Monday, October 29, 2012

More Than 25%!!

Last Saturday I made 475-mile drive from Ithaca to Columbus, Ohio for the Nationwide Children's Hospital Half Marathon.  Last Sunday I drove back.

For the mathematically challenged, that is a 950-mile round trip so that I could get up early and run 13.1 miles as fast as my spindly legs would take me through the streets of Columbus.  I did this not because I am a sadist but rather in service of a larger goal.  A couple of years ago I decided to run a half marathon in all fifty states.  Last week's race in Ohio marked the completion of state #14.  Since I committed to the goal, I have managed to average 4 states a year.  At this pace I should reach my goal roughly in the year 2022.

The genesis of the goal was a race I ran in Portsmouth, New Hampshire in 2009.  It was called the Seacoast Half Marathon and it was run on November 8, 2009.  I was running it as a birthday present to myself--(a tradition I had started the year before with the Monson Half Marathon in Monson, Massachusetts.)  It was a cool, sunny morning and I got to the start way too early, as is my habit.  I was killing time walking around the parking lot of the high school that was hosting the start, stretching and warming up my leg muscles.  I saw an older woman standing by herself, also stretching and warming up.  I am not sure what possessed me to go over and start a conversation, but I did.  Actually, it wasn't much of a traditional conversation where the participants alternate talking.  She said roughly 90% of the words, but she was very interesting, so that was okay with me.

I found out that if she finished the race that day, it would be the last of the half marathons in her goal of running a race in all 50 states.  I filed that fact away, ran a respectable 8:12 per mile, looked for her at the finish, and then drove back to New Haven.  During my drive I pondered my impending 44th birthday and the bad physical shape of my parents--(heart attacks, joint replacements, Type-II Diabetes)--and I decided to adopt the old woman's goal for myself.

I named my pursuit, since all good programs need a name, and Erica took that name and put it on a shirt along with a graphic and a checklist.  I called it Going Half Hog.  (You can see the shirt below.)

Earlier this year I ran races in North Carolina, Maryland, and Maine.  My times for these races varied greatly, from a low of 1:44:40 to a slow of 1:59:00.  In the meantime we have moved to Ithaca, New York and my regular runs have grown quite hilly.  About a month ago I started to think that this race in Columbus just might be my chance to go for a new personal best.  I had been training well, the course was flat as could be, and the weather was forecast to be 40 degrees and clear.  Perfect conditions for me to run fast.

I didn't say it out loud to anyone but my daughter and wife, but in my heart of hearts I decided to shoot for a time close to 1 hour and 40 minutes.  This felt like a time that was right at the very edge of what I was capable of.  The race was huge, with 10,000 runners finishing the half marathon, and there were timing clocks at every mile.  This allowed me to track my pace accurately and kept me on track so that when I got to mile ten I could decide how hard to push through the last miles.  I felt great at Mile 10, so I kept going hard.

I was still doing well at mile 12--(somewhere around 1:32:10)--and reached deep to run the final 1.1 miles in around 7:30--pretty darned fast for me.  I kicked in under the finish banner at 1:39:46, for my fastest half marathon ever.  And then I showered and drove away, hoping to get back to Ithaca for a meeting I had that night at 7:30.  It really feels like I will not ever be able to run a faster half. I am still entirely committed to finishing a half marathon in the remaining 36 state, but while driving I set another goal.

It's one that will take at least 43 years and 11 days to reach and I am fully committed to getting there.  I am going to say it out loud here so that anyone who is around then can ask me how it went.  My goal is to be the fastest 90-year old half marathoner ever.  There.  I said it out loud and now the pressure is on.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

My metaphorical weekend

It may be true that people end up choosing hobbies that match their personal sense of the metaphorical. Or maybe we have evolved with brains that are wired to make connections and create metaphors out of whatever we find ourselves doing. In this case, I am not sure which is the cart and which is the horse. But I do know that last weekend I spent both mornings doing things I love. And while doing these things I love, several obvious connections to my life became clear to me.

I spent a few hours Saturday morning preparing our garden. It is still just a little too early to plant much of anything, but before the planting comes the cleanup after a long, snowy winter. We have a tiny patch of grass in front of our house and in the middle of the patch of grass is a roughly-8-foot diameter circle of dirt. Last year three transplanted chrysanthemums were given the run of the place and they went crazy.

Erica and I, as well as many of the passersby who comment on our garden, were impressed by just how prolific these plants were by the end of October. Yet, in spite of their size and overwhelming “florality,” we had independently decided those plants needed to come out this year. So I got the shovel and performed a brutal full-root removal of the three. Once they were gone, the raggedy nature of our little dirt circle became fully clear. The grass was growing over the logs I had used as a border and, in some places, the logs themselves had decomposed and crumbled to dirt as I tried to reposition them.

