The spring passed with no more incidents, but my will to run distance on dirt trails was being slowly drained. Long runs had surely entertained, but with the trails seemingly less accessible - at least safely - I went back to the less appealing road routes.
As this shift began, I continued my forays into indoor soccer, kept on running near my office, and maintained a healthy dose of cycling (or an unhealthy dose, depending on the day). But I wasn’t racing, which bummed me out a bit. In 2010, I took inspiration from a local ultrarunner, Mike Wardian, and started pushing my daughter around in the stroller on morning runs. At 6 a.m. I’d drop her in and we’d go out for 10 miles, usually on the W&OD trail. I was in pretty good shape, but I wasn’t training for anything, wasn’t getting faster, just eating up road time.
It was 100% junk miles, which is fine if you're doing nothing with it.
I still longed for races but never pulled the trigger. There were races near my office, but I wasn’t about to head out there on a weekend to do a 10k; there were races near my home, but most of them were 5k (or thereabouts) and just didn’t fit into my schedule. I was attached to running early in the morning if possible, including with a headlamp if needed, but not so much to waiting until 9 a.m. on a summer Saturday. I often thought those races should be advertised with a slogan like “All the heat and humidity you can take, and more!” Virginia’s like that in July and August.
The one more important shift I made was riding my mountain bike more. Parking at the soccer arena meant a short ride, so I found myself getting a good workout by taking the hard way. A couple breweries opened up, and I would ride to them via unregistered roads that terminated in soon-to-be suburban-neighborhood dirt bowls. The area was expanding, but only slowly in the wake of the real estate bubble, leaving swathes of unfinished exurbs, the flattened fields now growing high weeds, many of them sporting ticks that needed to be cleaned off my shoes, socks, and legs at the office or before getting in the car.
When I did run near my office, I dashed down suburban neighborhood (paved) paths and crashed through the verges between adjacent cul de sacs, turning the stubs of clearly distinct subdivisions into a 6- or 7-mile network. Near home, I found some long running routes that enticed me to increase my speed, looping south through a local park, northeast across the highway, west along the W&OD, and back home. My clocked time on this 12-mile route (according to my phone) went from 1:30 to just under 1:20 after I did it for a whole spring; returning to it that fall, I didn’t quite hit the speeds of earlier in the year, but I was certainly able to mash through close to 14 kph.
My ultramarathon thoughts fused with the trail thoughts, and I began daydreaming about my options for 2012. I mapped out a marathon-distance loop that would use just 5 miles of roads, exploiting instead the various (mostly paved) trail systems between Falls Church and Alexandria; perhaps this would be the spring goal. I met some friends on the Appalachian Trail one early-fall day, renewing my aggressive trail running desires in spite of the heat with a dozen sweaty, dirty miles up and down unfamiliar territory. Unfortunately, the travel time to and from the trailhead was too long to justify on a regular basis. I took a trip into Arlington, picked up the the C&O Canal Trail, and hooked back home across the Chain Bridge in a 20-mile jaunt that left me exhausted but satisfied. I invented a route circumscribing Falls Church, a poke at the idea that I could “run around” the city.
None of this was leading up to a race, just personal enjoyment at the prospect of improving my fitness. And improving my fitness it was!
In early January 2012, everything was looking good. I was in great shape, biking as often as possible in spite of the snow and ice, and enjoying the winter. We hadn’t had a lot of snow, so I was still able to get outside pretty often. Our team was pretty good that season -- as we seemed to always be -- and when I picked up my brother-in-law to go to one of our games, we had a little laugh about his recent deer strike on the way home from one of these late-night contests.
I was in the goal (as always) and playing decently. It was shortly after halftime, and I made a save and saw the opportunity to dash, emerging from the net -- as was my way -- to make a run up the pitch. A dribble skittered away to the boards, my lack of ball control evident in these mid-field touches. I headed after it, trying to outpace a chasing offensive player and send the ball up to someone more competent.
His shoulder tagged mine, normal contact for a mildly competitive league, nothing strange or violent or unexpected. I mean, except for the snap, which was both. And it was audible to everyone nearby.
My knee buckled immediately. I fell to the ground in agony. The offensive player stopped and stood over me, apologizing profusely. The referee issued a yellow card, apparently thinking I had been checked into the boards.
I sat, thinking, wondering, not knowing what had happened, what crazy internal damage this little nudge had wrought. Teammates carted me off the field, and I watched the rest of the game, hitched a ride home, and spent a week recovering even the slightest of movement. My GP checked it out, but told me to see a specialist when the swelling went away.
My wife was 8 months pregnant
I rehabbed my knee as best I could, gaining back significant mobility thanks to sheer strength of will. And strength of hamstring and calf and all the other supporting players down there. In general, my fitness was good enough to mask this kind of injury, and I was able to ride my bike in the basement for 30-45 minutes before any pain set in, at which point walking up the stairs meant holding onto the handrail, because I was guaranteed a twitchy moment or two where the knee would go all wibbly wobbly.
But my concern was ameliorated by the excitement over the pending birth of a child.
In mid-February, a local running club held an 8k at one of the many high schools in the area. The previous night, my wife and I had gone to the hospital, and just after midnight our second daughter was born. I slept in my wife’s room, and at 8 a.m. was ready to advertize the new life to the world -- which meant getting the heck out of the hospital.
I called my brother-in-law and a friend from the neighborhood and told them to meet me at the parking lot for the race, and to be sure to take our oldest daughter with them. They humored me.
The problem wasn’t so much the idea, it was the timing: the temperature had dipped into the single digits, and the wind was blowing hard. It was a crystal clear winter day, the kind that requires several layers in the sunshine and several more in the shade.
We met up, and I signed myself and my daughter - for the first time requiring the qualifier "oldest" - up for the 3k, while my friend went for the 8k. Since the courses started along the same 1.5 kilometers, he agreed to take that stretch easy and help motivate the youngun', who was, understandably, not too impressed with the prospect of freezing in a parking lot on her way to a meaningless race.
The starting gun went off, and before my friend and I could get moving, she sprinted 50 yards to the end of the building. Then she stopped, turned, and held up her arms.
“It’s too cold!” she cried.
I bundled her tighter, checked her skin was covered, and my friend and I carried her through the start of the course; at my midway point (1.5km), I tossed her on my shoulders and jogged back to the start line, my knee pain forgotten.
Pace, of course, had never been the primary concern, and in the final 100 meters we were caught by the frontrunners in the 8k race. I decided to show them that we were contenders, running with them over most of the distance. Near the finish line, I set my little one down and coaxed her across, then went inside and waited for the friend to return.
My daughter and I had finished 1-2 in the 3k, as I was the only person stupid enough to enter and she was the only person unfortunate enough to have a parent enter her.
My friend returned after what seemed an eternity. I put my eldest into the car, packed an extra blanket around her, and took her to the hospital to meet her new sister.
Next up: Surgical steel
Mash out. Spin on.
It turns out that being a parent is, indeed, a total lifestyle change. My oldest daughter was up in the middle of the night and had a penchant for early rising (or rather has - omg it's been more than 9 years WILL YOU PLEASE JUST SLEEP IN‽) In her case, that was usually 5:30 to start with and 6 as she got a little older.
My wife is not so inclined.
In that first year, I started looking into ultrarunning -- long distance running, usually on trails, that is both self-destructive and, if ultrarunners are to be believed, massively satisfying.
Locally, we have a trail club called the Virginia Happy Trails Running Club. This club should really add “ultra” in there somewhere, because members almost exclusively talk about runs of 50km to 100+ miles, usually on the Appalachian Trail (or its connectors). I find that only a few thoughts ever enter my mind while reading their mailing list:
(1) Who are these people that have time to drive out to the AT and run for the whole day? (Turns out many of them live close to the trail, are retired, or both.)
(2) Why aren’t there any trail runs/races that are short around here? (Turns out there are, they’re just few and far between and washed out on the list by the general chatter about the next running of The Ring, possibly in reverse.)
(3) Aren’t there any trails within 15 miles of DC that get used by this club? (Turns out not many. Which is not to say the trails don't exist. But we'll get to that.)
I started obsessing over getting in my runs when I could. At first, this manifested as getting up with my daughter, then depositing her with my wife at 6:30 so I could go to the office ridiculously early and take a morning jog out there.
It was here that I discovered the joys of Selden Island, a pocket of Maryland that lies at the end of the aforementioned dirt road that I shouldn’t have been running on. Indeed, I definitely wasn’t supposed to be on the island, which is now a sod farm but has served a variety of purposes over the years. In order to access it, one must either jump a fence or clamber down the hill to the edge of the Potomac and scramble back up onto the bridge. It’s quite fun, and I never got hassled out there; I even saw another runner every once in a while and several times passed both pickups and flatbed trucks that were involved in either the farming or removal. Let this be a lesson to you, golf course owners: don't hassle people who aren't causing harm.
