Friday, October 6, 2017

Bolt 4 Ben - Franklin Lakes Scenic Half Marathon

Because I had been steadily building my strength back up from injury and Gloria was interested in doing more running, we decided to register for the Bolt 4 Ben Franklin Lakes Scenic Half Marathon taking place on Sept. 24 in Bergen County.  This would be her third half-marathon and my 10th, but it had been years since either of us had run this distance.

In July, it seemed like a great idea on a far-off date. But as race day got closer, I did not feel ready.

It was a good thing the race was only about 20 miles away because the 8 a.m. start time and the logistics of parking in a separate location (an office complex with a big parking lot) and taking a bus to the start (the community center, with a tiny lot) meant getting up before the crack of dawn.

I tried to do my stretches and do a warmup jog on this cool, beautiful early autumn morning. But my tummy was in a knot and my mindset was leaning far toward the negative.  Gloria tried to calm my nerves, saying that I did all the training - and did it well - and that I should trust that.  After 11 years and 86 races, I should know that, but lately, each time it feels like this is the one that is going to break me.

As we lined up at the community center on Vichiconti Way, I saw Rob Albano, with whom I have crossed paths at many races, all of which he won (this one included), and placed myself near the front of the pack. At the go signal, we were off and running, making a right turn on Pulis Avenue and another quick turn onto Old Mill Road, with gently rolling hills into the first and second mile markers, where I clocked 6:16 and 6:15.

[course map:]

My old mantra used to be "run the race for which you trained," but this time around, it was "run the race you are running today."

In other words, even though I did my training runs as if I was gunning for a 6:15 PR pace, I knew there was no chance for that on the hills of Franklin Lakes, and still recovering from an injury.  So I ran what felt right; and if at any time that meant taking it down a notch, then I would readjust my goal...which is exactly what I did in the third mile, as we turned left onto Franklin Avenue and right onto Ewing Avenue, where the inclines got a little longer and tougher, causing me to hang back to a 6:37.

That was a little too slow for what I wanted to accomplish, so I picked it back up for a 6:20 and 6:24 around a couple of side streets and back onto Ewing and into the right turn onto High Mountain Avenue. "High" and "Mountain" are two words you do not want on the name of a street in a race.  But I motored up the inevitable hill before turning left onto Scioto for more rolling hills and a 6:27 in the sixth mile.

By this point, Mr. Albano and the second and third place runners (Cole Dailey and Atilla Sabahoglu, respectively) were long gone and I was in fifth place behind Michael Miano.

The strangest part of the course came next - a short jaunt on a rocky, downhill bit of trail that was unnerving enough to slow me down to a 6:31 for the seventh mile as we turned right onto the pavement of Indian Trail, but by the time we turned left on Franklin Lake Road, I had overtaken Mr. Miano and secured a fourth place position, where I figured I would stay since the other guys were at least two minutes in front of me.

Clocking in Mile 8 with a 6:21, I was averaging a 6:24 pace and that seemed like a good place to stay, so my goal from there was to come as close to that average as possible for each successive mile - no slower, no faster.

Zig-zagging through a few residential side-streets (Walder, Farmdale, Oldwoods, Briarwoods, Bayberry, Woodfield and McCoy), I hit a 6:33 going uphill in Mile 9.  I thought I would make up the difference in the downhill to the 10th mile marker, but a 6:27 was all I could muster, and I knew that meant I was losing steam.  The old pain returning to my glutes was a pretty good indicator too, so with a 6:31 in the 11th mile on Colonial Road, I needed this race to be over soon.

I was down to a 6:26 average, and that was still pretty darn good, so it was time to readjust again and shoot to keep the last two miles in that ballpark.

But the turn from Colonial Road to a severe uphill on Franklin Avenue was soul-crushing, leg-destroying, pace-killing and race-ruining.  I pushed with all my might, feeling like I might not even make it.  The 6:48 mile felt like a slow crawl into despair.  The terrain leveled off as we turned back onto Old Mill Road, but the damage was done.  I was drained, gassed and completely kaput, and Mr. Miano seized that opportunity to pass me in the last mile, just before we turned on to a bit of paved trail that would lead us back to the community center and the finish line.

The trail had too many twists and turns.  Winding around through the woods on a narrow trail is not conducive to anyone trying to pass the runner ahead or preparing to sprint to the finish.  Of course, I was in no condition to do either of those things. Pushing as hard as I could, I checked in with a 6:56 in the 13th mile, feeling utterly miserable.

I finished only 10 seconds behind Mr. Miano for a fifth place standing and first in my age group - a genuine age group win, by the way, as all five guys in front of me were in their 20s and 30s.  Not bad for a guy about to turn 43.

