On Brotherly Love

Today, a story about my brother Phil, who celebrates yet another birthday on this 18th day of April.

Over the years, Phil has been just about anything that anyone could want in a big brother. He took me to my first concert (Linda Ronstadt), my first NFL game (Cardinals-Giants), my first World Series game (Game 1, 1982) and countless other major and minor events. He has of course been a huge influence on the music I listen to (although of late, his tastes have tended a little toward the twangy). He’s my perfect counterpart on the sociability scale; while I pretty much keep to myself, he knows everybody, everywhere—it’s impossible to be in public with him without him running into someone he knows. In conversation, he throws out straight lines like Tom Niedenfuer tossing gopher balls to the ’85 Cardinals. He’s perhaps the only person I know who is truly conversant in Formula 1. And it turns out, after all, that he was right about First Congregational Church.

In short, I love my brother.

Except when I hate him.

And on the morning of October 1 last year, at exactly 8:29 a.m., I hated him.

That was the day of the “Ivory Crockett Run 4 Webster,” a four-mile running race through the streets of our hometown of Webster Groves, Mo. After a spring and summer of back problems, it was to be my first (and, as it turned out, my only) race of 2011, so I was already a little anxious about how things would go.

And then Phil showed up. He’d had a rough running year, too, primarily because of knee problems. Right up to that day, he’d been non-committal about whether or not he’d actually run, and when he wasn’t there as we started to line up, I figured he’d decided against it. But then, just seconds before the scheduled start, there he was, with a number pinned on, ready to go.

Looking at the totality of our races against each other over the years, Phil and I are probably fairly evenly matched. There have been times when I’ve been stronger, and times when he’s been stronger. I’m pretty sure I have faster PRs than his at most of the shorter distances, but he definitely has a better marathon PR. But it’s not like we’re competitive or anything.

OK, well, I guess maybe a little competitive…

Did I mention that Phil is eight years older than I am? It’s been that way all our lives, despite my efforts to catch up.

Anyway, as I said, it had been a rough year for both of us in terms of running, so neither one of us was really sure how the other was doing. But we both knew that whoever crossed the finish line first would have major bragging rights until the next time we met on a starting line. (For the record, the last time we’d raced together was 10 months earlier, at Pere Marquette, Ill., and I came in ahead of him. By a pretty good margin. Just in case you were wondering.)

The thing is, for my first race of the year, it would have been nice to not have any extra pressure, to just be able to run my own race according to how I felt, and not worry so much about the time. If I felt good, I could let it rip and try to nab an age-group award. If not, no big deal. But with my brother in the race, there was no choice.

Complicating matters on this day was a wildcard: Pastor Dave Denoon—Phil’s  and soon-to-be-my minister—was also running the race, and he and I were standing together at the start when Phil showed up. I had no idea about Dave’s running abilities, but to be honest, there was no pressure in that matchup; we had less than three months of mutual history, so the bragging rights were much, much less significant than between Phil and me, with more than 50 years of fraternal jousting behind us.

So the three of us toed the starting line, along with a couple of hundred other runners. There were pre-race ceremonies: Ivory Crockett himself said a few words. And then the starter’s horn, and we were off.

The course started out with a slight uphill, up Lockwood toward Phil’s and Dave’s—and soon-to-be-my—church, and for that first quarter mile or so the three of us ran together. Great, just great. I knew, though, that Phil’s knee problems and the resulting lack of fitness—not to mention his lack of a warmup—were eventually going to pull him backwards and I’d be able to relax a little bit. But as we ran down the next hill, and up the one after that by the YMCA, Phil was right there, matching me stride for stride. I could no longer see Dave, so I assumed he’d dropped back a little bit.

I generally don’t talk much when I run, and by the time we were through that first hilly mile I’m sure I wasn’t talking at all. Still, my brother was unshakable. The next mile was (relatively) flatter, but having taken the first mile out much faster than I would have otherwise, I was hurting severely. And of course trying desperately not to show it.

After two miles, it was clear to me that those “knee problems” were just a ruse. Gasping for breath, I was laboring to keep up with him.

And then, after a long, gentle downhill at about 2-1/2 miles, there was a gift from above: without warning, Phil pulled off to the side. I glanced back, and he was bending over to tie his shoe. I felt a little bad for him, and to be sporting, I probably should have slowed down so it wouldn’t have cost him too much in our friendly competition.

Did I say friendly? Had I been able, I would have stepped on the gas and buried him when I had the chance—think Contador/Schleck—but of course I had no gas left to step on. So I pretty much tried to keep up the same pace, but it was with a decidedly more relaxed mood. Relaxed … except that I knew that the race’s hardest segment was just ahead.