Side note of historical interest: This island is technically in Maryland because it lies north of what is regarded as the permanent south edge of the Potomac River. This was part of the original 1632 charter of Maryland which, for reasons unknown, just kinda shafted Virginia. As a result, it's possible to access parts of Maryland by land only from Virginia.
Anyway, back to present day. Or rather a few years ago day. I explored all there was to explore by my office. Most of my runs were on well-trodden paths: Selden Island; parking at the soccer fields or by the golf course and running to/from my office; running down the Potomac path; or just wandering around the greater Loudon County area through all those undevelopedments. Foot travel out there was largely uninspired, and as summer gained prominence, my runs because more audacious simply because I would end them battered and near heat exhaustion.
In August, I started looking around my own neighborhood for better options. One that jumped out: the Cross-County Trail (CCT), which cuts a strange path across Fairfax County and is virtually unknown to (no joke) a vast majority of residents. Even those living nearby obviously aren't fully aware of it (especially at 5:30 a.m.) My preferred access was via Americana Park, just south of Little River Turnpike, where construction was going on to build an underpass that connected the then-dirt CCT tracing south to Accotink Park with the then-dirt CCT heading west to Pickett Rd about 5 miles away. I could park at the Little League field and go for miles.
My daughter was still very young, and I needed these breaks. As August crept into September, it will doubtless shock the vastly uninformed reader to know that morning light waned. I found myself strapping on the headlamp to run the trail. At first, this was fine: by 5:30 a.m. the sun was just peeking over the horizon. And then it wasn’t. Soon it was getting light by 6. And then by 6:30. At which point I was simply endangering myself.
The runs would go either direction: to the south was a mile or so of pavement, a decent stretch of broad dirt, and a lot of trails for longer runs; to the north, the park quickly gave way to a string of local or regional parks but no side paths, bringing a runner by baseball diamonds and forests and across the backs of residences. There were so few people on these trails that it was not uncommon for me to scare or be scared by a fellow user, usually someone out walking their dog before daybreak.
Sometime in late September, we had a rain storm that shook my faith in the CCT. The rain hit late one day and came down through the next, then tapered off in the evening. I was itching for a run but decided to give it a day so the water could drain off. When I decided to hit the trail, the dampness of fall still clung to the air.
I parked in my usual spot and took off north toward the Little River Turnpike underpass. Even this small amount of shade turned the already-dark pre-dawn hours to inky well of blackness. And in that well lay a vicious monster waiting for just the right moment to attack. As I crossed into the construction zone that morning, I found myself face-to-face with the horrible beast: a puddle as wide as the trail and invisible to my yet-unadjusted eyes.
There are a few things to keep in mind before we proceed with this story. The first is that I don’t like wearing anything other than shorts when I run, so my legs, of course, were bare. The second is that, it being quite early and not long after the aforementioned rainstorm, the temperature was probably about 50F. The third is that even though we know what it feels like to “get wet”, it turns out our bodies are pretty terrible at actually detecting the moment we enter water if we’re not expecting it.
So I - unaware of the lurking danger - entered the puddle. And was several steps in before I realized what was happening, at which point the water was up to my ankles. Very quickly, my toes were soaked, and since I had inertia going away from my car (and could now see that the path was, in fact, dry ahead) I continued thusly until such time as I had freed myself from this aquatic monstrosity. Whereupon I realized that my feet were particularly cold. And that a huge ass puddle separated me from my motorized steed.
I stared back into the sambucus night. Here I was, a quarter mile into what should be a 10-mile run, stopped in my tracks by a water hazard. I stomped my feet and crossed the puddle once more, emerging sponge-like in the parking lot.
When I reached the car, I stripped off the wet clothes and changed into whatever happened to be in the car, sat with the engine running for 10 minutes or so, then gave up and went home. I probably went for a short run when I got there, but the exuberant mood that carried me to the trail had been muted at the very least.
The next morning, not wanting to give in to the whims of nature, I decided to give it another go, this time the other direction. It was earlier this time, maybe 4:45, and I hoped the trails had drained a little since my adventure.
The path from the parking lot to Accotink Park (at least the lot where I parked) follows a stream through the woods, crossing over no more than a half mile south of the lot, then heads along multiple parallel paths down a set of power lines onto a single-track segment, under I-495, then into the woods surrounding Lake Accotink. The power line section always had muddy ground, but it seemed reasonable to expect that one or more of those parallel paths would be “mostly dry” at any given time, offering enough alternatives that I could get at least 2-3 miles in without being soaked.
The trek into the power line section was fine, and except for a few swampy regions that took some side-step maneuvering, I stayed mostly dry getting to the single-track. The single-track was a little more difficult, but with the help of my headlamp, I managed to dodge around the remaining puddles. A quarter mile before the 495 underpass, though, I was confronted with the fear of every early morning runner. Or at least every early morning runner who can’t see more than 10 feet beyond his face and is in the woods. The distinct sounds of a large animal -- rustling trees and snorty breath -- wafted through the forest to my right. Not my far-off right, but the seemingly-close right, the kind of “to my right” that makes you feel like someone’s trying to take your wallet.
My heart raced, my pace quickened, and I dashed down the trail somewhat carelessly. And just like that, I heard a sound that made me even more wary: voices. Yes, what I’d heard wasn’t an animal, but (likely) a person sleeping in the woods, disturbed by my early-morning exercise. But since it was still dark and I had no idea what kind of person hung out in the woods at Lake Accotink at 5 a.m., I continued quickly to the 495 overpass.
Where the river absolutely flooded out the trail.
This time, I was prepared, slowing to a walk before entering the darkness. I pointed the headlamp down and spotted the water, then traced the illumination along its 30-foot extent. There was no way.
I turned around, took a deep breath, and sprinted back the way I came. Again, I heard the hushed tones of conversation in the woods, this time more distinct. Fortunately, an exit drops trail users off at a road perpendicular to Little River Turnpike, and I happily escaped onto this path and stuck to the sidewalks (and the really awkward cloverleaf crossing) to get back to the car.
My experience running that lake at absurd hours was done. The trail no longer seemed inviting, it felt like the place just as likely to kill me with hypothermia or assault me for money. There was no joy in those prospects.
I turned instead to running the trail in daylight only. The CCT would be there, but I wasn’t going to trust it quite as much as I had trusted the FLT.
New strategy! Instead of driving to the CCT - and as my long runs lengthened - I decided to run small sections of it after actually running to it. It turns out the trail is about 4 miles from home, which made each of those runs 8 miles minimum; heading a mile or two down the trail on any given venture turned it into 10-12 miles on the legs. That worked out great going into autumn, but soon winter overtook us all and I had to shift back to shorter routes. For all its possible benefits, northern Virginia offers few in a normal winter. Recurring snowfalls are poorly plowed, leaving piled snow and ice patches everywhere; traffic starts getting bad around 6:30 a.m., so reasonable running needs to start before then -- i.e. pre-dawn -- and the few drivers on the roads are inattentive enough to make it all feel a little dangerous.
I increasingly was running on the way to work, stopping the car and cutting across the golf course or taking trips south of my office on the reasonably large -- but also then-underutilized -- roads of Ashburn. When December rolled around, I was in a groove, so much so that when the first real snow fell there I had no problems putting in 5-8 miles a day.
That January changed things, though. Late in the month, DC experienced a storm of proportions it rarely sees, about 18 inches dropping over the course of 3 days. That left the area paralyzed, and it left the roads essentially unusable, a thick layer of ice forming as locals tried (ill-advisedly) to navigate unplowed residential grids. The first week in February, the problem was compounded by a grand dumping that left about 24 more inches on the ground. We were now in whatever the hell is called where it’s cold and snowy instead of hot and fiery. I shoveled until my arms hurt, shoveled more, chipped ice off the street, and began running to the grocery store to keep us from driving anywhere. But the absurdity of the situation dropped my mileage back to 3-5 per day, all too often at 8+ minutes per mile as I tried desperately not to hurt myself. I believe the word is “frustrating”, but at any given moment it could be anything from “unpleasant” to “terrifying”.
Spring came back, snow melted, and I tried to get it back, tried very very hard to return to the golden era of 10 miles a day without significant effort. To start, I decided that rather than let the CCT swallow me during darkness, I would run to the “far end” of my normal route (actually only partway down the trail, at the east end of Fairfax by the intersection of 29 and 50) and come back towards my house. I did this a few times before Daylight Saving Time exsanguinated itself all over my happy setup.
It was maybe 5:45 a.m. the week after we cocked up our clocks, and, having felt a little precarious on Route 29 the previous week, I decided to start out on 29, then cut down to Route 50 and compare the two options. Traffic was relatively light, but it was so dark that I was more than a little scared of being plowed over by a 45-mph driver ignoring what I felt were obvious reflections from my vest, shoes, and arm warmers. I used the sidewalks whenever possible, but they frequently petered out, victims of the anti-pedestrian fervor that seems to accompany much of the road-building in NoVA.