In the end, my pace averaged to 6:29, and my 1:24:56 resulted in the third best half-marathon of my life. Add to that a lovely metal water bottle emblazoned with the race logo as my age group prize and I would say it was a pretty successful day at a race that was well-organized with great signage (no getting lost!), excellent volunteers, and nifty swag (everyone got a medal!).  

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Storm King 10K

The race website for the Storm King Run in Highlands, N.Y., organized by the West Point - Highland Falls Rotary, has a link to the course description.  It reads "Hilly Contour Medium Difficulty". 

Friends, I have now run 86 races, so believe me when I tell you, this is a very loose definition of "medium difficulty".  It certainly was not the insane challenge of the Red Rock Canyon Marathon in Las Vegas or the Park City Marathon in Utah.  But as 10K races go, this was pretty rough.  

I am certain that the elevation chart on that webpage is incorrect, too, because it has the lowest point in the middle of the race. but that is thoroughly impossible because at the turnaround point of this out-and-back course, we were on top of an enormous hill with a breathtaking view of the Hudson River below us.  I know I did not imagine pushing with all my strength to get up that hill during that entire third mile.

Let me back up for a minute.  This was, in fact, a lovely and well-organized race.  It was also a small race, with only 93 runners in the 10K, 114 participants in the 5K, and a one-mile fun run for the kids.  There was also a contingency of West Point cadets running the race, which served as a reminder that we were, in fact, standing near the entrance gates to the prestigious military academy as the national anthem played before the beginning of the race. 

This being my first competitive race since February, I was a unsure of where I should place myself at the start. There were some dudes, young and older (meaning, my age), that looked pretty darn fit and ready, and here I was in the middle of half-marathon training coming off an injury.  So I planted myself two or three people deep.  Besides, a slower, steadier start would probably be good for me, especially if it was to be hilly.

The entire first half of the 5K was downhill.  As several people surged ahead on the decline, I hung back and let gravity do the work. After all, we had to do this mile and a half uphill on the back end.  To my surprise, most of the pack broke off at the 5K turnaround point and I suddenly realized I was in fourth place. The next half of the "out" portion of the route was rolling hills.  On one of the uphills, I made a move (as I tend to do) and overtook third place runner (44-year-old Phil Dacunto), and I even had the top two in my sight.  

That third mile uphill to the overlook, though, was a challenge.  I do believe it had to be around a 400-foot elevation gain, and as we climbed, I inched ever so much more closely to the second place runner (Logan Brady, 25).  As we rounded the top and made the turnaround, I passed him.  But he must have saved up a little more than I had for the downhill and he passed me again.

My brief moments in second place

Still, I remembered that confidence that I always had about making my moves on the uphills, though I wondered if I could keep doing it this time, having not done any real hill training. So things remained status quo as I simply tried to keep pace and not fall back from the fatigue I was definitely feeling. 

Passing by Gloria as she started to make her way up the big hill was a great pick-me-up, as always, but I warned her, "That hill is brutal!"

When it came time to tackle that last mile-and-a-half of upgrade, I had caught up to Logan, and said, "Well, this is going to suck."

I chugged up past him and never looked back.  I was in second place again and though I could see Dalton Martin (age 25) almost the entire time, I never had the slightest expectation that I could catch up to him.  Judging from his form, he seemed to be expending a lot less energy than I was.  I was at maximum effort; he still seemed like he had plenty of gas in the tank.

10K winner Dalton Martin, in charge and in control
I was practically running on empty as we approached the final mile, so not only was I slowing down, another contender was speeding up from behind both Logan and me.  As 32-year-old Matthew Lensing blew past me, I was jealous of how much he had managed to save up.  I was dying out there and he was cruising.  Look at the two photos below, taken a few seconds apart.  Matthew's form is perfect and he seems in complete control, whereas I am falling apart and my leg is swinging wildly.

Matthew Lensing - great form, strong finish
Me - gasping for air, dying inside, flailing about

Despite the agony of trying to charge up this punishing hill, I was extremely happy knowing that on my first race back from a too-long hiatus, I had not only tackled this course that was definitely more than "medium difficulty" at a competitive pace, but I would also be coming back strong with a brand new trophy.  

That was just what I needed to get my confidence level back up, and my finish time of 39:31, only mere seconds away from Matthew (39:07) and Dalton (38:57), is something of which I can be truly proud. 

As I said to Gloria (who finished with a respectable 1:04:19 for her first 10K!) when I collected my trophy, immediately she took this picture...

"I'm back, baby!"

Full results posted here:

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

This is not the end

As recently as a month ago, I really thought my racing career was over.

