The American Master: Khalid Khannouchi’s Second Last Chance

It’s a Saturday morning in September and for the last hour I’ve been staring at the back of Khalid Khannouchi’s head. We’re being coached through a workout in the deep end of a 25m pool in Briarcliff, New York. Directing us is Sandra Khannouchi, Khalid’s coach, manager and wife of over 14 years. She’s in the water with us, but she stays out of our way as we circle round and round her in Lane 4. Sandra is timing us through a fartlek run that she’s designed with varying intervals of hard running broken up with one minute rests. These are arranged in what has emerged as a diabolical order. The work is extremely hard both physically and mentally, and at one point she’s made it harder by forgetting to notice the end of the interval. “It’s been three minutes!” we protest at 3:02, our heart rates and tempers soaring. “Okay, okay…” Sandra says with some sheepishness, looking up at the huge clock. “Sorry.”

Khalid is injured. I am injured. So here we are. When he’s running fast in the pool he reminds me of a wounded duck, pierced by a bullet and struggling madly to get away. I realize at one point that this must be how I look too. Although I’ve met Khalid a few times before this, I barely know him. It’s hard not to feel a little starstruck; I’m doing a workout with the fastest marathoner this country has ever produced. Yet we’re moving at the same speed, water being the great equalizer. Sandra leaves and we remain for a 10-minute cooldown of leisurely laps. Khalid and I pass like ships. At one point he offers, “That was a good workout.” I agree and then tell him that it’s good to know that I’m not the only runner Sandra is constantly screaming at to go faster, harder. He laughs, but then I mildly regret what I’ve just said, realizing that I’m talking about someone who is not just his coach, but also his wife. Yet later on Sandra tells me that Khalid wants me to come back and do more workouts with him in the pool, so we can share the work. She adds, good-naturedly, “and the screaming.”

I first met Khalid and Sandra in May, 2010 at the NYRR Healthy Kidney 10K press event, the day before the race in which Khalid would make a tentative, and very public, return to competitive running after an injury-induced layoff of nearly two and a half years. At the time I was struck by his affability and candor. At one point he’d even taken off a shoe to show us exactly where on his foot he’d had his most recent surgery. Sandra as coach came across as realistic about Khalid’s current situation, yet exuding a sense of utter confidence in his ability to make a comeback. She was also smart. Those qualities were enough for me to approach her for coaching help a month or so later on.

After that 10K race, I looked for Khalid and found him just outside the Media tent. He surprised me with a warm hug and a question –  “How was your race?” – before I could get a chance to ask him how his had gone. Khalid had finished in 21st place. But he was upbeat. To him, the race was a success, because it wasn’t intended to be a race at all. Central Park had instead served as proving ground: would his foot hold up post-surgery? It had, and, while his chip time was nothing to write home about, he called the run “something promising…something we can build on.”

Now, months later, I sometimes run into Khalid when we’re both working alone in the pool. Devoid of body fat, he sits low in the water despite a buoyancy vest. So low that his breath hits the surface and, amplified by the water, sounds like a steam engine. He is always, always working ridiculously hard. After he leaves I’m sometimes tempted to ask the lifeguards, “Do you have any idea who that guy was?”

A spectacular ascent, in spite of injuries

Unless you’ve been living under a rock since 1997, if you follow elite running then you know who Khalid Khannouchi is. Originally from Morocco, he moved to the States almost immediately after winning the 5000m at the 1993 World Student Games in Buffalo. He first settled in that city, living for several months in the home of a Buffalo doctor he’d befriended at the games, then moving south to Brooklyn with other members of the Moroccan running team after quickly realizing that cruel upstate winters aren’t conducive to good training.

The next year, he joined Warren Street Athletic and Social Club and became a rising star on the Tri-State racing scene, winning the NYRR Club Championships in 1994. That was also the year he met Sandra, an American originally from the Dominican Republic (and holder of the women’s marathon record for that country) at a road race in Hartford, CT. Sandra,10 years his senior, took over his coaching and management as she was winding down her own career as a professional runner. A contract with New Balance followed in 1995, enabling Khalid to finally focus full time on running. In 1996, the two married. From the very beginning, they shared a love of running – and a belief in Khalid’s potential to do great things.

Over the next six years, he would set world records, course records, and the standing American record in the marathon. It’s an impressive résumé: fastest debut marathon in history, four Chicago wins, three sub-2:06 marathons, one of which (London, 2002) is considered by many to be the greatest marathon competition in history. A phenomenal, seemingly unstoppable talent.

Yet there were cracks forming as early as 1999. That year began with a dropout at mile 16 in London, his left foot burning with a neuroma. But Khalid came back later that year to run a sub-1:01 at the Philadelphia Half, followed by a new world record in Chicago that would take four years (and Paul Tergat) to break.

A victory at the 2000 San Blas 10K in Puerto Rico was immediately followed by a ligament problem in his ankle. That led to a compensatory hamstring injury. His run for third place in London in 2000, a race Khalid ran only because of citizenship delays that put a bib for that year’s USA Olympic Trials in doubt, only exacerbated his injuries. Things got so bad that he ran no marathons in 2001, although he got lucky in 2002, when his injuries abated enough that he could train for and win two spectacular races: his 2:05:38 at London, as previously mentioned, followed by a 2:05:56 at Chicago, his fourth win there.

From there, it was all downhill, in the bad sense of the word. Three weeks after that Chicago 2002 race, Khalid’s battle with his own body began. The battle continues to this day.

The forgotten champion

Khalid eventually gained US citizenship later in 2000 and looked forward to trying again for an Olympic berth in four years. But he missed the 2004 Olympic Trials, again due to injury. In the fall of that year, he finished fifth in Chicago. 2005 was another year lost to injuries. 2006 featured a fourth place finish in London with a 2:07, but it was a time that was more than fast enough to qualify him for the 2008 Trials. 2006 also saw the first of several foot surgeries Khalid would undergo over the coming years. History repeated itself in 2007 when, with a neuroma in his right foot this time, he was again forced to drop out of the London Marathon midway through the race. The following few months included a string of disappointing races, or withdrawals from the elite field altogether, again due to injuries.

Things looked up in the summer of 2007, though. In a rare period of pain-free running, Khalid was at last able to train for a viable US Olympic Trials race that November. Perhaps the third time would be the charm. But his training was too little, too late; after making adjustments to his new orthotics he and Sandra had just nine weeks to prepare. Despite a heroic run, he nevertheless finished in fourth place. It’s a race he still has mixed feelings about. “It was a good experience. But, you know, it’s disappointing because I was very close to making the team. When you finish fourth, it feels really bad: fourth place. At the same time I was happy because I was able to run a marathon. So I thought, ‘Maybe I can train again. Maybe next year will be good. Better.’”

