Friday, April 29, 2011

What I Think About

"We choose to go to the moon, and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard."
- John F. Kennedy, Sept. 12, 1962

I wish I had a quarter (used to be a nickel, but inflation you know) for every time a non-runner said to me "I can't run because it's so boring". Oh c'mon, it's not're boring! I swear, I have solved every problem in the world several times over during long solo runs, especially on the trail when I don't have to worry about fools in cars enforcing their macho inadequacies by proving to me the roads belong to cars, or whatever that piece of crap is they're driving...can you tell who had an "encounter" lately? I swear, I didn't provoke the insane horn-honking at 6AM on a four-lane.

Anyway, back to the world's problems solved by Al. The real difficulty in coming up with these brilliant solutions is remembering them long enough to write them down. This would be one world singing Kumbaya if I had any reasonable memory. I read a book recently called What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami. It's mostly concerned with his thoughts on the long-distance running he has engaged in for much of his adult life and how running intertwines what shapes him. Can't say it was page turner, as Larry King used to call a good book, but much of it marginally held my moderate interest (how's that for a sterling review?). However, it got me to paying attention to things that I think about when I feel my legs protesting. How often can you do a "body check", or repeat some mantra? Speaking from experience, we ultra-endurance athletes are quite accomplished at not thinking much at all. We block. We zone out. We focus on the future and numb ourselves to the present. We cope. We endure. But, sometimes we have to occupy our minds with SOMETHING, so, here are a couple of things that have tended to spread out my attention and divert the devil of long-distance fatigue.

I used to move around a lot as a child. I don't mean physically move around. I was actually pretty chunky as a kid. I think the pants salesmen would called it "husky". But, we probably moved residences 6-7 times before 9th grade. If I knew what it was back then, I would have thought my family was in Witness Protection. Anyway, during one Ultramarathon, I found myself trying to see how far back I could go to recall the floor plans of the houses I lived in. Sounds pretty dumb, but try it. Picture walking in the front door. What room was on the right, the left, where did the hall go, where was the bathroom, closets. Take a slow walk through your old house. Believe me, during a 50 mile run, you have all the time you need for this. It actually starts to become more detailed. You "see" the furniture, the drapes, out the windows, all the kitchen appliances. Take your time. That's the whole purpose - to take up the time. I think it was where I lived when I was about 9 that the memory became pretty vivid.

Math problems are always good for long runs. I was doing a hot, sunny marathon, I think in Arizona, and as my invincibility began to become more vincible in the heat, I noticed that the telephone poles cast about a 6 inch shadow across the road every 50 feet or so. I wonder how much shade I can actually run under during 26 miles. Let's see 6 inches every 50 feet. 5280 feet to a mile. 26.2 miles in this so-called "race". Now, that will eat up a ton of mental gasoline, especially when the needle is nearing empty already. I think, at the time, I probably calculated it was about 4 miles, but the actual answer was 115 feet! They need to make wider telephone poles.

When I run a marathon, I'm pretty much running a pace that I initially think I can maintain to either, 1) reach my time goal, or 2) finish the daggum thing. So, while Jeff Gallaway is getting mega-rich touting his run/walk program, I'm trying to figure out that if I walk for a minute EVERY ten minutes, how fast do I REALLY have to do the running segments. I mean, if I'm red-lining it with straight running, doesn't it occur to anyone that you have to run faster than your red-line pace if you throw in a walking minute? So, let's say you want to run a 4 hour marathon (a 9:09 pace/mile for 240 minutes) and you were going to run 10 minutes and walk one. That would come out to about 22 run/walk segments, so the walk total time would be 22 minutes. I figure I can walk about 1.6 miles in 22 minutes, so that leaves 3:38 to run 24.6 miles. That comes out to 8:51/mile pace. Now, try to do all those calculations at 20 miles of a marathon, and voila!, you've killed 20 minutes! Now, try to pick up the pace 20 seconds per mile. I'm too bushed from all that thinking!

