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  1. onthebusrunning

    The Race

    It started as more of a heavy mist than a rain. But there was no mistaking the wind. It came in gusts, battering at our resolve before we had even begun. Each gust came without warning, or rhyme or reason, which made the situation somehow more unpredictable, more grim, like no matter what we did, there was no escaping it. We walked -- or trudged -- the .75 miles to the start, this misbegotten horde of rejects who seemed for better or worse (mostly worse) to be on the outs with society. Trash bags snapped around us, Mylar sheets pulled snug, mismatched sweat suits and tech vests starting to absorb the rain. Even the best among us were likely asking the eternal question, "How the hell did I get here?" And what's more, "Why am I here?" I bit down on the edge of my poncho hood with the desperate hope it would stay in place and keep my head dry even though I would be saturated in minutes. The wind whisked the last remnants of our conversations away, our last words perhaps? I stepped between the barrier and into my corral. The clock read 9:55, and I decided to wait three more minutes to strip down. The announcer (executioner?) did his best to buoy our spirits. I watched the seconds tick down to the unavoidable. I peeled off my poncho, vest, sweatshirt, and long sleeve. The cold started in on me immediately, and I began to shiver and thought, This isn't good. But then crack! The gun. The night before, my friend and I went to our favorite philosopher, Jonathan Beverly, for his insight and perspective: "You have to respect a distance that can reduce you to survival four out of five times, despite the best laid plans and preparation." Addendum: the distance and Mother Nature. We chatted with our coach and modified our race plans as one might do with a forecast for 25mph headwinds. In short, I knew (as I had likely known for days) that my 2:35 would have to wait. We resolved to find an effort that made sense but ultimately agreed to run the race by feel. I channeled my inner Stan Beecham and vowed to get the best out of the day. I'd like to tell you that despite all odds the day came together, that there was a singular moment where I pulled myself together, righted the ship, and, you know, dug deep. But I can't. Because sometimes you put in the work and it's just not the right day for it. But like the badass woman who persevered on Monday said, you have to keep showing up. With that in mind, I can sum the race up fairly quickly. After my initial reaction just before the gun, I started in on myself. You haven't started running yet. Relax and get into the race. And I did. For my first seven miles, the rain remained a light mist, the wind hardly noticeable. So, I settled into sub-2:40 rhythm for as long as I could and felt the miles floating by, the pace and effort coming easily. At seven, the first downpour came and transported me back to my New England college days, when the cold rain seemed denser somehow and could penetrate down to your core and chill your spirit. My singlet clung to me and did nothing to abate the wind that blew right through me as if I was a ghost. I reigned back on the pace to keep from fighting the wind and burning any extra energy, and pulled the bill of my hat down to shield my face. The Wellesley girls managed to get a smile out of me, but only just. I didn't look at my watch again until half where I came through in 1:21. From 13.1-22, I entered into a constant battle of med tent and mile marker. The downpour would come and the wind would stand me up. My teeth chattered and my thoughts fogged. For large stretches, my view of the course was the narrow sliver of road that appeared under my hat brim. The road turned to river. I splashed through puddles, now unavoidable, and managed to spray more water up my calves and into my socks. And just as the med tent would come into view, the rains and wind would slacken and I could continue. I'm not sure why or what was pulling me on. The rains mingled with a few tears because I felt downright miserable and even a little sorry for myself. I remember ditching my gloves at 15 because they were soaked and seemed to be trapping the cold. I made a fist and wrung water out of them. And at 15.1 I regretted it as the wind ate at my now raw, red, and exposed fingers. What could I do but continue putting one soggy foot in front of the other. I soldiered on. Heartbreak (the hill), came and went. Hardly the formidable or momentous moment it usually becomes. At 22, I realized I had just four miles to go, and what was another four at this rate? Hey, you might actually finish this thing. The crowds thickened and spurred me on. Quintessential Boston. Even in the worst of conditions, the crowds still came. They carried me past the Citgo sign and eventually onto Boylston. That finish line never looked so sweet. It was the end of another chapter, another Boston, and also a reason to finally say for sure, it's ok to stop. I crossed in 2:53:59. Empty. I immediately began to shiver and wouldn't stop for another hour despite dry clothing. But after a very long, hot shower, after the cold had left me, and the texts and emails and calls had been answered, I returned to Beverly for one more passage: "I've learned that even when the marathon wins--perhaps especially when it does--we discover truths about ourselves. When all goals are abandoned, when it didn't matter if I walked, crawled, or curled up in the ditch, I found a core that I still cared. I found myself still pushing through the fog toward the finish as fast as my compromised body will allow." And in that I can find solace and peace with this race. It was one to be endured. One where I continued to push my compromised body as far as it would allow. One that deepened the shared camaraderie we already share as runners. One where we had to pry ourselves open to see what was deep inside us and how much our bodies and minds could withstand. As with Bostons past, it would seem quite a lot. And what of this race in particular? Just another waypoint along the journey. Another layer of callus and of opportunity to be put toward the next one. Until then, the number in my head is still 2:35.
