Random item from my box of running memorabilia.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

America's 10 Most Iconic Running Events

     Please don't skip right down to the list!  I know you want to, because we Americans have all been conditioned to want everything quick.  But as runners, I think we can all assume there'd be no satisfaction in crossing the finish line if you didn't run the whole course.  So before I get to the list, let me explain why I wanted to do this poll in the first place.  As I said a couple of posts ago, this isn't a scientific survey.  But it does incorporate input from the winners of more than a hundred major American foot races, as well as from experienced denizens of the mid-pack.
     Anyone who has lived as long as I knows that the older you get, the more of your life is made up of memories.  Sure, we older people still have aspirations and hopes for the future, but as the years go by the future shrinks.  When we were young, the future was out of sight, out of mind.  Now, we know the finish line might not be that far off. 
     Forgive me if I get philosophical for a moment, but one of the great myths of our culture--and it's a tragic one, I think--is the belief that we enjoy an economy that can grow forever, if we just make the right investments, etc.  As free Americans, we think of life as having infinite possibilities (and it does), but then we carelessly conflate that with the idea that our planet has infinite productive capacity.  Of course, it doesn't.  Our Earth has only fixed amounts of fresh water, farmable land, oil and gas, or capacity to absorb waste.  Yet, government and business economists talk as if our GDP should be able to grow 3 or 4 percent every year, indefinitely!  A few maverick economists, such as Herman Daly of the University of Maryland, have pointed out that the doctrine of indefinite economic growth is as delusional as the notion that an individual human can live forever.  Or that a runner who keeps increasing his weekly mileage can keep improving his PRs indefinitely.  In the 1960s, we had a guy in Washington, DC who ran 100 miles per week, then increased to 150, then 200.  For a while, no one could beat him.  But by the 1970s, although he was still young, he'd burned out.
     The point is, life is fragile, whether it's the life of the Earth, a whole civilization, or an individual man or woman.  The older I get, the more acutely I appreciate that--and the more I value the memories of the good times I've had.  Because I've been a runner for over half a century, those memories also become a kind of guide to what kinds of running I'd like to do in my remaining years.  One thing I discovered in doing my poll was that the most memorable events are not always the ones where we had our best personal performances.  Far more important, for me and many others who contacted me, were the social and cultural experiences we had--the interactions with race organizers and volunteers, spectators, sponsors, and of course other runners in the event.  Around the time I started running in the 1950s, Alan Sillitoe's Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner-was published.  (It was made into a movie in 1962).  And yes, in those days we runners did have a reputation for being solitary, wraith-like men (no women then), running along the shoulder of the road drawing stares or jeers from passing cars. 
     Well, no more. Running is America's most popular participant sport for both women and men now, and it has given us great appreciation of what it is to share the company of other humans in a difficult but rewarding endeavor.  And isn't that what civilization is all about?  Of the thousands of running events we have now, I think the most iconic ones are those that have given us some of the most lasting memories and insights into what life can be when people get together to do something hard.
     My list is based on both my own experiences (as a running magazine editor and competitive runner) and that of people who contacted me via email, Facebook, or Linked-In, as well as in the comments at the bottom of the June 26 post.
     Without further ado, the 10 most iconic American running events (and some others that come to mind, as well) are:
     1.  The Boston Marathon.  Boston is the 115-year-old granddaddy (and still champion!) of American long-distance running.  When I was a teen, the dream of running Boston was right up there with the dream of someday running in the Olympics.  Loneliness of the long-distance runner?  Not at Boston, where 2 million spectators cheer you on from the first mile to the last.  In the mythology of human quests, Heartbreak Hill ranks right up there with Mt. Everest, and "The Pru" (the Prudential Center building you can see from miles out as you approach the finish) ranks right up there with the Holy Grail.  As an iconic race, the Boston Marathon is really in a class by itself.
