It was a crisp 18 degrees Fahrenheit with a gusty breeze at the start line of this 9 AM Thanksgiving Day race in the Upstate New York town of Hilton. Though the Race With Grace has been a Thanksgiving Day tradition for thousands of runners since 1991, I’m late for the party, as this is my first one. I was swayed to run this race, to a great extent, because of my friendship with one of its founders, Bob Dyjak. I met Bob through our local LIFE Runner chapter. He’s a man who kindly witnesses his Christian faith through everyday living, and his hard work to build this race into a well-established community charity event is just one example. Proceeds from this race benefit the CURE Childhood Cancer Association, a Rochester, NY-based nonprofit organization dedicated to helping families affected by childhood cancer and chronic blood disorders.
The race itself is a fast country loop on paved two-lane roads, beginning and ending on the pretty campus of the First Bible Baptist Church. Prior to the start, a wonderful young family affected by childhood cancer provided heartfelt words of encouragement, and Pastor Grace gave a Prayer of Thanksgiving, with a special remembrance for family members serving in the military who would be having Thanksgiving far from home. At the start, I slipped into the middle of the 603 runners and set about a 7 minute, 30 second pace.
One is never quite sure how their body is going to react to the reality of inhaling and exhaling brisk winter air while churning their arms and legs under race conditions. In my case on this Thanksgiving morning, it stung my lungs and strained my muscles, but I could tell right away that I was in business. After the first mile, and intermittently thereafter, I pulled unnecessary items off…an extra shirt…my gloves…the hat, and shoved them into my shorts pockets or underneath the elastic band of my compression pants. Despite the frigid conditions, I was enveloped in the heat of my pounding metabolism; I was a furnace on two legs!
Funny how the mind works. Despite my confident “read” of body systems, I was convinced at about the halfway point that I was really having trouble or, more accurately, that I was about to begin having trouble. If allowed to fester unchecked, this kind of “anticipatory anxiety” breeds more anxiety, and, eventually, to faltering efforts; therefore, I consciously rejected it and focused on maintaining my pace.
When I hit the final mile, a flat, seamless stretch of Manitou road, I knew I had it in the gas tank to take it home. The term “manitou” is a Native American (Algonquian) reference to “life force” or spirit. Running with throttle wide open on the final mile of a 10K on Thanksgiving morning certainly puts one in touch with a definite sense of being fully alive! In the final run back up to the First Bible Baptist Church, I accelerated to a 6 minute, 10 second pace before entering the chute and crossing the finish line. Made it! My time was 45:46 (a 7:23 overall pace). This was a podium finish for me, as I came in second in my age group for males, though I was not nearly as fast as James Anderson, who came in with an overall first place with a 33:27 time (5:24 pace). Now, that’s fast!
After the race, runners and their families enjoyed an awesome spread of post-race/pre-turkey foods (e.g., bagels, bananas, yogurt, hot coffee) in the welcoming, spacious interior of the church building. The hospitality, openness, and genuine spirit of charity of this faith community and its running guests was evident in this good-hearted celebration, from the food pantry to the sanctuary. On that cold Upstate New York morning, I think everyone there felt that rich gratitude that manifests from great freedoms – practicing one’s religious beliefs without government reprisal, challenging one’s physical boundaries in heated competition, and connecting with neighbors by way of handshakes and fist bumps, kind words, and good humor. We have much to be grateful for in this great country on Thanksgiving Day. Despite the cold brace of division and anxious anticipation of events yet to be realized, we thrive as One Nation Under God and the opportunity to Race With Grace.
I was battling through Mile 13 and rounding the southwest corner of the National Mall, when I realized that the 4 hour pacer was cruising up alongside me with about 20 other runners in tow. The sudden appearance of this female athlete carrying the “4:00” sign was a heartening surprise, as getting in under 4 hours was my “A” goal for this 26.2 mile run around our nation’s capitol. In my confusion, I had thought my “under 4 hours” goal was out of reach. Now, I knew that, if I stuck with this pacer and sprinted at the end, I had a chance! I settled in about 5 feet behind her and matched her gait stride for stride. Now, I had only one question looming in my head. In my strained condition, could I maintain this tempo for the final half of this challenging course?
The Better Half and I had started the approximately 7 hour drive from Fairport, New York to Washington, DC on Friday after a long workday. We enjoyed an unwinding cruise through the Southern Tier of New York, including a stretch of I-390 that runs alongside part of the Wineglass Marathon route, evoking fun reminiscence of that running adventure. With little planning, we stopped that night at a comfortable Staybridge Inn in Williamsport, PA, adjacent to the Pennsylvania College of Technology.
After settling into our hotel room, we set out on foot in the crisp fall night, past a couple of rather innocent looking college house parties (including one with an inviting bonfire in the back yard), in search of a place for dinner. We stumbled upon Kimball’s Pub, and, there, enjoyed a couple of local craft brews, a great menu, and a welcoming staff. We slept like babies that night and made it to our Arlington, VA Day’s Inn by lunch time on Saturday.
After a Mexican lunch in Arlington, we made our way by Uber to the 44th MCM Health and Fitness Expo at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center. The Expo was packed with exhibitors, and we made the rounds; however, given our mid-day Saturday arrival, it was supremely crowded, so much so that it was difficult to walk even a short distance without dodging and weaving through congested foot traffic. I picked up my race packet and, as I was to discover that evening, had inadvertently received not one but two MCM high-collared, long-sleeved running shirts. Unfortunately, despite that they were both marked “Medium”, they would be too tight on a chihuahua, let alone on virtually any person over 8 years of age. My mistake for not taking care to investigate sizing more closely at pick-up, as I may have been able to get a Triple XXX large, and it may have fit me. No worries though; a too small race shirt is a definite “First World Problem”!
