Monday, April 29, 2013

What I Learned From the James Joyce Ramble

When I started this blog, I said I wasn’t going to post excruciatingly detailed, self-congratulatory recaps of every race I run. I race often, for starters. I also do a lot of small local races, so those of you outside Greater Boston may not care. Finally, I loathe few things more than the “yay, look at me!” tone that so many race recaps take. (If I ever pose for one of those “smiling with my friends as we wear our bibs and get ready for the big race!!!” photos, you have my permission to find me and kick me in the shins.)

That said, the typical introspection that followed every race -- in this case, the most recent James Joyce Ramble -- compelled me to share a couple lessons that are worth (re)learning.

Runner, know thyself. I got boxed in at the start, crossing the mat a good 40 seconds after the gong went off. (Yes, gong. The James Joyce Ramble promotes a mission of peace, so there’s no starter’s gun.) I was stuck for a good half-mile, and it threw me off. I was behind the guy juggling while he ran, for cryin’ out loud.

At first, I was mad at all the people who, in my mind, treated the event as a Sunday morning stroll instead of a serious 10K they intended to PR. It wasn’t until I saw the race results -- I finished 80th out of 1,948 -- that I realized it was my own damn fault. Why the hell did I lollygag in the middle instead of pushing my way to the front where, frankly, I belonged?

Every race needs a plan. Whether you’re running for fun, to represent a charity or to push further than ever before, you need to be prepared. Even if you eat the right breakfast, snag the right parking spot, hit the Porta-Potty at the right time and get in the right mental mindset, it can all fall to hell if you’re standing in the wrong damn spot.

Dress the part. I wore a wicking shirt and shorts. My shirt is from the 2009 Reach the Beach (New Hampshire)  relay, and every time I wear it I encounter at least one person who has done RTB and thought it was awesome. (It was.)

That said, I was hot. I’d checked the temperature the night before but hadn’t heeded the conditions. I knew it’d be warm -- high 60s -- but hadn’t realized it would be so sunny. After about two miles, I envied everyone in a tank top and questioned the sanity of anyone in a long sleeve shirt and/or pants. (At least I remembered sunscreen.)

The general rule of thumb for any run, and especially a race, is to dress as though it’s 15 to 20 degrees warmer than it actually is. I don’t often abide by this rule on winter training runs, because my thermoregulatory system hates me and I get cold almost instantly, but I relearned this weekend that I need to be careful now that spring is here.

Cheer up. My goal was breaking 40 minutes (6:27 pace). I finished in 41:12 (6:38 pace). Even though it was my 10K PR, and even though my body never got accustomed to the heat, and even though I recovered nicely from the slow-ish first mile, I was still disappointed.

Then I saw a friend cross the line right in front of his wife and daughters. I saw the masters’ division runners file into the finish. I saw the juggler finish, form intact. I saw a guy in a pink skirt finish. I saw the iced coffee tent, and the beer tent, and the food tent, and the cloudless sky, and I realized I should stop being a brat. 

Above all, this weekend I discovered that you’re never too old, or too experienced, to learn a thing or two (or three, I suppose) from a road race. I also discovered that race recaps aren’t that invaluable after all. Next time I have lessons that seem worth sharing, I won’t be shy -- even if I will forever be shy in front of the camera, especially while wearing short running shorts.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Relatively Hilarious Photographic Evidence That I Do, in Fact, Run

Despite having run probably hundreds of races in my day, there’s little pictorial evidence of my participation. My philosophy regarding photography borrows from the Most Interesting Man In the World: I don’t appear in a lot of photos, but when I do, they’re usually pretty terrible. That’s especially true of running photos. I still haven’t forgiven my parents for using a cross country race photo of me as a family Christmas card back in high school. (I’m not kidding.) 

I did, however, manage to find a whopping four pictures of me caught in the act of running or participating in running-related activities. (This is compared to approximately 765 pictures of my cats caught in the act of not doing a damn thing.) 

This one’s from a rainy 3-mile race at the West Suburban YMCA (Newton, Mass.) in the spring of 2009. Conveniently, the clock blocks my head: 

This one’s from the 2009 Providence Marathon. I finished in 3:16, which I’d completely forgotten until I looked it up. I mostly remember the post-race pizza: 

This is a still from a news report for which I was interviewed this winter.

The topic was Boston Marathon training in the aftermath of inclement weather. I don’t know if it’s better or worse for my cause that I was the only person interviewed for the story not actually running the marathon and therefore slipping and sliding on the sidewalk just for the hell of it. (Speaking of slipping and sliding, the news segment has some amazing B roll of yours truly doing just that, roughly 40 seconds in. It’s thrilling television.) 

Last but not least, here I am wolfing down a banana after the 2010 Boston Prep 16 Miler. (Photo has been cropped to protect the innocent.) 

