Brief Race Recap: Return to the Monroe (MI) Half Marathon

Brief Race Recap: Return to the Monroe (MI) Half Marathon

The Backstory

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. The agents cheerily invited us to be on our way.

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Here’s the presidential portrait that greets visitors at the US Customs and Border office in the Motor City. Surely, we’re going to get busted for something!

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!

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Race gear ready to roll! I wore my Dad’s Detroit Edison shirt again this year as part of my “warm up” suit. He read meters in Monroe for 39 years. Also, I brought along a towel that I saved from the 2016 Nashville St. Jude Rock-and-Roll Marathon in anticipation of rain. All proceeds of the Monroe Half support Special Olympics….Terrific! BTW, I really like the race shirt this year!

The Race

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.

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Made it! Official time: 1:47:03, 67 out of 309, 3rd of 13 in my age group.

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!

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Humility, man, humility.

Epilogue

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!

 

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A One-Mile Race, Rex the Dog, and Getting Ready for Loch Ness: Running in Summer 2017

A One-Mile Race, Rex the Dog, and Getting Ready for Loch Ness: Running in Summer 2017

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           

 

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Cruising into my finish at the McMullen Mile on June 9, 2017

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

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Lake Eaton, as viewed from the shore of Lake Eaton State Park, near the village of Long Lake, NY

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.

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Two of our boys, Carl and Phil, putting their “nine-person” tent up….We’ve decided it’s just big enough for two teenagers, LOL! Their years in Boy Scouts have really helped develop their skills and independence.

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.

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A fishing dock designed for use by all, including persons with disabilities, at John Dillon Park. I borrowed this picture from their website.

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!

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The Finger Lakes Trail, near Bowman Lake State Park. You might recognize this picture from my post “Tips for Aging Males That I Just Made Up“.

The KarKnocker 5K, East Rochester, NY

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My son, Phil, and I at the finish line of the KarKnocker 5K on July 28, 2017.

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.”

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I use to see this bronze dog (“Rex”) in front of a steel mill adjacent to my grade school when my Dad dropped me off at the start of the school day. Now, I see Rex in front of a fire station during my runs around Monroe, MI.

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

 

Race Report: 2017 GRTC Valentines Run in Memory of Tom Brannon

Race Report: 2017 GRTC Valentines Run in Memory of Tom Brannon

The Backstory

As I study my weather app at 6:30 AM, I see that it is forecast to be 34 degrees at the 10 AM start time for this 8-mile jaunt around the northern portion of Greece, NY. This tropical temperature just doesn’t sound possible to me….This race has to be freezing!….5 or 8 degrees…or 12 at the very most. It’s the Freezeroo in February, after all! In fact, last year’s race was cancelled due to severe winter weather. And, two years ago, it was frigid with breathtaking wind gusts and driving snow! (See picture below.) This race, hosted by the Greater Rochester Track Club (GRTC) and  the Bagel Bunch Runners, is right on Lake Ontario, and we all know about the cold, steady, icy wind that blows off that bone gray body of  water separating us from our friends in Canada. Hence, I reject the datum on my app and bundle up for a cold run. Not only did I wear my black compression pants and thick gray “Compass Care” sweatpants over them, I wear three running shirts (two long-sleeved and one short-sleeved), a toboggan, two pairs of gloves, and a soft, insulating, blue GRTC muffler around my neck (Freezeroo race bling). In retrospect, with this assemblage of gear, even in a snowstorm,  I would be adequately dressed to walk across the approximately 50 miles of Lake Ontario (if it were frozen) to Presqu’ile Point, Ontario, have a nice lunch, and walk back. Well, I planned poorly….Should’ve heeded the forecast.

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GRTC Valentines Run 2015 – pure leisure! This is what was in my head as I planned for today’s race. I finished that 8-mile jaunt in about 1 hour and 12 minutes. Yes, my eyebrows were frozen in “Spock” position. Thanks to expert photographer Alex Tong for this shot. 