  2. onthebusrunning

    ...to Boston

    I still remember. It was 2010. With every footfall up Hereford Street, my quads protested. But then I made one of running’s most famous left turns. The hair on the back of my neck stood up. Boylston Street boiled over with noise. The sound compounded as the cheering reverberated off of the buildings. The pain remained but muted somewhat now by this sudden infusion of adrenaline. The finish arch materialized, and I knew it would not be much longer. In the throng of spectators lined four and five deep, I somehow managed to pick out my wife, dad, and father-in-law hanging over the barricade. I flashed a huge smile, the pain blotted out, and I said to myself, “You’re about to finish the Boston Marathon.” It’s been eight years, and I still remember. As this year’s race has drawn closer, I’ve spent the past week reliving this Boston training cycle as well as visiting with ghosts (good and bad) of my Bostons past. I also came across a long-ago editor’s note from former Running Times editor, Jonathan Beverly, titled “Once Each Spring,” that I thought summed up this annual tradition well: In my mind Boston exists only on race day, ‘a runner's Brigadoon appearing out of the Massachusetts woods.’ Having never lived there, my Boston is a magical place, unsullied by the mundane and the sorrows of real life. ‘It is always spring in my Boston,’ I wrote, describing a place where no one has to go to work on Monday, instead the people come out to run or celebrate runners. In this Boston, ‘Boylston Street is a single-lane stadium lined with overflowing stands, a half-mile of agony and bliss. The very name evokes images of great battles and the sweet feelings of accomplishment. Copley Square is always slightly out of focus, viewed through the happy haze of honorable exhaustion.’ Simply put, Boston is different. When you boil it down to its simplest form, it’s still 26.2 miles, the same as any marathon. Yet, it’s so much more. It’s a race that stays with you. It’s a vortex that can suck you in from the moment you set foot in Boston, caught up in the pageantry, the buzz, and the anticipation. To me, in no other city, for no other marathon (sorry, New York), does a city stop, open its collective arms for three straight days, pause, and celebrate this endeavor we call running. At every start line, but Boston in particular, I like to take a brief moment and look around, to take in the sea of runners of which I am just one more body, one more story. We came from different places and backgrounds to get here and we will run for different reasons to finish. It’s that start line that brings us together. It’s the finish line that unites us. In that way, every race, every Boston, belongs to each one of us as both a unique and collective experience. My Boston is brightly colored jackets with white unicorns stitched along the back. It is something that once seemed unattainable and now is not to be taken for granted. It’s the electricity that starts at the airport (and I don’t mean Logan) and continues until you return home. It is past heroes and history that weaves you into its fabric: Bill Rodgers, Amby Burfoot, Katherine Switzer, the Dual in the Sun, Lisa Rainsberger, and Meb. It is the kindness of strangers lining 26.2 miles of road carrying you along. It is small towns, scream tunnels, and random high fives. It is fickle weather. It is tears of joy and exhaustion. My Boston is tinged with sadness and fortified by hope, love, and resilience. It is a race that can humble and elate you. Whether it’s your first, fifth, or fiftieth, every Boston is special. No one, or no thing, can prepare you for your first trip from Hopkinton to Boylston Street. You can read the articles, watch the videos, and talk to those who have been there before, but all of it is insufficient. As I toss the final pieces of my kit in my bag and obsessively check the weather again (and again), I depart for my fifth Boston with Amby Burfoot in my mind, “It’s time to keep enjoying the best day in running history.” In less than three days, I’ll be on the bus aimed at Hopkinton, preparing to run back to Boston, seeking to get the best of myself, and enjoy the ride along the way.
