Monday, August 22, 2011
On a brisk morning I stood on the New London, Connecticut seashore, ready to conquer this multi-sport race. Little did I (or the other competitors and race organizers) know, but a swirling rip tide was lurking beneath the waves lapping up on the beach, a strong and dangerous current that would prove too much for all but the strongest and most experienced swimmers in the field.
As the horn sounded I gamely dove into the ocean and began swimming. As many novice triathletes have learned, swimming in the ocean is far more daunting than doing laps in a 25-yard pool, especially when a swirling tide is pushing you backwards. Struggling to see or hear much of anything, I furiously pushed against the choppy waves, with no idea of what direction I was headed or how far I had traveled. The answer, sadly, was not very far, despite what seemed like an interminable time in the ocean. Eventually I realized voices were calling out to me from a boat that had pulled alongside. “Get on the boat,” the voice screamed. “No,” I shouted back, “I’m in a race.” Despite my protestations, race officials quickly hauled me onto the vessel in a pathetic heap, whereupon I realized that despite my efforts I had covered less than one hundred yards.
At least I was not alone, which was some comfort, as the boat was crowded with others that had become ensnared in the whirlpool-like rip tide. One of the dropouts was an skinny, unassuming gentleman, who was smiling and laughing at the short distance we had managed to swim. I was crushed by having been defeated by the triathlon, my first DNF in three years of distance races. But as a hot-headed 23-year-old I lacked the emotional perspective to laugh at the absurdity of the situation, unlike the gentlemen on the boat, whom I would soon learn was the inimitable John J. Kelley. So began a friendship, that despite infrequent get-togethers, would continue for the next three decades.
Sometime during that day in New London I became aware of the fact that Kelley had won the Boston Marathon (a race at the time I hoped only to be able to qualify for some day) and had also competed in two Olympic Marathons. As so many others that have met John will attest, you would never know by his humble, happy-go-lucky nature that he had reached such great heights in the sport. Unlike the cocky ego-exuding attitudes of so many of the frontrunners in races those days, he was as down to earth as your next door neighbor. In fact, soon after meeting John J. Kelley, you had an odd feeling you had known him for years. He was just that sort of guy.
Perhaps it was that I was running for the Boston Athletic Association (the club for which he also competed), or perhaps not, but for whatever reason I became friendly with Kelley, as did my sister Roberta, who at the time lived nearby the finish of the Boston Marathon. She was thrilled when he accepted an invitation to stop by her apartment after the Boston Marathon, perhaps in 1980 or 1981, for a party she hosted. We considered it a visit from running royalty, but as was his predilection, he shrugged off such adulation, simply seeking to meet up with fellow runners and chat about the race.
As it happened, the respective trajectories of our running careers would cross during the 1980s, as I worked to chisel my marathon time down below three hours and eventually the much sought after 2:49, which would earn me an entry into the Boston Marathon. Kelley, on the other hand, past age 50, had already run his best races, which, as mentioned earlier, included winning the 1957 Boston Marathon. That victory broke a string of 11 years in which foreign runners had dominated the winner’s circle at Boston. As with the current era (now 28 years and counting, on the men’s side), the hunger for an American winner among fans and the media was palpable, and Kelley bore much of the weight of that desire. That he was able to carry that burden and still meet those lofty expectations was an astonishing accomplishment. If Ryan Hall or some other American is eventually able to break through and win in Boston, he will know the unique deliciousness of breaking the tape as a sentimental American favorite, as John Kelley did.
One of the races in which John Kelley I both ran was the 1981 East Lyme Marathon. I was gunning for the sub 2:50 I would need for Boston, while John was simply supporting a fledgling marathon by adding his illustrious name to the starting field. Alas, I came away disappointed, clocking 2:52 on a warm day and missing the Boston qualifier. But there was Kelley at the finish, having run a few minutes faster, relaxing and happily chatting with the other runners. “Don’t worry about it,” he told me, “there will be other races and you will get your Boston qualifier. Besides,” he added, “you should be happy just to be done with this damn marathon on such a hot day.” He was right of course. A few months later I did finally qualify for Boston, and would go on to run the race for several years during the next two decades, albeit with far lesser results than he had achieved, but personally satisfying nonetheless.
Whenever I would meet John Kelley in the ensuing years, at a race, a runner’s gathering of some kind, or at his store in Mystic, he would heap gobs of praise on me for what I had accomplished in the sport, which in actuality paled compared with his own accomplishments. But that was his nature, always with a smile, good cheer, and words to make you feel better.
The wheels of time march inexorably forward, and now it is I who has seen his best days as a long distance runner. Last August, my significant other Charlotte and I took a trip to Mystic to meet up with her old college roommate and husband. I stopped at the store and was disappointed to learn John was not in. Later however, while sitting outside on a picnic bench, I saw an elderly gentlemen, stooped over and slowly trudging forward. I realized with surprise that it was John, on his way to the store. Instead of talking about upcoming races, as we might have done 30 years earlier, the topic was primarily our various and sundry health concerns. Despite his obvious ill health, John still retained an upbeat countenance that seemed to say, “Life is just grand, isn’t it?” As he had done more than 30 years earlier on that boat after our ill-fated triathlon attempt, just through a simple conversation he was able to offer a younger man valuable perspective on life. And like he had on that day long ago, with a chance encounter he brightened your day and made you smile, regardless of the burden that might be weighing upon you. In the end, that quality-even greater than his incredible gift for winning marathons-is what made John J. Kelley a special and unique man, and in whose footsteps one can seek to follow.
Friday, December 31, 2010
So, what's your plan for the upcoming year? Is this the year you are finally going to pursue that long sought-after running goal? Do you have it in you? Is it realistic to think you can improve if you are more dedicated? That's the lure of running. You train harder, you run longer, stronger, and faster. It's nice to have plan, to dream of a goal that you hope to achieve. The problem is that reality, which is often ugly and messy, often unfolds quite differently from our clean, efficient plans, laid out so neatly on January 1. When dreaming or planning, we don't often factor in days when we are tired, ill, injured, sore, or just plain not into training. We don't foresee days on end when our legs are dead. Life intervenes in other ways as well: work and family often put running on the back burner, as they should. Some days when you are raring to go, bad weather or an unscheduled emergency puts a damper on your run.