Basically, during a run, I have no idea what will pop into my defenseless mind. An idea is more like a ping-pong ball bouncing around in a shoebox. But, if I can lasso onto something that will help carry me home, help divert the feeling of my legs feeling like bread dough, and help keep me semi-alert, then bring it on. I'll be glad to hear some your unique diversions - not mantras, not body-checks, not singing an old 60's hit, but some honest-to-goodness-this-is-where-my-mind-went- at-mile-18 diversions. I'm sure you all have some real doosies.

That's it for this week. I hope to see you soon on the ever interesting (but sometimes I need mental help) roads - AL

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

Saturday, April 23, 2011

From the Othe Side of the Fence (or the Restraining Rope)

"The brick walls are there to stop the people who don't want it bad enough. They're there to stop the other people" - Randy Pausch

I usually try to write different themed posts each week, depending on my mood or what side of the bed I wake up on. Hopefully all of them, though some may be thinly veiled, will have a connection to some aspect of the running community. Well, this week, we can look at this as simply an extension of last week's post when I was anticipating viewing the Holy Grail of marathons - Boston! Ok, not everyone skips a beat when you start talking Boston, but I think those that have earned a BM bib number anytime in their running lives never gets it out of their blood, or do they want to!

So, last weekend, I went up to Boston to visit Adam (my grandson) and family, and it just so happened it was the same weekend as THE RACE (life works in mysterious ways). Sure, the absolute highlight of the trip was to play with Adam and marvel how much he had grown since I last saw him in January (he's 18 months old now). Never realized what the big deal about being a Grandpa was until God smiled on me. He is a joy beyond description. But, this post is RUNNING WITH AL, not BEING A GRANDPA WITH AL, so back to the race.

In Boston, the race is televised live, on a major network, from 9-3. It's ridiculous that the only way you can see this race outside of Massachusetts is to fork over 5 bucks to to watch it on the Internet. Even now, a week after the race, they still want to wring the 5 skins out of me to watch a frickin' replay!! Why doesn't the government forget about fighting about the budget for a while and look into big problems, like why I can't see a race that's a week old without paying a pound of flesh (or a gallon of gas).

So, last Monday morning, I sat in front of the TV with Adam and my wife to watch the race begin and followed the women till about the 19 mile mark. Poor Kim Smith (from New Zealand) was 50 seconds ahead at this point when she tore a soleus muscle, and had no choice but limp to the curb. At that point, I put on my old Boston jacket, and my old Boston hat, and walked the .74 miles (measured on my Garmin of course) to the 23 Mile mark of the course. I was able to situate myself at an area that was in the middle of the block in Washington Square between two intersections about .2 miles closer to Boston than the actual 23 Mile point. The block where I stood was on a 100 foot uphill just past an aid station. Because there was not a shoulder-to-shoulder crowd in my little corner of the world, I dipped under the restraining rope and stood in the road awaiting the onslaught of 24,000 runners. I didn't have to wait long. Now, you have to remember, I'm used to being "back there" and never see the warriors battle up front - I read about it in the paper the next day. So, when the lead truck, the motorcycles, the press truck, and the TV truck came around the bend, I wasn't fully prepared for the excitement of seeing these truly gifted athletes running at impossible 23 miles...up a hill. Eventual women's winner Kenyan Caroline Kilel, looking smooth, but at the same time, pushing to her limits, holding off the close challengers. Among those challengers, were Uncle Sam's two hopes; Desiree Davilla, who would finish 2nd by two crummy little seconds, and Kara Goucher, who would finish 5th, but with a new PR, just SEVEN MONTHS after having a baby! The noise from the crowd was electrifying, but the best was yet to come.

About 10-15 minutes later came the same, but different, train of trucks and motorcycles around the curve. Following them were the men, who started 30 minutes behind the girls. If I thought the women were flying, the men were shot out of a cannon. Up the hill came Geoffrey Mutai (who was 3 miles short of being $225,000 richer), followed on his shoulder by fellow Kenyan Moses Musop. Mutai would go on to set a new world best of 2:03:02. That's 57 seconds faster than the current World Record! Not impressed?...Ok, how 'bout this - he ran 4:40/mile for 26.2 miles!!! Poor Musop finished in 2:03:06...broke the WR by 53 seconds AND FINISHED 2ND!! But the loudest cheers were held for American Ryan Hall. What a thrill for me it was to see Ryan gliding up the hill, pushing for all he was worth, the crowd screaming "USA, USA, USA". He later said after the race "The pace was sick. I was running a 2:04 pace and couldn't even see the leaders!".