  3. onthebusrunning

    The Relay

    I played the scales along my fingers, nervous taps against my thumb from index to pinky and back again. That pre-race energy started to sizzle my nerves despite my best efforts to tamp it down. Curious neighbors and spectators dotted the front yards and curbs along the start line. Runners bounced from foot to foot. The race director emerged from the crowd and turned to face us, cupped his hands to his mouth, and shouted, “Go!” Thus began my annual winter training rite of passage: the GW Birthday Marathon Relay. The three-loop course rolls (ed. note: mostly rolls up) along the patchwork of fields that the United States Department of Agriculture Research Center calls home. Those with intestinal fortitude complete all three loops solo, while others share the load in a two- to three-person relay. Coupled with the challenging course, the weather – not to be outdone – typically provides another element of resistance. In my seven runnings, I’ve faced arctic, howling head winds, snow, rain, cold, unseasonable heat, and whatever else the mail(wo)man’s creed promises to overcome to deliver your mail. This proved to be a more seasonable – if not slightly warmish – year, with clear blue skies and a high of 50. I’ve used the race in the past for multiple purposes: as a fitness gauge, a race, a kickoff, and this year a recommitment. As the first 20-miler of this buildup, I intended to make this a rededication to consistent training after having to cobble runs together over the past two weeks due to illness and nagging injury. As a two-man team, my friend Joey and I divvied up the legs (me running legs 1 and 3, a total of 18.9 miles, and Joey leg 2, 7.3 miles), and my coach meted out the instructions to simply run by feel, get 20 miles in, and keep the pace easy even I felt like I could go. So, I eased off the line to tackle my first leg, consciously holding back and trying to take myself out of that race mindset. Over eager runners blasted from the line as did those who would become the legit contenders. I tried to settle in (far) behind them and ignore that rather uncomfortable sensation of getting passed. “You’re here for you,” I repeated over and over, as the guy carrying an entire liter bottle of coconut water went by. The course took a sharp dip and I put it out of my head that I’d have to run back up this same hill 19 miles from now. I let my mind slip into neutral and went about the task of establishing some semblance of rhythm. Shotgun blasts from a nearby shooting range punctuated the steady thumping of my shoes. Crows scattered with each pull and the sun hung high overhead. By mile four, that rhythm brought me even and past several of the overeager go-getters. Without easing my foot down too hard on the accelerator, I targeted runners ahead of me and tried to pick each one off by maintaining the same output. My confidence grew, particularly when the two things I had worried most about were absent: noticeable pain in my hammy and any lightheadedness or fatigue from being sick. Yes, I was well on the way to the road back. I came into the relay exchange full of optimism and handed the baton (read: an orange armband with a chip safety-pinned to it) off to Joey. I looked down at my watch for the first time and was pleasantly surprised to see that I’d covered the first loop (9.7 miles) at 6:53 pace. While I waited for Joey, I stretched, foam rolled, and cheered on the marathoners coming through. I swapped long sleeves for short and got in a token 1.1 miler to keep my legs from tightening and to ensure I hit an even 20 miles when the day concluded. Joey handed the “baton” back to me just under an hour later. While the first loop started with that all too familiar race adrenaline and nerves, the second began with the easy, confident stride of a runner ready to roll. I came through the exchange again and made the turn for home, with 1.5 miles to retrace to the finish line. The hill that I had put away at the start now loomed large in front me. Fluorescent singlets dotted the horizon and I started to hunt. “Smooth, power, strong,” I repeated, and my legs churned under me. I settled into that magical homeostasis gear where the effort is steady and doesn’t leave your lungs heaving. I overtook the first singlet, a marathoner. “Don’t worry about me,” I said, “I’m a relay guy.” “I’m not worried about you, I want that power in your legs,” he called ahead to me. The second singlet slowed to a walk (a sting I know all too well from climbing this hill in the past) and I overtook him as well. With a half mile to go, I crested the hill and let my momentum carry me down through the neighborhood and onto the trail that would lead me to the finish. I crossed the line and picked Joey out in the crowd. I nodded to him and shot over a smile then looked down at my watch: 6:53 pace again. Back on the bus.
