Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Marine Corps Marathon Redux - Part II

Read Part I.

Tethered to Rohan.
In all D.C. races, if you ask runners what sections of the city they fear the most, the majority would undoubtedly mention crossing the 14th Street Bridge and rounding Hains Point. In past Marine Corps Marathons, runners faced the two-plus mile section called Hains Point that comprised miles 18, 19, and 20 before heading over the 14th Street Bridge. Organizers have since altered this cruelest of cruel mapping by routing runners to Hains at the half way point during their Odyssey. 

This segment is not hard physically. In fact, it’s relatively flat and the headwind you fight on the way out is returned to you in a tailwind after you round the point. The trouble with Hains is that it’s fairly inaccessible to spectators, leaving runners alone with their thoughts of the pain-staking journey that remains. Evenly-spaced cherry blossom trees line the one way road, and while pretty, they give the perception that you're running in place. The landscape never changes and the elevation remains constant. It is torturous and maddening.

Already in dire straights, I dreaded Hains. Rohan and I started heading out around the point, running side by side. The absence of wind worried me because I knew then we’d have to face it as we made our way back into the city. The wet blanket fatigue wore on me and I tried desperately to distract myself. I read the signs on the course. I tried to sing the Counting Crows' "Rain King" in my head, a song I often got stuck in my head on training runs. I called back to previous workouts. Nothing helped, and yet, my watch still impossibly read 6:30. 

The cherry trees ticked by one after the other, never changing, never altering until finally I saw the halfway mark, which we went through in 1:25 flat.

Here, the road began a slight bend and my spirits lifted some knowing that the tip was near. We leaned into the curve and the wind took us head on. Rohan and I began taking turns leading so that the other person could draft. The pace dropped to 6:40 when I took the lead. Rohan slipped ahead of me and I had to quicken my turnover to hang with him. I threw an imaginary tether around him to keep myself locked on the back of his shirt. "Almost out, boys," a marine called to us as if he knew.

Mile 15 came and went and we were free from Hains Point. I still felt like garbage.

“You okay?” Rohan called back.
“Terrible,” I acknowledged. “Go if you want,” I said, while the Jefferson Memorial went by on our left.
“Ah, no,” he said. “I don’t know what’s coming ahead so I’m sticking with you.”

We ran that way around the Mall, Rohan  between five and 15 feet ahead of me as I kept a grip on the tether all the while rationalizing with myself. I've written before about how we romanticize suffering through runs. Yet, it's one thing to talk and write about emptying yourself and an entirely other demon to confront when you're in the middle of it.

Rounding the Capitol.
If you walk, it’s over, I kept telling myself, knowing full well that my legs would seize up and it would be an even bigger battle to find the finish. My mouth hung open and I blew fluffs of spit to the side of the road. I closed my eyes and pulled out my deck of "rolodex workouts," the ones I made it through somehow and vowed it would make me stronger physically and mentally on race day. I thought about running up and down Old Rag, the base miles in the summer heat, the 12 mile tempo runs....None of it seemed to help, until my eyes focused again and I looked up at where we were. I had spent so much time focusing on those workouts and keeping the tether on Rohan that two more miles had gone by.

The monuments continued to flash by and soon, we came to mile 20, the final marker before leaving the city. I checked my watch and saw 2:10. A sub-2:50 would be tough to make but I knew I could string together a sub-50 minute 10K to at least come in under three hours.

From there, I broke the course up into three sets of two miles: two miles over the bridge; two miles in Crystal City; two miles on the highway to the finish.

It could have been that that galvanized me or that the running gods felt that I had sufficiently proved my worth, but as we headed over the bridge, my stride opened up and the clouds in my head parted. I caught up to Rohan and we came off the bridge side by side for the first time since mile 10.

“You good?” He asked.
“Somehow. Yes.” I said.

And we began to ride.

Our strides fell in synch and the roar of the crowds in Crystal City spurred us on. I started looking for Vanessa, a fellow RW Loopster and D.C.-area resident. Somehow I missed her. But Rohan and I were locked in. 

We rounded the back side of the Crystal City portion and started to make our way out toward the Pentagon. Mile 23 came and went. I checked my watch. 
Hard to the finish.

“We just dropped back-to-back 6:15s,” I said to him. He huffed.

Morning miles, I said to myself, thinking of the easy 5Ks I would run each morning during my base building phase.

I could feel my left hip flexor start to tighten and the adjustment brought on a dangerous quivering in my hamstring. The elevation leveled out just in time that I could resume my normal stride and keep those cramps at bay.

We took 24 under an overpass and began our tour around the Pentagon. I started to put a bit of distance between Rohan at this point. I looked back at the five foot gap and tried to slow for him to catch up until the hamstring quivers returned. I pushed on coming up and over a ridge onto Washington Boulevard where I took the head wind full on. I leaned forward and tried to drive myself into the wind. 

It wasn't until the exit ramp that it subsided. I wound around the ramp and slingshotted onto the final stretch of highway where it had all began. 

My father-in-law stood on the side of the course and bellowed, “Come on, Brad!” as I smiled and charged by him. The crowd grew thicker and the cheers washed over me. I made the final turn and went up on my toes to take the final hill. The finish seemed to come out of nowhere and with it a tremendous sense of relief. 

I walked a few feet before turning to see Rohan finish. We staggered together, he a debut marathon of 2:55, and me, a shiny, new PR by three minutes with a 2:52:59.

I found my dad and promptly felt my face involuntarily contort as I tried to hold back the tears. I had wrung all of the physical and mental energy from myself.

At the finish.
“Great job,” he said, hugging me.
“Hardest one I’ve ever done,” I said.

Rohan and I found an open spot of grass where we crashed with our families. I waited for my wife and the rest of our friends to finish and we traded stories about the course as the wind picked up and the sky darkened.

We were the same people and same friends we were prior to the gun going off, yet somehow standing there in the pre-hurricane, post-race euphoria, we were all somehow different.

