They say it’s spring

With apologies to Blossom Dearie.

The hunt is on for a spring marathon. Not just a “spring” marathon, but a marathon that takes place sometime between the dates of April 1 and May 1. Before that is too early and after that is not workable for reasons of familial commitments. So, okay, an April marathon. And not just any April marathon. It has to be within reasonable distance of my home (I’ll fly, but not across the country again), be located within the continental US, and not feature insanely unpredictable weather. And not be in danger of being cancelled or moved at the last minute (see also Olathe Marathon, shown below anyway) for weather or other reasons.

Here are my candidates along with the basic pros and cons based on doing research on MarathonGuide.com and Kayak.com. I know there are lots of other marathons listed for April on the MarathonGuide site, but I rejected many of them because they were at high altitude, or trail (meaning non-paved/technical/mountainous) races, or were just too far away from anything to get to easily. In the case of the Kentucky Derby Festival Marathon, a local Louisville runner whose opinion I respect said on Facebook, simply: “Total shit. Stay far away.” (Actually, she originally said, thanks to the wonders of auto-complete, “Tot shit,” but I knew what she meant.)

I’m not looking for the perfect race. But I am trying to avoid an expensive, arduous and time-consuming waking nightmare if at all possible.

Please don’t suggest anything in May or June, much as you’ll be tempted to! Those months are just not doable this year. The ones in bold are the races I’m favoring. Yeah. Two races.

Thoughts? Discuss among yourselves.

April 3
Covenant Health Knoxville Marathon
Knoxville, TN
Pros: small (500 people), fairly easy to fly to (although others are easier)
Cons: hilly, weather can be dreadfull (wind, rain)

April 9
State Farm Charlottesville Marathon
Charlottesville, VA
Pros: small (500 people), predictable weather, fairly easy to fly to
Cons: 1600 total climb, reports of bad on-course support

April 9
Garden Spot Village Marathon
New Holland, PA
Pros: very small (250 people), can drive there
Cons: two enormous PR-killing hills, don’t even trust April for weather in PA

April 10
GO! St. Louis Marathon
St. Louis, MO
Pros: larger/more established (2000 for the full), course is challenging but not horribly so
Cons: direct/quick flights, easy to get around

April 16
The OZ Marathon
Olathe, KS
Pros: small (300 people), flat, direct flights to Kansas City then just a half hour drive
Cons: got moved back a week in 2009 due to weather, lots of course issues: roads not closed, bikepath crowded, end of race clogged with half marathoners and walkers

April 17
Earth Day Marathon
Gambier, OH
Pros: small (400 people), fairly flat but for one hill
Cons: could be hot, can fly there but then need to drive for 1.5 hours

April 17
Glass City Marathon
Toledo, OH
Pros: small (500 people), flat, not terrible to get to (fly direct to Detroit, then drive an hour)
Cons: could be hot or windy (as it’s right on Lake Erie)

Okay, what have I missed?

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?

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.

Bad trips

I have few television vices. One of them is House Hunters International. I also like the regular House Hunters, but the international edition is usually a lot more entertaining. Moreover, it often triggers memories of various trips I’ve taken to countries featured on the show, or to countries that merely resemble them. There really isn’t much difference among different members of the first-, second- and third-world country sets when you get right down to it.

Here are some highlights:

The Millennial Ass Bar-B-Que. We went to Scotland to celebrate the millennium. Or, rather, we went there to get away from crowds. One, because we don’t like them. Two, because there were such dire predictions of an apocalypse when the clock struck 2000 that we figured better safe than sorry. We rented a house in a town called Applecross. It had the narrowest bathroom I’d ever been in. It was about the width of our kitchen pantry. The owners had put in a wall towel-warmer. These are de rigueur in the UK. Unfortunately, it was opposite the sink. It also could not be turned off. I would frequently exit the tub and then, while drying myself off and admiring myself in the mirror, back into the towel warmer, singeing my rear end in the process. Finally, after a week, I’d conditioned myself not to do this. But by then it was time to leave. We had sherry with the owners, who were a little odd, but nice enough. The highlight that evening was spotting a real pine marten on their porch, and then the debate on the drive home about whether the woman cut her own hair. As for New Year’s, we stepped outside into the pitch black garden and had champagne to the sounds of braying sheep. Then went back inside and watched the London Wheel not work like it was supposed to.

I've actually seen this guy. Isn't it weird, what they did with his hands?