Without the mum corpses to distract, the patch of ground looked like an unintentional dead spot instead of a garden. I raked out all of the dead leaves, sticks, log bits, and root clumps and put them in a yard waste bag. I took out whatever was left of the border logs and put them in the yard waste bags, too. Yet still the round patch of dirt just looked, well…dirty.

So I went to the backyard storage bin and got out the shovel. I returned with purpose to that dirty circle and planted the tip of the spade right at the border and stepped down on the back edge, pushing the blade all the way in. I then lifted the shovel out, tilted the dirt into the circle, and moved over one shovel-width. In this manner I made my way around the entire patch, creating a neater circle, defining the edge between garden and not-garden much more clearly.

Something about both the violence of the action and the sharpness of the boundary made me feel great.

The following morning I was in Central Park at 7:00. The huge full moon was just going down and bright Vernal Equinox sun was just coming up. There were 10,000 other runners and we were making our way into the starting corrals for the New York City Half Marathon. It was 37 degrees and sparkling clear.

I had been training only moderately hard due to the heavy snows this winter and my very busy January and February. I had no doubts about my ability to finish the race, but I wasn’t sure if I would be able to average less than nine minutes per mile, which was what I wanted to do. The key for me when running a race is to start out slowly. There are often so many people and such a flood of adrenaline that I allow myself to get swept away and I start out far too fast. In New York on Sunday I made myself do the first two miles at a ten-minutes-per-mile pace.

After Mile 2, I did the head-to-toe body check and found that I felt good. My legs were strong, my heart was still beating slowly, my lungs felt fresh, and my brain was in a good place. So I clicked up the pace just one notch and decided to check in again after Mile 5. At the Mile 5 timing clock I saw that I had run Miles 3, 4, and 5 in about 8 minutes and 40 seconds each. And still I felt great. I knew I had three more miles to go in Central Park and then the course would take me down Seventh Avenue to Times Square, over to the Westside Highway, and then down along the Hudson to the finish line near Chambers Street.

When I exited Central Park onto Seventh Avenue a smile spread across my face from ear to ear. It was almost 9 o’clock in the morning and the sun was up high enough to have warmed the air a little. The road was closed to traffic, but the sidewalks were open to spectators and there were thousands of people waving and cheering. Times Square was visible a mile down the road and something about the whole set-up made me giddy. In that moment I felt happier than I have in a long, long time. I felt strong and free and exactly where I wanted to be, doing exactly what I wanted and needed to be doing.

I decided to just forget about the clock and run the last four miles as fast as my body would take me. The course took me west on 42nd Street downhill to the Hudson River, where we turned south on the Westside Highway. The good feeling continued so I kept pushing and before I knew it I was at the finish down by Battery Park in a final pace of 8:13 per mile. The final two miles were both well under eight minutes.

By starting slow and paying attention to how I felt, I had a great race.

I may have gravitated to gardening and running because they present obvious ways for me to think about my life. Or maybe, simply by being human, I use mental free time to find connections between whatever I happen to be doing and my life. Either way, last weekend was literally and metaphorically great.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Colchester Half Marathon

The weather could not have been more beautiful for today's Colchester Half Marathon. It snowed 5 or 6 inches last night and the ground and trees were covered, but the temperature was above 32, so the roads were mostly clear. It made for a peaceful and spectacular run through the hills of Eastern Connecticut. I went with three New Haven friends and we we all agree--it was a GREAT race.

I signed up at the last minute, (after already committing myself to a half in Wilmington, Delaware on March 21), so I was viewing today as a long, slowish training run. For me, that translates to 9:30 per mile. But once I got out there and felt the vibe in the crowd and saw just how stinkin' beautiful it was, I couldn't help but go a little faster. I finished in 1:51:03, for an 8:28 per mile pace. I was more than happy with my time, especially given how hilly the course was.

My only complaint about the entire experience is that the final mile+ is uphill. That hurt. A lot.

On the other hand, (and more than making up for the hill at the end), everyone was happy and welcoming and the post-race meal was excellent.

Even though I live in Connecticut, this is my first half marathon in the state and gets me one step closer to my ultimate goal of running a half marathon in all 50 states.


Thursday, February 25, 2010

High Plains Running


I went for the craziest ten-mile run of my life this morning. Six inches of cold, powdery snow fell two days ago and then asteady 25 to 30 miles-per-hour wind started blowing from the West. Sometimes after a storm, the wind comes down the East slope of the Rockies and out into the Plains, sweeping everything not tied down out ahead of it. The snow streaks across the roads and freezes into a super-slick layer of black ice or gathers into drifts many-inches deep halfway across the lanes of traffic. On a short drive from Billings to Laurel yesterday we passed at least five cars that had spun off the highway and into the ditches on either side of the road.

I am signed-up to run a half marathon in New Hampshire on February 15, so I am on a training schedule that had me doing a ten-mile run today. It seemed like a good idea for me to get out into the cold and the wind—(mid-February on the coast of New Hampshire might just be the same)—so I put on my new Secret Santa running shorts from my cousin Nicole and an undershirt beneath my running shirt and out the door I went.

