Friday, April 18, 2014

Back on the Bus to Boston

“Sometimes it’s hard to see – or accept – the runner that you’ve become,” my coach said last week. It was our weekly touch base and I opened up that, well, the race was getting awfully close, and therefore very real, and some self-doubt had begun to creep in. For the past 16 weeks, we’d been fashioning the sword, holding it to the fire, shaping it with a hammer, and finally putting the finishing edge on it. “Even though your body can and has hit the times, it’s difficult to wrap your head around the fact that you can indeed run that fast. For that long,” he encouraged, and I nodded along. “Go look at your log for this Boston cycle and then look at last year’s.”

And so, I returned to my neat rows of boxes, meticulously filled with miles and times. Each cell told a small part of the larger story of this year’s Boston buildup. The casual observer would see a steady increase in mileage with an equally steady drop in pace.

They would read four weeks that ended with 90 and that those 75 mile “down” weeks were, just one year ago, nearly peak mileage.

They would see six weeks that ended with a 20+ mile run. And that when strung together, the month of March totaled 384.2 miles.

But they wouldn’t know that for most of those runs, I would slip into the still early morning darkness and slice through the cold or flow with (or against) a bitter wind. That some mornings I would return to the warm embrace of our house, unzip my jacket, and find that my sweat had frozen and fallen to the floor.

That when I needed it most, I found encouragement in the rarest of places, like when I was the only asshole out in a snowstorm, the sleet stabbing at my cheeks 4.5 miles into a 9 miler and a cab pulled up next to me, the driver rolled down the window and shouted, “You’re killin’ it, man!”

That instead of running an easy five the day after a 22-miler, I would get to pace my dad through an 8K and cross the finish line with him. Or that my mom would simply ask each week, "How's the running going?"

That my running partner, Rohan, and I would forge a deeper connection clicking off long run miles together, often times saying not a word to one another but finding motivation and comfort by just having another person to suffer with, as we discovered the darkest shades of exhaustion.

That my wife would be my biggest supporter, and that her simple words of, “I’m proud of you,” would carry me through my blackest moments.

And in the background of all this, the ghosts of last year’s Boston still haunted my subconscious and peeked out when I least expected them to, but were there all the same, a reminder of the people we were back then and how we chose to soldier on.

I reached the top row of my calendar, brimming with these memories, and I started to believe again.

Because the promise that “we will run again…[and]…finish the race” is nearly upon us. The memories I swore I would hold onto after last year’s race inevitably drifted off in the current that carries our life. But with just days to go and the world’s focus turning rightly back to Boston again, those memories, and even those tears, have come flowing back. Seeing the TV specials, the articles, the videos, the social media posts, my emotions stir and I just want to hop on the plane and get to Boston to soak it all in and be part of it again.

Rohan and I texted one another this past week, and he correctly summed up Monday’s race: “We’re about to learn something new about ourselves. I can’t wait.”

Each race is a new opportunity to reach into the depths of ourselves and discover what we can endure. Running’s philosopher George Sheehan wrote, “[The runner] accepts his body, perfects it and then seeks out suffering, and finds beyond suffering the whole man.”

After Boston last year, we had to find out what we could endure beyond the finish line. And it turns out, quite a lot.

And so, I will run to honor those who lost their lives and limbs. And the selfish runner in me runs to honor the many hours and miles that have gone into prying myself open to prepare for this special event.

I may not recognize the runner I’ve become yet, but am I ready to discover him?

I can’t wait.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Rock 'n Roll Arizona Half Marathon Redux (Finally)

We jogged away from our hotel, five of us, loping along the sidewalk awkwardly. The sky began to lighten behind us as we broke ranks to flow around other groups of runners headed for the start. Goose bumps rose on my bare arms, but the morning was distinctly warmish. Dan looked down at his watch, “We just hit nine minute pace,” he said, through a smile. Someone called, “Let’s pull it back,” and a laugh traveled through our band of PR-hopefuls.