But, as amazing as it was to catch a glimpse of these professional athletes in action, I found that cheering on the "regular" folks as they made their way through Mile 23 the most inspiring to me. I'm usually the one struggling up the hill, feeling like crap, thinking running really sucks, when somebody comes out of the crowd and gives some encouragement that spurs you to keep moving forward. Well, for a couple of hours, I was the the one walking folks up the hill, urging them to focus, and reminding them "it's the Boston Marathon, man!". I yelled "Go Team" to all the Leukemia runners, and "Go (insert name, state, country)" to all that I could. And a special 30 yard walk up the hill was with my good buddy Ken. Just when I thought I had missed him, there he was. I had been looking for a half-naked black man, but he turned the tables and wore a singlet, almost slipping by me!! "The leaders might have a tail-wind, but I sure as hell don't feel it". And off he went to finish in a great time of 3:29.

Yeah, sure, I wish I was running this year, but I totally enjoyed this new side of the fence. I saw determination in the runner's eyes, from those running 2:03 to those doing 5:03. I saw runners pushing through their pain, and I saw the gratitude in their faces as they used the roar and the kindness of the crowd to carry them.

From either side of the fence, I'll see you on the roads - AL

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

Friday, April 15, 2011

These Hills Are Wicked Hahd

"Once it's over, you own it forever" - Paul Carrozza

Well, here I am back in Beantown for another overdue visit with my grandson, Adam, and my family. Funny how it coincided with the Boston Marathon this time. Life weaves a strange tapestry sometimes. I won't see the starting line this Monday, or the finish line for that matter, but I plan to hug the sidelines at 23 and give my best "suck it up", "just 3 more miles", or steal Ken's line "nuts and guts, baby, nuts and guts". I PROMISE not to say "lookin' good". I am really looking forward to seeing this race from the "other side".

What is it with this Boston thing? Like a rock rolling downhill, marathon running has gotten crazy popular. Everyone and their grandmother seem to be doing it. Used to be just the hardcore runner would even entertain the thought of tackling what was thought of to be the top of the running mountain, and now it has almost become common place to see marathons pop up for this charity or that cause and BOOM! - 10,000 runners line up. A half million finishers a year! And that's great because so many folks are finding out about that person locked up inside them and not only getting off the "Couch of Doom" but throwing it in the trash pile.

But if marathon running is the mountain, then Boston is Everest. I've done Boston 5 times and can honestly say there is something very different about being there. Something that gets in your gut and won't let go. Standing at the starting line of Boston is the culmination of a dream for most marathoners, because not only have you survived having run a previous marathon, but you have had to run it well, often an over-your-head effort to just qualify to run. Very few make the Boston qualifying time (a BQ) on their first attempt. It is based on age and for most, it is just out of range. Back in the 90's, when I had completed probably close to 40-50 marathons, I still didn't think I had much desire to go to Boston, but everyone kept asking "Ever been to Boston?" and the answer was no. It was like I was cast to the minor leagues. I wasn't validated as a "real" marathoner. Then one day, running the old Vulcan Marathon in Birmingham in 1993, I surprisingly got under the cursed qualifying time and screamed "I'm going to Boston!".

For many, Boston has become a quest, beginning as a dream, then a goal, then, finally, a reality. Anytime you set limits, you will exclude some folks and that might seem elitist, but I don't think so (of course I realize I'm talking from the "been there" side of the fence). The limits are based on performance, and are set at a point where most, given time and disciline (ah, that doggone training) can reach them. After I ran Boston the first time, I said I would never go back because the experience was so over and above anything I expected, I felt it would never top that. But, you ask any first timer, or 20th timer, and they will tell you that from the expo, where everyone is wearing a shirt from a different marathon, to Copley Square, where you recieve that most coveted medal, Boston lives up to it's billing. And once you run it, you are infected with the Boston Bug and for most, there is no cure.