The Moscow Pensioner Survival Extravaganza. In the late 1990s my father and stepmother were finishing out their journalism careers in Russia. They invited us over and, well, it was Russia. I didn’t exactly want to go there. But how could I pass up the opportunity to do so? So, after four (count them: four) trips to the Russian Embassy in Manhattan, we finally secured the necessary paperwork to get into that Godforsaken country. The first thing I noticed when we got there was that none of the cars had hubcaps. Everything in Russia that isn’t nailed down gets stolen, including hubcaps. Also, the whole country is a hazard zone. Gaping holes in sidewalks, pieces of metal jutting out of unexpected places, buildings (inhabited ones) that look like the abandoned house in The Blair Witch Project — it was a total mess. But the best feature was the incredibly wide avenues. These were built to accomodate phalanxes of tanks three and four wide. They had stoplights that gave pedestrians about 20 seconds to get across at least 50 meters of crosswalk, behind which sat crazed Lada drivers, half of them drunk on bootleg vodka, ready to take off like it was Nascar. Among them were ancient pensioner women, all in black and barely able to walk. They’d get the green light, start madly hobbling — and barely make it. We went to see Lenin too. He was preserved under what looked like a McDonald’s fry warmer. He looked like a stuffed sausage. It was hard not to gawk, but it seemed rude to linger for more than about five seconds, much as I wanted to stay. I could write lots more about Russia. But I’ll move on.

The Grand Cayman Tourist Trap and Burn-O-Rama. In 1993 I got the bright idea that we should learn to scuba dive. I did research and learned that Grand Cayman was a good place to get your PADI license — then go on to Cayman Brac (a strip of an island with incredible coral reefs) for the good diving. We went to Grand Cayman and spent a week in intensive training in a pool and, by some miracle, both passed the open water tests. Then we had a day to kill before moving on to Brac. First, Jonathan got a sunburn in about five minutes walking across a parking lot without having put on suntan lotion. The sun is really strong down there. (Something about the equator and the sun in September; I don’t know, I didn’t really pay attention in those classes.) Then we decided to take an “island tour.” This consisted of us driving around with a guy in minivan and stopping at anyplace where he thought we’d spend money. Finally, frustrated, we said, “Look. We’re not going to buy anything. Show us something interesting.” So we went to the turtle farm and then to the volcanic rock formations.

The Unfortunate Yachting Trip. A few years ago we went to Switzerland for two weeks to hike. Then, the following week, we met up with Jonathan’s brother and his husband (Yeah, you can do that sort of thing in the UK! They are so much more advanced than we are. They have candy machines in the subway too, which probably explains a lot about British teeth.) for a pleasure cruise down Holland’s canals in their yacht. Mind you, it’s not a big yacht. But any boat seems big in those canals. And any yacht is, by definition, expensive. Jonathan and I have no sailing experience. Rob and Phil showed us how to tie some basic knots, how to use “bumpers” (those floatie things that hang off the side of the boat — they look a bit like Lenin, come to think of it), and what the long pointy sticks were for (repelling the boat away from destructive objects, like big walls). And we were off! This was one of the most stressful trips of my life — a week spent trying not to destroy someone else’s investment. One day we went through 13 locks. I drank heavily every evening to recover. There was nothing else to do in the evenings but sit on the boat and stare at each other through a haze of exhaustion. Highlights were Gouda, Anne Frank’s hideout and, well, drinking a lot in the evenings.

Lots of good stuff

So things are a little nuts.

I just started a sizeable corporate writing job, although I capped it at 20 hours a week. It runs through New Year’s Eve. Whee! If I gave you the description of the project, you’d probably wonder why I haven’t shot myself in the face by now. But in fact, it’s just the sort of project that appeals to me. I will be making real improvements to a big mess and the work taps into some of my obsessive-compulsive content strategist skills. I’m even getting to do a little on-the-fly usability work.

I’m putting the finishing touches on my second article for Running Times, the subject of which is “what do race participants want from their race directors?” Sound familiar? Yes, there was a reason behind that survey. To round things out I did some great interviews with directors of races both large and small, along with runner Kim Duclos, of Emerald Nuts Midnight Run gatecrashing fame. Unfortunately, because of tight space considerations, I could only use about 1% of their material. But maybe I’ll use it for something else eventually. That article comes out in December (Jan/Feb issue).

