My Mt. Whitney Memory

My Mt. Whitney Memory
From my scrapbook--running up Mt. Whitney after finishing the Badwater 135, back when I was a young man of 49. The guy with the backpack, Emile-something, was the French 1,000-mile record holder, who wasn't in the race but accompanied me to the peak (along with the guy who had the camera), just for the hell of it. At the top, we started to see lightning, and immediately turned and ran the 11 miles down to the trailhead--right after that 146 miles to the peak! I'm older now, but still crazy after all these years.

Monday, November 21, 2011

I Got Whupped

     In my last post, I said I'd do something terrific at the JFK 50-Mile.  What I ended up doing was a terrific disappointment.  I won't say embarrassment, because this is way beyond embarrassment.  It's what I'll euphemistically call a "peak learning experience."
     I predicted that I'd win my age division at the race on November 19, and that I'd break Anthony Cerminaro's over-70 record of 9:09.  Ouch.
     First, a little comic moment: When I finally did cross the finish line, the announcer on the p.a. system said, "Here's Ed Ayres, our 1977 JFK champion, and now our first finisher in the over-70 division . . . congratulations, Ed!"  I should stop the story right there, but....  I winced, and it wasn't because I had stopped running and now maybe my left leg would never bend again.  I knew, from what the clock told me, that there was no way I could have finished ahead of Tony Cerminaro, or even near him. 
     Put it this way: If you'd told me before the race that Cerminaro would have what he later told me was an "awful" day and had finished over an hour slower than his record, I'd have said, "I bet I'll beat him by an hour and a half!"  So, after the announcer inexplicably said I'd won the division, I went to the wall where they were posting the results (which wouldn't lie, because we wore chips on our shoes), to look for Tony's name and confirm what I already knew.  I noticed a rugged-looking, white-haired guy who was also peering at the same part of the posting, sort of squinting--said he couldn't see very well without his glasses.  There was something about him.  I asked, "What's your name?  I can help find it."
     "Anthony Cerminaro."
     "Funny thing," I said.  "That's the same name I'm looking for!"  I had never met Tony.  I told him that they had announced at the finish line that I had won the division, but that I knew it couldn't be.  "I just came over here to confirm that," I said. 
     "No," Tony said.  "You must have been way ahead of me.  I had an awful run."
     But as the results confirmed, I had been more awful than he.  Tony had finished nearly half an hour ahead of me.  More to the point (this is the part that's really hard to write), I'd been about 2 hours slower than the time I'd planned to run.  And over 4 hours slower than I'd run this race in my 30s. 
     So, what happened?  I honestly don't know,but I did think of three possible explanations (not excuses).
     1.  The knee?  Somehow I got through the notoriously rocky Appalachian Trail sections without a face-plant this year--then about two hours later did a face plant on the C&O Canal Towpath, where the footing is so good and the rocks are so few that I guess I stopped watching for them.  In all my previous runs on this course, I'd never taken a fall on the Towpath.  But somehow, Saturday, my feet managed to find a place where a thick cover of fallen leaves covered a few rocks, I tripped, and down I went--gashing my left knee.  The problem with this explanation, though, is that I'd been feeling inexplicably awful even before the fall, which may even have been a factor in the fall. I think I'd been getting a little woozy.  By 25 miles, I'd been thinking about actually dropping out.  So, although the knee might have made the situation worse (today I'm limping), it can't be the main cause.
     2.  Heavy stress in my personal life?  Again, this is not an excuse.  To me, excuses for bad performances or broken promises are a big turnoff.  I mention this only because it might be useful for other runners to consider what stress can do.  I won't go into details.  But I know that a lot of people are deeply distressed these days, and it might have more of an effect on performance--whether at work, at home, or in sports--than we realize.
