Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Boston Outfit

In my small world of racing (and large world of idiosyncrasies), I’ve come to rely on and embrace several superstitions, one of the primary ones being: the race day outfit.

Several factors weigh in on the race day outfit:

• How new are the shorts/shirt?
• What’s the weather going to be on race day?
• Does the outfit have past racing experience…and if so, what were the results? Varsity effort? JV effort?
• Has the outfit performed well in training runs, speed workouts, long runs?
• And of course, how does it look?

For Boston, I’ve experimented with many combinations. I’m not ready to retire other items. It’s hard to argue the success of my black and green Nike singlet and red racing shorts. We’ve been through my first Boston together, a half marathon PR that qualified me for the NY marathon, and my first sub-60 10-miler.

* dramatic pause for reflection *

No, it’s not time to say good bye, just make room for the up-and-comers.

It’s led to adventures in short-shorts (enjoy those legs, ladies) as well as transported me back in time – more than 30 years – to my dad’s University of Florida racing singlet.

The jersey comes from a different running era. In the days before wicking fabrics, power gels, fuel belts, and thick-cushioned shoes, my dad and Uncle (the Onthebusrunning Distance Project coaching staff), just ran. Cotton shorts, no shirts, popping into gas stations for water and pissing off the attendant. In the Florida heat no less!

The jersey is mesh and yellowed from the years, the miles, and the sweat. Barring snow, I’ll pull it on in the morning and wring out any last magic miles he might have left in there to get me from Hopkinton to Boylston Street.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

National Half Marathon Redux

“It’s not last year,” I kept telling myself. I pulled tights back out of the closet since the weather called for a brisk 32 degrees at start time. So much for testing my Boston outfit in a race. I continued my pre-race routine and pinned my number on the shirt I’d wear in the morning, laid out my oatmeal packet and bowl, and packed up my backup. All the while, I repeated, “It’s not last year,” because last year was different.

Last year, I ran 1:21:48 at the National Half Marathon, shattering my PR by seven minutes and feeling supremely confident about toeing the line in Boston. I had a number of 18+ mile long runs under my belt and a stockpile of fartleks and hill repeats. This year was different. This year was about getting in the miles. This year was just about getting to the line.

I told myself I’d be happy somewhere around 90 minutes, but not to force it. If the pace came, I’d go with it…if it felt crappy, I’d pull back and just use it as a recovery run. After all, my last five weeks of weekend mileage looked like this: 9.2, 14, 16, 18, 17. A step back weekend wouldn’t be the worst thing.

The next morning, I felt lethargic getting out of bed with the alarm, and as I groped my way down the stairs in the dark, I thought, “Why do I need to do this?” But the more I walked around, got some food in me, and talked to my wife and father-in-law, the more life returned.

When we arrived, parking on a sidestreet near RFK, my initial inclination was, I need to find a tree. So, I did my best impression of a calf stretch against a tree and completely bypassed the porta-potty lines. Meanwhile, my wife and father-in-law walked off to the start to go meet our friend Sarah who was running her first half marathon. A good luck kiss for Mrs. Onthebusrunning, and a handshake for my father-in-law.

I went through my dynamic warmup in the solitude of this D.C. side street. Families were still asleep, warm and tucked in, while I tried to coax my muscles to life. Satisfied, I trotted off toward the start, threw in a couple pickups, and smiled at the bounciness in my step. I tried to contain my excitement because I’d felt this before and it led to good things.

I ducked into the number 1 corral and bounced eagerly while the announcer shouted final directions. “It’s not last year,” I repeated. I looked around and noticed the other members of my corral in their racing flats and trainers and then down at my clunky 2160s. “I’ve got to start training to race in flats,” I thought. And then the gun.

Being up front, I didn’t have to weave too much, but still made my way to the periphery of the horde for some breathing room. The pace came easy, though I tempered expectations because the race opens with a long, gradual climb up North Carolina Avenue. It’s not enough to burn the quads, but enough to steal some of your breath.