The crowd noise is incredible as you go through the 7 different towns from Hopkinton to Boston, getting louder and louder with each town, but it is the last half of the race that defines this marathon above others for me. At about mile 12, just a quarter mile west of Wellsley College, you begin to hear this high pitched squeal that is getting louder as you run. You are entering what is known as the "Scream Tunnel". The girls of Wellsley is all it's cranked up to be. A deafening wall of sound. Imagine about 200 yards of young, excited girls stacked 4-5 deep along the road, screaming their heads off and clanging cowbells. Now, throw is signs of "Kiss me", "Kiss me, I'm a senior", "Kiss me, I'm Mormon", "Just kiss me". And if a women goes by...the noise ratchets up a few hundred decibels...and if a girl wearing a Wellsley shirt comes-a-runnin', Holy crow!! - hold your ears. When you leave the Scream Tunnel, you are whipped from the excitement. Unfortunatly, you're only halfway to Boston. When you make the turn at the Newton Fire station to begin the famous humps known as Heartbreak Hill, the bombardment of noise for the last 10 miles is constant. Going up Heartbreak, if you're struggling, someone will jump from the crowd and run along side of you yelling "You can do it! You're almost to the top. Suck it up". Now, from my standpoint, Heartbreak is WAY over-rated. It's actually a series of 4 hump-flat, hump-flat, hump-flat, big hump. It's just that at the end of 16 miles of mostly downhill and flat running, the startch in the legs are a little stale and Heartbreak is wringing out of them whatever is left. Rolling into Boston was a loud, loud moment in the race. And what had been a strong turnout up to that point was ratcheted up another notch. Seriously. People and people and people for the entire rest of the race. I remember, the first year I ran, there was a large Billboard near Fenway Park, about a mile from the finish, that read "Welcome to Boston. You earned it!". I love that.

By writing, I could never do justice to the last half mile, but I'll give it a go. Remember, there has been pretty much a continuous deafening cheering for the past 10 miles or so. Then, there is a 50 yard tunnel under Massachucetts Avenue in which no spectators are allowed - the screaming has become silent except for the runner's feet slapping the pavement - it is sureal to say the least. Then, my favorite moment. You exit the tunnel to an incredibly huge wave of spectators and a flood on noise as you make a right turn onto Hereford Street. Two blocks of struggling uphill, and then the most glorious left onto Boylston Street. In plain view, 600 yards ahead, you can see the finish line. In my life, I have never been bombarded by sound the way I was for those last several minutes along Boylston. The crowd is 5-10 deep, screaming their heads off, the sound reverberating off the buildings, and I am almost crying because I'm about to finish The Boston Marathon! God, it's great to be a runner!!

No, I won't be running this year, but I can always close my eyes and not only see the past, but feel it too. Good luck to all the runners and I'll see them, and ofcourse, I'll see you, on the roads - AL

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

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Get Your Head Up!

"I do not seek. I find." - Pablo Picasso

"Get your head up!" - I can still hear Ken yelling at me. It was Huntsville, 2005, and I was desperately trying to run a 3:45 to qualify for Boston. As per usual, I was running my standard of marathon miles progression - good for the first 16-17 miles, feel a tug at my innards from miles 17-22, and begin a tailspin for the last 4 miles. This was nothing new - it is my usual modus operandi for most of my races. So, here I am, at the end of the 26th mile...two tenths to go...unable to catch a breath in what I still recall as the hardest mile I have ever run in my whole life...knowing I will either just make it or (crap!!) just miss it. "Get you head up" I hear Ken booming from the finish line. I raise it just as I go under the clock...3:45:48...thank God for the 59 second rule - drop the seconds. I MADE IT!!

For as long as I can remember (and that is a long time), I have always run with my head down. I have tried countless times to correct this form deficit. I know it will help my speed (that's funny), put less stress on my joints, help my posture, prevent me from looking like a Gargoyle as I tire, and mostly, keep me from bumping into runners coming at me on dark mornings. But, running with my head down not only keeps me from taking a header on the trail, it has also helped me find many interesting objects along the way.

