Since I have running blog, I have a moral obligation to publish a snappy list of clever tips guaranteed to catapult all three of my faithful readers toward their running goals. You know what I mean – a rapid fire compilation of strategies to bring out the very best in performance and enjoyment while on the running trail. Given that I have no expertise, training, or relevant credentials related to running or endurance sports, I am, according to popular convention, fully qualified to present just such a list! This time, I’ll focus on my own cohort, veteran male runners – those guys who have reached that certain age and are still giving it there all. Here goes!
No Pain, No Gain…..Hey, take it from this 51 year-old guy, unless it seriously pains other people to see you running, you’re probably not trying hard enough. Whether it’s a 5K or a marathon, when out there, groan a lot and maintain an anguished expression. Carry yourself with the comportment of Charleton Heston when he was captured and beaten by the apes. Highlight those parts of your body that make others cringe. For example, if you’ve got knees that look like fossilized mastodon bones, work those joints back and forth at the start line while moaning. You might even consider crying a little, as the site of a grown man crying during exercise helps everyone have a good time.
Build Community…..Before and after races, freely share personal information with the people around you, especially young adults otherwise having fun with their friends. Often, the best ice breaker is recounting why you began running in the first place: the growing awareness of impending chronic illness and an eventual slow, agonizing death. Other fun ice breakers include current events, especially political news viewed on Fox and MSNBC. If you’re really at a loss for words, simply pivot to the tried-and-true topic of the increasing difficulty establishing a solid urine stream before a big run. Gentlemen, our sparkling conversation skills are our gift to fellow runners; they deserve to hear our wit and wisdom! Not only do our contributions help build community, it reminds younger folks of what they can look forward to during their own sunset years.
Dress Properly…..Men, we know what running gear makes us most comfortable, and, frankly, that’s what we should be wearing when we’re out there. First, your super short shorts from the ’70’s are not only liberating, they are of historical significance. Like a Civil War reenactor, you are providing an important public service by modeling this apparel for the younger generation. You can be sure that this is why people stare at you in wonderment when you lope past. Likewise, those knee-high tube socks and terry cloth sweat bands not only look cool, they provide opportunity to introduce the history of all-timegreats, like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, to the younger set. Finally, because we get frugal with age and just generally care less, we are not washing the running gear as often as most folks and, hey, that’s saves natural resources. So, if your vintage running shirt is a bit stained and, well, aromatic, no problem! When you’re in close quarters with others at the start line on race day, they will thank you for your good stewardship of Mother Earth.
Be the Change You Want to See…..Finally, gentlemen, like Gandhi, we have opportunity to set a tone of positivity and peace in our local running communities. When blocking access to the hydration station during a 5K by standing in place to look at your flip phone, smile and wish others well. When stuffing your duffle bag with extra post-race food so that you have snacks later, offer to help others do the same. When you barricade yourself in the porta-john for an hour, only to emerge immediately prior to the National Anthem, stand at attention, straight and tall. If you see a runner go down during a difficult trail marathon, be sure to step around her carefully as you go on your way, so as not to cause additional injury. Let’s be great examples for our running communities!
Remember, if nothing else, people enjoy seeing others fail miserably; it makes them feel better about themselves. And, as we get older, gentlemen, this is a key way that we can give back to the running community. I hope these tips add enjoyment to your running, as well as to those around you, and I’ll see you on the trail!
According to Google Maps, the drive from Fairport, NY to Nashville, TN is 787 miles or 11 hours and 53 minutes. This is a long haul by car, but the cost of flying gave me heart palpitations, and, considering layovers and connections, flying the friendly skies would take nearly as long as driving. Plus, after a long winter, I needed a chance to clear my head, and what could be better for that than a solo cruise to a 26.2 mile date with destiny? So, after saying good-by to the Better Half and following a half day at work, I pushed the accelerator down on my Subaru Legacy and rolled west across the NY thruway, took a left onto I-71 South at Cleveland and carried on until I arrived at a budget hotel in Hillsboro, OH at sunset on Thursday night. There, I had a nice meal at a Bob Evans Restaurant and slept well. On Friday, I ate oatmeal and a banana at the hotel’s free breakfast buffet and cruised through KY, stopping at a nacho stand run by a very kind mother-son team just outside of the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, KY. They assured me that I was going to have wonderful time in Nashville and run “super fast.” Sounds good!