A smattering of D.C. residents stepped out of their Capitol Hill row homes to cheer on the runners. It was enough to distract me from the task at hand because before I knew it, the hill had plateaued and my watch beeped the first mile. I looked down expecting to see 7:10, 7:15….6:25 it said. “Huh,” I let out audibly. “Shit.”

The Capitol dome rose in front of us and as we rounded the bend, I felt like I had pulled the pace back, not wanting to blow up. My watch beeped again. “Ok,” I thought. “Let’s see what we’ve got,” again expecting to see 7:00, 7:10….6:18. “Oops.”

The course continued beyond the normal turn following two miles, a last minute reroute. I decided from there not to look at my watch again, rather to just run by feel and see where it took me.

We wound around the course and out to Union Station. I knew we’d end up on Constitution eventually. With one final turn, the course dumped us out at the Modern Art Museum. “Ack,” I thought, “That’s it?” expecting to be farther down the Avenue. While the miles down Constitution are always beautiful, the Mall to your left, the sun coming up behind the Capitol, the White House to your right, it doubles back on itself, which I can’t stand in races. However, the new route mercifully eliminated the turnaround and instead took us straight onto Virginia Ave…where the real work begins.

For me, the National Marathon always starts at mile 4. It’s here that you enter the Dupont Circle area and the Dupont Hills. For five miles, the route rises and falls, testing your quads, and lungs. But what the course takes away in uphills, it gives back in downhills. I know if I can make it to mile 9, I’ll be treated to a one mile downhill stretch that ends just beyond mile 10. The mantra today was “nice and smooth” and the freshness I felt on my warm-up carried through these challenging miles.

When my watched beeped 10 miles, I ducked under an overpass and caught a glimpse at my split, 63:00. From above I heard, “Don’t look at that watch! You look good. Keep going, keep going.” I tilted my head up and tossed a wave, smiled to myself, and steeled my will for the final 5K.

With only four turns left, I pushed the final two hills, one in mile 11 and the last on 13th street before you make the turn onto North Carolina and see RFK rise up against the hill. It’s here that the marathon leaders make their second pass UP North Carolina, and it serves to give me a little jolt to the finish.

I hit the half/full split and barreled toward the finish. “Let’s wrap this up,” I thought, accelerating around the final turn to the finish.

After I crossed, I looked down at my watch: 1:23:38, and laughed. I ran the final 3.1 mi with consistent 6:11 splits. I couldn’t account for it. As I stretched and pulled my warm-ups back on, I called my dad and recounted the race to him. We pieced together just how this might have happened…and couldn’t come up with much.

Whatever the case, sometimes it’s best not to ask those sorts of questions, or perhaps have answers to them. In the end, I’ll take the time and not change a thing about my training between now and Boston (less than three weeks away), and hope some of that spring is still there in Hopkinton. It's not last year...and that's ok.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A Long Commute

It was dark when I started.  Butterflies fluttered in my stomach.  I flicked on my headlamp and followed the narrow shaft of light that lit the trail five feet in front of me.  Surely there couldn't be anyone else out on the trail, no one dangerous at least, I thought.  Hell, on any given morning, I'd still be in bed.  I zipped up my vest and walked down the gravel path toward the trail head then nearly walked right by it, it was so dark.  I took one last deep breath, clicked the watch, and trotted off. 

After last week's "20" miler, I declared the rebuild over.  Though I was three short of 20, the only lingering pain I felt were some sore quads and tight hamstrings, i.e. the usual stiffness that follows a long run.  So, I decided with one training cycle left before my Boston taper, the time had come to ratchet up the mileage.  I wanted to be efficient about it, though, and to do that, I needed to throw in some two-a-days.  Rather than beat my legs up on the 8.5 miles of sidewalk and asphalt to work, though, I decided instead to take to my rehab trail: the Cross County.  I woke up at 5:58, two minutes before the alarm, no doubt from eager anticipation.  I pulled on my running clothes and accessories in the dark and drove out to the trail.  