  4. The morning light filtered softly into our room last Saturday. Wakefulness came slowly and I tried to convince myself that I still had plenty of time to sleep before lacing up for my long run, despite evidence to the contrary. Before committing to opening my eyes – the final nail in the coffin – I noticed that something felt off. I swallowed and experienced that, ahem, ill-fated rough and tender feeling in the back of my throat. The one that prophesizes heavy heads, leaky faces, and – perhaps far worse – blank calendar squares in the training log. At this, my eyes flew open. I swallowed again, hoping the source was only a rare night of open-mouthed sleeping, some strange and unknown winter allergy, or god-willing anything other than being…I can’t even write it, for to acknowledge its existence is to give it hope, to give it possibility, to give it life! The feeling abated, but only slightly. Shit. I dutifully set out for my 15-mile long run, which became the capper to my down week. With temperatures dipping into the low-20s with a “feels like” of 12, I strapped on my Bane mask to prevent the cold air from further drying out my throat and irritating my chest. I followed my coach’s orders and ran by feel, never glimpsing at my watch once, and kept the pace light to moderate. No one was more surprised than me to see that I had averaged 6:31 pace – I guess the down time worked. Was it possible that I had literally outrun my impending…that thing? Not a chance. I woke Sunday with irrefutable proof that I was indeed…sick. And to add literal injury to insult, my hamstring started bothering me. Commence extreme cold + injury remediation plan. Fluids in the form of water, tea, apple cider vinegar, and chicken broth were consumed. Zinc tablets were ingested like candy. Raw garlic and honey were sent down the hatch. Sleep was slept. Heating pads were sat upon. Bridges on land and on stability ball were done. Biofreeze was slathered liberally. Passive voice was used excessively. These were indeed desperate times. Because in the ironic land known as “of course,” I would get sick at the tail end of 10 days of rest. What followed? The eternal sick / injured runner question: To run or not to run? What Quenton Cassidy called the old “injury fandango…would it ever end?” On Monday, I compromised. I slept 11 sweaty hours and pushed my run back to lunch. I completed six easy miles of a scheduled 11 to get something in and still be within my 86-80 mileage window for the week. After nine hours of sleep that night, feeling no worse for wear, I did a 13-mile fartlek Tuesday morning and doubled that afternoon for the fun of it. And it was pretty much business as usual from there, despite the lingering fatigue, clogged sinuses, and a moody hamstring. Above the neck and you can run, right? Right!? That brings us to today. Where I come to you from the couch, hood pulled up, Nalgene half full, empty square *gasp* on the training calendar, heeding my coach’s words. “Let’s back off,” he said, after hearing the congestion in my voice. “Get back to 95-100% for Monday so we can get into the upper 90s next week.” These are the times when rest feels harder than running. When just over nine weeks from now, this will hopefully be a forgotten bump in the long road to Boston. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a date with a heating pad and a zinc lozenge.