I guess completing a marathon will do that to you.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Marine Corps Marathon Redux - Part I

I remember getting out of a bed that wasn’t mine, at least not in real life. I padded easily around the room and looked at my wife who had just flicked the light on. “You know,” I said, shaking out each leg, “I feel pretty good. Almost like I didn’t even run the race.” Then the beeping. Then I snapped awake in our still dark bedroom. It wasn’t until I got to the bathroom and started slathering on vaseline that it hit me: I hadn’t run the race yet.

Hours later, in the pre-dawn light, our troupe of marathoners fell into the ant lines of other runners marching across the Pentagon parking lot toward the hill. We were veterans seeking PRs, first timers seeking to know the anguish and elation of the distance, and repeat offenders seeking the journey. All of us sought the finish line.

Outside a city that lends itself to vibrant sunrises, we stared across the river at the flat, gray light that had begun to filter through the clouds and silhouette the Washington Monument and Capitol dome. Sporadic gusts of wind foretold what awaited us later in the days and nights to come. But before then, there was another storm to get through.

Our group began to subtract members as we came upon each pillar marked with projected finishing times. After kissing my wife good bye and good luck, it was only Rohan and I.

We ducked into the trees for one last “bathroom” visit. “Eight minutes to the start runners!” boomed a voice from the speakers, and I took what felt like a gut shot. Rohan and I trotted up toward the start line, stopping initially at the 2:30-2:59 estimated finish time until I spied another marker that read Bibs 1-499. “Let’s go up,” I said, pointing to the 283 on my bib.

We went through a quick dynamic warmup and hopped the fence into the corral, chucking our warmups to the side. 

I tried to offer last minute instructions to Rohan who would be completing his first 26.2. But as I got going, I realized I said them to reassure myself as well. 

They moved us up to the start line, Rohan and I just three rows from the front. The cannon blasted and still reverberated in my chest as we took off down the highway....

We ran by the final left turn that would mark the race’s final .2 miles, a brutal climb, but one that would have to wait.

During the first two miles, Rohan and I ran side by side attacking the long and steep hill that climbed through Rosslyn. I tried to stick to my plan of disconnecting for the first 10 miles, to run the hills by effort, and not worry too much about pace. I stole a glance here and there at the watch as my breath labored some and I reminded myself that we were climbing. Once the second mile came and went, we sailed down the backside and I grabbed the reigns and pulled back on the pace, which read 6:05.

Approaching the 5K mark, Rohan and I found ourselves in a pack of four runners. The course was lined with deep yellow, red, and orange woods made all the more vibrant against the slate-colored sky. A gust of wind sent a curtain of leaves helicoptering down toward us. The four us eyed one another and laughed, enjoying the brief distraction from the task at hand.

Around mile five, the pack began to string out as we hooked a left over the Key Bridge and prepared for an out and back along the Potomac River. This would send us into the final climb of the race just prior to mile seven. We caught up to a short, fit blonde decked out in Brooks gear. “What are you guys looking to run?” she asked in a low, confident voice, almost as though she didn’t have a pulse.

“2:50ish,” I said.
“Let’s do it then,” she said. And we took off with her and two other runners.

It was here that I started willing myself to relax. Something just didn’t seem right. We clicked off the miles and the pace came steadily and easy enough, but the pre-race pit in my stomach hadn’t gone away yet. I took water at the next stop and nearly threw it back up. Relax!  I commanded.

At the turnaround point, we hit the final short, steep hill and Rohan and I pulled away from our small pack. When we crested the top and began our speedy descent, I looked at Rohan, “We fucking owned that hill,” I said, finally feeling that pit in my stomach break up.

With Georgetown and mile nine in sight, we began seeing our friends flash by to take on the out portion. We exchanged cheers, waves, and high fives as they started out. Later, they would tell me independently that I looked “pissed” through that portion. “Not pissed,” I would say, “Just hurting.” I decided not to run with my sunglasses and unknowingly wore the pain in my eyes.

Mile 10 came and went and though I had been uncomfortable, I marveled at how fast those first 10 miles disappeared. Rohan and I came around behind the Lincoln Memorial. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a shirt that said “1 Life to Run” on it and thought how weird that was to see someone with Rohan’s shirt on. Then it hit me and I pointed. 

“Your wife!” I said. He looked over and darted across the road to her to switch out his water bottles. Two other women with her went wild cheering.

“My mom,” he said, smiling.

He was the only one. I started hurting at this point. Really hurting. I couldn’t explain it. My legs felt fine. My breathing was not more than a whisper and we were still hitting our pace. Yet, my body felt out of sync and uncomfortable. 

The crowd began to disappear behind us, the cheers dissipating until it was just the sound of our footfalls and the storm  raging in my head. The course took us out toward Haines Point, the graveyard of the marathon.

I wasn’t sure what to do.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Tales from Taperville

I sat at the kitchen table this past Sunday with a plate of eggs, toast, and kale in front of me, a hot cup of coffee filled to the lip, and the Washington Post spread out before me. It’s my weekend ritual – or rather my Sunday ritual. It’s the one day during the week that the alarm doesn't go off and I don’t have to pull running clothes on in the dark. While that punctured egg yolk began to bleed into my pile of kale, the clock on the oven caught my eye: 10:55 a.m. I turned to our roommate who sat across from me.

“What?” she asked.
“This time next week,” I said, nodding. “This time next week it will all be over. I hope.”

As if on cue, Mrs. Onthebusrunning walked into the kitchen, phone in hand, “Just got a text from Ebo saying, ‘This time next week Brad will be done and we’ll be close.’”

Ah, the “This time next week” game. Normally reserved for vacations, visits from friends, or the conclusion of work presentations. But also applicable to major races.  

Yesterday, for example, I thought, “This time next week I’ll be getting a massage.” And, “This time next week, I’ll be cracking out my celebratory Chimay Cinq Cents.”

But I’m quick not to let my thoughts wander too far ahead, after all, there is still the task at hand. 

Because it’s the final taper week, I can’t keep my mind focused on one thing for very long. I’m filled with so much extra energy that I’m like a child with ADD who’s just been given pixie sticks and a drawer full of shiny objects.