In one particularly bad spot, the sidewalk veered slightly away from the road, then terminated 50 yards later in the middle of a patch of trees. I backtracked, started once again on the roadway with the intention of crossing to the “safer” side, and almost immediately heard a car coming up behind -- one that didn’t seem to see me. I stepped off the road into the gravel, but looking back I could see that the car wasn’t giving way: at current speeds, I would be crushed in about a second.
I stepped down into the ditch as the car, never veering from its kill-all-comers occupation of the right lane, ripped past. I gawked at this inattentive driver. And in an event I shouldn’t consider unexpected, my resultant inattentiveness caused even more problems. The ditch did not support me: my foot tore away a large chunk of muddy dirt, and as I watched the car go by, I was suddenly falling, dropping into blackness that I wasn’t even looking at. I went into the ditch with the kind of gracelessness that a bear might manage while crunching through a forest thicket. I was lucky to escape with scrapes on my arms and a mildly sprained ankle.
Now 4 miles from home, though, the safest way back was off the highways, which meant picking up the CCT and taking one of the cutoff roads back to my neighborhood. I limped my way to the trail, and once the pain had turned to a dull ache, my pace quickened. I finished about 10 miles that day, and when I hobbled in the door, a week of recovery awaited.
Next up: On The Importance of Knees
Mash out. Spin on.
The trail run was as close as I’d come to a “real” trail race within 10 miles of my new home. That’s a far cry from the half dozen that were available in the greater Ithaca area each season. I could pick and choose, and if I wanted to do a road 5- or 10-miler, that was easy. The C&O Canal, while a decent path, was basically as close to paved as possible without actually being paved. It wasn’t interesting or unique, especially compared to what was available 6 hours away.
And sadly, races in DC are almost all expensive. I was roped into more than one race by the $5 entry fee (hey, you gotta stock those aid stations with something). In DC, everyone wanted to distribute “goodie bags” and pass them off as something adding value to the event. Meanwhile, the number of entrants to these races was off the charts. Average cost per mile approached $5; that’s gone up to about $10 lately. And I know that a 5k race with a single aid station isn’t costing the group putting it on $10,000, especially when they get a dozen sponsors. It’s rather absurd.
All that made me feel like the racing scene in northern Virginia wasn’t worth the effort. I bowed out for the rest of 2007 and turned my attention to staying in shape.
As 2007 neared its end, my wife and I started looking for a house. We poked around, got a real estate agent, and were escorted to an up-and-coming neighborhood in Fairfax County, where we both liked the properties and prices. We bought and became homeowners about 3 blocks from where I used to park the car when shaving those 8 miles off the ride.
My commute shortened somewhat, I started riding to the office any day I could, including during the winter. And at the office I kept a pair of shoes and running kit, throwing them on to go out for a midday run every few days. I would sometimes run in the morning (I was used to it, and it was easier to work into the schedule most days), but as winter turned to spring, I had the burning desire once again to just do more.
A new strategy suggested itself. Instead of driving to park and ride, I would drive to park and run, using the W&OD trail as a utility trail. This was made easy by the many access points available along the way.
The first summer after our move, I established a completely non-routine routine. My training program consisted of running or biking each day, with no regard for what day it was or what distance was to be done. This was wholly dependent on how I felt. I also took an hour or two on one or both of the weekend days to disappear, usually to some exotic location like where two freeways meet and there’s no ready way across.
Really, it was more like exploring the area than maintaining any speed or strength. I guess at that point it was OK by me to give in to these meanderings because I didn’t have anything scheduled.
My office digs were a different story. That year I discovered the path down a gated dirt road (I think technically I wasn’t supposed to use it, but who was going to stop someone coming down a gated dirt road without first undoing aforementioned gate?). It was a single-track, poorly-maintained pathway through the woods along the Potomac, out of sight of pretty much everything. I loved that path, and in the summer of 2008 it became my de facto daytime run, in spite of the overgrowth that accompanied all those trips.
During the winter, I had also responded to an ad on Craigslist seeking players for an indoor soccer team. I jumped at the chance, though I hadn’t really played since college -- I’d done a couple outdoor games in Ithaca as a fill-in player and was recruited as a goalie for indoor, but my indoor experience was cut short when I cracked my wrist blocking a shot.
Anyway, the team that took me on for indoor was willing to have me on their outdoor club, and I ended up playing the following two years with them until childcare duties really pulled me out of it.
Regardless, 2008 was also the summer we started a workplace -- mostly in name only -- soccer team. One of my colleagues decided it would be a great plan to get a half dozen coworkers (plus some others) to start playing indoor. I signed on with the intention of playing goalie, but I missed the first game. That may have been a good thing: three of my coworkers came in the next day sporting career-ending injuries. But I would have a long and fruitful career as an indoor soccer player for my “work” team, which morphed from featuring 4-5 players from my office each season to (eventually) just 3, then down to 2 after I tore my ACL and 0 when the only other vested interests moved out of the area.
These digressions and progressions are killing the narrative. In summary: I was exploring but not training, and I’d started playing indoor soccer.
The indoor soccer venue was located a tolerable 6 miles from my office. That made it a perfect place to park on game days so that I could get in a short ride on the mountain bike. As for running, I found a parking spot about 4 miles from the office that included direct W&OD trail access on one side and easy access to the back side of a little-used and under-construction golf course.
I went through the golf course most days, sticking to the back 9 that hadn’t yet been built, or traversing the course and joining a series of paths by going under the highway into a forested yet-to-be-developed area near the local internet hub. I used that golf course for years, running it probably once a week until 2011; that year, the course’s grounds manager yelled at me for daring to tread on his otherwise unused paths, and I’ve been recommending people against the 1776 Golf Course in Ashburn, VA, ever since. As I now recommend you, reader, against it.
In addition, my employer was a cyclist, and he I went for a couple long trips through Northern Virginia. I would sometimes pass him on the trail on the way to the office, he on his Bluetooth in a conference call or something, me with the hammer down trying to get in before 9 a.m. I always envied that he could manage his business while riding a bike.
That’s how I spent 3 years. My wife got pregnant (I love that phrasing, as though she contracted a pregnancy from some unknown source, perhaps a rare equatorial fly -- or, rather, a not-at-all-rare equatorial fly, since it seems to strike so many women) in late 2008, and the next year we had our first daughter. My life changed, but many of my habits did not, and I was still on the lookout for something brand new to experience.
Next up: BABIES!
Mash out. Spin on.
I settled into my new place easily. We were in Alexandria, near the convergence of several running/biking trails. It was relatively easy to cruise south/east on even the major roads, with destinations 20 km away that weren’t knotted entirely with traffic, stop lights, and pedestrians.
My job was in Ashburn, 30 or so miles away on the W&OD trail. Which I had to get to first. I didn’t have time to ride 60+ miles daily during a normal work day - especially since we moved in that November - so I started getting up at 7 to drive to Falls Church, where I would park the car and ride the other 22. That kept me in shape, saved me probably 30 minutes each way, and eliminated the most stressful part of the ride to and through Shirlington. (Eventually the city built out its trail system, which might have saved me that half hour without having to get in the car. Alas, too late for this old man.)
Rides were great and got me in great with my biking boss. But the running! I kept running kit in the office and went for mid-day treks around the burgeoning neighborhoods of exurban DC. Unfortunately, infrastructure was lacking, so in winter the roads weren’t consistently cleared; also, most of the trees had been cut down, so in summer the heat was brutal. And trails were - well, they were often whatever I decided was a trail, which meant running across fields and ducking through what were probably backyards or across land cleared for development that wouldn't see a sheet of Tyvek for a half decade. It was a compromise.
The summer after we moved, I ran a couple local races.
First up was the Hugh Jascort 4-miler on the C(hesapeake) & O(hio) Canal path. I had run on this path once or twice before, or maybe ridden on it, but it didn’t hold any particular charm. It’s mostly a flat, compacted dirt pathway along a straight waterway. The redeeming features: it doesn’t feel super-urban; it’s softer than pavement (though not by much); there are occasional path-disrupting water features that don't require particular skill to get by with no more than a splash; and the race cost $5.
It all felt a little Ithacan, and I was hopeful that this new locale had something to offer. The 4-miler was put on by DC Road Runners, who don’t charge much for any race (in fact, they don’t charge at all if you’re a member) and put on several each season. Strangely, they seem to have a fetish for the unusual 4 mile to 8 km range, as looking at their annual races I immediately see 3 at that distance. Maybe they figure they can pull in $1 per mile but don’t want it to cost more than $5 for any race. Who knows?
Digression, digression. Wasn't I about to extoll one of my heroic exploits?
Oh yes, the race. First off, I rode to the race course, so I felt like I was keeping to my trademark style. It was an evening race, starting at something like 6 or 7 p.m., and my wife met me afterwards so we could go out and do something on the town or whatever it is we did back before kids. Those days are so long gone that I can only vaguely remember them. Kids: the ultimate panacea for memory.
