Saturday, March 26, 2011

Who's on First?

" A heckuva lot better than being the shortest player in the minor leagues." -
Freddie Patek, Kansas City Royals 5'4" infielder, on how it feels to be the shortest player in the major leagues.

Sometimes when I write this blog, words just flow out of my fingers and when I finish, I look at the post and say "wow, where did that come from?". But, as Satchel Paige once said, "Sometimes I sits and thinks, and sometimes I just sits". So, without a definite theme rattling around in my head, I think I'll just jump in the pool and see what happens.

Last week, at the Oak Mountain 50k, it was Africa-hot, and I have to hand it to the 89 runners that hung in there to the finish. We had about 14 DNF's, but in that heat, I would have expected a bushel load more. Working the dual aid station at miles 14.5 & 26.1, I had a great time being in the middle of it all. I am always amazed and rewarded by how grateful most runners seem to be towards the volunteers during the race. The thank-you's they throw around are so genuine and you both know it has become a team effort - sorta like a NASCAR team of the driver and the pit crew. To give you an idea of what can happen to the best of them in the heat, Vince Molesky came out of the woods in first place at 26.1 miles and looked strong with just 5.8 miles of mostly downhill to go to the finish. SEVENTEEN minutes later, Birmingham's own Owen Bradley emerged at the aid station. We told him how much he was behind. He grabbed some drink and off he went back to the woods seemingly for a 2nd place finish. Well, the Fat Lady hadn't quite burped up her song yet, because Owen caught a rapidly sinking Vince with a half mile to go and won in 5:01! That is incredible to make up that amount of time in less than 6 miles. Congrats Owen.

Speaking of volunteering, let me give you an example of how low my running life has fallen. Now that I know my Boston Marathon qualifying days are over, I decided to volunteer for this year's race. After all, all of the race volunteers get neat jackets FREE, and if there's one thing I definitely need, it's more gear. So I wrote the Volunteer Director an email, explained that I was from out-of-state, but had run the race 5 times and would now like to "give back" (like the jacket had nothing to do with it!). Yeah, c'mon, just fill out the online form and thanks for volunteering. I put the finish line as where I wanted to work, picturing myself putting a mylar blanket around Shalane Flannigan or Kara Goucher!!! Well, here's a kick in the pants - yesterday I got a letter from the BAA that said they had more volunteer applications than they had slots...thanks for your interest...try again next year...see ya!! Not only can I not qualify to run the race, I can't even qualify to be a frickin' volunteer!! Holy Crow. I used to be somebody. I was having flashbacks to some of my college rejection letters. Oh well, guess I can't be too sad - I'm still visiting my family in Boston, will get to run the morning of the race, then walk the half mile or so from my son's house to the 23 mile mark and yell at Ken to get his butt in gear, stop whining, and get to the finish line before the third wave catches him.

This week begins baseball season. Although it is something very special to me, here in the southeastern portion of the US, baseball season is just a filler between Spring Football and Fall Football. I don't outwardly argue that's bigger than all of us...but it makes me sad to see that, just like all other sports, baseball has been reduced to a pure business, much more than a game. We don't root for players anymore, we root for the shirts that the faceless players wear. But, as clear as yesterday, I remember a day in probably 1955 or 1956, that my father took me to my first baseball game at New York's Polo Grounds, home of his beloved Giants. As we walked through the concourse towards the entrance to our section, I was almost hyperventilating with excitement. When we emerged into the sunlight and could see the field below, I still remember vividly how incredibly green the grass was. And I remember the sharp contrast of the uniforms of the team the Giants were playing because they were lined with a brilliant red - the Cardinals? The Reds? The Phillies? Don't remember that. For a short period, every season renews that excitement and those memories of days way gone past. I don't love baseball like I did back then, but I sure do love to think about when I did. Play ball!

Talk about an athlete. While running this morning, I was listening to a podcast (yes, when I run alone, I'm plugged in...except on the trail) that reported that Lance Armstrong was seriously considering doing the Hawaii Ironman this October. Supposedly, he's swimming times that would place him in the top 10-12, obviously the biking leg wouldn't be a problem (really??), and he has Alberto Salazar coaching his running. He's told Alberto that if he can get his marathon time down to 2:30 without that swimming and biking stuff, he thinks he could do a 2:50 in Kona! You gotta love it. I do.