Through eight years of injuries, two missed US Olympic Trials races, one Trials fourth place and frequent trips across the globe for surgeries, therapies and treatments, Khalid has not given up on his dream of representing his adopted country on an Olympic Marathon team. This despite having declared 2008 the deadline for that dream, a deadline that he missed by just under a minute on the hills of Central Park. “Realistically,” he told the New York Daily News in 2007, just days before the Trials, “This is my last shot.”

Do a search on “Khalid Khannouchi” on LetsRun.com or other popular running sites and you’ll hardly see anything following his failed 2007 Olympic bid. One forum thread from the summer of 2009 is entitled “Is Khalid Khannouchi still running?” In many ways, Khalid’s situation mirrors that of Meb Keflezighi’s a few years ago: a once-stellar runner completely drops off the radar, hobbled by injuries, living under the encroaching shadow of advancing years. Lots of people wrote Meb off, but he made a stunning comeback in 2009 in New York and has not looked back. Khalid has cited Meb as an inspiration and role model. Good things can happen. But you have to keep the faith, and keep trying.

Riding the second wave of American running

When asked why American marathoners have slipped so far behind the Africans over the past two decades, and why no other American has broken 2:06, Khalid is emphatic. “We are improving! I think the attitudes of American runners now are totally different. They think they can compete, and win honors, titles and all that. They can go and run with Kenyans and Ethiopians. We saw Meb win New York City. We saw Dathan get a medal in the World Half Marathon. We see people breaking American records, which is good! So you cannot say that because nobody has broken my record that we are not improving.”

Khalid also points to the growing pool of potential champions, as reflected in participation in the Marathon Trials of 2008 vs. the mid-to-late 1980s. “If you look at the number of people competing in the US Trials in ’84 or ’88 [compared to] the numbers in 2008 or 2012, you’re going to see that maybe we’ve tripled the numbers. That’s how you know there are more people coming up. But,” he adds, “It’s going to take a lot of time. And, believe it or not, there are people who are out training a lot harder somewhere else,” with “somewhere else” being a euphemism for “Africa.”

The Africans are the runners to beat, and Khalid has beaten them in the past. With Americans now seemingly poised to truly take on the current world-beaters, Khalid wants to once more be among those leading the charge.

For the most part, Khalid’s American cohorts are anywhere from 5 to 20 years his junior. He’ll turn 40 in 2011. Can experience compensate for the unavoidable toll that time takes on a marathoner’s paces? For Khalid, that’s not the relevant question. “I think fresh legs are what really matter. I’ve not been running for almost a year. So I feel like I’m 35 or 34.”

Reaching the age of 40 could be significant for Khalid in several ways. For one, he’ll be competing as a master at that point. That presents even more opportunities – such as new records to break – to add to his list of achievements. The possibility of beating men decades younger than himself is an extraordinary one in its own right. But his new status as a masters runner doesn’t factor into how he thinks about his comeback. “To be honest, I don’t feel like a ‘master.’ You try to take care of business, get healthy and get back to training. I think if I can do that, I still believe I can compete. And if it comes as a master, I don’t mind it.”

So many dreams, so little time

Try for a moment to imagine how this feels: you are the best marathon runner in the world.  You get injured, but you work through it and can clearly see that when you’re not injured you can still be the best marathoner in the world. Then the injuries just keep on coming. This goes on for eight years. “It’s very difficult,” Khalid acknowledges. “But you have to believe. You be patient, go to the gym, swim a bit, run a little bit. We had good, solid training. It’s just that I couldn’t keep up the work because I had little problems again. So you’re trying to get back and, for some reason – I don’t know if it’s a curse? Maybe I’ve done enough already.” Glancing down, he explains, “My feet are banged up. That’s the problem. If you have a good car without good wheels, it’s like you have nothing. That’s basically the problem I’m facing right now.”

Khalid had a plan back in 2007: finish in the top three in the Trials, run for the US on the streets of Beijing – and perhaps pick up a medal there as a souvenir – and then retire from competitive running. That dream died hard in November of that year and then was all but forgotten as new injuries took hold. At that point it seemed that even being able to run at all was an achievement worthy of pursuit. “Last year I wasn’t able to run for 20 minutes,” he notes. “So I said, ‘You know what, let me have surgery. I know it’s painful, but let me do it because at least then I can run like everybody else.’”

But then something happened. What began as an effort to simply get well enough to be able to run for more than a few miles without pain turned into a rekindled fervor for making the Olympic team. “Then when I started running like everybody else,” he says, laughing, “I said, ‘You know what, I want to get back and compete!’ I never wanted to run after 40. But I’ve got this opportunity: to be in the Olympics. I had the world record. I won the best marathons. But I’ve never been in the Olympics and I want that on my résumé.”

As Khalid and Sandra have learned over and over again, it can be dangerous to make plans, as they have a nasty habit of going awry. Perhaps this is why they speak of goals with a certain fluidity, a reflection not so much of shifting priorities but of their capitulation to the mercurial whims of Khalid’s body. The immediate goal is to get him healthy enough to train again, and run some test races at shorter distances, while avoiding further injury. The longer-term goal is to make a competitive comeback in the marathon. Ideally, an Olympic bib would figure into that comeback. But both of them acknowledge that betting all their chips on the US Marathon Trials in January of 2012 is risky. So he will run when Sandra says it’s time to run.

“It’s month by month,” says Sandra. “You don’t know what can happen. If, for example, it’s October and he says, ‘I feel good. Now is when I really have to run a marathon. Now I’m in peak condition,’ as a coach, as an agent, I will say, ‘Let’s go to New York.’ Because you don’t know what’s going to happen later. If you say, ‘No, let me wait until January,’ then you can get hurt again or that peak is not there anymore.”

Yet so many opportunities

From one perspective, Khalid’s comeback might seem at best daunting and at worst Quixotic. But from another, the whole world of running lies at his feet.

While the 2012 London Olympics is the headliner, other opportunities are waiting in the wings to serve as understudies should timing dictate: a run in New York, long-desired but always thwarted by injuries; or a return to Chicago; or perhaps a master’s world record or American record, if it happens – although Khalid has never entered a race with the intention of setting a world record, but rather picking one up as a bonus when that’s what the race required on that particular day.

Khalid knows what he wants to happen. “If I had a choice between going to the Olympics and running New York, I’d go to the Olympics.” But if the timing isn’t right for the Trials? “I want to run New York. I wish I had that opportunity in my day because I felt I could win New York, no problems. Chicago is probably the city where I feel more comfortable. It has a special place in my heart, more than London, more than any other place. Chicago is by far the best. But now, because I’m from here, I would love to have an opportunity to run New York City. No question.”

