, it was my biggest-ever week in terms of watching people run. I had the pleasure of watching both the B&A "Trail" (i.e. asphalt path to Marley Station Mall) Marathon last Sunday, and the Shamrock 5K in downtown Baltimore yesterday. Typically, I am a pretty bad running spectator, because I'm almost always game for anything running-related, no matter how stupid or out of my comfort zone. But in both cases, I was too late to the registration party to get in on either, so I was relegated to the sidelines.

In both cases, though, I'm glad that I had the opportunity to be on the sidelines. Running is generally a very self-focused, self-directed activity. With all of the racing that I've been doing lately, it was a nice mental break to shift that focus, and support other runners for a change. There's also a lot to be said for what you can learn from watching others run, from the stoic, steady strides in the middle-mile wasteland of a marathon, to the all-out finishing kicks in a 5K. Lots of great efforts to be filed away in the memory banks for instruction and inspiration in my upcoming races . . . and some of them captured on my cell-phone camera, which turned out to be a lot of fun, and something that I want to do more of in the future (maybe with a better camera, although there is a certain charm to trying to take a good picture with a less-than-good camera).

And all of that "outward focus," if you will, is, in a more general sense, something that I needed, considering the sort of emotional turmoil that's driven me a bit more inward than is really healthy in the long-term over the past few weeks. Between the warm, sunny Sunday afternoons, the neon-yellow Falls Road Racing jerseys, and the return of Daylight Savings Time, I've been fortunate to find plenty of light to combat the recent darkness in my life. So congratulations and thank you to everybody who I was able to watch racing the past two Sundays. The future is very bright indeed.

Shamrock 5K - my best crummy cell phone picture (Becky Parks flying down Pratt Street)

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Week in Review: 26 February - 3 March, and Seneca Greenway 50K Race Report


26 February: Club Challenge 10-Mile Run, plus 2 miles warmup, 2 miles warmdown (14 miles, 95 minutes)

27 Feburary: 10-mile lunch run at APG, solo (70 minutes)

28 February: 15 miles (105 minutes) in Allen/Plano, Texas, including trespassing near transformers (the power-converting kind, and not the vehicle-morphing kind . . . that I could tell . . .)

29 February: 5 miles in the morning (35 minutes) in Allen/Plano, Texas, and another 10 miles (70 minutes) in the same darn place in the evening (so bored with strip mall running)

1 March: 15 miles in the evening in Baltimore (105 minutes), stubbornly refusing to wear a shirt in spite of the dropping temperature

2 March: 7 miles at lunch at APG (50 minutes), felt like death :(

3 March: Seneca Greenway 50K, 4 hours, 39 minutes, second place overall, 34-ish miles

Total minutes: 810
Total miles: 110

And now, the important part: The race report.

The Seneca Greenway 50K, along with the National Marathon and the Boston Marathon, have become rites of spring for me. And usually, this race turns out pretty well, even if it hurts like hell (which it usually does). So you can understand my trepidation when, the day before the race, I woke up with a very sick stomach, and bailed out of my intended 10-mile shakeout run at lunch at 7 miles because the stomach pain was no longer bearable. I considered not running this race.

But I also considered the people I would be letting down if I didn't give it the old college try, so I went the other way with this, and made plans with Meg Harnett (who was using the race as part of a 40-mile training run for her first 50-mile race, at my suggestion a few weeks ago) to drive her back from the race, and posted a Facebook status about doing the race, so now I REALLY couldn't back out.

Then I proceeded to have a friend over and "help" (in the loosest sense of the word) her bake vegan cakes for a party the next day, which mostly consisted of me eating chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream straight out of the tub, and occasionally making precision cuts on parchment paper while "Semi-Pro" played in the background. After lots of laughter about nothing, and other similarly whimsical activity, we eventually went to sleep around midnight, which, with a 5 a.m. wakeup time, was maybe pushing it.

But in retrospect, maybe not the worst decision, since I woke up in a good mood as a result of our general mirth-making. I picked up and put on clothes from my neat piles, and, after minimal foot-dragging, I was out the door at around 5:30 a.m., which was kind of a late start for a 6:45 bus from the finish line to the start, but I made it there exactly at 6:45, only to find that they had underestimated demand by one bus, and I would have to wait for one to come back.