The Start

Well over 100 runners formed a jovial, compact huddle at the start line, the road leading in and out of   Braddock Bay Park. I had a fun conversation with a veteran runner named Mark, who, as it turns out, uses my Erie Canal Trail route between Fairport and Pittsford, NY for his daily practice runs. He runs in the morning, and I usually run after lunch or early evening, so we don’t recognize each other. Runners love to talk running, and it is a pleasure for dozens of us to cover those topics that animate us: upcoming races, gear, distances, terrains, injuries, goals, strategy and technique. I’m happy to be in this club, this assemblage of men and women, who are setting aside all sorts of other demands and preoccupations in order to focus squarely on traversing this eight mile route with one foot in front of the other. This is a retreat, a meditation, a temporary reprieve from bus driving, studying, engineering, teaching, retailing, caregiving, driving, cooking, information processing, accounting, drywalling, cleaning, assembling, chauffering, and all sorts of other callings. Running is a simple sport – ambulate in a straight line and occasionally turn. Simple, I guess, unless you count every fun element that accompanies it! What a joy to mine it for all it’s worth!

I’m only 5’6″, so I’ve spent my life wondering what’s going on “up front”, but I hear somebody up there yell “Go!”, and we are off!   I have a bit of a smile on my face, and, you know, I think many of my fellow runners do as well.

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The map from my Nike Run app. Our route was counterclockwise on this map. Note Edgemere Drive, on the thin band of land along Lake Ontario. BTW, remember I mentioned that the forecast was 34 degrees at start-time? Gotta admit: nailed it!

The Race

I was hot by Mile 1.5. It’s the kind of heat that causes sweat to pool around my temples and roll down my face, follow the contours to my chin, and careen down my neck. This heat is going to act as a governor, restricting my energy, and, hence, my pace.  I pull off the blue muffler and shove it into my compression pants off my right hip. I was cruising at about a 7:25 per mile pace – perhaps too fast for me to sustain for 8 miles, but, hey, let’s roll! We can worry about that later! The road is clean and reasonably dry, save a few patches of snow and slush….No problem! I settle in to my pace adjacent to a runner with a thick, fuzzy pull-over sweatshirt in front of me. No, not a sweater, but a fuzzy sweatshirt – like a Land’s End shirt with a zipper collar. I wonder if he thinks he’s overdressed as well? This guy’s got a great stride and pace so precise, one could use it to set the atomic clock. I end up settled in off his right shoulder and about 6 feet back. Our route includes two intimidating traverses on overpasses that span the Lake Ontario State Parkway, a route my family uses for summer camping trips at the state parks between here and Niagara Falls.  I take long looks at the parkway in both directions as I cross these overpasses. Now, whenever we cruise through here on our camping trips, I’ll have the memory of this run to ponder. And, yes, the Better Half will hear about it, probably on multiple occasions, and at varying intensities of exaggeration, and she’ll be one step closer to canonization as a result.

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Lake Ontario at Golden Hill State Park in August 2015. Picture taken during a family camping trip.

The race planners have done a great job securing police and firefighter support at each corner, and these local heroes do an expert job controlling traffic on what would otherwise be busy, fast two-lane roads on the edge of Rochester. Some drivers, as they slowly snake past or wait at intersections, study us with a perplexed expression, like we are exotic animals at a drive-through safari. I half expect one of them to try and feed me. “Why are they doing that? Where are they going?” We can’t explain it to you now. For one thing, we don’t have a surplus of breath for conversation! Most drivers smile, nod, wave, even if they’re a bit anxious about getting to their Saturday morning appointments. A few have heads down, as they are glued to their handheld devices. Put those things away and focus on the road!

At about  Mile 3, I pull off my first pair of gloves – my blue GRTC gloves that were given as race bling a year or two ago. These get shoved in my shorts off my right hip, right next to the muffler I had already stowed away there. I’m still hot. My sunglasses (bifocals), held snugly to my face with a green tension cord, fog up, creating a prismatic dreamscape. I pull off my hat…and one of my three shirts. Finally, I pull off my final pair of gloves. I’ve got so much clothing shoved below that it is comical. But, I feel cooler now…I think I can hit that homeostatic sweet spot. I gradually ease past the athlete with the fuzzy sweatshirt.