Sometimes our goals are simply too ambitious, although on the surface they don't seem that way, especially when we hear about the incredible feats of others. But that's other people, not you or me. We may manage 20 or 30 or 40 miles per week of running without too much strain, but in attempt to run 50 or 60 we break down, or become too tired or too harried to accrue any real benefits from the extra mileage. As the years go by, I realize that there is just not much time to squeeze in a lot of mileage, even if it is available for running. Maybe I am just getting slower, and completing the miles takes longer. Years ago, I covered 70 miles per week without too much difficulty. Now, even reaching 20 or 30 is often a challenge. Even that seems like a lot! I also need more recovery days, recovery weeks, and recovery months. Necessary as they may be, they create a lot of empty space in the training log.
There are many things we can do to improve our running: set concrete goals, run more mileage, run more speed, add strength training, add cross training, improve our diet, keep a detailed training log, get more rest, do more stretching, take a yoga class, so on and so forth. They are all worthy pursuits, but tough to add to an already full running and life schedule. I'd like to see the individual who can manage to do many of these things inside of a workday lunch hour.
Should you make your running a high priority? Will it affect your or anyone else's life in a positive way? That's a subject for another column, but suffice to say that if you do have aspirations to reach as yet unachieved running goals, you will have to make a concerted effort to do so. Will it require a sacrifice of other priorities? That all depends upon how you look at it. One man's (or woman’s) sacrifice is another's pleasure.
Whether or not we are actually able to achieve them, setting goals to improve our running is a worthwhile pursuit. It defines our effort, which usually results in improved performance. Aimlessly going from day to day can result in stagnation, even if you are only in the sport for participation. Whatever your goals, you as an individual bring integrity and validity to them. It does not matter if that goal is to break the world record in the marathon or complete a three-mile run around your neighborhood. It's your achievement; thus, the feeling of accomplishment and the journey to get there are what it's all about.
A new year is simply a demarcation on the calendar, but I have always found it a good time to assess and reflect upon my own running. My motivation level may not make it all the way through the year, but I know this is the time I have set to commence achieving specific goals.
In the end, dreams do matter. They are the starting point for fulfillment in running. I wish all of you the best in realizing your own running dreams and goals during 2011. There is no time like the present—before you know it, it will be gone!
Sunday, July 12, 2009
How did I end up in Cincinnati for the All Star game? Primarily through persistently hounding my dad. Having attended several games at Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium as a youth, I hatched the idea of going to an All Star game. After all, what could be better for a kid who loved the game, both the playing (as a mediocre Little Leaguer and Babe Ruth Leaguer) and the watching, especially my beloved Red Sox.
Therefore, during the winter before the 1970 season I asked my dad if we might try to get tickets to the game, and then arrange our summer vacation around it. Like many American families, we took an annual summer trip, and were looking for a new destination, having visited Florida and Canada in the preceding years. Cincinnati? Not much of a vacation spot, but for me it would be hardball heaven, so I periodically raised the idea to my Dad. Perhaps it was the opportunity to visit the famed Churchill Downs horse racing track in Louisville (right across the river from Cincy) that persuaded my dad to consider my request, as he was a big racing fan.
In any event, in order to placate me he penned a letter to the Cincinnati Reds, asking how one might go about getting tickets, thinking it a long shot at best. Amazingly, they wrote back, saying the tickets were on sale for ten dollars each, should we be interested. Ten dollars! That seemed a fortune back then. That would be 50 dollars for five of us, much more then we paid at Fenway, where grandstand seats to a Red Sox game could be had for two or three dollars each.
Then again, it was a once in a lifetime chance (or so we thought back then), so why not? The game would be played at the brand new Riverfront Stadium, so it would be historic in that regard, one of the first games ever played in the park. Riverfront was one of the first “cookie cutter” concrete bowl type stadiums, with Astroturf, equipped to host both baseball and football, almost always more suited for the latter. These parks would become reviled by both players and fans in later years, to be replaced by the more friendly “old time” parks, ushered in by Baltimore’s Camden Yards in the early 1990s. In fact, Riverfront would last only 32 years before it was imploded, replaced by the Great American Ballpark.
There were some other firsts as well for the 1970 game. Major League Baseball had instituted fan voting for the first time since 1957 that year, and I was thrilled that my idol, Carl Yastrzemski, was voted in as a starter for the American League and would be batting second. In addition, there was the hope the American League might actually win, something they had not managed in the previous seven years. It would not be easy, however, as the National League lineup was star-studded, featuring Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, and Roberto Clemente (not a bad outfield!), as well as hometown heroes Johnny Bench and Pete Rose, as well as other future legends and Hall of Famers. Backing up Bench at catcher was a little known St. Louis Cardinal named Joe Torre. The starting pitchers were the Mets’ Tom Seaver and the Orioles’ Jim Palmer.
Carl Yastrzemski, circa 1970
So five of us piled into our 1967 Buick LeSabre and headed from West Hartford Connecticut for the 800-mile trip to Cincinnati in mid July of 1970. When we got there it was hot—very, very hot—and the sweltering conditions lasted into game day. I remember my Dad sending my sister out to find him a beer once we got settled into our seats. Few concession stands were open in the new stadium, so it took her ages to come back with his beer and Cokes for the rest of us. At 18 she was under the legal drinking age, but beer vendors were far less strict back then.
Just before game time a helicopter landed in the parking lot outside of the stadium. Nixon, a big baseball fan, and his family arrived in the stadium to thunderous applause. This was not exactly a politically-minded crowd.
Nixon, flanked by wife, daughter, and National League Manager Gil Hodges, lets fly.
