Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Perpetual Growth

I meant no harm. I most truly did not.
But I had to grow bigger. So bigger I got.
I biggered my factory. I biggered my roads.
I biggered my wagons. I biggered the loads
of the Thneeds I shipped out. I was shipping them forth
to the South! To the East! To the West! To the North!
I went right on biggering … 

- Dr. Seuss, The Lorax

As far as I can figure, the concept of perpetual growth is centered around economics and the belief that economies can just grow, and grow, and grow into, well, perpetuity.  As a runner, and especially as a runner who fancies himself being "competitive," this model of perpetual growth is something that I would like to achieve in my practice.  And, as a runner (especially as a runner who fancies himself to be "competitive"), growth is most easily measured in numbers, by the time on the clock.  For the clock never lies.  So what happens when the clock tells us we’re slowing down?

Stone Cat 2013 was a bit of a game time decision for me.  After putting myself in the hospital during the VT 100 in July, I didn't run much for about 5 weeks.  When I started training again, around the start of September, it was clear my fitness had taken several steps back.  My heart rate was spiking on easy runs, at paces that had been casual jogs.  My "workouts" were lackluster, and, what little speed I had built before Vermont seemed to have vanished in the Mt. Ascutney Hospital ER.  In 2007 Stone Cat had been my first race ever (a DNF after 3 loops), and each year I have returned with one intention: to run my heart (and legs) out.  It is the one race I consciously run to win.  It is the one race where I consciously strive for the course record.  I desire to run Stone Cat at such a high level that, when training started again, I was not confident I would be up to the task.  For the clock never lies.  And the clock told me I was moving slowly.

It was the end of September when things started to "click." I repeated a workout from the first week of my training cycle, and knew the cobwebs had been cleared (for the clock never lies).  My "speed" was getting back to where it had been pre-VT 100.  I became giddy thinking about running around Willowdale on November 2, picturing the start line, seeing the volunteers at each aid station (the cries of "BACON!" at Al's Aid Station!), the smell of the leaves on the ground, and my "special" section, the only one I remember from the first year, between Al's and Fast Freddies, running on pine needles by the water.  I began the pre-dawn, weekend sojourns to train on the course.  I had my nutrition dialed.  I figured the heart rate I should keep early on to run even splits.  I did long runs on the course, pushing hard the last hour, so the mind and body would know exactly what to do on race day.  I ran my fastest loop ever on the course .  I was confident because the clock never lies.  I began to visualize crossing the line on Nov. 2, the clock at 6:00 even.  

Following TARC's Fall Classic two weeks pre-Stone Cat, Jerimy Arnold invited a number of friends to his house to trade war-stories and talk smack about how we all ran.  Although we missed it ourselves, but liking the idea and ethos behind it, Liz (my dear and lovely wife) and I decided to make Stone Cat 2013 a social affair.  It began by inviting Sebastien Roulier (this year's winner and new course record holder) to stay with us pre-race, as he would be driving down from Quebec on Friday.  It ended around the fire pit in our backyard, with some incredible people, laughing at our collective eccentricities, sharing some great food, talking smack, and planning future adventures.  

In between these two social-bookends, there was the event that ostensibly brought us all together: the actual running of Stone Cat (a social event unto itself!).  Like the Onceler in Dr. Seuss's tale above, my approach to Stone Cat is that I always must be "biggering" (and by "biggering" I mean running faster, actually making the time on the course smaller . . .).  My first run in 2007 ended in a 3-loop DNF.  In 2010, I returned to get 2nd place, in 6:40.  2011, 1st, 6:29.  2012, 2nd, 6:18.  Since "returning" to the race, I had improved my time by 11 minutes each year.  Naturally, like the Onceler, I believed, ". . . I had to grow bigger . . ." I had put in the training.  I was ready to run fast (and shouldn't it be 11 minutes faster?).  Alas, this year, in addition to the (incredibly delicious and perfect) pumpkin pie at the finish line aid station, I got a decent helping of humble pie.  For the clock never lies.

Starting the fourth loop of this year's race, I knew three things for certain: One, Sebastien was running like an absolute madman.  Two, my third loop had been 9 minutes slower than my first two, and my legs were not responding to my mental drive.  And three, Sam Jurek was going to share these last miles with me.  Of these three, sharing the miles with Sam was the most important.  Sam and I have shared many miles over the years, and he's seen me at my lowest of lows.  He knows that my approach to running is about meeting personal goals and challenges more than anything.  Yet he still "gets" the special place Stone Cat holds in my running world and life.  Without any prompting, he said the four perfect words to keep me moving: "Think about the PR." I was still smiling on the third loop, and grunting on the fourth, but these words were the ones that made me try to push harder, even when I could tell the legs were not moving like I wanted them to.  As we approached the end at the edge of field, running that open stretch to the finish, I finally mustered some words to Sam, "I'd love a PR, but I'm not too optimistic." The clock never lies, and I crossed in 6:24:23, about 5:30 slower than last year.  

A couple of years ago, this result would have really bothered me.  At the time, even though I didn't (and still don't) race terribly often, I put too much stock in measuring growth by the clock.  A slower time simply meant a lack of growth.  The clock never lies.  But the clock only measures one aspect of our performance, of our running.  The clock doesn't measure the number of people who, as Diesel-san and I have discussed, "brought a chair" to hang out after their finish.  The clock doesn't measure the joy taken in the incredible November day, or the volunteers and supporters out on the course.  Don't get me wrong, I still want to come back and own the course record for Stone Cat, and the only way that is measured is by the clock.  But, I'm coming to realize it is not the clock that brings meaning to me, as a runner, and more importantly, as a person.  I will continue to train hard with the hopes of "biggering" my results.  In the hopes that the discipline and focus of the act of training will somehow help me become a more understanding and compassionate person.  But I will also recognize the absolute importance of embracing the experience with family and friends.  The Stone Cat experience began with Sebastien arriving Friday night.  The race began on a near perfect, pre-dawn morning, with 300+ souls entering into a great adventure and continued with me checking splits and heart rate.  The race concluded at a finish line with a clock and the pressing of "STOP" on my watch, but also in the company of great friends (especially Sam and Scott Traer, who had both helped crew during the run, and Steven "Sir Bard" Latour, who handed me the finisher's prize) and my family.  The Stone Cat experience finally ended as the last embers faded from the night's fire, and everyone said, "Adios" (or, as they apparently say in Germany, "CHOOOOOSE!").  

My take from this year's Stone Cat?  There's nothing wrong with seeking perpetual growth, nothing wrong with constantly "biggering" ourselves.  We've just got to keep an eye out for what, exactly, we are trying to "bigger."  Still, I won't feel too bad crossing that finish line with the clock reading 5:59 next year!

- Inov-8 Trailroc 245s
- Tailwind Nutrition drink (AWESOME!).  ~275 calories/20 ounce bottle
- Injinji Trail Sock
- 4 VFuel gels