Looking at the dates, I feel like the Tortoise and Hare has been mis-filed. My memory of it is in April, and my first triathlon is reported as happening the following day. It’s entirely possible, though, that I did something that unusual, because I might have seen the 10k as a good warmup. The trail running revelation would have just been a bonus, of course, so I would never have known that having a triathlon the next day would be weirdly uninspiring.
Whatever the circumstance, I was signed up for an Olympic-distance triathlon in Buffalo, my first ever 3-event event. Lake Erie was still chilly, but it was warming up quickly, so we were given the option of using a wetsuit; I bought one just in case, figuring it might come in handy later. It is now handily in my basement, unused in a decade, but for a brief time it served exactly the purposes I required: warmth, flotation, a reminder to get in the open water.
At the race start, I couldn’t hear any of the announcements. Suddenly, the race director went quiet, the gun went off, and everyone filed into the lake for an out-and-back. Limbs flailed. I remember being kicked and pushed, then finding my own spot with almost no traffic. Looking back, it seems that low-traffic spot was probably just well behind the pack, as I turned in a time only a wee bit under 30 minutes for an event that competitive swimmers polished off in far less.
My first ever transition was extremely slow (over 4 minutes), and I hopped on the bike for the easy 40k time trial. I was willing to concede a little time in this event for the sake of the run because I had no real desire to destroy myself in the race. That’s easy to say, but it’s hard to follow through on. Even at a stately pace, I cruised by a dozen competitors. When it came to the run -- an out-and-back-and-out-a-different-way-and-back -- I found myself passing even more people. My run time (37:30) was a really good time for a 10k, much better than I expected, and when it was all done, I don’t recall any tiredness.
None of it felt hard. I didn’t have a feeling of being “in the zone” or something at any point. I smiled my way through it, trying to encourage other cyclists and runners as I saw them. It felt like I knew what I was doing and just did it. On the other hand, I finished 10th of 50 participants, so it didn’t look great on paper.
But I looked great, which is really what counts.
After that race, it was clear that speed over distance was the key to success. Less competition, more focus on improvement, and the half ironman would be tenable. And I obviously had to get better at swimming and transitioning.
Things went well for a while. Until right around my birthday, when I hit a wee bitty snag: riding down the hill from a friend’s apartment, I caught a bag in my front spokes and flipped my bike. That sensation of falling has been lost to the ages, but I remember stopping against the curb and watching my first roadie, a Klein I’d bought on eBay, bounce down the road. Adrenaline pressed out the pain as I hurried down to assess the damage to my bike. The front wheel was bent, the rim damaged, and the downtube had taken the brunt of the first flip, leaving a large dent. The frame was unsalvageable.
I limped back up the hill to my friend’s apartment, broken bike in tow, and hitched a ride home. With just a few minor flesh wounds, training could continue, but I would be relegated to running and mountain biking until I could find a replacement. The competition deadline hovered somewhere in the near future, so I would also need to get a new bike quickly.
Let’s do a little temporal flexing here for a moment so I can properly explain how I came upon my Cervelo Soloist.
Over the winter -- as previously noted -- I joined the local cycling club, and they did some training events that meshed well with my invented race buildup. Every weekend, a group went out on a long ride. But like a good training program, those “long” rides started at about 30 miles and went up to a century around the lake at the end of summer. I decided to latch on every two weeks, giving me a relatively relaxed extended period on the bike.
I don’t know if everyone on those rides appreciated me being there, as I often pushed the pace a bit. I was impatient and geared to go pretty fast -- not too fast, because otherwise I’d be writing a serious book as a successful professional who overcame various obstacles (because serious pros write inspiring tales of overcoming obstacles), but fast enough that I would always finish among the front group. I typically spun out my legs on those relaxing rides, much to the delight of at least one fellow rider and much to the chagrin of many others. That was the “casual riding” side of the club.
On Thursdays, the “racing” side met at a local parking lot to do a 9-mile course one way, then ride slowly back to the lot for a decompression and results compilation. I loved this event. The short-format TT was just the right length for doing a short, extreme-intensity workout without overextending myself. The TT simply fit with the rest of my training week.
Through most of that summer, though, I had ridden the Klein, a relatively light but not spectacular bike that was maybe a centimeter or two bigger than it should have been, but because I’d bought it off eBay (early adopter, remember!) it didn’t cost a ton. I had taken it to the local bike guru, Glen Swann, whose shop was less a business venture than a way to pay for a really expensive habit. He would order a new bike each year for himself and sell the bike from the last year, plus some brand new components; he also sold his services as a (very good) mechanic, with his bike shop having a secondary role as the gathering place for weekly mountain bike rides.
Swann Cycles was (and still is) an Ithaca-area fixture. But Glen is what makes the place hum: he’s unassuming and generally laid back, but he’s passionate about bikes and biking. And he wants to pass that passion on to anyone willing to take the time. He’s mechanically gifted and -- now presumably somewhere between 50 and 70, since he doesn’t seem to age at all -- still fit enough to compete with riders just out of undergrad, at least over short to middle distances.
It was Glen who oversaw (and often “won”) the weekly time trial. It was Glen who organized the weekly mountain bike ride. And it was Glen who roped me into the Cervelo Soloist: a road bike with some extra aerodynamic styling for competitive time trialing. He knew me as strong in the TT but had never seen me race -- and wouldn’t until September sometime -- and the Soloist, though expensive for a grad student, was an excellent competition bike. Since I was a relatively known quantity, he was also willing to let me IOU half the cost.
Cervelo was just starting out, too, so the frame came with a lifetime warranty. I didn’t think anything of that at the time, but it did come in handy, as we will see in a future segment.
I ordered the bike one Monday evening, paid Glen what I had, and spent the week running and riding my mountain bike. That’s the same mountain bike I bought from my roommate as an undergrad, and it worked just fine on the hills of upstate New York. But let’s be honest, riding 40 km on a mountain bike is a brutal proposition, and sticking to my distance-based training plan really started to wear me down.
Come Thursday, August 8 (which I can handily see from looking back at the spotty records available on the cycling club listserv), Glen pulled up in his van with a brand-new, assembled, perfectly-tuned Cervelo Soloist.
I crushed that ride.
I can affirmatively report that I support the purchase of a $2000 bike to replace a $1000 bike. Or, with inflation over the last decade and some, a $3000 bike to replace a $1500 bike.
My time went from 21 and change (The Klein Era, which ended in early June) to 23+ (The Mountain Bike Era, which ended in late June) to 20 and change (The Cervelo Era, which has lasted a long time) in short order.
Over the next two months, I worked hard to get that cash to Glen, finally paying it off in September or October. And I loved that bike right into the ground.
It was the original Soloist design, shiny black background with white stripes flanking a blue strip that read “Cervelo”. The company was brand new, marketing its product to racers and triathletes everywhere, but positioning itself firmly in the top-middle to top-end markets. My officemates variously called it the “Cervix Jello” and the “Curve Low” and the “Weird-Looking Bike”. I called it mine.
I rode it up hills, down valleys, and across flats. Okay, I’ll be honest, there weren’t many flats, but that bike took me 40-160 km at a time through the training season on rides 5 times a week, plus another dozen transportation rides each week, including my grocery store trips. I loaded up my backpack as full as it could get, stressing the frame with 175 lbs of rider and food. It was my transportation, my recreation, my way of exiting the academic world for a couple hours at a time to think/procrastinate. (Hey, I was on break!)
It was also a way to get in trouble, taking me to locales where drivers thought cyclists were a menace to their trucks, locales where dogs thought cyclists were a menace to their turf, and locales where locals thought cyclists were a menace to their conservative values. Especially their States Rights Conservative values that included, for example (and this is not an exaggeration), the gravelly descent past the junkyard replete with aggressive dog and a high-flying flag bearing a bass -- the fish, not the instrument, though the new image of a standup bass in its place is quite amusing -- in front of the standard Confederate flag symbol.
Basically, cycling was everything that people outside Ithaca weren't. And yet I carried on.
Next up: Culminating in a Race
Mash out. Spin on.
So now we get to the Tortoise and Hare, or as I call it the T&H (not to be confused with TH, a common abbreviation for tennis-hockey -- well, as common as abbreviations for tennis-hockey go, and an abbreviation that’s at least potentially relevant to this book): I slammed through its 6.7 miles in 47:46. The T&H is almost all on single-track trails, a loop around a local park with a climb up a couple hundred feet. It was longer than anything I’d raced before, and I absolutely nailed it -- with a pretty mediocre performance that got me 5th.
I was 4 minutes behind the leader, but that seemed OK for my first try out. This was also my first trail race, and realistically the first time I’d run significantly on a trail instead of the roads. So that was nice. (I’m trying my hardest to dull this as much as possible, because the next section is full of exclamation marks and happy thoughts.)