A reader might be led to believe that I’m feeling good, but I’m not. Through Miles 4 and 5, I’m actually contemplating what it would be like to crash and burn. Is today the day? What would it be like if I just stopped now? My pace drops to about an 8 minute mile.  I began running only 4 years ago, so the notion that “this running phase” could be ending is like a dark fog that infiltrates my thoughts and creates a dread that can, at least for moments, be nearly all-consuming. “No, Dear Lord, please, don’t make me go back to golf!”Most who know me would never describe me as anxious. Far from it! But, the thought of not making it can literally be felt in the pit of my stomach. It’s a bit like driving down the NY thru-way at night in the winter, with the fuel warning light on, and realizing that the next available gas station is 17 miles. What’s that noise? Did I just hear the engine sputter? Grip that steering wheel and drive, man!

I’m on Edgemere Drive now, running northwesterly. This is a narrow road that splits a thin finger of land, with two small ponds off of my left shoulder and Lake Ontario off my right. To improve my morale, I focus my attention on the clusters of people ice fishing on the ponds and even wave at a few. Behave happy, be happy! I see the GRTC photographer and ask him to capture my Braveheart qualities; he says he’ll do his best, but I know that’d require Photoshop. And, despite all my grousing about being too hot, I feel a strong, steady cool breeze coming from the west now. This is strange: my right hand is like an ice cube, but my left is still pretty warm. Is this difference because the right hand is farther away from my heart? My gloves are shoved somewhere down below, and that’s that. I use this frozen hand as  motivation to run harder to the finish line.

The Big Finish

We roll into a tightly-packed neighborhood that’s surrounded by Lake Ontario on three sides. This is a neat little peninsula that must have great block parties in the summer. These  neighborhood streets are not plowed as well as the main roads, giving us a chance to practice our balancing and slip-recovery skills. We return to East Manitou Road, a main artery, at about Mile 6.5, and I begin to sense that, once again, today’s not the day for the crash-and-burn. Indeed, I feel tired but strong. At Mile 7, I am running with two other guys, and we pour it on and return to about a 7:25 per mile pace. Hey, what are we saving it for?  We exchange a few comments, and, admittedly, I talk the most- just gibberish – sorry, guys! We’re expending whatever’s left in the gas tank to propel us through this final drive to the finish line.

Jason McElwain (“Jmac”), a terrific athlete and 2006 ESPY Award winner, is calling out the finishers as we cross the line, all to the beat of Tom Petty and other classic rockers piped through a solid sound system. I made it in 1 hour and 57 seconds (6 out of 14 in my age group; 7:37 per mile pace) and, after cheering on a few others, head inside the heated park pavilion for the food, water, and wonderfully strong, black coffee. I stick around long enough to enjoy the company of a few friends, but I’ve gotta roll; I have to chauffeur one of the boys to his Boy Scout meeting by 12:45.

Epilogue

Our last Freezeroo race of the season is the Whitehouse Challenge on February 25th. I’m sure I’ll do a better job predicting the weather that day and will have no struggles at all LOL! My thanks to friends at GRTC and the Bagel Bunch Runners for a fun race. It was great, and you all did terrific! Looming in the distance is the Nashville St. Jude Rock and Roll Marathon in April…. I can’t wait!

Running 4,000 Miles

Running 4,000 Miles

The Backstory – Cruising Down the Erie Canal Trail

I think I went out too far this time. I lost track of time and distance tonight, and with a sunset  nearly complete, I  wonder why I’m still out here. This was suppose to be a quick 6 mile weeknight run with return before dark. Should I call The Better Half for pick-up? I could, and she’d be right here. But, you know, I’m a guy; hence, calling for the extraction team is not something I would do, unless I was bit by a rattlesnake or suffering from a serious heart attack. And, even then, it would have to be by helicopter, not Toyota minivan. No,  I simply lost track of time and bit off more than I can chew on this solo training run on the Erie Canal Trail, and I think I can remedy this situation by making a U-turn and banging out the five mile return run through the dark. Wasn’t it Henry Ford who said most problems are solved by hard work?