Money - It's fascinating how much money you can find. Once, I really tried to pile it on and see how much I could find on my daily runs. Now, recognizing that I have about 3 regular routes that I run on the road, it was amazing that one year I found $149. The bonanza was Saturday morning runs that I would traverse through the fast-food drive thru. I guess folks are so plastered at 1 AM that they don't care if they drop the change out the car window. Even found a ten dollar bill once! I usually donate the money I find to the Leukemia Society.

Once I found a handgun lying by the side of the road. Now, I've seen NCIS enough to know that I didn't want my prints on the gun, so I wrapped it (and the gun clip I also found close by) in newspaper and ran to the Police Station. I was a little disappointed that they didn't seem to have that same excitement that I had that this might solve the crime of the century. They also didn't compliment me on not disturbing the crime evidence with the newspaper. Oh well!

Found a Fire Truck Walkie-talkie in a ditch once. Ran it to the local Fire Station and found it humorous when the dispatcher took it, said "thanks...Hey Frank, missing something?"

Numerous golf balls, tennis balls, and baseballs just lying by the side of the road. I usually pick them up and try to bounce them while I'm running. If I can do it twice in a row, it's a good day. Mostly, I wonder (like the money I find) "how the heck did this get here?" when it's in the middle of nowhere.

When I'm out of town, it's always fun to come across mile markers painted on the road from previous road races. Some cosmic connection there.

Around my town, they take pride in putting the US flag on the light poles every chance they get. One year, I was running early in the morning and found, on the ground, one of the flags had blown off the pole during a storm the night before. The flagpole was too short to stick in the ground, so I just figured I'll run it the 3 miles or so to the Police Station (seems I'm there a lot). So, like a scene out of Gone With The Wind, I'm running down the road with this wet, heavy, full-sized US flag over my head, thinking, "this was a mistake". Next thing I know, folks are honking their horns, people are yelling "USA, USA, USA", thumbs up, hands waving. Made that flag seem a lot lighter and me, pretty proud.

Tools - I could supply a pretty good tool shed with all the hammers, screwdrivers, and what-nots I've found along the way. One time in Atlanta, I came across this huge wrench that I swear must've been used for anchoring interstate lightpoles. The damn thing must've weighed close to 10 pounds. Well, I carried it about a half mile until my arms cramped, dropped it in some bushes, went back later to pick it up and it sat in the trunk of my car, untouched, for the next two years. Why in the world did I think I needed that? Crazy!

At least 3-4 times a year, I find credit cards, wallets, licenses, etc. and always try to return it to the owner before sending it the appropriate agency. I like the response when the owner doesn't even know they lost something. Better than that, I like the joy some folks get, like a teenager's license I found at Gulf Shores. He lived about 200 miles from me, but I tracked him down, called him, and he acted like...well...a teenager whose driver's license had been found. He was VERY thankful. Great!

Early one Christmas morning, I was running and passed a Nativity Scene. During the night, a storm had blown through and knocked down all the life-sized figures. There was Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the 3 wise men and all the animals scattered here, there and everywhere. Like a kid with big toys, I put them all in their places. As I was leaving, I could swear I heard Jesus say "OK, Al just earned a point in The Big Book". Honestly, it was pretty cool.

Finally, I was running across the MIT Harvard Bridge in Boston a couple of years ago, and noticed the bridge was marked off "One Smoot, two Smoots..." and so on to the end of the bridge. Ok, had to check this out. Turns out that Oliver Smoot was an MIT freshman in 1962 and his fraternity declarded that the 5'7" Oliver was a unit of measurement. He had to lie down on the bridge and have his height marked along the whole span! The markers have endured the past 50 years!! The MIT Harvard bridge measures 364.4 Smoots! Gotta love it.