At work, it’s not much better. I settle in to work on a task but every new Outlook e-mail that pops up quickly steals my attention. My thoughts are a running ticker for a news station that might scroll across my eyes something like this:

Any new Yahoo e-mails? | Need to get more brown rice for pre-race breakfast | Lance Armstrong is a dick | Is the debate tonight? | Any new Yahoo e-mails? | What’s the weather for Sunday? | Almost time for afternoon Starbucks run | Any new Yahoo e-mails? | I love this song, when is Mumford & Sons touring? | Weather for Sunday | Yahoo e-mails …

And on it goes. I yearn for my afternoon run just to get rid of some of this energy while my fingers fly across the keyboard and I shovel snacks down my throat. At 10:00 last night, I watched the TV fully coherent and alert as opposed to the heavy-lidded / near coma stare I usually wear. Sigh. Five miles is so unsatisfying.

More often than not in that steady stream of information, my thoughts wander to Sunday morning and I have to temper expectations or else that ball of nervous excitement will fester in the pit of my stomach and I’ll walk around in a constant state of nausea. Instead, I try to associate with one of my better workouts and then let it go.

Still, on my run yesterday, when I tried to remind myself that this was just an easy run, I found my thoughts drifting to the Marine Corps course, particularly coming off the final turn that dumps you onto route 110. The “25 mile” marker flashes by and you sling shot onto the highway for a long straightaway mile where, God willing, you can let your stride unwind and summon whatever last ounces of energy and will to carry you to the finish line. The chills wracked my body so hard that not only had I started running tempo pace but my hat felt like it had lifted from my head. I enjoyed the moment for a second more then grabbed the reigns and pulled back. There would be plenty of time for that on Sunday.

When I returned to the house, it was only 5:50. Just what would I do with the rest of the evening? I went to the grocery store to buy more food and added a valuable caveat to the “never shop hungry” edict: never shop hungry while tapering. Especially at Whole Foods. Too many pretty colors and delicious treats. There are so many types of olives, and … I wonder if I have any new Yahoo mail?

Friday, October 12, 2012

Finely Tuned

There’s a scene in “Once a Runner” when Quentin Cassidy slingshots around the curve and flicks on the afterburners to put an exclamation point on his 200m repeat workout. His coach looks down at the stopwatch and shakes his head at the 0:25 on the clock face. While he wants to chastise Cassidy, he can’t help but remember what it feels like to be able to conjure that type of speed, when you’re so finely tuned that a few sips of wine can send your head whirring.

Yesterday, my running partner Rohan dropped by for an afternoon run. The schedule called for 12 miles with eight at marathon pace. It’s our last workout of the week before the weekend long run, so we both had three workouts on our legs, not to mention four full days at work. The Thursday speed session, in other words, often requires a dip into the “dark place” to wring everything out of the workout. After all, when the race is going to hurt, why not practice hurting.

We set out from my neighborhood at an easy pace. The sun had already begun to set bringing on a welcome chill to the air and heightening the crisp fall smells. I told Rohan about the route while we ignored the heckling from the middle school kids making no effort to hide their disgust at our “gay wedgy shorts.” Even at 31, I just can’t get away from being made fun of by middle school kids.

For two miles, the conversation, like the pace, was light, though as we neared the second beep on our watches, I noticed the pace gradually beginning to increase. When we crossed the last intersection of our warmup, the words suddenly ceased. And the work began.

In recent weeks, Rohan and I – with the help of our friend Ebo as Sherpa – have taken on the mandatory 20 milers that make up every marathon program. Over a full table of breakfast after each run, we dissect the workout. During a particularly flat effort, Rohan carried me on that first 20, while on the second, we reversed roles. At that breakfast, a weighty silence fell over the table as we let the idea of both of us being “on” on the same day linger….

When I heard the beep that ticked off mile 3, I stole a quick glance at my watch: 6:12. At mile 4: 5:56.

We wove seamlessly around obstacles in the road, dog walkers, and oncoming cars. We floated up and over hills and shot down the backside like a rollercoaster toppling over the apex. The synergy was there and we just flowed.

Neither of us had to be pulled along today. Instead, we pushed each other, fed off of one another’s footfalls, and set the road on fire.

After what would be our slowest mile (6:24), one consisting entirely of crushed gravel and tree roots, we emerged from the woods. “Long. And steep. Ahead,” I breathed as our stride unwound on the smooth pavement once again. There, we arrived at that one perfect moment where our strides fell in unison. Our shoes pounded the pavement in rapid succession, turning over like well-oiled pistons on arguably the most challenging portion of the route. A steady calm set in around us, a cocoon that rendered us numb to any outside forces, except the task at hand. 

When we came to a stop at the light, a crime to break our rhythm, I lifted my sunglasses and raised my eyebrows at Rohan. The traffic whooshed by and swallowed our shallow breaths while our chests heaved to keep up. He looked back at me, wearing a smirk that said, "What the fuck?" and shrugged his shoulders.

When the light turned green, we shot across the street to cover the final 1.75 mile "marathon pace" segment. Descending into the woods once again, we sent evening strollers diving for the side of the trail as we thundered past. A thin blanket of yellow leaves already covered the trail, and the crunching under foot announced our arrival to startled deer that surely wondered if we were predators. We weaved in and around one another to stay in the worn groove along the path. At last, we made the final turn to climb out of the trail. I pulled alongside Rohan and we drove one another forward, arms pumping, legs churning, to the top….

We clicked our watches and I let out a “Yeeeeoooowww!” I turned and walked back toward him and shoved him. “Come on!” I yelled while we waited for the green light. He started laughing and we stood there for a moment with the orange sky glowing through the black spires of tree limbs.

A soft white glow seeped in around my eyes and we started our two mile cool down. The words came back to us as we pulled back on the reigns to make it a true cool down.

“I’m not sure what just happened,” I remember saying.

We returned to the house and did a quick walk around the parking island. It was all over and time to get on with our evenings. But for those 49:24, we had a glimpse. 

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Does a Runner Poop in the Woods?