Trail running was unbelievable!
As you know, this isn’t a serious book with serious insights about the seriosity of running. So I won’t wax eloquently about how running a trail is like learning to walk when all you knew was how to sit up and play with the toys around you. Or how trail running opens new and beautiful worlds that road runners can never dream of. Or how trail running makes other forms of freedom seem empty. No such comparisons will be made. Except in the following paragraph.
Calling it "indescribable" would be, of course, absurd for a person scribing a book. It was like I'd been listening to Nintendo music my whole life and now found myself in a concert hall with the London Symphony Orchestra. Yeah, the 8-bit shit can get the job done, but there's no richness, depth, complexity, or wonder. And sure, you could live in a world where 8-bit noise is the only form of entertainment, but once you know the LSO exists you find this dystopian vision appalling.
Eight years after starting my running career, seven years after becoming addicted, trail running blew me away. I mean, I’d always enjoyed getting off the pavement onto dirt roads, but I never imagined running completely on paths, in forests, above waterfalls, across creeks, over rocks, under logs, around -- well, let’s be honest, around other runners. Yeah, I’d raced before, but this wasn’t just something I enjoyed, it was something I was damn good at!
To recap, I enjoyed the experience.
It was at this race that I met Jenna and Lawren, who would become my guides on this journey, my own Ziggy and Al for this quantum leap in running. But most of my leaps ended with me at home, and there was no waiting room or anything creepy like that. And I was the only one who really knew my overarching plan, unlike Dr. Sam Beckett, who didn’t have a clue what his plan was, because he just carelessly stepped into that Quantum Leap Accelerator to prove it would work. And Lawren didn't break down for the first part of every episode, and Jenna couldn't show me laser beams where I had to make that magic pool shot. So it kind of wasn’t like Ziggy and Al at all. But that was still a fun show when I was a kid (though it might be less so if I re-watched it) (and I can) (but I won't because what if it sucks?) (how not to destroy a good childhood memory: don't dredge up its details).
It was Jenna who hooked me into the local running community. I spent several days meeting up with her at events, then going for runs of various lengths. I never counted these as my runs unless they happened on weekends, which she often used to catch up on her goal of running the entire Finger Lakes Trail system.
Upstate New York is a curious creature. The residents are almost all conservative if they live outside the collegiate enclaves. Near academic centers, though, the pendulum swings far in the opposite direction. The brand of liberalism is rampant environmentalist, while the brand of conservatism glorifies the unmarred beauty of the state’s land -- and personal property.
As a result, a trail system over 550 miles long was established that wound its way through forests, into valleys and up hills, over pastures, and straight across marshlands. The trail system serves as an anchor for multiple spur trails and systems, and it gives race coordinators an ideal access point for trail races.
I had never seen that extent of continuous trails outside a national park. The FLT’s closest approach was just south of town, and I ran with Jenna along stretches from Watkins Glen to east of Ithaca. She had this crazy idea that she could run the entire trail system while she lived in the area, and I was more than happy to help. It eventually became a playground for me: I would ride to the trailhead and put in 8-10 miles at once, sometimes going long just because I lost track of time.
I don’t know if Jenna ever achieved her goal on the FLT. Unfortunately, she was killed in a car accident several years after leaving Ithaca. But shortly after I met her, she became irreplaceable as a running companion and trail guide.
Lawren, meanwhile, emailed or called in the middle of the day to ask if I wanted to run. His pace was generally slower than my normal pace, so the runs were a relaxing way to spend an hour or two before lunch. We explored the campus trails, which included “The Bouncy Bridge”, the golf course, the equestrian center, and some far-afield stretches that wound along uneven terrain next to one of the rivers. We also made our way south and ran to the reservoir, or ran along the Rec Way, or ran through the cemetery and down to the lake.
My memory now simmers with trail excursions during that time, but most of them are snippets. Crossing the bouncy bridge after a heavy rain. Stumbling down the steep creek trail, then pulling off our shoes for a creek crossing. Collecting an errant golf ball hundreds of yards downslope of the course -- clearly someone with a wicked slice. Running along the railroad ties south and west of town. Clambering up the steep hill next to Buttermilk Falls State Park. Running through spider webs high above the valley in Watkins Glen. Emerging from the forest up-range of a guy doing bow-and-arrow target practice for upcoming deer season. Locking eyes with a hunter dressing a deer just off-trail at Connecticut Hill.
We might pass through some of those on the way to the end of this story, or they may just be wisps of memory that live on only in that brief paragraph, echoes of dark matter that live in the shadows but ultimately govern most of our lives.
For now, though, let’s just move along from this whole Tortoise and Hare thing. I did awesome.
Next up: Triathleticization
Mash out. Spin on.
I’ve heard it said that grad school is an excuse to continue the undergraduate experience without the inexperience of youth. It really can be! At least, it has been for at least one person, whose name shall remain unspoken.
I quickly settled into a grad school routine, taking a few classes my first semester and spending time boning up on the material I’d need for my thesis. You know, that thing I would eventually write, 4 or 6 or 8 years down the line. (I did eventually write it. It was 8 years.)
I got up every morning to run the chosen route, a relatively flat course. Then I rode my bike to campus, up the steep 600-foot incline, hammering up the slope with blatant disregard for my ultimate sweatiness. My officemates, I’m sure, loved me. Hell, they could probably smell me on my way up.
As any good grad student does, I took breaks during the day. Long breaks. Early breaks. Breaks for coffee and lunch and coffee and snack and dinner and coffee and snack and alcohol. Breaks during my breaks to get alcohol during snack or dinner.
Yes, I spent a good amount of time on and around campus, typically putting in 6-12 hours a day on thesis and school work and another 6-10 variously taking breaks. I sought out and found the local cycling club and attended their annual meeting the first spring I was around. I took photos and gained darkroom access. I slipped away to sit under the local waterfall, which turned out to be a former Superfund site that still had some pretty high lead content in the rocks.
Eventually, I also found that running before class wasn’t always possible, so I explored campus. Cornell offers a network of trails through a variety of terrains, but because I was going by what was then available on maps, those early days were filled with roads; off-road excursions were rare except for the few hundred yards I put in around the golf course downtown on my standard run.
There’s a whole stable of races offered in the Ithaca area, though, and with my experience at Gustavus, I was eager to see how I stacked up against “real” competition. This, I thought, was some pretty big stuff: a large student body, a pretty sizable city, and a reputation for being a hippy-athletic town made it seem like these races would have competitive top ends.
I showed up to the Tortoise & Hare in June 2002, my first non-collegiate race ever. I’ll go back and find that result in a second, but keep you in suspense with a digression. Suspend yourself!
That January, I briefly met up with a young woman whom I found quite attractive. She ran each morning, so I joined her one day for a 6-mile trip. That was, obviously, longer than my usual run, but I was fine with extending my range a bit if it meant getting to know her better, as they say.
She mentioned that she planned on running a marathon later that summer. A marathon sounds interesting, I said to myself. With all my newfound free time, I was sure to be able to train for one -- or at least I could convince myself that was an acceptable use of my grad school days.
But I also loved biking, so a marathon sounded a bit low-key. I would need something even more spectacular and unique. Triathlons! Yes, triathlons! At the time, they weren't a huge deal, but they could be found here and there.
It was around mid-February, and I made a plan: pick a target race, train for it, and do the race. The target was the Half Ironman Canada triathlon in Montreal, held at the end of August. That gave me 6 months to train.
Since the internet was relatively young at that point, it was possible to get some pretty good information on training programs from people who weren’t protective of their content. I patched together a schedule that had me ramping from my current 4-mile run and 15-mile max bike ride to something significantly longer. This was also before triathlons became regular events, things done by bored dentists (gotta flog that stereotype!) and thrown together using a YMCA pool, an ill-used suburban walking path, and an out-and-back course that explore a dozen cul-de-sacs of doom. It was, in fact, different and relatively rare at the time -- just like trail running, which hadn’t yet come into its own as a sport.
It was clear that I would need an appropriate bike for the task as well. And I would have to take on some swimming to see what it was like spending 40 minutes in the water. (It turned out I needed to find out what it was like spending more than 50 minutes in the water. But we’re already in a past-within-a-past paragraph here, which puts us only just a little too close to Daleks and Cybermen for temporal confusion.)
Because I also had some time to surf the web, my new training plan emerged like a shiny green tomato from its parent flower. I envisioned a build-up that would rival the anticipation of the long ride to Minneapolis the year before.
The (Half) Ironman Training Plan
0. Start in shape enough to run at least 3-4 miles and bike 15-20 miles.
1. Target a race that’s at least 3 months away; I might even put the cap at 4 months out. You’re building here.
2. Pick a “day off”. I chose Tuesday, then never took a day off because I was 22. At 32, it would have been a different story.