So there you have it. I’m not just the guy sticking his head in a fossilized hippopotamus skull -- I’m also the guy who could be Ichabod Crane, who makes angry faces crossing the finish line, who likes to mumble semi-coherently while wearing 15-year-old hooded sweatshirts, and who likes to eat bananas.

 Even though that’s only four photos, I think they explain who I am quite well.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Why Running Is All About Small Victories

Not every run is about going fast, or far, or hard. Some runs serve no other purpose than for you to be able to say, “I ran today.” This morning’s otherwise nondescript 3.25 jog around the neighborhood did just that for me.

I’m not a morning runner. Sure, I get up nice and early on race day, but during the week, I’d rather sleep in, get to work early and run before dinner. Every once in a while, I convince myself before bedtime that I will get up in the morning and run. Hours later, the alarm goes off, I scowl, curse, hit snooze and stay in bed. I can’t tell you how many times this has happened.

Last night, I did this again, even though my streak suggested I had no chance of actually running. I set my alarm for 7 a.m., only to receive a wakeup call from two hungry cats a few minutes before that. This gave me a chance to look out the window and confirm my worst suspicions: It was a cold, wet, windy and altogether dreary morning, reminiscent of early March in New England as opposed to late April. I fed the cats, went back to bed and reset the alarm for 8.

An hour, it was still cold, wet, windy and altogether dreary. But I thought about it for a while and ultimately decided, “What the hell?” I had nothing to lose by staying in bed -- I’d no workout planned for the day -- but I wanted to get out there. Sure, it was slow going at first, and my body had a few choice words for my brain for heading out into the cold, cruel world, but less than three minutes into the run, I felt fine.

This was my slowest run of the year by far. I don’t care. Running is about small victories -- completing a new distance, setting a PR, conquering a difficult course or meeting new friends -- while in pursuit of a greater goal. Today’s small victory was stepping out of my comfort zone and reminding myself that running in the morning isn’t so bad after all. I haven’t completely abandoned this dread of the early morning, mid-week run -- the next time I plan one, I’ll undoubtedly go through this whole song and dance again -- but I have begun to put this feeling, shall we say, in my rearview mirror:


Sunday, April 21, 2013

Seventeen Years and Counting

Most runners can point to a seminal moment when they stopped being a runner and started being a runner. It can take months or even years for this transformation to occur, but once it does, there's no turning back.
In my case, it didn't take long.
I started running in the summer of 1995. It was largely on a whim; I saw the list of fall sports tryout days and times in the local newspaper and figured, "Why not?"
For two weeks I plodded around town in basketball shoes. I struggled to finish any workout without walking. Eventually I invested in running shoes (but not, as a means of maintaining my pride, in little nylon running shorts).
The shoes gave me shin splits, and I was ready to say the hell with it. I told my coach as much. Given that I was the 14th man on the squad (out of 14), I wouldn't have been much of a loss.
I don't remember exactly what my coach said, so I've romanticized it thusly: "You shouldn't give up on yourself, because I haven't given up on you." (Sounds poignant, no?) So I stuck around.
In my first race, I finished our 5K course in 29:45 and was dead last. I was last, again, in the second meet, but I did shave a minute off my time. The third meet was on the road, and the course was shorter, so even though I was in the mid-20s, I didn't grasp what it meant.
It wasn't until the next home meet -- when I broke 23 minutes -- that I officially became a runner. There was no turning back, of course. I signed up for indoor track, even though it meant running around the God-forsaken fishbowl that is the Lowell High gym 23 1/2 times for the two mile, not to mention training outside throughout the winter. I did spring track, too, even if it meant regularly  joining no less than a dozen other kids in a ridiculously crowded JV mile heat. I ran through the summer, too -- though that wasn't much of a sacrifice, since I was an incoming high school sophomore with nothing better to do.
Seventeen years after my runner moment, I'm still at it. I don't run as often (stupid adulthood), and I'm not as fast (stupid aging process), but I'm enjoying myself just as much (the last week notwithstanding). Plus, I'm discovering that, by running smarter, I may actually be running faster after all.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Runners Are Made to Heal, I Am a Runner, and I Will Heal

Much has been written and said in the last few days about how both Boston and the running community will respond to Monday’s bombings. Dennis Lehane couldn’t have expressed the “Boston” part better, while much of the Runner’s World staff, which was either running the race or covering it from the press tent, has captured the confusion, resolve, contemplation, solace and even the happy memories of the “running” part.

The question now, of course, is how we heal. For me, it hasn’t been easy. Monday was a day of distraction, Tuesday of emotion and Wednesday of equal parts helplessness and frustration.