Above is the blue sky, the sun, rainbows, and countless stars. But sometimes looking down has it's visual benefits also. I'll see you on the roads - AL

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

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Avoiding Failure

"Failure is not fatal, but failure to change might be." - John Wooden

Looking at my March Madness bracket, and then, at the actual results, it has taught me a couple of things. One is to let your son pay the ten bucks to get you in the pool ("What pool? What Tournament? I don't know nothing about any ten bucks"), and the other is that if you play it safe, it's probably going to bite you in the rear. I could have picked St Peter's, Alabama St., Texas-San Antonio, and Wofford, and done just as well. But, I was TRYING to avoid failure and picked Ohio St and Duke. Obviously, this didn't translate very well into seeking success. Let's get away from basketball...please...and see how this applies to running.

For many years, I've been hobbling around with progressively achy ankles, but have pushed on doing marathons and ultras and trying to keep my mileage up. After a race or long run, I would walk around like Quasimodo on a bad day, but that was the expected post-race Al-walk. At least I could still race (well, run anyway).
As the years went by, I tried various fixes, always hoping that this was the magic that would get me over the hump and allow me run at a status quo, meaning keeping my marathon times fairly stable and also allow me to run the trail ultras. Now, let's get one thing straight. I absolutely HATE blogs where the writer goes on and on about some personal injury he has, and I am not going down that road, but hang with me for just a while. As my training times plummeted and my races became non-existent, and as I tried to find the running groove again, I couldn't quite figure it out - what the heck was going on? Even on days when pain and soreness wasn't that bad, I was still as slow as cold mollasses. Did I lose the desire to push? Did I forget how to run? My daily training times had been a gradual slowdown, but now those times had fallen off the Continental Shelf!

Then, about 2 weeks before the Mercedes Marathon, around the first of February, for no good reason, except that I was sitting on my rump too much, I developed some high hamstring pain (it certainly wasn't from all the speed work!!). In the "Do-as-I-say, not-as-I-do" vein, I ran the Mercedes (my first marathon in 2 years, so I was rested), which did a real job on the hammy. Again, skirting all the non-interesting details, I've tried to play it smart since Mercedes in trying to return my old hobbling self. I've come back slow and it is much improved. When I run with friends, I drop back. When I run alone, I want to beat myself silly about running 11' miles, but that's my pace, like it or not.

This past week, while running by myself, and feeling some better, I realized the phase of running that I'm in now. For decades, I ran to seek success on the roads and trails. Seeking success was defined by race times and the effort given. Also, the feeling that I was "red-lining it" in races and giving it what I felt was an honest effort to push during training runs. When you seek success, you go right to the dragon and stare failure in the center of it's eyes. As my superman body began to respond to my kryptonite ankles, I now realize I have been running for years to avoid failure, not seeking success. Not only am I not staring at the dragon, I'm not even entering his lair. In my case, failure was not being able to run anymore. I was terrified that I wouldn't be able to even "jog" comfortably. If you get good at avoiding failure, it becomes it's own goal. It's a good skill to have - it reduces the gremlins of running - but it's not what powers racing success. It scared the living daylights out of me to think I may not be able to run some day, so, in addition to having to slow down due to my physical restrictions, I also sub-consciously ratcheted back to where my left-sided brain wouldn't allow me to "take risks" with my running future. I think in other venues, it's called limiting your losses.

Back, about 2 years ago, I made a deal with God to just allow me to run and I wouldn't complain about the pace. Well, doggone it, He has held me to that deal, and although I waiver a bit, I am thankful to just run. Finishing Mercedes more than 2 hours slower than my PR was surprisingly a huge thrill for me, because it meant long distance running was still part of me. Being able to run slowly on a non-technical trail is not the gut-wrenching climb next to a waterfall it once was, but it is where I find the most peace in my favorite form of running. I can still run to the sunrise, and you know what? The sun doesn't care about my pace.

Now, looking at it a little more clearly, I have crested a mountain that on one side of it has you pushing, taking risks, and knowing that stretching this rope may cause it to snap and hurtle you into failure. But, on the other side, you take the safer route so that what was once failure has a totally different meaning. So, maybe I have my definitions wrong...Sometimes avoiding failure IS seeking success and my success is just getting out there and running.

I may be way back there, but, thank goodness, I'll see you all on the roads - AL

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