Sports fans who regularly follow my blog know that we need to make it to mass on Saturday night, if I’m running on a Sunday; so, from the expo, we Ubered over to Our Lady Queen of Peace Catholic Church in Arlington. The church building was under renovation; therefore, we had mass in the activity hall next door. During mass, the priest asked if there were any visitors, and we raised our hands and received a welcoming applause. Following mass, a kind couple read our minds and asked if they could give us a lift back to our hotel in their Prius. Absolutely! And, thank you! Soon, I was off to sleep, ready for a 5:40 AM date with destiny!
Wake Up! It’s Race Day!
The marathon start was slated for 7:50 AM, so, in the morning, we got rolling right away. After a hot shower and shave, I, along with the Better Half, made it down to the complementary breakfast for oatmeal, toast with peanut butter, and hot black coffee. While eating breakfast, we met a friendly fellow runner from Denver who needed a lift to the start line, so we invited him to jump in our Uber. This young man offered to pay his portion of the fare, but we convinced him to just pay it forward. Our Uber driver got us in close to the entrance and soon we were joining that exhilarating mass pilgrimage to the start line. It was still predawn, but there were signs that it was going to be a great day to run – cool and partially overcast. The Pentagon was off our left shoulders and the Washington Monument, while quite a distance away, was off of our right shoulders.
Once through security, which is like airport security but operated by polite, professional Marines, we advanced to the Runner’s Village. Runner’s Village consisted of a collection of large white tents, rows of port-a-johns, and a parked convoy of UPS trucks, ready to transport runners’ drop bags to the finish line. We made it! I stopped at a beautiful Christian service led by an inspiring young Marine chaplain. Runners run each for their own reason. Many of us view the sport as a great cosmic gift, providing a needed discipline that supports our other efforts in life, feeble and failing as they may be. It was that sense of gratitude that I saw on the faces of those attending chapel that morning, as well as throughout the marathon course. After thanking the chaplain, I headed over to the port-a-john line. The National Anthem was performed while I was in that line, and I loved how an ocean of runners and their supporters stood at respectful attention. By the time I made it out of the port-a-john, I had just enough time to say good-bye to the Better Half, and jog to the start line about 400 yards away. I jogged up to the 4:00 hour corral literally as the race began. Let’s roll!
I recently bought a used Garmin for $25.00 from a local runner. It works great, but I failed to realize that it would not get a GPS lock while I was in motion. Speaking of poor preparation, it wasn’t until I was through the start shoot that I realized it was not tracking my progress. Therefore, until I stopped at a port-a-john at about Mile 6, I was “running naked.” No matter. I set my pace at about 8 minute, 20 second per mile and dodged and weaved around dozens upon dozens of tightly packed athletes. Indeed, for multiple miles, perhaps even close to a majority of the miles, the course was congested with shoulder-to- shoulder athletes traversing the course at various paces. Crowd support was awesome, and the race course was well-defined and nicely maintained by impressive young Marines.
At about Mile 12, I pulled the iPhone out of my armed mounted sling and hit the speed dial, calling my step-father, Chester, who was a great athlete in his day and still quite fit, even in his senior years. As I cruised past the United States Capitol, I let him know that I was feeling great and working on a new PR. He gave me some quick words of encouragement. Chester is a veteran of the Korean War, and it’s not lost on me that he knows about endurance and commitment from experiences that extend well beyond the challenge of a marathon; I appreciate having him on my team.
Hydration stations were plentiful and manned by smiling volunteers, and I took Gatorade and water at each one, except for the final two stations on the course. Boom Energy Gels were available at Mile 13, just in time, as, at that point, I was just starting to flag from lack of nutrition. I knocked down two gels and stuffed one in my pocket. After Mile 13, I felt fine but I could feel the fatigue gradually creeping up on me, and it dawned on me that I probably could not stick with the 4:00 hour pacer for the entire run. My pace dropped to about 9 minute miles, and after crossing the Potomac River at Mile 21, I watched the four hour pacer slowly drift off ahead of me.
For awhile, I felt quite alone, as the sheer strain of tired muscle increased in intensity. Though I could not stick with them, the 4:00 pack was easy for me to track in the distance for quite awhile, as one member of the group held high a beautiful US flag. At least I can keep them in sight, I told myself, assuming the role of the hunter.
As is so often the case in a marathon, the real battle began during those final 6 miles. While maintaining about a 9:30 pace, I focused squarely on the job at hand, disregarding the crowd, the music, and even fellow runners. This course was pounding me! Like a prize fighter taking repeated blows, I kept my head down and took my beating, one stride at a time. Miles 23 and 24 is an out-and-back stretch through Crystal City, immediately prior to the home stretch. Those two miles felt like 20! It was in this state that I had skipped those last two hydration stations, opting for an unabated drive to the finish line. As I approached the reviewing stands, I felt a surge of adrenalin and sprinted for the finish line. Raising both fists in the air, I knew I had made it! The clock time was around 4:08, but, later, I saw that my chip time was 4:03:52, a new PR (221 out of 1,306 in my age group).