  5. onthebusrunning

    The Base

    The floor felt good. I took a moment to just breathe. To feel each breath crash and recede like the tide upon the shore. To feel the warmth still in my muscles. To let my eyes go out of focus and wait for constellations to emerge from the stipple on our ceilings. To absorb the effort. To pause. You see, I’ve been at it for nine-and-a-half weeks now. I started slow, just a few easy miles every other day to get the feeling back. But once it started, the bus – as it were – hadn’t stopped. My coach piled on more miles each week, methodically and purposefully. He added in various hill repeats once a week, which I dutifully strode up (and back down). My long run peaked at 19 miles last weekend, capping off a 90-mile week (my highest of the buildup). And last Wednesday, I officially brought the base phase to a close, and might I add, with an exclamation point. The session that brought me to the floor called for four miles easy, plus 4x(4x400m) starting at 81-80 seconds and moving down to 74-75 seconds, with 45 seconds between each rep and 2 minutes between sets, plus 8x200m slightly faster than 400 pace, with a 200m jog between each rep, plus an easy cool down. In all, I logged 13 miles total. Given the paces and the short rest, runDanrun called it a 5K workout for a marathoner. My coach simply called it “economy.” My body sounded alarm bells during that opening 400, but experience taught me to switch them off and just keep pushing. I quickly found myself in rhythm. I clicked off 80s for that first set, locking into the feel and striding confidently, machine-like, a human metronome, up and down the strip of neighborhood street, quietly edging back the margins. Forty-five seconds came and went with barely enough time to circle back to the sign pole marking the quarter mile. Yet my breath went from labored, to easy, to normal just in time to tackle the next one. Fatigue began to seep into the tops of my quads on set 3 rep 4, but the watch showed a 75. During those luxurious 2 minutes before the final set, I ran through my cues: turnover, efficient, power. I thought about how I labored over an aggravated back on Monday, threatening to undo all of this work. The tight glute that had plagued me since Christmas. Yet here I was. One measly mile away from a scheduled 10-day down period. Along the way, I collected pastel sunrises, crunched through snow, followed the triangle of light from my headlamp past dark houses, felt the icy sting of sleet on my cheeks, and the mild wind of a 60-degree day on the back of my neck. I had ducked my head into the pit and gotten swallowed by the darkness. I lined up next to the stop sign, took one inhale, and clicked my watch. I thundered down the street wearing a mask of calm, but feeling the effort like fire spreading slowly through my legs. Just as it peaked, I was done: 74. The even number reps retrace the same street in reverse, with one caveat: they are slightly uphill. “Seventy-five,” I told myself, and thundered off again. My arms pumped hard but smooth to 300m before the fire raged and my breath became an audible rasp. Beep! 75. After another 74, I stared down the final rep. The stop sign was a fuzzy red dot at the end of the street. “Seventy-five,” I repeated. I drove hard off the line and came into my cadence. Turnover, efficient, power, turnover, efficient, power…. The effort pulled tight across my face, and a grimace involuntarily broke out. Form, I reminded myself and composed my face once again. My legs grew heavy, weighed down with the fifteen-and-a-half reps prior, the nine-weeks-and-two-days before them. My breath heavy and ragged. I flashed by the stop sign, Beep! 75. Fist pump. Exclamation point. If pushed to pinpoint a mantra for these nine-and-a-half weeks, it’s simply: building. I’ve tried to be unemotional about every run, neither too up or down about any one because the goal has simply been to run miles, and establish the foundation upon which we’ll build the barn. Or forge the sword that we’ll hone to a slippery sharp edge, if you like. I closed the book on those nine-and-a-half weeks and let my mind wander briefly to ten days from now. When the mileage will creep toward and hit triple digits. When I’ll long for that 400m/200m workout again. When anything below a 20-mile long run will seem short. When I’ll visit the pit every week…. But for the moment, the floor felt good.