3. Find a decently flat 3 or 4 mile run to use as the baseline. This should be something you can go back to repeatedly to do cool-down runs, high-intensity runs, and general assessment runs.
4. Set up your training plan so you do a minimum of the following:
5. Write the plan down, using the following guidelines:
6. Find some races to fill in various weekends. These races will replace long days but shouldn’t even come close to your “long” distance. My guideline was that they should be no more than 60% and closer to 40-50% of the distance I was comfortable doing on the distance day. If I could push out a 15-mile run on the weekend, I was good for a 10k race, maybe a 15k race if that’s all I could find. Races should be relatively evenly spaced and should include any events you plan to race in (I did runs and triathlons that year, runs and triathlons and bike races the following summer).
7. Find some local groups to latch onto and see if you can work one or two social workouts into the mix. These will break up the monotony. And there will be monotony.
I’ve put my first training plan in the Appendix. Oh wait, I don’t seem to have that because 2002 Me didn’t think to save it and send it on. Oh well. You’ll just have to trust that it was a thing of beauty and hung above my computer for the whole summer. I'll put a representative version in the actual book.
For the first time in my life, I typed up my training plan.
I taped it to my bookshelf, right above my computer. Every day I would tick off events completed, but I would never time anything. Workouts were based on “feeling”, so if I felt slow for a sprint workout, I would simply do my best to keep to the plan and let the chips fall into my gut afterwards. See what I did there, turning that expression into the implication of a post-run meal? Clever, no?
After four weeks, I was up to some pretty significant workout mileage. After another four weeks, I was in great shape and ready for my first test: The Tortoise and Hare.
(Now suspend in suspense, having arrived at the first present of the past-within-the-past -- that is, the boringly simple past.)
Next up: Tortoises, Hares, Runs, and Finger Lakes Trails!
Mash out. Spin on.
I stared out the skylight that served as my window in the attic of the apartment of a friend of a friend of a friend.
I had bummed a place to live for the summer just north of Gasworks Park and about 3 miles from the University of Washington, where my path to grad school began. A long, winding, gravel-covered path beset with weeds and dead animals and ticks and mosquitoes and a few dozen creek crossings, but a path nonetheless. I wasn’t going to school at UW, just spending the summer working for my advisor, who was soon to move out to Cornell University.
For three months, though, Seattle -- that fabled and only barely accessible city when I was growing up -- would be my home.
The sun was blazing over Lake Washington, and I couldn’t have been happier. Perfect weather, perfect circumstances, perfect joy.
That summer, I picked up where I’d left off at the tail end of my senior year, now running daily along the Burke-Gilman Trail, looping through Gasworks, exploring the area on foot 4 or 5 or 8 miles at a time. And in between, I explored on two wheels, riding to my office, spending 4 or 5 or 8 hours learning new material, then taking to the streets and trails to find available breweries, bike shops, and destinations.
I built my first bike wheel -- a wheel that never came apart, thank you very much, and now resides at the bottom of a lake (may its perfect form rest in peace) -- and took up lacrosse again. It turned out I was a pretty good goalie, able to hold my own against all manner of former players.
Games were in Redmond, on the other side of the lake, and I took a series of trails either north around the top end of the lake or south across the I-90 bridge. Across the bridge was a mysterious tangle of woods with several paved and dirt paths that seemed as improbable as they were brilliant. The woods occupied a space below the road grade that would be otherwise unusable, which made them the perfect site for bashing around on a bike.
It took me a couple games to figure out the possible ways to the field, and I never did decide on a preferred route. I would load my lacrosse equipment -- including the head of my stick -- into my backpack (the same old backpack I used for my flying material). The shaft stayed on my handlebars, and I used it as protection against vehicles: when I wanted to turn, the shaft came out, and that 4 feet of titanium made any aggressive driver think twice about whether their car was going to be dented on the way by.
All-in-all, the rides were safe, with a few hairy situations when I got lost close to gametime and had to resort to major roads. Nothing like a little cruise on a major highway to warm you up for facing the prospect of balls to, as previously noted, the legs.
And I frequently begged a ride home, because what crazy player wants his goalie killed riding back in the dark? Plus we stopped for beers after these games, often at not-vegetarian-friendly joints, and by then I’d learned an important equation:
Hard ride + Lacrosse + Beer = Immediate insobriety
The days went by quickly, and before I knew it, the owners of my borrowed digs above Gasworks had moved to California, leaving me the sole proprietor of the house of a friend of a friend of a friend. It seems strange that anyone would trust a person that far, but since I paid for my room and had been generally pretty easygoing, I guess they figured it was ok. I was even taking care of their cat, who most assuredly thought she was a dog: you could leash her safely and she played fetch. I don’t remember her name, just her canine manner.
I went back to Port Angeles for a few days near the end of the summer, then returned to Seattle just long enough to pack my things for the trip east. My officemate had a car, and since he was going East with my advisor, he would need someone to help him get him and his stuff and his car to upstate New York.
I had done most of that distance before, so I volunteered. It was sort of like thumbing a ride, without the thumbs. (But I still had my thumbs. They’re in use right now. Watch them type spaces! )
Regardless of my digital situation, every once in a great while you come across a situation you’ve encountered before and the outcome is vastly different. This was one of those times.
Growing up, my family had frequently driven across the country to visit my relatives. The trip was always long and slow, taking anywhere from 4 to 6 days to go 2,500 miles. I’d never thought about the numbers, but that’s a paltry 500 miles per day for 5 days, or about 10 hours of driving a day.
The rest of the time my parents filled with stops, detours to parks and museums and wacky sights, and detours down roads that were off even the unbeaten path, through towns that time had forgotten and across boulevards that very well may not have known what time was.
On the trip to Cornell, my officemate and I were in Minneapolis 26 hours after leaving Seattle, and we were cruising into New York (State, not City -- otherwise it would have meant a severe wrong turn) after just 2 full days. We burned through those miles like they were steeped in kerosene, rolled into town like we owned the place, and moved into our respective abodes 3 days after departing UW.
I took my first run as an Ithaca resident that day. I had bought a local map (which stayed with me throughout my tenure at Cornell) and traced out an appropriate route beforehand: 3.5 miles on relatively flat terrain that included a trip around a park, across a quaint bridge, down a dirt road, and back into the neighborhood. To my great surprise, it stood the test of time, and I still ran it in my last days in Ithaca.
But my years in upstate New York were just beginning, and that place would change everything about running life.
Next up: Talk dirty.
Mash out. Spin on.
Senior year in undergrad is an interesting time if you play it right. Having secured all the necessary credits to graduate except a PE class and a couple courses to finish out my major, I was free to choose what, if anything, I wanted to study. I kept the load light to maximize my time doing my own thing.
I would take my run relatively late in the morning, sometimes after my 9 a.m. class (a major requirement course). Since it was followed by a 35-minute break, that meant I would often show up to my 10:30 sweaty. Which didn’t bother me, obviously. I showed up late sometimes, which also didn’t bother me. I also slept frequently in that class -- as evidenced by the trail-off pen lines that marred the course notes. (Apparently whatever happened in that class didn’t bother me either, though I remember quite a bit from it.)
Hungry at 11:30, I would head to the cafeteria and slam through 2 or 3 meals worth of food, then go to volleyball practice. The lacrosse team fizzled in autumn 2000 as the players who had sustained it -- a bunch of friends in a frat -- had almost all graduated together the spring before; an in-shape goalie who loved the sport but hadn’t cultivated young talent never had a chance of keeping the team going.
My friends and I played volleyball through the winter, and I started running more evenings. I also started drinking beer more consistently but in less volume in an outing. We had a favorite local brewery whose product was always on-hand (Schell’s), and sometimes the town’s liquor store would have a special that gave us a quality boost. On one occasion, they advertised British cans of all stripes at $2 each; when the clerk rang them up, it turned out they had the 4-packs set at that price, so several friends took turns clearing out their stock. Our refrigerator quickly became overstocked, and tall cans were dumped unceremoniously into a heap next to the kitchen counters. We finally decided the only good storage place for this much British beer was the oven.
I did the 5k again, this time beating several cross country runners. Again, the coach tried to recruit me, but he knew it was pointless. I think he finally realized that I really did run with that stick all the time. That would be hard to beat out of me even if I signed up for cross country.
I had dropped to 155 lbs, extremely lean -- possibly even skeletal -- by my standards. At one point the previous spring I had weighed in at 145, but the summer workouts had apparently upped my muscle mass. I felt good but probably looked a little odd because my frame supports about 160 as a “natural” minimum weight.
My haircut had also bottomed out. In high school, I generally refused to pay for haircuts, having once dropped $10 to get about the same quality trim as what my mother provided. Just before school, I had my mother cut my hair to an inch, which was as far as she was willing to go. But once on my own, I purchased clippers, which I used to buzz the 'do to ¾”. By senior year, it was ⅜”, the shortest I was comfortable with given my slightly sticky-outy ears.