“Gentle downhills” always come at a price. On this race course, the price is the long, steep climb up Swon Ave. This unrelenting hill comes at just before three miles, and seems, itself, to be about three miles long. When the Ivory Crockett race approaches each fall, I try to run the hill in training a few times, but it never, ever, gets any easier, no matter how many times I scale it. On this day, even though I no longer had to worry about Phil, I was still worried about that Swon hill.

And my worries were justified. After trashing my cardiovascular system in the first 2-1/2 miles of the race, I had nothing left for the hill. I tried my best to persevere, and to talk myself into persevering, and to force my legs to keep running, but about two-thirds of the way up the hill I just … failed. If I’d been in better shape, and maybe if I’d had a few races under my belt for the season, I could have found the willpower to keep going despite my complete physical depletion, but I just ran out of arguments with my body, and slowed for a walk-break. Just enough, I told myself, to get my breath back, and then I’d have something in the tank for the last mile of the race.

First of all, though, going up a hill like that, you don’t “get your breath back,” even when you stop to walk. Secondly, I knew that Phil was still behind me, and now rapidly gaining on me. Worse, I figured that he had probably joined up with Dave, and they were undoubtedly conspiring to pass me together, just as, I suspected, they had conspired to get me back into the church.

Perhaps it was that thought that got me going again. In any case, after a short stint of walking (15 seconds? 10 minutes? It’s impossible to judge time in a situation like that), I managed to get my legs running again, and crested the hill. There followed a short but regenerating downhill, and then another slow uphill, before a long, flat straightaway to the finish. Despite my walking break, I hadn’t seen Phil and Dave pass me, but I knew they were now just behind … unless they had found the Swon hill just as difficult as I had. I could swear, though, that I heard their voices behind me, and it sounded like they were laughing.

But still, they didn’t pass me, and as I made it up that next uphill, I was starting to think that maybe I had this one in the bag.

You might think that I could just turn around and look behind me to see if they were there, but turning around is always a dangerous proposition while running, especially in a race when your faculties are already diminished by oxygen debt. About the only chance you get to look back is when you turn a corner, and then you can take a quick peek to see what might be coming up behind you. As I swung wide on that last corner before the final stretch, I turned my head, and there was Phil—galloping around the corner and sprinting past me. Uh-oh, here we go again.

At this point we had maybe a third of a mile to go to the finish line. I knew that he must have expended a lot of energy to catch up to me after stopping to tie his shoe. But he had managed to slingshot past me after that corner, and had opened up about a 10-yard lead. With my legs and my lungs screaming at me, I slowly reeled him in, so that with about two blocks to go I was almost up to his shoulder, but it was all I could do. There was nothing left, and he slipped away again, and he sprinted across the finish line seven seconds before I staggered across. A few seconds later, Pastor Dave made his way to the finish, smiling as always.

Phil, it turned out, was the victor in his age group. Since he’s so much older than I am, we are in different classifications, and in my more youthful and vibrant age group I was a mere fourth place, one spot out of the money, so to speak. Age groups don’t mean a thing, though; what’s important is those bragging rights, and Phil gets to hold those until we race again. And with those “knee problems,” he might just be able to put off that meeting indefinitely.

Anyway, a big Happy Birthday to my big brother. And I was just kidding about that hate thing. Sort of.

Scorcher Four – Part 2

Note: this is the second part of a two-part series; part one is here.

It was raining when I left the house. By the time the race started, the sun was out. The perfect St. Louis recipe for … humidity!

But no one ever said the weather conditions for today’s Scorcher Four race in U.City would be ideal. It’s in St. Louis in mid-August, after all, and the “Scorcher” name was well-chosen by the race’s sponsors, Ghisallo Running.

I had everything pretty well planned out for this race, but the one thing I failed to set up was my music plan. I should have stuck a CD in the car of appropriate songs — something by The Who would have been nice — but I completely forgot, and was stuck with the radio. The last song I heard before arriving at Ghisallo was “Bad Company” — not exactly ideal music to have going through your head while trying to run a race.

After a short warmup and a little stretching — my right calf muscle, in particular, has been problematical lately — I was ready for the start. There were a lot of skinny runner-types there, and I could see early on that I wasn’t going to be competing for any prizes today. That’s fine. The starting crowd was a little strange; normally lots of people try to crowd up on the starting line, but most of this group held back, so there was actually a loosely populated gap for about 15 feet behind the “elites” at the line and the bulk of the runners. I placed myself in that gap, and when the horn blew started off at what I thought would be a comfortable pace.

The course was slightly downhill for the first quarter mile or so, and then there were some little up-and-downs until the one-mile mark, which was at the base of a short but steep hill. My split for that first mile was a very encouraging 6:38, but as we headed up the hill to start Mile 2, I knew that wouldn’t be repeated.

