On the fells again

November 30, 2009

Stumbled on this British father and son race that gets at the spirit of the sport. I want that blue Volkswagen van and I want in on their family race — though I think the lad gave it to his da’.

Also, that appears to be a New Balance 840 being laced up, so maybe I’m not such a sucker after all. 




Joss Naylor in song

November 29, 2009

After the previous post on fell running inspired shoes, I was motivated to poke around for some more information about the legendary Joss Naylor. Maybe all we really need to know is this: In 1975 Naylor ran across 72 peaks, more than 100 miles, and 37,000 feet of ascent in under 24 hours. Or this: In 2006, at age 70, he ran across the tops of 70 fells, more than 50 miles, 25,000 feet of ascent, in under 21 hours. 

Thanks to YouTube, we can hear him celebrated in song. (You really should give this a listen.)


Let us now praise great shoes

November 27, 2009

I happened on these shoes, the New Balance 840, in a downtown shoe shop that mostly sells dress and casual shoes. (Note: I’m writing here of the shoes pictured below, not the ones above, Salomons which might earn their own post someday.) There they were among all the brown and black leather, lonely on a shelf with their bright oranges soles. I’m not going to pretend it was some sort of ugly-puppy pity that made me put down $75 on these shoes that I had no intention of buying when I walked in the store. No, it was something much deeper, being lured in by some nice point-of-purchase marketing copy on the tag looped to the shoelace. The plucky 840, it seems, was inspired by the British tradition of fell running, an ultra-marathon sort of peak bagging.

During high school I had a brief flirtation from afar with fell running when I read a short Sports Illustrated feature on a guy named Joss Naylor, a sheep farmer from the north of England who was dominating the fell running world at the time. I still remember a quote from Naylor when asked about how he was able to be so consistent in his training and racing. He said, “If I know I’ve got to shear one-hundred sheep in a day, then I shear one-hundred sheep.” Or something like that. My running friend Ken Ekstrom and I used to recite it as a mantra.

So, the 840s had me at “fell running.” But beyond that, they offer a nice aggressive rubber-cleated sole (did I mention it’s orange?), and a light enough ride to feel like a race shoe with enough support to comfort the aging gentleman that he’ll finish with his Achilles intact. They’re pretty much an ideal shoe for doing the trail races at the Catamount Outdoor Center, which are mostly grass or packed dirt but also have enough rock ledge that spikes can feel sketchy. Only quibble would be that they’re a little loose in the heel–I stepped in a mud hole during a race, my foot came out, but the shoe stayed behind–so lace them up tight and they’ll serve you well.

You go, Angela

November 25, 2009

I grew up in a house where my dad painted the rec room floor orange with a big blue block I in the middle. That’s I as in Fighting Illini. If you grew up in or anywhere near a Big Ten college town, you’ll understand. That kind of thing runs deep, so I was very excited and strangely proud when I saw that Illinois runner Angela Bizzarri won the 2009 NCAA cross-country championship. You have to go back to Craig Virgin in the 1970s for the last time an Illini runner, male or female, won the NCAAs.

The Big Ten Network does a great job of capturing the race with this video. I always loved those NFL Films productions with the slow motion and the hyper-dramatic music. This video piles it on nicely in the same way. I also love the pure excitement of her two teammates watching the race when they see her edging into the lead in the final straightaway, scream at each other, and sprint off to meet her at the finish.


A race in a song

November 22, 2009

Lately I’ve been listening repeatedly to Wilco’s “War on War” from the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot CD. The whole recording is one of my all-time favorites, and I’ve come to think of “War on War” as musically representing the ideal mental/emotional mindset of a well-run race. (Bear with me now because this might start to sound  like something by a college freshman who has just discovered Psych 101, stereo headphones, and marijuana. I swear I’ve been totally clean while I drive around town in the family wagon and hit #4 on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot for back-to-back-to-back plays.) 

