Saturday, October 27, 2012

Sweep Patrol

"The best argument against democracy is a 5 minute conversation with an average voter" - Winston Churchill

This weekend, there was a unique event for these parts - a 3-day stage race that comprised running three trail races at Ruffner Mountain (16 miles), Red Mountain (15 miles), and Oak Mountain (20 miles) for a total of 51 miles. Not sure how you rate this. Certainly not an ultra, and not even a recognized marathon on any of those days, but it seems the Race Director, David Tosch, has taken the roughest trails from each of these systems and said "Have at it boys and gals. See ya on the other side". Better have your recovery plan pretty firmly in place for this one guys.

Just a few short years ago, I would have jumped or flew to do this one. I love this kind of stuff...slow, difficult, unique, and hard to explain to anybody (other than other runners) what it's all about. I just can't handle all the stuff I used to do when I was young (late 50's...good grief!!!), so I have to be very selective in the "races" and I can do, and more importantly, recover from. A couple of weeks ago, I did a tough trail marathon up at Ruffner, and I knew that this would put me on the cusps of that recovery envelope, and it did. My legs are still asking me what the heck that was all about. I try to tell them to just be quiet and man-up, but they're still taking their own sweet time feeling run-worthy.

So, me and my buddy Moha, who also got beaten up by the Ruffner monster, decided to give RD David a call and tell him we had some spare time and would he like a couple of volunteers. It took him about 2 nanoseconds to say "What race director doesn't want volunteers?". He asked if we could sweep the course after the last runner and pick up all markings. Sure, sounds like fun, we would be giving back, plus we'd get our run in instead of freezing our butts off at an aid station. 

Usually, during the week, I'm on the road before 5am, and on weekends, it's 5:30 -6:30, but this morning, the race didn't begin till 8. We toyed around with the idea of going out there and doing some early miles, maybe even doing the first 7.5 mile loop and then sweeping up the second loop. Well, we woke up to a cold, windy morning morphed into coffee at McDonalds, a trip for a deposit at the bank, and a side-stop at the bakery to pick up some fresh baked pita bread (Mmmmm). We got to the race site about 9:40 and were told there were still about 7-8 runners on their first loop. Of course, I wanted to go start picking up the course markings - after all, these guys had been around the course once. Surely, they're not so oxygen deprived that they can't remember all the twists and turns around the rocks and trees of Red mountain! That got quickly voted down, so me & Moha went out and did 3.5 miles on non-race trails. When we got back, we were cleared to do our job.

We set a goal to try to catch the last runner, who had probably a 25-30 minute lead on us. Ha, that was a good one. We should've set a goal to catch the first runner - had about the same chance. Before we knew it, we were going up long rocky trails, and although there was little chance you could go wrong, David was going to make sure and put these little construction flags much more than needed along the course. In addition, his "few signs" turned into about 25 "race in progress", or "this way" signs. Our 2 reusable shopping bags quickly filled up and got pretty heavy. Near the end, I felt like a pack mule going over the Donner Pass. As we passed the 7.5 mile point on my watch, I realized we were getting into Horton Miles territory - in other words "about 7.5 miles". Now, I have to be honest, my VERY dodgy Nike+ watch never did connect with any of the many GPS satellites above us, so the 9.9 miles my foot pod registered for the (7.5 mile) loop is probably not near exact, but let's just concede that David needs a new Garmin for Christmas. As we went up ANOTHER HILL, I remarked to Moha, "Brother, we can' t be lost, as usual, because we're still picking up flags!". Finally, we made it back to start/finish line, our goal shattered as the last finisher was probably home and showered. The difference is that I was going to go home and not worry about another trail adventure for another week, while he had to worry about tomorrow's race - he shouldn't have gone so fast!

We all need to volunteer sometimes - you just don't realize what goes into putting on a race - like putting out a million construction flags. When we do a race, there is lot we expect for spending our money, but by volunteering, you tend not to be so harsh with your criticism. But, out of all the ways you can volunteer, today was great...a day in the woods with my good buddy, helping out a friend, getting in a run in, and realize that I can still move up, down, but most importantly, forward.