Not 24 hours ago, I had just met this group of Colorado runners, spearheaded by my friend Dan, as we converged on Phoenix for the Rock ‘n Roll Arizona Half Marathon. We shared a light three mile shakeout run the day before and found the conversation as easy as the pace. I got to know my new weekend comrades as we spoke to one another in the common language of runners, swapping training philosophies, workouts, nutrition secrets, and race tactics.

Runners dressed in various shades of the neon color spectrum emptied into Tempe’s main drag around us. The pace quickened as the start line came into view and drops of adrenaline escaped into our systems. Each man broke off to complete the final touches of their warmups.

We reconvened in the starting corral and exchanged fist bumps, handshakes, and “good lucks.” I replayed our drive along the course through the dark the night before and tried to mentally prepare. I zeroed in on the long hill at mile 10, its drop on the backside, and 180 degree turn back up the way we came. But, it was at least an hour away. I kept my race plans vague, saying only that I hoped to PR (1:19:29 at the time), and would let the race unfold. I signed up merely to join my friends for a warm weekend race in January, knowing that my ultimate goal still lay some weeks away in Boston.

At the gun, I burst forward feeling the morning chill burning off. I followed C.J. who hoped to run 1:17 on the day, and found myself quickly on his shoulder. The pace felt good and I let myself consider holding with him for the race – a hard commitment to make with 13 miles still to cover. C.J. looked down at his wrist and hit the brakes, prompting me to look at my watch: 5:25. Shit. I pulled back on the reigns and came through mile 1 in 5:52. C.J. began to gap me and I resigned to fall back and find a comfortable gear between 6:00 and 6:10 and run like a metronome through at least half way. The course’s long straightaways helped support this plan.

Nearing mile 2, I felt footsteps at my back and expected the runner to go by before realizing that he was content to sit on my shoulder. He was clearly in distress and I wondered if he knew we still had 11 miles to go. I maintained my pace, letting the run come to me, and felt the flow beneath my feet. Eventually, the heavy breather fell off the back and I ran alone once again.

The pace yo-yoed between 6:10 and 6:04 before finally settling in at 6:02. When I came through 10K, I had two runners alongside me, whom I thought about staying with and realized that I simply needed to run my own race. It could have been the dryness, the travel the day before, or simply mileage catching up to me, but I was suddenly aware of the effort and wanted to push no harder.

At mile 7, the course turned right and I peered up ahead at the long, straight incline. The road tilted upward just enough to let you know you were climbing and I began to grind. My thoughts turned solely to reaching mile 10 rather than moving forward with the pace. What happened to the fast, flat course? I thought. I alternated between reading the signs of the chain restaurants crammed into each strip mall and looking ahead toward the runners in front of me, willing them to make a turn to signal the end of this stretch. I recalled my previous half marathon PR race in Providence and how this same 5K (miles 7-10) would make the difference between perseverance (and a PR) and settling. I closed my eyes for a moment, listened to the steady rhythm of my feet on the road, the flow of my breath, and the sun on my face. I reopened, reset, and marshaled on.

When I turned off the incline, I recognized the buildings from our drive the night before and knew that the elevation spike I dreaded at the start was not far off, and quickly questioned the mile markings since I’d be hitting it nearly a mile earlier than anticipated. Still, I felt my legs turnover faster and the breeze of a second wind coming up behind me. I came upon the two runners who had gone by before, smiled at the black-clad Lulu Lemon gang that faux-flashed me, and gave a thumbs up to the football team running sprints up the hill with us.

I made that turn to start climbing when I saw C.J. flying down the hill. I called to him, thinking how far ahead he had gotten, and taking a moment to appreciate his oncoming PR. Smooth and strong, I chanted in my head. I began to imagine the declivity on the far side, only having to come back up, when I suddenly reached a set of gates marking not just the top of the hill but also the turnaround. A surge of adrenaline shot through me and I flew down the hill calling to Steve, Dan, and Shaun who had just begun their climb.

