Sunday, April 27, 2014

The End of Something

            It is eighty miles from my home to Nashville. Give or take a few miles. It depends on where in town you are going. Yesterday I was going to LP Field, the place where most Country Music runners park.
            I got up at 3:30 a.m. drove I-40 blurry-eyed. Once parked, I headed across the Shelbly Street Pedestrian Bridge, joining a stream of runners. A slate gray morning light that earlier had hit the downtown towers now turned red. I hoped to meet a Twitter pal I've never seen. For a meeting, I'd suggested six o'clock at the foot of the bridge on Third Avenue. That wasn't a good place for her and she'd sent me a message she'd be in Corral 29 and would look for me. Good thing because the trouble I'd had getting off the Interstate and parking had eaten up forty minutes. I was too late for a six o'clock meeting anyway.
            I was assigned Corral 6. Always before I'd started from Corral 1 so as to lower the gun time used in state records. This year it didn't matter. Even though I wore a marathon bib number I intended to run the half marathon. And I intended to run it slow. State record was a non factor.          
            Intended to run slow because I can't run fast. I have Graves' Disease and have had it since last Fall. It has many astonishing effects. It can cause heart disease. So they put a stent in my ticker four weeks ago. Graves' also eats your thigh muscles, among other valuable muscles. Can't run fast without thigh muscles.
            Intended to run the half because on Monday I'd run the Boston Marathon, and by some miracle actually finished it, although I'd not run much prior in a couple of months. So wasn't going to run 26.2 again so soon.
            Since I planned to go slow anyway, I headed to Corral 29 to look for the woman I call CT, not knowing her name. I stood in that desultory corral surrounded mostly by women and a smattering of old men, back of the pack folks for whom a half marathon is a great big deal. But I couldn't see CT. Maybe she'd show later. I drifted down to Corral 28 and looked around there, too, since I wasn't sure where one corral ended and the other began.
            I could start from back here if I wanted to. It'd be different from Corral 1. It didn't matter. Time drifted on as it always does. CT didn't show and eventually we heard the race start. Nothing at all happened where we were, up on the hill at Eighth Avenue, three blocks from the starting line at Fifth.
            Those starting runners headed east down Broad, turned south on First, and west on Demonbreun. They finally hit Broad and ran right past where we stood. I saw last year's marathon winner Scott Wietecha in front, Brian Shelton on his shoulder. Brian, from my town is running well these days. I thought he might win the half.
            CT didn't show, and I figured at this point she wouldn't. But I couldn't stop looking for her. Later I saw where she'd sent me a direct message on Twitter that she'd been bumped to Corral 15. I'd failed to see that message and didn't now have my phone.
            Nothing much happened, except occasionally we'd drift a few steps down the hill toward the starting line, still nearly three blocks away. Twice they moved the corral ropes toward Fifth, and we'd advance thirty yards or so before standing around again.
            Running a half marathon slowly is just a typical morning run for me, no great challenge. Just a matter of putting in time. We stood around. Eventually we'd get our chance. No hurry.
            I had a streak going. I was one of the thirty-eight "Fifteen Year Runners." We'd run all previous editions of the race. As a reward, they'd given us comp entry and a special vanity bib to wear, one colored black, a different color from the 30,000 other bibs. That was sure to bring shout-outs from fans. At the moment, mine was hidden under a throw-away tee.
            This race holds the story of my running. Our histories entwine. I ran the very first one just one year after my first marathon, just two years after my first race of any length. My running grew up with this race. In that first one, which came just twelve days after Boston, I ran ten minutes faster than I'd ever run.
            For each of the first six races, 2000 through 2005, I ran personal records on this hilly course, even though I was running lots of other races on flatter courses that you'd figured I would run faster than here. This was a lucky race for me. I set eight age-group records here. And I won my age division an unlikely twelve consecutive times, beating the great Ken Brewer once by just forty-five seconds.
            As I stood waiting in Corral 29 with my vanity bib hidden, I knew no marathon record was in play. In fact I'd be running not the marathon but the half marathon. Not even running it. Only jogging.
            We stood and waited. We moved forward again a few yards. Then I walked away.
            I stepped out of the corral and walked down the hill toward the starting line, skipping up on the sidewalk to dodge spectators. Around Corral 15, I cut through the shuffling stream and emerged on the other side of Broad, just above Bridgestone Arena.
            I walked beside Bridgestone to Demonbreun and paused, watching runners stream up the hill. I headed on down to Fourth and turned up toward Broad to Schermerhorn Symphony Center, where I cut over to the Shelby Street Pedestrian Bridge.
            Fans leaning over the rail above First Avenue were watching the south-streaming marathoners below. Fans and runners alike whooped and called out. I stood and watched a few minutes. The stream would diminish to a trickle before another wave emerged. We couldn't see them coming down Broad until they turned the corner at a red brick building onto First. Suddenly a colorful mass flowed, surging around the corner.
            I walked on across the bridge toward the LP parking lot, meeting hollow-eyed runners wearing bibs, who'd arrived too late to run, probably beginners who didn't know one had to arrive early for such a race. They all had numbers in the 20-or-30 thousand range. My number, still hidden under the tee, read 435.
            At the car I changed clothes, putting on the blue Boston finisher's tee I earned on Monday. I could go down to the finish line area, stand around watching runners come in. I'll have friends there. The shirt would be a conversation starter. But I realized that, by now, the winner of the half would have already finished. Brian Shelton, I would learn, finished in fourth place. Scott Wietecha would go on to win the marathon.
            I decided against the finish line. I wanted to be through with this place. I grabbed my phone and saw where CT had sent me the change-of-plans message I'd never seen.
            Throw it all away. The comp entry, the vanity bib, the annual tradition, the streak, the history - everything. Throw it away. I put up a tweet: 
            "Did not start, am not sorry, do not care. Am I being clear? #DNS #CMM" 
            Then I cranked up and drove away. But I don't know. It could be a lie, my tweet. I don't know.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Because Boston