The game was pretty well played and I was loving it, since Yaz had banged out three hits and the American League took a 4-1 lead into the bottom of the 9th inning. But the National League would not go quietly. A late rally off of the Oakland A’s pitcher Catfish Hunter tied the game and sent it into extra innings. Oddly, while Aaron and Mays went hitless, light-hitting National League shortstops Bud Harrelson and Don Kessinger each had a pair of hits.
Yaz got his fourth hit, an All Star game record, but neither team could plate any runs in the extra frames. That was until the bottom of the 12th inning, when the Reds’ own Charlie Hustle, Pete Rose, came barreling around third base toward home on a single by the Cubs’ Jim Hickman (off of the Angels' Clyde Wright, who had pitched a no-hitter two weeks earlier). The play was very close, as the throw from the Royals’ Amos Otis and Rose arrived at exactly the same moment. Displaying his trademark no-holds-barred style, Rose went flying shoulder first into catcher Ray Fosse of the Indians, knocking the ball loose and Fosse head-over-heels as he scored the winning run. We were disappointed to see yet another National League victory, but as the years passed by that play would go down as perhaps one of the most memorable and historic in All Star game (and baseball) history.
The defining moment of the game: Rose barrels into Fosse
In fact, the play inflicted a career-altering injury upon Fosse, who fractured and separated his shoulder, and never approached his previous level of performance. Rose expressed no remorse, saying it was all part of the game. Of course, he would go onto great fame (setting the all-time Major League hit record with 4,256 and winning two World Series titles with the Reds’ “Big Red Machine”) and infamy (when he was banned from the game for life for betting on games as a Reds’ manger a decade later).
In an odd footnote to the game, Yaz was named the game’s most valuable player, the last player from a losing team to earn the honor. The next day he presented his award as a gift to Nixon, whom he greatly admired. Like Rose, Nixon’s achievements to that point in history would be overshadowed by more dubious exploits, namely his mandated break-in at the Watergate Hotel in Washington D.C. and its subsequent cover-up. In another oddity, when Rose was sentenced to jail for tax evasion in the 1990s, he served time at a prison in Marion, Illinois, which happened to be Fosse's hometown. "Needless to say, the folks back home found that a joyous occasion,'' Fosse said, indicative of the acrimony between the two over the final play of the 1970 All Star Game.
For having traveled to Cincinnati to see the All Star game, I was something of a hero myself, at least to my friends and Babe Ruth League teammates. I boasted about seeing all of the great players and being witness to the final historic play. Thirty-nine years later many of the scenes from that trip are still fresh in my mind. Let’s hope the legacy for both Obama and whoever scores the winning run in this year’s game in St. Louis are more glorious than that of Richard Nixon and Pete Rose.
Wednesday, September 3, 2008
Nonetheless, I decided to attempt the first Iron Distance Triathlon (IDT) In Plymouth, Massachusetts this past August 31. In part my decision was simply based upon geography: since the race was close to home, the complications of travel (booking hotel rooms and flights, as well as shipping a bicycle) would all magically disappear. This was the only ironman-length triathlon within reasonable driving distance from Boston (in fact, the first held in New England in several years), and one of the few that did not require one to register a year in advance of the race. Official “Ironman” events (owned and managed by the World Triathlon Corporation and with the well known “dot” above the “m” in their logo) are off the charts popular. How popular? At this year’s Lake Placid Ironman, scores of enthusiasts traveled from all over the country—not to compete, but to wait in the line the day after the race to sign up for next year’s race. In a matter of minutes, the field of more than 2,000 was filled for 2009.
The IDT was far easier to enter. In fact, I waited until just a few weeks before the race before registering, to make sure my training and health would allow me to have a reasonable chance to complete the distance. Once I had passed my own personal “test,” consisting of a solo bike ride of 106 miles followed by a 13-mile run, I felt confident I was ready to take on the daunting distance. I also had a bit of personal inside knowledge that promised the event would be well organized and managed: longtime friend Bill Lapsley was on the race committee and had assured me that months of hard work an effort on the part of the entire group had gone into planning for the race, to be certain it would be safe and enjoyable (well, as enjoyable as 140 miles can be) for all of the competitors.
My biggest concerns going into the race were the second half of the swim and the second half of the run. I was confident I would have a strong cycling leg, but the 2.4 miles in the salt water of Plymouth Harbor would be my longest swim in that kind of body of water by far. Specifically, the water temperature had me little worried. In my training swims at Nantasket Beach in Hull it been in the mid 60s; fine for a swim that would take 30 or 40 minutes, but not so much for one requiring up to an hour and a half. Thus, I decided to upgrade from a sleeveless to a fully-sleeved wetsuit before the race. I only had one dry run (or should I say, wet swim) in the new suit, but it felt fine and offered me peace of mind, that I would be able to avoid the hypothermia that plagued me in my last ironman race five years earlier. The effects of even mild hypothermia can be debilitating in such a long and energy-intensive event such as the ironman.
Then there was the run. To say I was undertrained would be an understatement, since I was only able to average about 20 to 25 miles per week of running during the summer, and my longest effort was the 13 miles in that final long training session. I would have to rely upon experience and good pacing to get through the 26.2 miles.
While picking up my race packet the day before the race, I was surprised to see how few entrants there were in the IDT; the pre-entry list was only a couple of pages long. (There was a concurrent Olympic-distance event that had several hundred entrants). But at the start, all of us assembled at the dock in our penguin outfits, it looked like a fairly sizeable group.
After so many open-water swims, I’ve learned you can always tell how cold (or not) the water is when you first jump in. If it’s very chilly, you feel it right away on all of your exposed skin: the hands, feet, and face. And in this race there was no easing into the water: we had to hop off a ramp into deep water and then swim over to the start, where we tread water until the starter’s command. I was pleasantly surprised that it felt reasonably comfortable, but the wind had kicked up, making the surface a little choppy.
As it turned out those would be the least of my worries. Just a few hundred yards into the swim the zipper on the back of my wetsuit came loose and water poured inside of the suit, ballooning me up like the Michelin Man. No way could this be happening! I tried to swim a few strokes but it would not work. My arms were lifting several pounds of water with each stroke. I had to stop swimming, tread water, and try to pull the zipper back up and secure it, all while trying not to drown. I’m sure the officials on the safety boats thought they had trouble on their hands. I managed to fix it, but it came loose again. I actually went through the routine several more times before got it fixed for good.