So, what’s going on with “War on War.”

It starts with the up-beat tempo, large strummy chords, synthesizer sounds happy as aquarium bubbles. It’s the first 100 meters of a 5K and all is well with the world. You’re finding your rhythm and your form. You’re finding that line of relaxed intensity.

Then 21 seconds in, something new, synthesizer sounds that aren’t so bubbly. Something alien, vaguely sinister. I’m going to call it the subconscious, the beast within that wells up, takes over, and makes for the best race efforts. Musically, this sort of sound is at the heart of the genius of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. It’s an interplay of pretty pop music sounds and something darker and more interesting, distorted, barely contained noise that time and again emerges into melody like a familiar voice rising from a mob. (There’s a great rockumentary called “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” that’s about the making of this album. In one scene Jay Bennett — late of Wilco, and, very sadly, late of life — refers somewhat condescendingly to lead man Jeff Tweedy’s songs as “little folk ditties,” around which he is trying to create a “sonic landscape.” Yeah,  like he said.) 

Then at 36 seconds the clouds part and the sun shines, a repetitious, cyclical melody, and another kind of synthesizer, something dreamy and ethereal. Let’s say that’s finding a happy place for your mind at that point when a race starts to be work. You hold it together, keep turning them over. The song mostly strides along happily at that point with occasional blurts of sound from that synth beast. Then at 2:51 with the last sung words, “OK,” which sound almost like a surrender, the buzzing and the drums start a race to the song’s last note, it’s the kick, the part of the race where you are harnessed to something altogether out of your control that is getting you to the finish. 

That’s it in 3:49, the tempo steady and quick throughout, rising at the end, enough time for John Walker to run a world record mile in his all-black New Zealand uniform back in the day. 

As for the lyrics, the refrain “you have to lose, you have to learn how to die, if you want to be alive,” no exposition required for those addled with competitive runner syndrome. Extra credit points for creative use of metaphor with the line “you could be my demon moving forward through the flaming doors.” If you’ve worked the finish chute at a high school cross-country meet, you’ve seen such demons. 

You can hear “War on War” here http://www.lala.com/#song/360569462348675512

Or give me a call, I’ll pick you up in the car, and we can drive around and listen to it five or six times.

I wrote the following piece about six years ago for an on-line publication at the University of Vermont called The View. Before the on-the-run interview that forms the basis of the article, I ran with the legendary biologist one other time on the university’s indoor track. That day I was doing hard quarter-mile intervals while Heinrich jogged around the outside lane.  Soon, though, I heard footsteps and looked back to see this guy twenty years my senior following right behind while I ran about as fast as I could. “I just wanted to see if I could do it,” Heinrich said. True in so many cases with Bernd Heinrich—he could. 

In the Long Run

 While running alongside Bernd Heinrich for the early part of a training session that will total 15 miles, words of Ralph Waldo Emerson come to mind. The transcendental sage left most of the woodsy rambles to his little buddy Henry David, but he whole-heartedly endorsed walking the walk. Emerson could have been describing Thoreau and the lithe  62-year-old Professor Heinrich both when he wrote, “In every efficient man there is first a fine animal.”

 Heinrich, of course, is many things – teacher, raven researcher and author among them – but first he is that fine animal. By measure of a stopwatch, a very fast animal who one year ago set an American record for men age 60 and over in the 50-mile run. This weekend, on Oct. 19, Heinrich will have another go at 50 when he competes in Brunswick, Maine over the same course on which he excelled last year.

 His record run in October 2001 recalled running achievements from twenty years before when Heinrich ran to an American record in the 100-kilometer run at a competition in Chicago. Though the ever-active biology professor has stayed in fine shape by nearly any standard through the years, his workouts during his late forties and fifties had more to do with climbing into tree stands or hauling carcasses through the woods to study ravens than logging major miles to prepare for a footrace. That changed as Heinrich simultaneously set to work on his 2001 publication “Racing the Antelope: What Animals Can Teach Us About Running and Life” and began to eye, as though it was prey, the new competitive age category his sixtieth birthday promised. 