     3.  Aging?  My good friend Jim Hall, a Methodist minister and family counselor whom I coached through his first marathon (Boston) many years ago, and who has said it changed his life, is the guy who waited for me at the finish line Saturday.  Jim is now 82, and after I told him how mystified I was about my ordeal (and how sorry I was that he'd had to wait for over 2 hours past the time I suggested he be there), he gently suggested that maybe aging is more of a factor in the slowing of the body than we want to believe.  (Jim had done a half-marathon a couple of weeks ago, and was quite content to walk it.) 
     I agreed that maybe I'd been in denial, but here too, it didn't entirely explain what happened.  For one thing, Tony Cerminaro is older than I, so it was the older guy who'd won our little competition-within-the-competition.
     And then there was that little experience I had in the final five miles, where I felt like I was in a Soviet forced march across Siberia, trying not to pass out.  As I shuffled along, runner after runner streamed past.  And then, also passing, was a little old lady who looked like one of those curly-white-haired women you might see playing canasta or whatever it is they play in the game room of an assisted-living facility.  And next to her, a much larger, old white-haired man like you might expect to see in the VFW lodge, explaining that he has to walk with a cane now because his knee had been shot out at the Battle of the Bulge, in WW II. 
     The white-haired couple were discussing their strategy for the final miles.  The last 8 miles of the JFK are on a rolling country road, and since coming off the Towpath they'd been walking the uphills and running the downhills and flats.  The man, who apparently had run this race 20 or 30 times, said to her that if they continued going as they were, they could make their time goal.  "If we go any faster, we won't."
     Somehow, hearing that aroused the very last ounce of competitiveness in me.  I don't like the now popular strategy of interspersing walking breaks with the running (we never did that, back in the day), but since leaving the Towpath and hitting that first hill, I'd had no alternative.  Or my courage had failed and I'd just given up.  So I had been walking the uphills just like this couple, for the past 3 miles.  But when they decided on their plan (to just keep on keeping on, so to speak), I saw an opportunity.  (I feel awful writing this; it makes me feel like a vulture.)  Instead of walking the uphills, I'd now "run" them!  "Wobble" is more like it, but that was what I did.  And I eventually finished ahead of them, even though I'm pretty sure I'm older than they.  So aging, too, can't be the whole explanation for my ordeal.
     In the last mile, I passed a group of five or six runners who were walking, talking as if they were out for a stroll in the park.  My impression is that  even ultrarunners who walk intermittently as part of a pacing strategy don't generally do that in the last mile or two--the last mile is where you stop conserving whatever you have left and go for broke.  But this group evidently had a different approach.  It had been a perfect day for running (sunny, cool, no wind, and beautiful vistas all the way) and they had obviously been enjoying their companionship and weren't going to interrupt it with a pointless dash to the finish.  The age-group winners in all their divisions had finished hours earlier, no doubt.  What did it matter of one of them finished 514th instead of 517th?
     Here too, I saw a competitive opportunity, old hungry wolf that I am.  I toddled past them, exhausted and nauseous, but intent on beating them to the finish line.  Why?  My chance for a meaningful competition had died on the trail five hours ago.  But if a half-starved, three-legged dog that had to stop every few seconds to sit down and use one of its three remaining legs to scratch its fleas had limped out on the road and headed for the finish line banner, I'd have raced to beat it.
     So, as I say, this was a peak learning experience.  Competitiveness can be a gift, but also a curse.  With my 54-plus consecutive years of competitive long-distance running, I may be the most experienced runner in America.  But when it comes to the rewards of running with friends, enjoying the adventure and camaraderie of doing something truly difficult together, I'm just a beginner.  I envied the old couple who ran together, and I felt wistful about the group of younger men and women who so exuberantly shared the experience of running 50 miles on a gorgeous day, and whom I had so intently passed in that final mile.  I'm guessing that they know better than I what it is to really live.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