I'll see you on the roads - AL

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

Saturday, October 20, 2012

My Foreign Policy Thoughts

"Pain is a wonderful thing and now I was feeling wonderful, really
- Unknown trail runner

As this week's Election debate will focus on foreign policy, it sends me down a different trail and I got to thinking about how International Track & Field and marathon running was even before I began doing this crazy stuff back in the late 70's. Before I began long-distance running, as a High School Student, I was still very interested in watching the running events of T & F meets. Didn't care much for guys throwing things or jumping over things, but running around a track as fast as you could had some perverse magnetism that drew me in. These were usually international meets, so you got familiar with the stars of the day. But they weren't all African runners, like today. Instead, the stars were pretty much spread around, so there was much international pride. I remember up north (where I was brought up), the biggest indoor meet was the Millrose Games, and drew all the fastest runners of the day. The last event of all these meets was always the mile. Eleven laps to the mile around a banked wooden track, with elbows flailing each other. It was like NASCAR at Talledega.  Ah, the excitement of watching Irishman Eamonn Coglan win that mile year after year, earning him one of the best nicknames ever..."The Chairman of the Boards". And seeing American Jim Beatty, becoming the first person to run under four minutes indoors. I can still recall broadcaster Curt Gowdy screaming..."I think he's going to do it, I think he's going to do it"...and yes he did it in 3:58.9! There are still very intriguing indoor meets around, but the excitement seems to be local in Boston, New York, San Diego, etc. but it's hard to follow when the TV coverage is either on some Shopping Channel or Internet Pay-for-View. You know, it's funny, but 40-50 years ago, I was watching an indoor 3000 meter race (basically 2 miles, so not a breakneck pace at 11 laps/mile). During the race, one of the local High School or College bands began playing a song popular at the time "Midnight in Moscow". It had the perfect beat for a 3000M race I guess. Anyway, half a century later, sometimes I'm lollygagging down the road and that song pops into my mind! Crazy, not very interesting, but there you go! 

There wasn't too much track stuff going on outdoors that I recall, but most of you are probably too young to remember but there used to be yearly U.S. vs. U.S.S.R. (Russia) track meets held that were riveting. This was a time when the "cold war" was going on between us and them. Russia was the Evil Empire that I remember as a kid, and these meets began a year after "they" beat us in the Space Race with the launching of Sputnik and were held every year between 1958 - 1985. We hated the Russians, and they didn't think very kindly about us Capitalistic Americans. I remember the meets were usually televised on the old Wide World of Sports on Saturdays. Pride and nationalism, as well as tremendous competition captured the whole nation's attention. We wanted to beat them SO BAD. It surpassed any type of watered down competition you see in the Summer Olympics these days. It was high drama. Someone should write a book about those meets. Doubt we'll ever see Country vs. Country intensity again, though there doesn't seem to be much love between Kenya and Ethiopia these days.

 Speaking of those two marathon dominating countries, I sure am glad the African "invasion" onto the world distance running scene started in the late 80's instead of the early 70's, otherwise most of the American, British and European stars would have been relegated to being also rans. Just think, for those of us in the U.S., runners like Salazar, Rodgers, Shorter, Curp, Beardsley, Tabb, Sandoval, Meyer, Gregorek, Wells, Eyestone and like so many others would not have had the success they did if the Africans had been on the scene in the numbers they are now. Their times of 2:08, 2:09, and 2:10 would have gotten buried into the graves of the 2nd tier of runners. In the infancy of the Internet, sometimes we would agonize to get marathon results, at times 24 hours later, to see if Rodgers won in Amsterdam, or Frank Shorter won in Japan. 

So, the Foreign Policy of politics will take center stage this week, but it doesn't take much to send me down a very different and much more enjoyable path. Ah, memories...I got a million of 'em.