  Running into a stiff south wind on the UVM rec path last week, Heinrich says, “I wanted to become very familiar with the motion of running again. I wanted to feel how the arms coordinate with the legs.” He swings his arms and strides deliberately to emphasize the rhythm and nuance of actions most take for granted.  “I wanted to be conscious of all of that again and feel what it is like to be very tired, to reawaken all of those memories.”

 The good news is that Heinrich found his joy in movement was not much different from what he remembered as a forty-something. “I feel like I’m running just as fast. If it wasn’t for the clock, I would think I was still pretty hot shot. But now I think I’m doing six-minute miles and find I’m actually doing eight-minute miles.”

 But Heinrich considers a relatively slower pace a small toll to pay the aging process. “I know I’m not going to get any faster, but on the other hand I say,  ‘My knees are feeling good, I’m running as well as any 60-year-old in the country, so I should be grateful.’ I kind of feel like I’ve had a gift handed to me on a platter. Not to use it would be almost dismissive. I should do what I can do best.”

 Not using that gift would rob Heinrich of an outlet that feeds mind as well as body. For this author, who has received the John Burroughs Medal for Natural History Writing, getting his endorphins dancing is essential to scholarly and creative work. “You get out there for hours at a time and you’re away from a lot of distractions, you can free associate. Besides, I need to work off a certain amount of energy,” Heinrich says.

 Writing books or running ultra-marathons are both beasts that demand diligence and endurance. Working up a hill by Rice High School, the professor describes the parallels of his pursuits with quick phrases between deep breaths, the conversational shorthand of one at home with the anaerobic good life. 

 “With writing you have to keep everything in the mind, keep at it all the time,” Heinrich says. “Step back from a project, it’s just like stepping off the track.” 

– Tom Weaver


November 17, 2009

I played dodgeball yesterday…for two hours straight…against a team of high school kids. Now I am sore, nearly a post-marathon sore of Biblical proportion with the added insult of a deep purple bruise all along the arch of my right foot, the product of  one time when I, you know,  “came down funny”on it. Now I am looking at the infomercial for the Hoveround Power Chair with new eyes.

Yes, it might seem unwise to play a game I haven’t played for roughly thirty-five years; unwise to throw a ball as hard as I can and do it repeatedly when most of my throwing for these past thirty-five years has been limited to skipping a few stones across flat water each summer;  unwise to dive headlong into the sports-specific actions of dodgeball — dashing, slinging, and, yes, dodging. (By the last half-hour I was doing very little dodging. The brain signaled emergency, but the feet stayed rooted to the floor.)

After years of the niggling injuries that every runner knows, I’ve learned to mostly heed the running magazine advice about building your training gradually, upping your mileage and speed slowly. But when the chance came to play dodgeball, I chose to overlook the fact that those same principles might apply to dabbling in playground sports. Now a sort of manifest destiny of soreness creeps from head to toe and settles in for a good long stay.

Well, I was planning to take a break from running for a bit anyway; so, at least there was wisdom in my dodgeball timing.

Besides, a week of soreness (ok, two weeks probably) is a small price in the name of dodgeball glory and for the sake of goofy fun.

A day off and a bruised road

November 14, 2009

Friday turned up beautiful, clear skies and low fifties. In mid-November in northern New England, a day like that feels like a last chance. With the afternoon free of meetings or appointments, no immediate deadlines looming, I made the not-too-difficult decision to spend the afternoon on my road bike instead of at my desk. These are some of the sweetest rides — the ones that are unplanned, out on quiet weekday roads, no obligation to get home fast, alone with my thoughts (or at least the endless loops of song lyrics that often pass for my thoughts). 

