This is the first in what I hope will be a series of photos of some of the world’s lesser known running venues. Lesser known, maybe, but still rich with memories for anyone who won an event there,  set a PR, our laced up their $9.99 Adidas Avantis and stepped onto the cinders to race for the first time.

The track pictured—five laps to the mile—is behind Blue Ridge Middle School in Mansfield, Illinois, where my brother is principal. It’s about 150 miles south of Chicago, surrounded by miles and miles… and miles of corn and soybean fields. The wind can be fierce here on a spring day. A scrawny seventh grader in the two mile had better stay with the pack or risk being blown to Indianapolis.

UVM ONE

May 15, 2011

One of sport’s great dynasties will roll once again on Thursday, May 19, 2011. I write of “UVM ONE,” the University of Vermont’s perennial champion in the Non-Profit/Local Government division of the Vermont Corporate Cup Challenge. The annual race is really about wellness, but for the runners who line up in the front rows it is about making ourselves feel as poorly as possible.  It is about trying to put our teams of three across the line with the fastest collective time over the 5k course that twists through the streets of Montpelier, starting and finishing in front of the gold-domed statehouse.

Founding member Mark Madigan, AKA "Marcus O'Madigan," displays the signature strut that defined UVM ONE's early years. He is trailed by 1995 team leader Rick Blount.

The origins of UVM ONE trace back to a rainy afternoon in May 1994 when Brian Coan, Mark Madigan, and I won our division and the overall title at the Cup. Mark, a UVM lecturer in English at the time, trained with me a good bit and the two of us generally finished close in races. (Mark is now on the faculty at Nazareth College, where he is widely regarded as the world’s fastest Willa Cather scholar.)  Brian was new to town, but one of those runners who fellow runners instantly noticed. Anyone might have noticed Brian’s long Mohawk that was often dyed pink, the multiple safety pins in his ear, or his standard running shorts, black sweats cut off just below the knee.  But the thing that got a runner’s attention was Brian’s seemingly effortless speed. The guy was clearly very fast. Mark and I figured out that Brian was a graduate student in classics at UVM, supported by a teaching assistantship, meaning he was on the payroll and eligible to be our third—well, really our first—on UVM ONE’s inaugural team.

Brian’s punk exterior belied a quiet presence, more classics grad student than guy with a mohawk. He’s one of the few people I’ve known who has a voice softer than my own. This fact adds flavor to what I count as the seminal moment in UVM ONE’s storied history, three words that set the tone for all of the races and all of the runners that would follow.

Since Brian was new to Vermont, he wasn’t yet familiar with the competition. Before the race, as we ran strides in the rain, those tense moments before the gun, we pointed out the runner who would likely be out front.

Barely audible, Brian replied: “I’m on him.”

Five kilometers later, Brian Coan first. Mark and I both brought it in solidly under eighteen minutes.  UVM ONE. Oh yes we did.

Sadly, I think we had only one year with Brian before he moved on. Last I knew he was in Japan, no doubt getting recruited for Japanese corporate challenge races. In Brian’s wake, we soldiered on. I came across a clipping the other day from the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus, May 19, 1995: “Balance is the key to this race as the overall team winners —Rick Blount, Tom Weaver, and Mark Madigan of UVM ONE — proved. All three members of the UVM ONE team finished in under 18 minutes to claim first place in the men’s running division by a convincing margin of 57 seconds.”

So we ran with balance rather than a ringer that year, but paid tribute to Brian with “singlets” I created — black Fruit of the Loom pocket tees (the sort that might be worn by Keith Stone, see my May 6 post), sleeves cut off, UVM ONE spray painted with a stencil, multiple safety pins adorning the pocket and a small “B” in tribute to Brian. His quiet confidence abides.