At JFK, I'm Out to Run the Way Ali Boxed!

     There's a powerful force we can call on in sports, which is rarely used thesed days but which I'm now ready to use.  I doubt that Muhammad Ali was the first to invoke it, but I don't know of any athlete who ever deployed it with more nerve and verve.  I'm referring to the power that's unleashed when you take the risk of predicting, with no hesitation or reservation, that you are going to do something fantastic.
     From the moment he appeared on the world's athletic stage in the 1960s, the young Cassius Clay--who later renamed himself Ali--provoked as much uproar with his mouth as with his fist.  Though he was America's most formidable fighter, he refused to support the misguided fighting in Vietnam--and said so publicly.  "I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong," he said. "No Viet Cong ever called me nigger."  He was stripped of his title and not allowed to box for four years in his prime, but he never relented.  And when he returned, though he made his living as a boxer, he declined to abide by the rule that you never provoke an opponent lest you provoke him to a fiercer performance than you'd otherwise have to deal with.  Ali liked to provoke, and did so with panache.
     In the decades since, most top athletes have been far more circumspect.  Part of it may be cultural: the rebelliousness and nonconformity of the '60s and '70s receded into the conservativism of the '80s and '90s,  And part of it may have been the"locker-room bulletin-board" phenomenon--the now common practice of seizing on the comment of any forthcoming opponent who does say something provocative, and posting it as a spur to heightened motivation.  These days, athletes are cautioned by their sponsors, agents, managers, coaches, and owners (yes, these pro athletes are owned) not to say anything that might spur an opponent.  Even Superbowl quarterbacks and NBA All Stars who grew up taunting their playmates with "your mother" jokes now know well enough to keep their mouths shut.,  When top jocks are asked by reporters whether they're going to whup their opponents, they almost never say they will, the way Ali did.  Instead, they mumble polite, forgettable cliches like "He's really tough, and I'm going to have to really get out there and, you know, do my best." 
     What's unfortunately overlooked in this enforced non-offensiveness, I think, is that holding back in what you say may result in some subconscious moderation in what you do.  "Attitude" isn't just about how you feel and what you say.  The word "attitude" is a dead metaphor, originally referring to a physical stance.  Taking the sting out of what you feel or say before a big game, or race--pulling your punches--could subconsciously take some of the sting out of what you do in the competition itself.
     Ali never pulled his punches.  He stung like a bee!
     As it happens, I'm about the same age as Ali.  I just turned 70; he turns 70 in January.  I still remember, with admiration, the ballsy candor he had when we were young. And now, suddenly, I've had an inspiration. As an amateur athlete in a relatively unpublicized sport, I don't have to worry about upsetting sponsors.  I don't have any sponsors.  So, why should I, like all those corporate athletes, be constrained by the enforced false modesty we see in 21st-century spectator sports?  The only reason I can think of, for guys like me, is that we're afraid that if we think we're ready to do something big and say so publicly, and then fail to do what we said, we'll be terribly embarrassed.  But if holding back in expression might also mean subconsciously falling short in performance, are we condemning ourselves to falling short for the whole rest of our athletic lives?  At age 70, how many chances do I have left?
     On November 19 (just over two weeks from now, as I write), I'm running the JFK 50-Mile, America's largest and oldest ultra.  I'll be entering the 70-79 age division, and--here goes--I'm out to win the division and break the age group record.  Winning won't be easy, because there are 10 very tough guys entered in the division, and one of them is Anthony Cerminaro, a former over-60 winner of the Boston Marathon.  Cerminaro also holds the age group record of 9:09, and since the race is now in its 49th year, that's not a soft record.  But I'm not just going to say "I hope to break it."  To paraphrase Mae West, "hope" has nothing to do with it.  I'm going to break it.
     There, I said it.  The results should be posted on the JFK website on November 20 or 21, so, life being what it is, it's possible that I'll end up very embarrassed.  But I'm now going into my 55th consecutive year of competing in long-distance races, and God only knows how much longer I have.  If ever I'm going to put it all on the line, it's now.
     I met Muhammad Ali once in the 1980s, at the start of the Los Angeles Marathon.  I was there to report on the event for Running Times, and when I climbed up on the photographers' platform overlooking the starting area, there was Ali, who'd been brought in to fire the starting gun.  I shook his hand and asked, awkwardly, "So, what do you think of all these thousands of people warming up to run 26 miles?"  I supposed (because by then we were well into those PR-conscious years) that he'd say something politely appropriate to the ceremonial nature of his presence, such as "It's a great thing, it's inspiring!"  Instead, Ali fixed me with that baleful stare he'd so often laid on reporters, and replied, "They got to be crazy!"
     I laughed.  I knew it was just a little jab, but it was a Muhammad Ali jab, and I was still on my feet!  On November 19, I'll be bouncing on my feet at the starting line in Boonsboro, Maryland, and for the next 9 hours and 8 minutes or less, I'll be leaping rocks like a butterfly, floating like a bee, liberated from inhibition, and still crazy after all these years.