There are running clubs, breakfast clubs, and dance clubs, secret clubs, and poppin' bottles in 'da club. Then there are, um, "other" clubs.

We’re all runners here, right? With that statement alone, you have to know that this blog post is about to head in the direction of a handful of topics: snot rockets, farting, black (or no) toenails…in other words, something gross that you can really only have a serious conversation (or any conversation) about with a few people, as I did on Saturday with my Breakfast Club.

Today, as the title suggests, I’m writing about pooping in the woods.

I suppose it was only a matter of time. Sure, there have been close calls in the past, but I always found some way to cinch those cheeks tight and make it home.

Thanks to Scott Jurek’s new book “Eat and Run,” I spent the majority of Sunday evening doing some preparatory cooking for the week, things like refried beans, hummus wraps, homemade salsa. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not becoming a vegan or even a vegetarian as evidenced by my dinner the night before “the incident.” Needless to say, there was a lot of vegetable intake, which translates to a lot of fiber, and as Mrs. OnthebusRunning can attest to, a lot of gas.

So after one day on this new diet, plus our new roommate’s beef bourguignon for dinner, some might call it a recipe for disaster…that or messy shorts.

I awoke the next morning to squeeze an eight miler in before work because of evening commitments (can't let the mileage suffer). Normally, I can get rolling in 5-10 minutes, but something told me I should take an extra minute or two for a pre-run, err, evacuation. One of my running friends will always declare that “There’s nothing more important than a pre-race (or run) deuce.”

I set off into the pre-dawn darkness, enjoying the steady sounds of my footfalls on the pavement and the rare solitude on the main roads near our home. Two miles into the run, I headed down a ramp to the Big Rocky Run trailhead where I clumsily attempted a 10x1 min @5K pace *ahem* fartlek with nothing but the triangle of light cast ahead of me from my headlamp.

I exited the trail and wound my way through quiet neighborhoods, watching homes come to life behind lighted windows. Again, wrapped in that pre-dawn quiet, the rhythmic inhale/exhale of my breathing, the…gurgling of my stomach.

It came on at the farthest reaches of my loop and jolted me enough to pull back on the pace. I tentatively ramped up for that last interval, turning back again onto the trail. The woods were still dark but I mercifully made it through and took a slow jog to get back to the main road. Then, as George RR Martin (Game of Thrones author) has written on a number of occasions, “my insides turned to water.”

I had just over two miles to home and the woods, along with the darkness, disappearing fast. I trotted over the final bridge and faced one of life’s most important decisions: Is it a fart? Or something more. The answer did not take long to reveal itself: Something more! Something more!

For the first time, I knew I would not make it. I stepped off the trail, clicked off my hand lamp, dropped trow, and, well, you can figure out the rest.

Instant relief. Until I started looking around for something to, you know, clean up. I didn’t want to pick up anything off the ground, unsure of whether or not it would be poison ivy. So I looked up and pulled a leaf off the tree in front of me. I put it in my palm and narrowed my eyes. Then I pulled two more leaves off.

It didn’t do much except make my hand a little funky. So I pulled those shorts back up and completed the two odd miles back home.

When I arrived at my front step, I started to unlace my shoes, realizing that yes, in fact, that smell was coming from me. And no, I was not going to stick around long enough to say good morning to Mrs. Onthebusrunning and our house guest.

I headed for the shower and explained my tale of shame and woe to my wife when she came up to brush her teeth. “Oh, no!” she said, laughing, before her face straightened. “Where are the shorts now?”

Later that morning, I shot an e-mail over to my dad, the eternal runner, knowing that he would understand.

“Welcome to the club!” he wrote back.


Anyone else in this club?

Friday, September 21, 2012

Be Ferocious and Patient

Salvation Lies Within...the Training Log.
It was sort of perfect really. I turned the car on, plugged in my iPhone, and hit play. The soft beginnings of Death Cab for Cutie’s “Marching Bands of Manhattan” poured from my speakers, a song that always gives me the sensation of opening my eyes in the morning and conjures the memory of the New York Marathon. That race has been heavy on my mind lately, the 2011 one that is. The one where I dipped under three hours for the first time. The one I’ve romanticized for the past, oh, 11 months, particularly heading into my Marine Corps Marathon training.

The trouble with romanticizing, though, is that we tend to leave out the things we’d rather forget, which is why I can boil down seventh and eighth grade to about two seconds, both of which constitute walking out of those doors for the last time. But I digress.

I wouldn’t constitute the march toward Marine Corps as a particularly bad training experience, it’s simply that, with under six weeks to the gun, I’m still waiting for that one breakthrough run or tune up that lets you know.

In the meantime, I go about ticking off the boxes of my training calendar, trying to play it cool, trying not to force that breakthrough, trying to be breezy.

Then breezy wasn’t working, so I started stalking my 2011-self. Hey, if I’m going to keep that meticulous training log, I may as well as put it to good use. So, I started comparing workouts to last year to track my progress. Dangerous and unfair.  I looked at last week’s 17 miler + 5K, read the notes and scrutinized the times. I just shook my head, clicked the “x” and shut the computer.

But with a couple of good workouts under my belt this week, I returned to September 2011 and I looked at several days together and those forgotten memories that had been conveniently swept under the pile of sweaty running clothes started to emerge. Notes included: “Typical shitty Wednesday run,” “IT too stiff to go today,” “Legs didn’t have it today” and so on. Turns out, similar to Andy Dufresne, "salvation lies within."

Same weeks. Same feelings nearly one year later.

I had a glimpse of what could be at the 2012 Providence Rock and Roll Half Marathon in August, when I strung together a 1:19:29 PR, but it feels like a race too far. Since then, as the miles have piled up and some days I return to my front step awash in fatigue and doubt, I wonder when.

But last year, I wondered “when” as well. Am I doing enough? Are the speed workouts working? Did I waste my time with the base miles? The answer didn’t come until October 10, exactly four weeks out from the race. I had the Army Ten Miler penciled in for a tune up. The year before I ran sub-60 there and had no expectations for that again. Around mile 5, however, I started flirting with the idea and fully recognizing it at mile 7. I strode confidently to a 58:45.