That's how I found myself feeling my way through the darkness at 6:25 a.m. today.  

The pace felt easy, my breath barely rising above a huff, even when taking the hills.  I became acutely aware of the sounds around me, and tuned my ears in for footsteps from behind and the rumble of thunder above the trees.  I heard neither.

The weather called for rain all morning and severe thunderstorms in the afternoon.  The wetness I could handle, the thunder terrified me.  With every step, the sky began to lighten, and just as the deer come out when the daylight fades and turns to dusk, so too do they emerge from the night as the sun comes on.  I shuffled over the path and sent herds of startled deer crashing into the woods, their white tails bobbing through the broken branches.  

The world was coming alive, not just in the woods, but in the homes that backed up to the trail.  Kitchen lights burned through the trees and I imagined the morning routines of brewing coffee, making breakfast, and watching the news going on inside there.  All things I'd sacrificed this morning.

My only hiccup came when I lost my balance crossing over the stream and ended up ankle deep in the icy water.  But just under an hour later, I emerged from the woods and into the misty morning of commuters and finally to my office.  Once there, I stretched, showered, and started the day...always knowing that I needed to recover to get back home.

As those 8.5 hours counted down, I checked and rechecked the hourly forecast on  The storm that was supposed to ravage the area in the early afternoon actually held off until now as I type this.  

So when I set off to cover the 7mi back to my car, I did so without the trepidation I carried with me in the morning.  In fact, the sun came out and broke apart the clouds for nearly half the run.  I tucked my hat into my vest pocket and wiped sweat from my eyes as I retraced my steps from the morning.  

Where I expected fatigue in my legs, I found them fresh and the turnover coming easily.  I managed to avoid stepping in the stream this time, but the Mexican lunch I decided was a good idea kept threatening to show itself again.  Several deep breaths kept everything down where it's supposed to be.

And what I hadn't noticed in the morning because of the darkness were the signs of spring poking through the brown molt of leaves.  Patches of grass sprouted up along the trail as well as crops of what looked like cabbage ready to unfold.

I arrived back at the car strangely loose and satisfied.  For some reason, I almost expected it not to be there.  It'd been so long since I left.  I stretched for a moment, dug my key out, and started the car up.  It concluded the end of one long commute.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A New Age Group

When the alarm went off last Wednesday, I fumbled in the dark for my gym clothes, pulled on a fleece and apologized to the dog since it wasn’t my turn to take her out in the morning. Then I rode off to the gym with my friend and passed through what’s become “the Wednesday workout,” i.e. 40 minutes of lifting at the gym. It was nothing out of the ordinary, except that the question I would get for the rest of the day would be: How does it feel to be 30?

While I expected the question, what I didn’t anticipate was the look of disappointment on everyone’s face when I would tell them, “Feels fine. Actually, feels just like yesterday.”

It is, after all, a leading question, like I was supposed to lament leaving my 20s behind, be depressed, life in crisis…all that nonsense.

You want to know what the biggest difference is, what my greatest concern has been? Jumping to the hardest age group to place in: the 30-35 bracket.

Perhaps runners in their mid-late 20s don’t really discover running (or hit their peak) until their 30s. Whatever the case, when beat to the tape, I find, at least in this area, it’s by guys who are four-five years older than me.

On D-Day + 1, I started discussing this with my running partner. After a half day at work, we met up at Roosevelt Island to tackle my first 20 miler of this abbreviated Boston training plan. The plan was 16 miles together, then the last four he’d hop on his bike and ride the rest of the way with me – what are friends for?

“We just have to work harder,” he said, as the D.C. Mall rose in front of us. “That’s going to make getting on the podium all the sweeter.”

I liked where this was headed as we fell into an easy pace.  Hard to avoid when you’re running across the Potomac River, the Kennedy Center to your left, the Jefferson Memorial to your right, and the Capitol dome looming in the distance.

