March 21, 2011

NYC Half Marathon - something left

I've run the NYC Half three times now, and my most vivid memories of all three are not the race. What stays with me is the corral.

The lead time on this metastasized race (10,000+) is longer than most, and it has an early start. The logistics of starting are gnarlier than the effort to finish. After madly zigzagging to drop bags, find friends, and hit the facilities, you stand around in the corral for ages before they let you dance. 

Two years ago this race was in August - it was 77 degrees and felt hotter still. There was space to do strides in my corral, but I mostly sat and watched the the elites do their thing in the next corral up. It was great to see the superstars getting ready, and not a little intimidating. Then the announcements, anthem, exhortations, and what-have-you.

When the horn went off at last, I wilted like old arugula. It was my ugliest race ever.

Nowadays the Half is held in March and the corral experience is the same. The heavy heat is replaced by serious cold but the logistics are still insane. You've probably raced in colder conditions, but in March everyone wears shorts. I met up with Super-B and Dreamboat Ani before the race to drop off our bags full of our warm clothing. We waited there as long as we could for the Elf but we were shivering like mad and he was delayed. We gave up and ran to find the facilities before the corrals closed. After the frenetic hunt for distant toilets we made it into our corral just under the wire.

Ani and I hopped and huddled for warmth as we looked for the Elf in the crowd. Elf is tall, and normally quite visible even in a crowd of runners, but we couldn't find him in the quivering crush of people. It seemed like an hour before the start. And once the horn went off, since we were a couple of corrals back, there was another long wait before we saw the starting mat. But finally we were off.

I wasn't planning to race since I haven't trained since December. My plan was to pace with Ani for as long as I could keep up, and drop off when I needed to. Our first mile was slow and crowded, but relaxed and fun. I haven't often raced with friends, so this was a new pleasure. I didn't have to worry about any numbers, just keeping up with Ani. The times when I wanted to slow down she'd surge and I'd have to keep up. Or I'd surge and she'd reel me in. The 13.1 miles went by much quicker than the cold corral.

This was an experiment: how much fitness lingers after 3 months of inactivity? Result: something remains, as long as you just have a good time. I worked hard but didn't feel bad. Ani outkicked me in the last 100 meters, beating me by four seconds.

Right at the finish we finally found the Elf waiting for us, and soon after met up with Super-B, who had PR'd. Ani had PR'd by around 3 minutes. I came in more than 15 minutes slower than my PR last year. I couldn't have been happier.

I got about the same result as that miserable race two years ago on the same course, but this time I had a blast. Beating a goal may be better than not having one, but laughing at the clock is magic.

March 18, 2011

The waterfall can't be drowned

I'm building it all back up from scratch, which I think will take till fall. Meantime no PRs, just trying to do right by my legs. If lack of success is a failure, I plan to fail a lot this year. So why race?

In a Scratch Orchestra liner note, Cornelius Cardew once wrote about some buddhist monks who go to the waterfall to practice their chanting. "The waterfall can't be drowned, but it inspires the voice to high levels of power and purity."

On Sunday I'll run the NYC Half-Marathon, a drop in a torrent of 12,000 or so runners, including some of the fastest alive. I'm untrained and out of shape. I'm not even sure I'll finish. I registered long ago as a fitness test for Boston, but it turns out I'm scratching Boston. I know I'll fail by any personal standard, but it's time, I need it, I'm headed for the waterfall.

March 8, 2011

Winter Can Really Hang You Up

Remember the waist-deep snow? The scything winds? Maybe gumption has its own weather patterns, but whatever you call it, my running's been stuck in a ten-week deep freeze.

Just to pile on, my fancy watch died around the turn of the year. No point in running if you can't get credit for it. Did you know a Garmin battery lasts only two years, and you can't replace it? True story. That's a $200/year subscription to the fussiest device in the world.

Hang on: running is supposed to be simple. Remember?

Behold! A few bright days with air warmer than 20 degrees have lovingly forced themselves upon me, begging to be taken advantage of, with or without a watch. Wang dang doodle, I'm running regularly again, with a little cross-training in between. (Now the permanent ache in my hamstrings feels earned rather than imposed.)

Spring's like waking from amnesia. Two jolly runs and you remember things forgotten in hibernation. I'd even forgotten how much I like the gym.

But you wake to a changed world. Or the world's exactly the same, but your body's different. Your legs are pasted on backwards, and your training logs are senseless scribbles in someone else's writing.

Well, nothing can stay the same. For two years I've been hooked on training plans and GPS data. Who cared how I felt, as long as I nailed the plan? I was the guy shivering on the sidewalk while my device sniffed out a satellite. I winced at stoplights because they screwed up my stats.

New plan: no plan. Ditch the stupid watch. Get back that feel.

Like the newly blind who learn to feel space, a runner without a watch learns a lot about how time churns. I've never run with an iPod because for me, running is the music.

Now I remember what running was like back in the day, before I got so busy trying to impress my watch.