When I suffered from a back injury which sidelined me from late 2014 through spring 2015, I knew it would take time and a great deal of physical therapy; but I was certain there was a light at the end of the tunnel.  Not only did I return, I was stronger, leaner and faster than ever.

But this year, with what I suspect was either a gluteal or piriformis strain (or both) that took months to heal, followed by a recurring, sharp and severe pain in my leg that the clueless doctors at Vanguard Medical Group in Verona could not identify (though the thieving swine charged me $150 to tell me I should just rest it), it felt like the end of my racing days.  Sure, I could get out there and trot some miles for maintenance and weight control, but speedy racing?  Forget it.  Over.  Done.  Fin.

On the other hand, nothing motivates me more than someone telling me I can not or should not do something.  The quack told me to rest and take Advil, so I did exactly the opposite.  I took no medication, and still went out there and ran on my bad leg, often in agony.  But I pushed through it.  Active recovery.  And you know what?  With each successive run, I pushed the pace a little more (reducing my pace from 9-minute miles down to sub-7s) and increased the mileage gradually (to as much as 16 miles!) and each time, it hurt a little less.

So Gloria and I registered for a half-marathon for September.  I still use the Hal Higdon training program, which calls for shorter races midway through, so a 10K was on the schedule for this past weekend.  On Thursday, Gloria found the Storm King 10K, which is organized by the West Point-Highland Falls Rotary and takes place at West Point Military Academy in Highlands, N.Y.  On Friday, we registered.  Sunday, we raced.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Baker's Dozen, Night 13 (Glazed) - Phish at MSG, Aug. 6, 2017

Were the first-set songs connected through their lyrics about going or being crazy (some more outright than others)? Did that speak to the idea of "feeling glazed," as Page McConnell declared near the end of the set?

The theme was a stretch, but who the hell cared? This was the final night. Expectations were high, emotions were higher.

Despite that, the band gave us a first set of primo fun with songs like "Dogs Stole Things", "Rift", "Ha Ha Ha", "Camel Walk" and "Saw It Again", the latter rocking its way through the thunderous closing section. There were some surprises, too, like quieting down for the "Boom! Pow!" section of "Sanity" before triggering the "You thought there was going to be a HUGE explosion" sample from "The Very Long Fuse". 

Other unexpected delights included the Mike Gordon tune "Crazy Sometimes", played by Phish for the second time ever, and the Phish debut of the excellent "Most Events Aren't Planned" by Page McConnell's band, Vida Blue. Big kudos go to the guy next to me up on the Chase Bridge who called it from the opening synth pulse.

"Bouncing Around the Room" and "Bug" were their standard selves, though I know there were people that were holding out one last bit of hope that the former would get the "Lawn Boy" treatment from Night 4. Instead, the set closed with the first "I Been Around" in three years and, probably to the delight of the people who had been holding up the giant "Izabella" sign on the floor for much of the run, the first performance of the Hendrix's tune since 1998 (fourth Jimi song of the run), and lordy, how it rocked! Trey completely shredded it, despite getting distracted by a wayward balloon that he had to kick out of the way.

There were three tunes that they simply HAD to play at this show and the first came out of the gate for Set II with a 25-minute "Simple" that was so good, with a jam so incredibly hooked up and tight, it managed to eclipse the much lauded version from just a few weeks prior. The new tune, "Rise/Come Together", with its beautifully ascending chords, provided continued peaks, but Bowie's "Starman" felt like the wrong song to be played with only a half of a set left to go.  

The second of the must-plays, "You Enjoy Myself", worked the crowd into such a frenzy (Firenze?) that glow sticks were flying everywhere from the upper sections on down. Just when Trey was ready to put down his guitar and start dancing to the groove before the vocal jam, he had a change of heart, picked it up again, and played a little more. So while we did not get the always entertaining Trey dance, we did get some bonus jamming. Wrapping up the set with the reliable climax of "Loving Cup" was no surprise and completely appropriate. 

On a previous night (Night 8? It is all a blur), a fan threw a T-shirt onstage that read "Is this still Lawn Boy?", so after giving a whole new emotional heft to Willie Nelson's "On the Road Again", Page came to the front during a funkified reprise of "Lawn Boy" and answered the question with perfect deadpan hilarity - "It is."

And if that was not enough, while Page took his place back behind the keyboards, Fish and Mike played the intro to "Weekapaug Groove" that had been left out on Night...uh...10?  But that was just a fake-out, like the "Harry Hood" intro at the end of the Big Cypress marathon set because the third completely necessary song, "Tweezer Reprise" ended the Baker's Dozen in the biggest, most rousing fashion possible.  Even the fans on the floor got into the visuals of the show, popping off explosions of confetti and glitter with each pounding downbeat. 