Ok folks, that's about it for jumping around this week. Not much substance, but thanks for sticking with me during my blogger's block. I intentionally didn't mention the current state of my basketball bracket, but I honestly believe a blind monkey throwing darts at a blank bracket would be doing better than me. Hope you all have a great week and I'll see you on the roads - AL

"One child lost is too child saved can change the world"

Friday, March 18, 2011

A Day In The Park

"One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time." - Andre Gide

A few years ago, due to nursing balky ankles, I reluctantly broke my streak of running our local Oak Mountain 50K Trail Run at 7 years, and to be sure I didn't get any late, crazy thoughts, I volunteered to work it. Despite twangs of pain at not actually running, I loved being in the middle of it all and being able to assist my fellow ultrarunners complete their goals, and I've wound up volunteering at the race for the past 4 years. You know, we as runners are excellent folks to be volunteering because we understand what the runners are thinking, or just acknowledging the fact that they might not be thinking too clearly at all, and because of that, we can make their run much more enjoyable and improving the chances of them reaching the finish line that much more attainable. When a runner comes staggering out of the woods at 25 miles and I ask, "what can I get you?" and he just stares blankly at me, I know I better take charge and tell Mr Fatigue what he needs...get some shade, drink some sugar, eat some carbs, pray to St Christopher, etc - and make sure he doesn't sit too long if he wants to finish - BEWARE THE CHAIR!! By having been on the other end of the "What do you need?" scenario, I know how invaluable a knowledgeable volunteer can be. You have to recognize which runners are well in control of their race and let them dictate EXACTLY what they want - no friendly recommendations needed or wanted from this runner. It's helping the middle to back-of-the-pack runner that makes volunteering so rewarding. They say a good referee should just about be invisible, and I guess that's how it should be for a race volunteer - the runner should only have to worry about running.

When we run a race (it doesn't matter what length), we have this mindset that everything just magically appears - registration, aid stations, drinks, course markings, police, finish line timers, etc, but you really need to volunteer to get a feel of all the "behind-the-scenes" activity that takes place. You'll be surprised how all those aid stations get stocked, how all the course markings find their way to the right place, or how all the trash magically disappears. It's hard work done well before the race begins and unfinished till long after the last finisher crosses the line.

I'm writing this post on Friday night and tomorrow is this year's edition of the Oak Mountain 50k. The prediction is for close to 80 degrees. Not a good thing. The runners will run and want to finish, sometimes at the expense of better judgment. Having been in many hot marathons and ultras, I know how the mind can play tricks and muck up a sound decision making process. However, because of this, I also know what signs to look for in a runner that's in trouble and will do all I can to be sure this runner does no harm to himself. My ultra role has changed, but through volunteering, I still have a strong connection to the ultra band of runners. If you want to volunteer for a race, just give the race director a call and I'm sure he'll snap you up (with a big smile).

OK, so in addition to the Oak Mountain 50k going on, March Madness has begun and I'm watching basketball for purely entertainment purposes only. My bracket, which two days ago seemed to be perfect when I set it up, now resembles something from a new movie called "The Anti-Bracket". It looks like some hillbilly took a shotgun to it and blasted holes in it. I'm now asking myself if I really understood that the object was to pick the WINNERS of the games, and not the losers! Guess I'll just sit back and hope one of these little schools can keep it interesting and knock off some of the fat cat schools along the way. I'm still not sure what game my UAB Blazers were playing the other night (they certainly didn't know either!!). I guess one and out is better than zero and out.

One last, sad note this week. The Birmingham running community has lost one of it's pillars from the formative days. Bill Gates was a good friend of mine back in the old days of the 70's. He was a stellar track runner in High School and at Livingston University, but to all of us that ran with him, Bill was crazy, amazingly funny, always laughing, but most of all, he was one of those folks that you could count on as a true, genuine friend. And man, what a runner. One weekend, he ran the Vulcan 10k in 33 minutes and came back the next day and ran the Vulcan Marathon in 2:36! He was the first person I knew to run 50 miles in a race - how could anyone go THAT far? Every year, Bill would volunteer at the top of Peavine Falls for the July 4th race. After you'd climb for close to 4 miles, Bill would be there laughing and handing out water, encouraging you to begin your 4 mile descent. On a personal note, I feel good knowing that tomorrow, I will be volunteering at exactly that same spot during the 50K. We'll miss you Bill.