In the meantime, my first paid byline, a portrait of masters Marathon Trials qualifier Tamara Karrh, appears in the November issue, which should be hitting newstands and doorsteps in about two weeks. There is a companion profile for Karrh on Houston Hopefuls. That’s scheduled to autopublish tomorrow (I think — I put it on autopilot for a reason). Now I’m just trying to find the hours to transcribe and publish the latest excellent interview with Chicagoan Julie Wankowski. I may find those hours over the weekend as I…

…jet off to Arizona for a family get together from Saturday through Monday. I’ll have much time in airports and on airplanes. I am also hoping to do some work on the Fifth Avenue Mile elite interviews I did last week. They will take the same structure as my previous “A few minutes with…” pieces. Those seemed to work well and my questions are not tied to the event the runners were here for, so I can take weeks to publish them (much as I hate to). I’ll take this opportunity to say this again: professional runners are delightful people, by and large. They seem to like their jobs and most of them are, I suspect, brighter than the average person. When I find myself sitting there talking to one of them, I still feel like I need to pinch myself.

As far as what you have to look forward to, I had great chats with Shannon Rowbury (who won the women’s race), Leo Manzano, Molly Huddle, Alan Webb and Morgan Uceny. I’ll get those posted eventually. My one mistake with this race was not taking NYRR up on an invitation to sit on the “press truck.” This is a flatbed truck that drives along at the front of the race, outfitted with bleachers, from which gawking members of the press sit rearward, enjoying a panoramic view of the race as it unfolds. Well, that looked like a total gas, if incredibly dangerous. Yeah — like I said: total gas! My hope is that next year I can run in the race myself, go shower at someone’s apartment nearby, then come back and jump on the crazy truck for the elite races.

And there’s more. I’ll be at the finish line (and perhaps also along the course) of the NYC Marathon on November 7th, serving as aide de camp to photographer Stacey Cramp, who’s shooting the event for Running Times. I get a groovy press pass, a nice Asics jacket and entre to a big party on the Friday that kicks off race weekend.

And there may be still more. Later in November, Coach Sandra, who has several parallel careers, is agenting 10 elites from all over the place (people I’ve mostly heard of and, in the case of Adriana Pirtea, met) to a 10K race in her country of origin, the Dominican Republic. I may be able to get comped on travel costs in exchange for doing a writeup. That’s a big “we’ll see” at the moment, but it should be a lot of fun if it happens.

All these developments are almost enough to make me forget that these days I am a runner in theory only. But not quite. It’s been seven weeks since I’ve gone running. Since my insurance sucks, meaning my stratospheric deductibles require that I  pay out of pocket for things like MRIs and bone scans, I am going on the assumption that a stress fracture is what ails me and will take another 4-5 weeks off (or, rather, spend another month doing insane cross-training only and not running at all). Then I’ll try a run. It will have been three months by then. If I’m still in pain, I’ll bite the bullet and shell out the thousands required to look inside myself.

This was a long-winded way of saying that things might quiet down on this blog. But only because my offline life has gotten considerably more noisy.

Except for the running injury, everything else that’s happened is exactly the sort of thing I wanted to happen when I jumped ship from my corporate gig over the summer. Let’s hear it for leaps of faith.

Green Mountain Relay: Art Shots

Upon arriving in St. Albans, VT last Friday, I wandered around and snapped some photos of the local high school across the street. Some of my teammates were running. Crazy kids.

Race Report: Green Mountain Relay (Part 3)

In our last installment, I had showered and passed out with my two female vanmates in a cheap motel somewhere in Vermont at around 1:30 in the morning. I had my trusty Lunesta with me, but was hesitant about taking it. The stuff has a half life of about 4 hours, usually. But my internal clock was now so messed up that I wondered if it would compound my cumulative exhaustion the following morning. Yet, despite being tired, I realized while stepping out of the shower that my brain was still going. I took my chances and swallowed the blue pill.

About two hours later, the alarm went off. Wow. Was it hard to get up off that bed. Even more difficult was getting my head around the reality that I would be racing again in two hours. In the dead of night, we shoved ourselves back into the van and off we went to the next transfer point.

I don’t even remember what our start area looked like or any of the interactions with the other van’s team. My memory of those two hours is totally gone, if it was ever recorded. I must have eaten something, but I don’t remember what. In fact, I don’t even remember starting my last leg. My recollection of that race starts at about the .25 mile mark, when I felt some raindrops and thought, rather dimwittedly, “Oh, that’s nice. A little sprinkle to cool me off.”

Rainy days and Sundays always speed me up.