  6. onthebusrunning

    The Pit

    It’s Thursday night, somewhere around 9:00. I jerk awake when my Kindle thumps against my chest. The words on the screen have long since blurred together, and, in fact, the device has shut itself off. How long ago, I’m not sure…five minutes? Five days? My eyes are half open, my mouth wide open. I feel like I’ve just resurfaced from the depths of some dark sea. I roll over onto my side and try to blink the room into view. Ah, yes…the living room. I’m on the couch. And my bed… my bed is so, so far away. The dog lifts her head, and eyes me if to say, “Get it together, man.” I pitifully look at my wife who I register is on the opposite end of the couch, and I summon the words, “I think I’m going to go up,” consciously using the word “think” rather than the more definite “am” because this is going to take some doing. When posed with the simple question of “How’s it going?” bleak may be the only suitable answer, although we would also accept grim. Such is the life of this runner when he’s in the pit. I am well acquainted with the pit. My coach dropped me into it about five years ago when we started training for Boston 2013. It snuck up on me, like a creeping, low-lying fog that, before I understood, had wrapped its tendrils around my legs before completely enveloping me. I couldn’t pinpoint one run that sent me there. Rather, it was the accumulating fatigue that brought on the darkness. I typically visit the pit on high mileage weeks that range from 85-100 total miles. It’s particularly cruel the first trip back after a few months away, as this week has been. But funnily enough, it’s a place you come to miss if you haven’t been there in some time. The schedule calls for doubles Monday-Wednesday with a daily total mileage of 13-18 miles. The week starts ok, brimming with optimism, but it’s the Tuesday morning workout where things start to dim. I normally finish the mile or 1-2K repeats, tempo runs, or whatever goodies my coach has on the calendar in high spirits. But Tuesday night’s easy 5-6 feels slightly off. Wednesday morning, I eye the alarm clock suspiciously as if it has betrayed me, and I pull running clothes on while on auto-pilot and trot into a darkness both literal and metaphorical. During those first few strides, I question how I will possibly be able to eke out another 5-6 that night, but those are questions (and challenges) for future Brad to confront. Wednesday night arrives and we curse morning Brad for being done with his run already. Sleep comes easy and deep and heavy, but never long enough. I am well beyond riding waves of tiredness and fully drowning in an ocean of exhaustion. Between runs, I merely exist, emotionally blunt to the world. There is the constant pang of hunger. My stomach is a roaring furnace that continuously needs stoking. Good news is met with a weak smile, bad news a look of melancholy (not hard to pull off). Nerves are frayed. Patience is razor thin. Colleagues look worried. I’m prone to empty stares and temporary breaks from reality. I wake up in the middle of the night drenched in sweat as though I’ve intruded on my body frantically stitching itself back together. I do my best impression of a human, but the bus, as it were, is most assuredly running on fumes. Thursday morning, I stare down 12-god-dammit-just-get-them-in-no-matter-how-slow-miles. I’m brushing my teeth and the eyes looking back at me in the mirror are vacant and haunting. Last week, I addressed “the why,” and being in the pit certainly conjures up that heaviest of all questions. John L. Parker, Jr. wrote, that “The question that plagues the runner [in the pit] is ‘Why am I living like this? The question eventually becomes, ‘Is this living?’” The answer is of course, “yes” because, though Thursday morning may be the darkest of runs, the night, as they say, is darkest before dawn. My good friend runDanrun knows this better than anyone, because he has accompanied me in the pit for the last year since we started sharing the same coach. When I put this post to him, he said, “We may question the why, but we also know deep down that we answered that question long ago, so it doesn’t need revisiting. Just lace up.” The first time I told my coach of these feelings, he merely said, “You sound like you’re training for a marathon.” What I had taken to calling the pit, he reframed as “good tired.” Friday morning dawns and something is different. It’s been 24 hours since my last run. The light has returned to my eyes, the fog lifted. Somehow having that extra 12 hours of rest has returned the bounce to my step. My feet don’t hit the ground with a dense thud – nay, they spring from the blacktop! My stride comes easy and dare I admit, I feel good. The long run on Saturday is even better and I half wonder if those two days of darkness were even real as I rip off long run miles on seemingly fresh legs. When I started writing this last week, I kept thinking of “the pit” in The Dark Knight Rises and descended into my own Batman wormhole, finally coming across the “Lazarus Pit.” Apparently, the Lazarus Pit is a natural phenomenon that possesses restorative properties that can instantly heal injuries and even grant immortality. It got me thinking that maybe the pit – given the weekend rejuvenation – isn’t such a bad place after all. A chorus of savage chants echo off the walls of the pit. “What does that mean?” Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne asks in the final installment of Batman as he’s about to attempt to make the climb out. “Rise,” his fellow prisoner utters. Indeed.
