Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Weekend That Was MONKEY

The RunningAhead crew before the start of Monkey 2012. Photo credit: Elly Foster
In October of 2010, upon finishing the Baystate Marathon, I declared myself retired from marathons for good. I had every intention of continuing to run and race at the more sensible distances, but I decided that I was done putting a season's worth of training eggs into one basket and then hurling them at the brick wall that is the 26.2 mile distance.

It took me a while, but after about a year and a half of floundering with sporadic "training" I figured out how to continue to get into a decent training rhythm without the over arching doom of a marathon to motivate me. This season, I finally returned to what I consider a decent level of racing, putting down a 1:20:37 half marathon and a 17:06 5k in October, hopefully building blocks for next Spring's racing season.

So naturally the only thing to do now is to screw up a good thing by running a marathon--this time without actually training for it and without any long runs over 15 miles in the last 2 years. But not just any marathon, no, the hilliest and most ridiculous marathon available.

Monkey, a.k.a. The Harpeth Hills Flying Monkey Marathon is the creation of a crazy person named Trent Rosenbloom. It is run in Nashville's Percy Warner Park and is built on the famous "11.2", an 11.2-mile run on a scenic road that makes a winding loop through this very hilly and beautiful 2,500 acre wooded park. I first met Trent and a lot of the other Nashvillians at this race in 2008 when I decided to find out what all the fuss was about, having read about it endlessly on the forums. That first trip to monkey was incredibly fun and I made a lot of friends and not too many enemies--so I always wanted to go back at some point.

This year, a crew of runners I know from MA were heading down, so it seemed like a good year to go. EJ, Bash, Sully, Eric and I became known as Team Masshole, and we did everything we could to live up to that name.

Upon landing in Nashville on Saturday mid-day we pointed the rental car straight to downtown and tried to find a typical Nashville tourist joint to eat some barbecue, hear some live music and drink some beer. Done. That was incredibly easy to do. We stumbled upon Rippy's, went to the roof deck and sat outside enjoying a beautiful Saturday afternoon. After leaving Rippy's we immediately made our presence known when we interrupted the shooting of a scene from the t.v. show "Nashville" on our way to our rental car. If you're watching that show in the near future you may hear a couple of Boston accents in the crowd noise yelling, "Hey that guy is from Nashville!" and "All these people are from Nashville, you asshole!" Yeah, that was Sully and me. Alas.

After going to number pickup where we met lots of RA'ers and drank more beer, we headed to the luxurious Microtel on Route 70, where we met even more RA'ers and drank even more beer (see a theme developing here?) Two RA'ers Steve and Tony were good enough to share some of their beer with us since we hadn't made it to the store yet. Tony joined Team Masshole for dinner at a local pub and then we headed back to the Microtel for more socializing in the lobby. I lost count, but it's safe to say that was the most beers I have ever consumed the night be fore a "race." All in all though it was a relatively early night and when Eric (my roommate for the weekend) and I woke up at around 6, we had had a decent night's sleep.

Ben (in blue) would win. Pauly (in yellow) would be the only master to break 3.
The starting area was like a big reunion of hugs, high-fives and handshakes. I saw a lot of friends and met a bunch of new ones. Eventually, after several rounds of pictures and announcements, Trent got us underway and we were off and a runnin'.

Just before pulling the pin and dropping out of the lead group

Even though I told myself repeatedly that I was in no condition to think of this like a regular marathon, that it was just going to be a 26 mile long run, I got sucked out a little fast. Over the first 3-4 miles, I had the leader and eventual winner and course record holder, Ben Schneider, in sight and all of the lead pack including EJ, Sully, my nemesis Andy (aka Thunder), John Ramsay (aka the King of Beasts), another RA'er named Pauly and the eventual women's winner Leah Thorvilson and a bunch of others,  was strung out over a few hundred yards in front of me. Even though the pace was incredibly easy at that point, I knew that with a longest run of 15 miles, if it felt easy it was probably way too fast. I started looking over my shoulder and trying to find a group to fall back with--it was too early to be running in no man's land already. One one of the switch backs I saw Bash and another RA'er, Candice, running together and decided to drift back to them. Bash and Candice caught me around mile 5 or 6 and it was nice to have some company. We ran together until around halfway when Candice dropped back a bit but Bash and I were joined by another RA'er, Abe. The three of us ran together until about 16, when Abe took off and decided to try and hammer the last 10. At that point Bash sped up a bit too and I was by myself. Having to only run the last 10 alone was a lot more manageable than the last 20, though, so I was okay with it. The pace was still feeling pretty easy but every step at that point was my longest run in 2 years and I was starting to feel it in my knees, quads and feet.

You mean I'm finally done?
The bottom line is that there really is no way to run a marathon "easy" when you're not prepared for the distance, and so I paid the price that I knew I would have to pay and that was yet so much harder than I thought it would be. Every downhill over the last 5 miles felt like someone was hitting me in the quads with a ball-peen hammer. Eventually I made the turn onto the field and made my way gingerly to the finish line where someone put a woody around my neck, handed me a rubber pint glass and filled it with beer. Thank God. Training matters: EJ and Sully had finished 20-minutes ahead of me and had that much more time to drink more beer, Alas. My time was 3:22--not a personal worst, but my slowest by far since my first, woefully under trained marathon at Big Sur in 1999.