I was employing military tactics to my hair even though I’m about the antithesis of a military recruit. I don’t take orders well, question everything and everybody, and don’t appreciate the air of authority that others put on unless they can establish the air is earned. I had and have always had leg strength to spare, but it’s likely that any substantial firearm would take only a few seconds to overwhelm my feeble arms.
And yet I worked out like I was ex-military and cut my hair like it too. Many people who didn't know me assumed I was ROTC, but that notion would be quickly dispelled by a conversation -- or by looking at my hippie sandals, lack of proper dress, and scrawny arms. To this day, I cut my hair short and maintain an awesome physical presence; people sometimes still think I’m ex-military, which gives me a good chuckle.
Regardless, winter passed quickly and uneventfully. Like the first stanza of the middle chapter of a true Norse saga, spring athletics of 2001 would be both a summary of all that came before and a brilliant cast of light along a new path.
To start, a roommate and I hatched a plan to ride to Minneapolis, some 55 miles away by highway or 70 miles away by otherway. We picked a weekend and used the Tiger mapping service (2001...the days before Google maps!) to get precise USGS maps of a route that would be relatively direct and keep us off the major roads. That routing project was several weeks of back-and-forth planning that would make getting lost pretty much guaranteed.
Having planned the trip, we felt bound to execute, so we started telling people we knew that it was happening. There is a strange psychology to the personal plan that doesn't motivate nearly as well as the public plan. Once the ride to Minneapolis was "out", it was more certainty than possibility.
I ran. I biked. I ran so much I didn't feel I could run anymore. Then I ran more, and harder, and with more joy and elation than the last three years.
Over one of our long weekends that spring, a friend took me in at his Minneapolis home. He was training for Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, and that weekend was slated to include a 15-mile training run. Of course I joined him, because why wouldn't I?
Around Mile 12, I was so beaten up that I wanted to quit, but I kept with him, finishing out the last 3 and limping around on sore and tired legs for a couple days. I still tried to run the next day. My god was I stupid then -- that wasn’t training, it was insanity! That would be like me up and deciding to run a marathon tomorrow. Well, OK, technically it would be more like me up and deciding to run a 50-miler tomorrow, given the sterling shape I'm permanently in these days.
Meanwhile, citizens of our school and St. Olaf College were organizing a simultaneous bike ride between our campuses. Students from there took a van to our campus and rode home, while students from our school rode over and vanned back. I felt obligated to do the ride, what with my prior athletic pursuits, but it was a week before our scheduled trek to larger burgs. This would be my first experience of the long workout before the main event.
When the appointed weekend arrived, we gathered at the starting line, the main pedestrian area on my campus. An acquaintance drove up with his race roadie strapped to the top of his car.
I had known he was involved with bike racing, but I didn’t know what that meant. Turns out it meant that he would ride off on his own for 54 miles over maybe 3 hours while the rest of us toiled along at 12-14 mph. One day I would reach his sorts of speeds, but not this time.
My roomie and I largely rode together. We stopped for PB&J at a couple food stations and pacelined the windier bits to save a little energy. Ultimately, we took about 5 hours to finish the ride and had a great time doing it.
We had done our warmup ride, and now it was time for the main event. When the appointed Friday finally came for The Big Ride to The Big City, we climbed on our bikes and headed out. It happened to be the weekend of a friend’s wedding shower, so we had a way to get home when the ride was done. Good thing, too, because we figured we’d be satisfactorily wiped out.
We were up early and cruised back roads, taking stock of the strange “towns” that showed up on signs atop hills where only a few scattered farmhouses were visible for miles around. It was a beautiful riding day, if a little hot, and we had provisioned ourselves well. Our maps were decent, but their use of road numbers rather than names sometimes made it difficult to decide whether to take certain back-country roads or not. We were lost a few times but quickly regained our bearings without incident.
We rode until about 3 p.m., when the maps ran us into a nearly terminal inaccuracy: they showed bridges where none exist. The road we were on reached a T with an industrial access road at the shores of a river on the outskirts of the Twin Cities. The only way over seemed to be the freeway -- a freeway so devoid of cycling draw that we had been trying to avoid even its younger brethren.
We rode along the river on a frontage road for about a mile until we came to the freeway entrance, where we dismounted, discussed, and finally stuck out our thumbs, expecting a long wait. In minutes, a pickup rolled by, stopped, waited for us to catch up.
“Where you boys headed?” the driver asked.
“We just need to get over the bridge,” Tyson told him. “The next bridge is 5 miles away, and that’s an hour total detour.”
He laughed. “Throw them in the back, I’ll drop you on the other side if you want. Or I can take you where you’re going.”
My roommate and I smiled. “That’s alright,” I said. “We’re almost there.”
We crossed the river in the auto, hopped out, and rode another 5 miles to our destination. Glen, our contact, wasn’t home, so we hit up the grocery store and bought beer and ice cream. Still dressed for the ride and smelling like we’d crawled out of a sewer, we sat on Glen’s lawn and feasted.
The next day, we hit the roads to find our friend’s party, which turned out to be about 20 miles away on city streets and highways. It was an ugly ride punctuated by a meandering trip into a cul-de-sac-filled subdivision in a Minneapolis suburb: a lasting memory of the joylessness of suburban expansion. Needless to say, we were frequently confused and lost, and when we finally arrived, both of us were the kind of tired that makes you pass out in the most uncomfortable places. The event was, in this case, both a shower and the source of a shower, then some sort of flophouse for self-abusing cyclists.
I slept all the way back to school and most of the next day, getting up only to -- wait for it! -- run. My usual route, probably pretty slowly.
Graduation came, and during that week I found myself running longer distances just to pass the time. I was going to graduate school and had a pre-grad gig set up in Seattle for the summer, after which I would move to Ithaca, New York, and start my real educational career. At least, in May 2001 that was my plan; by May 2002 that also included a real racing career. And yet those days were still to come.
On graduation day my parents were in town. That morning, I got up early, tucked my hands into my gloves, took my stick, and ran 4 miles, around the same loop I’d run a thousand times before.
I didn’t think anything of it, but it was the last time I would ever do that loop. I might have been a little wistful if I’d thought about it; instead, I was just a runner, mindin’ my own business.
With a lacrosse stick.
Next up: West To Go East
Mash Out. Spin On.
While I may have reached the end off winter 1999-2000 already, let's take a moment to backtrack before continuing on our way.
In the fall of my junior year, my aging bike became what we affectionately called The Village Bicycle. I now had three roommates and couldn’t store it in my dorm room, so I locked it up outside. Then my roomies wanted to borrow it, so I stopped bothering with the lock. It had a brief but healthy life in the courtyard, its condition slowly worsening as weather and rider abuse took their tolls.
Worse, though, was that it would occasionally go missing -- taken by some stray traveler looking for a quick way home. I would find it mysteriously parked elsewhere, like in front of a building across campus, then find it even more mysteriously perched somewhere else, like atop a hedge.
This was not the nadir of my transportational life. Having made several friends while at school, I was now able to borrow the cars of a few of them. My bike was in bad condition and only getting worse: I hadn't brought it to a bike shop and didn't know how to properly maintain its moving parts. It was, day by day, week by week, month by month, grinding to a dirt-crusting-grease-borne halt. I would not mourn its passing, though, as it was old enough to seem more like a bone-weary geriatric than a youth struck down in its prime.
There was nothing left that the bike needed to give me, so I didn’t demand much of it.
To be clear, that doesn’t mean I didn’t try riding it. I would still sometimes hop on for the adventure to the airport. Trip times stayed pretty consistent because even though I was stronger than I had been two years earlier, the massive and daily-increasing drag on every bike component made up for those gains. This Mercurial resonance between companions carried me through the start of junior year until winter shrouded us once again.
To be young again and be able to tolerate such poor equipment! I have since tasted the sweet scent of a high-end bike’s elegant touch, savored her silent beauty, and I don’t think I could handle the rusty corpse of the Village Bicycle anymore. I mean, unless really pressed, in which case I’d spend the $200 it would take to just fix the damn thing. (But hey, that was 2 hours of instructed flight!)
In January, I went to Japan for a class. Or whatever J-Term is for.
Every day, I explored a novel neighborhood, taking new turns and getting thoroughly lost. In Tokyo, it would occasionally rain, and I would delight in the feeling like being at home. When we went to Kyoto, I ran through slush, my shoes thoroughly soaked by a trek up to one of the temples and across the old Edo palace. In Karuizawa, I nearly lost my toes after taking a wrong turn and spending an hour in 25-degree conditions wearing wet cotton socks; I stopped and spent a few thousand yen on some warm socks that I have to this day.