Despite the breakthrough, I rattled off a couple more crappy workouts leading up to the race.

I opened the "notebook" in my iPad this week and came across the phrase that is this post's title. I don't know what runner to attribute it to but guessing it's probably Desi Davila or Shalane Flanagan. It's the mantra I've adopted for the remainder of my training, and it runs on repeat in my head when the darkness (or lactic acid) starts to seep in.

While I won’t have a race like the Army Ten Miler to test my mettle, I will have to trust in the work, put my faith in the miles, and be “ferocious and patient.”

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Kindness of Runners

When I emerged from the woods I started searching. I gave my water bottle a quick shake, frowned, and dropped an eff-bomb at no one in particular. The temperature hovered in the low 80s and hung there courtesy of the late summer humidity. Seven miles into a scheduled 12-miler, I hummed along at marathon pace but knew I still had work to do in the form of some serious climbs.

For the past two weeks, I detoured to the local pool, dodging the curious eyes of the lifeguards to duck into the bathroom to refill. But since Labor Day had come and gone, the pool closed and with it my refilling options.

With the knowledge of my depleted reserves, I became quite aware of my tongue and went to work expelling the white fluffs of spit that had built up at the backs of my cheeks and in my throat.

I hooked a left and started the first serious climb out of what Mrs. Onthebusrunning and I had cleverly dubbed “the pool neighborhood” (see paragraph 2 for explanation). I tried to focus on keeping my form neat, pumping my arms, and relaxing my shoulders…but all I could think was “WATER!” I scanned yards for sprinklers, kiddie pools, buckets of used car-washing water…anything!

I'd already given the "WTF" arms at one car, having to point to the "walk" sign, and didn't have much hope in my fellow man helping at this point. I let the thought of knocking on someones door quickly come and go.

Half way through the hill, with the false plateau in sight (the stretch that seems flat because of all the climbing, but really is just a less severe grade), I spotted him. A goateed man with a slight paunch and birkenstocks walking down his driveway, with…could it be…yes!...a garden hose in his hand!

The water seemed to spray from the nozzle in slow motion, like [insert summer beer commercial here].

“Excuse me!” I shouted to him. He looked up and smiled. “Would you mind refilling this for me?” I asked, trying to strike that balance between “I might pass out, you must help me” and “creepy desperation.”

He sprung to action. “Yeah, yeah! Of course. Hold on just a second,” he said. “I just turned it on, so let me get it cold for you.” He aimed the nozzle at the grass and let fly.

“How far you goin’ today?”
“Twelve,” I breathed at him. Sweat dripped from my arms and the back brim of my hat making small puddles on the ground. Had I seen it before, I may have tried to drink them. “Five to go,” I said.
“Nice! I was up to five every other day for a good while. Man, I miss it.”
“What happened?”
“Back surgery,” he said, shaking his head. “Now…” he trailed off and started patting the paunch. “I’ll get back to it soon, though.”

A fellow runner. Had to be given the gleam of excitement and exceptional willingness to help. It was so refreshing to *ah hem* run into one when lately it seems I’ve had to run more defensively, dodging cars not stopping at crosswalks, at lights before making right turns, or people simply walking three across the trail (can’t we share!?). And to finally have someone who gets it and not give me that, “I only run when I’m being chased,” line.

We traded a few more stories before he finally gave up on the hose. “Gimme a second,” he said, darting for the garage. He came back with a bottle of water, cloudy from the humidity. “Here we go,” he said dumping it into my bottle. “You want the rest?”

“Maybe just a sip,” I said playing it cool. I swished the cold water in my mouth and felt it travel the length of my torso after I swallowed. “Thanks,” I said. “Good luck. Hope you can get after it again soon.”

“Me too!” he said, as I turned and headed back to the task at hand, a smile on my face, a full water bottle, and a renewed faith in humanity.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Navy Federal 5K Redux (and 20 miler)

“I’m too tired to chew,” my friend Rohan said. His fork clanged onto the plate and he slid down in his chair.

“Shall I take your plate, sir?” the waiter asked. He balanced my plate in one hand, the one with lingering smears of chocolate chip left over from what used to be eggs and pancakes (the smears I couldn’t get up with my fork). With the other, he began to pick up Rohan’s.

“Whoa, whoa!” Ebo and I both said at the same time, leading with our forks.

Like vultures descending on carrion, I stabbed at the remaining sausage links while Ebo sopped up syrup with the waffle half left on Rohan’s plate. The waiter’s eyes widened, taking it all in as we took it all away.

“Now?” he said, eyebrows raised.

“Ok,” we said, mouths full, eyes inspecting the now empty plates for any last remnants.

That’s what 17 miles and a 5K will do to you.

Hours earlier, the sun began to peek up over the trees lining the W&OD trail. The three of us clicked along, Rohan and I running, Ebo acting as water Sherpa and official trip photographer (see above). I had high hopes for this run. I tried to mimic last year’s performance when my wife rode alongside me and the miles seemed to slip easily by. I switched into faster gears with ease and had plenty left in the tank to complete the “fast finish” portion of that 20-miler by running strong to a top 5 finish in a local 5K.

History, sadly, did not repeat itself. Ebo and Rohan chatted easily through the first four miles, while a storm raged in my head and I tried desperately to weather its passing by focusing on my form and assuring myself that if I could just make it to four miles, the switch would flip and I’d be fine the rest of the run. Rather than, you know, focusing on the 17 odd miles left.

At about 3.5 miles in, Rohan looked over at me. “How’re you feeling?”
“Shitty,” I breathed.
“I thought so, you’re pretty quiet.”
“I’ll be. Ok.” I hope.

But lo and behold, at four miles, the clouds cleared and the pace dropped. We ran mostly in silence, not because, we hurt, but because we were in the flow. We hit the turnaround point with an hour and twenty minutes to spare before the gun went off for the 5K.

In that blissful stretch where the miles flipped like calendar pages, I hadn’t accounted for the fact that a lot of it had been on a gradual decline. So as we turned to make our way back to the car, the path inclined ahead of us and we climbed. And climbed. And climbed.