Can we get a van like this at every race, please?
From there we cheered in the rest of the runners, consumed lots of good food provided by the locals and drank Yazoo beer poured from taps attached to the side of a van designed specifically for that purpose. In other words it was a runner's heaven.

It got warm, we hung out for hours socializing, getting stung by yellow jackets and laughing. It was all way too much fun to describe and I saw way too many friends to name here. Really, you had to be there.

The awards at Monkey are hand-made crotchet monkeys, of course. I did not win one, of course. For reasons I cannot quite explain, this bothered me and I sat there thinking that if (when) I come back to this race I want to be in decent enough shape to be able to compete for a goofy looking crochet monkey. Yes, yes I did think that. Runners are weird, what can I say.

EJ with his crotch monkey for 2nd master. So envious.

At some point we made our way back to the Microtel for showers and to put our feet up for a minute. The Patriots game was not being televised so Team Masshole decided to head downtown (via taxi) to Mafiaoza's pizza joint where they had the game on and, oh yeah, 2-for-1 Yazoo beers, which was just what we needed. As the game wound down, we joined the rest of the Monkey group on the deck of Mafioza's for some fireside drinking, story telling and shoving down brick oven pizza.  The gastro-intestinal abuse I did to myself this weekend was probably not wise the weekend before Thanksgiving, but hey. As the crowds began to thin, Team Masshole got a cab back to the hotel for, you guessed it, a few more beers in the lobby before crashing. There was talk of a morning trail run, but at that point I didn't think I'd be able to walk in the morning and declared myself out.

Yeah that didn't take. At 8am the next morning there we were dressed in running gear and heading over to PWP again for some off-piste shuffle jogging. It actually turned out to be just what the doctor ordered--the downhills were painful but all in all I felt a million times better after that little 4.6 mile jog than before it.

Trent, Bash, me, EJ, Eric, Drew, Jen, Jessica, Paul (photo by Robert Lopez)
All that plus when we made it back to the airport (minus Sully who had for reasons we still can't understand flown out the night before) Southwest Airlines had found my kindle, which I'd lost on the flight out. Bonus. Everyone went home with a smile, and sore legs.

I have left out a tremendous amount of details here but hopefully you get the picture. Monkey was too much fun not to do again at some point.

Friday, November 2, 2012

It's a hard world

Occasionally it becomes obvious how trivial this whole project of trying to run faster over measured distances really is. Like when there's a massive natural disaster that devastates a region, for example.

Most of us here in northeastern Massachusetts got off easy during Hurricane Sandy. At my house we lost power for less than two hours and had, basically, no damage unless you count a small puddle in the basement. All of the trees that would have been knocked down had already come down last Halloween, during that freak snowstorm, so all I had in my yard was a lot of sticks and leaves all over the place.

Obviously in New York and New Jersey, and a few other places, the folks weren't so lucky. The scenes on news sites and on friends' Facebook pages and whatnot are just incredible. And yet, for those of us who survived, life goes on.

Last Saturday morning, during the calm before the storm, I got up early and drove up to Stratham, New Hampshire. I parked my car in a field behind a park and got out, walking gingerly to keep from soaking my feet in the dew that had formed on the long grass. I jogged over toward the park, occasionally weaving in and out of the crowd that was mostly walking in the same direction I was running. When I got there, I waited in line for the port-a-potty then headed out onto the roads for some more jogging before I retraced my steps back to my car, changed into lighter shoes, stripped off some layers and pinned a number on the front of my shirt. Then I jogged back through the park and crossed the street toward the starting line of yet another 5k road race.

I breathed in the cool morning air, breathed out, and tried to clear my mind of all external goals and distractions. And when the gun fired I ran. I allowed myself to become consumed with the effort of running as fast as I could over five thousand meters. For a little while there was no other place, no other time--there was only right then and right there. It was beautiful.

I ran as hard as I could, maybe as hard as I ever have, and put myself into quite a bit of difficulty at the end and yet I missed my goal by 7 seconds. I was completely happy. I was happy because for nearly 17 minutes I ran free in the belief that I had given myself a chance to accomplish a goal that I had set for myself many years ago. During those 17 minutes I did not wish that I was anyone else or that I was anywhere else. I didn't worry about the bills to be paid, whether my kids were doing okay in school or whether the hurricane charging up the coast would destroy my home. For those 17 minutes there was only the road, and the cool fall air, and the crisp New England sky, the other runners. I experienced every one of those 17 interesting minutes to the fullest.

Don't get me wrong--things like electricity, running water, education, food, shelter, presidential elections and smart phones are all interesting and necessary to sustain modern day life. But once in a while it is helpful to remind ourselves what it feels like to actually be alive.