If Khalid does make the US Olympic Marathon Team, it will be historic regardless of what he goes on to run in that Olympic race in London. Only two masters men have ever represented the US in an Olympic Marathon. The last time around was James Henigan in 1932. Then there are masters’ marathon records to consider. The American record is 2:12:47, set by Eddy Hellebuyck in 2003, although given Hellebuyck’s recent admission of heavy EPO use during that period it can hardly be considered legitimate. The world record of 2:08:46 was set that same year by Mexico’s Andres Espinosa. That time is well within striking range for a healthy Khalid Khannouchi.

But, ultimately, what he wants most is just to have a good marathon, an experience that at this point seems very far away indeed. “I haven’t been running marathons. My dream is to run another marathon. I don’t care where. On another planet? I’ll go there!”

It’s not so easy, making a comeback

One of Sandra’s favorite observations, oft repeated, is, “It’s not so easy, being an elite runner.” That sentiment applies to making a comeback as well. When you are a world-class runner it’s impossible to participate in a race and go unrecognized. But the recognition isn’t the problem – it’s the expectation. Everyone watching is expecting you to win, even if that’s not why you’re there. Khalid tried to choose his test races carefully, in venues that would minimize the pressure to perform. But he still had to cope with people’s perceptions and assumptions.

He felt the weight of expectation on him at the Healthy Kidney 10K in May, his first race in well over two years. “You know, I thought at first, ‘It’s going to be the race to start with; it’s no pressure.’ But when I got to the starting line, everybody’s hugging you. You do feel the pressure. I said, ‘What the heck am I doing here?’ Because people know you, they love you, they expect a lot from you. That’s when the pressure hits you.”

After Healthy Kidney, Khalid ran a few other test races, including Beach to Beacon, a race that he’d hoped would be lower key. “We have a good host family, our friends. I feel like I’m going on vacation there, not racing.” He’ll return to such races in 2011 when he does his next round of test runs. Then the plan is to go for a Trials qualifying time at the half marathon distance, with that race as yet to be determined.

A major comeback demands major changes

Going forward, Sandra and Khalid know that they have to take the hard lessons they’ve learned over the years and apply them to every area. The first priority is healing from and preventing injuries. When the third neuroma of his career emerged earlier this year, they knew what to do: apply medications through local injections, slice a tendon to reposition the problem toe, then make adjustments to his orthotics once again.

Then there’s his training. The mileage will go down while the quality of those miles goes up. Lower mileage means lower impact and reduced chances of injury. As Khalid put it, “Running, running, running is what’s going to get you there.” But not so much running that he’ll be stopped dead in his tracks along the way. High levels of cross-training, along with strengthening and balance work, will augment the miles. “These other things will help to have a faster comeback,” Sandra asserts.

A move to Colorado Springs will further facilitate a comeback by reconnecting Khalid with some of his key training partners on a more consistent basis. That move punctuates a major change in his personal life as well. After 14 years of marriage, Sandra and Khalid have decided to divorce amicably. They’ll continue to work as a professional team and, in fact, both feel that the decision to part ways as a couple will only better his chances of racing well again.

“We care for each other,” Khalid says. “But for both our happiness, this is better. We have some differences. Lately we don’t agree. Maybe it’s because of me because I’ve been through hard times, dealing with injuries, not racing, not running like I would wish. It just seems like there is no good communication like we used to have.” He holds up a blue coffee mug. “When we had all the success, it was clear: ‘This is blue.’ We didn’t have to argue about it. And now…”

Sandra is quick to emphasize, “I think if he wants to make a comeback, it’s better not to be husband and wife. I really want him to make a comeback because I know he can do it. I think [the divorce] will be better because I can then concentrate and really give energy to him.” She reflects for a moment or two. “You have to be happy. When you’re doing something you want to do, whether it’s professional or your personal life, you have to be happy. If you’re not happy, nothing’s going to grow. I know that this is going to be better for both of us.”

Despite the plans to end their marriage, there remains an easy affection, and even jocular bickering, neither of which seems in danger of going anywhere. At one point Sandra offers me some Moroccan bread she’s made, although she was engrossed enough in our conversation that she forgot to take it out of the oven in time. As a result, it’s slightly overdone.

I tell them it’s fine, but Khalid says, “Bring her something else.”

Sandra laughs and says, “There is nothing else. You ate everything!”

While he may not be running at the moment, Khalid still has the appetite of a marathoner in training. “I am like a snake,” he says mischievously, weaving an undulating hand in the air. “I go through the house, eating everything.”

The sleeping giant

With the Trials set for January, 2012, it would seem that a year is plenty of time for a runner at Khalid’s level to prepare. But when you’re used to being blindsided by injuries, looking at a calendar can create more anxiety than confidence. So much can go wrong in those twelve months.

While Sandra may have her eye on 2011, Khalid can’t afford to look that far ahead. “I don’t want to talk about next year,” he says with a mixture of worry and conviction. “I’m talking about next month, when I start running and see the feeling. Look, I want to hear that everything is fine and I can run. If I do, then we’re going to have a lot of fun. Running 10Ks, maybe for six months. Just try to get back.”

It’s been over three years since he’s run a race with confidence, and that was the last Trials marathon in 2007. That’s enough time to forget everything you know. “Before, I used to know what I should do before races: I knew the workouts I should do, what I should eat. And now I’ve lost it. I don’t even know what I used to do before.”

Khalid is consumed with getting beyond his injuries and returning to the lead pack, displaying a drive to excel that even a decade’s worth of setbacks hasn’t diminished. “I want people to know that I’m trying the best I can. I invest a lot of money going to doctors and all that, just trying to get better. Because I really want to compete. I will never give up, and I’ll try. It’s frustrating. Eight years of struggle. People who have had injuries will understand me. We still hope. There is hope. I have faith that if I’m healthy I will compete again.”

As we’re wrapping up our interview, three of Sandra’s four grandchildren (by her daughter from a previous marriage) are making their arrival. I watch Khalid leap up from his chair, dash over to the door and impishly hide behind it, with a finger pressed to his lips. The kids tumble in, the youngest, four, tearing off her coat and throwing it on the floor. Khalid sweeps it up and shoves one arm into the pink sleeve. He struggles to get his arm into the other sleeve, but even on his 5’5”, 125 lb. frame, this is an ambitious proposal. Giving up, he lets the jacket drape across one shoulder and, eyeing the kids, singsongs, “I’m going outside for a walk now…” He’s Gulliver in a frock, eliciting a chorus of Lilliputian giggles. A few minutes later, as I’m walking away up the street, I can still hear faint laughter coming from the window.