By then I figured I must have been in last place. I did not see many swim caps around me, that’s for sure. The actual swimming was not that bad, until we reached the far end of the break wall for the final six-tenths of a mile across the bay to the finish at Plymouth Park. By then the wind was really blowing and the water was very choppy. The route was well marked with neon buoys, however, so it was easy to follow the course to the finish at the dock. When I pulled myself up the ladder, I asked a race official if I was the last one left in the water. He laughed and said “no; there are plenty of people still out there.” With that bit of good news I sped off to the transition, happily not at all hypothermic, but with a throat and lungs full of sea water, unfortunately.
Despite an uphill start with several early turns on the bike, I was pedaling very easily and felt strong. Whenever I do a training ride and think to myself at the start, “Gee, I feel great,” the first thing I ask myself is this: “Am I being helped by a strong tailwind?” The answer is invariably yes, and that was true on this day as well. For the first 15 miles of the bike route, heading south on the very hilly Route 3A, we were being pushed along by a monster tailwind. Even going up the steep climbs felt easy. I did not want to consider what was waiting on the back side of the loop on Long Pond Road. Sure enough, we faced a ferocious headwind as soon as we turned. At least it was somewhat more protected than the open 3A, but it took a lot of energy to sustain a decent cadence on that part of the loop.
Four times we went around, being pushed down 3A and then fighting back up Long Pond Road. In addition, the temperature quickly rose and in the dry, baking, sun it felt very warm. Not the greatest conditions, but what can you do? It was a heck of a lot better than cold rain and wind, which has been known to happen on Labor Day weekend in New England.
For a good portion of the distance I was able to keep my average speed over 18 miles per hour, which was heartening; I thought even 17 might be tough to sustain on such a hilly configuration, never mind the wind. That made the trip go by more quickly; before I knew it I was closing in on halfway. I made two quick pit stops along the way (all that seawater, along with the fluids I was consuming to remain hydrated were begging to get out), but was back in the saddle quickly.
I was amazed that upon the completion of the fourth loop we were being directed back toward the transition area just a few miles away. My cyclometer only read a little over 100 miles; where would the extra miles be added? The answer was that they would be not added at all. Instead of the standard 112 miles, this bike segment of the iron distance would be a few miles short of the full 112. I had mixed feelings about this turn of events. Sure, it was nice to be done with the bike portion of the race in less than six hours, but it was troubling not be completing the true 140.6 miles of the standard ironman distance. There was not a lot I could do. It wasn’t like I was going to tell the race officials, “Hold on while I add a few more miles around town to reach the required 112.” The race was the race and I would complete the route they told us to do.
Charlotte and Roberta, my loyal crew, were waiting at the transition area, offering much-needed moral support (as well as part of turkey sandwich, which got me a scolding from a race official decked out in full black-and-white, striped referee’s outfit). All that remained was a quick 26.2-mile jaunt. O.k., make that a slow, 26.2-mile slog. After finding my land legs, I made a brave attempt at running for the first several miles, and actually settled into a slow but steady pace. About seven miles in however, I realized it would not last much longer. My mind said run, but my body said walk. So I compromised and split the difference. Trot a little, walk a little.
At least I had company. During the latter part of the bike leg I pedaled alone for so long I felt like I was out on a solo training ride. Once on the 4.8-mile out-and-back section of the run however (which we would have to complete four mind-numbing times), it seemed many of the competitors had re-congregated. Pleasant encouragements, such as “good job” and “keep it going” were exchanged as we passed one another going back and forth. In addition, I got to see my crew on every loop, bolstered by several L-Street Running Club supporters. It was fun, aside from the fact that my lower back and hamstrings had tightened up and were sending constant messages to my brain, mostly of the “what the hell are you doing to me” variety.
The race, which seemed to be going by so quickly during the swim and bike segments, had suddenly slowed to a crawl, much like my running pace. Mid afternoon turned to late afternoon, and then to dusk. To complete a truly fast iron-distance triathlon, you need to perform well in all three disciplines. Two out of three ain’t bad, but it also ain’t going to bring you to the finish line in a fast time. My worries about the second half of the marathon were well founded, but I had no choice but to slowly plug away at the miles. Who knew a five and a half hour marathon could be so taxing and energy consuming? As Frank Shorter once said in a difficult marathon, “Why couldn’t have Phidippedies have died after 20 miles?”
No such luck. Slowly but surely, however, the finish line drew closer. The road had turned pitch black, our only defense against the oncoming traffic a glow in the dark halo we were given to wear around our necks. Passing a local hotel as I approached the Plymouth town center, I spied a group of revelers gathered on a balcony, cheering loudly as I passed by. It was one of those warm feelings one can only experience in a very long race. That was repeated again as I turned onto the final quarter-mile to the finish, the red digits of the race clock glowing in the distance, pulling me closer, step by step. An announcer called my name as the surprisingly big group of spectators cheered me across the line. The clock read 13:16:59 as I finally came to a stop, thankfully.
The rest of the night was mostly an exercise in survival: keep moving (barely doable), try not to tighten up (impossible), remain comfortable on the 40-mile drive back to Quincy (beyond impossible), remain awake long enough to clean up and collapse in bed (barely doable). To have completed this race was worth all of the effort and the discomfort, however. While my days of personal records may be over, setting and achieving a difficult goal such as the ironman distance triathlon (well, darn close to the ironman distance anyway) gave me focus and a clear goal for 2008. Thanks for reading and thanks to everyone who generously supported me on race day. And thanks to the race organizers for having an ironman so close to home.
Wednesday, October 31, 2007
Sounds like a great place for a race, right? Well, yes, given the inclination of endurance athletes to seek out the most extreme environments in which to test their mettle. The Badwater 135 Mile running race takes place in July, during Death Valley’s hottest, most harsh season. The Death Valley Double Century cycling race is held in late October, not nearly as formidable in terms of air temperature or the effects of the sun.