I used to love hills. I live in a fairly hilly area, and I would always attack the hills when I’d run. When I’d get in races, I’d consistently pass people on the uphills. Inevitably, they would pass me back on the downhills, because I never really stressed that aspect, but I’d always blow everyone else away uphill.

No more, though. The hills today were killing me just as much as everybody else.

“Bad company, ’til the day I die…” It’s a mediocre song to begin with, made unseemly by the fact that the band named the song after itself, or named itself after the band, whatever. Anyway, it’s never been on my list of high-energy running songs. I tried to get myself thinking of the song “Gettin’ in Tune” from Who’s Next; also not a high-energy song, but good enough. It worked for a while — that’s a pretty easy song to shift to, if you ever find yourself in that situation — but before long the hills were driving any thoughts of music out of my head anyway.

Mile 2 was much slower: 7:17. No surprise, considering it was net uphill mile by a wide margin. There was a very welcome water stop about halfway through, immediately followed by the longest hill of the race, up Delmar Blvd. By the third mile, it was just a game of survival: how could I make it to the finish without melting into the pavement? That Mile 3 split was 7:11, and should have been faster, considering it was slightly downhill.

At three miles, there was a feeling of relief, both that the race was nearly over, and from my memory of a year ago that it was mostly downhill from there. The field was pretty spread out by then, of course, and I was just trying to hold my own with the few people running near me. Up ahead I could see Charles K., who for many years has been the closest thing to a “rival” I’ve had in local running races. For a while we were so evenly matched that our names would almost always end up right next to each other in race result lists. These days, though, he’s comfortably ahead of me; I could see him up ahead for most of the race, but there’s a difference between seeing and catching.

Down a hill and a turn onto the “homestretch.” That last section was slightly uphill, but by then it didn’t really matter much. I didn’t really have a goal going into this race, but it now looked like I had a real shot at finishing under 28 minutes. I picked up the pace as much as I could — not really “sprinting,” but just a faster, steady pace — and rolled across the line in 27:58. Compared with last year’s 31 minutes-plus, it was a huge improvement — that alone is enough for me to consider it a successful race. I felt pretty good afterward, although drenched in sweat.

After a short cooldown run, I happened to run into Al B., a friend of my brother’s and with whom I’ve run a few races over the last year. Al completed the Lake Zurich Ironman Triathlon a few weeks ago, and we chatted about our summers and our future plans, but not much about the day’s race. Shortly after that, I took off and headed for home, not wanting to hang around for the awards ceremony.

But not long after I got here, there was a Facebook message from Al — we had both won awards in our age group. Cool! Now I know that age-group trophies for these races aren’t a big deal, but it certainly does feel good to win one once in a while. That definitely adds to the “success” level of the race for me.

So that’s about it. If you’re really a geek, try out this link: http://connect.garmin.com/activity/44467500?sms_ss=email. It’s the race profile from my Garmin GPS watch. Not only does it give speed and distance (it measured the race at 4.03 miles; a pretty small margin of error considering the inevitable weaving back and forth in a crowd of runners) but it also gives elevation and even my heart rate throughout. I don’t fully trust the heart-rate information, however; it consistently gives readings that are much higher than they should be for my age; if I hit 198 bpm like this data says, at age 51 I should be, well, dead. But the other info can be fascinating for us geeks. Hit the “Player” button near the upper right, and you can actually see my race played out in sped-up time. Make it full-screen, hit the Go button and watch my little red arrow zip around the course and up and down the hills, all the while with constant readouts of pace, elevation and heart rate. I love my Garmin.

For the rest of you non-geeks, TMI, I know, I know.

Scorcher Four – Part 1

One year ago, I entered the Scorcher Four running race; it was my first race in three or four years after a long layoff due primarily to knee problems.

The Scorcher Four is a four-mile (natch) race that circles through the streets in University City, Mo. It is sponsored by Ghisallo Running, and it starts and finishes in front of their U. City store. Not only does it come during the hottest part of the year, but the course seems to find every single hill in that municipality.

Needless to say, I was apprehensive. Not just because of the hills and the heat and the fact that it was my first race in a while, but I had also really only been running again for about two months. I’d gotten in a few long runs, but my “comeback” was definitely still a work in progress.

I tried to take it easy in the race, but those hills were mean. After about two miles, I was seriously considering talking a walking break. But I forced myself to keep running and I made it to the end, with even a little sprint in the last quarter mile. My time, though, was much slower than I know I could have done when I was in shape (and younger). For the record, it was 31:11, an average of 7:48 per mile.

Well, now I’m in better shape … although certainly no younger. While last year I ran a total of about 50 miles in June and July, this year I ran 185 miles in that same time frame.