Hope you all have a great weekend, and I'll see you on the roads - AL

"One child lost is too child saved can change the world"

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Long Road Not Taken

"When you think far, think really far" - the quote on my Road ID that I wear on EVERY run

Everyone has fantasies. No, not that kind of fantasy. I mean the kind that comes across your mind every once in a while, and you say "I know it's impossible, but I'd like to try that". It is something that's on the outer fringes of reality. Climb Mt. Everest, swim the English Channel, travel the world, train to be an astronaut. You know, it's there,but it's not really. It's not some wild-hair crazy out-of-universe idea, just one that a lot of "ifs & buts" get in the way.

Back when I was piling on the mileage, one of my fantasies was to run across America. I had no idea how I would do it. I had a job and a family, but the fascination has always been there as long as I've been a runner. When I worked at Cooper Green Hospital back in the 70's, I had a big map of the United States over my desk. At the beginning of the year, I would put a push pin in Birmingham and another someplace else; Seattle, San Francisco, Maine, etc. Every week, I would add up my weekly mileage and move the pin the appropriate distance towards my goal. I would even check the weather reports for where I "was" to add some more pseudo reality to my journey. Once, I began a 3 year trek around the perimeter of the United States - not sure if I ever finished that one. Back then, I was doing 2500-3000 miles per year, so I could "go" pretty far.

Reading about prodigious endurance events has always intrigued me, and books about running across America twangs a special string. About 20-25 years ago, I bought a book titled "Meditations From The Breakdown Lane: Running Across America" by James Shapiro. With a few maps and some clothes stuffed into a backpack, he covered 3086 miles from Dillon Beach, California to New York City in 80 days. That's an average of 37 miles per day. Looking back on it now, with all the "look-at-me" long distance headline grabbers going on seemingly every week, it doesn't carry the HOLY COW punch it did a quarter of a century ago. But, this journey by Mr. Shapiro fit right into my fantasy. He did the whole trip virtually unassisted. There were two stretches out west where it was too far between points of civilization to go it alone, so a support vehicle aided him, but other than that, it was him and the wide open spaces. To me, the book was fascinating and during all my push-pin long distance runs, it served as a fantasy reference book in hopes that one day I could actually plan such a trip. That's part of a fantasy - it's right there on the edge of reality.

Then, few years ago, I was in Huntsville to run the Mt. Mist 50K Trail Run and ran into an old friend, David Horton. David is from Virginia and I first met him a few years back when he would come down for our annual Birmingham Track Club 50 Mile Run. Well, David is a humble ultra-runner extraordinaire and he has performed many long distance feats that place him with the very best in our sport. Along the way, David has lived my fantasy - TWICE! In 1991, he set out to accomplish a new record for the fastest traversing of the entire length of the Appalachian Trail. The old record was 60.5 days to cover the 2144 miles. David ran from Push-pin #1 (Springer Mountain in Georgia) to Push-pin #2 ( Mt Katahdin in Maine) in 52 days, 9 hours, taking a week off the old record! He wrote a book that described his challenge titled "A Quest for Adventure". In it, he describes how he ran over 40 miles per day over very rough terrain to reach his goal, despite having no running partner. My fantasy has nothing to do with speed, but I envy the "here-to-there".

I said David lived my fantasy twice and the Appalachian Trail run was only half of the story, and only half of the book mentioned above. The second half takes us to 1995, when David, obviously having completely forgotten about the pain of the AT adventure, entered the Trans America Footrace. Folks, this is a 2906 mile race from California to New York! They run 64 days in a row, each day consisting of a stage of a set distance, averaging 45 miles! No days off, no whining, no bands at every mile, no nothing except getting up every morning and running another ultramarathon. When it was all said and run, David finished in third place in 449 hours and 26 average of 9:16/mile!