Telegraph from a sick bed

HAVE A COLD STOP

THROAT ON FIRE BRAIN NOT WORKING STOP

I BLAME GYM GERMS STOP

RAN 8:40S MON AM BEFORE COLD HIT FELT GOOD STOP

NUTRITIONIST SAYS EAT MORE, EARLIER STOP

NO APPETITE NOW – SIGH STOP

BEHIND ON EVERYTHING STOP

MORE SOON STOP

December 11 is Take a Blogger to Lunch Day!

I’m making up this national holiday on the spot! Because I think we bloggers should take the time to a) actually meet in person and b) treat each other to a tasty and nutritious lunch.

On December 11 I will be meeting up with Pigtails Flying (whom I feel lucky to now count as a flesh and blood friend, but who started out as a “virtual friend” in the most tenuous and potentially useless sense of the term) and, dammit, I’ve decided that I’m going to treat her to lunch. Because I like her and would like to show my appreciation in this way.

December 11th’s a good day for this, incidentally, because that’s also National Noodle Ring Day. Just one of hundreds of bizarre American holidays.

Let’s all make the blogging world a friendlier, realer and more delicious place. What fellow blogger will you take to lunch next month?

Okay, okay, I’ll consult with an expert

I posted recently about how I’ve stopped weighing myself. Many moons ago, I posted about being a fat, fast runner. I thought I could live with my situation, but I’ve decided I can’t. Why? Because over the past month I’ve put on a ton of muscle from the increased frequency (and loads) of weight work, and also from all the pool running. But, as per usual, I have lost little to no fat in the process.

Don’t get me wrong. I am more or less happy with the way I look. Although now my clothes are starting not to fit anymore, which was the catalyst for doing a Google search. I’m actually getting bigger. I now have both fat and muscular bulk to contend with. You know what people say about not worrying that if you’re a woman you’ll bulk up when you do resistance training? Well, I’m bulking up.

I will be going to see a woman with lots of degrees who specializes in working with endurance athletes. She’s a triathlete herself. At least in our initial emails, I gather that the issue may not be one of “calories in vs. out” but rather “what kinds of calories and when.” Her fees are not outrageous. Her CV is impressive. It’s worth it to me to find out if I’m just metabolically screwed by nature of my genes or if I can actually do something about this situation. At the very least, going to see her for a few months will be cheaper than buying an entire new wardrobe.

Random bloviations

Here’s my version of a Larry King column. Heavy on personal pronouns, inanity and randomness.

I use my Exogen 4000 bone stimulator daily. Sometimes twice a day. Is it working? I have no idea. Did you know these expensive devices only have about 170 uses? Then their internal battery goes dead. The maker claims you can’t replace or recharge the battery. Yeah. Right. Another four thousand dollars, please. I know we’re a capitalist country. But, honestly, we do take it too far sometimes.

I am also taking a product called Bone Up, a calcium supplement that’s full of Australian bovine something or other. It’s in the kitchen and I’m too comfortable at the moment to get up and go look at the bottle. It was recommended to me by a woman who has had many stress fractures. She says it works. I believe her.

I actually like this season’s Dexter. I didn’t like the last season, which felt like the writers were treading water with the character. This time around Dexter gets a quasi-girlfriend who may also have serial killer leanings (at the very least she is a victim turned vigilante), causing him to get sloppy with his protocol. That’s a plot development that rocks. I would not have thought of that. Also, Peter Weller is great in his role as scummy, bottom feeding private investigator.

I am also enjoying The Walking Dead, our first-ever zombie television series. I just call it The Zombie Show. I am still on the premiere episode, because not only am I too tired or too busy (or too asleep) to watch television most evenings, but also because Jonathan is not a big fan of the zombie genre. It’s a little hackneyed, but the cinematography is notably good and I appreciate the acting performance by the semi-aware-but-nonetheless-completely-zombified wife of one of the characters. That’s an acting challenge. The makeup and special effects are excellent too.

So my evenings are full of enjoyable violence.

I did the first of my two planned Big Name Runner interviews over the weekend. I know the article I want to write and how I will write it. I am determined to get this finished this week, although as usual my “pays the bills” work takes precedence and is heating up lately.

The nice thing about having a blog is that even if I can’t interest any of the usual outlets in paying me for it, I can just publish it here and I’ll be almost as happy with that. I’ll be surprised if no one wants it, but stranger things have happened. In general, I have quickly learned that it’s difficult to impossible to make a living just doing freelance running journalism. The fact that I’m not trying to means I can do the work I do in this area on my own terms. I’m still having fun with it.

I may get a chance to try out an Alter-G treadmill somewhere in Harlem soon. That should be interesting and educational.

I’m planning a trip to Switzerland at some point next year. It will probably be sometime later in the summer. We went there in 2007 and I’ve missed it ever since. The exchange rate is terrible, but there’s nothing I can do about that. Life is short. I want to go back to Zermatt, where a strained medialis prevented me from hiking up to the base of the Matterhorn. I also enjoyed Pontresina, the lower-key (and cheaper) sister town to St. Moritz. And, of course, the Jungfrau region, although I think this time we’ll stay on the Grindelwald/Wengen side, whereas last time we were in Murren.

Longer term, I’m figuring out where to go for my 50th birthday. Much as I would love to go somewhere weird and totally new to me, like Japan, or exotically third-world, like Indonesia, I think it’s going to be Norway. I guess I’m getting old, but I want a reliably civilized experience featuring a Western culture that I can somewhat relate to. There needs to be good beer and cheese involved too. I know it’s a few years off. But I like to plan.

Also, is it just me, or is anyone else annoyed by Haile’s petulant retirement announcement, followed by cooler headed reversal — which in the process eclipsed every other New York Marathon story? Everyone knew he didn’t mean it. Now. Do you remember who won the men’s and women’s races? You had to think about it for a moment, didn’t you?

Why I’ve truly stopped tracking my weight

Longtime readers know that I have had an extended battle with the scale, my pants and race photographers over the issue of my weight. Or, more specifically, how much fat I carry and how it affects my ability to run fast. Here, for example, is a post from nearly two years ago in which, after a couple of years of calorie counting and restriction, and obsessive-compulsive tracking of my weight (Tanita) and body fat (Omron) readings, I had made no progress and decided it was pointless to keep caring. A check of my thyroid showed nothing unusual there, so my failure to lose (as it were) was obviously my fault somehow; or that of my ancestors. But according to at least one nutritionist runner, I shouldn’t concern myself with it.