I never felt so sore as I did during the night following this race! Indeed, among other aches and pains, I was convinced that I had sprained my left ankle and would need crutches. That night, it hurt to even have a simple bed sheet draped over my foot! Upon inspection of my shoes, I realized that, at some point on the course, I had torn the outer seem of the toe box of my left running shoe, and this was no doubt related to the ankle pain. This was not the fault of New Balance, as I had too many miles on these 860 v7’s, and I knew that going into this race. I simply thought I could squeak one more race out of them. Lesson learned!
Thankfully, my body repaired quickly, the “twisted ankle” turned out to be little more than a tenderness from strain, and 48 hours later, I was carefully knocking out a 3 mile “tempo run” on the treadmill at my neighborhood gym and dreaming about getting in under 4 hours this Spring at the Toronto Marathon.
I wish all of you a great Winter season of safe, enjoyable running. I’ll be competing in the Race with Grace on Thanksgiving Morning and the Greater Rochester Track Club’s Freezeroo series again through the cold months this year, and, who knows? Maybe this is my year to break some records! My thanks to all the kind people I meet on my runs, including the smiling, high-fiving, laughing, joking, thumbs up individuals who make it the greatest communal sport to do alone. I am grateful, and I’ll see you on the trail!
To be honest, after I had finished the Sehgahunda Trail Marathon in 2016, I felt a bit cocky about this snaking 26.3 mile, very technical trail race through Letchworth State Park in Upstate New York. To me, that finish in 90+ degree heat was a point of pride. It took all of 6 hours and 45 minutes to reach those colorful banners marking the finish line, but Lady Sehgahunda did not break me that day. That wasn’t the end of the story. In the midst of my my 2017 – 2018 Winter training cycle, I heard the Lady calling me back for another swing, and, of course, it didn’t take much for me to succumb to her siren call.
I would have a friend with me for this adventure, Carl, who had traveled to my Fairport home by train and bus from his home in Barrie, Ontario, arriving in the afternoon on the preceding Friday of this Saturday race. Carl maintains two inspiring blogs, one on his running adventures called theoldfellowgoesrunning and one that is spiritual, called My Sunday Blog. Carl is a writer whose plain spoken style conveys keen observations about racing, respect for the environment, and his Christian faith. Carl is also the only person whom I know who is actually employed as a creative writer, as writing about ways to preserve the environment and conserve natural resources is part of his job responsibilities for his forward-thinking company. “Creative Writer” is literally on his name badge! I’ve enjoyed Carl’s blogs greatly over the last couple of years; indeed, I note in his writing a gentleness of spirit, a rare sincerity, strength of character, and a gratefulness; in short, he’s got great heart. Needless to say, I was pleased when he got Sehgahunda on his calendar, and I was happy to have him as my running partner for the day.
Wake Up! It’s Race Day!
I had set the alarm for 5 AM, but I awoke at exactly 4:50 AM. A hot shower and cup of strong black coffee got me rolling for the day. The Better Half prepared a great breakfast with eggs and toast, and then Carl and I enjoyed the 57 mile drive across New York countryside to Letchworth State Park, known as the “Grand Canyon of the East”. Smatterings of rain hit the windshield on the way down, and we both knew this would mean a wet trail. Thankfully, it did not look to be especially hot today, and for that Carl and I were pleased.
Race planners provide the option of parking at the finish line located at the Parade Grounds at the southern end of the park. From there, athletes can board yellow school busses to transport up to the start line, located at the Mt. Morris dam (see map).
For some reason, Carl and I were operating under the assumption that busses ran until 7:30 AM, so, when we arrived at 7:10 AM we took our time at the car checking our gear and stretching out. Little did we know that the last bus pulled out at 7:15 AM and by the time we figured this out, we had about one minute to jump aboard! This last bus was “standing room only”, but we didn’t care because we made it. Those minutes before an epic race are both electric and very focusing for the athlete. From the cranial vault, through the gray tissue of the cortex and down through core of the gut and out to the tips of the digits, all systems say, “Ready.” We’ve got one thing to do today, and we are on it!
Time to Rock and Roll!
Because we were on the last bus of the morning, when we arrived at the start line, the women left almost right away on their 8 AM start. Men would take off 15 minutes later. While waiting, Carl and I bumped into a good friend and a terrific runner, Ted, who is a LIFE Runner team mate. Ted had the presence of mind to invite Carl and I to bow our heads and say a brief payer of thanksgiving and safe keeping. Then, we were off! Ted disappeared quickly out near the front. Carl and I established about a 9:30 – 10:00 pace in the middle of the pack.
Running the Course
Sehgahunda is a highly technical course that undulates through the western edge of Letchworth State Park. This main path is complemented by a series of 8 spurs, each perhaps a half to a full mile or more in length. These spurs take the runner up to the aid stations and, after refreshment, loop back down to the main path. On this morning, because of recent soaking rains, each of these spurs contained long patches of shoe-deep, blackish mud that consumed the width of the trail. The mud required mental concentration as one had to make a deliberate decision with nearly every step where to land mud-soaked feet. For the same reason, the mud necessitated a disrupted, ill-patterned gait, and one had to be very deliberate in pulling his or her foot out of the mud with each landing. At times it was a bit like the “high-stepping” of a marching band when they come out onto the field at half time. Of course, feet were thoroughly wet.
I have never had a blister from running before, but the friction caused by the sloppy, wet mud gave me my first one at about mile 14. It was about the size of a dime and positioned on the outside of my right big toe. The pain from this was so great that I briefly questioned my ability to carry on. How can a little blister cause this much pain?! I powered through it, and, thankfully, the pain completely disappeared within a half hour. I didn’t think about it again until at home recuperating that evening.