Normally, I thrive on the uphills. It’s here that I shorten my stride, tap into the turnover drills, churn up those hills, and make moves in races. I had no reason to think otherwise that morning except that when we hit the uphills, all the power had gone from my legs. If you'll excuse the Star Wars reference, it's like I was the Millenium Falcon trying to make the jump to light speed but the Empire had dismantled it without my knowing. My legs felt totally sapped of energy and they had no pop or kickback off the ground. I felt hungry, tired, and just wanted to curl up on the side of the trail and fall asleep.

With just under three miles left, I sent Rohan ahead of me and grinded out the remaining miles, trying to block out the fact that I still had a 5K to run once we got back to the car.

Mercifully, I reached the car with 17 minutes to spare. I downed a gel and started doing some butt kicks, high knees, and hamstring swings to trick my legs into waking up. Each step seemed to pull on my calves.

Ebo switched out of his bike gear and Rohan and I looked on one another with near dead eyes, both seeking the strength to run this 5K, knowing how bad it would hurt.

When the gun went off, we bolted from the line. The pack thinned quickly. I found a steady rhythm and tried to lock in, not looking at my watch, but rather running by feel. When I hit the first mile marker, the timer called out 6:03 and I balked wondering where the hell that came from.

I locked in on Rohan’s back and let him carry me the rest of the way. The second mile went by in a blur, and soon I charged for the finish. With a half mile to go, I knew a downhill finish waited for me so I fought off one last runner and made for home, wanting (needing) a strong finish to salvage my confidence. I crossed the line in 19:12 and found Rohan. We ambled to the food station and began eating in line as we grabbed apples and bananas. Then, we collapsed into chairs to relish a morning hard earned.

Not long after, a primal roar came from the finish line and we saw Ebo howling across the line, high fiving the runners around him. The three of us padded back to the car, Ebo to celebrate a near PR, Rohan having run farther than he ever had in one jaunt, and me, well, for survival. It was one for the rolodex. And one to forget.

Even the bad ones go down a little easier when there are pancakes and eggs waiting at the end.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Back on the Blog

In the middle of many recent runs, in the latter miles of races, when the pace flowed or when the gears grinded, the words still came. The posts seemed to write themselves on the back wall of my brain but they never quite made it onto the page, err, screen. The blog simply became a casualty of that thing called real life. The words, however, piled up with the miles, and here’s what happened along the way: 

The accidental PR.
Providence Rock and Roll Half Marathon – With eight weeks of base building and three weeks of speed training on my legs, I toed the line at a half marathon I had signed up for months and months ago. I planned to run it as a workout but in one of those beautiful combinations of cool weather and low expectations, I crushed my previous PR by 2:17, running a 1:19:29.  Other than the PR, the highlight of the race came near mile 2 when, after cresting a fairly serious hill, a woman standing on the curb screamed, “What’s the point?! You’re all going to die like the rest of us!”

After summiting Old Rag - twice.
In the Footsteps of Quentin Cassidy – With Mrs. Onthebusrunning out of town for a weekend, my friend and I packed up the car and headed west for the Shenandoah Mountains. For three days, we ran, hiked, camped, and repeated “Once a Runner”-style. We pummeled our legs until they were sore to the touch, ice-bathed with a local high school x-country team, ran for the sunset, and ran from storms. When all was said and done, we’d covered 37 miles in 32 hours.

On top of Long's Peak - 14,255 ft

Heading WestFor the fourth year in a row, I traded running shoes for hiking boots and met up with a high school friend for yet another ultimate road trip through the American West to explore our national parks. This year took us to the tourist-thick Mt. Rushmore, the eerie and dry Badlands, the wildlife rich grasslands of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, a quick stop at Devil’s Tower, and finally an arduous climb to the top of Long’s Peak, 14,255 ft. up. I look forward to this trip every year for several reasons, but what I cherish most, beyond the camaraderie I share with my friend and the rich landscapes we pass through, is the sense of peace I find when I return home. My head feels clearer, my body recharged despite the miles of hiking, and I return to the roads with a fresh perspective and giddiness to resume training.

The Road Ahead – With seven weeks left on the training calendar, the march toward Marine Corps resumes. This weekend I’ll tackle the first of three 20-milers, though I’ll do it with two friends. The Program calls for the final six miles at near 10K pace so we’ll run 17 and time it so that we’re leaning toward the start line when the gun goes off at a local 5K…nothing like jumping into a race after 17 miles to ensure you run that last 5K fast. And this week, assuming spots still remain, I’ll look even farther ahead and enter my third Boston to get back on the bus to Hopkinton.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Because of the Run

“Another one?” my friend, Kristen asked. She eyed her empty beer glass and then the three of us.
“I’m good,” I said, reluctantly, lopping off another cube of chocolate fudge and shoveling it into my mouth. Because in truth, I wasn’t good. Kristen got two more no’s in the form of shaking heads and more fudge lopping. The humidity stuck to us and the heavy ocean air filled our noses. It was perfect summer beer drinking weather at the beach. Just not tonight.

“Because of the run?” she offered.
“Because of the run.”

Six-and-a-half hours later, the four of us ambled down the stairs of our motel room and onto the boardwalk.

Partly cloudy skies mercifully hid the sun. I watched the waves wash up on the shore and fantasized about the cool water the same way I long for post-run pancakes: lustily. I had ten miles on the docket to round out my cut down week and probably should have been finishing it then rather than just beginning. We’d mapped out a 10-12 mile route that followed the beach and emptied into a network of trails in Henlopen State Park. The trail seemed to disappear into the sand for about a half mile stretch but that could be overlooked until it actually came around.

With nothing left to say, we clicked our watches and set off.

The first couple miles went by without incident. The road appeared to climb steadily -- of course it also appeared to climb steadily on the way back (why is that?) -- and I charged up it with confidence, happy for the new setting and simply enjoying hearing the waves.

I hit the state park and took off down a smooth, well-groomed gravel trail. I thought of my wife who compares trail running to skipping through the woods, arms swaying in the air, and a Grateful Dead Song playing in her head.