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Map of the Erie Canal 

The Erie Canal Trail runs through Upstate New York  like a sinewy vein running through a thick, flexed arm, stretching from Albany in the East to Buffalo in the West. This 363 mile channel was built, in good part, by European immigrants, most notably Scots and Irishman. When completed in 1825, it served as a critical route for commerce between the Atlantic seaboard and the growing economy of all points westward. Later, the expansion of rail and the combustible engine contributed to the demise of the canal as a cost-effective means of shipping products, but today it is enjoyed by thousands of recreational boaters and anglers annually.

Running immediately parallel to this body of water is a well-maintained trail that was once an easement for mules pulling barges up and down the canal and, later, a trolley path between city centers like Rochester and canal villages, like the one that I now call home, Fairport.  Now, it is a recreational trail for walkers, bikers, and, well, fatiguing runners like me.

As I catch my breath and check the Daily Mile app on my iPhone, I realize that it is on this run that I just completed my 4,000th mile in about 3.5 years. If I were to trot out the front door of my house and magically run 4,000 continuous miles east, I would end up in the suburbs of Milan, Italy. Running the same distance west would take me through the state of Oregon, into the Pacific Ocean, and on my way to Japan. What makes this especially compelling is that just 4 short years ago, the only running that I did was the path to the refrigerator! And yet, after all of my training, here I am, standing on the Erie Canal Trail near Pittsford, New York, feeling each one of tonight’s miles in the muscles, bones, and tendons of my 51 year-old frame.

No matter. All of these sensations tell me that I’m alive, and all systems are “Go!” In short, I’m loving it. As I complete that U-turn and establish about an 8:45 pace back to my home in Fairport, an inventory of running memories fill my bandwidth. Just what is it about running that adds so much spice to this old soul?

The Races

My first marathon was the 2014 Empire State Marathon in nearby Syracuse.  For this 26.2 mile jaunt around Onondaga Lake, I nervously stepped off the earliest hotel shuttle bus trip of the day, almost 2 hours before start time on that cold, breezy late fall morning. Race organizers and volunteers were still setting up the starting area, and there was hardly another runner in sight!  There were snowflakes vertically slicing the still dark air, and my fingers quickly grew numb. With no other shelter in site, I hid inside a porta-john to stay warm. At least it blocked the wind gusts!  As I  sat there on that cold plastic seat in the dark, I questioned my intelligence for getting involved in an enterprise as silly as marathon running. Why am I doing this? This is one of the dumbest things that I have ever done!  I should be home working on my stamp collection! But, later that day, as I knocked out the miles, crossed the finish line in 4 hours and 19 minutes and high-fiving my friend, Bobby N., my outlook on things changed. My only question then was, “When’s our next race?” BTW, it got into the low 90’s during the 2016 Sehgahunda Trail Marathon at Letchworth State Park, so I’ve had a chance to experience some extremes.

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Bobby N. (left) and I at the Finish Line of the 2014 Empire State Marathon, Syracuse, NY. A terrific endurance athlete, Bobby, my “unofficial running coach”,  was instrumental in helping me when I started running. Very early in my training, when I messaged him the question, “Do you think I could run a 5K?” he immediately messaged back, “Yes. Get good shoes.”

The Training Runs

But, you know, if the races provide my life with crescendos of celebration, my day-to-day training runs comprise the sweet rhythms in-between, like a favorite 80’s song or the rumble of a V8 while cruising through town. Plenty of these training runs  have been local runs on the Erie Canal Trail or at nearby Mendon Ponds Park, but I’ve also done some great running far from home as well. I’ve run within the city limits of big towns like Austin, Baltimore, Atlanta, and Orlando. These have been great little adventures, and, since I started running, planning for a trip has taken on a fun new dimension.