So there I was at the race start, in a crowd of people I didn’t recognize or know anything about, trying to figure out where I would likely finish. I hadn’t done a race in a year, and this felt like a universe of difference. New place, new distance, new crowd, new fitness. So new it should have come with a warranty.
I pressed my way near the front -- but not too overly confidently far forward -- and came out of the gate a little hot. I passed several people on the way out and established my place in 5th, tailed by some youth. At the 2-mile mark, I felt my legs start to slow, and the kid behind me passed; I held on as long as possible, then finally let him go and established myself in 6th. My time was apparently 24:02 on a non-chip-timed course.
Not too bad, but certainly not the elite level I was hoping for. Then again, I’d just ridden 8 miles to get to the course and hadn’t trained for the distance. (More excuses coming, maybe?) Let’s get real, though: my performances were slipping. I was no longer running at the pace of the top 2%. There were 93 runners in that race, and I had managed 6th, or about the top 7%. That seems about right for my athletic situation those days.
Having dipped my toe in the competition scene, I did my race prep at an event put on by the Potomac Valley Track Club on the 4th of July. This 8k traversed a portion of the George Washington Parkway Trail, which eventually gets you to the old Washington estate at Mt. Vernon.
I remember riding to the race start and feeling a little wary of the competition. I was 27 at the time, coming off some major life changes, and not only did I once again not know anybody running, I also felt like the 4-miler result needed improvement. As usual for a race under 10 miles away, the bike was perfectly fine transportation. When I rolled up, everybody stared at me like I was a crazy triathlete. No guys, swimming is so out.
Once again, I went out too hard, burned myself up in the first 3k, slowed significantly for a couple kilometers, then finally found my rhythm for the last 2 miles. End result: 30:19, good for 10th out of 200+ runners.
At the time, that may have been the largest race I had ever been in. I don’t know how many people did Wineglass or the Lake Anna half, but neither one felt that crowded. I was definitely in a down-South urban area away from those low-entry-fee, high-personality races from my way-upstate New York days.
I ran that 8k as a warmup for the Blackwater Traverse, a duathlon held on the Eastern Shore of Maryland (the dangly peninsula east of the Chesapeake Bay, also known as the Delmarva Peninsula because Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia each claim a portion) on July 8. Again, I don’t remember these being so close together, but according to the internets, they were.
My wife and I went to the race packet pickup together the day before (July 7), busting down the peninsula in some kind of ugly traffic and stopping to eat our weight in crabs. The Maryland crab scene is awkward: while many places claim to serve “Maryland crabs”, most of these are, apparently, imported, causing the users to proclaim menu items as “Maryland-style”. It’s weird.
But we ate them anyway, because that’s what you do on the Eastern Shore.
I chatted up a couple people at the packet pickup hoping to find some neighbors who might anchor a future relationship. The DC area is big, though, so it was hard to form any lasting alliances. Back in Ithaca, everyone lived within 10 miles of each other and would meet up on a whim or just end up on the same trails once or twice a week. That meant it was easy to get to know the regulars. The duathletes at this event were from all over the Chesapeake drainage.
We drove back late in the afternoon, stopping for dinner to wait out some even uglier traffic, and I slept as usual in my own bed that night.
The next day broke warm, with the humidity rising quickly. I hopped in the car and made it to the race site with over an hour to spare, but it was clear the event would be done in a slogging heat. At the race start -- inside a stadium -- it was still possible to find a small amount of relief by leaning against a wall. But the course was set up to do an out-and-back along a road with one side lined with trees (the evening shade) and the other completely open (morning and noon sun). It was uncomfortable.
I ran hard enough to feel good but not so hard that I would burn myself out. The first leg was 12 km, and I ripped through it at a sub-6:20 pace. Hopping on the bike, I was convinced the course must have something more to offer. But it didn’t: the bike ride went through open country, searing hot and muggy, around humidifying ponds and lagoons, up small rises and across long, blistering flats. Halfway through, my 38 kph pace dipped, first to 34 kph, then to 32 kph. I limped across the line in just under 2 hours for the 70 km ride.
But now I was back on foot with the end in sight. I chugged some water and headed out the road, being careful to take on more water at each opportunity. The heat was devastating. My pace was much slower than it normally would have been, shriveled from baking in the sun. I somehow managed to pass about a dozen runners during that event, though, and finished the 8 km at a respectable (if not spectacular) 7:30-ish pace.
It was one of my worst showings in a race: 38th of about 180. Top 20%, sure, but not exactly what I was going for when I signed up.
It didn’t seem right to be that far behind the leaders, especially in what should have been a “sweet spot” competition for me. Sure, the duathlon was a distant event put on in brutal weather. But it still left me with a hollow feeling; I had no desire to follow it up. The runs were fine, but the whole event lacked joie de vivre. It wasn’t just that I had lost a step (though that may have been a part of the problem), but finding races around the area had proved difficult, and finding races that looked interesting had been exceedingly hard.
Sounds like a future me problem.
Next up: Reflections of the untrained.
Mash out. Spin on.
That winter, I stayed in good shape but was largely non-competitive. It had been a tough year, what with the injury, and my friends were increasingly interested in finishing something they called a "thee-sis" or something?
Wait, is that what I'm supposed to be doing?
I had been in grad school for 3 ½ years already, and my advisor was asking about my closeout scenario. He wanted me done around Year 5, which looked plausible given the work to date. (As a cycling friend told me around that time, "Based on race results, I'd guess 8 years." No spoilers, but he was right.)
One February night [ed: most nights], several friends [ed: and a professor] and I went to a bar [ed: several bars]. Near the end of the evening, after our crowd had thinned, one of those friends struck up a convo with an interestingly-dressed guy sporting a colorful, poofy scarf. Scarf Man's cluster of acquaintances included an attractive young lady, which is what I might normally have noticed.
Instead I noticed how much the room was spinning and how terribly I needed to relieve myself.
Somehow my horribly drunken state didn't show enough to scare her off. She came to a department happy hour shortly thereafter, and we started dating a few months later.
Around that time, the traditional bike race happened near Rochester to open the season. I was a Cat 3, riding like a madman and ready to do some damage. The Cat 3 pace was far more aggressive, but I was prepared for it. Nobody attacked without being chased down. Including me. We stayed as a pack through the race, and as usual I tried to make a break before the end, with about 2 miles left. Two others came with me, and we pulled across the next mile, but the pack chased us down, and I finished in a generic place in the middle of the pack, completely destroyed.
I did our early-season official race as a Cat 3 as well but didn’t feel particularly strong. I performed unremarkably, and probably would have as a Cat 4 as well. Three days later, I showed up for the traditional Tuesday gathering and rode hard, my frame creaking the entire way. At the finish line, I took a look at what seemed the source of the noise and saw a crack in the frame near the cranks. Glenn had sold me that bike 3 years earlier, and the warranty was still valid; alas, his shop no longer sold Cervelo, so I had to go to Rochester to get it replaced.
While my bike was out being replaced (Cervelo customer service was great for this), I borrowed my friend’s wife’s bike for those Tuesday and Thursday events. Two weeks on, I was late to the Tuesday race, and I latched onto the back as it rolled out of the meeting place. But my legs just weren’t in it. I was having trouble keeping up. I wasn’t sure where this tiredness came from, but it was probably excessive run training and too little bike training. I didn’t have the push to stay with the pack and was dropped off the lead group.
I rode on my own that beautiful April day, chugging up hills and into valleys, across flats and around a course of my own making. And at the top of one of those hills, I looked down at a steep descent, clean except for a driveway on the right. I swerved a little left as I approached, figuring this would give me some space in case of an emerging car.
The thing about vision is that it’s hard to focus on more than one thing at a time. And when you’re looking right, you don’t see things coming from the left.
Dogs that want to be run over.
Dogs that are also heavy enough to stop a speeding bike.
So a dog and I performed an unscheduled stress test on the fork of a bike that was not my own. The fork failed.
And then the road performed an equally unscheduled stress test on the epidermis on my back. My epidermis also failed.
A neighbor called an ambulance, and after I'd been loaded in, I had the paramedics phone the woman from the bar -- with whom I had a date that evening -- to let her know I would sadly be forced to cancel. I was brought to the hospital to be tended to by the wife of a professor in my department. Small world, Ithaca.
And that ended my summer of riding. It took over a month to recover -- all of May down the drain -- and when I got back my legs just weren’t the same. I didn’t have kick, I didn’t have aggressiveness, I just didn’t have it. I had crashed big twice in less than a year, and in spite of being in generally good shape, I couldn’t bring myself to work toward anything in particular.
There was, amongst my friends and well-wishers (who may not have overlapped significantly), the idea of me as a bike racing nut. But if I was a bike racing nut, I had finally cracked, my hardened shell shattered by the unyielding pavement of Tompkins County. Equally importantly, I felt a responsibility to my (ostensible) school work, something I had neglected in riding and running.
