Trail Marathon: Chasing Ghosts

April 30 was a cold, gray day on the Potawatomi Trail – and the ghosts were out.

Trail Marathon is the original and oldest race put on by RF Events, celebrating its 32nd running on April 29-30. “It’s so old,” says RF Events owner Randy Step, “that it doesn’t even have a fancy name. It’s just ‘Trail Marathon.’”

I ran the 5-mile race here for several years, gasping all the way and marveling at the signs that said, “MARATHON MILE 13” and such. How was it possible to run even a half marathon on these crazy trails? And a full marathon or 50K? Inconceivable! That is, until a pivotal conversation led me to find out in 2014 that it wasn’t only possible, it was fun. I’ve run the marathon or 50K there ever since.

2014, after finishing the 50K. No wimps, baby!

But it wasn’t until last year that I found out about the Rogucki trophy. Named after the late local running legend John “Road Kill” Rogucki, the top marathon finishers each year (male and female) age 50 and older get their names and times on the trophy.

Isn’t that worth running a marathon for? I thought you’d agree!

Well, there was something cool to shoot for! But in 2016, I was preoccupied with getting our Zero Waste program off to a good start. So I ran a solid 4:20 but didn’t focus on trying to win. I was happy with my time, until I discovered I’d finished second in the Rogucki by just five minutes.

Well, that settled my plans for 2017 – I would run the marathon again. And this time I’d mean it.

With last winter’s hard training, I figured I’d be in peak shape for Trail Marathon. It was just two weeks after Boston, but I lined up Sunday morning feeling confident I could give the race my best effort.

My plan was to run the first loop in under two hours, then hold steady in the second, with an overall finish around 4:10. Nowhere near the 50+ record time, (Randy said Rogucki had run it in three hours) but a winning time in many past years.

I started with the front runners to establish a position early. The leaders soon disappeared, but I settled in at the pace I wanted. Despite the cold weather, I heated up fast; at the first aid station I peeled all my top layers off. I’ve never run a race shirtless before, let alone in 45 degrees, but here you go:

Near the end of the first loop I was still among the top marathoners and hadn’t seen anyone else near my age. I powered up the hills between miles 11-12 feeling good. If I could sustain the pace, I liked my chances. I tried to imagine Rogucki’s spirit running with me. Or was I too slow even for his ghost?

Then someone in gray hair and a gray-white beard passed me. Not a sudden burst of speed pass; his pace was steady and strong. Past me, up the hill, and down the trail, the distance between us steadily widening.

Oh, sh**.

Well, what to do? Step it up and try to stick with him, or stay on plan and let him go? With over half the race left, a faster pace risked burning out. But it looked like my shot at a Rogucki win was rapidly fading into the distance with the back of this guy’s shirt.

I made the decision; I would run my race, not his. And who knew? Perhaps he’d get tired near the end, or tweak an ankle (which I do NOT wish on anyone, but it happens). And if he won, well, more power to him. There was always next year.

I finished the first half in 1:58, right on plan. Then things went downhill (not the good kind). I struggled up the inclines, and my legs were sluggish. Maybe it was too much to expect, so soon after Boston? My spirits picked up when I spied my opponent up ahead, only to fall hard when I realized it wasn’t him and likely wouldn’t ever catch him.

But that turned out to be the low point. I relaxed and focused on keeping my cadence up despite fatigue. I caught a second wind and fell into a rhythm that carried me through the remaining miles. At Boston, the final four miles were agony; here, they weren’t easy, but I was able to enjoy them. The rain held off, I was on my favorite trails, and running strong. Couldn’t ask for more!

Why yes, I AM having fun. Can’t you tell? (From 2013)

I crossed the finish line eighth overall in 4:08, beating my goal time and improving last year’s time by 12 minutes. Success by all measures – except one. And as I walked through the finish chute, there was my worthy opponent, stretching by a picnic table. He’d finished seventh overall, just ahead of me.

By five minutes.

I walked up to him and congratulated him on his great race. “Thanks,” he said. “This was my first marathon.” Yep – his first ever, and on these trails! We figured that on the road, his performance would translate to about a 3:15 finish. He looked puzzled when I mentioned the Rogucki, so I took a mental deep breath and asked how old he was.

“I’m 40,” he said. So he wasn’t even eligible for the trophy for another ten years! The gray hair had fooled me completely. I went over to the display of results, and there it was:

It was funny, but I felt relief more than pleasure. Not from winning, but that I’d stayed disciplined and stuck with my plan. If I’d tried to chase him down, I might have cost myself an excellent result – and the win – for a nonexistent competitor. For a phantom.

And if he’d been over 50 after all? Well then, so what? So much of winning a race is outside one’s control – the weather, the trail conditions, and above all, who shows up and who doesn’t. What really matters is that I ran the strongest, smartest race I could that day. That’s at least as gratifying as my name on the trophy. Not that I’ll refuse it.