Then, the trail ended and became a “trail,” which turned into a ribbon of unpacked sand and high grass. There was some sign on the side of the trail, but I only caught a few words of it before blowing past it.

I considered turning back, but then the unpacked sand suddenly hardened enough so that my calves didn’t feel like they were tearing. The soothing sounds of the waves receded, replaced by the incessant buzzing of Jurassic-era sized bugs that probably could have carried away stray children, which there also could have been hiding in the grass.

The humidity climbed around the still and stagnant marsh water. My singlet clung to me and while I wanted to peel it off, I kept it on to protect what little of my skin it covered. I repeatedly “felt something on my neck” only to realize when I reached back that I’d been carrying around a giant bug feasting on shoulder, which then caused me to continue thinking something was there so I ran swatting intermittently at my neck.

I thought of the Florida Everglades as I trudged on, willing my watch to beep the miles. That led me to thoughts of alligators lurking in the grass, the pets of the stray children probably; however, I put that thought out of my head when I saw all the rabbits hopping about and darting into the grass. It must have been one big rabbit orgy in those dens of high grass.

Just when I started to feel comfortable again, a fox let out next to me and ran alongside in the dried pond that smelled of rotting carcass. I ran through scenarios of how I could possibly fend off a rabid fox attack. But all I could come up with was the scene from Monty Python where the rabbit kills everyone.

I finally reached the “unknown” area of the trail, which was essentially a wave of sand dunes marked off by white poles to help you find your way or lead you to your doom. A sign read, “Closed” but it wasn’t clear whether it was the trail or the area beyond the trail. So I trudged on.

At long last, I hit the park and enjoyed the one mile out and back on one of the gravel trails before having to turn back and fend for myself in the land before time.

Once I hit the main road again, I had but two miles left. I got a full glimpse of the sign I blew by in the beginning, which said, “Trail open Labor Day through March 31 only.” Whoops.

I peeled my singlet off and watched the eyes follow me. Everyone loves a skinny dude in short shorts with a hairy chest. Especially certain gay men.

I ended my run with a walk down to the water. After a long soak in the ocean, I slung my singlet over my shoulder and carried my shoes back up to the boardwalk. An older gentlemen of the beach patrol, stood with his hands on his hips watching me stride by. “How are ya?” he asked.
“Doing well, and you?” I replied.
“Get your run in this morning? Oh, and looks like a swim too.”

*sigh* all because of the run.

And no, RunDanRun, there was no free coffee to be had.

Monday, July 30, 2012

New Territory

The rain fell easy. More like a thin veil of fog. I could only hear the steady pit-pat rhythm of my shoes on the wet pavement. The stoplight to my neighborhood came into view as I rounded the soft turn. The odometer in my head continued to move farther past 400 and closer and closer to 70 with every step. I allowed myself a smile. It was going to happen. I turned into the neighborhood and my socks squished in those wet ASICS that had carried me so many miles over the last seven weeks. My legs turned over faster as I strode up the final hill. Then I stopped. I emptied the last few sips of water into my mouth and let the mist fall around me. I had eclipsed 400 miles on my morning run the day before. But this was the accomplishment I truly celebrated, the one I really keyed in on: a 70.5 mile week. The most mileage I’d ever covered in a week’s time.

That was more than a week ago. I deemed last week a “recovery” week since the mileage had climbed steadily since June 1. What the hell I thought I’ll just run 40 miles. But I slogged through last week’s mileage as though it were a 70 mile week all over again, forgetting just how crappy a recovery week can feel when you scale back the mileage and your body takes the time to mend itself and knit those torn muscles back together.

In those darker moments when the sun seemed to not only beat down on me but beat me up, I channeled my thoughts inward and relived the moments that took me over 400+ miles. To my surprise and pleasure, I found whole pieces of those recovery miles lost to those other memories, and a surge of adrenaline to carry me the rest of the way.

I thought about the circuit workout I did on the track when the temperature crept near triple digits for the first time. How I considered running my 800s on the shady 100m curve of the track to avoid the sun.

I thought about the double loop of Burke Lake that sent my confidence soaring, and the struggle the next day to complete a different double loop.

During that recovery week I missed my 5K morning miles and the way it helped me hop out of bed in the morning yet sleepwalk through the first half and drop the pace when the sun would peer over the trees.

I thought of the weeks that ended in the sixties and how the butterflies fluttered in my stomach for that long run, wondering just how I could put together 14 miles in one stretch, only to have the pace flow easily in 6:30s and 6:40s and renew my confidence for the upcoming week.

I thought of the confident 18:01 5K I ran on Independence Day after seven miles that morning and a 14 mile day the day before.

I thought of the empty bags of quinoa, having to buy two loaves of bread each week, and the odd cravings for chocolate milkshakes and fried chicken.

I thought of the way my eyes darted to friends’ plates of food had I finished before them, wondering if they “were going to finish that.”

I remembered the spring in my step that came on Friday evenings when my legs seemed to relish the rest of not having to run for once and the excess energy come Sunday night after *gasp* a full day off.

After that final Saturday run that put me over 70 miles, I didn’t feel that much different. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting. But I suppose like many running accomplishments, we celebrate them on the road alone or as we cross the imaginary finish line that concludes our runs. There was no one to greet me at the circle to high five. No tape to break or medal to hang around my neck. I only had the knowledge that I had done it and had become all the stronger for it.

Perhaps it’s because I know this is only a milestone on the way to the ultimate goal, where there will hopefully be a shiny PR to go along with that finish line and medal. Until then, the journey up the mountain continues….

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Closing in on 400

I was suddenly in the street and moving with purpose. Judging by the light reflecting off the city’s skyscrapers, it must have been late morning, bordering on noon. I dodged oncoming pedestrians as we made our way in opposite directions through the crosswalk. Something caught my eye down the side street to my left. When I looked over, I saw, wait…could it be?

“Ryan.” A voice called out to see if he’d look up.
“Ryan!” this time louder. He did look up this time, as he pulled a fresh pair of blue Oakleys from a plastic shopping bag and adjusted them on his face. Shaggy bleach blonde hair, almost yellow, stuck out in all directions around the earpieces.