  7. onthebusrunning

    The Why

    Two weeks ago, I walked outside with one of my colleagues after lunch, and we simultaneously hunched our shoulders to our ears to brace against the cutting wind. “You’re not actually running in this are you?” she asked, cinching her hood tight. At the time, the entirety of the East Coast was more or less frozen solid, and here in D.C., single and negative digits had become the norm. I thought about replying with a phrase one of my running buddies used to say, “The only weather is whether or not you ran.” Instead of sounding like a complete douche to her (though I love the quote), I gave a simple and resigned “yes.” She raised her eyebrows. I like to think that in that look, there is reverence, awe, and admiration – but I know better. What’s behind those looks are skepticism and borderline boredom. I’ve tried to hone my running conversation skills over the years, doling out details in small bits and tuning in for that moment where I’ve crossed into tedium. I can see the glaze form over their eyes, usually about the time I start talking tactics. To be fair, she is genuinely interested, and not one of those, “I only run when I’m being chased, har har har,” people. This time, though, she asked the heaviest and possibly most difficult questions to answer: why? I could have tried to give her a glimpse of the mental and physical toll those frigid ten miles had taken on me that morning, how much I despise the treadmill, or simply say, “Because it was on the schedule”; however, we were cold, and at that moment, I couldn’t articulate just why in god’s name I was out there, so I shrugged, perplexed. That kind of pondering is for long runs. So… It was with this in mind that weekend, when the temps dipped to a “feels like” of -8, that I set out for a 15-miler that Outside columnist Alex Hutchinson would call a “three sock run” – I’ll let you figure out what I pulled the third sock over. When the sun finally rose over the houses, bringing warmth back to my fingers and life back to my spirit, I took a detour in my head away from the task at hand and began to try and answer that weightiest of questions. How to put into words something that to the uninitiated sounded – well – crazy, stupid, worthless? Something that would elicit the narrowing stares that read, “You’ve lost it, man,” or worse, “Who cares?” I first thought of a quote I keep in my phone from author Leslie Jamison, who wrote an excellent piece on the Barkley Marathons that attempts to get at this, “The sheer ferocity of the effort implies that the effort is somehow worth it…The persistence of ‘why’ is the point: the elusive horizon of an unanswerable question.” The why, it came to me, is in the process. The why is finding the limit, your limit. Plumbing the depths of who you are to know just how far and how fast you can go, weather be damned. Heeding the call the way the holy are called to a higher power and sailors are called to the sea. I know there won’t be Olympic medals or sponsorship money. Sure, it’s something to collect your age group trophy and smile at the small crowd lingering for the free swag. Then real life resumes. Work and deadlines come crashing in. But you’ll return to the road, or trail, or track the next day, slipping into the darkness while the rest of the world sleeps because there’s more work to be done. If she, or they, or whomever, could understand all that, intrigued maybe, or incredulous, I would tell them the exact moment that cemented this for me. I was getting ready for Boston 2014 in one of those winters that’s not all that different from this one. My friend and I were 13 miles into what my coach calls a “no champagne, no medal” long run. The kind you grind out – gritty and unglamorous – because it’s what the plan says. It was an out and back 22 miler with an easy 11 upfront and pickups on the back half. There had been nothing “easy” about those first 11, the kind of run that seems against you from the start. The wind battered us and the cold sapped our energy. I tucked in behind my running partner. The trail, a paved bike path, unspooled into eternity and those stretches I swore were uphills on the way out somehow seemed to be tipped skyward again as we came back. A passerby wouldn’t have looked twice because we looked composed (or our faces froze that way). But if they looked behind my sunglasses, they would have seen everything they needed to: the struggle…and also the determination. I steeled myself for the next pick up and eased in. As subtly as the wind shifted directions, my stride opened up, and the chains that bound me before, slackened and dropped to the pavement altogether. The power returned to my legs, pistons churning me forward. I felt invincible. Why was this momentous? I was a different person when I returned to the car after that run than when I left it. I’d had the opportunity to know that I’d been through it and came out whole and stronger on the other side by gritting through the bad to get to the good. I could see the adaptations of my body as it absorbed the strain over the weeks, months, and years, and returned to the proving ground even stronger. You toast the PR but don’t stay happy for too long because, god-willing, there is always more. Spurred by a comment that a fellow runner left me last week, we can revisit the many incarnations of our running selves and in those evolutions, we can pull on that hope to know that we have it in us to continue ascending or pursuing that elusive horizon, wherever and whatever it may be. As I thawed out inside our foyer after my three sock run, unzipping my jacket to see frozen sweat fall to the floor, I thought about one of my favorite George Sheehan quotes, “Out on the roads there is fitness and self-discovery and the persons we were meant to be.” Finding out who that person is is as good a why as I can find right now.