Carl and I tried not to dawdle at the aid stations; indeed, we were in and out of each of them in under 10 minutes, even late in the race. We ate peanut butter sandwich quarters, watermelon, cookies, and gels. Out on the trail, Carl and I greeted runners, and we all had words of encouragement for one another. I took the lead, so, at first, I could not tell why Carl was occasionally dropping well behind me only to catch up again a short while later. As we progressed, I discovered that he was stopping to take pictures and then pouring on the coal in order to catch up with me. Impressive!
There are dozens of creek beds with shallow, narrow streams and still pools of water that required negotiation. These “gully crossings”, in tandem with elevation pitches and intermittent left-right switchbacks, took their toll physically and mentally. Sections of relatively level “straight shots” were welcome reprieves as the miles began to mount. Indeed, running down these sections of straight, level trail, usually about a half mile in length, was a bit like resting before the next technical phase of the route.
At about mile 18, we came upon a fellow runner who was broadcasting pop music from a speaker secured at about shoulder level from her backpack. I found it increasingly difficult to concentrate on the trail as I got closer and closer to the source of this music, especially as the speakers, mounted to her back, were directed to whoever is behind her on the trail. In a 5K, listening to somebody’s choice of music is probably no problem because one is just going to go “all out” and shortly cross the finish line. But, for this 26.3 mile technical trail race, I found it unhelpful. With relief, I got out in front of her, and the din of those speakers fell literally into the background.
Starting at about mile 22, the race course rolls up to what appears to be an old logging road and, for the first time of the day, runners were not dodging and weaving roots, swerving in and out of switchbacks or traversing creek beds. This final stretch is a long two-lane dirt road. Carl waved me on at the last aid station, as I had a chance to establish a new PR on this course. During those final miles I found myself alone, fatigued, experiencing pain in the depths of my skeleton, and approaching exhaustion. I never considered stopping, but I did have brief reminders of what it must be like to be hopeless. I talked to myself as though I were talking to a desperate neighbor: “Come on, just put your head down and keep going. Don’t stop.”
I crossed that finish line in 6:14:08, 13th out of 24 in my age group. Carl came in at 6:20:07. After crossing the line, he and I sat down against trees at the edge of a great post-race party and allowed our bodies to relax. We did it! I had managed to run the entire the 26.3 miles, except for a couple of short sections with intense elevation.
Considering the strain, pain, cost, time, and effort required, what is it about racing that is so enjoyable? Is it the anticipation weeks prior to the start? The training? The race day morning? The race itself? Crossing the finish line? The post-race party? Well, “yes” to all of these, as they are all factors. But, I think it’s the friends whom we meet along the way that share the experience that makes this sport such a rich endeavor. Once back in Fairport that evening, the Better Half and I took Carl to our favorite Chinese restaurant, the Yellow Elephant, for a celebratory dinner. I proudly wore my race “medal”, which really isn’t a medal, but, rather, a cool arrowhead on a beaded cord.
The food tasted terrific, our middle-aged bodies were already well into recovery mode, and Carl and I had experienced a great adventure. And our conversation that evening? Well, you guessed it: our next start lines. Best wishes to all of you during this beautiful Summer running season!
At about Mile 11, there was a long incline up a paved road that led back into the heart of the Cornell University campus, where our race had begun some hour and 30 minutes earlier. It was while powering up this stretch that a wild, dense snow squaw enveloped us, and a strong wind braced us from our 11 o’clock, limiting visibility and slowing the churn of our fatiguing legs. This is painful! That’s my immediate recollection of this early springtime run through rolling country roads just outside of the college town of Ithaca, NY.
This was my first time enrolled in this half marathon, sponsored by the Finger Lakes Runners Club. I was attracted to the modest registration fee (early bird registration was $20.00) and the adventure of running a new neighborhood. The Better Half and I drove over from Fairport, NY on Saturday to enjoy a day of exploring Ithaca before this Sunday morning race. It was the first time that we had booked a stay with Airbnb, and this turned out nicely.
Our host, Marcus, provided a comfortable, private apartment attached to the back of his suburban home, and, though we planned on dinner at a restaurant, the Better Half ended up making a gourmet dinner featuring linguini with shrimp in a cream sauce. For desert, we had fig newtons and glasses of Saranac Legacy IPA. Following dinner, we enjoyed a DVD of the movie Billy Elliot that Marcus had included in a collection for his guests, the first DVD she and I had watched together in months.
We fell promptly asleep at 10 PM that night, so we were rested and ready at 7 AM the next morning. In addition to strong, hot coffee, my pre-race breakfast consisted of oat meal with fruit, buttered toast with peanut butter, and a banana. A weather check on my iPhone app suggested that it would be about 30 degrees at start time. After a long, hot shower and some deliberation, I landed on the following race gear: my blue New Balance 860 v7 running shoes, New York City Marathon running socks (a Christmas gift from my “unofficial running coach”, Bobby Newman), long compression pants with blue shorts, a black, long sleeve thermal shirt, and my blue LIFE Runner racing jersey on top. I also wore an old, gray, polyester short sleeve shirt as a third layer, but, as it turned out, that was one layer too many, and it ended up shoved into my compression pants for safe keeping before mile 2. Finally, on my head, I wore a “Knights of Columbus” knit cap and simple knit gloves on my hands.