The 2010 Scorcher Four is coming up this morning, and once again I’ll be toeing the line. I’ll post here again after the race, and we can see how far I’ve come in the last year.

ETA: For my after-action race report, click here.

Quivering Quads Trail Half Marathon

Stretched out in front of us was a ribbon of muck, sprinkled liberally with puddles of water. Our shoes, when we’d pull them up out of the mud, made a sucking sound that would make Ross Perot proud.  “This,” the starter told us,” is the best-groomed part of the course.”

And he wasn’t kidding. We stood at the start of the Quivering Quads Trail Half Marathon in Cuivre River State Park in Troy, Mo. As he said, the first 1.8 miles of the race was on what would be, in drier times, a one-lane dirt road. But Troy had seen some rain in the last few days, and the dirt road had dissolved into the goo pit that lay before us.

The race, with 400 entrants, was divided … Keep reading

Slouching Into 2010

On March 21, I’ll be running the Quivering Quads Half-Marathon in Troy, Mo. This is a trail race,  through a state park on a course that varies “from smooth to very rough, dry to very muddy, and flat to very hilly. Racers may have to cross ankle-deep streams as they pass through forests of white oak and limestone glades filled with turkey, deer and foxes,” according to the course description.

As often happens, it seemed like a good idea when I signed up, but now I’m having second thoughts…

In pain -- but still upright! -- at the finish of the 2003 Chicago Marathon.

My recent history of running has been, let’s say, checkered. Long story short, although I’ve considered myself “a runner” for more than half my life, I haven’t done much running the last few years. After a bipolar experience in my one and only marathon (Chicago 2003), I began suffering some serious knee pain, and there were many times in the next few years when I thought I would never run again, let alone try another marathon. Then I’d start up again for a couple of weeks, the pain would come back, and I’d quit for a few more months. Finally, about a year ago, I decided  it was time to get some professional help. I went to a orthopedist, who diagnosed tendonitis and gave me a ticket to physical therapy. For several months over the summer, the folks at the Sports Medicine and Training Center in Webster Groves worked me, bounced me, shocked me and stretched me, and although it didn’t seem to be working for a while, all of a sudden things started to fall into place, and by the end of the summer I was able to run basically pain-free. Amazing!

For Father’s Day/my birthday, Jean gave me a Garmin GPS watch with a heart rate monitor, which fueled my compulsion for keeping statistics on my running (in July I ran 51.5 miles, in August 77.93 miles, etc.) and got me started on keeping track of my heart rate.

In November, I watched as American Meb Keflezghi won the New York Marathon. He was an inspiration, of course, but it was also cool to see all of the back markers getting a tour of the city’s boroughs at six miles an hour. I could do that, I thought. Suddenly, my running had a new purpose. For the rest of the month of November, I did one run each weekend of at least 10 miles, and a during-the-week run of at least five miles. I began thinking about marathons in 2010.

Then, a nasty uppercut/jab combination laid me out. I ran the 10-mile Great River Road Race in Alton, Ill., at the end of November, and inexplicably took it out in a 7-minute pace. By four miles I was in agony, and by six miles I was taking extended walking breaks, my right hamstring in flames. A lousy race for me, but I figured I made a mistake, would learn from it, and bounce back. Nope. The next time I ran, the pain was in both my hamstring and my calf, bad enough that I end up taking about a week off to let them heal. I thought I was better when it was time for the Pere Marquette Trail Run two weeks later, but about two miles into that race my calf felt like it was ripped in half, and I finished the course in a humiliating mix of limp/walking and limp/running, and then basically shelved the running shoes for the rest of the year.

I decided to ease my way into 2010; I joined a gym, and, using a recumbent bike and a treadmill, I slowly worked to restore my fitness. By the fourth week of January, I got back out onto the roads — and felt pretty good. I actually managed a 10-miler on February 6.

Then it snowed. Not much, but enough that I needed to shovel the walk. It was a nice, light, fluffy snow, and certainly no trouble to shovel it off. But my 50-year-old back thought otherwise. I must have tweaked something in my lower back, because I was hobbling the next day. Actually, though, the pain wasn’t awful, and it had cleared up enough over the next three days that on Friday I did a two-mile “trial run” to see if running would hurt it more — it didn’t — and then on Saturday went for another 10-miler.

I spent most of Sunday lying down.

I guess 10 miles of pounding wasn’t the best thing for my back. I’ve been gobbling a cocktail of over-the-counter pain relievers all week (and of course not running), and only now is it starting to feel better. I’ve given up on the idea of a 10-miler every weekend — at least for this weekend — and now I’m just hoping to get back into it enough by March 21 to be able to finish that trail race with at least a modicum of respectability. I’ll keep you posted.