To the non-runner, this would have been the perfect day. A cloudless sky, the sun high overhead. The thermometer hit 65 degrees, a 15 degree swing from days and weeks prior. In short, spring. Which in D.C. means one thing: tourists.

Somewhere between the Lincoln Memorial and the World War II Memorial, Rohan and I took shade under the canopy of trees stretching between the two.  As we weaved in and out of the throngs of families walking four wide across the path, I noticed that we'd become an attraction of our own.  To set the scene a bit more, we were both in our split shorts, and, because of the warmer weather, next to nothing on top.  There were no comments, only stares and double takes, but enough to get us laughing and posing for the crowd.  "You think they think we're gay?" Rohan asked. We started putting words in their mouths:

"What did you see in D.C.?"
"Oh, a nice gay, interracial couple running along the mall."

And so on.

In fact, I'm pretty sure that I'm on some 11-year-old's Facebook page now in a photo album called "Trip to D.C."

All was fine through about 10 miles.  We crossed back into Virginia using the Memorial bridge, and regaled each other with memories of old D.C. races as we covered pieces of past courses.  Then the heat took over.  Turning on to the Mt. Vernon Trail, we started to run low on water.  Then Rohan's foot started to hurt.  Then all of my gels bounced out of my pouch.

Rohan turned back while I tried to stick out another mile out and back.  I slowed the pace and rationed out my water.  The sun felt like I was in Death Valley.  In August.  With no water.  And now alone.  I craved sugar and started scouring the trail for my lost gels.  If I found them, would I eat them?  Definitely.  I found one.  It'd been run over by a bike.  I can't eat that.

I listened for the beep on my watch to mark the miles.

The Roosevelt bridge popped up above the ridge and I locked in on it.  I staggered through the final half mile and came to the car.  I pulled out my replacement water bottle, you know, the one with the electrolytes in it that I'd been fantasizing about for 40 minutes.

"How you feel?" Rohan asked.
"Give me a sec.  Let me get a couple sips of this and I'll be ready for the last 1.5 out and back."  I took one swig from the bottle and half of it disappeared in one swallow.  I stood there a few seconds more.  I had a bad sunburn on my shoulders.  In two more sips the water bottle sputtered.  "You know," I started as he pulled the bike out of his car.  "I'm all set.  I'm shutting it down for the day."
"No shame in that.  Pretty hot out here.  It's the smart decision."

So, we drained a couple more water bottles and stretched out on the pavement, waxing poetic about upcoming races, competing in new age groups, and training smarter.

Training smarter.  Hmm.  Perhaps there's wisdom that comes with old(er) age.

Monday, March 14, 2011


It could have been the new shorts.  It could have been the new found confidence.  Hell, it could have just been that I'd traded my headlamp for sunglasses on an after work run.  Whatever the case, tonight was just one of those runs.  I clicked off the miles this evening.  I could have run forever.

Two weeks ago, I could only wish to feel this good.  

It was sometime in the middle of the week.  I lay in bed exhausted but unable to fall asleep.  What's the Nirvana line?  "I'm so tired, but I can't sleep...."  The fan whirred, the white noise that I rode to dreamland every night.  I bargained with myself not to look at the clock, knowing that I'd be slashing precious hours of sleep, that somehow I wouldn't lose if I couldn't see the numbers.  My stomach was in knots.  Not the throw up, nauseous kind.  The nervous anxiety, speaking-in-front-of-a-crowd-tomorrow kind.

I'd survived the past weekend's 14-miler with no pain in my knee.  But it didn't stay away for long.  I was ready to declare the rebuild over until the next day, I felt the twinge going up the stairs.  So I rested.  It didn't get better.

With so much else going on in the world, it seemed so trivial.  But I began worry.  A sub-three hour Boston didn't seem to matter so much anymore.  Instead, I simply wanted to make it to the starting line.  I just wanted to the Boston Experience again, to cross the finish line, and slip that new jacket on. So I kept it to myself, preferring the silent torture.  I didn't tell my wife.  I didn't tell my coaches (my dad and uncle).  Not my running buddy or my co-workers.  Instead, I lay awake.  

