Friday, February 24, 2006

The Alumni Meet

It was February 3, 2006, in Claremont California, the site of the 108th annual CMS Alumni Track Meet. Not only that, but it was my first track meet in about 8 years.

The idea of an alumni meet draws snickers from some of my friends. A day where old people go back to relive the glory days? A day where out of shape athletes test their mettle against students under 22 years old who have been training hard? Well actually, it’s just a fun day to socialize with old friends. Our coach does a great job of keeping the alumni from our college track team in touch with one another, and every February a group of alumni (and alumnae) returns to attend the annual CMS Alumni Track Meet.

This meet is an event in which we, the alumni, always emerge victorious over our collegiate opponents. Well, this only makes sense, as our team includes decades of All-Americans and NCAA champions. No matter that some of us quit running competitively after college, put on a few pounds, or haven’t thrown a hammer/javelin/shotput in a dozen years or so. Although I am still running, generally just the thought of running faster than an eight minute mile triggers my gag reflex. Of course it doesn’t hurt that we are allowed to enter six runners in a four person relay, and someone from our team is the score keeper. Still, I’m pretty sure it’s pure talent that brings us the win every time.

Mike, Charlie and Jason

The motivation for attending this particular meet lay with my friend Jason Rhodes. A school record holder and NCAA champion in our day, Jason was being honored with an induction into the CMS Track & Field Hall of Fame. Many of my college track friends, myself included, hadn’t attended an alumni meet in quite some time. When I heard the news about Jason’s induction, I figured it was time to get the band back together.

In the last few years of my running career I have focused on running farther, not faster. While I once thought qualifying for Boston was no big deal, I now think it’s very impressive. I look at my pr’s for 800, 1500 and 5K (all run in college of course) and think they must have belonged to some other runner. On the other hand, I once thought 90 minutes was a long run. Now I can be found out on the trails on a Saturday for four hours or more. The idea of a track meet then, seemed almost like an amusing adventure.

I met up with friends at noon on a typically smoggy Claremont day, to watch the hammer throw. Among the usual suspects were Charlie and her husband Mike, Darren and his girlfriend Sara, Jason (our Hall of Fame honoree,) Brad (who frequently attended CMS meets as a coach and timer,) and Nicole and her 2 year old son. Dave and Mark showed up a little later with their families.

Nicole and Alexander

After some debate, Charlie and Sara and I decided to run the alumni mile. This is an event specially squeezed into the alumni meet that the students cannot enter. Thus, it is an opportunity to avoid complete humiliation. Of course avoiding humiliation is never guaranteed, and a mile is still, in my opinion, a sprint. But to be honest, when you don’t have any real goals at a particular distance, you really have nothing to lose. (As long as you’re not worried about your pride.)

To my surprise, our actual race was a blast. My expectations were low, as I recalled an alumni mile I had run in ’98 that was extremely painful, and so slow that I think I purposely forgot what my time was. I crossed the line in 6:11, which is slow for a mile, but I was actually quite pleased. Who knew a race could be over so fast? Darren and Mike got the award for toughness by running both the 1000 loop, and the alumni mile. I think Mike may have regretted it though. We forgot to tell him how badly it hurt to breathe after inhaling deeply for five minutes or so during a race in the Claremont smog. Brad, going on what seems like a decade of being injured, gave play by play commentary over the loudspeaker. (Those of us in the back of the alumni mile didn’t really need to have it pointed out. Thanks Brad!) Jason ran the 300, during which he fulfilled his own race prediction of running strong in the first 200 meters. (The rest of the day was filled with his own jokes about the last 100.) Nicole, Dave, and Mark all chose not to compete. We gave a half-hearted effort at teasing them about it, but our hearts weren’t really in it. Competing wasn’t actually the point.

Coach Goldhammer inducts Jason Rhodes into the Track & Field Hall of Fame

My favorite part of the day was seeing people with their families. I would have thought it might seem strange to see my friends with spouses I’d never met, and children 4 and 5 years old, but it really wasn’t. It was beautiful. I loved seeing Jennie hold her son’s hand as they ran together down the straightaway in the kid’s 50 meter dash. We ate pizza on the infield at the end of the day while I watched Mark on the high jump pit playing with Dave’s daughter Shyla, acting like a total goofball for at least 20 minutes. It just seemed like we all belonged there, on that track in Claremont. It didn’t matter if we competed or not that day, if we were a spouse or a child of an alum, if we were a student or a coach or a parent. It seemed to me that we were all at home.

Darren and Sara

We finished off the day by sitting around Jason’s Pasadena home sharing stories. Some were classic stories, like the time Jason and Dave set Brad’s running clothes on fire, and the time a girl punched Darren, giving him a black eye. Some were new stories, like Nadeja's tale of Dave making her hike the Inca Trail on their honeymoon.
I don’t think I’ll be making the switch from trail running to speedwork on the track any time soon, but I still look forward to my next alumni mile on the track in Claremont, California, whenever it is.