While training for the Marine Corps Marathon,  I had the chance to run the mall in Washington, DC one beautiful July evening, after a day of conferencing for work. As I knocked out those 8 miles, I cruised past families with kids in tow and  groups of chattering tourists traveling en masse. I also saw seniors, moving more slowly, with a sense of solemnity, as they studied the etchings in slabs of granite. One old warrior appeared to be searching for something he’d lost.  An old friend? A brother? Perhaps he was thinking about a time when his responsibilities were in clear relief, like the chiseled words now under his extended fingers. And, there I am, cruising through, limited only by the capacity of my muscles and lungs, bathed in the freedom and sunny optimism that comes from running in this great Land of Opportunity. Thank you, veterans!

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The National World War Two Memorial. I stopped here on a training run to honor the “Greatest Generation”, including my Dad’s brothers, Bill, Carl, and Victor. All three served in Europe and the Pacific. My Grandmother prayed the rosary for their safe return, my Grandfather helped man the “Arsenal of Democracy” in Detroit, and my Dad, a school-age boy during the war, collected metal for recycling and watched newly constructed warbirds on shake-down flights over their house. Each brother came home safe-and-sound, with memories both good and bad, and went on to lead productive, graced lives.  

A nice portion of my 4,000 miles have been spectacular trail runs in the heart of nature, like Letchworth State Park and around Cranberry Lake in the Adirondacks. When I harken back to these locations that I have visited in my running shoes, I can retrace the routes in my mind, including the twists and turns, landmarks, and, perhaps not surprisingly, with a special appreciation of the terrain. I generally have zero difficulty falling asleep at night, but, when I do, I just retrace a favorite trail, focusing on detail, including not only the sites, but the sounds and smells as well. This is, I think, the special kind of bedtime prayer available to the runner.

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The Adirondacks region of New York offers beauty and challenge for any runner. The Better Half and I camp here each Summer, when our younger sons are at Massawepie Scout Camp. During our first trip to the area, we searched in vain for the electric hook-up for our camper, only to find that the sites at Cranberry Lake State Park have no power! We were a little taken aback at the time, but now she and I would have it no other way.

Running in Upstate New York in the winter means soft padding for the feet and a muffling of noise. Oh, and light that is sometimes so bright one has to squint even with  sunglasses. Sure, it’s cold, and clothing and gear selection is serious business. But, once a rhythm is established and one finds that sweet spot, it is as though there’s a soft, warm bubble surrounding the body. It’s like something supernatural – a runner’s spell that cheats the elements!

Of course, with running there can be pain and discomfort – it’s not all a pleasure cruise! But, hey, I’ll save all of that business for a future blog – I’ve got plenty of that material! The truth is that one doesn’t usually remember the pain all that well once a good, solid run is complete; those memories get filed in the back of the cerebellum and serve mostly as a backdrop for sweet satisfaction.

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The Thomas Creek Wetland, adjacent to the Erie Canal in Fairport, NY. This is on one of my most frequent training runs throughout the year – beautiful!  When I run this, I recollect years of bike-riding here with my sons, two of whom are off at college now. In the Winter, wear sunglasses!

Fellow Runners

I have thumped out a lot of solo miles during these 4,000 miles, and I’ve enjoyed much of this time by myself. But, many of my miles have been spent in the company of friends, and this has been a special blessing. For purposes here, I won’t attempt to make a “list” of people whom I’ve met through running. Suffice to say that, for a sport that is enjoyed alone and often as “parallel play” in groups, it is a very social, even communal endeavor. I am grateful for the people whom I’ve met through this sport and the friendships we’ve made. To my running friends: thanks for all you have done for me while we’ve been on the trail – I appreciate it!

And, speaking of trail, I’ve made it back to my house just as the envelope of a moonless night fully descends upon me. I knew I didn’t need my extraction team! What will the next 4,000 miles bring? I know I’ve got two marathons on my calendar: St. Jude’s in Nashville in April and Loch Ness in Scotland in September….What else will fill the running docket?  An ultra? The Boston Marathon? Some new PR’s? Who knows? But, one things for sure: I’m ready to roll! And, I hope to see you out there!