Thinking about how I would have to bail on Boston.  

I rationalized that it was better to get healthy and run for years rather than risk it all on one race.  But it was Boston.  And I'd done the work.  I did the rehab to get better, and here it was about to be stolen from me.

It was a dark time. 

I lay there thinking about my run for the next day.  I began calling the Cross County Trail the "Rehab Trail."  It was flat and forgiving.  But I started to write the post in my head: "There's a bench along the path that I use to mark the half mile mark.  It's a bench I only notice on the back portion of this out and back.  But today, it would be the bench that I sat on to decide whether or not I would run Boston.  There may be tears but I'll only let myself see them, and when I stand up to walk the long half mile to the car, the brooding will have to end...."

At some point I fell asleep.  I ran the next day and never got to write that post.  In fact, I threw a smug smile at the bench as I zoomed by it.  Then I ran 16 miles that weekend.  A 21 mile week off of two runs.  

Feeling confident, I ran three times last week and clipped off 18 miles on the weekend with no issue.  I didn't think about my knee once.  The end of each run served to bolster that confidence, and I reasoned in my head that each successful run was not only building my stamina, but making that leg stronger.

And so today, I pulled on my new pair of Brooks split shorts and trotted up the slight incline that I've started so many runs on.  The sun was still high but the air brisk.  A reminder that it wasn't quite spring yet.  I thought perhaps I should have brought a hat with me.  I climbed out of my neighborhood and on to the main road.  The turnover was there.  

I tried not to get too was only one mile after all.

My iPod seemed to sense the moment and kept selecting the up tempo songs I sometimes wish for during those times when you're fighting it and need a pick me up.  Today, it just put fuel on the fire.  I burned through the two mile mark and caught a glimpse of my watch.  Seeing the pace dip below 6:30, I surged on.  I conquered hills that once gave me pause weeks ago and then defiantly flew down their backside.

Six miles later, I clicked my watch and took my obligatory cool down walk around the mailboxes and back to the steps of our house.  I sat near the top of our stairs, untied my shoes, and took one last pull to empty my water bottle.  There would be no brooding tonight.

Instead, I think I'll be sleeping soundly, clicking off those miles in my head.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

A Different Kind of Recovery Run

The machine gun jangle of Mattie's collar is what woke me first.  It couldn't have been much past 8:00, and in fact it wasn't.  I sighed into the pillow and willed myself out from under the covers.  On a regular Sunday, the day I reserve for rest and recovery, I'd lumber down the stairs, let Mattie out, trying to keep my eyes as closed as possible, then get right back to bed as if nothing happened.  Not this Sunday.

Instead of walking out the front door to the cold, still morning, I stepped out to the sound of the ocean.  And for once, I didn't have to close my eyes and pretend that the constant hum, the unending cacophony of motors racing up and down West Ox road, was the ocean, because this time it was.  I stood at the top of the stairs, took a deep inhale of the heavy, salt air and felt my legs return to life as Mattie and I aimed for the beach.

What I'm calling a recovery run wasn't really a run at all, but in fact a solitary walk down the strip of sand facing the Atlantic along the Outer Banks.  Upon occasion, a core of my friends and I have traveled the five hours from Virginia to North Carolina for a long weekend at the beach; however, our focus is not on sprawling out in the sand, sunning ourselves, or going out to dive bars.  Rather, our trips are about rejuvenation.  Long days doing, well, whatever we want.  And that mostly involves several bottles of wine and constant grazing of not just food, but damn good food.  The off-season at the OBX is a far cry from the traffic-choked roads of the summer, the screaming kids, and the crowded beaches.  There are times, in fact, that it feels as if we have the entire town of Corolla to ourselves.

In particular, at 7:45 a.m. on a misty Sunday.

Untethered from iPhone, iPod, GPS watch, and even Mattie's leash (no deer to worry about here), we soaked in what the morning offered us...and that was solitude.  