Darren and Mike toe the line in the 1000 loop, at the site of what was once "the best damn dirt track in Southern California."

Thursday, February 09, 2006

What Makes the Magic 2-9-06

A few weeks ago I had the unusual experience of finishing a 20 mile run with the exclamation, “Wow, I feel like I could do that all over again.” I don’t know about you, but that never happens to me. Really. Well, not on a 20 miler anyway. It led me to wonder, what makes a run one of those truly great runs. Some runs are just blah, some runs truly suck, and so many runs just are. My runs are a part of my daily routine (usually) and are so common that I rarely stop to think about how I felt about the experience. Occasionally I finish with a groan, grateful that it’s over. Frequently when I’m done with my run, my thoughts are already on to the things I need to do next: stretch, shower, get ready for work. But sometimes, and the frequency of these occurrences varies like the trail conditions, I finish a run feeling amazing. I smile, I feel like I just started getting warmed up, and I’m filled with energy for the rest of the day. Sometimes it is a 5 mile road run in the rain, and sometimes a 20 mile trail run. What are those elements that come together, causing you to look back on the run and smile?

Last week for example, I had a great run on Friday. It was my standard run on the road from my house, along Donner Lake, to Shoreline Park and back. What was so great about it? Hell, I don’t know. I just know that I ran hard, and at the end of it I felt so good that I briefly considered continuing the run, making my 6 miles into 8 or 10. I quickly returned from this state of delirium when I recalled that the following day I was supposed to run 22. But the fact remained that it was a run that left me with a contented smile, feeling stronger than when I had begun.

When I feel great physically after a run I know it has a lot to do with how hard I ran, how rested I was for the run, and what kind of shape I’m in. Maybe it means I was in great shape and well rested. I also recall however a few runs that followed several months where my butt was glued to the sofa. During those runs I shuffled along, barely able to get my 3 miles in. I was not fast or in shape. I was, however, doing that which my body had missed. In spite of the pain, my slow, out of shape self will always recognize the activity for which it was meant. Thus, a slow painful run can still be a great one.

I consulted Charlie to get an opinion on what makes a truly great run. Now, when I talk about Charlie you should know a few things. First of all Charlie is a girl. (Duh.) Second, Charlie is the best running partner a person could hope to have. I should know, since I’ve been searching for another running partner ever since we moved and our running partnership came to an end, about 10 years ago. As usual, Charlie cleared the fog on the question with a seemingly obvious answer. “I consider my greatest runs to be simply the ones I remember the most.”

The view from Cloud's Rest on a memorable run in Yosemite high country

I love this answer. I love it because it makes perfect sense, and because it seems obvious that in order for anything to be considered “great” it needs to withstand the test of time. Even though I felt great at the end of that 6 mile Donner Lake run, I probably won’t remember it in another week or two. On the other hand I am unlikely to forget that 20 miler any time soon. Not just because of how good I felt physically, but also because of the amazing new (to me) trails I explored in Auburn State Recreation Area, because of the people I met and ran with, because of the crazy creek crossings, and because I spent about 2 miles picking my way carefully through the mud in a vain attempt to keep my feet dry. Charlie mentioned several runs that I have to admit were particularly memorable. On one 20 mile run in Montana, while training for our first marathon, we saw a man walking a mountain lion on a leash. (Subsequent discussions of the run have led us to question whether it was merely a hallucination caused by running too far. But how often do people have the same hallucination? Besides, we were only at mile 5 when the lion appeared.) She also brought to light a particularly grueling 14 miler where we ran in the staggering heat of an inland SoCal summer with no water. I didn’t know anything about dehydration and electrolyte replacement back then. It has never taken me so long to recover from a 14 miler. So could that run really be considered great? Well, I certainly won’t forget it, and because I smile and laugh when I think about it, I would say yes, it was great.

Other great runs that Charlie has had include the first 20 miler she ran all alone, and a run with her husband where they saw 3 eagles. I remember almost every step of my first ultra, a 50K trail race on the Tahoe Rim Trail. I remember a 12 mile run up highway 40 to Donner Summit in a snowstorm, feeling like a complete bad ass for running uphill through the ever deepening snow.

As wide ranging as they are, these runs have a lot in common. Here is how Chuck summed it up, “I guess the link is that the best runs are those where you come out at the other end having truly enjoyed yourself - whether that was because of how well you ran, what you saw, the person by your side, or by a renewed sense of what people can achieve when something matters to them.” Exactly! All of these runs remind us, in powerful ways, that we are alive.