     2.  The Dipsea Race, Marin County, California.  This is the oldest trail race in America, now it its 101st year.   The lung-lashingly steep, 7.4-mile mountain course from Mill Valley to Stinson Beach (just north of the Golden Gate Bridge) takes you to spectacular Pacific Ocean views and is limited to about 1,500 runners.  No big crowds of spectators here, because for them it could be exhausting just walking to a good vantage point.  An especially delightful feature of this event is that all the runners are given time handicaps by gender and age, so everyone will have an equal chance of crossing the finish line first.  Thus, from the report of last year's race: "Reilly Johnson, an 8-year-old fourth grade student from Mill Valley, running in her third Dipsea, held off 68-year-old grandmother of four Melody-Ann Schultz of Ross to win the 100th Running of the Dipsea Race from Mill Valley to Stinson Beach on Sunday." How often do you see a finish like that? 
     3. JFK 50 Mile, Washington County, Maryland. The oldest and largest ultra-run in America, with entries now closed for its 49th annual run in November.  Some of you older runners (or your parents or grandparents) may recall the famous "50-mile hike" craze of 1963, which started when President John F. Kennedy, worried that Americans weren't as physically and mentally fit as they needed to be in this dangerous world, decided to raise awareness by challenging the Marines to hike 50 miles in one day.  Along with the Marines, thousands of civilians decided to take up the challenge as well.  An outgrowth of that was the first "JFK 50-mile hike/run," which soon became just a run.  Today, for a rural ultra, the JFK has an astonishing number of spectators--and an extraordinary degree of attachment by its participants, many of whom have run this race 20 times or more.
    4.  Bay to Breakers, San Francisco.  I hesitated to place this storied 8-miler so high on the list, after a San Francisco friend of mine told me Bay to Breakers has lost some of its character in recent years--has become what he feels is too corporate and rule-bound.  But some features still give this bay-area rite of spring a unique place in American running lore.  In the mid-1980s, as many as 110,000 people ran this race. Overwhelmingly, they ran not for competition but for fun.,  It was the world's largest party-on-the-run, and it was spectacularly libertine: some people ran naked; others ran intoxicated or high; and thousands ran in amazing costumes--notably in the centipede division, in which 13 runners run as a team in a single centipede costume competing against other centipedes.  And despite this event's de-emphasis on competition, some of the centipedes are amazingly fast.  I thought I was a pretty fair 15K runner, but some college and club cross-country teams have run faster in their centipede costumes that I could dream of running in my lightest racing gear.  Well, maybe some of the naked runners were just trying to keep up with the centipedes.  (In a recent year, one of the centipedes was a team of women dressed as butterflies, with at least one of the butterflies running bare-breasted.)  My San Francisco friend says the rules now ban such things as nakedness and a centipede in a cash-bar costume handing out beers to fellow runners.  But Bay to Breakers goes on, and will doubtless re-invent itself.
     5.  Falmouth Road Race, Cape Cod, Massachusetts.  In the past decade, trail racing has boomed while road racing has matured (albeit some of the major marathons like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and the Marine Marathon still draw monster numbers).  But if you review the golden age of road racing in the 1980s, a lot of the excitement was in urban street races of 5k to 10-mile distances.  One of the most awesome of them was--and still is--Falmouth, which featured dramatic competitions between the greatest runners of the era, such as a duel between Bill Rodgers and Frank Shorter.  Now sponsored by New Balance, it's still a fun summer event along a beautiful coastline.
     6.  New York Marathon.  Like Bay-to-Breakers, this giant phenomenon may have lost a little something since the Bill Rodgers-Alberto Salazar rivalry in the days when the race was usually won by an American with whom the public and media had some familiarity.  Going back even further, I'm still tickled by the memory of that first New York Marathon in Central Park, when there were so few of us runners that nobody knew there was a race going on and one of the runners passed what he thought was an aid station and grabbed a piece of fruit--and suddenly found himself being chased by an shouting man whose fruit stand had just been robbed.  Who knew?  Today, everyone knows.  Forty-five thousand runners race or jog through the streets and a million people lean out of their windows or crowd the sidewalks of every neighborhood from Brooklyn to Harlem to mid-town Manhatten to cheer.  Running loops around Central Park was fun for a few years, but the Five Boroughs tour is an urban experience like none other.  And if you're coming in from out of town, you can probably get a hotel room for under $300 a night.  