I started picking off runners as though they were standing still and watched as the pace on my watch steadily dropped from 6:00 to 5:47, 5:45, and settling on 5:43. At 12 miles, I started to lose a bit of that gusto but knew that I could push on for just one more mile. I waited for the course map’s promised rollercoaster downhill finish but instead began climbing once again. I turned to my watch and saw I still had .75 to go and decided to cutoff the watch looking from then on. My breath came in short puffs and I became very aware that the sun was fully up and on us now with no clouds to shield us.

The course merged with the five mile "mini marathoners" and I weaved through them, finally able to hear the announcer welcoming everyone to the finish. The balloon arch reached up and I threw in one last kick, crossing the line in 1:18:17. A shiny new PR off a training run.

I reunited with C.J. who also hit his goal and we cheered in Dan and Steve, but somehow missing Shaun. More fist bumps, sweaty hugs, and high-fives as we shared in each other’s new PRs.

We began the slow, aching jog back to our hotel, trying to coax our tired, stiff legs back into action. This time, the 9:00 pace didn’t feel so bad.

Monday, January 13, 2014


Nearly a year ago (no, not the last time I blogged, but close), I rode shotgun in my friend Dan’s car. Dan stretched out in the back nursing marathon legs, while his father drove us toward the Houston airport, one generous stop to drop me off before they continued on to Dallas.

On that day, we were at opposite ends of the training spectrum. Dan: pulling into the slip having just completed his goal race, the culmination of 12 hard months. Me: leaving port and hunkering down for the long voyage to the Boston Marathon start line.

Dan and I text and e-mail one another on a weekly (sometimes daily) basis. So, the conversation flowed just as you would think it might when two people who share the same passion for running get together in person.

We traded stories about mileage, workouts, numbers, paces, heel drops, elevation…we spoke to one another in an altogether different language but one in which we both spoke fluently.

For that car ride, I let myself drift to Dan’s position and embrace that moment when all the hard work had been done, the race had been run, and while you wanted to celebrate, you couldn’t help think: what’s next?

Now, 12 months later, I find myself in an almost “groundhog-day-like” position, though the landscape has shifted some. Dan and I (plus a handful of brothers in arms) will trade Houston for Phoenix. This time, he’ll swap 26.2 for the 13.1, and I’ll take aim at a PR. Once it’s over, our small fraternity will reconvene over beers and rehash it all in our adopted second language.

And the conversation will eventually turn toward “what’s next.” For Dan, I can’t say – perhaps moor his boat for a few weeks (or days) to let that satisfying ache of accomplishment linger until its inevitable transformation into, “how do I do it faster next time?” For me, I’ll (hopefully) savor that shiny PR, record the day’s miles in my log, then batten down the hatches to keep sailing toward that famous start line in a small Boston suburb.

Won’t you come along for the ride?

Monday, June 3, 2013

Washing Our Spirits Clean

Before setting out.
At a white and red shack just before route 211 winds into Shenandoah National Park, Ebo, Rohan, and I shivered at the wind rapping those weathered walls. A busted up sign reads, “Burgers ‘n Things.” Each time the counter window slid back, an overweight woman with long, stringy hair pushed forward a white, grease-stained lunch bag, containing exactly what the busted sign implied. In a thick southern drawl, she called, “59,” letting that nine drag out. We snatched our bags, brought our shoulders to our ears, and hobbled back to the car. Once inside, we tore into wrappers the way kids tear into presents on Christmas morning. No one said a word. We had come a long way for that lunch.
Seven hours earlier, the car was not so quiet. Rain splattered the windshield, but no one acknowledged it. We drove the opposite direction of the city, of work, of obligations, and cell service. Not even the rain could dampen our spirits. Instead the conversation transformed me back to my days at my all-boys high school sitting around the cafeteria before class.