  8. onthebusrunning

    On the bus...

    2:35. That’s the number in my head. Not long ago, it was 2:40. It used to be 2:50 and 3-flat, and 3:10, and even 4-flat at one point. But right now, it’s 2:35. I find myself square in the middle of that strange runner no man’s land. Somewhere in between the attainable Boston Qualifier and the unattainable (sadly) Olympic Marathon Trials Qualifier. What I have is the relentless pursuit of racing against two things: the unforgiving clock and myself. Racking up miles and wearing down shoes – and at times nerves – to shave off seconds per mile, while being trapped in a never-ending, mostly ascending spiral of train, race, repeat. I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s with this mindset that I let out from the house again. It’s the first really cold day. I have to swap shorts for tights, and the grass crunches with frost underfoot. The air feels deep and cold as it fills my lungs. I keep the pace light, still feeling out where my body is with the ghosts of my recent marathon still haunting my joints. But even still, it’s good to be back. The wind is sharp against my cheeks. My legs turn over and with them my thoughts from past results to future finish lines. Because as John L. Parker wrote, there will most certainly be “more trials and more miles.” My running friend and I like to talk about races as way points. They are stops along a journey – to where, neither of us are sure. Self-discovery? Self-destruction? Self-awareness? But so far, neither of us have allowed ourselves to be defined by one race as “the ultimate,” the period (or exclamation point) at the end of our running sentence. Instead, we’re stringing those sentences together into a novel where neither one of us knows the ending. So we run. We race. We evolve. We repeat. I spend the first half of the run retreading my last race, a 2:39 finish at the 2017 Richmond marathon. I piece together the shards (the below-average temperature, a 12-mile stitch, a back injury seven weeks out) that led me to fall short of the number in my head – 2:35 – knowing that sub-2:40 would have been fist- pump-worthy just a year ago (and unfathomable a decade ago) and now seems somehow…disappointing? The sky begins to lighten, pushing back the few lingering stars. The pace comes easy now and I’ve ironed out all the cricks. I break through the plume of breath that clouds in front of me on the exhale. I float up hills with the ease that comes without the burden of expectations. I flash past Margin Lane on the strip of neighborhood street where I usually run mile repeats. I reflexively think of my mental cue “edging back the margins” that normally comes at this sign, but my breath is hardly a whisper and the adrenaline doesn’t drop in, not this time. For now, I’m just running. I drift away for a moment to Parker again. This time it’s Again to Carthageand soon-to-be marathoner Quenton Cassidy and coach Bruce Denton are lying face down on the beach, enjoying the contrast between hot sand and cold, quivering muscles speckled with ocean water. After a moment of silence, Cassidy utters the line that is the namesake for this blog, “Whatever happens, I’m just happy to be on the bus running again.” The dawn breaks now and the clouds glow like campfire coals. I smile because it’s almost a little too poetic, this new beginning. I return to the house flushed from a good effort, another run in the books, another race behind me, another cycle begun. It’s officially on to the next way point, another chance to edge back the margins of whatever it is we’re after. In this case, for right now, the number in my head is 2:35. And in a little less than 15 weeks, I’ll be sitting on a big yellow school bus aimed toward Hopkinton and the mother of all start (and finish) lines. But there’s still plenty of time for all that. For now, I’m just happy to be on this bus again. I hope you’ll come with me.
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