     7.  Carlsbad 5000.  Back to the California coast, where the "5k" got its real start as the most popular running distance.  In an e-mail response to my poll, Toni Reavis credits Carlsbad with being "the original 5k . . . From Steve Scott and John Walker's fan-friendly T-shaped course . . . to the world-class roll of champions topped by Sammy Kipketer's iconic 13:00 world record in back-to-back years, to the age- and gender-specific series of races leading to the pro races, the iconic views of the wide Pacific Ocean, years of national TV coverage and party-by-the-sea atmosphere, you cannot ask for a more complete example of an iconic road race.  On top of which, Carlsbad introduced the 5k distance to America, which brought even more people into the sport."
     8.  Penn Relays, Philadelphia.  My list as a whole may be noticeably slanted to longer-distance races, and with good reason: I believe we humans eveolved as long-distance runners (what anthropologists call "persistence hunters"), and that the defining qualities of our species are endurance, patience, and ability to envision--the qualities most needed to train for long-distance races, or to build a sustainable civilization.  (I explore this theme further in my website http://www.willhumansendure.com/). The Penn Relays are a different animal, with their displays of spectacular speed (at least for us relatively slow-footed humans).  But the Penn Relays also have produced memorable races in the mile and distance-medley relays; and for the whole range of track running at its best, from sprints to distances and from high-school kids to elite runners to masters, there's no greater show on Earth.  I was never more influenced by any runner in my life than by the miler Ron Delany, whose finishing kicks I watched in awe half a century ago at the Penn Relays and at the great New York indoor track meets (such as the Millrose Games or NYAC Games) of that era.  If you can't get an invitation to run in it, the Penn Relays is an event to watch.
     9.  Western States 100 Mile, California.  What Boston is for marathoners, Western States is for ultrarunners--the one race you most dream of running.  Both have tough qualification standards, and both have to turn away a lot of disappointed applicants. Western States has legendary origins, as does JFK, and has a uniquely spectacular course.  In a typical year, the runners will go through ankle-deep snow and 100-plus-degree heat in the same day.  The course follows trails that the gold prospectors of 1849 traversed and sometimes died on.  Breathtakingly deep forested canyons, wildly beautiful high-Sierra vistas, a cold river crossing without a bridge--it has it all.  And in the quality of its competition, it tops the U.S. ultras.  I hope I can go back, before I'm too old, and do this one right.
     10.  Bloomsday 12k, Spokane, Washington.  One of the poll respondents was Anne Audain, who won more major races in the 1980s--the golden era of road racing--than any other runner including Joan Benoit.  For Anne, the Bloomsday Run is number-one.  Bloomsday was founded by Don Kardong, the 4th-place finisher in the 1976 Olympic marathon, and (I guess I'm showing my bias here), one of the best writers about running I've ever known.   I've never run Bloomsday, but Anne attests that the course is "spectacular and challenging," and there is wonderful crowd support.  She's not alone in her enthusiasm: the race attracts 60,000 runners or so year after year even though Spokane is not a big city.  As far as I know, it's the only race that is so embraced by its community that the city paid a famous sculptor to erect life-size bronze sculptures of runners along a stretch of the course.  And you can probably stay there a whole three-day weekend for the cost of one night in New York.
     OK, 10 MORE!   There are at least ten more that might just as easily be placed on the list, and some of them got strong support from my correspondents:  Among them:
     Cherry Blossom 10-Mile, Washington, DC:  Flat, superfast course through one of the most spectacular displays of blooming cherry blossoms on the planet; world-class competition; and just a short walk from such iconic destinations as the Smithsonian Institution, Washington Monument, and White House.
     Utica Boilermaker 15k, upstate New York: a great local celebration, but has also been one of the world's most competitive 15ks and an accompanying 5k.
     Badwater 135, Death Valley, California: Sounds like a real ordeal (a hundred of those miles in 110-to-130 degree heat), but if you're well trained it's really not torture at all, and if you look up as you run under the night sky it will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
     Chicago Marathon:  A rival to New York, with its 40,000-plus runners and super-fasst.  And if you can get that wind behind you . . .