I cruised into autumn and ran the Triennial Relay for the first -- and so far only -- time in my career. This race takes a team of N runners (I don’t know if there’s a lower bound) and has them run 7 or so stages, 8-15 miles each, on the Finger Lakes Trail. I answered an email on the listserv (where else?) and joined the party, hooking on with a local friend to run for a team led out by a not-local-anymore-but-formerly-local-and-still-quite-good runner. Our team did acceptably, taking 3rd of 14, and I enjoyed the race immensely, despite missing a turn and leading a few other runners into the middle of a foresty dead end.
For the next year, I didn’t race at all that I can recall. I went to Tuesday night rides, slowly sliding down the totem pole as I focused more and more on writing my thesis. Weekends were almost all spent in New York City, where the woman from the bar moved after she finished law school. That put a damper in my race prospects, but it made my running life soar.
Running in Ithaca was always a trail event; running in NYC was a different beast entirely. I had to shift courses to go with traffic, often ending up at unusual intersections in strange parts of town with little idea how far I had come or would go. I criss-crossed the Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Williamsburg bridges -- at one point all in one run. Running fitness continued apace through ever-longer excursions on pavement and through backwater parks. During the week, back in the open space upstate, I went on long rides with friends or alone.
I stopped feeling competitive about any of it. Sure, I could run a half marathon, and pretty quickly at that. Yes, I could ride 50 miles and barely touch my water bottle. Indeed, I could run to Central Park, take a lap (well, maybe a 1/3 lap; Central Park really is huge), and come back to Williamsburg before joining friends on a local pub crawl. I did all these things not because I had something to win, but because I was exhausted from racing so much.
It gets to you eventually.
The daily preparation is fine, but the weekly routine grinds you down: Identify race; sign up for race; change plans to incorporate race into training; find a way to the course; spend anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours in the car en route; hang around endlessly waiting for the start; race (which will probably be shorter than 2 hours); return; repeat.
And for the race itself, if the weather is bad, because you’ve signed up, you feel an obligation to ride or run anyway. It’s hard to swallow your pride and say, “You know what? When it’s 98 degrees and 90% humidity, I run before dawn or after dusk for good reason. And death by lightning just isn’t in my plan today. It turns out I really don’t feel like being out in a hailstorm for 30 minutes. Also, it’s going to be freezing and windy by the end of this, and I wouldn’t pick today as a day and time for hardcore athletics if I were at home.” But you do it anyway, you start a race at 9 a.m. against your better judgment, put your legs and feet and back and shoulders through hell on sopping wet roads on your way to the next aid station, where you can’t possibly put back enough water to replace what’s been lost in sweat, or you endanger yourself in a rowdy pack, hoping against all hope that you keep your collarbones intact for this ride. You suffer, slowly, inevitably, until you cross the finish line and get a number for a time. And then you relax with other people who have just done the same thing, enjoy some good company and maybe some “free” food and drinks (they’re not free because you’ve just paid for them with your entry fee, but it sure seems that way). You don’t even notice the drive home, because you’re worn out and thinking about the shower that’s 30 minutes to 2 hours away, considering stopping at every restaurant and store along the way just because you can.
Wow. I might have just convinced myself that racing is a terrible idea in general. Whatever, brain, go back to thinking about discrete optimization.
I admit, I was hypnotized by this process for years. It was almost reflexive, developing from a product of my desire to simple habit. And not a lucrative habit: the few times I won races and collected prize money, it was a small payout; meanwhile, I left a trail of $5-$30 entry fees in my wake. My lost work time was significant, and I felt my peers accelerating away academically.
Through the summer of 2006, I either couldn’t afford the habit or wasn’t as interested in it. Or both. I no longer felt racing mattered. All that mattered was that my life was moving along, that I had to figure out where it would end up.
So I proposed. It was a lavish event, full of champagne and music and a wonderful setup, totally shocking to my girlfriend, who immediately said “yes” and then tweeted to all her friends and relatives within 6 seconds that she was engaged to the man of her dreams.
Or perhaps I simply said one evening, “Marry me?” And she agreed. And the next morning she asked whether I was serious before telling anyone about it. Also, Twitter didn’t exist then, and she may have mistaken her dreams for her waking moments and thought she was agreeing to the man in her dreams and was secretly hoping I’d look at her like she’d just told me a tale of fairies and unicorns when she asked if I was serious.
One of those stories is true.
That was June. By September, it was clear that our future options were limited if we were both going to pursue our careers. As a result, we chose DC. We rented an apartment in October and were married in November, the same day I interviewed for what would become my first legit professional job. It was a fine exit from New York for both of us, and I don't know about her but I was sure as hell ready to cut out weekly 6-hour drives through Manhattan traffic.
Next up: Attack of the Swampmonsters!
Mash out. Spin on.
“What goes up…” &cetera.
I was up. Severely up. Cat 3 for bike racing, winning local trail races, maintaining a solid week-on-week training schedule.
And I was signed up, too, for another triathlon, this one an Olympic distance bruiser that should have been pretty routine. I don’t even remember where it was, just that I wanted to test out my swimming form somewhere nearby and not too challenging.
I haven’t looked at these results before, so it’s interested to think about where I stood in that race. The event was Olympic distance, meaning a 1-mile swim (or thereabouts), 40 km bike, and 10 km run. Obviously, I had the bike and run down, and I’d been working on the swim all summer. But swimming in the pool or in a non-competitive lake crossing was one thing; the group start of a triathlon, I knew, was a different beast.
I remember going to the race with Lawren, and I remember waiting lakeside for the start. We hung near the back -- his swimming was almost as terrible as mine -- during the lead-up to the race, including during the obligatory announcements by the race coordinator. These were done without aid of a microphone, and included the important instructions to stay slow on the downhill on the bike because there were curves and they hadn’t been swept of gravel.
I missed that part.
Just before the gun, I positioned myself near the middle of the pack. We dove into the water, and I swam furiously through the course, losing minimal ground in the process. Remember that I was in the bottom 1/3 for most of my other races, so this was definitely an improvement. I hopped on the bike and started passing immediately, blowing by people on the flats and across the rollers and up the big climb away from the water.
At the major downhill, I took an outside line and smoothly slid by another rider. Coming to the corner, though, my rear wheel lost purchase, and I fishtailed badly, my bike skidding left, right, left, right, before my front wheel had turned enough to throw me over the bars. At close to 25 mph, I hurtled forward, rolled once, and slid to a stop on my back, my bike bounding down the hill another 30 meters or so.
Adrenaline pumping now.
My thumb was severely displaced, and my knee was a splatter of red pouring blood down my leg. My helmet was destroyed. Shredded bits of my jersey flapped against my back. This was the time, though: pain hadn't registered yet. I dashed down, grabbed my bike, and threw it on the other side of the road where nobody would run into it. Passersby gaped at a bloody mess.
Now to the decision. Bleeding profusely from leg and, presumably, my back, I could go up the hill to the aid station I had just passed or down the hill to the next one, which was indeterminately far away. Having “just passed” an aid station when you’re going 25-ish mph means it can be a long walk, but I gritted my teeth and girded my loins and screwed up my courage and verbed various other nouns in the interests of just getting back there.
When I arrived, the volunteer was horrified. She obviously didn’t expect to see a mangled body walk up the hill to this station. But there I was. She plied me with some water, and I passed out briefly while sitting on a utility box. I regained consciousness only when the wee dream-like scenario that was playing out in my head -- being at the doctor and having a conversation with someone -- resulted in my head slamming against something, which turned out to be the box itself.
An ambulance arrived, and I was whisked to a local hospital, treated for abrasions all over my back, diagnosed with a broken thumb, and given a lot of pain medication. My knee had a hole the size of a 50-cent piece through all the dermal layers, but the internals had somehow survived intact. Even now, I remember my quadriceps femoris, exposed and pale and straight against the pink and red disarray of the surrounding wound.
The road rash on my back required daily maintenance and forced me to sleep upright for weeks. My thumb was surgically repaired, and I spent a month with my hand and wrist in a cast. The knee hole healed very slowly as the flesh built up from bottom-to-top and around the edges where the pieces had been sewn back into place.
And yet I rode. I remember commuting home down the hill in the cast, each small bump feeling like it might throw me again and re-open the newly-scarred or as-yet-unhealed tissue. What manner of madeness compelled me to this course?
I was 25 at the time, and every passing day felt like a prime day lost. So I tried to stay in racing condition. This meant riding the trainer and getting back to the daily running routine. Once all the healing was done and summer slipped into autumn's rearview mirror, I was only barely less well-off than before the crash. There was one race left: the first race course I’d ever done as a cyclist.
A few friends joined me this time, and told them what I remembered from years earlier about the Apple Fest: it’s got a couple major climbs. I started cautiously with the pack through the rollers, but on one of those major climbs -- one of the 5 or 6 or 8 -- I embraced that old cycling aggression and pulled away from the field. Riding out front with a group of a half dozen or so, we stayed away, then strung out across the road over the final 8 miles. I remember the effort of the last two miles, an explosive emptying of long-unused legs anxious to show their capability. I won.