So I had plenty of time to sit in my car and think about not running the race (especially since, at this point, it was cold and rainy). But they knew I was here, so I couldn't not do it. Eventually, after about half an hour, the bus showed up, and it was off to the start, which they were delaying for our "short-bus's" arrival.

This worked perfectly, as I got off the bus, handed in my entry form and fee, pinned my bib on, filled my water bottle, and scavenged a Hammer Gel from one of the tables for breakfast (fortunately, it was Montana Huckleberry, one of the better flavors). It had stopped raining, and, also in the category of pleasant surprises, it was not horribly cold, as it usually is at the start of this race.

Meg found me right away, and we walked over to the start together - apparently, her six miles before the race (to bring her to 40 for the day) went well. I saw Mosi just before the race started, and when I mentioned that I hadn't had breakfast, he gave me two Hammer Gels, which was really awesome of him. And then, with absolutely no fanfare whatsoever (a trademark of this race), we were off.

I went out pretty fast, and since I had been hanging out in the back before the start, talking to my friends, that meant that I had to pass a lot of people. Fortunately, the first half-mile or so is a wide paved path, which made passing easy. Normally, I don't go out that way, but after Club Challenge this past Sunday, I decided not to be "slow" in races, ever, whatever that means. (I think it means to be aggressive and push yourself, maybe.) Remarkably, I felt okay, in spite of how I had been feeling for the past 24 hours, and how little I had eaten.

Then, things got uneventful (albeit muddily uneventful - about 50 percent of the course was slick mud, and required constant care, so as to avoid face-planting). Up to the lake section (where "50K" runners split off and run a loop on the trail around Clopper Lake before returning to follow the "marathon" course), a few people were ahead of me, but only one person, a guy in a red jacket, had passed me. He didn't pass me too hard, and he was in sight most of the time. I couldn't quite catch him, lost contact, and then sort of forgot about him.

Adding to the non-descript confusion, because people who are running both the "marathon" and the "50K" are on the same course, it's hard to tell who's actually ahead of you, except when you get to the lake, which only the 50K runners run. During the lake loop, when I could see across the lake, I could see one person ahead of me, and one person who appeared to be not that far behind me.

I had gone out to race, and so at this point, I started drawing on the training I had been doing this past week, where, in just about every run, I had been throwing in random pick-ups, mostly to convince myself that I could always run faster, probably. (Incidentally, the lingering soreness from this might have contributed to my less-than-ideal physical state on Friday.) As I reached the end of the lake section, I saw the guy who I had seen ahead of me walking - apparently, he had burned himself out. I didn't see the guy behind me anymore, so I must have dropped him.

I continued my "aid station roulette" routine (having no nutrition plan in particular coming in, other than my water bottle and some Endurolytes, I tried to take in about 200 calories at each aid station, mostly in bananas, orange slices, and Nutter Butter cookies, washed down with Coke, Mountain Dew, or Gatorade), and headed down the trail for what is typically the "worst" section of the race. That is, if you're feeling bad as you leave the lake loop (the end of the loop is around the 20-mile mark), this section will make it worse, because the trail descends quite a bit for about half a mile, then immediately climbs just as much in as much distance. I was still feeling strong and pushing, and now I was passing people, but, at this point, there was no telling which race they were in.

Still, passing people is passing people, and since I had no watch to mark progress, this kept me mentally occupied for the remainder of the race. And the remainder of the race was similarly uneventful - I just kept pushing and staying in the moment as much as possible. Before I knew it, I was at the last aid station, and Jon was there, as photographer, and got really excited when he saw me. "What are you doing? You're killing it!" he shouted as he took dozens of photos of me. I would have loved to stay and chat, but I had the nasty little business of the last 3-ish miles of the race, beginning with a creek crossing and a steep climb.

Eyeing up that last hill, while Jon gets trigger-happy on the camera.

It was somewhere on the steep climb, when I could feel everything just clicking, and all the hard work from the past months coming together, that I suddenly felt all of the emotional distress and weight of the past couple of weeks just flood out of me. Yes, that sounds kind of stupid, but pushing my body over that terrain in the way that I was pushing it was perfectly cathartic.