The original Brian Coan commemorative UVM ONE singlet. (Courtesy Vermont Historical Society)

I’ve been the keeper of the UVM ONE name through the years and have always liked the three-letter/three-letter symmetry of it, the attitude of the cap letters, the suggestion of stock car racing. Except for a few years when I didn’t run because of injuries or an overlap with tapering for the Vermont City Marathon, I’ve driven down to Montpelier for the race with a variety of teammates. Rick Blount was a strong addition. (An apocryphal story from the era has it that Weaver and Madigan suggested the new teammate might need to prove his worthiness with a time trial, only to have Blount beat them both in the race.) Sheila Weaver broke through the gender barrier and brought success in the mixed division. Jon Reidel stepped in with several solid efforts and helped the team bring home more plaques of particle board and plastic. (Full disclosure: There is one second place divisional plaque buried deep in a file cabinet in my office. Norwich got us.)

For the last few years, we’ve returned to the early model of having a very fast guy at the front of the race. Josh Brown, science writer/runner extraordinaire, has led the way. And Professor Peter Dodds, accomplished at the complex systems of triathlons and the simple kind of thrashing oneself for 3.1 miles, has added horsepower. And yours truly hangs on for dear life, those sub-18 days feeling like a very long time ago. In 2010, we took our division again, but  narrowly lost the overall title to IBM.

In 2011? Josh is always money. A very fast recent half-marathon indicates Peter is in great shape. For my part, I’m vowing to finish soon enough that my teammates aren’t tempted to leave without me for the traditional post-race meal at Dairy Creme. If I come in under twenty minutes, UVM ONE hangs another banner for the overall title. You read it here first.

To paraphrase the great Brian Coan, “I’m on it.”

UPDATE: MAY 20, 2011

Indeed, UVM ONE was on top again overall in 2011, coming home in a combined time of 55:42 for a 37 second win over the nearest team. This was despite the fact that I did not make good on my sub-20 prediction. Still, I felt like I ran a good, hard race for my 20:38. And I think we’ve finally determined that course is slow because it’s more like 3.2 miles than 3.1. So I’m gonna call it a sub-20 in my own mind if that’s OK with everyone. Josh delivered with a second place finish, Peter ran a good 30 seconds faster than last year and came in 18th. And, as the team captain, once I believed that my men were safely off the course, I waited a couple of minutes to be sure before stepping across the finish line in 69th. Mission accomplished.

My April 25 post, “Catch of the Day,” shared the exciting news of the vintage book I found that afternoon. For anyone interested in running, For the Honor of the School by Ralph H. Barbour looked to be a riveting tale of prep school cross-country running circa 1900.  Well, after reading the first two chapters, I’m here to say that it does not disappoint.

One of the Hillton lads negotiates the dreaded "Liverpool."

Barbour had me in his palm as he set the scene: “Unlike the ordinary running surface, the cross-country course delights in inequality: a level width of turf is followed by a sharp rise; a stretch of muddy road by a gully whose steep sides require the utmost exertion from the panting runner.”

When Donald Cunningham, the Hillton captain, stood on the line and said, “By Jove! I do hope we can win today!”, I quietly prayed to Jove myself, feeling that I, too, wore the proud red “H” upon my chest.

But it was not to be Cunningham’s day. After running hard early, even keeping with St. Eustace’s two best men, he rolled an ankle coming off one of the barriers and bravely limped off of the course. All appeared to be lost. Even Captain Cunningham himself had undermined the team’s confidence in his pre-race speech — that snide comment to Moore about not taking off too soon at the water jump: “Moore, you try to remember about that, will you?”

Well, perhaps Cunningham knew what he was doing. Moore ran like a man with a fire in his soul. He came up big, taking third as an individual. Even with their best runner a DNF, Hillton prevailed on the day. Hillton 21; St. Eustace, 22; Shrewsburg, 43.

For runners, the takeaway wisdom Barbour shares in these chapters: “Cross-country running requires speed, strength, endurance, and pluck—especially pluck.”

