Coming Home

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By Gary Cattarin

Thirty years ago, barely a year out of college, watching New England real estate prices spiral out of control, I somewhat wrongly concluded that if I didn’t get into the market soon, I might never be able to do so, and might be forced to abandon my Bay State beachhead for the more affordable environs of my Upstate New York homeland. Accordingly, I stretched my shaky finances to purchase my first home in a town north of Worcester. Now, in those pre-Internet days, you looked things up the old-fashioned way. It happened that my trusty paper atlas listed the population of said town at five thousand nine hundred and ninety nine. I had no idea how that number was arrived at, but since the place I bought was vacant, I always considered myself to be Resident Number Six Thousand, nicely completing the set in a way.

How, you ask, does this have anything to do with running, especially running as an old fart?

About four and a half years ago I received an email that changed the course of this human’s events. Shock and awe was a good description of my reaction when I was invited to run with the Greater Boston Track Club. Years of great adventures followed. Prior to that invitation, I had no idea that the National Club Cross Country Championships even existed, let along any concept that I’d be allowed in the door to toe the line in anything labelled National. GBTC put me in the ring with great opportunities, great people, and great times. But GBTC, while welcoming to us old folks, now has its heart focused on youthful talent. I hold no ill will over that; it is what it is. But I opted to seek out a team with focus on those with eyes that don’t necessarily focus so well anymore.

After a little shopping, I signed on this month with the Central Mass Striders racing team. Whereas GBTC is entirely a competitive club, CMS has a split personality, half (the large half) being a general purpose genial bunch of runners (who share many bonds with my hometown Highland City Striders), the other half comprising the competitive racing team. Like most area teams, its players come from a wide swath of New England, so I wasn’t deluding myself that I’d have a full team of fast guys to work out with on a regular basis. But CMS’ heart is indeed in based in Worcester, and a lot of the fun is indeed centered there. At heart, despite living between the much-more-recognizable metropolis of Boston and the second-city world of Worcester, I’ve always identified more with the latter. So frankly, signing on with CMS felt like coming home.

Now about that number six thousand thing: My introduction to CMS came in the form of an email from our team leader which, while incidentally introducing me to the group, was sent to list our teams for the upcoming Grand Prix series race, the New Bedford Half Marathon, which would be my first wearing the new colors. To score as a team, you need five runners. So imagine my delight when the list of our seniors was comprised of…five: four existing CMS guys, and me. Now as it turns out, there were in fact more CMS seniors than appeared in that email. But I wouldn’t know that till after the race. So far as I was concerned, I’d just put them over the top in having a full scoring senior team. I completed the set in a way. Kind of like moving into that new townhouse so many years ago, only better. Welcome home, you’re needed. Motivating, I’d say.

New Bedford arrived on one of those borderline days. A bit colder than comfortable without wearing the warm stuff, but not so cold that wearing warm stuff would be socially acceptable among the racing set. And windy, complicating the environmentals a bit more. On a day like that, it doesn’t matter how many times you’ve done it, you still can’t remember – or decide – the optimal combination of gear. I dithered. Layers? Shorts? Tights? Even shoes (I’ve amassed an odd assortment of racing shoes, yet none have truly lit my fire). I found myself traipsing back and forth between the parking garage and the YMCA (Race Central) numerous times before settling on a kit, when it occurred to me that in all this kerfuffle, I’d forgotten to leave my warm-up pants (certainly not a starting-line disposable item) at the car, resulting in yet another trot to the garage.

While all of this probably enhanced my warm-up, it left me trying to slip into the starting corral mere minutes before the gun, a risky move in a race this large. They’d shut down the option to enter the corral from the front, and we late-comers were directed around the block, bringing us to the chute – lined with an unbroken fence – far behind the starting line. We managed to squeeze through the fence, but I still needed to fight my way forward. New Bedford is a good-sized race – there would be about twenty-five hundred finishers that day – and team scoring is based on the gun, not net time, so every step behind the line can cost. By dumb luck I found myself in the shadow of one of my new teammates who made an excellent blocker, steering me to a reasonable balance between not being buried by the crowd and not being buried by the intensely competitive Grand Prix field. When the gun sounded, it was a mere twelve seconds to hit the course.