The latter is an event I targeted this year. Never having cycled more than 125 miles in one day before this year (a double “metric” century, or 200 kilometers), I aimed at completing a true double century, a 200-mile ride, and the setting of Death Valley seemed a great place for the challenge. Having been held for several years, the event draws several hundred participants annually (along with the concurrent 100-mile century).
The long, lonely roads of Death Valley: perfect for cycling
(photo from Adventure Corps)
My training went pretty well; I averaged close to 200 miles per week in the month preceding the race, followed by a taper period of 10 days. I attempted two long solo rides, and both were relatively successful. The first was 125 miles and the second 137. But after both I was pretty much wiped out, especially the second one, done in cold, raw, wet weather, nothing like I would experience in Death Valley, where less than two inches of rain falls in an average year. As tired as I was after those training rides, it was hard to imagine adding more than 60 or 70 more miles. But that’s all part of the challenge of attempting something you have never done before.
On Thursday, October 25, I traveled to Las Vegas, the closest city to Death Valley, but as opposite in attitude and temperament as is possible. The drive to Death Valley is a little more than 100 miles from Sin City, and the ostentatious, glitzy, garish, over-the-top Las Vegas is left far behind soon after you leave the city limits and embrace the wide open expansive desert that comprises so much of the American Southwest.
I stayed at a funky old hotel just outside of Death Valley National Park and readied for the event early the next morning. Arriving at the race scene in Furnace Creek, California, I could not help but embrace the quiet calmness of the desert environment. In addition, the temperature was just about perfect: in the low 70s with light winds. As the group gathered for the start at 7:00 a.m., I really did not know what to expect. I was sure I could make it well past 100 miles, but what would happen after 150? And in addition to the distance, there was the elevation. Yes, there are mountains in the desert, soaring to several thousand feet. During the ride we would encounter two major climbs: the first of 4,000 feet at mile 55 (covered over 20 miles) and the second 2,000 feet at mile 170, over just seven miles. That was the one I was truly worried about.
But that was for later. You can’t get to mile 170 until you do the first 169 miles, so at the start I settled into the pack and tried to take in the stark surroundings as daylight slowly emerged. I covered the first relatively easy 50 miles in less than three hours, but slowed as we started the first big climb while battling a pesky headwind. Fortunately we had merged with the century riders at that point; I worked with two century riders in a mini paceline so the wind would not sap my energy before a third of the race was completed. Yes, at the 68-mile aid stop at Scotty’s Castle we still had more miles left than I had ever covered in a single ride before (aside from the training ride 17 days earlier). Scotty’s Castle was named after Walter Scott, a 19th century con man who talked a Chicago business tycoon into building him a mansion in this lonely outpost.
Just before turning into the aid station, I saw a dog trotting down the road behind a slow moving camper. But it was no dog; it was a very relaxed looking coyote. Perhaps he or she was anticipating the plentiful scraps to be found at the aid station. Speaking of that, I was adjusting my nutrition plan as the ride progressed. I was primarily drinking Perpertuem, a non-acid energy drink, and eating salty sports bars. I added some “real” food at this station, a half of a turkey sandwich, and later on slurped down some ramen noodles. My quest for caffeine was not fulfilled until late in the race, as all of the Coca Cola had disappeared with the century riders at this stop.
Those century riders turned back at mile 68 while we doublers soldiered onward up the mountain. By then, in early afternoon, when one would have thought the sun and temperature at its peak for the day, a heavy cloud cover made it seem more like New England than the Southwest desert. This was in part due to the now famous southern California forest fires, which had sent acrid air several hundred miles east to Death Valley. Thus, a tradeoff: cooler conditions for tougher breathing. My throat and lungs felt a slight burning as the miles accumulated, but that was better than broiling under a hot sun.
After a turnaround at mile 95, we had 20 fairly flat miles and a side trip up to Ubahebe Crater and back (on a very beat up chip-and-seal road surface) before enjoying the long downhill on the same road we had climbed at mile 55. That downhill began at mile 140, which I reached at about 4:30. p.m., nine and a half hours into the ride. It was surreal blasting alone along the empty highway, bereft of people and with hardly any motor vehicles. I was also in new territory as far as daily distance was concerned, hanging in there pretty well, with only the usual sore butt, tired quads, and achy upper body. Cruising past 150, then 160 miles, I felt confident, although darkness arrived quickly, just as I reached the 170-mile aid station, the final steep climb looming ahead.
Ubahebe Crater: Don't look too closely!
There comes a point in every long race, a crucible you have to pass through in order to reach the finish line, or so it seems. Clearly, the seven-mile climb up to the appropriately named Hell’s Gate was that crucible in this double century. For the first couple of miles I was wondering if I had made the correct turn, as no other cyclists were anywhere around and the uphill did not seem that bad. All of that changed quickly as the grade steepened, my energy flagged, and I saw the red taillights of other riders way up ahead. The road was pitch black, lighted only by the headlight on my bike. It felt a lot like some of the ultra distance runs I have done, dealing with the dark of night after pushing hard all day long. My mental resolve disintegrated with each additional mile, grinded out ever so slowly. I could not read my cyclometer in the dark, which was just as well, since the snail-like pace would have only depressed me further. In the final part of the climb, I had to stop and dismount the bike periodically in order to bring my racing heart rate down. In all, it took me nearly 70 minutes to make it to the aid station at the top, where I tried to recover. I did not linger long though, as the temperature was dropping quickly.
What goes up must come down, and so it was on this route, as we headed back down to highway 190 toward the finish line. Cycling down a steep hill in the pitch black of night was something I had never done in training for this race, but perhaps I should have. I was almost too tired to be nervous, but still, I was not relishing the thought of veering off the road into the rock-strewn fields or riding into a pothole that would jettison me off the bike. I gingerly made my down, getting a little bolder and more confident as I went. Without any cars around, I rode as close to the centerline as I could. What a relief it was to finally arrive back at 190 and the final 12 miles to the finish back in Furnace Creek.