Frank Shorter, one of America’s greatest distance runners and a real hero for me when I was starting to run as a young teenager in the early 1970s, was a guest speaker at the Illinois Marathon a week ago. Frank was in town, in part, because he’s come to know Champaign-Urbana while his son and daughter-in-law have been in grad school, studying for their doctorates in engineering.

My brother and I attended a talk Frank gave on the subject of cross-training. From the outset, he acknowledged that the organizers wanted a title, so he gave them that one, but that he would likely just ramble — which he did. Here are a few things that Frank said.

1. Frank said he has about 170,000 miles of running on his body. (When I saw Frank walking around at the expo the night before, I thought he was showing every one of those miles. He acknowledged at the talk that he looks terrible walking and walks slower than most — “but I still look great when I run.”)

2. Frank said the training he has followed throughout his career is very simple and could fit on a single sheet of paper. He suggested that personal trainers make training more complicated than it need be.

3. Frank said one key staple of his training is a 20-mile long run, at a conversational pace, that he does every weekend without fail.

4. Frank said that most of his running — I think about 80% — is at a conversational pace.

5. The other key piece is speedwork on the track. He does this work at his 5K race pace and always keeps his total mileage of speedwork in one workout to 5K or less. Very short rest between the intervals. Much of the work is quarter-mile repeats.

Bonus thing Frank said: The hat has yet to be made that doesn't make him look stupid. Hence, he took his Illinois Marathon hat off. But he still has a nice head of hair.

6. Frank generally suggested that a lot of the current research, emphasis on things like core training, might be overdone — that the key remains just lots and lots of miles at an easy pace coupled with fast track work.

7. Frank said he didn’t really follow periodization in his career. Pretty much that same weekly training cycle had him ready to race 5K to marathon year-round.

8. Frank, no doubt freaking out the auditorium full of marathoners the day before their race, said he thinks that many people over-do their tapers. He said that it takes your body out of the routine, not necessarily a good thing. He said that before his two Olympic marathons — gold in ’72, silver in ’76 — his taper consisted of a 75-mile week leading up to the race.

9. In talking about his experience with the duathlon, Frank mentioned a hip injury (one reason he looks like hell walking). He said anyone with a nice, pricey bike can relate. When a crash is imminent, “the impulse is to put your body between the bike and the ground.” Frank’s hip took the hit.

10. Frank said that he initially took to running because he just loved the physical motion of the sport. When he began to cross-train as a master, he got into cycling because the motion of pedaling was close to running. (By the way, Frank was world master’s champ in the duathlon.)

11. Frank shared some of the thoughts that have gone through his head in the difficult final miles of a marathon. He recalled his first marathon when he turned to Kenny Moore at about the 22-mile mark and said, “Why couldn’t Phidippedes have died here?” He says that when he has thought of quitting at the 23-mile mark, he has thought to himself, “I might as well finish this one, because it’s going to be a long time until I do one of these again.” And, finally, he said that he has reasoned with himself to keep going because, in comparison, explaining later why he quit would be much harder than continuing at that moment.

Pre lives. Always.

May 6, 2011

Keith Stone’s resemblance to Steve Prefontaine haunts me.

Running home

May 4, 2011

I spent last weekend back in my hometown of Urbana, Illinois, visiting with family and having a go at the Illinois Half Marathon. The race has been a focus of my training this winter, helping me get my mileage a little longer and more consistent.

A bit of shorthand cultural history concerning my hometown: There are two primal icons in Champaign-Urbana—Abraham Lincoln and Harold “Red” Grange. You’re probably familiar with Lincoln, you know, a past president of the United States of America. As for Grange, he is the greatest hero of University of Illinois football. His performance in the Memorial Stadium dedication game versus Michigan, October 18, 1924,  included scoring four touchdowns in the game’s first twelve minutes (95-yard return on the opening kick-off and runs of 67, 56, and 44 yards). The performance made Grange a national sensation and inspired a poem written by famed sportswriter Grantland Rice. It’s displayed on this plaque  on the wall beyond the north end zone.