I crossed into TN and arrived at the race expo at the Nashville Convention Center at about 2 PM on Friday. Parking at the convention center cost me about $28.00, and that was a little painful. Inside, I caught up with my “Unofficial Coach”, Bobby N., a tireless “St. Jude Hero” fundraiser, who had just flown in from downstate NY and is a veteran of this course. I mentioned to Bobby that I harbored an aspiration of a new PR on this course, and, in his direct but well-intentioned manner, he told me to forget it – too hot and too hilly. This turned out to be good advice. On my way out, I gave my metered receipt to another runner just pulling up in a battered SUV with NJ plates, so that he could use the two hours of remaining time on it. “Wow, thank you! That’s sooooo cool!”, he said with a big smile. At least two of us got to park for that price!
My training cycle had been reasonably solid through the long Upstate NY winter; however, I was concerned that sitting in the car for that long drive down may result in a stiffening of the muscles and cramping on race day. Furthermore, due to concern about severe heat and humidity, the start time for the marathon was moved back one hour to 6:45 AM CST. Of course, for me as a New Yorker, this means I’ll be starting this 26.2 miles jaunt at 5:45 AM (EST)! Can I do it? Well, only one way to find out!
I caught up with my friend, Bill C., whom faithful readers might remember from my Monroe Half Marathon write-up from last Fall. Unfortunately, Bill was suffering from a stress fracture in his left foot and was tentative about completing the full marathon. Despite the pain, his plan, as always, was to give this race everything he’s got. He’s done this marathon before and reminded me of a few things: (1) hills; (2) heat; and (3) humidity. And, of course, that this race is a blast! Bill took me for a pre-race tour of a portion of the course in his sweet, silver, two seat convertible Nissan roadster – what a treat! I saw the sites, including the inviting bars and honky-tonks with trademark neon signs, not to mention throngs of partying tourists and pedal-powered carts of giggling bachelorettes. Later, we had a great dinner and conversation before turning in early. I set the alarm for about 5:30 AM CST and was out like a light, despite the anticipation of my date with destiny in the morning.
Get Up! It’s Race Day!
Bill doesn’t drink coffee, but, at 6 AM, he had a beautiful pot of strong Starbuck’s coffee brewed and ready for me. I drank two black cups and loved it! I had a big bowl of Quaker oats with peanut butter and a banana, and I was all tanked up. I suited up in my black compression shorts, new dark blue Nike shorts, red Sehgahunda shirt, and my orange Air Force Marathon hat. On my feet, I had my new New Balance 860v7s. Bill’s friend, Jan, motored us to as close to the start line as possible, we jumped out, posed for a quick snap, and jogged to the start line. Let’s rock-n-roll!
After a beautiful rendition of the National Anthem, we were all set to go! Thanks to Bill’s sage advice, I got my corral assignment switched from somewhere in the teens to Corral 4, near the very front. As a result, we started much earlier, perhaps 30 – 60 minutes or more. Bill’s rationale: starting earlier increased our opportunity to cross the finish line before the temperature gets perilously high. Sure enough! After the big start we were out of the chute and trucking while most everyone else was still waiting behind the start line.
My marathon strategy was simple and, I think, tried-and-true: go slow and steady in the early miles and have something left in the tank during the final stretch, when the sun would get hot. I made a decision to drink water at every available station and down nutrition whenever offered. This wasn’t as much based on any science; intuitively, it just seemed like this plan offered the best chance of being upright at the finish line. My first mile clocked in at a 10’02” pace; this might be a little too slow. I finished my second mile in 8’44”; this might be a little too fast. I ran my third mile at 9’01”, and this seemed just about right. With considerable variability, I remained at around this pace for about the first 13 miles. Bill ran at a faster pace – perhaps around 8’35” or so, and I watched him slip away during those first couple of miles, not to be seen again for about 11 miles.
