In the aftermath of the Inexplicable Alien Leg Pain of a week ago and the resulting suspenseful (and happily, negative) blood test, Lady Doc, upon relating to me that I wasn’t going to die of a blood clot (at least not now), asked for an update a few days later. I like that she’s in the medically modern world and doesn’t mind the intrusion of email, so obligingly, Sunday night I somewhat sheepishly admitted to her that yes, I did run a marathon on the leg that only a week prior I’d feared fatal. Her brief reply conveyed amused disbelief – not doubting what I’d done, but the very fact that I would – and went on to make reference to my apparent toughness. I’m not certain I concur. Foolish, perhaps. Determined, perhaps. Tough? I prefer to think it’s just what we do.
In any event, as you’ve guessed, I pulled the trigger. Despite a rather sleepless night, somewhat inexplicable considering the lack of import and barely perceptible level of pressure I’d applied to this race, when the alarm went off at a quarter to five, I was already awake. The game-eve decision had been a go, the game-day decision concurred, and an hour later I was off into the pre-dawn darkness, destination Lowell, where I say in fun that you’re incented to run fast since you never know who’s behind you, but which is in truth a fine venue for an extremely fine race.
At the end of the day, the standard rules of morality applied. You do dumb things, you pay the price. I subjected myself to the trial of the marathon when my body wasn’t really where it should have been, and in return I was given a ten year sentence for my transgression. This, however, was a ten year sentence to celebrate. I came home with another ticket to the dance having notched my tenth successive year of Boston qualifiers. April of 2016 is eighteen months away and a lot can happen before then, but at a minimum I’m invited to the party to hit double digits.
Frankly, there’s no place I would have rather done it. Despite considering a new venue for this year’s fall punishment, defaulting to my nearly-hometown race was by no means a let-down. About the only thing I don’t like about this race is dealing with the fact that they make ‘Baystate’ into one word. It just offends my sense of style and usage. Oh yeah, and somehow the hotel hosting the pre-race follies couldn’t come up with enough pasta to feed everyone. But I’ll blame Radisson for that, not the terrific race crew. Besides, that race crew made it up not only with their signature hot soup post-race, but with the boxes upon boxes of homemade PBJs. Sounds corny? Perhaps, but tasted like heaven. And everything else about this race is first class.
I ran my first Boston qualifier at Baystate. It’s only fitting I ran my tenth there as well.
This one was textbook, but like my college physics textbook, it came in two volumes. Volume One was textbook on how to run a marathon the right way. Despite being Rodeo Number Twenty-One for me, this was, quite frankly, a new and highly enjoyable experience. But Volume Two was textbook on how the marathon is, in fact, a marathon, and what it can do to you. It will find your weakness, prey on it, attack you, chew you up, and spit you out the other end. That’s why the marathon retains its respect no matter how many hundreds of thousands slog through their twenty-six at the pace of their own personal hells.
I’d suggested previously that of the two goals I’d held out for this race, only one was reasonably within reach. Bettering my three-oh-seven from this past year’s Boston in hopes of improving my seeding for next April was at best a long-shot, but notching that 2016 qualifier – which at my age requires only three and a half hours (less a few minutes of safety for the cut-off under the current system) wasn’t outlandish (and I know many of you cringe when I say “only” but it’s all relative…). And that’s exactly how it turned out, but rarely if ever do I get from here to there in a straight line.
When I’m in top shape, hitting the first miles in the low sixes is normal. Settling in for a dozen more in the mid-sixes is typical. Trying to hold it together in the late stages is standard operating procedure. In my best races, I’ve nearly held it under sevens the whole way. In others, it’s gotten ugly. But never have I run what the pros would consider a smart race. Not once have I approached even splits – the second half at the same pace as the first – let alone negative splits, coming home faster. This time, with no pressure to go for anything dramatic, I figured I’d give it a try, just for kicks and grins. For once in my life, run a smart race. Go out conservatively. Baby that right calf that, while gloriously devoid of the Alien Pain from Hell, still was clearly unhappy from a garden-variety strain, and was, I figured, the likely source of my comeuppance.
Trying something new and foreign, I linked up with the three-oh-five pace group, led for the first half by a youngster I know only as Somerville John. Three-oh-five was a bit of a stretch, considering my starting condition, but with a controlled pace, for once not burning rubber early, it was worth seeing what would happen. Maybe, just maybe, if I ran this smart, for the first time ever, I could see what negative splits felt like. Besides, I knew if I blew it up, I’d have twenty-plus minutes to clean up the wreckage and drag my bones back to the Tsongas Arena – and still get that 2016 time. It was a fine day for an experiment.
From the outset, I loved it, truly. No tension. We didn’t even stand near the start line – well, by my usual standards, at least. Granted there were a thousand and a half behind us, but in a race of this size, I’d normally stand near the front and be over the line in a second. This time, a leisurely six seconds passed post-gun and pre-line, hugely indicative of my hope to keep this under control. We just rambled and ambled, John carefully checking his GPS and setting us on sevens, plus or minus a few seconds, with glorious accuracy.