          Graves' Disease eats your muscles, those of the shoulders, upper arms, and thighs. You need thigh muscles to run.
          But this story is not about Graves' Disease. And it never will be. Damn Graves' Disease. This story is about the 2014 Boston Marathon, the 118th running of the historic race, the race just one year after the murderous bombing. Damn Graves' Disease.
          I'm incredibly lucky. I've had complimentary entry at Boston for the last three years, having finished on the podium three years in a row, finishing last year just twenty minutes before the blast. I'm lucky.
          In January of this year, when I began to crank up my training for the race, I realized something was terribly wrong. My speed had vanished and I was losing strength in the weight room, too. That brought blood tests in February. Then in March an endocrinologist told me I had Graves' Disease. You can look it up. It brings picturesque grotesquerie, though the specialist said he only sees that aspect in smokers. He also said I had heart disease. Graves' can cause that, too.
          The heart doctor gave me a threadmill stress test and two days later put in a stent. It was the first day of spring. Seven days later the heart surgeon gave me a max-out stress test and told me to do anything I wanted to. He's a marathoner. He knew what I was going to do.
          Heart problem was over; Graves' raged on. I had three and a half weeks - after having not run in a long time. And Graves' still raged on, a long-term struggle within my diminished body.
          Boston is special. This year it would be special in a new way. I could not be cavalier about my chance to run it, a race so many would like to run but can't. I had to respect the race, honor last year's fallen, and support the community of runners. In three and a half weeks I'd do what I could.
          I knew I'd be unable to compete. I changed my goal: report the race from inside it. Live tweet a picture or comment every mile or so. Create a narrative. I knew what that would do to my time, but I didn't care. It was a worthwhile service and the best strategy I had for a meaningful run. Runners at home could see the race through my eyes, and in the moment as I experienced it.
          There were problems: I don't normally carry a phone on my runs; typing on the touch screen in bright sunlight is hard. And would I even be capable of finishing the race at any speed? Could I stay on my feet that long? I did trial runs with the phone and worked out the problems. I'd have to jump out of the stream of runners to make a picture or be trampled, I realized. Then I'd have to find a shady place to do the typing, clock ticking all the while. So be it. My trials showed a mile pace would be thirteen minutes. I could come in under the time limit, if I could keep that pace.
          I had my plan. Let her rip. Before I headed to Boston, I connected my Twitter and Facebook accounts so runners could follow my journey on either.
          A postscript: On race day nearly half of my tweets failed to go through; they disappeared into the ether. There were 36,000 runners registered and a million fans present, many sending texts. The tremendous data load simply overwhelmed the cell phone system. I'd anticipated that but could do nothing about it. Some tweets went to drafts, and so I could have another chance to send them. But most vanished. So, much was lost. But much was gained.
          The experiment was a partial success: Tina Turner said, We never ever do anything nice and easy; we always do it...rough!  My record is rough, too, and raw, as was my experience. And raw it will stay. See the tweets and pictures below, only slightly edited.

Boarding the bus. Tremont Street, Boston Common

Athlete Village, Hopkinton

Vanishing point

Helicopters and airplanes towing banners fill the sky


Where's Waldo?