I got on First Avenue and headed uphill, slowly running my way out of the valley. It was very windy and as the road turned slightly east of north, it struck me that the wind that was whipping me along from behind would soon enough be pummeling me from the front when I turned back for the return five miles. The snow from two days ago was still very light and powdery and the wind was such that the blowing snow never got any higher than six inches off of the ground. It whipped across the fields and across the road in a serpentine motion—looking more like smoke or steam than snow.

The way the blowing snow looked combined with the way it stung my ankles and lower calves to make me think of malicious spirits. I was reminded of Tolkein’s description of Ring Wraiths or the movie depiction of Voldemort in the first Harry Potter film—before He Who Shall Not Be Named has found a body to inhabit.

There was one advantage to the relentless wind that I could not have predicted in advance of my run. Wildlife on the sides of the road couldn’t hear me coming until I was right next to them. In this way I managed to get within 20 feet of a bald eagle as it stood in the snow and picked at the frozen carcass of a mule deer. When the bird finally saw me it didn’t lurch or panic at all. It fixed me in its sharp yellow eye, held steady for a long moment, and then simply opened its wings into the strong headwind and with a slight change in the angle of its feathers it rose up and drifted away in a graceful arc to the east, out over a stumpy cornfield.

I watched the bird for a long moment and then continued my run. By the time I had gone another quarter mile up the road the eagle had circled back around and was once again tearing chunks off of the roadkill deer.

Once I had gone five miles up the road, out of the valley and into the high plains, I had gotten into a rhythm and felt the impulse to just keep running and running and running. The land was so big and the sky so open and the morning so extreme that part of me wanted to be extreme, too. What would happen if I just kept going? How far could I go? My body felt like a machine and the motion was hypnotizing. What I really wanted was to be that eagle and be carried on the wind for as long as it would blow. I felt myself disappearing into the landscape—a tiny dot in the vast sage and scrub landscape. I had no sense of struggle, no awareness of the cold. I was simply moving and wanted to keep moving.

Eventually I turned around, into the wind, and the run became work again. A friendly woman driving by stopped and asked if I wanted a ride back to town. She was apparently moved to pity by the crust of ice coating my lower legs and my beard and mustache. I politely declined her offer and made it back to Grandpa Andy’s house, glad I had made myself go out and sure that my half marathon would be better because of it.

I am also glad that I have my memory of that eagle and of the feeling of self-abnegation that running can sometimes bring.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Going Half Hog

The following post was written just after my 44th birthday, on November 9, 2009. I repost it here to explain the genesis of my decision to run a half marathon in all 50 states.

I went up to Portsmouth, New Hampshire last weekend for a half marathon. It was part of a commitment I made to myself last year that I would run a half marathon every three months until I die. (If you’re going to do something, you might as well go whole hog, right?) Since the promise, I have run the Missoula (MT) Half Marathon twice, the Monson (MA) Memorial Half Marathon, the LOCO Half at the Hamptons (NH), and Boston’s Run to Remember Half Marathon.

Sunday was a beautiful day, so as I waited for the race to start I sat outside stretching in the grass behind Portsmouth High School. After a while I noticed an older woman standing not so far away and, because talking to strangers does not come naturally to me, I made myself walk over and start a conversation with her. Her name was Nancy and she was running the Seacoast Half Marathon as the final leg in her goal to race a half marathon in each of the fifty United States.

We talked for twenty minutes and her story impressed the heck out of me. She didn’t once talk about her times or her pace. For her it was all about being in the race. My conversation with Nancy ended when we got the “ten minutes ‘til start” announcement. We wished each other luck and shortly after, I lost sight of Nancy. Based on the fire and zest for life she showed during our conversation, I am sure she finished and made good on her goal.

While I was running through Portsmouth, my wife, Erica, was jumping out of a perfectly good airplane three times. These jumps were part of a commitment she has made to get licensed to jump on her own anywhere, anytime. (Talk about whole hog!)

After the race, during the 200-mile drive home, I got to thinking about Nancy and about Erica and about going whole hog. And I made up my mind right there on the spot—right where I-95 gets onto I-495 up in the northeast corner of Massachusetts—that I am going to do the same as Nancy. I am going to run a half marathon in all 50 states. I can’t yet put a timeframe on the deal, but I am going to do it.

I have four states down already, if you include the full marathon I ran in Corning, New York in 2002. If you don’t count the Wineglass Marathon, then I have three states down and 47 to go. [I guess this is one of the many technical decisions I will have to make along the way. Nancy was explaining that several of her halfs went through more than one state. She had to decide if those races counted as one state or more. (She decided to count those multi-state races as only one state.)]

Well, what the heck? Here goes nothing. I hereby commit to running a half marathon in every state in the union before I die. So help me, God. I think I will call it going “half hog.” I will keep you posted.

Results: click and then search for the name Dawson from New Haven, CT