The Start Line
The race started right outside of Barton Hall on the campus of Cornell University, with registration and general preparations inside. I had never been on the Cornell campus before, and I had anticipated that “Barton Hall” would be a cramped academic building with snaking lines of runners at each bathroom entrance congesting the hallways. I was wrong! Barton Hall is an indoor field house with a 1/8 mile track circling a nearly two acre open space. During World War II it served as an aircraft hangar and armory and, later, served as a venue for graduation ceremonies. It continues to house the Cornell ROTC programs. So, as you might imagine, this storied building gave the 973 runners (348 10K participants and 625 half marathoners) ample room to spread out, stretch, and prepare for their date with destiny. I can’t think of a more ideal location for pre-race staging, especially on this cold morning. Each of my pictures of Barton Hall turned out poorly, but kylereynolds at krsnaturalphoto’sblog captured some impressive shots of it in his write-up of the Skunk Cabbage. Nice job, Kyle!
As 10:00 AM neared, the half marathon runners walked en masse out the front doors of Barton Hall and to the adjacent start line. There was a nice crowd of supporters along both sides of the campus street. After saying good-bye to the Better Half, I slipped amidst the mid-packers. I confirmed with a young man behind me that this was, indeed, the half marathon (not the 10K), and we compared notes for a minute or so. I mentioned that I would be running the Sehgahunda Trail Marathon in May, and he said that his Dad was there two years ago, when it was “boiling hot.” I know! I was out there that day too, and, yes, it was a cauldron! The race director said a few indecipherable words up front, and, with little fanfare, we were off! Time to rock and roll! I love this sport!
For about the first half mile, I had trouble setting my stride, as I was dodging and weaving around duos and trios of runners. This race seemed to have a lot more young adult runners (i.e., college age) than some others that I have participated in over the last couple years, and they made for a lively, talkative, fun-loving crowd. Reviewing my splits on my Nike app, I see I ran the first mile in about 9 minutes, but once I got out in the open and established my race pace, I ran at about an 8 to 8’30” minute mile pace, with only mild variability. The young man I was speaking to at the start line assured me that this was a flat race, and, I suppose, compared to a race to the top of Pike’s Peak, it is. It is not that there were massive, intimidating climbs, but, rather, there was a near constant gradual rise or descent, with a couple big hills thrown in for variety.
Mile 6 was my fastest mile at 7’45”. Most of this mile was a fun, downhill trot, and I simply let gravity pull my legs forward. For awhile, I experienced the runner’s state of disassociation wherein one feels as though they are being transported by legs not one’s own. It was a nice break! You can guess what follows these long downhill sections. Yep! Long uphill runs that swapped out the state of disassociation for it’s opposite, what I might call “radical association”, in which I was acutely aware of the strain on my muscles, tendons, and skeleton as I pounded up those hills. I don’t need “mindfulness training” to appreciate the literal “here and now”; all I’ve got to do is run up each of these hills. Believe me, while running up the 588 feet of elevation gain across this course , I’m in the definite present!
This brings us back to that Mile 11, when the driving snow of a late spring squaw pelted my face. My sunglasses had been fogging up earlier in the race, so I had pushed them up onto the top of my head, but now I wanted them back in proper position to save my eyes from the sting of those snowflakes. Alas, in the midst of the temperature plunge that accompanied this squaw, the condensation on the lenses had turned to sheets of ice. I wouldn’t be able to see a thing with those on! I felt like I was in slow motion climbing that hill in those conditions, but, looking at my splits, I see I maintained an 8’30” pace, about the same as most of my other miles this day.
As I rolled up on that finish line, I turned on my version of the jets and ran through the chute at full capacity. I felt great! I came in at 1:48:04 (8’15” pace; 6 out of 27 in my age division and 118 out of 273 males). Back inside Barton, I stretched out, and the Better Half, who is a physical therapist (how perfect is that?), stretched me back into functionality.
Time for a hot cup of black coffee! My thanks to everyone at the Finger Lakes Running Club for a great race! Next up? My return to the Sehgahunda Trail Marathon in May. In the meantime, I’ll be training hard in anticipation of that challenge. Best wishes to all of you as you prepare for your running endeavors coming up this Spring!
My leg muscles were sore, my hands were numb, and I pondered a few drops of transmission fluid staining the black top under my ’91 Dodge truck, but I was all smiles at the end of this strenuous jaunt around Irondequoit Bay, near Rochester, NY. I’ve done this club run before, and I knew it had a little bit of everything that makes running in this part of New York fun: icy patches, snow, challenging hills, pot holes, a strong wind off of Lake Ontario, and a diehard pack of fun-loving runners, adorned in colorful running gear.
Ah, the running gear! You know, as I stood amidst the middle of this pack at the 8 AM start time, I couldn’t help but notice that I seemed to be the only one not wearing proper winter running gear. You know: black Midzoi MidZero tights, violet New Balance long sleeve hoodies, Brooks Essential Green running jackets. In the midst of this array of fashion, color, and sensibility, I was wearing standard issue gray sweats over compression pants that I had taken from my high school son’s drawer some months earlier, paired with a plain, faded red hoodie, probably from Target. I had simple knitted gloves on my hands and an olive green knitted cap on my head. My gear selection landed me somewhere between Rocky Balboa and Homer Simpson. No matter. This gang doesn’t care about my attire and neither do I. I’m just glad to still be in the game!
It was Saturday, March 10 and a breezy 29 degrees with some sun, some patchy, two-toned gray clouds, and occasional bands of snowflakes swirling from the sky like celebratory confetti. I had my friend, Joe, with me, whom I met during this season’s Freezeroo series; he’s a lean, competitive runner who trains hard and maintains a quick, disciplined tempo deep into the miles. I’ve had a pretty good winter training season, though the treadmill, necessary before and after sunrise, was beginning to wear on my psyche.