The car twisted around the steep bends of back roads, exposing new sides of Old Rag’s craggy summit. A thin veil of clouds flowed over the ridge and sent shivers down my spine. We pulled into the gravel parking lot, the rain having stopped just in time, and debated porta-potty or woods.

Each of us shed clothing and Rohan and I cinched our backpacks up and stared at Ebo stretching on a post. “You bringin’ anything?” Rohan asked.
“Nah,” Ebo said, an elbow cocked behind his head.
“I’m good, it’s cool enough today.”

Rohan and I gave one another a sidelong glance, then the three of us clicked our watches and trotted out into the woods.

White Oak Canyon
The day called for somewhere between 20 and 30 miles, no one was exactly sure. What we did know was that we were going to cover two of the Shenandoah’s prized trails in one, err, sitting: the lower and upper falls of White Oak Canyon and Old Rag Mountain.

The first falls crashed ahead of us, somewhere in the distance. The mood and the pace were light and our fresh legs carried us up the trail, over rocks, and around fallen branches.

We paused at the lower falls but only for a moment. In our split shorts and t-shirts, we had underdressed for the chill in that mountain air that was conspicuously absent during a week that reached into the upper 80s. Numbness gripped our hands and we turned back onto the trail to continue our rocky climb out of the canyon.

The wind gathered above us in the trees and we braced for its bluster but the canyon walls mercifully shielded us. The clouds spit cold drizzle as we traded boulders for a carpet of pine needles and continued our ascent.

At long last, we arrived at the Limberlost trail marker and made a right turn onto the Old Rag Fire Road. The wind continued to rush above us and rattle the trees. If we closed our eyes, we could have been standing next to the falls again.

With the cold worrying away our resolve, a sliver of blue sky appeared between the trees. The trail pitched sharply downward as I called out, “Six-and-a-quarter miles of this, boys!” The wind washed the sky blue and we let go of the brake and took off downhill. In the early miles, each of us searched for our footing, as we staggered ourselves across the trail. There was only the steady ratch! ratch! ratch! of our shoes kicking up the crushed gravel.

Somewhere along the way, our hands warmed and the mood and the day brightened. We pulled alongside one another and ran three across on the trail. It was here that we began to reveal the more intimate details of our lives, the sort of things that only seem right around a campfire or in the solitude of the backcountry. Sweat broke out across our brows for the first time as we neared the Old Rag trail head. Our watches marked the 11th mile and we paused to refuel.

Old Rag
With renewed strength, we started up Old Rag, happy to simply give our punished quads a rest. We took the switchbacks with surprising ease, losing our place on the trail in conversation, and sort of unbelieving when we reached the scramble across Old Rag’s rocky ridge. Here, we began to come across other hikers for the first time all day. Many marveled at our swiftness, and asked when we began, which, with a sly smile, one of us would pipe up and say, “Well, we actually started at the base of White Oak…,” which elicited bug eyes and long whistles.

We paused now and again to take in the sweeping views of the verdant Shenandoah Valley and braced ourselves against the wind that had once been too high to affect us. We minced our steps when the trail began to climb and went silent to focus on the task at hand when we came on other hikers.

Old Rag summit.
After a quick photo at the summit, we began an agile descent, hopping from rock to rock and reawakening those tortured quads again. My favorite part arrived none too soon when a brown cabin, appeared through the brown trees, against the now brown clay trail. The cabin marked the end of the rocks where my stride unwinds and smooths out so I can retire my amateur parcours skills and simply run.

We intersected with the fire road once again, and had thankfully chopped 2.25 miles off it, but that downhill that let us fly before now required us to slowly climb. It was here that Ebo outwardly acknowledged his error in not bringing any food or water. We began the arduous hike back up to the Limberlost trail, pausing at frequent intervals for Ebo to steady himself.