     Crescent City Classic, New Orleans:  One of the great 10ks, with a legacy of super-fast competition.  Almost as big a thing as Mardi Gras, with about 20,000 runners.
     Peachtree Road Race, Atlanta: The race that did for the 10k what Carlsbad did for the 5k.  In my poll, it gets a vote from former world cross-country champion Craig Virgin.
     Berwick Run for the Diamonds, Berwick, Pennsylvania.  A small-town 9-mile on a rolling country course.  Now in its 102nd year, it's the second oldest road race (after Boston) in the country.
     Grandma's Marathon, Duluth, Minnesota.  A great local tradition (the 2010 running had 5,000 volunteers for the 16,000 runners), but also an international-class event, with one of the most scenic courses in our country.
     Leadville 100, Colorado: The miners are gone, but an even tougher breed of man and woman has taken over this mountain redoubt.
     Equinox Marathon, Alaska:  A rite of passage for what they call "interior" Alaskans--people who can get where they're going to only by airplane or sled . . . or on foot.
     Gasparilla Classic, Tampa. Run 5k or 15k along the Tampa Bay shore, with start and finish next to Gaspar's pirate ship.
     OK, and finally:  I don't know if it's iconic or just crazy, but there's a 100-mile race in an ominously named place called Frozen Head, Tennessee, that is so abominably difficult that only a handful of the hundreds of runners who've tried it over the years have ever actually finished it.  It's put on by a threat to society named Gary Cantrell, and it's called The Barkley.  It's not on my bucket list, and I have no interest in ever attempting it, nor should you.  I mean, wouldn't you rather spend a pleasant weekend on Cape Cod, run a nice 8-miler breathing in the fresh ocean air, maybe browse a few antique shops or art galleries, then have a relaxing New England lobster dinner with friends? The choice is yours!

     If you think I've left out an event that should really be on the list, or have listed one that's overhyped, don't hesitate to comment.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Running on Rocks: The Appalachian Trail

       The biggest national publicity the Appalachian Trail has had in recent years was when the bad-boy governor of South Carolina, Mark Sanford, lied to his wife and the media (what? A politician lied?) about his dalliance with his girlfriend, covering up his sneaking out by saying he'd been hiking on the Appalachian Trail. 
       Well, if governors ever do actually try carrying their weight on that trail, let's just hope the governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, doesn't try it.  Christie, as you may know, is the governor who was recently flown to his son's high-school baseball game in a helicopter, at taxpayer's expense, and after landing got into a car to be driven the last 100 yards to the field.  Oh, America, how roly-poly we have become.  John F. Kennedy, who lamented our unfitness in a landmark essay titled "The Soft American," must be rolling in his grave.
       But I digress.
       For me, the Appalachian Trail (or the "A.T.", as we call it) has a very different meaning than it does for all the late-night comedians and commentators who riffed on the South Carolina lie.  The A.T. is not only the longest and one of the most beautiful hiking trails in America; it is also one of the greatest places in the country to go for a long run.
       A segment of the A.T. also happens to be the most challenging segment of America's largest and oldest ultramarathon, the JFK 50-mile.  Entries for this year's JFK (which takes place November 19) opened on July 1.  The race could well be filled by the end of this week.  And if you are one of those who get in and can look forward to that run five months from now, it's time to begin thinking about a subject that will loom quite large on that day--running on rocks.
       I remember doing a practice run on the A.T. section of that storied course around 36 years ago, in preparation for my first JFK.  The course follows the A.T. from around the 3-mile point at the South Mountain trailhead to around 16 miles at the foot of Weverton Cliffs, where the trail drops precipitously to the Potomac River.  Most of the trail is very nice for running, but a few sections are wickedly rocky.  Somewhere around the 14-mile point, on that day so long ago, my left toe caught a rock and I did a hard face-plant.  I got up slowly, stunned and bleeding, and told myself, "I sure better remember this spot when I run the race!"