That message stuck for awhile, but in the spring of this year, aware of my lack of progress in pushing my paces and race times downward, I looked for answers in the gravitational realm once again. Out came the evil twins, Tanita and her moronic brother, Omron, as well as my demented spreadsheets (which included colorful charts of my total lack of progress). Also, over the summer I acquired an Apple iTouch and among the universe of “apps” found something called Tap and Track, which would enable me to record every moment of energy expenditure and every morsel that passed my lips.

I dutifully tracked everything. I made adjustments over weeks, increasing calories slightly, or decreasing them slightly to drastically. I teetotaled for weeks. Or drank with wild abandon. Nothing happened. I began wondering if I might be the first person in the history of eating disorders to experience no change in weight.

During this time I’d started training with Sandra and, while the workouts were hard, the mileage was about what I’d been doing since January, or around 50 mpw, with very little cross-training. Then I got injured in August and could do nothing but limp and complain for about three weeks. I was not exercising at all, so I lightened up on what I was eating to compensate. I ate lots of cabbage and non-fat yogurt. I gained just over three pounds in those three weeks.

In early September I started cross-training and over a few weeks built up to what is now a steady weekly helping of hard work, with a day off about every 8-10 days or so. I kept up my compulsive taking and recording of readings. My weight did not change. My pants even got tighter for the first few weeks, which was quite discouraging indeed. In disgust, I sent Omron back to his dungeon under the bathroom sink and stopped stepping on Tanita every morning. I ate when I was hungry (about every 2 hours), stuck with reasonable foods (I haven’t eaten junk in years) and kept alcohol intake to a minimum most nights. But I stopped keeping score on the iTouch.

Then I started to notice things. Glimpses of shoulder muscles rippling beneath the fat. My arms had a nice, inward curve where triceps meet lats. I could see the adductor muscle that is giving me so much trouble. And veins. I had veins. My blouses were getting tighter, yet, paradoxically, I had obviously lost back fat. One day, getting dressed, I flexed my back and shoulder muscles for Jonathan and asked if he noticed a difference that would explain the shirt problem. “Do that again,” he said, a little stunned. Yeah, I had muscles alright. I think the weight training and spinning have helped my lower body, while I mostly credit the pool running for my upper body development.

Finally, my pants are loosening up, despite my emerging Incredible Bulk physique. But I think I will need new shirts. I still won’t weigh myself. But for shits and giggles I did some Omron readings over the past few days and they were consistently about 2% below the ones I got earlier in the summer.

I will probably always carry considerably more fat than your typical skinny bitch marathoner. But at least I’m learning it’s possible for me to lose some of it. Best of all, I’m saving so much time now that I’ve deinstalled Tap and Track.

A few minutes with Shannon Rowbury

Shannon Rowbury, 26, is one of the better known American middle distancers. You’ll mostly see her running the 1500 (where she placed 7th in the 2008 Beijing Olympics) or the mile; although she’s done well at the 3000 (winning the National Indoor Championships at that distance in 2008) and 5000 distances too, as well as the 800. Personal records of note include: 2:00.47 for the 800, 4:00.33 for the 1500 and 4:20.34 for the mile. I hired my former coach, Kevin Beck, partially on the basis of a 2008 Running Times article he wrote about Rowbury (and her then teammates Erin Donohue and Shalane Flanagan). I figured anyone who could connect that well with his article subjects and write as intelligently as he did about them and about running would probably be a good person to work with as a coach too. Kevin has described Rowbury as a “sweetheart” — and she is. I enjoyed talking with her about her running and other things — and even received the bonus of getting some injury advice from a real, live Olympian.

On your blog, maybe about a year and a half ago, you had a couple of posts — they were kind of poignant — about the difficulty of adhering to drug testing requirements? Has anything improved since then?
After I’d made those posts, and there was some talk about that problem, the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) came out with a list of “suggested” supplements. There’s still a lot of work to do. They still say to use things at your own discretion. But they said, “These are some things that are a little bit more…”

It was crazy, because they were saying “You can use this kind of Midol, but you can’t use that kind”…
Exactly. I felt, and I still feel, that it’s so naive to say, “Just don’t use anything. Don’t take any vitamins. We can’t guarantee that any of them are good. You can get everything from your food.” I wish that were true. There have been times when I’ve tried to do that. But when you’re training five or six hours a day, when you’re trying to get a workout every other day — you’re asking your body to do these things that are somewhat unhuman, and then expecting that you can eat a good sized salad to get all the vitamins that you need. It’s just not practical.

Would you ever want to get involved in influencing the drug testing policies to make them a little more doable for runners?
My goal when I finish running is I’d love to be involved with the sport in another capacity. Taking what I’ve learned and taking my experiences and trying to help future athletes to have better opportunities and a better situation. Because I think it’s so important for the athletes who’ve lived through it to then go on to share their experiences and help shape the direction that the sports heads in. So I’m hopeful.

You’re kind of already involved now in that way with the Bay Area Track Club. What are you practically contributing to that club?
For the club right now I’m involved with David Torrence, Magdalena Lewy-Boulet, Bolota Asmerom, Tony Kauke and Crosby Freeman. We’re the founder’s committee, if you will. So we meet to talk about what we want to do with the BATC and what direction we want to head in. For me, specifically, I manage the blog that we have for the website. We’ve also got a cross country race that we’re putting on. So I’ll get on different committees we create to try and help with specific projects. But across the board the six of us are just doing whatever we need to do to make things happen. We’ve been around for a little bit more than a year now, but all of us are still working for free because we’re passionate [about it]. So if something needs to be done, it’s like, “Okay! I’ve got the time! I’ll do it!”

Do you ever get sick of wearing the same Nike racing kit? Are you ever tempted to “customize” it?
[Laughs] You know, I don’t get sick of wearing the same thing. I’m a product of the “uniform system” growing up, from elementary school, and I kind of liked the consistency. “This is what I wear.” But I do wish — and I have shared this with some other friends — I think it would be really cool if the Nike athletes could ID their uniforms. Because in, like, the women’s 1500, in a field of 20 athletes, 15 will be wearing the same exact uniform.

Right. Sometimes you can’t actually pick out the individual athletes.
Yeah. Nike already has the Nike ID set up for shoes. I wish they would have, maybe, a small color scheme of, say, five colors that are allowed and then let each athlete go in and ID their uniform the way that they wanted. That would be cool. And then I’d wear that all the time.