Three minutes later I was running through a downpour. But it was great. My leg was “easy” and under 3 miles. I raced that fucker, rain or no rain. It turned out to be my strongest leg of the three. I had been smart enough to pack my flats with the drainage holes. So the water poured right out as fast as it came in.

In the above photo you see me approaching the one person I would pass in this entire race. That’s The Captain’s hand on the steering wheel. My vanmates would stop to help the guy in front of me (traitors) — he was running with an iPod in the pocket of his basketball shorts and found it uncomfortable. (What is this, the local turkey trot?)

As they pulled away with his iPod, entrusted to return it to him at the next transfer point, they honked and he waved at them. What he didn’t know is that they were honking at me as I approached from behind. He was surprised to see me. We smiled at each other and I said, “I hope you like running in the rain.”

Drying off after 24 hours of racing on fumes.

The rain lasted until I hit the mile 2 mark, after which it quickly eased off to a drizzle. At that point, it was all downhill, less than a mile to go. I managed a 6:55 pace for that one. How delightful. Stats: 2.92 miles in 22:03 (7:33 pace), 94% effort. Thanks, Lunesta!

With that I was done. All that remained was to get changed out of my soaking clothes and wait for food. I needed food. I was starving.

But first, again, our team had two more legs to run. Then we needed to engage in our final transfer of timekeeping accessories and wristband to Van 2. This part is also something of a blur. I vaguely remember talking to Robert and having him tell me that he puked several times while racing the night before. That was also where we saw The Amber Van with Ambers done up in full bird of paradisery.

I also groggily posted a few Facebook updates, since we’d been in a total digital access dead zone for much of the previous day. I can’t use my iPod’s onscreen keyboard with any adeptness normally. This morning, I was a complete spastic. As a result, I ended up accepting one of Apple’s auto-completed words and posted an update that moments later completely mystified me.

“Pikers?” What did I mean by that? I’ve seen Snatch, but that wasn’t what I meant. For over 20 minutes, I wracked my addled, rusty brain. What had I been trying to say?

Teammate Amy finally figured it out, although she was laughing so hard that she could barely get the word out. “Pukers! Pukers!”

Lots of pikers, but not me.

A few moments later, teammate Matt removed his second layer and revealed a very interesting tee shirt. We were, um, impressed.

I remember breakfast because it was probably the best breakfast I’ve ever eaten. I knew what I wanted: protein, carbs and salt. And caffeine. Sure, I had to request a meal with a ridiculous name — the “Cock-A-Doodle-Doo” — a name that didn’t even really make sense, since it was poached eggs over sourdough with lox (later on I realized there was a joke in there: the “Cock-A-Doodle-Jew”), with a side of hash browns. I practically ate my plate.

What a total dick.

Since we were done and our Van 2 teammates were still racing, we had a leisurely breakfast. Once sufficiently stuffed, we waddled back out to the van and made our way to the finish.

I have to say that the finish was a bit anticlimactic. For one thing, it was really hot again. So we sought out shade and loafed, waiting for Van 2 to come in. They arrived around 11:30 (we were over 40 minutes under our predicted time). We all ran to the finish line together and it was time to eat again.

Now, here’s my one criticism of the race organizers (I’m sure there were other lapses, but I was too tired to notice them) — if you’ve got people coming to you for lunch after running for 24-36 hours, you’d damn well better have enough food. There were ultra guys — teams of six (that’s around 35 miles of racing apiece) — coming in.

We lined up for food and I was surprised at how little there was. Worse (but I suppose this was a good thing), we were sternly instructed to only take one item: a burger or a piece of chicken, and one potato, etc. This was just crazy. I’ve seen more food available at the finish of 10 mile races.

We collapsed on the grass, ate our parsimonious portions, and tried to ignore the live bluegrass band. I think everyone had pretty much had it, because we made haste to the vans in order to start the journey home. After a quick transfer of foodstuffs and borrowed equipment, there were hugs all around and we piled back into the van — at least for me, it was with an odd mixture of eagerness and reluctance. Eagerness to get home. Reluctance to get back into the van. Eagerness to get out of the heat. Reluctance to end this crazy trip.

My vanmates

I would be remiss if I didn’t present a portrait of my vanmates.

“The Captain” (who wishes to remain completely anonymous, I suspect because he has a real job) is a still-waters-run-deep kind of guy. I initially thought he was standoffish. Then I revised my assessment to shy. Eventually, I realized he’s just quiet, observant and reflective. He lent a dimension of calm to a group that was otherwise fairly high-energy, verging on hysteria at times. I was glad he was half of the team in charge.