“Yes, it’s Ryan Hall,” his wife Sara called out as she pushed her way through the crowd converging on her husband, as if to say, “I’ll wait for you on the other side.”

He started handing out autographed postcards that had a long desert road reaching back into infinity and the caption: “Do what you love” on some and “Never give up” on others.

I fumbled in my pockets for my iPhone to snap a picture then cursed myself, pursing my lips and realizing, of all times, that I’d forgotten my phone.

As Ryan neared me, he looked down at his watch that had started beeping. “Sorry, guys,” he said. “Gotta jet.” But as he disappeared, the beeping got louder rather than softer. My shoulders dropped. “Gotta jet, indeed,” I said aloud.

My eyes snapped open. The dawn began to filter into our room, about the time I usually think that I have another merciful hour to sleep. But not this morning. I gently shook my wife to make sure she too got out of bed.

I stumbled to the dresser and pulled on my Brooks shorties, brushed my teeth, and willed my legs to loosen up as I Frankensteined down the stairs. I took my water bottle from the freezer, and in no less than seven minutes since Ryan Hall’s watch beeped in my dream, I was out the door to tackle a 9.2 mile loop before work.

If all goes according to plan, my 400 miles between June 1 and July 31 is less than 24 hours away. To put it simply, it’s been a lot of running. So much so apparently, it has infiltrated my dreams.

It’s funny. I normally reserve the afternoons for my longer runs, opting for what feels like a blissfully short 5K to start the morning of which I sleepwalk through half of to “feel the day.” But yesterday, the mercury rose to 98 degrees and coupled with the humidity, it pushed the “feels like” temp well over 100. To get my p.m. mileage in for the day, I had 10.8 miles on the agenda with strides and drills at the end making it 11.1 for the afternoon. Dedicated? Maybe. Stupid. Most certainly. I commanded myself to keep the pace light and easy as I circled my 5.4 mile loop twice, giving myself the option to bail if things got too hot.

I finished the run ok but the last two miles left me lightheaded and standing under a cold shower when I returned home. The heat advisory for today had already been issued, so I slugged water bottle after water bottle, got to bed early, and set the alarm for 5:30 to *gulp* get those nine miles in before it got unbearable.

After falling immediately asleep, I awoke several times thinking I had to get up and get moving, only to realize that the room was still dark. I rolled over. I slept on my back. I tucked a pillow between my knees. I tried to focus on the hum of the fan. But the harder I tried to fall asleep, the more awake I became.

You see, when I take on longer runs in the morning, I get nervous, worried that I won’t have enough to complete the run or take too long that it makes me late for work. It’s not until a mile or so into the run that I let myself relax and realize that I’m out there, doing it, and I’m going to finish it.

So, after laying awake for so many hours or minutes, I’m still not sure, that must be why Ryan Hall seemed so real walking toward to me. While I puttered around the house, the dream stayed with me, and I thought, Ryan Hall waking me up for a run in the morning has to be a pretty good omen.

Gotta jet.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Limit

I remember slowing to a trot after a logy eight miler, the third in as many days. I had racked up 24 miles for the week at that point and the thought of sweating through another eight miles in 24 hours hit me all at once. I stopped walking back to my house for a second and went hands to knees. Put simply, I was exhausted.

That was June 6, meaning just day 6 of base building. Three days earlier, I’d run the North Face Endurance Half Marathon, and while I would normally take a day off following a race like that, I figured an easy “recovery” jog couldn’t hurt. Plus, I didn’t want to start taking days off already and fall behind on the mileage.

That’s how I found myself bent over at the waist. Tired. Sore. Sweat running into my eyes. And the overwhelming desire to curl up right there and go to bed.

There’s a scene in Once a Runner that describes this feeling pretty well. Cassidy narrates what it’s like for someone to train with famed Olympian Bruce Denton, someone looking for "The Secret.” The pace is always moderate. If someone picks it up, that’s where it stays. The days "go well enough, but [you] notice something peculiar. There was no let-up....[and your] outlook began to darken. For one thing, [you were] getting very tired. No particular day wore [you] out, but the accumulation of steady mileage began to take its toll. [You] never quite recovered fully between workouts and soon found [yourself] walking around in a more or less constant state of fatigue."

This was the part of base building I’d forgotten about. I’ve lived in shades of exhaustion since June 1. Some days, I wake up alert only to have the tiredness seep in during the afternoon. Other days, I have a sudden burst of energy, the pace drops, and my confidence soars.

I knew though, that if I could make it through that week, if I could just make it through my long run on Saturday, I could get to that recovery day and tackle the next week. And I did. I went in and out of sleep poolside, then grabbed 11 hours of sleep Saturday night. When I didn’t lace up on Sunday, I almost felt giddy with energy as my legs knit themselves back together.

Then, as the days and weeks wore on, I found that the tiredness relaxed some. The soreness evaporated. And I woke up refreshed in the morning, groggy maybe, but with a zip in my legs. I remembered this feeling, but I didn’t have it last year until late July.

Last year, I thought I’d found the limit. Now, it was time to see what I could really do. My original mileage plan had been to do 40-50-50-40 for June and then ratchet things up to 50-60-60-50 as I did last year. Instead, I added in an extra day of running and took the mileage up to 50 right away. When I clicked stop on my watch last Saturday, the last day of June, I forced a smile through the humidity induced fog that clouded my head. That capped off a 220.3 mile month. Just 179.7 miles from my goal of 400, from Base Camp and four weeks to get there.

But while I continue to wail away on my quads and build the foundation, the sword, I started thinking about just how far I could take this. My thoughts drifted to running as they often do during work last week. I pulled out a post-it, stricken by the sudden urge to do some math…a rarity for this writer.

I jotted down 60, 65, 70. And went to work breaking each of those numbers down into six days worth of running. I’ve never run more than 63 miles in a week before but I’m flirting with the limit or what Adam Goucher would call “The Edge.”

And it’s time for the journey to continue on….
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