This one is from my friend Joe: Have you ever finished a workout and thought, “I should really go back to stepdancing.”?
[Laughs] Sometimes I do think that after some of those monotonous, really boring workouts. I think, “It would be so fun to be dancing again.” You get to learn a routine and have music, and it’s so energetic and lively. So there are times when I miss that creative aspect. But not so much from workouts where I’ve been so trashed that I didn’t want to run anymore. Usually after that I just go home and melt into my bed.

You struggled with injury a few years ago. What were the details of that?
I was diagnosed in April of 2007 with a stress fracture in my left femoral neck.

Hmm. What were your symptoms?
It first started with tightness on the side of my hip. Then it went back into the glute. Then, with that kind of injury, you’ll feel it in your groin, kind of in your adductor.

That’s what I have…
Uh, oh.

I have an injury and I’m convinced that’s what it is. It’s been seven weeks, so I think it’s healing.
I would suggest getting some really good massages and chiropractic work — when I was diagnosed I started getting that twice a week, every week, for, like, three months. In order for me to even get that injury in the first place, all my muscles had just gotten so knotted up and were misfiring. So one of the biggest things for me was getting everything back in alignment so that, once I was healed, I wouldn’t have that same bad pattern.

How long were you unable to run?
After six weeks I started running on an Alter-G treadmill. It was about three months until I ran on the ground.

Did you do any other cross-training during that time?
Yes. I first did swimming, then biking and then elliptical/Alter-G — my doctor kind of saw them as synonymous. That was mainly it. Primarily either bike workouts or Alter-G.

Did you do speedwork equivalents when you were doing elliptical or just steady paces?
I did do workouts. The pool, not so much — it’s more for recovery, like jogging. For the bike, I would do interval workouts there that were harder than some of my running workouts. And then on Alter-G I would do uptempo stuff. The highest intensity work was on the bike, just because there wasn’t the impact or the danger of reinjury.

Did you have trouble accepting the injury mentally?
It was weird, because I’d had a period from late February into March where I was injured and unable to run “right,” but was being told by my trainer that it was just tendonitis or something. So I should be able to run, but I couldn’t. So once I was diagnosed it was actually a relief. “Okay, I’m not crazy. I’m not a wimp.” So once I had that diagnosis and a plan of attack, I was so focused on getting healthy. It never crossed my mind that I wouldn’t be running again, that I wouldn’t be back by the fall, training. So I just powered forward — cautiously — but kept making progress in small steps.

Did you feel that you lost any fitness, or did the cross-training help you maintain — or even gain — fitness?
It was one of the best things that could have ever happened to me. It was extremely hard emotionally. But it gave me a separation from college. It pushed me towards my new coach. It forced me to sit down and study where my weaknesses were biomechanically and across the board — and really fix all of those problems. It really set the foundation from which I could move forward in my professional career. Maybe I lost a little bit of fitness base from not running for that many months. But I think I gained general strength that I’d never had before.

A lot of the European races this year were ridiculously crowded.
Yes.

I’m curious to know how you deal mentally and strategically with a race of, say, 20 people vs. something more manageable in size.
It is a little bit frustrating. It’s crazy, the difference that even three extra athletes can make. That being said, I have no control over the entries in a race, so when it is a really packed field, I just try and do my best to get out, get into a good position, and just be very aware of what’s going on. I fell once at Worlds last year, which was more of a trip than a stumble. I think my dancing background helps me stay on me feet. I try to just defend my space and get myself into a good, clear position. Also, I think it’s important to be relaxed when you’re in these big crowds. Because if you start getting frantic, then that’s when falls happen, that’s when you get into trouble. So I usually just try to “go to a Zen space” or something [Laughs].

It seems like a lot can go wrong very quickly at those speeds.
There were falls in multiple races this year. It definitely was not a clean season. It was frustrating with the 1500. I would always get so jealous of the men’s races because they would have David Krummenacker perfectly pacing every single 1500 that was raced. [In our races] every single rabbit would go out in 61 and then run 66 for the second lap or something. So, it was kind of challenging for that race to have a good one. But it’s good practice, because the Championship races are always tactical, so getting better and better at that [is important]. And you can really only get good at that through practice.

And they’re rough races sometimes.
Yeah, they’re also good practice for that. I try to, in general, be a nice, friendly person. But the more I get into these tactical races, the more I can get good at just defending my space. Not being a jerk, not being aggressive just to be aggressive — but learning how to keep other people from taking advantage of me. As I’ve gotten more adjusted to it, I think I’ve developed more confidence in myself to not let other people push you around, like when they try to guide you or take over your space. Usually you can see ahead of time if it looks like someone’s going to impede your space, and you can just tap them or make a little noise to let them know that you’re there. But it’s about protecting the little space that you’re in.

Have agents complained to the organizers about the size of the fields?
I think a lot of the field sizes come as a result of the agents. A lot of the agents are pushing to get a dollar or two out of having one or two more of their athletes in a race. They’re hoping to get something from the prize purse. So there’s still some work to be done to figure out how to make these races a little bit more fair in size.

How do you get yourself through really tough workouts?
I remember a workout in Mexico — a tempo run at altitude in the hot sun — where I was making a deal with myself in my own head as I was finishing the workout and feeling exhausted. “Okay, body, just get through this and I will give you a great lunch afterwards, we’ll take an ice bath…” Bizarre, neurotic deals you make with yourself.

It sounds like, from a professional standpoint, you want to stay involved in running once you finish your competitive career.
When I studied film I was really interested in the production aspect of things. Had I not gone into running I think I would have done further schooling to try and get an MFA to work in film production. But because film and running are mutually exclusive, that’s kind of taken a backseat. But I enjoy multimedia and media — and being a distance runner, you’re kind of Type A — I enjoy being involved in a project from many angles. And so I think when I finish with competition [I'd like to] be involved in some sort of role of helping to promote the sport and getting to have a hand in many things.

Do you see yourself as a “behind the scenes” person or someone who’s out front, like a spokesperson?
I could see myself doing either or both. I like the behind the scenes, organization, making things happen [role]. But I also really enjoy getting out and getting to talk to people and hearing from them. That interaction is really important. So ideally I’d get to do a little bit of both.

I know last night you co-hosted a fundraising event by the Young Professionals to raise money for the youth programs that NYRR runs.
It’s a group in their late-twenties to mid-thirties. It was so cool to walk into a fundraising event and see a crowd that was so young — see my peers already starting to “give back.” I think that’s really important and it was really neat to see that.

You seem like a fairly outgoing person. Are you comfortable playing that role? The public aspect of competitive running is something that you wouldn’t necessarily think of when you start out.
You know, I’m excited by it. When I first started — you know, I came from a dancing background, where you had to learn a routine, and then practice it and get it down. In high school and college, we had to do some extra stuff, but it was pretty straightforward [running]. I found it not very stimulating mentally. Once I started with Coach [John] Cook, there were more drills and things like that to work on that I enjoyed. And finally, as I’ve been doing this, to have more opportunities to speak to people, to challenge myself mentally — I fell in love with the sport even more, because the mental aspect comes into it. I feel like I can be doing my career and being a complete person rather than just a runner.

