Earlier in the week I learned that two friends from my youth had died, in their sixties, from cancer. Their names were Bill Slauson and Jim McCurry. Bill was a university teacher, researcher, philosopher and botanist. Jim was a college professor and poet. Both were good men with many talents. I wished, too late, that I had followed their lives more closely, but the tides carried us in different directions, to different places and interests.
The crack of the starting gun brought me back to realtime. No time for deep thoughts and reminiscences, the race was on! I punched my stopwatch. 29th Street was smoother and more forgiving than I was used to. I felt too strong to stop and listen to the Blues Brothers at .6 miles, and passed through the first mile 30 seconds faster than planned. Then I ran right by the great Elvis impersonator at 1.8 miles and was still under pace. I ran by a water station. Of course, when it dawned on me the pace was unsustainable, it was too late. The lactic acid was already doing its work. By the time I got to the belly dancers at mile 3, I was slowing, but I didn't want to lose more time than necessary and try to get back on pace, so I ran by them too.
I pushed through the next couple miles, which is slightly downhill. With a mile left, I passed a mother and her 10-ish son, who was holding his side. He told his mom he wanted to walk because his side hurt. She said, "No, we need to stay on pace. This is a race." Most of the people passing me were younger, and I remembered how a few decades ago I used to be able to run more than two minutes a mile faster than I do now, but even then I wished it was faster. Although I felt heavy and tired, time flew, and before I knew it I was on the bouncy track inside Folsom Stadium.
As I crossed the finish, I stopped my watch -- no surprise, slower than I wished. Another Bolder Boulder. In some ways I was more disappointed that I didn't take the time to catch more of the eclectic entertainment along the course. I always assume that the Blues Brothers and Elvis and all the others will always be there as they have been for years, but someday they won't, nor will I. Races are measured in fractions of seconds, seconds, minutes. It's fun to pretend those times are important, though in the great scheme of things we know they aren't.
Standing in a long line of several long lines to pick up post-race refreshments, the 20-something in front of me told his friend, "Man, I don't know what happened to me. I trained harder than ever. I worked my ass off. Then I run slower than last year." I felt his pain.
After drinking a free Ultra Michelob beer (not bad for 8:30 am -- after a race everything is permitted), I walked to my car to get some dry clothes. I passed a guy in his late teens, who was on a cell phone. He was explaining that he ran it in 44 minutes but felt like shit, maybe because he ate a giant burrito from a fast food joint the night before. He just didn' t know what happened. I felt his pain, too.
After I got back to the stadium, a friend joined me up in the stands where we meet every year after the citizens race to watch to elite races and the Memorial Day celebration. I asked him how it went. He said he had a good race, but wasn't able to break his PR. He and a friend from his running club pushed hard the first three kilometers but realized it just wasn't there and they cruised the rest. He was a little disappointed, though his time was great for a TOJ. I didn't feel his pain. There's no telling how good he might have been during his prime when he was in medical school, which I'm sure he thinks about as well.
Later my wife joined us. This was the first time she had run a full 10K. After walking it for years, she decided to run it. She had trained hard and completed the course faster than ever. I was glad for her. There were no if onlys, excuses, regrets. Just deep fatigue and satisfaction. She said next year she would try to beat her time, though it would be harder because she would be a year older. Whoops, I realized she had caught the bug. I wondered why these target times are so important and why they are usually just out of reach. Is it a yet-to-be-named psychiatric disorder common to runners?
Each year now, my goal is to run a time in minutes less than my age in years. So far, so good. But soon, I will reach the crossover point, where I can't anymore. When that time comes, I'll still participate in the Bolder Boulder and stop and listen to a whole song by the Blues Brothers and Elvis and the young bands too. I'll dance with the belly dancers.
1972 Olympic Gold Medalist Frank Shorter did the live commentary for the elite women's and men's races, which were on the JumboTron. He told a stadium full of 40,000 plus people that the elites were running at a very fast pace, and added for every runner there, at all levels, that weather could not be used as an excuse for a slow time because it was perfect. In fact, he said, the atmospheric conditions were actually pooling additional oxygen onto the course, which is above 5,000 feet, that would help everyone run faster.
He was right, the weather was perfect for the race. Everything about the race was perfect, whether you ran it slow or fast. The Bolder Boulder is one of the great ones. The race, the bands, the volunteers, the elites, the skydivers, the tribute to veterans. The final event of the day was a low fly over by three dark fighters that roared above against an even darker sky. All the time we had been enjoying the scene in the stadium, a black thunderhead had been sneaking up from the south.
The second the jets passed, marking the end of the 2009 Bolder Boulder, the rain came down hard. We were all soaked and happy.
I remembered of a couple lines by the great poet Dylan Thomas:
And I am dumb to tell a weather’s wind
How time has ticked a heaven round the stars.