A check of my watch (thankfully with a backlight) showed it was 8:20 p.m. I would have to pedal those last dozen miles in less than 40 minutes to get in under 14 hours, which I had estimated before the race as a possible finishing time. So: a goal! I cranked along, surprised at how strong I felt after more than 13 hours in the saddle. Having left the steep mountains behind, it was much easier to negotiate the roads in the darkness. 8:45, 8:50, 8:55. Where was that finish line? I knew it had to be well lit, but all I could see ahead was darkness. I decided I would push hard to 14 hours no matter what, then slow down if I had not reached the finish. Just as that thought was in my head, there it was. As I turned into the parking lot, my watch read 8:59 p.m. It was a gratifying conclusion to my first double century. Sure, some had already finished by that time, but there were also many still out on the course. The warm and well-lit finish area was a welcome haven from the darkness that had enveloped Death Valley. All that remained was the 40-mile drive back to the hotel, the trip back to Las Vegas the next day, and an overnight flight back to Boston. That distance didn't seem so bad, however, after 200 straight miles on the bike.
Happy to be finished: With race director Chris Kostman after the race
(photo by AdventureCorps)
Friday, September 14, 2007
At least that’s the way it is supposed to be. In reality—for me anyway—a triathlon is a pedal-to-the-metal sufferfest, in which finishing each discipline brings simultaneous relief (at having put one part of the race behind me) and dread of what is upcoming. Each leg of a triathlon brings its own set of hurdles and challenges. The swim (at least in the race I just completed), is a test of navigating choppy ocean water; the bike is the longest and most energy intensive in terms of pure effort output; and the run is a matter of convincing and coaxing your body to move (in at least some facsimile of running) when it wants to do nothing of the kind, usually in very warm midday conditions. So there you go: sounds like a fun way to spend a Sunday morning, right?
Of course, like all endurance challenges, the attraction is in overcoming these challenges and managing the hurt, in order to feel the satisfaction of crossing the finish line—hopefully near or better than the overall time you hoped for.
The 2007 FIRMman Half Ironman on September 9 in Narragansett, Rhode Island was my first triathlon since this same race two years ago. I suppose that makes me something less than a regular on the triathlon circuit. Mostly, I only do triathlons of this distance (or longer), eschewing the “sprint” or “Olympic” distance races. Since I don’t possess great speed (especially in the swim), I usually opt for an occasional longer race.
My training for this race was adequate, but not great. Mostly cycling, I added a weekly ocean “swim” (more like a survival dog paddle) and a weekly “long” run of 10 to 13 miles. Although I had planned to do a long “brick” workout of a roughly 50-mile bike followed by a 10-mile run, I never got around to doing it, instead opting for a measly three-mile run. At some point you have to be happy with the training you can accomplish without running your self into the ground.
Race day forecasts called for possible thundershowers, not what anyone involved with the race was looking for. When I went to pick up my race packet at Narragansett Beach (the race site) the day before the race, it was extremely hot and the wind was blowing so hard they had to tie everything down to keep it from blowing all the way back to Massachusetts. Of course, the wind was blowing in the opposite direction that we would be swimming the next day. After getting my packet I took refuge back at the hotel, turned on the television, and tried to forget about the weather.
The strategy was successful, as at 4:00 a.m. the next day the wind had abated quite a bit and there was no sign of rain. That bit of good news had me in an upbeat frame of mind. After a small breakfast I arrived at the race site and started to set up my gear for the race. This is no small task, since you need all your bike and run equipment ready to go. Forget about going to the car to find anything during the race.
The start entailed a long walk down the beach, as the swim route was point to point. I was a bit dismayed that the 50 and over age group was in the second of seven waves, starting just two minutes behind the elites. That meant that many behind me would be flying by during the swim. I had put on my wetsuit before the walk down the beach and was very warm by the time I got to the start. Better than being too cold, I suppose. I was hoping for the best in the swim, but the water was a little too choppy for my liking. At least it wasn’t raining!
Glad that's over!
At the horn I began tentatively, which was not a good strategy, since there were some sizable waves to get over (or under) in order to reach the buoy 100 yards out that we would swim around before heading perpendicular to the shore for about a mile before returning to the beach. Just like in my training swims at Nantasket Beach, the ocean swell, modest as it was, made it tough to sight the buoys marking the course. I had to stop every 30 seconds or so to make sure I was not drifting off course. Upon doing these reconnaissance sightings, more often than not I sucked down a mouthful of sea water. I told myself to simply keep going regardless of how little progress I felt it I was making, or not making. Sure enough, many swimmers in the waves behind me went by. At least by following them I knew I was on course. The turn for shore around the final buoy brought a profound sense of relief. Now all I needed to do was cycle 56 miles and run 13.1.
Oh, but first there was the swim-to-run transition. Someone should have videotaped my pathetic attempt at this transition, to show beginning traiathlestes what not to do. As others flew out of the water and practically leapt onto their bikes in a single motion, I fumbled with my wetsuit in desperation, to get it off, and then fumbled equally with my bike shirt, to get it on. My mind was reeling from the swim and I must have rinsed my mouth out five times to get rid of the salty taste. All of my neatly laid out gear was strewn everywhere. In all it took me six minutes to get from the swim to the bike, at least three times as long as everyone around me.
The first few miles of the bike leg in a triathlon result in a strange feeling of exhilaration at being out of the water, discomfort in getting into a normal bike position, lightheadedness in finding my land legs, and panic in keeping up with the cyclists flying by me. The way people were riding, it felt as if the bike were five miles, not 56. Two years ago my bike time for the 56 miles was just under three hours, about 18.8 miles per hour. Under the right circumstances I felt I could improve upon that, having trained much more on the bike since that race. But it felt hard to just to keep a decent pace early on. I set my cyclometer and told myself I would check it only once every half-hour. The math was easy: nine miles each half hour is 18 miles per hour and 10 is 20 miles per hour. After 30 minutes I was at about 9.5 miles, but that had involved a significant uphill.