And the gang was enjoyable, the camaraderie palpable. I tried to keep them amused with silliness and stories of previous race stupidities, and how exciting it was to try to do it right this time. Plenty of return tales circulated. But above all, we were a functioning machine, men and women on a mission, getting the job done, on a perfect cool overcast morning, with the bonus of a lighter headwind than expected but even at that, working together trading shifts out front to share the load. Click, click, click, textbook.
First three miles, a hair under sevens per mile, meaning a little below three-oh-five, but so amazingly under control that it felt effortless. Not painless, as the Calf of Death never went entirely silent for a single step, but certainly effortless.
First time to the Tyngsborough Bridge at mile eight, despite passing through the head-windiest section of the course, still manufacturing dead even sevens, not effortless but also nowhere near the kind of energy expenditure I’m used to when burning six-and-a-halves at that point. And with the bonus of a downwind stretch ahead, cruising. But the Calf of Death was registering dissent.
At twelve, over the Permanent Temporary Bridge (also known as the Rourke Bridge, a “temporary” span put in place nearly thirty years ago!), and into the second loop. Hit the halfway mark in a tad over an hour thirty-one and a half, still nailing sevens, heading back into the wind, noticing the work, but in control. Still thinking about nailing the second half in even or negative splits, and pondering that Goal One – bettering that Boston 2015 seed time – might come back into reach. But the Calf of Death seemed to be arming for a fight, and I knew if anything was to stop me, it would be he.
Back to the Tyngsborough Bridge, knowing I’d defeated the wind the second and final time, and onward into the downwind stretch, coming up on twenty, still cranking sevens. Doing the math for if – or when – things blew up, how bad it could get while still getting that 2016 qualifier; the math getting more favorable at each milepost. And the Calf of Death was ready to pounce.
Textbook, Volume Two, where we are reminded that this is, after all a marathon, arrived with surprising ferocity. I suppose this is why I like paper books over e-readers. With a paper book in your hands, you can see and feel when you’re near the end. There are no surprises. But at mile twenty, it was like reading a tome online without the benefit of a scroll bar. Volume One ended without warning in a way I haven’t experienced in twenty previous marathons, and I was forced to open the next book. Right. Now.
Almost precisely at mile twenty, where race organizers had lovingly painted a brick wall on the road, the Calf of Death announced that if I didn’t stop punishing it immediately, it might do something really nasty, like go Snap! Crackle! Pop! It didn’t so much change feeling instantly as it somehow signaled mentally that its time was up. And I can’t place in my head whether it was real or I was fooled, but mentally I went into preservation mode. I’d covered twenty in two hours twenty. I had an hour-plus to cover the last six and change and still get that ten year sentence. If I let it break, I’d have to do it all over again (and if it broke, no telling when – or if – I’d be able to), or go into Boston 2015 with the pressure of needing it then or facing a warm-weather recap.
Rationality took over. Time to shut it down.
Never has a race changed character so suddenly and so dramatically. Twenty-one clicked in at eight minutes. Twenty-three, the low point, bogged over nine. Somewhere the Calf-of-Death-imposed shuffle brought the rest of me down mentally to an overall shuffle, though the well-controlled first twenty meant I could still do it with a smile on my face (or at least it seemed that way, but we’ll see how the overpriced race photos look). I still did the math, and I was still well ahead of it. Nines were ugly, but I could afford twelves, and I told myself that if I couldn’t do a few more twelves, I didn’t deserve the Boston time anyway.
Soldier on, more high eights, but goal in sight, sucking up any encouragement possible. Two miles out, sharing the road with the grunts of the shuffling dead, more striking than usual because I really wasn’t there with them; rather I was just wicked slow from the pain, willing the Calf of Death to hold together and not tear itself to shreds. A half mile out, pleased to hear sideline encouragement from pacer Somerville John (relieved with fresh pacers at the halfway mark), who built the first half of this race for me and now added that ounce of fuel at the end. At last, over the line, soaking up a nice shout-out from announcer Steve who publicly recognized my feat of running every street in the city a few years back. And oh-so-pleased to see former teammate Mark working the finish, knighting arriving warriors in cloaks of Mylar armor. At times like these, it’s good to have friends.
Textbook, yes, in two volumes: How To Run A Marathon Perfectly, and How A Marathon Will Try To Defeat You. Volume One was short a few pages, so we had to dip into Volume Two. Things got ugly, and that vision of a smart race evaporated. Negative splits turned into ten extra minutes on the back half, ballooning a potential three-oh-three to -thirteen, but as my old friend Chris (working the water stop with the Squannacook crew at mile seven, thanks!) would say, that makes a better story on Monday morning.
And no matter. Mission accomplished, sentence imposed, tenth date in Hopkinton now slated for April 2016.
Gary’s blog The Second Lap is a must read. Bookmark it and read it regularly!