Japan was lovely, from bustling throngs of people clinging to a very personal half square meter of sidewalk to dark alleys where the middle class stumbled from geisha houses to intensely kind and giving families who lived like early-20th century city dwellers but used the most modern conveniences possible outside the home. It was a shocking revelation to my 20-year old character, thrust into an intense immersion among people whose culture was so foreign but whose generosity so upper-Midwest familiar.
As the trip would down, I was running longer distances by virtue of having forgotten about the time: in Tokyo, our group hardly measured time before 9:30 a.m. -- except the day we went to the Tskuji fish market. And by 9:30 I would have been up for several hours, usually splitting those between pounding pavement and stuffing myself with a wholesome breakfast.
The brutal winds of Minnesota brought me back to reality, but I took more late-night runs and enjoyed the eerie calm of Tuesdays at 1 a.m. An hour running no longer seemed particularly difficult (as long as I was appropriately dressed), and I was readily lost in thought after 20 minutes to the extent that 20 more minutes would simply disappear.
My relationship with the Village Bicycle was also not to last into the spring. Before winter was over, that once-blazing saddle had been outright thieved. I’m not sure who would steal such a lowly machine, nor sure why someone would bother: the outdated, rusty components couldn’t have brought more than a few bucks on the secondary market, and eBay was in its infancy. (I’m proud to be such an early user of that service that I possess a 4-letter name; I joined Twitter so late that I had to settle for 5 letters, none of which is a vowel except in Welsh.) Nevertheless, one day the bicycle I had bought those many years before disappeared into the Minnesota mists, and not even a search of the local shrubbery revealed its whereabouts.
The quest for a new steed took very little time as one of my roommates, who hadn’t ridden in years, offered his 4-year old, exceedingly light mountain bike with clipless pedals. I had never and have never been a particularly strong mountain rider, more of a casual trail rider who had some positive and negative experiences trying to go fast down hills. But that bike changed my riding habits, and it lasted another 6 years. (Flash forward those 6 years: I thoroughly destroyed the bottom bracket, derailleur, and front chainring one riding season, kept it as a single speed for a couple seasons, and on my way out of town gave all the pieces to a friend; that friend stayed one more year, but he abandoned the bike in storage in Ithaca, only to return 8 years later to find it still locked in the basement. He decided to give it a proper burial, cutting the lock, bringing it to a lake near Boston, and giving it a final ride before pushing it in.)
Whatever its ultimate fate would be, I suddenly had a bike worth using for fun. When another roommate, Tyson, brought back his two-wheeler from home, we decided to ride around the area and explore, something I hadn’t really done. To that point, I had only ever run about 8 miles at a time, and my rides were almost exclusively utilitarian. Sure, I’d done loops on my own a couple times, but typically these were short, like an hour or less, and focused on the town. I didn’t stress myself on them because I wasn’t working out so much as getting out.
With a riding buddy and an improved vehicle, I had reason to strap on my old film camera, and we’d ride out of town or to abandoned lots. We rode through the floods that spring, where I got a beautiful photo of a horse standing forlornly outside its barn, an island spared by the rising waters. I took pictures of Tyson riding and crashing, images of the bike parts in various settings, and stills of flat farmlands as far as the eye could see. It was all quite satisfying.
But it wasn’t satisfying for the rides -- those were tangential to the experience. I was satisfied by the exit, the feeling of going somewhere and doing something, the idea that I was embracing freedom. Riding was a means to that freedom, but it didn’t represent freedom by any stretch of the imagination. For the most part, I was growing up and making my own decisions; riding and running were expressions of the firm positive slope of the advancing age of a 20-something.
Spring burst from the trees and fields around me, and I became more obsessed with running and biking and volleyball. If the sun was out, I tried to be as well. I was vernal.
Alas, such days came and went quickly, the brilliant sunshine and upper-70s supplanted by hotter times, rolling thunderstorms, then exams and graduation. I could feel my time at school winnowing, a watch unwound deforming all sense of time.
When I went back to Port Angeles, I doubt I registered the finality of that move. It did not occur to me then but in retrospect bears a hint of melancholy that this would be my last time spending a summer there. Done now with cooking, I worked on one of the ferries across the Strait of Juan de Fuca, riding downtown to the docks about 3 blocks from the old newspaper office and the restaurant. The hours passed like hiccups: bursts of activity connected by anticipation.
Our job was simple. In the morning, one of us would go to the grocery story to get lunch while the others scrubbed the saltwater from the vessel's hull and windows. We would load carts of luggage, take on passengers, then push away from the docks. For an hour, the deep blue waters of the Pacific Northwest surrounded us. We would slide peacefully into Victoria's harbor, swiftly tie off, send the passengers on their way, and take on the return voyagers. Back and forth, three times a day, the only real gap near noon when we cooked lunch in the galley and made up for missing maintenance time.
Each day, 12 hours end-to-end, I became more accustomed to this transitional water-and-land post. And each evening when I finished the ride back up, my legs were worn out from all-day use, but I would will myself to run a 4-mile loop that combined my two old loops and added a half mile or so. I always ran with my stick, and the locals all recognized me.
I did that the three or four days a week I was working, taking the other days to run slightly longer distances and play lacrosse with whoever happened to be around. I turned 21, celebrated with a single beer at a local bar (Full Sail IPA, for the curious) with a coworker, and kept up the wholly unregimented but active lifestyle I had established.
I met the owner of the Victoria Shamrocks and flew up to watch a game. That test of my instrument rating was both frightening and exhilarating (at least for me -- my passengers might just go with frightening). After an uneventful flight over and an exciting game featuring both Gait brothers, we made our way back to the airport north of town and took off into the night. I flew high above the Strait, worried at an engine failure, and saw the bank of clouds that moved in from the coast to obscure Port Angeles.
We joined the approach path normally and descended, but my palms were sweaty; this was my first real approach with an indefinite cloud height. The backup plan would be to fly one or two towns over and wait, probably until morning, though I didn't know how that might play out.
Pillowy whiteness became a hard steely gray of impending rain as we pressed onward and downward. At 200 feet, I caught only the runway lights making a faint “U” at the edge of my vision; 30 feet lower, the apparition of “08” was floating through the fog. We touched down without a problem, and, adrenaline-soaked, I initially forgot to taxi over to the customs office. The guy we were slated to meet was surprisingly fine with this little oversight.
All-in-all, it was a great summer, even more because I would never again be a local. A native perhaps, but this was the last time I would live or be employed in the town where I grew up. (At least, up to now. I mean, really, what can any of us say about the future? And have you seen Back to the Future II? There might be dozens of futures where I live in PA. Scary.)
But it too would come to an end. I went back to college one last time.
Next up: Graduation!
Mash out. Spin on.
The frigid days of Minnesota winter sparkled at first, then turned to bitter, wind-blasted domes of difficult chill. I once again found myself carrying a stick cloaked in a scarf, tucking my chin into a red neck warmer, an ear-warming headband covered by a bright blue hat as I battled the elements each day. For a week at a time, we would suffer through this hockey-ready prairie, then celebrate a reprieve of a day or two within an icy spitball of liquid water.
And every one of these, I ran, 4 miles at a time, sometimes doubled up on those evening when the homework was done early or I couldn't sit another moment watching friends play computer games.
That year, 1999, when spring finally broke and the birds returned, I once again upped my game. Each day, a few more steps: I lengthened my daily routine until it was a little shy of 5 miles and included a hefty dose of post-run gym time. And I also delighted in sports -- volleyball, lacrosse, soccer -- and generally "got better", earning the speed and endurance that carried me like spores on the wind.
Graduation week that year found me on my longest run ever, an 8-mile loop. By today's standards (I mean, literally, today's), that's not a particularly long run, but at the time it felt like forever. I remember the sensation of tingling pain at the effort, and it seems likely about $20 worth of food went into my gullet after the fact. But graduation came, went, and disappeared from memory, and I returned to Port Angeles to bask in the Northwestern cloudshine.
Summer passed the same way it had the previous year: working at the restaurant, running after work, riding in between. I don’t remember anything else, so I can unconfidently -- and with no evidence to the contrary -- say nothing else happened.
That autumn marked the start of my third year of undergrad. I had already developed what would be considered a “base” in that I could run pretty hard for 30 minutes without a second thought (with a lacrosse stick), and I could put in an hour as needed. I had also been relatively injury-free since the ball-to-the-eye incident.
When the school held a race that autumn, I signed up because it seemed like some sort of entertainment. The course wound through town and back up to campus, taking us through parts of town that I knew only barely. It was probably a 5k, or at least listed as a 5k, and I took that shortness as permission to go for a run that morning and take on the course in the afternoon.
This was my first ever race.
I had no idea how I would fare in a competitive forum. I knew I was fast -- because, let’s face it, I’m just damn good at pretty much everything -- but I had never “trained” like the cross country team did. And surely there would be others there who were playing other sports who would be able to beat me.