Storm clouds began building on the horizon. Rohan and I pulled out the map to find the shortest route back to the car to both get Ebo back and escape any afternoon thunderstorms. The climb was interminable, with another incline around every corner. Still, we pushed on, mostly in silence. Whenever Ebo stopped, Rohan searched around for something for him to eat, be it bark, dirt, or "those berries over there." I narrowed my field of vision to the two feet in front of me so as not to be tortured by the seemingly endless hills.

Finally, we reached the breakoff trail and started heading down into the canyon. Every step had become agony on the front of my quads and it actually felt better to run than walk since my feet weren’t braking as hard.

A quick detour had us retracing our steps from earlier in the morning. The sun came out again and so had the hikers heading in the opposite direction. No one spoke except to offer a brief nod to passersby. We ran the flat sections and dodged a snake slithering across the path until at long last, we arrived back at the car.

Completely wrung out, we made our away to the tailgate and opened up the cooler chilling in the back. We toasted to the effort, to the mountains, to friendship, and the vow to do it again.

Ebo fell into a deep sleep as soon as we rumbled out of the lot and Rohan dutifully took pictures of him. We knew this wouldn’t be our last adventure, but there was a sense of finality to it as Old Rag disappeared behind us. Those were thoughts for another time, though. There was a burger shack waiting.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

A Fitting Farewell

We hatched our plan where all good plans begin – wait, scratch that – the beer still chilled in the fridge. We hatched our plan where many good plans begin: on a run.

Ebo and me after two trips up and down Old Rag.
My friend Ebo, the faithful Sherpa, trailed just a few meters behind me, pedaling my hydration and snacks. Together, we easily ticked off cold and windy miles along the historic C&O canal tow path. We had just completed the out portion of what would become a 21 mile day. The headwind that swallowed our conversation mercifully pushed at our backs now, and we picked up our conversation and the pace.

Ebo’s time in D.C. was numbered as he planned a move to the West Coast, and we wanted needed an epic physical feat to send him off.

The clouds of our brainstorm converged at once on the place our adventure thoughts always seemed to bloom….

Old Rag’s craggy summit juts out sharply over the Shenandoah’s verdant, rolling hills. It treats the hiker to relentless switchbacks, narrow crawl spaces, and ledges to hoist oneself atop.

It takes the average hiker about four hours and some change to complete the eight-ish mile roundtrip hike up to the summit, down the fire road, and back to the car. Ebo and I, with another friend, have completed two loops in just under four hours, sending unsuspecting hikers diving for the brush as we blazed past them at alarming speeds (the fire road is 2.25 miles of crushed gravel pointing straight down).

If a mountain can be associated with one person, Old Rag belongs to Ebo. We have returned to it often, though he more than I, in all seasons and conditions.

It holds special significance for me as well. It was on a hike up Old Rag with my dad back in 2003 where I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life with the future Mrs. OTBR.

The sense this time around, however, was that while Old Rag was special to both of us, it wasn’t enough. We needed something bigger.

With the Georgetown Key Bridge disappearing over our shoulders, the answer seemed to reveal itself to us at the same time. Last summer, Ebo and I chalked up another double loop of Old Rag to kick off a weekend of camping, hiking, and running. While traipsing up yet another Shenandoah jewel, the White Oak Canyon Upper and Lower Falls trail, we arrived at an intersection in the trail. We walked around the trail marker curious where all roads from this point led when we came across the final panel: “Old Rag Fire Road.”

A silence settled over us as we raised our eyebrows at one another: “I wonder,” trailing off. Then, “Someday.”

Later, I pulled up a map of the area and sure enough, the trails connected, though the distance for each segment wasn’t clear. Still…

“Someday” is tomorrow.

We’ll rise before the sun and drive toward the jagged horizon. Soon, the mountains will grow larger and the city will melt away behind us. We’ll lace up and set out, unsure of just how high the day’s total mileage will be.

But tomorrow, it’s not really the mileage that matters.
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