The headline on this entry is borrowed from the Wilco song “She’s a Jar.” The full verse goes “we could use a handful of wheel and a day off and a bruised road.” It’s a line my friend Scott and I toss back and forth in e-mails to celebrate the glory of an escape from the routine, a road trip, a bike ride. 

This summer my riding circle has been taking more to the dirt roads of Charlotte and Hinesburg. They get my highest honor as “bruised roads” with their washboard, their dust, their patches of gravel. They’re not bad going on a road bike, but they demand your attention more than pavement. And, like running or mountain biking a technical trail,  they’ll pull a zen-like focus out of you because of it.

On a day off on a bruised road, I’ll find myself smiling for no apparent reason. That spontaneous smileroscoe is just gratitude, I think. Gratitude for the day and the freedom to ride. Gratitude for the beauty of Vermont and the fortune of good health. On Friday, on Roscoe Road, I smiled right here.

The bad race

November 10, 2009

We all have our bad races, right? I truly tanked across eight kilometers in Boston last weekend. It didn’t help that it was the USATF New England Master’s Cross Country Championships, a race filled with lean, fast old guys and very little cereal filler. (Don’t be too impressed. There’s no qualifying standard. All that’s required is $20, a USATF #, and the desire to be beaten upon for 8K.) 

Whupped. Apparently my Pre worship from the day before did little to inspire me. Maybe if I’d been able to reach the damn log in the display case at Niketown a little stray DNA might have scraped under my fingernail… then, who knows? 

But instead I slogged around Franklin Park, head never in it, looking for the finish scarcely after I started. During races like that one I usually convince myself that my performance in one race doesn’t really matter, that it’s the participation that counts. All true, of course, in the big scheme. But also all  self-rationalization that usually gives way somewhere  in the finish chute to a nice bout of self-recrimination, and, if I’m feeling really indulgent, some self-loathing. Did I really feel that bad? Did I give in too easily? I’m sure some runners have the maturity to leave a poor race behind at the finish and move on. Someday, I’d like to be one of those runners, but I don’t see that day coming anytime soon.

Until then, I’ll look to next year when I’ll hope to out-run someone younger than seventy years old on the trails of Franklin Park.

Prefontaine in Boston

November 9, 2009

Why not start this thing with Steve Prefontaine, one of my first running heroes, and a guy whose memory continues to inspire runners and a fair amount of Nike marketing? In the Niketown store on Newbury Street in Boston you’ll find a small shrine to Pre. Football and basketball players, sprinter Michael Johnson are celebrated with display cases behind glass on the first and second floors. But you won’t discover the Pre case unless you take the stairs up to the third level. No merchandise for sale up there, just the bathroom (no small attraction when you’re walking around the city). The Pre case features an Oregon singlet, a track sweatshirt, a pair of bizarre white spikes that look better suited to shuffling around a retirement village than running a 5K, and the glory item — one of Pre’s training logs. 

I love the simplicity of his log. Pre didn’t write down his resting pulse, his weight, his sit-up reps, where he ran, or how he felt. It’s just the workout, the splits on his intervals, the tally of miles. I especially like the entry where he has added up the week’s mileage in a column—something about seeing the scratching where Pre carried the one. Even the great Steve Prefontaine — man of the definitive seventies mustache, multiple American records and those trademark drives to the finish line — had to carry the one. 

When I was in Niketown last weekend,  I paid homage again. On this visit, for the first time I noticed a little gap in the glass at the edge of the case.  I stuck my finger in to see if I could reach the logbook. It’s a store; it’s not like I was at the Museum of Fine Arts. But it was just a bit too far, and I’ll confess to a surge of adrenaline when I thought my wedding ring might snag and leave me standing there with my finger trapped in the case. “Manager to Level 3, running geek stuck in the Pre display.” 

I’ve never been a reliable keeper of running logs. There are many well-intentioned three-week efforts tucked away in drawers in the house. But every visit to Pre’s logbook enshrined in Boston prelogmakes me resolve to start again and keep it simple.