The infamously (and somewhat disturbingly) monkey-armed “Tennille” is Pigtails Flying. I’d met TK a couple of times previously and I knew her to be extremely extroverted and approachable. I’ll even go so far as to say fun loving. TK was a delight to be with and she had a sense of humor about her own tendency to randomly go all Control Freak on us. She is a natural leader and, as with The Captain, I was likewise happy to have her co-running the show. She also sent me (and presumably the other runners) a thank you note — I think she got this backwards — it seems within seconds of returning home. Her mamma raised a girl with manners.

Mike and Matt are identical twins. I found it difficult to tell them apart at times, although I finally figured out that their eyes are slightly different in shape. But I was able to distinguish them primarily by their voices. Mike was also the chattier of the two. I knew Matt already as host of the Dump Runners Club podcast. They frequently talked over each other and were engaged in a constant, seamless comedic exchange that would often crescendo into something that was so funny that it approached a total transcendence of space, time and dreariness.

Finally, there was Amy (“The Flying Finn”), a twentysomething runner, triathlete, soccer goddess and photographer extraordinaire (thanks for the blog snaps). Amy and I met at our GMR drinks meetup last month. I had thought at the time that she was reserved, verging on staid. But I quickly learned that, once put into an environment in which she a) could be heard and b) could be appreciated for her intelligence and wit, she was Ms. Personality (this reminds me of someone I’ve known all my life, but her name escapes me). She does a mean (and I do mean “mean”) Canadian accent and out-raunched and out-snarked all of us. She was also an excellent bedmate.

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.

Plans for the year

Summer and fall race planning is in full swing, with training plans to be built around it. Basically, I want to continue to run shorter races, either as full out efforts or to supplement training as either race pace runs or to substitute for speedwork.

The fall is going to be all about the half marathon. I want to reach the end of 2010 having excelled at this distance. I’ll state now that my goals are lofty: a half by year’s end in the mid-1:20s. If I can run a half marathon at 6:30 pace per mile, I will feel much better equiped to start training for a marathon again.

So the summer’s got a lot of shorter stuff, with opportunities to score some points for the New York Harriers, and run many races I haven’t done before. Then I’ve got at least three half marathons I can run, about a month apart (I don’t count the Bronx Half, since it will probably be incredibly hot; if I do that one at all, I’m betting it will be as a training run).

The goal race for the fall is Richmond, VA. Jonathan may or may not do the full, but it’s a combined race, so we’ll figure it out as we get closer. I have it in the back of my mind that if things go spectacularly well this fall I’ve always got the option of doing the full there instead of the half. I like having options. Jonathan has a grad school friend who lives in St. Mary’s, Maryland, and whom we haven’t seen since (gulp) circa 1991. So we can hit her with a visit either on the way there or back. Long drive. But I’m good at those, my record being 11 hours from here to northern Maine in one day.

I will unfortunately miss Grete’s Great Gallop (a half marathon in Central Park) in early October as I’ll be out of town. That’s one I’d like to race, not only because of the whole Norwegian themed aspect (and a chance to meet Ms. Waitz), but also because it’s a club points scorer and I should not only be in good shape by then, but also in shape to race that distance in particular. But I’ll pencil that race in for 2011.

May
May 31*        Ridgewood, NJ 5K 

June
June 8*        1500 track race, Icahn Stadium
June 12*       NYRR Mini 10K, Central Park, NY (club race)
Jun 19-20*     Green Mountain Relay, VT (approx 15M over
                 three races)

July
July 5         Firecracker 8K, Southampton, NY
July 10        Women's Distance Festival 5K, Rockland
                 County, NY
July 17*       NYRR Run for Central Park 4 miler Central
                 Park, NY (club race)

August
Aug 7*         NYRR Team Championship 5 miler (club
                 championships - double points)
Aug 15         NYRR Bronx Half Marathon

September
Sept 11 or     NYRR Mind, Body, Spirit 4 miler (club race)
Sept 12        South Nyack 10 miler (could go either
                 way between these two on this weekend)
Sept 26*        Jersey City Half Marathon

October
Oct 10 or      Westchester Half Marathon
Oct 17         Bay State Half Marathon

November
Nov 13*        Richmond, VA Half Marathon

December
Dec 5*         NYRR Joe Kleinerman 10K (club race)

*The asterisks indicate that I've prioritized these.
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