Race Report: The 2016 Monroe Half Marathon

Race Report: The 2016 Monroe Half Marathon

The Backstory – Monroe has a storied history. Nestled in the southeastern corner of Michigan along Lake Erie, it is the former site of an ancient sea bed, home for Native Americans, a new frontier for French colonists in the 17th century, birthplace of General George Armstrong Custer, and part of the “Arsenal of Democracy” during World War Two. It is also where I spent my formative years – the 1970’s and 80’s,when my primary concerns centered upon Rocky, Queen, Farrah Fawcett, Smoky and the Bandit, and the great Michigan rocker, Bob Seger. I  have been living out-of-state for well over three decades now, but I still have rich memories to be found on nearly every corner of this great old town. What’s it going to be like to run a half marathon in a locale with such rich  history? I’m about to find out.

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Wake up! It’s Race Day! Early morning view from my window. As a youngster, I found arrowheads and ancient seashells in that field.

 

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My Dad, Joseph “Tom” Mruzek, circa 1980

Race Day Preparation – From the moment I peaked out the window at 6:15 AM, I new the day was going to be beautiful. I opted for my standard half marathon gear, including my black Asics running shoes, green “Empire State Marathon” long sleeve shirt and charcoal Nike running shorts. I am bringing along a special shirt to wear as well: one of my Dad’s Detroit Edison uniform shirts – one that he had worn during his 39 years of reading electric meters in Monroe. I had a great Dad, and I’ve really missed him since he passed away in 2007. He’d be with me in a special way today, as I run a portion of his old meter reading routes.

For breakfast, I have a big bowl of Quaker oats with peanut butter, a banana, and strong, black coffee. The Better Half was suiting up as well; she’s going to run the Monroe 5K, which begins 15 minutes after the half marathon start. By the way, we take pride in the fact that all proceeds from the event are earmarked for support of local Special Olympics – terrific!

The Start – We pulled into the pleasant grounds of the Tenneco Corporation off of Albain Road, on the southern edge of Monroe. I think of this business as “Monroe Shocks”, but it appears that a corporate acquisition has resulted in a change of identity since I moved away. As I shut off the engine and gather my things, my oldest son, Joseph, surveys the expansive parking lot and reports that we appear to have the only vehicle in the lot made by a foreign car company (Subaru). Yep! We are back in Michigan!

The sky is a spotless blue, and it is a cool 44 degrees at start time – great weather for running! Several hundred athletes, family, and friends are enjoying the excitement near the well organized start area. Not only do I have Better Half and  son with me, but I am running with an old friend from my days at St. Michael grade school and Monroe Catholic Central High School, Bill C. Bill lives in Nashville now and has made the trek back for this half marathon as well. Bill’s a lean, disciplined runner. I admire his skill, but, even more than that, I admire his love of the sport and his good-natured, zestful approach to this race in particular. This is pure leisure; a real joy and blessing to be out here on this crisp Fall morning, and I can tell Bill knows it! I knock off a Salted Caramel GU for a boost of energy. After a great rendition of the National Anthem by a local musician, as well as group recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance led by a Special Olympiad, we are off!

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Trying to Keep Up with Bill (on right)…Not Going to Happen!

The Race – We tear off east for about a quarter mile on Albain Road and hang a left on Hull Road. Hull Road is an approximately 3 mile straightaway that is as flat as a pancake. We run past Hull Road Auto Parts, the family business of an old high school buddy whom I have not seen in over thirty years. Bill and I are running together at about a 7’30” pace for the first 5 miles. We enjoy each other’s conversation and the excitement of the task before us. I feel giddy. It is that feeling of elation when one senses that, for at least the moment, he’s winning.

We pass some great Monroe landmarks that evoke memories: the Silver Cue pool hall (popping quarters in Asteroids and Space Invaders games), Dorsch Memorial Library (is it really skipping school if one hangs out at the library?), Saint Joseph church (my childhood parish) and Monroe Junior High, where I boarded the bus to go home at the end of the St. Mike’s school day. Nothing like being a grade schooler dressed in a blue Catholic school uniform on a bus packed with wild students from the local junior high. In my head, I hear Billy Squire (“Lonely is the Night“) and Steve Miller (“Fly Like an Eagle“) through tinny bus speakers, and a gruff bus driver voice: “If you want to go home, you have to sit in your seats!”  The flashback brings a smile to my face. At 51, I’d have to do a lot more than that to go home now, though, for a moment, I’m half way there.