Fantasies, hopes, dreams. They're all out there and they're there for us to deal with individually. James Shapiro and David Horton happened to to have the same running fantasy I had. The difference is they crossed that chasm to reality. Do I feel envious? Of course I do. Do I feel they somehow took a little away from my fantasy? Not in the least. I salute them both, and thank them for writing about their journeys. When I read their books, I can run with them and my unreachable quest has become just a little bit more believable.

Wherever they take you, I'll see you on the roads - AL

"One child lost is too child saved can change the world"

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Outside Lies Magic

"Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go."
- César Chávez

One of the joys of running is that, unlike other hobbies or other physical activities, when you go out of town, you can just put on your running shoes and off you go. Whenever I travel, I always look forward to getting up early the following morning and going for a run to see what I can see and find what I can find. There's no schedule to follow, no pace to run, no watch to keep track of. All I've got to do is go forward and try to remember my way back to the hotel.

As most of you know, I love baseball, so I'll usually see how close the I'm staying to the local ball park. Doesn't matter if it's the major league or the minor league - I just find fascination running around baseball parks. If there's none available, I'll settle for football stadiums, arenas, or college campuses. The "Holy Grail" of the ballpark runs is to find an open gate so I can run inside and see the field. I'm like a kid - "see the field before I get caught". Domed stadiums are the worst - they're never open! I all my trips to see Adam (my grandson) and my family in Boston, I have never penetrated Fenway Park. BUT, the search for the Holy Grail of Holy Grails is far from over!

But most of my "finds" are totally unplanned once read a book titled "Outside Lies Magic" about the loads of sites and sounds most folks never see they're closed up in their cars speeding from place A to place B. The author (John Stilgoe) urges you to walk or cycle to discover a whole new world (or rediscover an old one). Well, Mr. Stilgoe is apparently not a runner, but through running I have "accidentally" run upon some sites and sounds that made me so glad that I am a runner.

Many years ago, I was in Seattle, and early one morning I went through an open gate to what I thought might be a park. There was no one there and after running for a few minutes, I realized I was at the site of the old World's Fair! Just me and these many venues, sculptures, and exhibits. And let's not forget the Space Needle...and me...and nobody else! How cool was that?

In Tennessee, I found myself at a Confederate cemetery. It's humbling to see a hundred tombstones with basically the same dates (birth and death).

In my home state of New Jersey, while I was visiting my sisters, I went out for just an innocent jog, and was suddenly thrust into a sea of memories. I found myself on a street that I had lived on when I was maybe 5 years old and had long forgotten. I had some vague recollections of the area, but running down the road hit me like a 2X4. I found my house, my best friend's house, and places we used to play. Of course, everything was smaller than I remembered it. It was like my own private episode of the Twilight Zone.

In Dallas, I was running by myself early one AM down some solitary road when I was passed by the entire 15 person 7-11 cycling team. Us old cyclists remember the 7-11 team as a pretty big deal in the mid 80's. This was America's Team at the Tour de France and all the big races. I had no idea they were in Dallas training (and they probably had no idea I was in Dallas either!).

In Alaska, I ran the Midnight Sun Marathon and then stayed there for another week. During that week, I would awaken every morning and run down the the beautiful trails (fortunately forgetting there might be bears down these beautiful trails). One morning, I was running down a single track trail next to a stream, and up ahead came two bald eagles flying directly towards me over the water. I just stopped in awe as they flew not more than 10 feet above my head. Just magnificent!

I don't like to run on the beach, but one foggy morning in Oregon, the tide was out and the shore was perfectly flat, hard packed, and 200 yards wide. That was a wonderful 10 miler.

In Victoria, British Columbia, I just happened upon a large stone monument that had etched on it "Transcontinental Highway Mile 0". Visions of running the 3000 miles to the Atlantic enticed me, but I had to get back to the hotel for breakfast.

Bermuda has it's paved-over railroad beds that run the length of the island, Rhode Island has it's 300 year old college campuses, and in New Orleans, the very early morning French Quarter is quite different from the one the average visitor has seen.

Yes, I've been around the block, but thank goodness, a lot of it has been in my running shoes, because truly, Outside Lies Magic. I'll see you on the roads - AL

"One child lost is too child saved can change the world"