That having been said, I heard murmurs of projected times and was pretty sure I was going to beat almost everyone. Bolstering this, having played intramural soccer the previous year (and as was my experience with soccer players in high school -- several of whom ended up on the lacrosse team), even the people who should have been my primary competition at that distance were no match for my endurance. Sure, they could outrun me on single downfield sprints in the first half of a game, but I could do back-to-back runs that they wouldn’t hope to manage, and by the end of a match I was running all over them, wearing them down even more. (I would later take advantage of this during indoor soccer to the same effect. I would later later tear my ACL attempting to take advantage of this during indoor soccer, which we shall surely get to.)
What was that a digression from? Oh yes. The morning of the race, I went for a run. That afternoon, I lined up with about 40 other people, and, carrying my stick as always just because I couldn’t think of running without it, started my first official 5k-ish. But that distance isn't important right now.
What is important is that the run went off. In front were eight or so members of the cross country team. And then me. The whole race, that’s how it went: always just behind the lead group, I worked my way around the course, finishing 9th and well ahead of 10th. At least that’s how I remember it. And the beauty of writing about events that happened 15 years ago that happened in middle-of-nowhere Minnesota is that records are limited, so this is now The Definitive Source of that information. It’s a fact!
It was my worst race result until after knee surgery.
But it was still top 25%. And more importantly, I knew I was good.
After the race, the cross country coach attempted his second recruitment pitch. Unfortunately, cross country season overlaps with the initial lacrosse practice season. I had to refuse, but I was now flattered with the attention.
It’s hard to say what that crazy event did to me. But it’s easy to say what it didn’t do to me: it didn’t turn me into a runner. I was either already that, or far from that. I’m still having trouble deciding which. But, even more than is the case with facts, the beauty of looking back on feelings with a 15-year buffer is that I have the opportunity to consider the question.
I went through winter the way I usually do, this time doing more midnight runs. I was now a pretty typical college drinker -- occasional bingeing, frequent casual use -- but I wasn’t 21 yet, so going to the bar was right out. It wasn’t exactly a training plan, though: once a month or so, I went for a longer run late at night when nobody was paying attention.
The year's end was swiftly approaching, perhaps as swift as my pace.
I’d like to take a moment to back this whole discussion up. Pretty much every runner training manual will tell you that you need to do “core work” to keep in shape properly.
Since I’m not one to go against convention, please accept this advice if you want to start running: work on your core strength. Having dispensed such oregano wisdom, I may now take up personal training.
Here are some workouts you might do, noting of course that I am not a doctor, nor am I yet a personal trainer:
0. Sit-ups. These actually don’t do much, but they’re better than nothing. And they give you muscle definition that makes you feel pretty much like an Odinic reincarnation. What I like is that they’re easy to start and easy to increase to a plateau. What sucks is how destructive they get above that plateau. And how much they can screw up your back. And that's why these get the number "0".
1. Planks. Having destroyed your back with sit-ups, now try planks! They appropriately strengthen your back and abs. And we all know that some people can plank for quite a while, which is pretty cool. If you aren’t trained for them, it’s easy to think you can too; believe me, you can’t -- it takes months upon months of regular planking to do this safely, because there are so many stabilizing muscles involved. Of course, unlike sit-ups, you kind of look like an ass while doing planks, so use them wisely (and probably privately).
2. Lunges. Most people think of these as a leg workout, but they’re amazing for strengthening your central axis. Unless you fall over, in which case they’re a compression test on half your body. Side note: if you mix lunges and running, you’re exposed to the threat of pure quad pain. Just, you know, so you're aware.
3. Leg-ups. Dangle from a bar and do leg lifts, either by moving your whole legs from vertical to horizontal, or by lifting your knees. You can do the knee lifts straight ahead or to the sides, as desired. This is often done by dangling from an apparatus that has arm cradles, so it’s more of a gym kind of thing. Or a big house kind of thing. If you’re just starting out, a gym membership is a pretty expensive investment, and a big house is (in most places) even more costly, so perhaps invest in bank robbery kit beforehand. (Bonus: If you're caught, you probably will get to the gym elsewhere, but in a more, um, structured environment.)
Next up: The Village Bicycle!
Mash out. Spin on.
I hadn’t fancied myself a distance runner, but in the shape I was in, there was no reason not to try.
Let's get some terminology out of the way first, though. In the late-90s, "long-distance running" referred to things longer than 5k. A cross country runner was effectively at the lower end of this scale, while marathoners were considered -- by about 99.99% of the population -- the top end. The ultramarathon was essentially unknown, outside of a few highly isolated enclaves of running nuts. (I notice that the word "ultramarthon" is still underlined here, indicating that while it exists as a phenomenon that can be discussed, it has not transcended into common culture yet; give it a couple years.)
Of course, the classic definitions of runners have always been tiered, essentially based on what kind of work the runner is doing during the event. The one-lap runs are considered "short"; these runs require that you stay in your lane on the track, and they're usually done at or near anaerobic capacity. The 400m is a particularly difficult distance, since it sits between the slightly sub-anaerobic 200m and the clearly aerobic 800m. The low-length multi-lap events -- 800m, 1-mile/1500m/1600m (depends on the competition context), and 2-mile/3000m -- are the so-called "middle" distances, distances that can be hammered out by the best runners in 10 minutes or less and only begin to involve strategies against other runners. Click up a number of laps to the 5000m and 10000m, and we arrive at the traditional "long" distances, endurance distances, persistence distances, distances that require planning and pacing and aerobic capacity, distances where mental focus and emotional state can become impediments to success.
And hanging like a golden unicorn far beyond all these is the marathon, that invented 26.2-mile race whose true origins have been multiply documented but are still bathed in appeals to ancient glory, a mythology which seems unlikely to die.
But advancing like the volume of ink spilled over the technological glory of running footwear, these distances are becoming more prolific, a sea of descriptors that are hard to discuss without a well-established background. I have my own descriptors (listed below), but I'll try to contextualize any words I use so the writing here is more clear. Hopefully you'll figure it out pretty quickly.
The color codings indicate sprints (red), power run (yellow), distance run (green), and endurance run (blue).
Using these terms a 10k is not a long distance at all, but a standard distance run. Recall that my daily go-to was about 4 miles, which is a little shy of a 10k but clearly longer than a short power run 2-miler. To someone running a standard or long distance, a mile is a warmup or a cooldown, so a 2-mile run doesn't include the actual run at all. (To someone doing an endurance event, a mile has to be part of the event or it's a waste of energy.)
As noted, though, I'll contextualize as much as possible, though I may fall back on these definitions every once in a while. They're pretty well burned into my skull at this point, since they're how I evaluate daily training and race potential.
So right, where was I? Oh yes, the term "distance runner". By distance I (now obviously) don’t necessarily mean marathons. We’re talking 4-10 miles here, firmly in the standard-to-pretty long distance frames.
And any increases would avoid big jumps, because the ladies were already impressed. Or because I didn't know how to get over the next hump. Remember, I was a running addict at the time, but not an adrenaline junkie: if it actually hurt, I wasn’t particularly interested.
I strongly advise this motto for anyone who’s interested in running as a hobby rather than an athletic pursuit. Pain -- the good kind, not the kind associated with injuries that need to be allowed to heal -- will only lead to longer distances or faster times, and it will rarely offer some huge improvement in the way you’ll feel about running if you’re not already interested.
You might hear about the runner’s high as though it’s some euphoria with an up that only dissipates when you've stopped. Writers will often suggest to the unwary potential runner that leaving the neighborhood on foot can get you a taste of the runner's high, and from there it's just a hop, skip, jump, and maybe a few happy somersaults through rainbow-painted fields of unicorns dancing with alpacas to the bliss of 5-milers, and from there you might just be ready for your first marathon. The reality is that if you run longer at a time, the runner’s high plateaus (for me this is somewhere around Mile 8), then eventually fades to the background before your body goes into a deep, deep sinkhole of regret and agony. If you like sinkholes of regret and agony, endurance running may be for you! If you prefer just the high, figure out where the high stops (it's usually in the distance run range), back it off a bit from that distance, and call it a day.
Er, where am I in this narrative again?
Ah. Distance runs to date were standard length, featuring upwards of 6 miles of wandering, undirected running. I doubt I was making a pace below 7:30 minute miles, but it's entirely possible; I didn't know my pace until grad school, and when I found out it was a little shocking. (My most recent pacing information came from "racing" as a pre-teen in Hershey track meets, where I was always the odd man out who did the 100m in 15-16 seconds and thought that was about as fast as a person could go.)