You won’t find Honest Abe in the north or south end zones at Memorial Stadium, but you’ll encounter him many other places in Illinois. As I was driving over to the Indianapolis airport on Monday morning, I noticed that the Indiana border sign, about forty miles east of Urbana, rather weakly declares the state’s status as “The Boyhood Home of Abraham Lincoln.” Uh-huh, why don’t you try on a larger size, Indiana? Maybe something in a “Land of Lincoln.” Oh, sorry, out of stock, Illinois already owns it. And Champaign-Urbana was part of that land back in the day; Lincoln would come through town on the legal circuit to try cases at the county courthouse. One of the best graven images of Lincoln in Urbana is this sculpture that stands in a park across the street from Urbana High School. “Lincoln the Lawyer” by Lorado Taft shows Abe in his younger years, looking like he could manage a pretty quick 10K.

You’ll encounter Red Grange much larger than life with a statue that went up just a few years ago along the west side of Memorial Stadium. The course of the Illinois Marathon and half marathon takes you past the Grange statue within the first mile. About three miles down the road, runners follow Lincoln’s footsteps past the Champaign County courthouse. It’s back to Grange for the finale, a run into the stadium and fifty-yard-line finish. Along the way, the course offers a good taste of Champaign-Urbana—the lush, tree-lined streets of college town neighborhoods, the heart of campus, a prairie park full of sculpture. It’s a great event, one that has grown rapidly in just a few years to well more than twelve thousand runners spread across the 5K, 10K, half-marathon, marathon, and marathon relay events. It’s a flat course, the one obstacle would be the wind, which can be rough and was a test during parts of the race this year.

As for how I did on the trail of Abe and Red, I came in at 1:36:43. I was hoping for faster, had thoughts of sub 1:30 and was pretty sure sub 1:35 would be in the bag. Somewhere around nine or ten miles the bottom fell out a little and my splits slowed. Though I didn’t feel much like a “rubber, bounding, blasting soul” as I ran onto the bright green turf of Zuppke Field, I finished with a big smile on my face, something about entering that stadium, full of so many memories for me.

Post-race, if I feel that I’ve somehow fallen short, my usual MO is to quickly enter a period of recrimination and questioning. This, of course, never fails to surprise and delight my loved ones.  But I’m trying to be a little more constructive about it, taking a page from the book of my friend Troy, a wise man and fine runner, who is big on looking at what he can learn from his races. For me, as it often does, mental preparation and execution would be where it felt like I fell short. I actually prepared well – jotting down a number of focuses, reminders, to put me in a positive, present mental state. It was also helpful that I got to the race early enough to take some time to turn up the iPod and listen to a few run throughs of Dre and Snoop singing “Nothin’ but a G Thang.” It’s the perfect pre-race song for some self-assured swagger at the starting line (more about that in another post someday).

Ah, but the problem is accessing those positive thoughts and that gangsta swagger when the going gets tough. Instead of going to that mental toolbox, my mind tends to dial up a TV screen full of static, at best; negative thoughts and an early-start on post-race recrimination, at worst. So, it’s something I need to work on—finding a way to call up the “Compton” in my soul when it’s needed the most.

On the positive side, I was glad that when the pace slowed the wheels didn’t fall off, evidence that the work I’d done over the winter had made a difference. Not long after I finished, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” came on the stadium loudspeakers with the usual post-race mix (“Eye of the Tiger,” “Born to Run.”) Listening to Mick Jagger sing, “but if you try sometimes, you might find… you get what you need.” I thought, yeah, maybe that is my theme for the race. I got what I needed—a winter of focused, consistent training; the inexplicable fun of solo long runs on nasty days; a solid base for the summer ahead; a great trip home.

More East Central gangstas: My brother John and niece Jessica after their half.

I’m sure Abraham Lincoln and Red Grange, Central Illinois gangsta to the core,  knew how to keep it focused and bumpin’ at all times. I’ll be back to give them the race they deserve. As Snoop says, “So just chill ’till the next episode.”