       And remember it I did.  Over the years, remembered it again and again, because along that stretch I kept falling again and again.  Couldn't I learn?  By now I've run the JFK 15 times, I think, and I've done face-plants either approaching the Weverton Cliffs descent or on the boulder-strewn descent itself, at least six of those times.  The falls are uncannily similar: I'm focusing hard, trying to watch where I put my feet, but also trying to move fast.  The problem is that it's November, and this is deciduous forest where most of the leaves are now on the ground.  The leaf cover is thick enough to cover a lot of the rocks, and while I'm usually pretty adept at trail running, I also have an unconscious, long-ingrained habit of running over logs and rocks the way a sprinter runs over hurdles--clearing as closely as possible for maximum speed.  Evidently, sooner or later, I come to a spot where the optical center of my brain registers an approaching leaf-covered bump and subconsciously estimates that this bump is, let's say, a 2-inch leaf-cover over a 7-inch-high rock.  The brain sends the leg an instruction to lift the bottom of the shoe 8 inches so as to brush through the top of the leaves while leaving an inch of clearance over the rock--only it turns out to be actually a 1-inch leaf cover over an 8-inch rock.  That still might be OK, except that I've been running for over two and a quarter hours now, over some fairly rough terrain, and my legs are a little tired, and while the leg whose turn it is thinks it is lifting 8 inches, it's only reaching seven and three-fourths.
       The other thing I should mention is that this section must be where the ancient Short Hill-South Mountain Fault once caused one mother of a rumble, wreaking rockular havoc with the earth.  Since then, the Appalachian Mountains have lain stunned, watching silently for any overzealous humans they might ambush and maketh to lie down with them in mutual contemplation of what it means to grow ever older.  Compared with the Rockies or Himalayas, the Appalachians are very, very old.  So, for the past eight or nine hundred million years, more or less, this rugged ridge has been shrinking and compacting.  The rocks have become solidly embedded.  There are no loose rocks on the A.T.  If you kick a loose rock on the Pacific Crest Trail in California, you might start a landslide.  If you kick one on the Appalachian Trail, it isn't going anywhere.  My toe caught that one-fourth inch of miscalculated rock, which may have been a rogue outcrop of Mesoproterozoic granite or may have been something a few hundred million years younger, but I really didn't have time to ask.  With the my left foot brought to an absolute halt, the rest of me flew forward and down.
     Six times this has happened over the years, and five of those times the response built into my wiring has been the same: My arms, elbows, and knees fly forward to break the fall and protect the face.  The next runner behind me stops and asks, "Are you OK?"  I reply, "I'm OK."  I don't really know if I am, but can't bear the thought of being out of the race.  I get up, blood streaming down my legs and arms, and continue running--very slowly--down the trail,.
     The sixth time was last year.  I was a year older (69) and maybe a tad weaker.  This time, my knees, elbows, and hands all flew forward as usual, but my head hit the ground nonetheless.  Crack--forehead on a rock.  "Are you OK?" said a runner.  "I'm OK," I said.  There were 36 miles to go, and I needed to get back in the race.  That's me, about a mile later, in the photo above.
     This old-dogs-don't-learn experience of mine raises a question that a lot of JFK entrants (those who have run this before, as well as newbies) may be asking now: 
     How do you run this course?
     Well, from an old guy who seems to be getting more confused as the years go by, here's a not-so-simple answer.  The best strategy for running the JFK is to follow all of the following three rules, and I don't mean to be facetious.
     1.  Run the A.T. section fairly slowly and cautiously, so you get to Weverton without undue bleeding and can then run fast and carefree the rest of the way.
     2.  Go for broke, run the A.T. as fast as you can, feet flying high to clear the rocks, because if you do this and get away with it, you'll reach the easy part of the course (C&O Canal Towpath) with a big lead on your competition and will be able to basically coast the rest of the way.
     3.  Most of all, go into this race having practiced running over rocks as often as possible all summer, and having coached your brain to please add another half-inch to the clearance instructions it sends to the legs.  Then, on race day, don't run with a conscious strategy at all--run to be a happy part of that wild and beautiful course all the way, at whatever speeds your trained instincts tell you.  Don't force it, don't fear it.  The Appalachian Trail is home.  So is the Potomac River towpath that follows; and so is the wending country road that will take you over the final miles.

Next post: Final selection of "The 10 Most Iconic Running Events in America," to be posted in about a week.