Imagine the pile of clothes thrown away by 36,000 runners

Corral 2

M.1 Leaving Hopkinton

State troopers line the road in Brookline [sic, Ashland], facing outward

M4 Four Mile Island. I failed to get a picture of Three-Mile Island

We drink

Thanks. Don't mind if I do

M10 Home girl! @sallaboutme Thx Kelly
(Kelly had traveled from Nashville to see the race. She'd sent me a message that she'd be waiting at Mile 10. I looked forward to the meeting. Sure enough, there she was.)

M12 Bitchery and abomination. this traitor of a phone failed to send some tweets!

M12.5 Because if you tweet anything you tweet Wellesley women. 

The famous "Tunnel of Sound." The shrieks all merge into one and rise up out of the earth itself, like 17-year locusts

M15 + Dull boredom, that's about it. Not complaining, just saying

M 20.5 Walkingheartbreak

M21 BC, Doug Flutie, write a sentence 
(Flutie went to Boston College. I later heard that he'd run the race, finishing even after me)

M24+ A marathon is an adventure beyond ordinary experience, James Shapiro wrote. Sounds about right

M24+ Running is a survival activity. I see it in Darwinian terms, not like the sentimental sayings on the back of tees

M25 I've seen lives changed by running it's true, whether in purring sweetness or tooth and claw

M25.2 Under the CITGO sign. 
One mile to go. Fans at Kenmore Square. A shave-headed fan who'd been drinking beer laughingly berates me for stopping at the fence to text. Then he opens arms wide and gives me a big hug.

M26 Once again down Boylston Street
Maybe the most storied and treasured stretch of road a marathoner can ever run

Finish Line!

I am so through

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Where the Cummins Falls Marathoner Eats

            If you travel to the Cummins Falls Marathon, you’ll be well advised to set aside a couple of extra days to see local sights and sample local restaurants. A famished runner can find a truck load of cool eating joints in Cookeville, Tennessee. But you need to know where to look. I am here to help.
            One hundred and thirty-two, that’s the number Google gives me for the aggregation of restaurants in Cookeville. That’s maybe more than you’d expect for a “small town” of 31,010 souls. But the town’s activity is much larger than its population suggests: it’s a university town, with the influx that brings; it sits at the crossroads of TN-111 and I-40; and it serves as a hub city for the whole Upper Cumberland region. People come to shop, eat out, see ballgames and watch movies. I once read the dubious claim that Cookeville triples on the weekend. I don’t believe that number, but it does grow.
            So, yes, 132 restaurants. That number includes the usual expected chain restaurants such as O’Charley’s, Outback, Ruby Tuesday, and so on. Most of those restaurants are strung along Interstate Drive, parallel to and one block north of I-40, visible and handy to the Interstate traveler. Ah, but I rarely go there. Jo Ann and I chose the home grown restaurants in the old part of town, in the Westside and Eastside.
            Without making any claims of good taste in food or anything else, I will tell you the places where this runner actually goes to eat. For what it’s worth, here they are:


            BobbyQs is the most famous restaurant in town. Widely written about in magazines and books alike, it’s the place to go when you want BBQ or catfish. Their banana pudding is better than sex, they claim. Ask them early on to save you a helping, because it tends to run out. I’m partial to the BBQ pork, but also go for the house salad topped with a grilled catfish. Sometimes I make a veggie plate from their selection of sides, which includes potato salad, fried okra and potato salad. Avoid the poolroom slaw unless you really, really like the red-pepper hot. If you absolutely must sample some heat, you might try a split order, half and half of regular and poolroom slaw. No beer at this place. But their coffee is good, made from beans they grind themselves.

            Moma Rosa’s is the go-to place if you are craving Italian food. Its lineage is New York. Favorites of mine there are stromboli and eggplant parmigiana. Jo Ann likes the baked ziti. If I get their garden salad I always ask for the house dressing. Are you hungry? Moma Rosa’s orders are large, and we normally come home with a take-out box that makes my lunch the next day. A few years ago, we took my late friend, ultra runner and vegetarian Angela Ivory there. She had the spaghetti topped by a sauce sans meat. She loved it. I was glad we’d picked that place.

            Seven Senses is the only new comer in my group. But it has quickly become one of our favorites. It it’s located on Broad Street in Westside across from Foothills running Company. It features an urbane ambiance and a collection of unusual dishes. I suppose you could call it urban eclectic. I suggest the Papa Tony’s pan seared shrimp. The name honors the late Tony Stone who was mayor and who began the Cookeville Cook Off. He was well known for his grilling skill. Jo Ann likes the chicken and waffles dish. Their seven salad is good too. Ask for a glass of Calfkiller beer, a local brew.

            Taiko is described as a Noodles and Sushi bar on their banner. If you are in the mood for Japanese food, this is the place, situated on Broad across from the Depot. Usually I don’t eat sushi, but there are plenty of other dishes to choose from. Jo Ann likes other places better than this restaurant, so I usually only eat there when she is out of town. It’s a nice break in the usual routine, and sushi lovers rave about it.