My return to the Sehgahunda Trail Marathon is just a few weeks away, and I need to get serious. Well, with 950 feet of elevation, this run should at least get me started!
Before our group run begins, a few impromptu words of greeting are spoken from the front of this loose pack, including a call for a round of applause for Tim Dwyer, the newest inductee into the Greater Rochester Track Club Hall of Fame. This group of about 80 local runners offer up a sincere but jovial round of applause paired with a couple good natured teases and jokes. Tim gives a quick wave and says, “Thanks, everyone!” He looks grateful and, well, literally in his element. This sport of running squeezes the gratitude and connectedness out of people like laundry through a hand-cranked wringer. Those of us who would otherwise be strangers are, this morning, a band of fellow runners, traversing a route by foot that most people only do by motor vehicle, in weather many avoid, and at a time of day that makes our endeavor all the stranger. Sounds great! Let’s roll!
Running with Joe means that I am going to be stepping my game up today, at least for as long as I can stick with him. We cruise up Culver Road and past a silent, still Sea Breeze amusement park, with roller coasters and water slides awaiting the summer sun. Not too long ago, I assured my oldest son, then in first or second grade, that he’d be fine on those coasters. “Heck! I’ll ride with you!” Now, he’s in graduate school at the University of Texas and doesn’t seem to need those kinds of assurances anymore.
There’s already some traffic through the towns of Irondequoit and Charlotte (rhymes with “car lot”) this morning, but not that much. A few people are getting their eggs at the Parkside Diner as we trot past, but Shamrock Jack’s, an Irish pub, looks buttoned up and slumbering before tonight’s guests arrive for the Guinness and shepherd’s pie. Joe and I catch up about upcoming races. We’re both entered in the lottery for the New York City Marathon this November and are relishing the prospect of stepping off that line together. As I write this now, I have the knowledge that he is one of the lucky 10%, and I am not. Run that one for the both of us, Joe! Once I got over that disappointment, I registered for a return to the Marine Corps Marathon in October, so I think I landed on my feet!
Like the rest of humanity, I experience worries and annoyances across the week: a mysterious bit of trouble with the gear shifting in my truck, a productivity quota at work, a harsh comment on a social media platform. In the cosmic picture, these are mostly trivial and, perhaps, even insipid concerns, and, as I begin to knock out the miles, it’s this “cosmic” perspective that envelopes me with the intensity of warm sunshine, leaving those noxious elements of the week to fall to the curb or drop into a jagged-edged pothole. Productivity quota? You want productive? Focus on this run!
Our route dodges and weaves counterclockwise around Irondequoit Bay. This bay is about a half mile wide, 4 miles long, covers 1,660 acres, and has a maximum depth of 73 feet. It’s fed by Irondequoit creek from the south and empties into Lake Ontario at the northern end.
We cruised down some quiet side roads, as well as much busier multiple lane thoroughfares. This wasn’t a race, so there was an abundance of friendly conversation. I heard a woman running behind me for a few miles say that she’s got two marathons coming up: Boston, then Big Sur in California. Nice! I stuck with Joe nicely for about the first 8 miles, but as we reached the base of an intense two mile incline on Empire Boulevard, near McGregor’s Tap Room, I knew I was going to have to slow my pace and chug it out. By the time I hit Bay Road, a straight, flat shot of about 4 miles that leads back to the lake, I was fatigued, but I felt good. I think I’ll be OK for the first race of the warm season, the Skunk Cabbage Half Marathon in Ithaca on April 8. Hey, that might not be Big Sur, but I’m really looking forward to it!
As we arrive back to the truck, Joe is there with a smile and a high-five. That’s when I see those drops of transmission fluid visible underneath my truck. Yep. Going to have to do something about that; but, first things first. Time to get some coffee and plan our next run!
I hope all of you have a great start to your Spring running season! I’d be glad to hear from you, so feel free to leave a comment! Watch for my write-up of the Skunk Cabbage. Who knows? Maybe I’ll finally write an epic post that rivals the great works of Tolstoy! LOL! Hey, if nothing else, we’ll find out about how this transmission fluid saga gets resolved. Now, that’ll be great literature for sure!
As we cruised the Subaru across the flat, 214 mile expanse of Ontario, Canada that stretches between Buffalo, NY and Detroit, MI, we bumped into some rain and high winds; therefore, we were a bit strung out by the time we reached the Ambassador Bridge spanning the US/Canadian border. There, after a long wait in a cue of vehicles, we were informed by the US Customs and Border agent that we were selected for a random inspection of our vehicle. We plopped down in white, plastic, 60’s-era “scoop” chairs in the waiting area and surveyed our surroundings. The Better Half and I had that distinct “let’s get this over with” feeling, like before a mid-life medical test. We knew we hadn’t broken any laws or stowed any contraband, but, still, one can’t help but think, “What are they going to find?” Fifteen minutes later, we had our answer: nothing; we got a clean bill of health. The agents cheerily invited us to be on our way.
From there, we rolled past a maze of orange barrels in the Detroit metro area and directly into a weather pattern that offered up a wide range of meteorological phenomena, including unnerving doses of lightning and driving rain. Once in my hometown of Monroe (population 20,000), I double-parked in front of Run Hip in order to buzz in and pick up my bib and race bling. The store looked awesome, but I had folks waiting, so I darted back to the car with plans to return at Christmas. As we pulled in to my childhood home for the night, we were ready to relax, eat a pizza, and enjoy time with family.