I thought about what a beautiful day it was, and how time passes. We are so lucky to be alive.
A good shoe is the most important purchase a runner makes, and that's even more true for a TOJ who needs good protection because his/her body already has wear and tear. I've never scrimped on running shoes and have owned over a hundred pair. Many of them have ended up barely used at a bargain price in a Goodwill store, and, hopefully, on the feet of somebody for whom they were perfect. Even after years of running, finding the best shoe takes some study and luck.
The comparative performance ratings in the running magazines and online are getting better and better at objectively assessing some of the important differences that exist between shoes. As one who ran in the Adidas Cross Country and early Nikes with a black rubber waffle sole, I can attest that all the engineering and materials in today's shoes have really improved their durability and performance. The innovations in new shoes are not all marketing hype. I use the ratings to pick out a half dozen or so promising candidates, if I'm ready to take the risk of a model or brand change.
But I also try to ignore the lure of the hot looking shoes on the lean and mean (10K, marathon, ultra, whatever) superstar in the ads showing him or her triumphantly breaking the finish ribbon. I (or likely you either) don't belong in that shoe because I neither run nor am physically like the guy in the ad. And though the zippy graphics on his shoes are cool, they won't protect me in steep, rocky and remote terrain.
Of course, you have to do the in-the-store drill. Put on socks of the same weight and material in which you prefer to run. Try on both shoes. Lace them just as you would when you are going to run. Check that there's a about 1/4 thumb of space between your toes and the end of the shoe. Check that the heel cup is snug but not tight, and that your forefoot doesn't float sideways and isn't cramped. Walk then jog around the store (or outside if allowed) to see if there are any spots that rub (even a little bit!), if you feel stable, and adequately cushioned the full length of the foot, especially under the arch. If they feel close-to-perfect, congratulations, there's a chance they might work.
You may not really know if the shoes are right for you until you've run anywhere from 1 to 50 miles. I've had shoes that made me slightly change my gait. My feet felt fine, but during the run I would notice something didn't feel right, like I wasn't centered over the shoe or I needed to run slightly pigeon-toed to get them to roll properly trough a full stride.
Even small changes in the way you naturally run can cause a repetitive motion injury that manifests elsewhere in your body. While running, your whole body is rewarded or punished by your shoes. Even a couple of degrees of change in the angle a shoe engages the road or trail surface can radiate out of the feet to the knees and hips. If you start compensating by adjusting your stride by moving your pelvis or arms more, you can aggravate your shoulders and neck, which are a long ways from where your feet pound on the earth. Sometimes you don't even realize it until you feel pain after a hard run.
I bought a pair of North Faces, which felt great in the store. They hugged my foot like a glove and were grippy on the loop I ran around the store. After I bought them, they weren't bad on the trails either for the first part of a run. But after running for a half hour or more, I had low level pain pulsing through my legs, and not in the usual places. I'm a stocky runner who has had an ankle injury and both knees scoped. I expect a little discomfort there. Some soreness, especially in muscles, is to be expected after a long run. To me, it's a pleasant reminder. But I was feeling some pain in my thigh bones and hips joints, too. The shoe just wasn't offering enough cushioning or holding my foot laterally stable. I concluded it might be a good shoe for a lighter runner, but not for me most of the time. I now reserve them for short runs on softer surfaces, where they do fine.
I also have a pair of Montrails that felt a little clunky in the store and a bit roomy in mid-foot. I wasn't sure about them. But the heel absorption felt right and the sole very firm. I gambled and bought them. For the rocky trail where I run often, they work very well. They fit snug enough on my foot, and, more important, they fit they way my body runs. my weight, and the terrain. At the end of the run, my feet and the rest of my body, feel tired and a normal post-workout sore, but there's no unusual pain. That tells me I'm in the right shoe.
Yet my Montrails, like any shoe, have their limits, too. A good shoe may work on one surface but not on another. With the Bolder Boulder 10K coming up, a few months ago I started running once a week on an asphalt country road. Running on mountain trails and asphalt roads is very different, not just because of the difference in hardness of the surfaces. Running trails with steep ups and downs strengthens your legs, but it also shortens your stride length -- not good for a road race. I've also found from wearing a heart rate monitor that I tend to work at a higher rate on flat roads than going up a hill. Road running presents much less variation to the body. So to get ready for the Bolder Boulder, I try to get acclimated to the asphalt and find a mile-by-mile sustainable pace, which is impossible to do with the ups and downs on a mountain trail.
The first couple of times I ran on the asphalt during late winter in my Montrails, I felt crappy. My entire skeleton ached, as did my toes and the middle of my feet. It didn't help that the county went cheap on road maintenance by capping it with 3/4 inch gravel, making a surface that is tough for runners and bikers. On that hard, abrasive surface, the Montrails felt like I was running on short slabs of 2x4, and 10K seemed like a long, long ways. Something was wrong.