            On Broad just a few steps from Foothills, the Cajun restaurant Crawdaddy’s is one of Cookeville’s most popular eateries. Its upstairs bar is popular too. In good weather, check out the courtyard and balcony seating. Crawfish etouffee is my standard request there; if I’m going to a place named “Crawdaddy’s” I expect crawfish. If you want gator tail their sampler will include crawfish, gator and shrimp. Their steaks are well respected and people hold dinner meeting there. To go with the crawfish, ask for a glass of Calfkiller.

            House of Thai is on Eight Street at the east side of the Tennessee Tech campus. I’m partial to Thai food, so it’s one of my favorites. My standard dish there is drunken noodles. They will season it with red pepper to your taste. Be careful; it can be too hot. Pad Thai is a close second choice. The curries are good too. Jo Ann is a light eater. She usually orders a spring roll and rice. We agree on the hot Thai tea. I could drink a gallon of it.

            Mexican restaurant Cinco Amigos is a favorite watering hole for the Westside Runners. After our Wednesday night runs we sometimes retire there for our birthday parties. In fact, we find all kinds of occasions to gather there. The amigos have covered outside seating, which is where we usually end up. They decorate it for our parties with maracas, party hats, and balloons. The food is tasty. And nothing I’ve ever eaten there has given me digestive difficulty. My standard is from the Especialidades menu, number 27, the burrito supreme. RunItFast hero Lisa Gonzales @runlikeacoyote would like it, burritos being her weakness – or rather maybe her strength. Of course, Dos Equis beer goes with that burrito.

            I think of Char as a steakhouse. But their tag line boasts of seafood and pasta as well. I don’t go out for Sunday brunch very often, but I recall a very good bunch at Char. Char was the first stop of the first red dress run Westside Runners did. The whole red dressed bunch retired to the patio where we could be as noisy as we wanted without bothering anyone else. There we did pleasantly linger a while before shoving off to the next watering hole. In addition to the patio, Char also has a small covered outside seating area that overlooks the Putnam county courthouse. Definitely, at this restaurant ask for Calfkiller beer.

            Dipsy Doodle is a blue collar, meat-and-three joint in the country about five miles west of town on US-70N, Broad Street. In operation since the 1940s, it is the oldest restaurant in the area. Josh Hite, @urnewhite, and I frequently go there for lunch after our adventure runs in remote Jackson County. For lunch, expect lots of home cooked veggies, a different selection each work day. For example on Monday, they have pinto beans, boiled cabbage, turnip greens, small whole boiled potatoes. Those are just the ones I recall from the Monday menu. (I’ve dropped the turnip greens lately because of too many coarse stems, a small complaint.) For me, cornbread goes with those country veggies. Veggie selection on Tuesday includes the old depression-era favorite, tomatoes and macaroni. I’ve never seen that offered at any other restaurant. The giant burger – you can get it with or without cheese - is the reason I go there half the time. Jo Ann favors the BLT. I believe they put more crisp bacon on that sandwich than you’ll find anywhere else. The “mile-high” meringue on their chocolate and coconut pie is thicker than a pillow. It’s big; sometimes I share a slice.

These Also Serve

            For the sake of brevity – and maybe it’s too late for that now - I’ve left out so many restaurants, it makes me feel guilty. Let me quickly toss in a few more.
            Spankies, on East Ninth at Tennessee Tech. Try their French dip sandwich with roasted potatoes. Ask for Calfkiller beer.
            World Foods is a little restaurant and deli on N. Cedar in Westside featuring Mediterranean foods. It’s where to go for pizza. Instead of smearing a red slime called tomato paste on the crust, they use actual tomatoes. Such a difference!
            Father Tom’s Pub is a popular local hangout, also on N. Cedar, near World Foods. I have to shout this one. Show Tom your race number Saturday night and ask for a free beer with your entrĂ©e. It can't hurt. Hit him up for a Calfkiller.
            El Tapatitos is the Mexican restaurant Jo Ann prefers. I like it too. Prices are reasonable and it’s a popular place, on S. Willow.
            Bull and Thistle, maybe the brightest jewel in the Upper Cumberland, is actually in Gainesboro, seat of Jackson County, the county Cummins Falls Marathon runs through. Running Buddy Josh Hite @urNewHite calls it the best restaurant in Tennessee. The chef was recruited from Ireland. It’s a new restaurant in a renovated historic building. The server told us the kitchen alone cost $1.5 million. A wide selection of beer is available. It’s on the courthouse square, seventeen miles northwest of Cookeville.