My friends, needless to say, did not appreciate my advice about the race complexion. Then again, I honestly didn’t remember the course being full of climbing.
This was the unfortunately happy end of what could have been a remarkable season, and though it gave me satisfaction to close with a victory, it was unclear just how much I had left.
I packed away my warm-weather kit and hunkered down for winter.
Next up: Interpersonal Inclinations and Competitive Chaos
Mash out. Spin on.
The bike racing schedule was, of course, relatively fixed year-to-year. The season started in Rochester, Ithaca, and Binghamton, then went to Auburn and Syracuse before the mid-summer “break”. Between Syracuse and the season-ending races was a vast gulf with one or two races and a whole lot of not much else. That’s where my running took over, and where I felt most comfortable.
Before the season-opener up by Rochester, one of the other local riders had mentioned that he was going to do early races (meaning the local, unofficial races) in a lower gear than he might otherwise to practice high-cadence riding. That was my problem as well, so when the Rochester race rolled around, I told myself that I would keep in the small ring unless it was absolutely necessary.
So it was in my 42" small ring that I rode off the front of the field and dangled for 4 or so laps, feeling great. In the last lap, a half dozen riders caught me, and I settled in for a quarter lap before breaking again. They must have thought I was nuts, but it was all somewhat strategic: I didn’t win sprints, so riding away was what I had. The pack chased me down again, and I accepted something like 10th or 15th (no results seem to exist online).
At the Binghamton Circuit Race a week later, I got my team effort on, and a couple of us combined to get a good placement for one of the team members. I finished 8th overall, which was nice, but as usual the criterium format did not favor my mashing power.
At our local race the following week, I went over sideways on the first climb when the crowd in front of me slowed nearly to a stop; I quickly hopped back on my bike and rode to the front, where four or five of us broke away and crushed the rest of the field. A week later, again near Rochester, I have no recollection of how things played out, but I apparently finished 3rd.
A week after that was the Owasco Stage Race, two events at the time (there’s now a time trial, but I don’t think there was back then). I knew I was going to ride just one of them: there was a run that Sunday that I really wanted to do, and riding a criterium didn’t sound like a great use of my talents.
A teammate, Andrew, was also looking for his Category 3 upgrade, and we’d been riding together quite a bit. The course started on a relatively long descent, turned a corner, and went up a short climb worth a few King of the Mountain (KOM) points toward the stage race win. My teammate was 3rd or 4th, with me on his wheel, as some of the other riders hammered out the climb. Near the top, I pulled in front of him, and he slid in, then blasted by me at the top of the ride to take 3rd (and a KOM point).
The weekend arrived. I knew Category 3 was at my fingertips, and I showed up in Syracuse ready to go and feeling like a mediocre racehorse. I mean, yeah, it was amateur, but I had done a lot in Owasco and wanted to show I could do even more here.
The course was two laps of 30 miles. We spent the first 15 miles together, then watched as a few of the riders took off at the top of one of the hills. One of them was Jason, whom I had spent quite a bit of time riding with and talking to during our Cat 4 careers, and I knew he was a quietly strong rider who could pull the trio away if he had a little help.
The pack seemed lackadaisical about the prospect of racing for 4th, but I was a little more determined. I kept finding myself near the front and pushing the pace a little more before drifting into the pack and watching our pace fall again. Nobody was working together. We caught one of the breakaway riders about 5 miles after they broke, then caught another 5 miles later. The only holdout now was Jason, and with the two breakers back in our midst, there seemed to be a little more urgency in the group.
Finally, we caught sight of the leader and let him dangle out there for a while, just 20 or 30 seconds ahead of the pack, as we cruised through the 35th mile. At last, he gave up, and we were all in the running for first.
Remember how I mentioned not being a sprinter? I didn’t want this to devolve into a crushing sprint finish that I knew would put me top-10 but probably not in the top 3. It was time to talk deals, and Jason was a good guy to talk with.
We cruised in the pack, fending off occasional attacks from other riders. Sitting comfortably in 4th or 5th position with 20 miles left, I rolled up next to him.
“I thought you were going to stay away,” I told him, knowing he would know that I didn’t think that at all.
He smiled. “I’m sure you did.”
“Maybe you just went a little early. Now seems more like it.”
I let the comment sink in, then attacked softly to get to the lead position, and attacked hard to break the group. We were on a flat near the base of a rise, and I didn’t even think about it.
Jason broke with a couple other riders behind me, but we had shattered the peloton. I blazed up the rise, then hammered across the next flat, down the next hill, and ripped up the following climb, building a solid 30-second gap in about 5 miles. I continued to press the pace up the mid-course major climb, and the lead car’s spotter yelled out my 45-second lead as I crested the rise. That second-place rider was Jason; the pack was another 45 seconds behind.
I ducked into a TT position and crushed the rest of the course. Now used to my weekly 10-mile assault ride on Thursday, I figured this could be done in something like 25 minutes, since it was a slightly downhill ride until the finishing climb.
When I rode into that hill, I could see the pack far behind and could spot the trailing two or three riders several hundred meters back. I stood on my pedals, pressed up the climb, and crossed the line comfortably in 1st place.
The following day was the criterium. I had never been good at these, and Jason and I discussed our strategies for the race. I told him there was no way I could win in the pack, because I’m simply not a sprinter.
“So what do you plan on doing?” he asked.
“Not a sprint,” I told him.
We were riding for different teams but speaking a common language here.
At the race start, the announcer pointed out my number as the race leader, presumably figuring that everyone would key in and shut down whatever I might try to do. Lap 1 of 20 went through without incident, but on Lap 2, I decided it was time to move. On the backside descent, I pushed up from the middle of the pack around the outside; passing Jason’s position, he latched onto my wheel, and we blasted off the front like we were shot from a cannon.
We didn’t talk, just rode hard and rode away. For a half dozen laps, our lead grew, until we were over a minute ahead -- the pack on the back half of the course while we were crossing the line. It went like that for 45 minutes, and when the last lap bell rang, we took it very seriously. We pacelined the lap, swapping leads every 5 seconds or so, until the final 400 meters. I was in the lead, and I stood up to give one last effort to drop him. He stayed with, and 100 meters from the finish, he started a smooth and easy sprint to take the prize. I crossed in 2nd, and we rode a cool-down while the race finished up.
I upgraded the following week.
Ah, but this is a running book! What am I doing talking about all these cycling exploits?
A couple weeks later, I signed up for the Jordan Alpine Classic, a race whose course did not necessarily justify the “alpine” monicker, unless you consider “alpine” to refer to anything that traverses a region in which the fauna might be found in an alpine setting, in which case said definition allows any user to say anything is “alpine” without fear of being called incorrect. A local racer, whose name I don’t remember but who did attend enough events that I recognized him, showed up wearing a kilt and no shirt. I, as is my friendly nature, ribbed him about his attire, and his response was radically different from what I expected: he popped his trunk and offered me a kilt for the race.
Yes! Yes yes yes! A thousand times yes!
Okay, maybe not that exciting.
I threw my shorts in my car, pulled on the kilt, and proceeded to win the race. Somewhere out there is a video of my Jordan Alpine Classic race win in a kilt, but it seems to have been removed from the internet, at least in any searchable form. Be that as it may, this 8k-ish race gave me a wonderful glimpse into a new world of running. Alas, I do not own a kilt, so the lesson of the win has been lost to time.
Next up: Falling down.
Mash out. Spin on.
Here in the Northeast, where deciduous trees dominate, winter is a time when the full foliage of summer is starkly absent; everything seems harder, more brutalist. And then there's fall - the flightless bird of seasons, ill-fittingly wavering between frigid, damp overcast and vibrant, blustry sunshine.
I won't pretend to delight in fall's foulest weather, as though squalls and frosted mornings cleanse the overheated runner's soul or let the trail aficionado embrace yin-like calm in the face of this karmic weather yang(er). But it offers a transition unlike any other in our training regimes.
I notice it most in that flattening fitness feeling, when my running legs switch from Need To Move to Functionally Underwhelming. The soreness of a 6-month training plan catches up rapidly, and I find myself wondering each day whether a run is really the best use of my precious time and energy.
Almost uniformly it is.
Unfortunate for these prevarications, then, that it's necessarily accompanied by layers of running clothes, each of which must be thoroughly thermally adjustable. Arm warmers, of course, and gloves, then a thin cap, a neck warmer, a zippered wind- and water-resistant vest, and zippered (cycling) tights. Individually, each can be vented or packed away once I'm fully warm or in the sun, or quickly tugged back on for traversing particularly cold valleys or stopping to smell the rotting leaves; as a group, they add 5 minutes to the run prep, enough time to make me wonder about my weird obsession with trails while I wait for the 6:45 sunrise.