By “variability”, I am referring to hills. And, man, were there hills! Not steep, sharp angles, but, rather, long, multiple-block inclines; the kind of hills where one does not see the crest when beginning the ascent. Marathons are as much mental as physical, and, as I submerged into the demands of these long hills, I simply told myself that “this hill will never end” and “this is my sole purpose in life now – to go up this hill.” I am sure these self-statements sound counterintuitive to some, like “negative speak”. After all, wouldn’t it be better to tell myself, “Oh, it’s not that bad” or “I’m almost to the top”? But, for whatever reason, there seemed less chance that I would quit from sheer exhaustion or lack of mental fortitude if I resigned myself to the notion that I was in this for literally the foreseeable future. This is a kind of self-hypnosis, I think, that a marathon runner must foster in order to cope with the demands of the course; a riff on Mr. Miyagi’s “wax on, wax off” as a way to endure the sheer enormity of the task.
As mentioned, I made the decision to take advantage of every aid station on the route. In addition to water, I had the following: orange slices, a “glucose shot”, Gatorade (regular and extra salt), individual salt packets (to replace the salt lost through profuse sweating in the climbing temperature), Gummy Bears, cold sponges, ice for under my hat, and cold towels for around my neck . At about mile 4, I had a chocolate Gu that I had brought myself. Despite all of this, I was worried about depleting energy, especially as I reached the half way point. At one point, a Good Samaritan – a man of about 30 – gave me a word of encouragement as I passed by, and I impulsively yelled out to him, “Do you have any nutrition?” He reached into his bag, pulled out a banana, and tossed it to me. Perfect! “Thank you!” I yelled, and he gave me a smile and a “thumbs up”. I ate that while continuing my run. When I finished the banana and was running with the peel in hand, a kind woman motioned for me to toss it to her, indicating that she would be sure it got thrown out properly. I gently lobbed it by her feet and thanked her; she gave me a sweet smile and wave. Where would I be without kind people? That’s as true in a marathon as in the rest of my life!
Around half way, I met up with Bill, who was watching from the sidelines. He bowed out at the half way point, due to severe pain in his fractured foot. I know this decision bothered him, but this was a very smart thing to do; now, he can fully heal and not risk a season-ending deterioration of his condition. Despite his pain, he ran with me for about a half mile, in order to assess my status and provide encouragement. Buoyed by this support, I took off on the second half of the race. The great music provided by live bands along the course (e.g., covers of Guns and Roses, Tom Petty, and Johnny Cash), cheers from the crowd, and intermittent showers of water from sprinklers arranged by people along the route kept me feeling strong. I had a blast for quite a few miles; here is a brief video summary of the race that gives a good feel of the fun to be found along the route.
Identifying the toughest part of the race is easy: the four mile round trip to Shelby Bottoms between miles 21 and 25. I’m glad Bill didn’t show this to me during our preview drive during the previous day. If I had known what a brutal stretch that was, I may have been too discouraged to finish it. It was a long, hot road near the end of the race, with minimal spectators to provide diversion or trees to provide shade from the sun, which was now good and hot! All I could do was buckle down and chug it out. I finally rounded the community baseball/softball diamonds that composed the “lollipop” portion of this leg of the race course at mile 23 and headed for the finish line. My pace dropped considerably on this section, with mile 24 being my slowest (12’26”). Plenty of fellow runners were dropping out and/or walking by then, so I knew I wasn’t alone in my pain. At a makeshift station near the exit of that loop, a young man was offering ice cold beer; tempting, but, no, this doesn’t sound like a good idea for this old man.
As I closed in on the finish line, Bill greeted me again with welcomed words of encouragement. I was almost there! In that final mile, the crowd and excitement grew and, as I entered the chute, I resumed disciplined race form and picked up my pace. I made it! My official chip time was 4:27:55, (overall standing: 581/2445; division standing: 21/103; gender: 357/1310).
I met up with Bill and Jan, picked up my finisher’s jacket, and cruised back to Bill’s house to take a long, hot shower. I felt like a million bucks after that shower; no injuries and only mild to moderate soreness. My hosts took me to an incredible sushi restaurant for dinner at Nama Sushi Bar and ice cream at Jeni’s Ice Creams. Both were terrific! To close out the day, we took a fun tour of Vanderbilt University. I spend my week in the university world, and I have associates at Vanderbilt, so this was a great orientation to a beautiful school. We ended the day visiting with Bill’s gracious neighbors, who gave me an ice cold, craft-brewed IPA, and this tasted great.