I had run the Monroe Half Marathon for the first time on a beautiful, warm, blue-sky Sunday morning in 2016 and thoroughly enjoyed it (see that write-up here). Now, I’m back! The race day weather prediction was unsettling to ponder: probably heavy rain, likely windy, and possible lightning. Looks like the Monroe Half could be extra sporty this year! Indeed, it stormed, sometimes violently, throughout the night, giving me reason to consider the intelligence of running 13.1 miles around town on a Sunday morning, when I could stay back, sleep in, and have a leisurely breakfast with the family. Of course, I had no desire to actually skip this race; if it’s on, I’m there!
At 5:13 AM race day, the Half Marathon Facebook page posted the following message:
Weather update: The weather at this point looks like it will be ok for us to go forward with the race… if we have to delay we could for up to 30 minutes due to agreements with local authorities. If the weather takes a turn we will cancel…we will NOT put anyone at risk.
Looks like we’re on! After my usual race day breakfast of oatmeal with peanut butter, hot black coffee and a banana, I was ready to rock-and-roll! Sure enough, by the time we reach the start line at the Tenneco Corporation, the weather looked fine: gray but no precipitation and, more importantly, no lightning. All systems are GO! It remained dry and cool throughout the race (though the course remained wet from the storms of the previous night); overall, great race conditions!
At the start line, I surveyed the fellow runners, and, for some reason, the crowd looked faster this year than last. Could that be? I squeezed in near the front third of the 309 runners and, after the National Anthem, we were off! I established about a 7:55 minute per mile pace for about the first 3 miles. Here’s some observations in bulleted form:
I’m always impressed by duos and trios of runners who carry on animated conversations, like they’re sitting at the local Starbucks, and still run faster than me.
There’s always that interval in a race when I question whether or not I can make it. In this race, this occurred around miles 8 – 9. Just put the head down and push through it!
Having just run the Loch Ness Marathon in Scotland, which includes a finish through the city of Inverness, I had a chance to compare crowd support. In both cities, the spectators were gracious and positive, no criticisms there. In Inverness, spectators were generally more reserved, typically offering up a round of applause and a warmhearted, albeit brief, “Well done!” as we ran past. In Monroe, they yelled and screamed just about anything supportive you might imagine (e.g., “You look like Usain Bolt!”, haha), had a lot of funny signs (“Run Faster. I Just Farted!”), and supplemented their efforts with a lot of of horns and bells.
During the final 3-mile straightaway stretch to the finish line, I found myself in a grudge match with another male athlete who appeared to be about my age. If I was going to place in my age group, I thought, I had better take this guy out. I began churning my now very tired legs at a faster tempo and gradually put him about 25 feet behind me. Imagine my surprise when he cruised back up on me and began to run past. He’s got the same thing in mind! We traded positions about three times in the final stretch. Thankfully, I got across that finish line about 10 seconds before him.
The Better Half and my 13 year-old son, Dominic, were there to greet me. We enjoyed the post-race party, but I was a bit let-down when the “instant results” available via on-site computers indicated that I came in fourth in my age group. When we got back to New York, we discovered that I actually came in third! There must have been a change in the overall stats (a DQ?)! I’ll pick up my finisher’s mug when I visit the Run Hip store in December.
Given our weather delays traveling on Saturday, we had not made it to the vigil mass Saturday night, as was our original plan. So, from the race, we headed over to St. John the Baptist Catholic Church and caught the nooner. I had teased the Better Half that I was going to wear my Finisher’s medal to mass. I’m glad I didn’t, as the gospel reading was the one about the pharisees wearing adornments to stand out in the crowd (i.e., Matthew 23: 1-12; “Everything they do is done to attract attention, like wearing broader headbands and longer tassels”), and the homily was about the importance of humility, LOL! During mass, a violent storm rolled into Monroe once again, and we heard driving rain hit the roof and saw prismatic lightning flashes through the stained glass windows. We got off that race course just in time! After sitting (and standing and kneeling) through mass immediately after racing a half marathon, I felt like I needed a miracle to propel my aching, stiff leg muscles through the driving rain back to my car. But, I made it!
My thanks to the organizers of the Monroe Half Marathon. This race is exceptionally well organized, the communication is awesome (e.g., weather updates), and the people are gracious and hardworking. What’s next? In May, I’ve got a return to the Sehgahunda Trail Marathon through Letchworth State Park on the calendar and another season of Freezeroo races with the Greater Rochester Track Club starting next month. Best wishes to all my readers! Have a great winter running season!
“The only constant is change.” -Heraclitus, circa 500 BC
I don’t know if Heraclitus was a runner, but I bet most runners would agree that the sport sets the occasion for a certain amount of introspection, especially on warm summer days. For me, like riding on H.G. Wells’s time machine, the world appears to be spinning at a faster and faster rate. In the midst of all this change, rhythmically throwing one leg in front of the other continues to provide a welcomed sense of continuity. Here’s some highlights of Summer 2017!
The Charlie McMullen Memorial Mile, St. John Fisher College, Pittsford, NY
The McMullen Mile is a one mile race sponsored by the Greater Rochester Track Club (GRTC) and dedicated to the memory of Charlie McMullen, a local Rochester, NY runner who, in the mid-70’s, clocked a 3:56 mile and 2:15 marathon. The multiple heats, organized by age and projected finish time, were held on a beautiful quarter mile track looping the interior of Growney Stadium, home of the Division III St. John Fisher Cardinals football team in Pittsford, NY. This stadium is also the temporary home of the NFL’s Buffalo Bills during their annual summer camp.