I'll see you on the roads - AL
"One child lost is too child saved can change the world"

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Ruffner Mountain Conversations

"You're never really beat until you believe it" - Joe Perrella

Well, as a follow-up to my last RWA post the other day, I thought I would wrap-up my trail marathon at Ruffner Mountain - the Crusher Ridge 42k. This was my 132nd marathon or ultra and I can honestly say I don't ever remember one as tough as this. I've been in trail runs where I have stopped at the top of God-awful hills, with my hands on my knees saying "I have never been this tired", but at Ruffner, this was repeated several times. 26 miles, about 5000' of elevation gain, and nature galore in the form of roots, deep ruts, and rocks made and broken at the foot of the Appalachian Mountain chain.

But, it was a pleasant day, as all runs are when they're over. I ran into a fellow named Jim, who used to train with us when I first started training marathon runners back in 1984! He dropped out of running, gained weight, then decided to get back in shape. He was ready to do this race last year, when life got in the way and he had to have by-pass cardiac surgery. He said he asked his cardiologist if he could get back to his usual activities, and his Doc said sure, so here he was. I really don't think he told his Doc what those "usual activities" were.

Ran into another guy, Wayne, who said "I'm blaming this all on you. I read your blog last week and decided to come out and do it". I apologized and questioned the power I have!

Meanwhile, I ran the whole way, as usual, with my lost brother, Mohammed. He is about as good a friend anybody could ever want. We call each other "lost brothers" because a few years ago, we were doing a trail run and leap-frogged these two girls on the trail a couple of times. After about the third time, one of the girls said "Are you two brothers?" and Moha says "Yes. I lost him in the woods years ago and today I found him. I am so happy". The girl thought we were nuts, but we had a good laugh, and now we're lost brothers. I don't like to particularly read (or write) race reports, so I thought I'd try to remember some of the spontaneous quips that went between me & Moha along the 8 hours we were out there defending our "last-finisher" titles". And by the way, I did finish before my Nike+ GPS watch battery bit the dust.

Mo: Seriously...this is ridiculous (halfway up a 1/4 mile 20% grade)

Al: Damn it! I'm sick & tired of these frickin' constant ups and downs...come to think of it, I don't like the flats either!

Al: You didn't see her? She was buck naked (convincing Moha there was a girl sun-bathing on the rocks when we went down deep in the quarry)

Mo: Yey! Chips (rubbing hands together) upon hearing the list of things at the aid-stations
Al: What language are you speaking?(Sometimes he gets hard to understand when we both get tired)

Al: What do you mean "we" white man? (When Moha starts talking about when "we" run this race next year)
Mo: This is not a trail, this is a damn road - going up a quarter mile service road

Al: There's a 100 mile race next year at Lake Martin (brought up at mile 21)
Mo: Why are you telling me?
Al: Well, 50 miles is twice as much fun as this...can you imagine what a ball we'd have doing 100 miles?
Mo: Shut you mouth!

Mo: Too many banana peels - what we call roots, rocks and anything else that grabs your feet when running
Al: "Crap" as Al does a slam dunk on one of those banana peels

Al: Is it cloudy or is the sun going down?

Mo: It's not Ruffner, it's ROUGH-ner

Al: Is it still Saturday?

Al: My "up" muscles are fried - when I just couldn't lift them to get over a fallen tree

Mo: No, I want a 16oz T-bone (when I asked him if he wants a mint)
Al: A taxi (when asked by an aid-station worker if he can get me anything)

Mo: If you run in the back of the pack, you don't have to worry about spider webs

Al: Why don't they make lasagna flavored Gu?
Mo: (No response...just a stare)

Mo: (after hearing a strange noise) - What was that, an ambulance? 
Al: Yeah Moha, an ambulance in the middle of the damn woods

Mo: Was that here before? (looking at an old rusted-out child's metal rocking horse in the middle of the woods)
Al: No Moha, somebody put it there since we came by 4 hours ago!