As the ride progressed I inched closer to 20 miles per hour and began to catch up to many women that had passed me during the swim. I was doing a decent job on the hills, pretty much holding my position and catching people here and there. Much of the bike course was on Route 1, a fairly major road. The good thing was that we could get into a nice rhythm, not having to worry about turns. But the off and on exit ramps required us to pay close attention to the vehicular traffic. The race did a nice job with this, but not so good on the aid stations. There were only two for the entire 56 miles, and only had water. Thankfully, I had brought four gels with me in a waist pouch and ate them all during the bike, washed down with fresh water from my bottle and a kicker of salt water, left over from the swim.
I thought cycling was suppposed to be the easy part.
We headed south for quite a few miles; I was really looking forward to the turnaround, since we had been battling a pesky headwind while traveling in a southerly direction. The turn was nice; we were headed for home and I could crank up the pace with a modest tailwind behind me. At 40 miles the time on the bike computer read 2:03; I had some work to do to achieve my 20 mile-per-hour goal. But with a little help from the wind I was able to do just that, wheeling into the parking lot transition in exactly 2:48. Sweet!
My bike-to-run transition was much improved over the swim-to-bike. Once out running, I felt that just getting through the run at almost any pace would be all right, since I had used a ton of energy on the bike and had achieved my pre-race goal in that leg. Still…since I had a decent race going I wanted to hold onto it as long as possible. Although it feels like you are absolutely crawling in the early minutes of a run in a triathlon, you are going faster than you think you are. Two years ago, I had run the half marathon in just under two hours, about nine-minute-per mile pace. Could I hope for a similar time this year? I had done far less run training.
The many ups and down of the early miles made it hard to gauge the pace, but I was a little better than nines early on. In fact, I felt pretty decent and was passing people regularly. Maybe it was going to be my day! Just when I thought that, I had a bad patch, however, and retreated into survival mode. Getting to halfway was the goal, but once there I was not feeling great. We had a long out-and-back to cover and I envied those runners on the other side of the road, with only a few miles remaining to the finish. I reached 10 miles in 1:31, but boy, was I ever struggling. In addition, a long uphill to mile 11 lay ahead. But how hard could three miles be? I do that all the time. Once up and over and past 11, a nice downhill got me back up to speed and I could feel the finish getting close. But at mile 12.5 one final challenge remained: a quarter-mile stretch of running on the loose sand of the beach. After giving all I had for so many hours, my legs just could not move with so little return of energy from the surface. As a runner sailed by I slogged toward the line, hoping it would arrive quickly.
No, that's not my age! (subtract 10)
All kinds of good news awaited at the finish: I was done, no one passed me in the last 25 yards,and I had improved my time from two years ago by nine minutes, clocking 5:36 for the full distance. I even got my sub 2-hour half marathon, albeit by just 46 seconds. Even after a cool down walk and then sitting down, my heart was still hammering and my muscles were tightening up. But hey: that’s what a triathlon is all about, right?
Wednesday, September 5, 2007
So why wasn’t everyone thrilled? Because the winner was Bernard Lagat and not Alan Webb, who many were pulling for to win the gold medal. Not that anyone has anything against Lagat. By all accounts he is one of the nicest and most personable athletes in the track world. I can personally vouch for that, as my one encounter with Lagat was most pleasant. After the Reebok Indoor Games Track Meet in Boston a few years ago, Lagat was walking toward us after the meet had concluded. He stopped to talk with a few of us, smiling and chatting amiably. He seemed very down to earth for one of the world’s fastest milers. The problem, at least in some track fans’ minds, is that Lagat is not a “born here” American, but rather earned U.S. citizenship in just the past few years. In the 2000 and 2004 Olympic Games, Lagat competed for his “born here” country, Kenya. In their minds, that disqualifies him from being a “true” U.S. athlete, unlike someone like Webb, who has spent his entire life as a U.S. citizen.
Lagat is hardly alone. Many world class runners compete now for nations in which they have earned citizenship as adults. Among them are Meb Keflezighi and Abdi Abdirahman, who both have excellent chances of making the U.S. marathon team for next year’s Olympic Games in Beijing. The Olympic Trials will be held in New York City in early November, and you can bet that many “born here” Americans are discouraged by the fact that these two speed merchants will be on the starting line in the trials.
Many former Kenyans now compete for other nations, Qatar in particular. But this does not seem to bother many people as much as Lagat winning gold, especially as he did in the 5,000 meters in Osaka (in addition to the 1,500). In that race, American Matt Tegenkamp barley missed a bronze medal, his fast-closing sprint on the last lap, coming up just three-one-hundredths of a second short. Would Tegenkamp have earned a medal had Lagat not been in the race? Who knows?
It is and should be noted that at one point or another, all of our ancestors came from somewhere else. They were not “born here” Americans. Would we have been bothered had they won an honor for their new country?
Another issue this brings up is the question of why athletes compete for nationalities at all. Can’t major championships simply invite the fastest and strongest athletes in the world and award individual medals? In the old World Cup track championships held in the 1970s, athletes competed for one of eight “continents,” such as North America, Europe, Asia, or my favorite, Oceania. There was a lot less national fervor in this set up, and a lot less interest as well. Once the World Championships were started in 1983, this format was quickly forgotten, never to be used again.
Like it or not, national pride is a big part of these world events, and probably always will be. Athletes competing for these countries as newly-minted citizens are part of the new world order as well. So like it or not, Bernard Lagat has vaulted the U.S. to the top of the medal stand at middle and long distances. It may seem a little odd, but to quote a popular phrase nowadays, “It is what it is.” Personally, I could not be happier for Bernard Lagat. When he made a move to the outside on the final straightaway in the 1,500 and launched a searing kick, I was rooting for him to reel in the runners ahead of him and bring it home. Having met him that one time, I felt a real, personal connection to this fine runner. That he was competing for the U.S. made it all the better.