I wondered if the problem was due to my shoes. I happened to be in Boulder, Colorado, and went into the Boulder Running Company, a runner's mecca. A nice young woman asked me what I was looking for, how many miles I was running, etc. It was nice to have a store clerk take a TOJ like me seriously.
I told her all about what was going on. She asked me to take off my shoes and socks, then stand evenly on both feet. She told me I had a little over-pronation. After getting my size, she disappeared into the stock room and came back with three pairs of shoes, all of which felt good at first touch. She insisted I take each of them out of the store for a run. I followed her advice and returned sweaty and sold on a pair of Saucony's, a brand I have never owned before. They have made the runs on asphalt much more tolerable, sometimes even pleasurable, and I eagerly anticipate what they will do on the comparatively smooth streets of Boulder. The knowledgeable clerk reminded me of why it's always best to buy your shoes in a speciality store. You want to buy your shoes from someone who loves running as much as you do.
My body has taught me a lot about how to buy running shoes. Thirty years ago I made the right pick about 20% of the time. Now I guess correctly more than 60% the time. It's good the odds are getting so much better because, as a TOJ ages, the physical stakes get much higher. And the return on investment good shoes give me by keeping me on the trail and out of the doctor's office is better than I'll ever earn in my IRA. I figure I better buy more running shoes to save more money.
For a few months before the race, I run a little harder knowing it's coming. For me, it's a rite of Spring. About eight weeks before the race, I abandon my dirt trail for a paved county road through a sprawling ranch. The cattle and horses watch curiously as I pass by, huffing and puffing and glancing at my watch for mile split-times as I try to discover a sustainable pace. My goal is always to run equal to or less than my age. It's one time when it helps to get older -- it’s much tougher to run your age when you are 35 than it is when you are over 50.
I hesitate to say I compete in the Boulder Bolder. I certainly don't compete against the elite runners, whom you get to watch race out of the stadium, and then follow on a giant JumboTron screen with live commentary by Frank Shorter. They will run a mile almost twice as fast as I will. And I've never bought into the idea that you compete against yourself. That sounds schizophrenic, like there's a real you who is fast and disciplined, and an alter-you (most likely to show up for the race) who is a lazy slacker. I'll run what what I run, harder than normal because that's what you do that day.
Lots of variables will affect my performance: the temperature, biorhythms, how much beer I drink at the pre-race party the day before, and time lost when I slow down to watch the Blues Brothers, an Elvis impersonator and the belly dancers. A few weeks later, a nice report will arrive in the mail with finish time, actual split times, where I finished in my age group, overall, etc. And if you can't wait to know your exact time, the results are posted on the Internet later than night.
For a TOJ, competing is good if you need motivation and a goal, but it can ruin the fun if you take it too seriously. You can train too hard and get sick or be constantly disappointed. I have a friend who is a very fine older runner. He participates with a serious running group with a top coach and follows a tough, systematic training regimen, but he invariably picks a target time that just out of reach for him. Despite impressive times for his age, he feels he needs to train harder or lose more weight (he's already too thin). I've yet to ask him after a race how it went, and him to answer, "I did great." Likewise, it was sad to see Kara Goucher so upset after her recent incredible performance at the Boston Marathon. After leading most of the race, she was caught in the last mile by runner from Kenya and Ethiopia, and lost by only 9 seconds.
Personally, I find it liberating to realize that I won't be competing. The elite runners are remarkably gifted, well-trained, young and vying for prize money. I enjoy watching them. But for me, the best thing about the Bolder Boulder is participating with all the other also rans. Everyone gets to give it a shot, be out there on the course, all 10,000 meters of it, and finish in a stadium full of cheering people. If you are lucky and you peak just right, you will run the best you could on that Memorial Day. Maybe you will beat some abstract time on a clock, but better yet, you will feel joyous to be alive.
It was interesting the way the press reacted to Usain Bolt, the incredible Jamaican sprinter who broke the world record in the 100 meter dash in the Beijing Olympics, because he slowed down slightly when he knew he had the race won. He could have run it even faster, but instead he started waving to the crowd before he even crossed the finish line. The rap against him was that he did not take the Olympic competition seriously enough. When he walked onto the track a couple nights later for the 200 meter dash (which he also won and set another record), he was clowning for the cameras as he walked into the starting area in a line of somber fellow competitors. A TV guy asked him how he could be so loose -- wasn't he nervous? Bolt said of course he was, but he was just trying to have some fun.
When I'm at the starting line of the Bolder Boulder in a couple of weeks, and Springsteen's "Born to Run" is blaring over the giant speakers, and the adrenaline kicks in as the E Wave approaches the starting line, I'll remember what I learned from the cool Jamaican: Run hard, have fun.