Al: Thanks for staying with me, brother
Mo: No, thanks for staying with me, brother

Mo: See you next week
Al: Yep, see you next week

My races (runs, events, whatever you call them now) used to be based solely on how I compared to my previous efforts or the efforts of those around me. Now, the effort is to complete the challenge, but my goals are a little different...beat my watch battery, get over the next hill, don't slip on banana peels, but most of all spend my running day huffing, puffing, laughing, falling, and thanking God along the way that I can still enjoy doing something I love just plain doing.

I'll see you on the roads - AL  

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

Friday, October 12, 2012

I Need a Counselor

"It's like deja-vu all over again!" - Yogi Berra

As I sit here trying to come up with a riveting topic for this week's RWA, I find my usually crystal-clear thought process (yeah, right!) somewhat clouded by my impending immediate future.

Let me back up a little - last October, I saw a race advertised at Ruffner Mountain, probably the most technical trail system in the Birmingham, Alabama area. It was a 21k (half-marathon), and knowing (and feeling) the state of my ailing ankles, I knew it would be stupid idea to sign up for, of course, I signed up for it, and yes, it was a stupid idea. I gloriously finished dead last! Here is a link to that post a year ago.We have really progressed with our trail systems at Oak Mountain, Red Mountain, and at Ruffner, and as trail runners do with single trails in a system, or with whole systems at a time, we rate them on their difficulty. We rate them on elevation gain, from flat to mountainous (usually a gain of over 250' gain/mile). And we also rate these trails on the terrain itself, from paved or very smooth to a very rough trail with rocks, roots, ruts, downed trees, streams to cross, and all manner of hellish obstacles to wish you were someplace else. Each trail system has it's own personality, and to me, Ruffner is the wicked witch of the East. You just can never get into a rhythm with it's steep hills, rocks, short, twisty turns, etc. But, as I say to my running buddy Moha...Red Mountain is for beginners with it's mostly wide double track, Oak Mountain will make you a better trail runner with it's undulating long ups and downs on mostly single track, BUT Ruffner will make you strong with it's tight turns and sudden dramatic changes in elevation, some short, some long.

So, where is all this leading? Last year, I SWORE to Vanessa (my friend and Race Director) that I would NEVER come back. So, what does she do this year? She adds a 42k (full marathon, more or less)!! My God, girl! Get a grip! I made the huge mistake of reading the race application. Why? I don't know...I just told you I would NEVER come back. I see the race fee is the SAME for the 21k or the 42K! I see you can sign up for the full, but drop at the half and get credit as a half finisher! I don't see a downside in this. Before remembering that I would NEVER come back, not only had I registered myself for the 42k, but I registered Moha also and then told him he owed me the race fee! Pretty slick, huh?

My next move was to call my buddy Ken, who is a High School Counselor, and plead "I need a counselor!". When I explained what I had just done, Ken's response was "You're calling the wrong guy" - you see Ken is a serious marathoner with numerous Boston's under his belt. He even registered for last year's Boston on his iPhone during a meeting! So, you see, Ken dips into the same kool-aid of rational thinking that I do. And now, the race is tomorrow. It's only 26 miles, but it's a challenging 26 miles...challenging, my foot, it's gruesome! Ok, I'm exaggerating. My plan is simple - run, eat gel, run, eat gel, walk, eat gel, swear, run/walk, until somebody tells me to stop, then eat pizza and beer. And I want to do all this before my Nike+ GPS battery gives up the ghost (advertised as an 8 hour battery).
What is it with us long distance runners? We see a challenge (while we're sitting at our desk at work) and it's immediate: "I can do that. It'll be fun". Good Grief! The double-edged sword in all this is that if I do good (some degree of OK), I'll figure I'm back and look for other "challenges". If I don't do good (some degree of a NASCAR crash), I'll be safe for at least a little while anyway, and retreat to my safety cocoon of "training" runs. But, these are the runs I love...long and hard and sweaty and deep and, in the end, they are the kind of runs that make a difference in who I am and who I want to be. No, that's not right. These are the kind of runs that weave a thread through my running past, where I am now, and where I will be in the, hopefully, many tomorrows. I know my best running days are behind me, and I am at peace with that, but going back when I say I will NEVER go back, somehow that feels good down deep. Yeah, maybe I do need a counselor. Or maybe, I'm just a long distance runner ready to write, and live, another chapter tomorrow.