By Thursday, though, I’d improved. Yes, I monitored coverage of the interfaith memorial service in Boston over social media, but I also discussed forthcoming marathons, laundry, cute puppies, coffee and (privately, for the benefit of everyone else) chafing. I guess you could say I’d returned to whatever it is we’re calling normal these days.

Now I’m ready to get back at it. Running, after all, is all about pushing yourself beyond an otherwise-acceptable level of pain, recovering accordingly and then, without second thought, doing it all over again, only a little bit faster, farther or harder that the previous effort. Runners heal quickly because they want to, they have to and, through months, years and decades of training, they’ve been conditioned to.

That hasn’t been entirely easy, either. Tuesday, I joined thousands in honoring Boston by running 4.09 miles, the distance chosen to represent the time on the official clock when the bombs went off. To add insult to injury, much of my run was on the Marathon course itself. Even in the suburbs, 15 miles from Boylston Street, I couldn’t stop myself from tearing up.

Wednesday, after watching CNN, The New York Post and others make my journalism professors weep, I ran an ol’ reliable route around my neighborhood, if for no other reason than it was a rare cloudless spring afternoon in New England and, let’s face it, such days should not be wasted.

Today is an off day. Tomorrow will be a fartlek. And so it goes.
  • Next weekend I’m doing a 10K -- the James Joyce Ramble, a quirky race that embodies peace and unity above all -- and set a ridiculously lofty goal of breaking 40 minutes.
  • Next month, or perhaps in early June, I’m doing a half marathon -- and, since I can’t remember my PR, I guess I’m just going to have to set a new one.
  • In October, I’m doing the Smuttynose Rockfest marathon on the New Hampshire seacoast. (Someone remind me to register.) Running a 3:05 to qualify for Boston in 2014 is no doubt a stretch, as it’s 8 minutes faster than my PR (set six years ago) and 46 minutes faster than my disastrous last marathon, but what the hell do I have to lose in trying?
Frankly, I can think of no other way to respond to the bombing than to lace up my shoes, get back on the road, set a bunch of goals, knock ‘em down and show the world that, for one runner at least, nothing will slow him down.

(Note: One thing I neglected to mention in my first post was that it would be impossible to avoid gratuitous references to 90s alternative music. The title of this blog post borrows from the Our Lady Peace track “Made to Heal.” Give it a listen and prepare for more lyric-dropping. You’ve been warned.)

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Runners, and Bostonians, Bent But Not Broken

Bostonians are a resolute, determined bunch. I often joke that the city’s motto should be “Without Us, You’d Be British” to honor our damn-the-consequences role in starting the Revolutionary War. 

Patriots’ Day, a holiday in Massachusetts (and Maine, since it was part of Massachusetts until 1820, and, strangely, Wisconsin) to commemorate the Battles of Lexington and Concord that essentially started the war, is the lesser-known celebration that occurs on Marathon Monday. Battle reenactments occur in both towns shortly after dawn. (In my community newspaper reporter days, I was glad to cover much less exciting towns.)

I thought of this Monday afternoon, in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing. My gut reaction, as I put it on Twitter, was that bombs in trash cans weren’t going to scare us any more that redcoats with muskets. Like many others, I also expressed the notion that runners -- by their nature a persistent bunch used to facing adversity and overcoming obstacles -- wouldn’t be scared either.

The “scowl and bear it” attitude that most outsiders interpret as Boston’s dour lack of friendliness is, I would argue, actually a sign of our collective determination. No, we’re not the nicest folks on Earth, but we do look out for each other, and the majority of us do so without asking for anything in return. (Not even a smile.) That’s why so many people were willing to open their home to strangers Monday night, or donate blood even though the American Red Cross said its stocks were full.

Runners also possess this selfless determination. We cheer on strangers. We nod at every fellow runner we see on the road, no matter how crappy we feel. We encourage those new to the sport, remembering the same excitement, anticipation and dread we felt as beginners. As we leave water stops, we offer to share half-drunk paper cups of tap water that we’ve probably dripped sweat and backwash into, knowing that other racers will politely pass but also knowing that it’s the nice thing to do.

Right now, both Boston and the running community and shocked. Heck, I was nowhere near the finish line on Monday, and I still couldn’t hold back tears on Tuesday’s lunchtime run through Natick and Wellesley.

But we will recover. We will heed the stoic, steadfast examples set by Munich, New York, London, Madrid, Bali and countless other cities that emerged from tragedy as better, more vibrant places. We will continue to gather for Sunday long runs, for urban 5Ks and trail races and at the Boston Public Library and the JFK LIbrary. We will honor those who died or suffered life-altering injuries by refusing to behave any differently. We will keep on living, and running, forever cognizant of what has happened but refusing to let it change us.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Why Marathon Monday’s Bittersweet for This Bostonian

As a prelude to the Boston Marathon, Fit Girl Happy Girl wrote a post describing the race as “our city’s shining moment.” I don’t disagree; it’s a fantastic, historic and by all accounts awesome race, and I’m proud to live in (OK, near) the city that so warmly embraces the marathon.