After one fine spring day, it was approaching 11 p.m., and one of my neighbors suggested we do what he called The Bus Route, a more substantial kick-out than my daily 4. It was purported to be done by members of the cross country team. I didn’t know what the name meant, but because I was easy as a cucumber and cool like Sunday morning, I immediately agreed. That name is evocative. It sounds mysterious and shady, like a run that ends in a high school prank. But now you get to learn the secret of “The Bus Route”, and alas, I promise only disappointment.
We got a posse of four together and shoe-leathered out the door a little after midnight. The course started on my normal route, but at the typical turnaround a mile and change off campus, we kept going. Remember that this is rural Minnesota, so roads are at least ¼ mile apart. It just so happens that the next road isn’t for almost ¾ mile, and the road we were on wasn’t a typical quarter-mile route but a highway that curved off. About 3 miles into the run, we made the turn, ran by the the bus farm (hence the name; are you disappointed yet?), and made our way back on the road that I normally took home, but now 3 miles from the end instead of 2 and change miles from the end.
The total couldn’t have been much more than 6 miles, but at the time it was (a) the longest run I’d ever done and (b) my second run of the day. Remember that the First Training Plan includes these two-a-days, but I never considered doing one with extra distance thrown in.
Two of the other runners that night were completely wiped out by the trip. I enjoyed the sensation of being outside at midnight, which of course I could have gotten by just walking outside. There was, I must admit, something different about this feeling. But no, I didn’t want to do it regularly; this was a special event, I thought, and while I might do another one, it was more of a social run. In a way, it reminded me of tennis-hockey: going out with friends, feeling free in the late night air, heavy exertion followed by a long adrenaline let-down when you’ve got nothing going on in the morning. (I think I had a German class at 8 a.m., but I was willing to show up tired.)
It was around the time of that excursion that we resumed our sand volleyball games. And each one we did, I started thinking about that night. Over and over it turned, rounding any edges it might have had until it was an exquisite object of desire.
Finally, weeks later, I did the run again, this time with one other person. We set out on a beautiful spring night, and when we got back, I only wanted more of these blissfully quiet and perspirant sessions. Surely there was variety out there too.
I was, well and truly, being sucked in.
Next up: A Race! Finally!
Mash out. Spin on.
Two towns over was an aviation school, and I resumed my flight lessons there. One balmy autumn day, I filled an old backpack -- one with no support or padding, something that looked like it came free with a vacuum cleaner in the 1980s -- to hold my pilot material, then rode off to the airport. At the front desk, I asked about getting a lesson. The person at the desk signed me up for a few hours later, and I camped out at the airport, realistically unable to do any differently given the selected mode of transportation.
Finally, my time came up, and I met the first in what would be a string of instructors. She grilled me on my background, and we scheduled a time to fly later in the week. The process cascaded from there: by the time I finished college, I had a multi-engine commercial instrument rating and had logged about 300 hours in a variety of small planes.
Early on, that total took physical effort to achieve. Once or twice a week, hunched over like a mobile Quasimodo, I would mount my $200, ill-maintained steed for a pretty brutal 15 mile ride. The wind-swept expanses regularly turned 12 mph average (zero-wind) speeds into 8 mph slogs. I would show up late for lessons and appointments, sweaty and smelly and with a sore back. But my instructors were forgiving, and each one who left for greener, not-me-and-my-various-smells pastures passed me to the one they thought would be most sympathetic to my situation. The bike was, after all, what I had.
Over Spring Break during my freshman year, a tornado ripped apart our school. It was in all the papers. Since the college was out, the toll was almost exclusively property damage, and boy howdy was there property damage. I heard about it on the news to kick off a week of visiting my brother in D.C., where he lived in a gigantic basement apartment in Howard/Shaw. It was so large he gave me my own room with an arched doorway. Where by "room" I mean "partitioned 8'x6' section" and by "doorway" I mean "twin sheets hung from a rafter", and by "arched" I mean "with a rafter about an inch higher than the top of my head". This last item was often appreciated up close by my taller brother.
I didn’t know it at the time, but his neighborhood was anything but up-and-coming. The one run I remember took me across a few nearly-deserted streets, up by Howard University, and back. Two blocks from my brother’s apartment, I passed a group of 4 30- and 40-something black guys moving furniture, two of them schlepping a dresser while the other two struggled to lift a bed in the front door. I stopped, my Northwestern neighborliness showing.
“You guys need help?” I asked innocently.
The four of them looked at me like I was possibly crazy. Then the oldest one laughed. “You just out for a run?” he asked.
“Yeah, went over to Howard. I’m almost done.”
“Thanks for the offer. Really. But, uh, we’re good.” The whole group was smiling at this point.
“Enjoy the rest of the run!” one of the others said.
I told my brother about the encounter when I got back to his place. Being young and inexperienced, I just thought they were making fun of a kid running; it took a while for him to explain the massive racial baggage of his neighborhood, the historically black areas of DC that white people were just scared to enter because, well, black people. He told me about the unsettling infrastructure problems, about local crime rates and policing. (Now, of course, the neighborhood is full of rich, white people who’ve dropped $800k on townhouses that need work or a million plus on those that were either stripped to the studs and refabbed or torn down and rebuilt.)
At the end of the week, I got on the plane and headed back to Minnesota. There, I found a campus that was in no shape to be occupied. School administrators felt the same way, and we were given a respite of several weeks while they sorted out the housing situation.
I stayed with my first flight instructor, by then a pilot for a regional airline. The first day after returning, I went to campus (where we weren’t supposed to be) and got the janitor to let me into my room (where we were definitely not supposed to be), expecting to find all my pilot kit waterlogged and ruined. Instead, my roommate had carelessly tossed my backpack on my bed before he left, saving it from flood damage.
I took the bag out to my loaner car, then went back to grab my lacrosse stick. Because in order to run, I would need the stick. I did a tour of my typical route on foot. It was a longer run than normal that included dodging downed trees, avoiding dumpster zones, and taking in 360-degree views of buildings with particularly interesting damage, but it held me in rapt attention. The destination was all the destroyed buildings, empty lots where familiar sights had been, and washed out roadways, and I totally missed the fact that I put in about 6 miles doing the loop.
Over the course of the next week, I spent more time running than biking, and when school finally came back into session, there were daily reminders of the storm, from hail-battered cars to the never-ending stream of construction vehicles on campus to the citywide cleanup efforts that we all pitched in on.
I returned to the usual running route though, with just a little more need to dodge assorted debris fields. So it was as school wound down, and since my roommate was in the orchestra and they played graduation, I stuck around an extra few days after classes finished to enjoy the quiet of a near-empty campus. It was so gorgeous, I don’t remember a thing about it except having a ton of time to play beach volleyball.
Spring gave way to summer, and I went back home to Port Angeles. As my old newspaper job was a year-round gig that required constant attention to detail, it was not possible to be a summer fill-in more than a day every week or so. Instead, I took a job at a restaurant downtown. My shift started at 6 a.m. and ended at 3 p.m. I would arrive (on bike) around 5:55, hastily change into my really crappy work clothes, stay on my feet for 8.5 hours, then take my “lunch” at the end of my shift. The owners didn’t like that I refused breaks, but near as I could tell, the only reason people took breaks was to smoke. As a non-smoker, that seemed rather pointless, a needless extension of my work day.
And when I got home, I would wait until before dinner to head out on a run, knowing I might get to the wall and just decide not to leave. Old habits might die hard, but when new habits and old habits get together, the result is a 4-mile run that ends with a wall session and maybe another 1.5 mile run home. Not the worst situation if you’re trying to get in shape (which I wasn’t) or trying to get out (which I was).
It's around now that a typical running author waxes eloquently about the quiet calm of a runner's life, time spent on the roads pursuing a deep passion, discovering the mysteries of existence through the power of bipedal motion. There's the sense of calm borne of regular thrum of footfalls on pavement, or irregular, muted steps along a forest path. Can you ever truly describe the emotional peace carried on the ocean waves and delivered at the foot of the mountains, the miles between spanned by joy and suffering, delight and dismay, pleasure and disappointment, layer upon layer of experience deposited like geological strata beneath your feet?
Probably not. So I'll just skip a bit instead.
At the start of my second year in college in September 1998, the cross country coach -- with whom I had made acquaintance because I was by this time Sports Journalist of the Century or perhaps slightly less than that -- subtly tried to recruit me. He failed, as he would fail twice more, but I was flattered by the suggestion. It wasn’t until the second time that I realized he did it because he saw potential (for once this isn’t a faux-arrogant-author comment; this was reality). Had I known then just how good a runner I could be, I probably would have joined the team.
First semester of my second year in undergrad drew to a close, and I had also taken up volleyball more rigorously as a down-time hobby. Friends in the dorm began playing almost daily as the days shortened, even when it was chilly outside, and we started honing our skills for a future in the club scene that none of us yet knew was in our future. I also joined an intramural soccer team, playing goalie with several disillusioned high school varsity guys who didn't make the college team. November through March the college varsity team put up its own players (and a couple coaches) as an IM squad, and whether we won or lost -- it was always close -- the bitterness and violence of those games was surprisingly cathartic for my clubmates.