I'll see you on the roads - AL

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

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Where the Rubber Meets the Road

"The statistics on sanity are that one out of every four Americans is suffering from some form of mental illness. Think of your three best friends. If they are okay, then it's you."
-  Rita Mae Brown

Two of the non-running questions I'm asked most when I'm running with others (usually on Sundays with our Mercedes Training groups) are 1) "Why did you deactivate your Facebook account", which I'll address in a near future RWA, and 2) "how do you come up with a new subject to write about each week?". It's true that I've been writing this weekly blog since May of 2010, but finding a subject each week is really not that difficult. The problem is that I usually come up with an idea for the "the best blog post ever" during a run, and of course by the time I finish the run, that idea is buried beneath other lost ideas of how to cure cancer, how to promote world peace, why the Braves can't win a post-season baseball game EVER, and wondering why this run I'm on feels like the end of a marathon.

But, with a personal running history of greater than a third of a century (MY GOD!!), when I do have a mild case of writer's block (senility?), I can always reach back into the deep recesses of my mind and come up with some goodies of Days Gone By. 

For instance, two weeks ago, I was getting my stuff out to prepare for a trail run the next day. My go-to trail shoes these days are an old pair of Hoka Bondi-B's. I noticed that the outside heel was worn down (after all, they have about 900 miles on them, basically because they have a ton of midsole!!). So, I reached for my old reliable tube of Shoe-Goo, which is like liquid rubber, and deposited a new quarter of an inch of protection to the heel. Shoe-Goo used to be staple of any long distance runner in the 70's and 80's. Oh, I can hear the argument now about how the midsole flattens out after so many miles (certainly NOT 900), so it's not really the outsole you have to worry about. But you see, back then, the midsole was more hardy, and you could get more miles out of a shoe if you could keep that pesky outsole from wearing down. Ta-da...enter Shoe-Goo! Put it on like thick toothpaste, spread it around with a tongue depressor, let it set overnight,
 and your set to go. They still sell Shoe-Goo, but as the good side of technology has brought us lighter shoes, it is usually because the midsole is "blown" instead of solid, so it becomes a pancake sooner and 300-400 miles is usually the limit for your shoes. For those of you who run in these minimalist shoes that snicker at any midsole at all, I guess you could Shoe-Goo your shoes for years and never have to buy a new pair of shoes until you're just tired of the color. 

For those of you young whipper-snappers that find the use of Shoe-Goo pretty funny, how 'bout this for Level 2 of Running in the 80's...after you had Goo'ed you shoes 5-6 times, it was time to take the big plunge. For $13.95, you could send your shoes off to New York City and get them RE-SOLED!! Yep, those shoes would LOOK like new. No new midsole, just the rubber that meets the road! Now, you have to remember that running shoes cost something like 35 bucks back then, so 14 bucks was a bargain to get basically (in our warped minds) a new pair of shoes. Your uppers of the shoes looked like they had gone through years of the mud puddles of hell, but man, the bottoms were pristine. Honestly, back in the 80's, I was doing well over 3000 miles/year, but shoes lasted a good 6-9 months. Might be one reason why I'm nursing aching ankles these days, but Runner's World hadn't progressed enough back then to tell me DON'T DO THAT! 

See how easy it is to come up with a subject to write about? Didn't say it was a riveting subject, but it's just a glimpse into running in yesteryear. I've got a ton of these stories, but I'll share them with my buddies at the Old Runner's Home...where everybody knows your name...where "remember" is the most used word...where I can Shoe-Goo my shoes every night!

I'll see you all on the roads - AL

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