Unfortunately, my relationship with the Boston Marathon is a bit more bittersweet. (In social media parlance, it’s complicated.) For me, the race resembles a raging high school party -- you know, the one everyone but you was invited to. On Monday, despite living little more than fartlek’s length from the course, I’ll be ripping apart a dilapidated shed in my backyard instead of watching the race. (To be fair, the next steady wind will know the damn thing over.)

I am 0-for-8 in Boston Marathon qualifying efforts, having come closest in my mid-20s when I missed by a whole 3 minutes. Well, 0-for-8 is inaccurate. After failing to qualify three or four times, I saw the writing on the wall, approaching subsequent marathons not as BQ attempts that were bound to fail but, rather, as races that I ought to enjoy. For the most part, I have. Even my most recent marathon -- a disastrous 3:51 and change at the Manchester Marathon, the result of woefully inadequate training and, I tell myself to make myself feel better, high wind -- was, in hindsight, not terrible, even if I spent several miles wondering which front lawn would be the best spot on which to collapse and spend the final moments of my life.

Still, it’s tough to be around the race. Living so close to the course, I often see dozens, if not hundreds, of yellow-DriFit-clad runners making their way through my neighborhood. I run past them, head down, wishing I were in their shoes, so to speak.

Yes, I could run for charity, but I haven’t found one I embrace wholeheartedly enough to raise a few thousand dollars for. I could finagle my way to a number, or run as a bandit, but I’m much too honest. I want to qualify, even if it’s only going to get harder for me to do so.

I don’t bemoan the Boston Athletic Association for implementing a rigid, difficult qualifying process at all. The Boston Marathon’s a huge race, with a field larger than the population of half the municipalities it runs through, and it’s a prestigious, world-class race. Frankly, there should be a qualifying process, and I’m more than willing to abide by it, even if it means I spend Marathon Monday doing yardwork instead of running 26.2 miles.

Luckily, I’ve been a faster, more determined and more focused runner since my debacle in Manchester. My next marathon probably won’t be a BQ, but I do think I have one in me -- and not solely because I’m creeping closer to a more forgiving qualifying time.

Once I hit the mark, you can bet I’ll be registering as soon as I can, hitting “Refresh” on my browser as many times as it takes, and telling everyone I know (until they make me shut up) that I’m taking part in Boston’s shining moment. I sure as hell wish I were running this year, but I know, deep down, that someday I’ll get my invitation to the party of the year.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Welcome to the Renaissance

Hi there. Welcome to my blog, "Running Renaissance." Over the next few posts, I'll explain why I'm blogging, why I chose the name Running Renaissance, why I run and why I think my experiences are worth sharing. I’ll also make this look more like a blog and less like a bad experiment in Web publishing.
At the outset, I'll tell you this much: I've been a wannabe writer since elementary school, a runner since high school, and a professional journalist for more than a decade. I figured it was high time I combined these interests.
Now, since "running blog" can mean different things to different people, it's worth outlining what I intend to accomplish.
First, here are a few things I won't do on Running Renaissance:
  • Talk about food. My metabolic blast furnace is the envy of everyone I know. (It helps that I tend to stick to the Mediterranean diet, albeit largely unintentionally and with the occasional entire-pizza bender..) I also have no digestive problems or food allergies. I'll leave nutrition to the experts.
  • Post pictures of food. I'd rather eat it.
  • Break down my workouts in exquisite detail. I'm neither a coach nor a certified trainer. Plus, I often improvise. (If you want the dirty details, you can find me on dailymile. I log all that stuff there. You can also make fun of the inane names I assign each run.)
  • Provide stream-of-consciousness recaps of races. Trust me, this is for the sake of everyone's sanity.
  • Tell you what to do. If I could actually persuade people to do things, I'd be a lawyer, not a journalist.
  • Discuss how awesome I am. Really, that's in the eye of the beholder.
What I will do, though, is share what I've learned about running through the years. I'll do my best to put things in context; that way, those who neither fast nor veteran runners will nonetheless get some value from what I say. I'll keep the personal stories relevant but stay unafraid to let my writing reflect my personality. I'll open up a little bit -- runners, after all, discuss chafing and bowel movements more than the general population -- without making anyone uncomfortable. I'll remain open to dialogue; for all my experience, I still have a lot to learn.
Above all, I'll never stop running -- and, now that I've started Running Renaissance, if all goes well I'll never stop writing about running either.
Welcome aboard. I look forward to hearing from you.