It is a profound blessing to live in this great country, have the freedom to travel, engage in the leisure of road racing, enjoy good health, consume all the clean water and nutrition one wants, and run 26.2 miles injury-free. It a special blessing to do these things in the company of good friends, and that was how I spent the 2017 St. Jude Nashville Rock-n-Roll Marathon weekend. It’s not lost on me that St. Jude is the Patron of Hopeless Cases, and, while I am far from “hopeless”, I am inspired by the goodness that I see in events like this marathon and in time spent with friends. Thanks for reading this race report and see you out there!
Official Disclaimer – Dear Reader, this post may not be a thrill-a-minute for you. Hey, what can I say? It’s been a long winter, and I’m not Usain Bolt in the running department or Ernest Hemingway in the writing department. But, who knows? If nothing else, you might feel better about your own training after reading about mine! On a legal note, if perchance, you inadvertently slip into a catatonic state induced by sheer boredom while reading this, please do not hold me libel. Hey, I’m trying!
Training Update – Those of you who follow my blog may recall that my friend, Bill C, invited me down for this year’s Nashville St. Jude Rock-and-Roll Marathon slated for April 29, and, well, it’s now about 5 weeks away! My “A” goal for this 26.2 mile jaunt is to get under 4 hours. My current marathon PR is the 4:13:11 that I ran at the 2016 Wineglass Marathon, so I’ve got some work to do here. Since moving to upstate New York 15 years ago, I have never quite adjusted to the demanding winters that are the norm here. It’s not simply the occurrence of bitter cold, snow, or ice that standout. Rather, it’s the sheer duration of the winter season that requires fortitude. With some exception, it gets cold here by the end of October, and it’s April before we see consistently warmer weather; hey, it’s 22° Farenheit as I write this on March 22! How do I maintain my base fitness through this long, dark winter and ramp up for St. Jude’s on April 29? Well, two key items come to mind: (1) the dreadmill; and (2) piles of winter running gear.
The Dreadmill – Outdoors, I regularly run 6 – 9 miles on a typical training day, but, on the mill, I limit myself to 5.20 miles. How did I land on 5.20? Well, I run a tempo ranging between 6.8 and 7.5 for 5 miles but end with a .20 kick at around 9.0 – 9.5 MPH. Is the treadmill boring. YES! And, that’s why I limit usage to 5.20 mile units. If it weren’t for Dick Vitale and the rest of the gang at ESPN, I’d probably do 1.20 miles! But, one advantage of the treadmill is that, since it is located at the local gym, I can then hit the free weights and machines, and, after this long winter, I am a bulked up a bit. What’s it like for a middle age guy to spend time at a gym, surrounded by young, athletic people? Great! Everyone is polite and kind. Am I self-conscious about being an old dude there? Not a bit. What’s the difference? Hey, if Dick Vitale can keep calling games, I can keep going to the gym, baby!
Running Outside in the Winter – Thankfully, I can get out doors for some longer runs on the weekend, despite the cold, ice, and snow. Most of these are solo runs on the Erie Canal Trail or at Mendon Ponds Park. We’ve had a mild winter here, so this has been very workable nearly all season long. Also, I’ve participated in the Greater Rochester Track Club (GRTC) Freezeroo Series, run with my LIFE Runners group, and running with a great local club, the Oven Door Runners (ODR). The ODR meet every Saturday morning at 6:30 AM, and each meet-up includes a range of distance options (e.g., 9 or 13 miles). There are some fast runners in this group, and this has been a nice challenge for me as I ramp up for Nashville.
Other Considerations – So what else do I need to do to prepare for Nashville? Here’s a bulleted list:
Settle on transportation to and from Nashville. Roundtrip airline tickets from Rochester to Nashville appear to be running about $800, so I need to find something cheaper or plan on driving!
Buy new running shoes. I have worn the tread off of my Asics this Winter, and I’m going to need a good grip in Nashville. My plan is to switch back to my first love, New Balance, which seems to provide a little more stability than the Asics.
Get one long run in soon, preferably about 18 – 20 miles.
I have this dream of writing an awesome race report following St. Jude’s next month; the word “epic” comes to mind. Hey, anything’s possible! Please, watch for it! In the meantime, I hope your training goes well. Feel free to share your Spring goals; I’d be happy to hear from you 🙂
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 hasto 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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?
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?
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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“).
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).
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!