I had never run a one mile race (at least not in this century), but I figured I would need a different strategy than a marathon! Luckily, I met a veteran coach while waiting for my heat, and he gave me this advice: (1) hold back on the first lap (of four), (2) don’t pass when rounding corners, only on straightaways, (3) hold position in the back of a pack so that I’m the “hunter”, and (4) pour it on at the onset of lap 4. So, that became my strategy. I came in at 6’23” (6 out of 8 in my age group of men and 42 out of 61 among men overall). At least I held my position in the back of the pack! BTW, I was about three dollars short when attempting to buy the McMullen Mile t-shirt, but a fellow runner saw me setting the shirt down, walked over, insisted on paying the difference, and told me to just “pay it forward.” Great night!
Camping Trail Runs
Our family camping adventures are when I am most conscious of the rapid pace of change. On these trips, the distractions of day-to-day living are stashed away (e.g., phones and laptops), and our family of six has a chance to catch up with each other. I am proud that my family can spend 4 day weekends together on a “primitive” campsite without hardly a negative word or tension, except for the one trip when I found that I had been playing solitaire with only 51 cards for three days!
Only a few short years ago, I was responsible for showing my four sons (now aged 13, 17, 19, 22), each in turn, the basics of camping (e.g., tent assembly, putting a worm on a hook, avoiding poison ivy). Now, when we camp, not only do they put their own tents up, but they take charge of raising our pop-up trailer, relegating me to an assistant role. Hey, I’m just pleased that they still take time out of their “Glory Days” to camp with their Old Man! On a recent camping trip to Keuka Lake, we went out for a pizza, and, when all had grabbed a first slice, each boy waited, without prompting, for our prayer before our meal. An “attitude of gratitude” is one of the keys to happiness, I think, and it’s those moments when, imperfect as we may be, I know the Better Half and I are on the right track.
A big part of our family enjoyment at camp is the unstructured flow of our days, with each member pursuing their interests at a leisurely pace. And, of course, for me, this includes good, solid trail runs! A very memorable “camping trail run” of this summer was at John Dillon Park in Long Lake, NY, the heart of the Adirondacks. John Dillon Park is a private park maintained in partnership between International Paper and Paul Smith’s College. Their mission is to make nature available to all persons, including individuals with disabilities. This beautiful park maintains awesome, wide, graveled hiking trails, braille signs, primitive (though beautifully maintained) camping spots, and a range of accessible activities, including fishing and boating.
Another great “camping trail run” was the Finger Lakes Trail at Bowman Lake State Park, near Oxford, NY. The Finger Lakes Trail is a nearly 600 miles trail extending from the Allegany State Park (south of Buffalo) to the Catskill Forest Preserve in eastern New York, not too far from Albany. The seven-mile segment that I ran was a well-blazed pathway through lush, richly green forest. It is good to have a distance goal firmly in mind from the start of a run on beautiful trail like this, because, well, it goes on for dozens of miles without interruption, and one could easily bite off more than they can chew before they realize it!
The KarKnocker 5K, East Rochester, NY
The KarKnocker 5K, a benefit for the Finger Lakes Regional Burn Association, follows a route through the village of East Rochester, NY (population 6,600). My 17 year-old son, Phil, and I ran this race on a beautiful summer evening. This was a good-natured, community event and a lot of fun! Races are usually morning events, so the 7 PM start required some extra consideration, in terms of planning meals and resting up after a full day of work. I did it in 22:34 (7:17/M), and Phil did it in 23:46 (7:40/M). I should point out that I ran my usual “all-out”, and Phil did more of a “scenic cruise.” In another year, Phil will be away at college, and like the two older boys, I’ll spend most of my days supporting him from afar, so opportunities to share experiences like this race are golden to me. After the race, we enjoyed the East Rochester Firemen’s Carnival, including entertainment by a great sounding rock band, Download, that played awesome covers from the 80s.
Running my Hometown of Monroe, Michigan
I think it’s fair to say that a corollary of Heraclitus’s dictum is “You can’t go home again” and, though I can literally make it back to my childhood house near Monroe, MI in about 8 hours of interstate travel, “home” does remain nearly 35 years away. Faithful readers may remember my exploits during last year’s Monroe Half Marathon, and that write-up gives one a sense of this town and my nostalgic relation to it. I’ve heard that the derivative meaning of the term “nostalgia” is “to know pain”, and, while “pain” is not the word I’d use to describe my experience running through this great old town, there is a certain pang that comes with reliving moments long past as I trot past familiar sites; the kind of emotion one might feel if they are heartened by spotting a dear old friend in a dense, expansive crowd but unable to summon their attention. The picture at the top of this post is the beautiful back property of the Mother House of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Monroe. The IHM sisters are responsible for a good portion of my education, and my travel back to their home and running around my adjacent high school is a good example of this notion of “nostalgia.”
What’s next? Well, I’m registered for the Monroe Half Marathon again in November, but the big news is my scheduled participation in the Loch Ness Marathon, in Inverness, Scotland. The Better Half and I will be flying out of Toronto and staying in Inverness for the Marathon before making our way to Edinburgh. Stay tuned for that, sports fans, as that race report should prove to be epic! In the meantime, I wish you the best of times with your family and friends during this transition from summer to fall. You know it’s going to pass in the blink of an eye!
“Man is most nearly himself when he achieves the seriousness of a child at play.” -Heraclitus