Recipe: Spicy cabbage salad

It’s been about four years since I posted a recipe here. Believe it or not, I do cook and I cook pretty well.

Here’s a salad I’ve been living on for the past few weeks. Since it’s 8,000 degrees here most days, it’s been good to have something you can eat cold.

Spicy Cabbage Salad

Ingredients for the salad:

  • 1 medium-sized red cabbage, diced
  • 1 large red pepper, diced
  • Half a red onion (or one small one), diced
  • Large handful fresh cilantro, chopped fine
  • A quarter cup of roasted, unsalted peanuts, chopped

Ingredients for the dressing:

  • 3 T peanut oil
  • 2 T hoisin sauce
  • 3 T rice wine vinegar
  • 1.5 T garlic pepper sauce
  • 1 T sugar
  • 1 T low salt soy sauce

When shopping for a medium-sized cabbage, look for one that’s about the size of a medium cabagge. Chop up all the fresh stuff. If you hate cilantro you can substitute fresh basil. But you really should make the effort to like cilantro. When I first started eating it, it reminded me of floor cleaner. Then I started to like it. Now I can’t imagine living without it. People can change.

Make the dressing and mix it well so the oil and vinegar are emulsified (now are you impressed?). A tiny whisk is good for this. Failing that, find an old dressing bottle and shake the hell out of it (with the top on).

Throw everything in a bowl, mix it up and let it sit in the fridge for an hour for the flavors to meld. Eat.

Note: If you want to make this a complete meal nutritionally, you can add cooked shrimp, cubed chicken or, if you really hate yourself, tofu.

I don’t know how many calories this has, but it’s not many. This also makes a fabulous side salad with Chicken Gai Yang. Pair with: either a decent India Pale Ale or a Pinot Grigio. Rebels might try a Reisling or Sancerre.

Race Report: Green Mountain Relay (Part 2)

In our last exciting installment, we hadn’t even started racing yet. Well hold onto your Baby Wipes, kids, because this is where the party starts.

Incidentally, did you ever notice that Baby Wipes smell like jelly donuts? We did.

Van 1, being Van 1 (a tautology, to be sure), started first. Since our two co-captains are in the federal witness protection program or something, they don’t wish to be identified, so I will simply refer to them as The Captain and (Toni) Tennille. Toni was our starter. After picking up our bibs and other accessories (and noting that one team had estimated their average pace per mile at 4:30 — I suspect it was the Canadians. Thinking in kilometers, those crazy northerners. I guess their little brains must be frozen!), Toni lined up with three other team starters and we eagerly awaited the official start of our racing adventure.

One other thing I should mention is that it was fucking hot. Probably around 82 at the start. Full sun. And a steady, hot headwind.

Another thing — I’m skipping around, I know — the van parked directly across from ours had a blowup sex doll strapped to the front. At the start, she was perky and upright. But as the race wore on, we would see her again, in various stages of decline. Just a few hours later, she had collapsed, her head suggestively lodged in her own crotch. Still later, she was a shell of her former bloated self, a dessicated, sagging sack of tawdriness long departed.

Okay. Back to the race. Since this is all about me, I’ll just move onto my leg 1. It was classified as “Hard” and consisted of 6.6 miles with around 2.5 going up a steep grade. One section was over a mile straight uphill. It was probably around 86 degrees when I started at 1PM. As typically happens, I started racing and thought, “Well, this isn’t so bad.”

Within a mile, though, it was bad. I’d had plans to run the first leg at between 75-82% to save myself for the other races. Those plans went out the window as I watched my HR shoot up to 95% as I struggled to run 10:00 uphill. The wind had picked up too, around 15mph steady. There was virtually no shade. It was hard. Had I not been acclimated from some other hot races, and getting water every couple of miles, I don’t know that I could have finished the leg at the effort I was running.

A race through Hades.

I kept my HR at 92% average (that’s half marathon effort for me) and was really careful about paying attention to how I felt. One team dropped out after a runner of theirs collapsed, I think on this same leg (someone said it was 6.6 miles on Saturday at around 2PM). That would have put her about an hour behind me. She collapsed, out cold, broke teeth and had to be flown to an ICU. Last we heard, on Monday, she was out of ICU but still in the hospital.

I finished up in 1:00:16 (9:10 pace), a time I was happy with considering the awful conditions. No one passed me, which was about my only goal, other than surviving. Now it was time to wait and see if that effort would destroy my two later races. I had a headache that wouldn’t go away until around 9PM, just an hour before I would run again. My stomach was also iffy, which always happens after a big effort in the heat. I was a little worried. As it turns out, I needn’t have been. But others were not so lucky.

We spent some of our free time at Ben & Jerry’s, although I wasn’t up for ice cream. Unfortunately they don’t run the ice cream factory on the weekend, so it was just us and a zillion other touristas, eating cups and cones of instant diabetes. In a state of semi-delirium I bought Jonathan a tee shirt with cows on it in the gift shop. Then we went and hung out in the post-apocalyptic van transfer zone featured in Part 1. I attempted to sleep, but it was impossible.

At the entrance to the parking area, a local pizzeria had set up a stand, somehow having constructed a brick oven pizza. It looked good, if you could stomach pizza after a day of racing in high heat and sun. The race course ran right by the al fresco pizzeria, about .15 miles before the end of that leg, which means people were sprinting through. As I was people watching and waiting for more runners, one poor guy staggered in and promptly let loose a prodigous offering of projectile vomit mere feet from the pizza stand. He would not stop. “There goes the pizza business,” I thought to myself.

The Ambers.

It was in this particular parking lot that I noticed what we would come to call “The Amber Van.” Team members’ names were written in pastels all over the windows. We’d hoped to see some Tiffanys, Britneys and Ashleys. Where they lacked in bimbo names, they made up in costumery, however. We pegged the woman to the right in the above photo (yellow shoes) as “Amber” and also discussed the distinct possibility that her breasts were, in fact, miracles of science. Their van was parked right next to us and its occupants, in flagrant violation of event rules (and common sense), were splayed out on the pavement, just waiting for another van to flatten them. We declined this invitation, tempting as it was.

We basically mocked every other team within eyesight. I had no idea there were people on this earth who could be as relentlessly and mercilessly critical as I am. I was in good, cruel company.