But there really is nothing comparable to harvest-time trails. Each year the detritus of fallen leaves and blown-down sticks crescendos in a mesh of layers thick enough to obscure ankle-breakers and mud pits and small ponds. To aid in the runner's adventure, all the markings of the trail/not-trail barrier are punctured: where summer's overgrown branches hung over a noticeable path, barren sticks now jut at odd angles, yielding as little information as possible; and where winter's repeated foot traffic will imprint snow with a dominant route, freshly dropped leaves hold no such memory, such that at any time, an alternate direction might appear as good and leaf-covered as the prescribed one.
Of course I continue to run. Autumn excursions are less carefree than in summer, to be sure, and in many ways I find them more dangerous than in winter, when the bitter cold and snowy or slushy surface are all the warning signs you could ask for. I know deep down that, like the 20 or so years before this, I'll embrace the transition into winter running sometime around the beginning of December. I will accept that those formerly fast-paced daily 10ks will scale back by 20% either in speed or distance; that my long runs won't go quite as long; that I'll spend more time cross-training indoors.
In fall, though, each of these is a hard sell. This morning, in the clearing next to the forest edge on my local trail, I was keenly aware of the soft touch of autumn sun that whispered against my bare wrists and cheeks. I will enjoy this last stretch of vestigal summer, knowing all too well the inevitability of the bone-deep chill that lies in wait.
Ithaca in winter is both beautiful and maddening. A general cold creeps into the air sometime in October, followed by a first sticking snow in mid- to late-November. After one or two brief periods of post-fall (relative) warmth through the end of that month, a series of snowfalls -- usually no more than a few inches at a time -- is broken up only by frigid nights and cold days. Waterfalls freeze and icicles turn the gorges into gaping, predatory maws. Forests are coated in powder that will persist into spring, by which time the gentle fluff will be a mass that seems determined to stay through summer. Little-used roads thaw, freeze, thaw, and freeze again, an endless parade of damage wrought to the pavement from within.
Running, it should be apparent, becomes a challenge. The valley holds limited appeal, but its flanking hills are slick with ice and snow. And the treacherous roadways push cars to less dangerous approaches, raising the ire of frustrated drivers at the expense of safety for everyone else on the roads. Trails were essentially off-limits, piled with snow of varying depths and marked with blazes that, while apparent during summer, are nearly impossible to find in the bleak, gray uniformity. But I did the runs anyway, with shoes or snowshoes.
Cycling becomes even more difficult: the ride up the steep hill brings immediate heat to the core, but limbs dangle in the frozen wilds and cry out for attention. Most of my rides were capped by 10 minutes in the bathroom with my hands and feet immersed in warm water, hoping that they would come back to life. They always did, but I don’t wish the stabbing pain of their reawakening on anyone. Distance riding exacerbated the problem, as well as fighting darkness and the attendant vehicular dangers. But I did these rides anyway, extremeties bundled to look like wiffle ball bats affixed to my slender frame.
Since I hadn’t raced much recently, this would be the winter of snowshoe, the time when I would enjoy the snow as much as possible in spite of my limited winter sport experience.
I started taking second runs in the evenings while wearing snowshoes, doing a few miles at a time just to practice the motion. I enjoyed it immensely, especially on frigid, clear nights: the crystalline air, the pleasing crunch of snow underfoot, the quiet calm of a snowbound cemetery at 10 p.m. The experience was soothing and inspiring.
I also rode my trainer to keep in biking shape -- much to the chagrin of my downstairs neighbor, who happened to be the landlord. I had to tailor my times to be sure he was absent when I rode, but I managed to maintain a base.
What all this meant, of course, was that I was getting in better shape during the winter than I had been at the end of summer.
A diversion: Professionals (read: not me) advocate an extended break over the winter wherein the runner allows muscles destroyed over the other 9 or 10 months to recover. During this period, the runner should pursue core athletics, like weight lifting or light indoor cycling or whatever might give you some feeling of “doing something” without continuing the assault on key muscles.
Duly noted. Now let's close 2003 and open 2004 by ignoring that. Running? Check! Biking? Check! In fact, I did more running. Sure, my cycling load went down, but that was mostly by necessity, since it’s pretty much impossible to put in 2.5-hour rides safely after work when darkness falls within a half hour of the end of work. I also swam more, since the pool was open year-round. Oh, and did I mention the indoor track sessions? Running 8 laps per mile is crappy, but running 4 miles outdoors and 16 laps inside isn’t nearly as bad.
That winter, I visited a friend in Germany for two weeks, crashing at his apartment with anywhere from 0 to 4 others and taking weekend trips around the country’s southlands. I don’t know how he felt about me hanging out for so long, but I thoroughly enjoyed the experience -- mostly because of the chance to re-connect with people from undergrad in the evenings while running my sorry ass off each morning.
A few days into the visit, I found a space that lies somewhere in the ill-used experiential octant of “absurdly painful”, “exhilarating”, and “pleasantly satisfying”. I left my friend’s apartment around 7 a.m. with the goal of running some of the marked trails up the hill to a place called Schau-Ins-Land, a ski top which promised a tram down to the road, from whence I would catch the bus back into town.
Morning dawned chilly but not cold, so I donned a light jacket but not a hat or gloves. On the first plateau behind the Max Planck Institute, I encountered not the 3 marked trails I was expecting, but a vast array of intersecting and almost entirely unmarked routes. I picked a direction based on the map (go right!), then came upon an intersection with a sign that suggested I was on a trail I didn’t want. Dipping slightly down the hill to recover the actual trail -- which I managed to find pretty easily -- I continued along the plateau and up into the foothills.
The expected climb would be a few thousand feet, and at this point that didn’t seem like much. I pounded through the foothills along the path, every once in a while passing an obvious intersection. I tried to ignore these intersections, but something nagged at me every time: what if I was picking wrong? The trail exited the forest and ran along the east side of a hill, then into a logging area, then onto a small road. At which point there seemed no way forward but on the road, a route I discounted because it clearly went downhill quite significantly. (This was a time before ubiquitous GPS phones, so I was running blind here.) Knowing I had been out for about an hour at this point, it wouldn’t be a problem to just go back, toast this near-2-hour trip with a fresh beer, and enjoy the afternoon.
I turned around, disappointed to have fallen short of my goal. But lo! what luck! A half mile back, I encountered the first person I’d seen on the path, a middle aged woman walking her dog. This close to the trail’s departure point from the road, she seemed a likely information source. Mustering my directional German, I got the scoop: the trail actually spurred off the road, just past a fallen log on the right hand side. Straight on and straight up.
I told myself it could be no more than a few miles before Schau-Ins-Land and dashed back to the entry, which was right where the woman said it would be. The straight vertical at the bottom turned into a series of extended switchbacks, maybe a few hundred meters each, with a steeper climb at either end. I ascended into a cloud and felt the thickening dampness on my uncovered hands and ears. The air cooled: chilly but not cold became a little cold became a Pacific Northwest mid-winter's day. The trail was slick with rainfall, the wind harsh at one end of the switchbacks that towered over the valley below.
The view, though -- ah, the view! How can I describe the beauty? Imagine the expansive vistas of Yellowstone, or the sweeping sights from atop the high peaks of the Sierra Nevadas, or the brilliant hues of autumn gazing down the White Mountains! Sublime! And exactly unlike mine, which was a scrubby forest terminating suddenly in a featureless, white void. Pine forest. Fog. When the snow began to fall, my mind turned itself around, and I passed the point of desiring the destination to find myself at the point of desiring the end.
I had been out for 2 hours now, and all of my little piggies had long since burned their last piece of coal and begged for warmth. So it was that what was probably about 12 miles into my expected 13-mile run (and actually closer to 14 miles of total ground covered), I turned around for home, simply incapable of going any farther up the foreboding path.
The descent back to the logging road was speedy, and 20 minutes later I was ducking back into the forest where my ephemeral local navigator had appeared. But it was an hour from this point to home, an hour I wasn’t sure would be plausible. Each step felt both relieving and terrible, that sickening agony of having abused oneself beyond reasonable recovery, knowing simultaneously that the end was nearer and the air was warmer but also that the end was not particularly near and the air was not particularly warm. Dashing back through the clear cut, the wind blasted my still-damp and well-chilled body, and I wondered if I would ever be warm again. (As we’ll see, this is a theme for me in long runs. Maybe I should just accept that eventually I will most likely be warm again.)
And now I was back into the trails, and now I was about to find my second Al on my Beckettsian journey: an ex-military runner out for the morning, his English as terrible as my Polish. My German, though, is passable, perhaps up to the level of “intermediate proficiency”, particularly if the audience isn’t expecting perfection. And having been out for 2.5 hours, soaked in sweat and rain, I somehow retained enough to have a cogent 45-minute conversation with a man whose name I never caught.
He was -- and I say this only mildly hyperbolically -- my mental salvation. We descended like a pair of old running buddies, him in front taking all reasoning requirements away from my incapable mind. Down we went until we emerged behind the Max Planck Institute once again. I bid tak and adieu (however you say that in German) to this temporary companion, made my way through the church lot and down back roads, past the bar I had been at until 1 a.m. that morning, across the tracks, and, knowing there was little to eat at the apartment, straight to the grocery store.