Sunday, August 26, 2007
Now comes the Nike+ Women’s Half Marathon in San Francisco. Well, it may not be in San Francisco, if you don’t want it to be. How’s that? As the web site explains, “A virtual half marathon, the Nike+ Women’s Half Marathon is a 13.1 mile run that takes place on the same day as the San Francisco event (10/21/07), but in any town you want by using the Nike+ system!” The Nike+ system is an IPOD generated unit that calculates the total distance run, as well as the speed and elevation of the route, all displayed nicely on a computer screen.
While this concept may seem new, there is precedent. Back in the “old days,” competitions called “postal races” were held, in which one would run the required distance on the scheduled day and then mail in the results, to be tabulated by the organizer. Presumably, the results were also sent out by U.S. mail, or perhaps listed in publication at a later date.
On the face of it, the concept seems preposterous. I mean, racing involves interaction with other, living, breathing human beings. Everyone runs the same course on the same day in the same conditions. If it is a cold rain, it is a cold rain for everyone in the race. Some may handle the adversity a little better than others, but that’s what racing is all about. In addition, the camaraderie of experiencing the event alongside one’s fellow competitors is all part of the experience. What good would it be to run a race a continent away from the other competitors? Isn’t that just a glorified training run?
Than again, perhaps this kind of “racing” will open up a new avenue of competition. After all, not everyone can afford to travel to distant locations to compete. The expense of travel and lodging is not insignificant, nor is the time required. The ability to compete “virtually” alleviates those obstacles. And there is little doubt that pretty soon someone will create a computer program with an algorithm to factor in course elevation and weather, in order to come up with “location adjusted” times, so as to create equalized results.
I’ve run plenty of “virtual” races in my running career. However, they are better known in running vernacular as “time trials.” My opponent (or compatriot?) in those challenges has been my wristwatch. In many a run I have watched the seconds tick by as I struggled to complete a lap, a mile, or the final distance. The results of the those “races” never appeared in print or on a computer web page. No, the satisfaction (or disappointment, as the case may have been) was mine to experience alone. Most all of those time trials were in preparation for a real live race, complete with other runners, race bib numbers, and the attendant nervous anticipation. Will this kind of competition become yet another thing of the past, left behind in the unrelenting forward march of technology? I sure hope not.
Friday, August 24, 2007
Along with the explosive growth in the number and kinds of marathons, has come a glut of information regarding these events. Volumes have been written on virtually every event, with new information pouring forth each day. This situation contrasts markedly with the “old days” of even as recently as a few years ago, when one’s primary source of information regarding a race came from word of mouth endorsements (or criticisms) from friends or running buddies who had participated in the event, or if you were lucky, a write-up in a magazine.
Of course, as they say in the on-line world, your mileage (or marathon experience as the case may be) may vary. One runner’s opinion may be entirely different from another’s at the same race, depending upon one’s expectations, one’s training, one’s sensitivity to the weather, and of course, how the runner felt on that particular day. Wading through this morass of information can yield nuggets of gold for the persistent, but can also be more trouble than it’s worth.
There is another side of this new, open world of information. That is, do you have the right to publish whatever you want regarding an event? Where does constructive criticism cross the line into destructive, harmful, mean-spirited vitriol? Is it o.k. to exaggerate and even outright lie in order to make your point? It raises the old debate between the constitutional right to free speech versus screaming “fire” in a crowded theater.
At www.marathonguide.com one can log on in seconds and add a comment on a particular marathon, while adding his or her “rating” of the event. These opinions become permanently attached to the record of the event, right alongside the basic information, such as date, time, and course details. These opinions are not only largely unmonitored, they appear in most recent date order. Thus, a particularly aggrieved runner can keep re-posting his or her tirade so it will always appear as the first comment that readers see when clicking on that event’s link. Something seems fundamentally wrong with that, especially when viewed from an event director’s perspective. Other running sites offer similar forums in which runners can sing the praises of a marathon or air their grievances.
As in almost all other areas of life, it comes down to appealing to the reasonable and fair side of those on both side of the race equation, both organizers and runners. Is that really too much to ask?
Monday, August 20, 2007
In this year’s championships, the primary story from an American standpoint will be Alan Webb’s quest to attain worldwide supremacy at 1,500 meters, or at least a medal. Webb broke Steve Scott’s long-standing U.S mile record, clocking a blazing 3:46:91 last month. The question with Webb isn’t speed, but rather if he can win a tactical race, as championship finals almost always turn out to be.
As usual, American sprinters will be in the hunt for medals, led by newcomer Tyson Gay and youngster Alison Felix. Olympic champion Jeremy Wariner may make a run at Michael Johnson’s 400-meter world record, if the conditions are right. Australian Craig Mottram will attempt to break the African stranglehold at 5,000 meters.
All of this will take place far under the radar of the average sports fan in America. Where once a major track and field championship event was must-see viewing, it is now relegated to minor-league status, along with boxing and horse racing, two other sports that have fallen by the wayside. Fake wrestling, hot-dog eating contests, and poker tournaments draw much larger ratings than track and field nowadays.
Of course, much of the explanation for this involves the use of performance enhancing drugs among the stars of the sport. Like cycling, track and field has paid a huge public relations penalty from the drug busts of athletes such as Tim Montgomery, Marion Jones, and Justin Gatlin, who won both the 100-meter and 200-meter sprints in the 2004 Olympics. Unlike in baseball and football, American sports fans are much less forgiving of drug cheats in track and field. In addition, the leaders of the sport have done a poor job of managing this problem, basically trying to sweep it under the rug until it got out of control. Now they are faced with the monumental task of trying to repair track’s tainted image.
The days of Slaney, Carl Lewis, and Edwin Moses as household names in American sports are long since over. Will those days ever return? It seems unlikely, but who knows? A stirring victory by Webb may allow the sport to gain a small foothold among garden variety of sports fans. By the way, if you would like to see the championships on television, they will shown for the most part on the Versus channel (it used to be known as the Outdoor Life channel). This is the same network that airs the Tour de France. Coincidence? You decide.