As the day wore on, I was aware of my own growing sense of filth. I had done the requisite wipe down in the back of the van (and change into my lounging shorts and tee shirt), but there’s really no replacement for a proper shower or bath. I accepted my stank and moved on. I had been forewarned.

We opted out of finding a restaurant for dinner — too much time pressure, and I didn’t really want a full meal sitting on my already delicate stomach anyway. I grazed through the day and evening on safe foods like bananas, bread and crackers.

Soon enough, it was time for leg #2. This was at 10PM at night. Whee! My first experience not only running, but racing, at night. This leg was friendlier, rated “Medium” — an even 4 miles on a slight uphill grade of .05% average. Practically flat. The temperature had dropped into the upper 60s, but now it was really humid. Still, better than what we got in the afternoon.

I started my run and immediately passed a runner from one of the slower teams. For the next few miles, I ran alone. I felt remarkably good considering my oven-running ordeal earlier. The experience of night racing was one of shifting, sensual impressions. I was not really paying attention to pace or distance. Aside from passing cars and race vans (and a few huge tractor trailers, all of whom considerately moved over and gave me room), I was aware of just a few things: the rhythmic slapping of my flats on the pavement, the sounds of dogs barking in the distance and the constellation of gnats illuminated by my headlamp, and which I had initially mistaken for drizzle. I really enjoyed this run.

At the 3.4 mile mark I heard someone approach from behind, what experienced relayers call a “ninja.” She was a younger woman, running 7:20s to my 7:55s. We said hello, noted the humidity and encouraged each other: “Good job.” I tried to stay with her, but couldn’t. That was fine. I was glad for the company for a minute, and she did pull me along for a bit. I was sorry when the run ended. Stats for that one were 4.08 miles (you can’t run the tangents unless you run in traffic; no thanks) in 32:16 (7:55 pace). Average effort for that one was 91%. I simply couldn’t run any harder than that.

I was now exhausted. I wolfed down some bread with semi-frozen Nutella. At 10:30, we still had two more race legs of our set of six to do, then a 40 minute drive to our cheap motel, where I would collapse and sleep the Sleep of the Dead for 90 minutes. But not before taking a shower to wash off the layer of skeev that covered me like cheap vinyl siding on a Neutra.*

Tomorrow: inclement weather, tasteless tee shirts, the best breakfast I’ve ever eaten, singing Kumbaya.

*See, this is why I pull in buckets of money as a writer. I sleep on a golden threaded pillow from my creatively facilitated earnings, people. Note the clever simile, followed by a sophisticated cultural reference that further contains a subtle reference to my age. Fucking brilliant, I tell you.

Race Report: Green Mountain Relay (Part 1)

If you’d told me that spending approximately 55  hours straight with a bunch of strangers — with well over half of those hours crammed into a smelly van — would be the most fun I’d have in quite awhile, I would have told you to go away and stop lying to me.

But it’s all true. I’ve drunk the relay race Kool-Aid. The Green Mountain Relay was a complete and utter gas, and I credit our two team co-captains and my fabulous teammates for that (with a tip of the hat to the race organizers too). Good people all, and pretty damned good runners to boot.

I’m not bragging or anything, but we kicked ass on that course, even in terrible conditions. More on that in a bit. We placed 6th out of 46 teams. 2nd in our division (“mixed” — meaning guys and gals, all ages). We ran our little hearts out, finishing in 25:15:30 for 200 miles. That’s an average pace of 7:40 per mile.

Our adventure began at a car rental place on West 96th Street on Friday morning. Since our 12 would be divided up into two teams of six for most of the trip, we were jumbled up for the ride to Vermont, mixing members of Teams 1 and 2 so we could mingle. I did at least half the driving, since driving staves off carsickness and I figured I may as well contribute while I still had energy.

"Don't get out of the van. Never get out of the van."

Perhaps this is why we managed to miss an early exit, something we noticed only when we saw signs for Plattsburg (“Hey, isn’t that the last town before the Canadian border?”). Luckily (very luckily), there is a ferry to Vermont that goes across Lake Champlain, and it was running every 10 minutes. Crisis averted.

At an early rest area, we were approached by some people from another team. They didn’t seem that organized. We asked them what their team name was and they didn’t even know. Losers. It was easy to spot the other runners because everyone else in the place weighed about 400 lbs.

On the way we stopped somewhere, I don’t know where, for lunch at a pizza place. There we surreptitiously mocked the waitress (who was also the cook, and who may also have been the town whore). And learned a new expression for ordering pizza in Vermont. She cryptically referred to a “four cut” and an “eight cut.” We had no clue what she was saying until she brought out the order. Oh. Okay. Four slices. Eight slices. Then the theory emerged that she was actually crazy and the only person in the world who uses that expression. (I forgot to try it in our Italian restaurant that evening to see if it was a Vermonticism.)

Petrified frog in the parking lot of the La Quinta. It was crushed by someone or something by the time we left.

On the way up we talked about, surprise, running! It’s fun to spend time with people who are similarly obsessed and single minded. Eventually the conversation opened up to other topics, but not for several hours.

In no time we were at our destination, the La Quinta inn of St. Albans, VT. Two members short (they would arrive on a late evening train), we headed out to dinner at our second fine eating establishment. There I had some sort of odd local raspberry beer that I couldn’t decide if I liked or not. It tasted vaguely of shampoo.

Dinner was fun. I was sorry I had to say goodbye to half the table the next morning, at least until we saw them at the first van exchange. So, here’s how a relay works, briefly: On a 12 person team, you’ve got two vans. Each van runs six “legs” of the race, and then the next van takes over and they run their races. In the meantime, the non-running van attempts to rest and recuperate.

This cycle plays out three times. Every six races, the vans meet up at a transfer point and exchange the “baton” (a rubber wrist band that team members pass to one another from leg to leg) and the running stopwatch and sheet upon which everyone’s times are recorded.

Teams start at different times, according to projections made that are based on the members’ 10K times. So slower teams start very early in the morning (like at 4AM or something) and faster teams start later. The goal is to have everyone come in within several hours of each other so we can all have burgers and potatoes and sing Kumbaya together. We started at 10:30AM with a handful of other teams.

A transfer point. Nice, huh?

The transfer points are big, because all the vans meet up. With 46 teams, that’s a lot of vans. As the race progresses, people are more and more exhausted and between the crappy parking lots, filthy vans and runners strewn on the ground trying to sleep, it’s positively post-apocalyptic. As you can well imagine, this was quite the thrill for me. It was like being in a real, live zombie movie!

Tomorrow: dangerous heat, Ben & Jerry’s, acceptance of filth, Puke-a-palooza, the magic of racing in the dark.

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