Fruit first, a loaf of bread, a jar of jam, and as many beers as I felt I could afford with the remainder of my 20 Euro -- the cash I had pocketed as tram and bus fare. People watched this beaten man walk the store. I must look terrible, I thought, but I’m hungry and will never leave the apartment once I get there. I brought the goods to the front, where the cashier sized me up, said something I didn’t understand. I stared at her. She repeated, and a look of pity spread across her face: she took my bananas, brought them back to the fruit section, weighed them for a price tag, then took both back to the register.
“Klar?” she asked, and gave me a look that suggested she found the situation at least a reasonable diversion from an otherwise uninspiring day.
I laughed at the absurdity, and the line that was forming behind me seemed unfazed by the entire fiasco. I was too tired and cold to care.
The apartment was like a cozy blanket, and I knew a shower was in order. I stumbled inside while mashing a banana into my mouth, barely able to chew. The shower was upstairs, and I could hardly move my legs.
And it was now, almost 4 hours after the run started, as I gingerly prepared to take off my jacket, that I first looked down. Here was the source of such bemused looks from passers-by, those smirks and stares: two enormous stains of blood streaked down from my nipples. I had bled through the undershirt, through the running shirt, through the jacket, to make symmetric spears of crimson.
The shower was probably drawn out, and my subsequent nap went for hours. I ate a loaf of bread slathered in black currant jam. I felt exhausted, wrecked, humbled, and overjoyed.
A week later -- after running every intervening day -- I found myself outside Munich, staying with a cousin of my friend. One morning I left the apartment with a 10 Euro note and an agenda: run about 10k, stop at the bakery, get back to the apartment with fresh patisserie before anyone woke up. I dutifully killed the kilometerage, then popped into the baeckerei to buy some wholly unhealthy bread products for 5. I picked out 6 items, tallying the costs mentally, but missed a 1 somewhere; when the total came up, it was 10.80. The woman behind the counter looked at my 10 Euro, looked at me, looked at the 10 Euro.
I picked a croissant. “I don’t need that one. Just take it off so the 10 will cover the cost.”
“Once I ring it up, I don’t know how to un-ring it. Can you get the money and come back?” she asked.
I shrugged. “It’s 10 minutes round trip, and I’m leaving today, or I’d drop it by later on.”
There was a pause while we looked at each other. Then the woman reached across the counter and dug her hand into the tip jar. She pulled out a few coins, stuck them in the register with the 10 Euro, and smiled. “You can pay me back next time you’re in town,” she smiled.
My European adventures ended with stints in Brussels, the Netherlands, and finally (again) in Germany. I returned home and resumed snowshoeing, enjoying the cold of Ithaca that doesn’t sneak up on you. At the end of January, I ran a snowshoe race. My one and only snowshoe race, unfortunately, as (a) snowshoe races pretty much didn’t exist at that point and (b) my time in Ithaca was soon to come to a close. The race was 7.6 miles over forest terrain, and I decided at the outset that snowshoeing at the front was a bad plan -- you don’t want to break trail for everyone -- but passing would also be practically impossible. It was necessary, then, to stake out a spot near the front and work to maintain that position. I did so admirably, holding 3rd through most of the race and falling to 4th when Rebecca decided she had made a mistake in following me.
As happy as I then was with snowshoe racing, winter wound down swiftly. I had kept in pretty good shape and was eager to get back out there for another season of kicking ass and maybe taking a name or two but mostly just making up more nicknames.
Mash out. Spin on.
There seems to be a 3-week gap wherein I did not compete in any races. It’s possible that I raced in some sort of not-locally-sponsored run that I can’t remember, but I doubt it. Instead, near the end of May, I got a sore throat and started feeling really worn down, but decided to go to Syracuse for a full race weekend anyway. Let’s check in on how that went, shall we? [Scrolls back through race report.] Oh, my back cramped up and I finished 19th in the road race. Then during the criterium the next day, we collectively almost ran over a 4-year old before I dropped out with a mechanical.
I had definitely blocked out that near-miss of a child.
After feeling like a phlegmatic slug for the rest of the week, I returned to my doctor. It took about 3 seconds for him to diagnose me with mono. (He also suggested that I get rabies shots. I mean, unrelated of course, and a story for another day perhaps.) Three more weeks of quality workouts were wiped out in a snap, as my body suffered through an illness whose defining characteristic is fatigue.
In mid-July, I finally felt up to a foot race. It was July 20, and I signed up for the 8.9-mile Forest Frolic. I had no illusions about winning; seems likely I had illusions about finishing top-10. Frankly, my conditioning - also known as "fighting one of the most common infections among 18-to-24 year olds in the developed world" - wasn’t ideal for running. But I wanted to do something that wasn’t bike racing and pounding out a baker's dozen kilometers on foot met that criterion.
It’s not that cycling wasn’t fulfilling. It’s just that cycling had taken over my weekends. You may not realize it, but even we neigh-immortal athletes burn out. It certainly didn't help that I doubted keeping pace with weekend races plus Tuesday (unofficial) races plus Thursday time trials after not doing anything for several weeks.
The Forest Frolic disabused me of my running notions. I finished 15th in 1:11 and change. This in a relatively easy run, except for the hill about a mile from the end. Based on prior results I should have been able to do much better. On the other hand, mono! I felt fine with my performance.
"What with all this bad running, I might as well do bad swimming!" I seem to have told myself.
A triathlon club had formed in Ithaca, and one of the members graciously let us use her lake-bordering house as the launch for a cross-lake swim. Bad swimming sure, but this was more my style: no 25-meter breakups that required you either know how to flip-turn or waste time relative to everyone else. Just pure swimming, subject to all the good and bad parts of the lake. The total crossing is around a mile, maybe more given that none of us went entirely straight, and most of us would swim one way and kayak the other, swapping off on the opposite shore.
Even though I had a good training gig coming off the whole sick-in-bed business, I didn’t do much more racing that year. In Albany, I crashed out during the road race, taking a corner too fast and going over the bars. No major damage, just some scrapes and bruises that kept me slow and sore for a week, and it would be my only race-ending fall during a pure cycling event. (I had more significant problems in a triathlon the next year, but we’ll get to that.)
[Insert terrible "tri again!" pun here.] The rest of the month was spent building up to the Lake Anna half ironman triathlon south of DC, which I thought of as a test race. I'd recovered confidence from the knee injury of the previous year, then lost critical training time in the middle of summer to illness, then come back for a few weeks only to get hurt on the bike. It hadn’t been particularly helpful.
The good news? My swim was <i>much</i> improved. Like holy hell.
Bad news No 1: My bike performance felt slow. Actually, at 2:34, it was similar to the previous year, which means it probably felt slow because I’d been used to riding in packs and dragging across flats at 45 kph on a regular basis.
Bad news No 2: My running legs failed. I wanted to settle into an 8-minute pace early on, but it was probably closer to 7:30. My legs started to fry quickly. Lap 1 ended on a slow note, then some people passed me, then it all fell apart. Pain radiated through my knee, and I had images of the previous year. Would I spend another two months out of running again? Was it worth the cost? I limped on for a half mile, a mile, through Mile 9, then threw in the towel.
The epiphany was incredible. <i>It wasn't worth it!</i>
The competition was amateur, casual, and I loved running and biking. Not having either was a crushing thought. I'd done 90% of a half ironman; the other 10% was performative self-destruction.
It was the right call.
Even with a dreary end-of-season showing, I had amassed 13 total points towards an upgrade in competitive cycling and sent a sponsored letter to US Cycling Federation to officially move up to Category 4. In that letter, I told the regional coordinator:
<i>At this point, I see no reason to be classified as Category 5 when I am stronger, faster, and -- at least in racing -- smarter than at the same time one year ago. The level of my abilities will not change regardless of my classification under the USCF scheme, but I would prefer to compete with riders who will challenge me to excel rather than encourage me to slow down. This will not happen if I continue to have a Category 5 rating.</i>
My application was quickly approved.
A month later, I scheduled what I call the “Not Quite Sane Event”: ride 25 miles to an isolated Finger Lakes Trail entrance, run on the trail (half marathon-ish), and ride home. Putting it out there made me happy. Maybe in celebration, I closed out the bar the night before, stayed for an after-party, and got up just in time to find that nobody would join me. My NQS for 2003 was, it should go without saying, not a high-energy event. But I did get to watch a woman train sheep dogs 12 miles into the run and hitched a lucky ride home with a very confused family.
Right after that was the Danby Down & Dirty. And I was back! The 10k race went off well, and I breezed through it in just over 46 minutes, good for 4th. My season ended stronger and happier. I might not be “back to form”, but these things take time!
Next up: Winter shoes!
Mash out. Spin on.
Some runner person. Also perhaps a cyclist & brewing type. But for your purposes, a runner person.