It dawns on me that I am going to have a hard time keeping pace with Bill for the entire 13.1 miles, and as I momentarily slow down at the Mile 6 aid station to grab an orange slice, I see Bill run on with seemingly boundless energy. I’m now on my own. Thankfully, the course is well marked and the aid stations plentiful. Every single person throughout the race is kind and supportive.

A beautiful aspect of running is the opportunity for clear-minded contemplation – the chance to really sort some important things out. Here’s a sample of topics I ponder: (1) I wish I knew how to work on cars better. (2) Are big dogs better pets than small dogs or vice-versa? (3) I’d like to belong to a country club, but I would never pay the dues. (4) What food do I like more: Chinese or Mexican? (5) How can it be that not one person who has “spotted” Bigfoot has had a decent camera handy? Hey, I never claimed to be a genius!

We cross the River Raisin over the Macomb Street Bridge and enter neighborhoods lined with houses. Some streets have modest homes and others have expensive ones, but all are well-maintained and reflect pride of ownership. I think about my Dad reading these meters and greeting folks with his ready smile and a positive word. Over 39 years with Edison, he got to know “everyone” in Monroe and established friendships with many, including Elizabeth Upham McWebb (“Little Brown Bear” book series) and Vern J. Sneider (“Teahouse of the August Moon“).

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River Raisin near Veterans Park in Monroe, MI. French settlers  called it “La Rivière aux Raisins” because of the abundance of wild grapes along its shores. Picture taken during a training run.

 

I see my son, Joseph, on my return across the Macomb Street Bridge, so, in order to look macho,  I straighten up and quicken my pace. I don’t want him to think the Old Man is losing his edge. I give him a high-five. At about mile 10 I start really feeling it, and my pace drops to about 8’10” per mile. The return up Hull Road becomes a grudge match between myself and increasing fatigue. I put my head down and slug it out. A fellow runner about my age passes me, and we express brief words of support. I can tell he’s feeling it too. Time to suck it up, cupcakes!

The Big Finish – I felt a surge of energy as I turned off Hull Road and back on to Albain Road for the final half mile. Time to let it rip!…After all, what am I saving it for? My pace quickens. I pass up the fellow runner who had passed me a few moments ago, and he gives me a kind acknowledgment. His tank is empty.  As I enter the Tenneco property, I see a smiling face running towards me – it’s Bill, who returned a few minutes before me, and he has come out to run with me through the shoot. He yells words of encouragement, and I respond by driving it up to full throttle. Now, I’m thrusting my arms and legs out in front of me like a true athlete, and the pain and fatigue are gone. I hear the crowd yell, and I cross the finish line at 1:43:00 (a 7’52” pace; 48 out of 312 runners).

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At the finish line with son, Joseph, and The Better Half (Maria). Note the Detroit Edison uniform shirt.

Bill got first place in our age group with a time of 01:36:57 (7’25” pace; 28th overall). I came in third in our age group and was awarded a great Monroe Half Marathon “PLACER” mug that can hold enough beer to put me down for the night. The Better Half is there as well, and she reports that her 5K went great, and she has a new PR. Son Joseph is there in his ever helpful support role, including foreign car chauffeur. The post-race party is great fun. The organizers of this event have done a terrific job from beginning to end….Thank you!

Bill asks if I ever considered running the Nashville St. Jude Rock and Roll Marathon in April 2017. If I did, I’d have a place to crash. Well, you know, I just might! Who knows? Since it is a rock and roll marathon, I just might hear some Billy Squire or Steve Miller and, well, maybe, just maybe, for a brief moment, I’ll be home again.

Epilogue: I’m all signed up for the Nashville St. Jude Rock and Roll Marathon. Get ready to rock, Bill….it’s going to be fun!