And I wish I could say that I ended the race that way, but as I hit the pavement for the last mile or so, a man walking by said to me "number 5," and that took the wind right out of my sails. It seems as though 5th is my permanent 50K finishing place, and it seemed like for all of the focus and effort I had put into this race today, in spite of the circumstances coming in, 5th wasn't right.

That didn't slow me down, though - I pushed all the way through the appropriately unceremonious finish line, to learn that I was the second 50K finisher - the guy on the road had been counting total runners. The guy in the red jacket had apparently finished just a couple of minutes ahead of me, and was standing behind the finish line picking at the food on the table.

I was happy beyond happy at this point, even though my finishing time was slower than last year's (4 hours, 39 minutes this year, compared to 4 hours, 19 minutes last year). Considering that the course was about three miles longer this year, and the mud had made parts of it less than runnable, I consider this year's effort far stronger.

I went over to red jacket guy to congratulate him on his race. We talked for a bit, and then I realized I hadn't asked him his name, so I did, and he answered "Glen Redpath." Oops. I was immedately really apologetic about it, but he said not to worry, he tends to fly under the radar.

Glen started walking back down the road towards the picnic, and I ran after him (surprisingly, this didn't hurt a bit). We chatted some more, and he made a comment about how not wearing a shirt was a good way to get hypothermia (although I was really enjoying the feel of the sun on my back, and, more importantly, not freezing to death, as I usually am at the end of this race). Then I mentioned that I was waiting for my friend Meg to come in, since I had her change of clothes in the trunk of my car. I said that I would probably hang out with him a bit at the picnic, then go back out to my car and get her clothes . . .

And just as I was saying that, who comes down the road, looking not at all like she's nearing 40 total miles for the day? (Meg, obviously.) So with my water bottle, hat, and shirt in hand, I excused myself, turned around, and ran in with her to the finish, telling her that she was second woman in the 50K, which she apparently already knew, since people were telling her for most of the race that she wasn't far behind the first woman. She even managed a little sprint when the finish line came into sight, which I gladly went along with - a little "second-place finishers" sprint. 4 hours, 58 minutes, AFTER a six-mile "warmup," in a "training run" - as I've said in other media, totally baller.

Then Meg and I hung out at the finish line and waited for the rest of our crew to finish: Mike, in a little over 5 hours, Mosi, mid-5, and Jackie, who may be the only runner in the history of this race to state on the entry form that she would be running the "marathon," then elect to do the "50K" at the split-off (which is why she was "late" to the party). Some rough days, but this course, although fast if run right, tends to wear on you with its relentless ups and downs, and the extra distance and the mud this year added to that effect. (And, for what it's worth, Jackie's perfectly-painted "eye black" stripes made out of mud were totally winning, regardless of anything else.)

We all hung out at the picnic for probably too long afterwards, congratulating other finishers as they came in, and talking and laughing about nothing in particular. Eventually, it was time for me to drive Meg back to her car at the start, and then back home for whatever it is that I do at home (mostly cat-care and write race reports, apparently).

All in all, an awesome day in lots of ways. Not just my performance, but also the way I felt like my friends helped me to do what I did - after all, if I hadn't felt like I was out there for somebody other than myself, I might not have run the race.

And in particular, a special thanks to Meg D, whose performance at the Club Challenge 10-Mile Run last week (1:02 high, a PR for her by over 2 minutes, on a difficult 10-mile course), which I had the opportunity to watch from behind for most of the race, inspired my race. Watching her RACE that hard gave me a new perspective on my running - lately, as I've mentioned in recent posts here, I've felt like I've been "running" more than "racing" in races. Seeing the way she ran helped me to carry her brand of calculated, yet gutsy and fearless, running into my training this past week, and into this race, and if I hadn't run the race that way, it was unlikely that I would have finished as well as I did.

So, once again, I am thankful for all of the great people (race volunteers and staff definitely included) that made this experience possible. Here's to another week of awesome!

A few of the people who dragged me through this, post-race. (Not pictured: Meg Harnett, who, at the risk of TMI, was off TCB in the woods. :P)