Where the sidewalk ends...
The day before, I'd completed a grueling 16-miler that was more a test of mental will than physical; however, when my watch beeped 16, I took the last few ginger steps to the boardwalk.  One of my favorite things about the beach are those waning seconds where you can hear the waves, but can't actually see the beach.  Where the boardwalk finishes, it's almost as if the end of the world could be on the other side.  

I untied my laces, slung my shoes over my shoulder, and took my first barefoot steps in the sand, relishing the way my feet instantly spread out and unwound.  Then there was the dip in the ocean, or ice bath, or ocean bath.  Each step took my breath away, not because of the scenery, because it was damn cold.  And I shivered for a long five minutes as the waves rolled up my shivering thighs.

On this Sunday morning, though, Mattie and I raced the storm that we could see moving toward us down the beach.  Steel-colored clouds reached across the sky, and the horizon seemed to move toward us in a blurry mass.  We didn't care.  

Mattie picked away at the empty crab shells and sprinted along the rim of the waves crawling up the beach that seemed to reach farther and farther up shore.  She chased the shells that the receding tide turned over and tried to bury her nose in the burbling crab holes that sputtered.

Sufficiently "recovered," we turned around and headed back for the stairs.  I couldn't tell you how long we were gone for.  Near the end, an otherwise gray sky broke to let a small patch of light escape.  The rain came harder, or maybe it was the salt spray from the waves.  Either way, we trotted back to the house, recovered body and soul.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Wrapped Up in Races

"Did it come?" I asked my wife last night.  
30 squares of memories
"Maaaaybe." She smirked, while packing up her lunch for the next day.

It was nearly 11:30 p.m.  I'd just gotten home from the Caps game and could think of little else but a shower and sleep...that and how quickly the alarm was going to come to go to the gym.

"It's upstairs, isn't it?" I asked with anticipation.  "I'll meet you up there."
"No!  Wait, wait.  I'm coming too."

We ran upstairs like two kids bee-lining it for the Christmas tree.  I got up to our bedroom, the dog following close behind, feeding off our eagerness.   There it was spread out over our bed: 30 race t-shirts stitched together.  Six years of marathons, 5Ks, Turkey Trots, Goblin Gallops, Jingle All the Ways, Ten Milers, t-shirts to cure diseases, t-shirts to raise money, t-shirts in memory of....

In the middle of December, when holiday shopping had reached its peak, Mrs. Onthebusrunning and I were in our bedroom (apparently a theme of this post), and I was crouched over my bureau, shoving, cramming, folding, forcing the bottom drawer closed.  Inevitably, one sleeve or hunk would be sticking out, and I'd have to say, "The hell with it," and walk away, "Good enough."  Sure I could have thrown them away, washed the car with them, donated them to charity...but these were hard earned, no matter how ugly or unattractive some of them were.  I mean, my God, the Marine Corps Marathon shirts are hideous (mustard yellow...really?), but I wear it like a badge of honor.  I earned the right to wear this ugly shirt.  Sometimes I throw my Army Ten Miler shirt on -- from when I went sub-60 last year -- and just soak in the confidence and speed from it.  My Ragnar shirt makes me yearn for sleep just from looking at it.  My Vermont shirt brings a smile because it's where I first qualified for Boston.

The point is, each shirt is more than a cheap run off from some local printer. It carries memories.  It carries good and bad juju depending on when you first don it (before completing the race=big no no).  So I couldn't give them away.  But I also couldn't shut my drawers.  

My thoughtful (and awesome!) wife decided to get me the Campus Quilt kit for Christmas.  Two weeks ago, we pulled all those race shirts out in our guest room, put them in a thoughtful order, and shipped them out.

Yesterday, it arrived. 

She spread it across our bed and we marveled at it.  Overcome with excitement (and exhaustion), I laid down on the bed and wrapped myself in it.  Now, whenever I need some inspiration, to relive a race, or just because I'm cold, I can wrap myself up in those past races.
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