So, What Did We Do In Boston Last Week?

We’re back from five days in Boston (plus one in Manchester, NH) where we did a lot of touristy stuff and I snuck in a marathon. More on that to come, but I’m a bit rushed getting ready for Trail Marathon this weekend, so here are some quick highlights from our trip.

(Note for the TL;DR crowd: If you get the chance, do it. Go to Boston, run the marathon (or cheer someone on), and make time to take in some of the area’s 400-year history. If you want more details, read on!)

Location, location, location

We stayed at the Royal Sonesta in Cambridge, across the Charles River from downtown Boston and about a 5K away from the Expo and finish line. We enjoyed our stay there and we’d recommend it to anyone traveling to Boston.

Need to walk or run? Step out the back door and onto a paved path that runs along the river for miles. Watch university sailing clubs and crew shells practicing with the Boston skyline in the background. Or go the other way and run through several pretty parks on your way to:

The Navy Yard – USS Constitution and Cassin Young

 

Nowhere else in the world, as far as I know, can you walk on board a warship that’s been in continuous service since 1797. Old Ironsides was in drydock undergoing repairs, but still open to the public. It’s crewed by active duty Navy personnel, some in period costume and some in modern uniforms, who give lectures and performances on and below decks.

The Cassin Young is a WWII destroyer berthed behind the Constitution. It too was open, with retired Navy sailors giving tours. It’s less well known, but equally deserving our respect, serving in the war and surviving two kamikaze attacks. By visiting both we got a sense of what things have changed in warships (armor, weaponry, food) and which have not (living space). But perspective came from some visiting submariners, who walked through the tiny crew’s quarters, marveling, “So much space here!”

Freedom Trail and Freedom Tours

If you’re walking in downtown Boston, you may see a line of red bricks running down the middle of the sidewalk in many places. These red bricks mark the Freedom Trail, which runs from Boston Common to the Bunker Hill Memorial and to the Navy Yard, through parks and historic neighborhoods along the way.

You can walk part of the trail with a tour guide in period costume, who will take you to several historic buildings and one of the first graveyards in Boston, whose remains include Samuel Adams and Paul Revere, among others. You’ll also hear tales about early Boston, from the patriotic to the gruesome. For instance: what question did native Bostonians ask suspected spies during the War of 1812? And what did they build on top of the old hanging ground on Boston Common? (*)

Boston Harbor Tour

This is a 90-minute narrated boat tour of a good part of Boston Harbor. We passed by modern art museums on the waterfront, went by several islands each with its own story, and saw the really unusually shaped buildings that process the waste that keep the harbor clean. The top deck of the boat is open, which would have been great except it was chilly that day, so we went down into the lower deck and looked out the windows. Touristy? You bet. Worth it? Absolutely. I’d do it again.

Confession: I forgot what this building is. But it was fascinating at the time!

Food

While Boston is full of great restaurants, anyone visiting should not fail to visit one in particular: Legal Sea Foods. The clam chowder is so highly regarded it’s now served at every Presidential inauguration. The first time I went there was during the Big Dig, when roads were torn up everywhere and the wharf was nearly impossible to get to. But I did, and sat outside at sunset sipping a cappuccino and watching the fishing boats come in. Today I-93 runs under the city rather than above it, the harbor is clean, and the restaurant is as good as I remembered. Save up for lunch or dinner there, even if you’re don’t particularly like seafood. You’ll like it there.

And don’t forget the dessert!

And Then There Was Chocolate

We flew home from Manchester, New Hampshire, avoiding the crush at Logan Airport and happening across one of the best chocolatiers in the country. I’m going to save that story for another time. It’s worth its own post.

—————

Coming soon: what was it like to run Boston for the first time? All will be revealed. Stay tuned!

(*) I just might give you the answers in an upcoming post.

The Minds of a Runner

WHEN IT COMES TO RUNNING, I AM OF TWO MINDS.

One is the motivator who gets me out the door on a cold morning, pushes me to finish the last leg strong, and grinds out those last few miles when reason and sanity are screaming to end the punishment. But it dreams big and is tempted to push too hard, beyond the “extra mile” into overtraining and unrealistic goals.

So I have another mind who sets boundaries on training and has a practical view of what can be accomplished. And when I don’t set a new PR (personal record) at every race, it reminds me to be grateful for the experience and enjoy running for its own sake. But at times it needs a poke or three to get up and do what needs to be done.

When my running mind and rational mind are in harmony, amazing things can happen. But like any relationship in close quarters, there are moments of friction leading to some lively internal debates. In the end, I find a way to do what I need to. But it isn’t always a smooth ride!

Here are a few recent examples where my “rational mind” (RM) and my “running mind” (RNR) had differences of opinion.

1. Running in Lousy Weather

RNR: Remember, we have intervals on the schedule today.