I had also taken up the actually potentially deadly sport of casual drinking. (I mean, even more than freshman year, when I binged a few times and felt like garbage immediately after -- though that was probably more potentially deadly than my sophomore escapades.) In spite of that, rather than tacking on the proverbial the Freshman 15, I managed the Freshman minus-5 and quickly dropped another few at the start of my second year. In spite of this loss of potential energy, I was climbing up the potential well, my body primed for greatness.
If only I'd known what I could be great at. To be honest, I didn't have a plan except enjoying myself -- which is really all anyone can ask for. The Second Training Plan, the unexpected one that had seeped into my late-teenage life, was changing me, but I was changing in other ways as well. I could either embrace more athletic advances or just keep doing whatever the hell it was I was doing.
Next up: Going for Distance!
Mash out. Spin on.
First, a confession: I left the beautiful Northwest for Minnesota. Not the University of Minnesota, but a small college in southern Minnesota, nestled in a town with a population of about 4,000 locals and 2,500 students. Everything about the place was quiet: quiet school, quiet town, and quiet scenery compared to what I was used to, which, let’s be honest, wasn’t particularly noisy.
I didn't know how much I would miss mountains or ocean or the vast familiarity that connected me to Washington State. That feeling of being part of a place is difficult to define, more difficult to overcome, and even more difficult to change. The Place sets up a comfortable house inside, then clears away all the pointy and dingy bits the longer you're away, leaving only that polished impression to carry with you.
But the draw for something new can be equally strong. And I needed something new, needed that feeling like a bird hurling itself into the great abyss for the first time. In almost every possible way, Minnesota was new.
For all that's said about its frigid winters, that was one of the main attractions. I loved the cold. I didn’t mind most of those wet and chilly winter days, as long as I could keep moving. I didn’t mind wearing a T-shirt and shorts when it was 50F and drizzling. It seems like that should have been a holdover from my more weighty days, but even at a svelte 160 lbs, I enjoyed being the warm guy in the cold place.
And while I had firm friends back home, I didn’t feel the need to just uproot our day-to-day life to another town with the same towering pine trees, ocean smells, and mountain views, where instead of talking about video games and daring each other to eat moldy burritos we would talk about computer games and actually dumpster dive for those burritos (while ignoring the towering pine trees, ocean smells, and mountain views).
I craved a novel existence, a respite from the bland, contrived life of a '90s high schooler in nowhere Washington. Most of my friends went to Western Washington University in Bellingham or the University of Washington in Seattle. Those were my second and third choices.
When I arrived on campus as a pre-first day student, my first departure from the dorm was to establish a running route. Keep in mind that this was before the days of computerized mapping technology, so figuring out where to run was a process of trial-and-error. Alas, I also no longer had a wall to practice against, but with four years of doing that, I was confident those skills wouldn’t just disappear. (It turned out there was a wall, but I never used my run to get to it: it was the art building, which stared down the face of my freshman dorm; the people inside weren’t keen on regular thumping from a lacrosse ball.) The holdover, though, was running with the stick, which was so comfortable that I felt to leave it behind would have been as to run without underpants.
And I always ran with underpants.
Those first runs were a 3-mile loop, no longer interrupted by the wall session. This put my daily mileage at something less than what I’d been used to back in high school, but since it was all at once, it was actually more challenging. And adhering to the principles developed in that First Training Plan, I slowly extended it to around 4 miles and interspersed sprints with the rest of the run. In short order, I had moved from two-a-day 2-milers with an hour or so in between to a daily 4-miler, complete with sprints.
About two weeks into the school year, at my first lacrosse practice, I took a ball to the eye and cracked my eye socket down my cheek. I looked excellent, half my face painted in the deep colors of a bruise, puffed out and slightly drooping, like a water balloon at the beginning of its fill. The next day, a yearbook photographer who was intrigued by this new person on campus running with a stick stopped me while I was coming through and asked to take my picture. He saw my face and backed out.
The swelling was annoying, but it mostly felt like I recalled running with a flabby belly felt: something floppy without much individual feeling that tugged on the rest of my face in an annoying rhythm. I mentally detached that swollen part of my visage from the rest of my body and carried on as normal. When the swelling went down and feeling returned to my face (there was some question about whether that would happen at all; also, this may be another story I never told my parents -- just rackin’ em up, we are!), I was back in the lacrosse net like nothing had happened, and my fitness hadn't changed.
But that fitness felt rather uninspired, the result of an involuntary response that led me out the door each morning, pushed me through a few miles, and ended in a sprint up the hill to my dorm. My workout needed a new set of tactics for the wild and crazy days of college to come to stay interesting. That brings me to the Second Training Plan, once again compiled from my extensive notes from those years.
(Checking my blog -- wait for it -- ok, almost here, and...oh right, it was 1997. I probably used the “wall” command to announce the plan to the two other people in the computer lab. )
The Second Training Plan
Once the First Training Plan is in place, you’re ready to start increasing mileage and speed. This Second Training Plan gives you a good jumping-off point, but it won't make you extremely fast or extremely enduring. Where it excels is in maintaining both without taking up too much time.
0. Do the First Training Plan.
1. Combine your two runs into a single run, leaving off about 20% because it’s going to suck at first otherwise. Do not maintain any sprint segments you had previously been doing, except near the end of the run, as you'll be re-introducing these as you go.
2. Every couple weeks, run a little longer, maybe by a couple blocks each time.
3. When you get to a distance that is comfortably long and doesn’t bore you to tears and/or wreck your legs, stop extending it. Your normal running speed at this stage is now your "down-tempo" pace.
4a. In subsequent weeks, add up-tempo bursts -- short of a sprint but noticeably more challenging than the down-tempo pace -- of a block or two at a time, interrupted by down-tempo rests. Intersperse these as no more than 2 blocks at a time and no more than half your total run distance. (This would be called the "mile pace" by more coachy coaches.)
4b. In subsequent weeks, change some of these up-tempo bursts to all-out sprints, maintaining them as no more than 1 block at a time and no more than 1 in 5 blocks. (This is the 400m pace; an actual all-out sprint of 60-80m in 10 seconds will, of course, pretty much end your run.)
5. Keep doing Step 4 until your run is essentially 15-20% sprints, 20-30% up-tempo, and 50% down-tempo.
6. Run! Run run run run run!
Just weeks into undergrad, and I was doing daily interval training. Crude but (thanks to my youth) effective interval training that included mostly quarter-mile runs. Within 6 months of starting college, I was running almost 4 miles at a pace I never would have thought possible back home. There was -- lucky for me -- a hill in town that I ran up twice each run, including a closeout sprint, and I also had the pleasure of running into some brutal winds as they blasted across the plains at the top of the hill. The stick just added to the difficulty, a sail that, when fully luffed, ignominiously deposited a ball into the nearest ditch.
At the end of each run, I did some push-ups and sit-ups to feel more adequate relative to my less lower-bodied peers, and I achieved a measure of equality in my overall muscle mass. As long as that measure is, you know, something that looks like an Erlenmeyer flask.
It also turned out that my floor supervisor was the sports editor for the newspaper. I hitched onto that wagon late in the fall and was soon reporting on the local sports scene, parlaying my extensive background into a small sum of pay-per-word cash each week.
Across campus I gained a reputation as the lacrosse stick guy, out there every day: snow, rain, sleet, cold, and brutal heat did not deter me from the ritual exit. Each morning, either before class or after my first one of the day, I cozied my hands into my lacrosse gloves, grabbed the stick from the corner, and slipped out the door for 30 minutes. (Unfortunately for my sex life, most people were confused by the accessories. When friends introduced me, they would throw in "you know, the guy who runs around with the lacrosse stick". While instantly recognizable, that also bludgeoned most conversation because the locals generally thought "lacrosse" referred only to the city of LaCrosse and assumed I was a weird butterfly fetishist from Wisconsin.)
Rain and chill I was already accustomed to, and when temperatures plummeted, I safety pinned a scarf around the shaft of my stick, put on rabbit fur gloves under the lacrosse gloves, pulled a neck/chin warmer up over my mouth, and wore ski goggles to shield my face from bursts of icy wind and snow blindness. I had to have my daily run, my half hour of activity that would buoy my spirits for the rest of the day; no mid-December cold front would bring me to my knees, even if it came with 40-knot gusts that accelerated with abandon along the tree stands surrounding the local fields.
I was, obviously, addicted. But looking back with half a lifetime of running experience, I was not addicted to any particular aspect of the run itself; instead, I craved the feeling of having done something personally gratifying that made me me. It gave my days personality and gave me something to look forward to as the sun traversed the horizon each morning.
Running was not a means to an end -- it was always a beginning.