Did I mention this was New England Grand Prix? Of course I did, and though I’ve expounded on the seemingly unreal level of competition in Grand Prix events before, I need to expound on it again…because it’s unreal. At my advanced age, I don’t expect to be heading up the field in anything outside of a local romp, so it’s no surprise to see a solid stream of competitors ahead of me from the start. But let’s put this in perspective. By the time this thing ended, I’d be within about a minute of my all-time best, which, while it won’t win medals in Rio, isn’t too shabby (and of course there will be no half marathon in Rio, but I digress…). The day before, there had been another half marathon in Ashland, town number two on the Boston route. In that race of about five hundred, about a fifth the size of New Bedford, my time would have placed me ninth, in the top two percent (yes, different course, more hills, but less wind, a fair comparison). But at New Bedford, I rolled in at number two hundred and twelve. Yes, two hundred and eleven people ahead of me running what most would consider a smoking half, leaving me only in the top nine percent. So being about twelve seconds off the starting line was, frankly, entirely appropriate; any further forward and I might have become Flat Stanley.

I hit the mile in a split that could make me nervous, especially considering the traffic I’d fought and thus the extra effort it took to nail that time. And yet there was a sea of humanity in front of me. I picked off a few of them in the hills of miles two and three, traded with a few through the middle miles, and lost a few slots later, notably to a pod of a half-dozen or so and to The Brit, my training and travelling partner, who eclipsed me around seven just as the legendary late-course wind picked up. But from there, I’d only move up, picking off a few, one-by-one, through the late miles.

My brain wasn’t working well on pacing. For some reason my head kept measuring the remaining miles against a target of eleven, not thirteen, and I really had no bearing on what splits related to what finishing times. All I could mentally muster was to count seconds in the bank below an hour-thirty pace, since that’s half of three-hour marathon pace. Knowing I’d hoped to subdue that mark fairly significantly, it was comforting to know that my bank account was growing even in the tough windy miles; still, a little more brainpower could have gone a long way.

Instead, after mile eight’s momentary downwind letup, that brainpower was engaged in scanning for a moving wind block as we turned east and then north for the upwind ride along the white-capped sea. The block I found was moving slower than I’d have wished, but a little back-of-the-envelope cogitation told me I’d be better off slacking the next mile and getting half of it paid for than trying to fight it out solo. My unwitting target caught on quickly to the plan and turned witting, and we traded off air resistance abuse duty till things calmed down by coming ashore through the seawall gates. It was a bit of a Faustian bargain, but well worth it.

All that remained, other than about three miles, was the last hill I’d been warned of by so many. I’d done my homework, studied the course profile, and knew it wasn’t much – perhaps a hundred feet over nearly a mile. But I’d been told that in true Heartbreak style, it hit you at the end, mile twelve, when you’re toast. No study would answer the question short of the up-close-and-personal kind.

Rounding a bend, there it was. And? I laughed in its general direction. I offered it no respect. I began shouting – yes, shouting – to tell it, to tell those runners around me, to tell the world that you are not a hill. You are a mere bunny slope. And I proceeded to slay it, dropping my pace down to early race levels, mentally finding the power to drive right though it such that when the last turns arrived just before the finish, my form – at least to me – seemed utterly shot, all energy spent just at the right time (though the professional race photo that I actually paid for just to get a good shot in the new CMS Blue still looked pretty good). No point in leaving it on the course, right?

As a team, we didn’t win. We didn’t come close. Fifth place, in fact, and that twelve seconds delay to the start that I’d worried about had no consequence whatsoever. But our fifth would have been at least seventh without my grunting, wheezing roll across the line in a time that, on an age-graded basis, ranked as my best half, and slotted me a solid number two for the Boys in Blue. More importantly for me was the simple fact that we actually had a seniors team, a real-live full scoring team, a team that someone organized and made an effort to fill out. That was, in a word, cool. And motivating.

Welcome home.

Follow-Up Department: Yes, the clamshells arrived! Shell Number Six now stands in honor with its compatriots in the cluttered realm that is my office, my lair, and my lonely writer’s garret. Someday I must meet the artist, these things really are nicely done!

This was originally published on Gary’s blog, The Second Lap. Follow him there to see how his experience with the new team goes.

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