RM: Yeah, but it’s windy and snowing outside. Let’s do them on the treadmill! We’re on the way to the gym anyway.

RNR: If we have to, I guess. . .Hey, what’s that on the side of the road?

RM: I see nothing. NOTH-THING!

RNR. Why, I believe it’s a runner. And he’s running into the wind. What dedication! There’s a real runner for you.

RM: I’m not listening.

RNR: You know, it’s not that cold out. And it’s only one set of eight quarters.

Result:

2. Hill Work Day

RM: Okay, the hill is just ahead. All warmed up and ready to go. How many repeats are we doing?

RNR: I think the assignment was four. But we can do at least six, no problem.

RM: Let’s see how we feel after the first couple.

(After repeat #2)

RM: Okay, let’s get in six. So next repeat we’re halfway done!

RNR. Oops, come to think of it, I believe the assignment called for eight. Yeah, I’m pretty sure about that.

RM: This isn’t fair. We still have a two-mile run home after this.

RNR: Think how good the cooldown pace will feel after the last repeat..

(Result: Eight repeats. Turned out the assignment didn’t specify a number. But the cooldown pace did feel good.)

3. Rest days

(Day before)

RM: Man, that was a brutal workout. But rest day tomorrow! Get to kick back and eat cookies.

RNR: You got that right. I am toast.

(Rest day)

RNR: What are you doing?

RM: Kicking back and eating cookies.

RNR: You understand that whole “rest day” thing isn’t meant to be taken literally. Go out and run a few. Earn those cookies.

RM: But rest is important. It’s a necessary part of training.

Kicking back with my daughter Tori in Richmond.

RNR: Come on, just a quick 5K. You know you want to.

RM: Actually, I don’t.

RNR: Lazy slob. We’re getting weaker by the minute. I feel our strength slipping away.

RM: Shut up and pour more coffee.

RNR: Okay, but if this happens again tomorrow I’m really coming after your ass.

4. Race day, at the starting line

RM: Okay, we’re going to run a good, strong race.

RNR: Righto.

RM: No pressure, no high expectations, just do our best.

RNR: Yup. Here to have fun. Only stress is what we put on ourselves.

RM: Ten seconds to the gun! Relax, shake arms out, breathe easy, focus. . .

RNR: And by the way, if you don’t set a new PR today, you’re a LOSER.

……………………………

So if you see me out there putting in some tough miles, feel free to admire the balance of dedication and self-discipline of my “two minds.” Or, like the neighbor watching me do intervals in the snow, you could just yell, “You’re crazy!”

To my running readers out there: what goes on in your mind(s)? Feel free to share it here!

Off The Mat, But Still Training

Leaving the gym recently, I ran into a former classmate in an Aikido kenshu (advanced study) class. We spent a few minutes catching up, and he asked me if I was still training in Aikido.

I’m not taking any classes at the moment, in part because the winter Rec & Ed session was cancelled, and with increased running and strength training my schedule is full anyway. But I told him that in other ways I practice Aikido every day.

I can’t help it.

Aikido did not become a life-consuming passion for me like running has. But my eleven-plus years of training have definitely created a lasting influence, whether or not I’m standing on the mat in a dojo.

For instance, a few days ago I went to get a haircut. I emerged from my car into a cold, blustery, rainy day (re: March in Michigan). Instinctively my shoulders rode up, face tensed, eyes narrowed, and I began to hunch-walk rapidly toward the covered area near the shop. Standard behavior, right?

And then kenshu training kicked in. A samurai, Sensei had said in a lecture, does not let rain, or cold, or other external situations disturb his serenity. Running for cover all hunched over is for other people.

I relaxed, stood straight, and walked the rest of the distance at a normal pace, as though it were a perfect sunny day. Perhaps I got a little bit wetter, but it was worth the restoration of my serenity.

With enough training, one can even embrace bad weather!

Other things practiced in class come out in everyday life too. Being more patient in stressful situations, like slow traffic or long lines. More tolerance for the mistakes of others, and even my own. Being polite and respectful at all times, and seeking harmony in all situations. And more.

Sometimes the benefits of training manifest very quickly, too. Some years ago I left a stressful situation at work to attend a lunchtime class. When I came back my attitude had changed completely, and the situation was resolved harmoniously. You can read that story here.

I could chalk up some of this to eleven additional years of life experience, or the expected increase in maturity as one grows older (well, maybe). Except that many times when I remind myself to be patient, or remain polite, or listen more, in my mind’s eye I’m standing on the mat. All these behaviors are not just essential to Aikido training, they are expected by Sensei and the other students. Not to do so would bring quick attention to oneself, and not in a good way.

Better be nice to your fellow students.

Perhaps the surprising thing is that these behaviors aren’t always expected by other people all the time.

So like it or not, Aikido is certain to remain a fundamental part of who I am for the rest of my life, whether or not I ever go to another class. And I have no problem with that.

Osu!