On the final crashing chord, I hugged Gloria and shed a few tears - of joy for what I had experienced over 13 nights and of sadness that it was ending.  Just before the encore, a banner was raised in Madison Square Garden, commemorating the already historic run, but nobody who witnessed any of it needs a banner as a reminder of what transpired. The details may get blurry over time - we may forget the flavors or some of the specific song choices - but we will always remember that our favorite band (and, honestly, should they not be yours, too, by now?) played more than 200 different songs in 13 nights at one venue and it made a lot of people extremely happy.

Good things can not last forever, but we learned that they can last a baker's dozen nights.

Baker's Dozen, Night 12 (Boston Creme) - Phish at MSG, Aug. 5, 2017

I was sitting at the table at my parents’ house, after having a delicious meal with them, my brother (Ben), my nieces, and Gloria, when Ben pulled up the Live Phish feed of the opener of Saturday’s Phish show.

It was the only Baker’s Dozen show I was not attending and hearing “Soul Shakedown Party” made me wonder why I decided I would rather not go than be stuck with the upper-level tickets on Night 12. Phish had only ever played the song 10 times before, and I was at the last one (SPAC 2016).  After watching that, we continued to go about celebrating my mother’s birthday, but I kept checking my Twitter feed (@Phish_FTR) for the setlist updates, and with each successive song, my heart sank a little more.  When I saw they were playing “Petrichor” as Gloria and I were going to bed, we were beyond bummed.  After all, that is the song that truly got Gloria on the Phish train last year and is her favorite Phish tune.  Not her favorite new tune, you jaded vet; her favorite of all.

Unlike previous shows, in which the sets offered distinct vibes, usually a more song oriented first set and a more jam oriented second set, this show was a mixed bag in each set. So while the first set seemed to be business as usual with "Uncle Pen" and "The Sloth", the oddly placed "Gotta Jibboo" let the band stretch OT legs early on, and with good results. By the time that led to the ultra rare "Fuck Your Face", it seemed anything could happen - and what did happen was the kind of thing that makes Phish so special.

The flavor of the night was Boston Creme. Some fans predicted Boston songs, some guessed Cream songs; and some even speculated both. No one could have predicted "Sunshine of Your Feeling", an expertly crafted mashup made up mostly of Cream's "Sunshine of Your Love" and Boston's "More Than a Feeling", but also included elements of Boston's "Long Time", and Cream's "Tales of Brave Ulysses" and "White Room." 

It was completely silly and absolutely brilliant, but it was in the middle of the set and impossible to top, so while the Trey Anastasio Band song "Frost" was great to hear, it was overshadowed by what had come before. Even the "Scent of a Mule" (with Mike forgetting a few lyrics) could not take the set anywhere new. "Fire" (the third Hendrix cover of the run) would have ended the set nicely, but the cute "Alaska" (which, like its cousin "Ocelot", can surprise you with a great big climax) reset the vibe of the set, making way for another excellent TAB tune, "Plasma", to close it out.

As with previous nights, the second set started with a bang.  Ben and I watched some of that huge opening “Ghost” on Sunday morning, and I finished the excellent trifecta with “Petrichor” and “Light” during my run.  Maybe it is just sour grapes, but that was not the best “Petrichor” of the handful they have played.  “Light” was buzzing with energy, though, so “The Lizards”, while executed well, seemed like a bit of a comedown.  Even more so was a thoroughly botched “The Horse” (I think I liked it better when they stopped playing it), though its accompanying “Silent in the Morning” is always a pleaser. After that, it sounded like MSG was partying to the end with a big ol’ “Quinn the Eskimo” and a sloppy but energetic “Rocky Top” to close it out.  

Phish has used a ballad for the encore many times in the past as a contrast to an especially rocking set, but they had not dared to do so yet during the Baker’s Dozen.  It is a bold move to make and they made it nicely with “Joy”, though would bet it was to the chagrin of some of the attendees.  It is a sad song, but in a way it is uplifting; and with only one more night to go in this epic run of shows, it is hard not to feel exactly that.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Baker's Dozen, Night 11 (Lemon) - Phish at MSG, Aug. 4, 2017

For the majority of the Baker's Dozen shows, my tickets were behind the stage.  I enjoy this area because (a) many other people do not, so tickets are usually plentiful; (b) you can be close to the band, despite being behind them; and (c) the music is loud and crystal clear.

Unfortunately, the vocals get lost in the echo of the arena.  This proved to be a detriment when Phish did a bit of dialogue in last week's "Harpua", and again on this night, when the references to the lemon flavor theme were ensconced in the lyrics to a relatively obscure cover tune. 

That happened in Set II at a point when things were already getting pretty deep and trippy.  But "deep and trippy" was not the mode for Set I, which was a thorough party set with "Punch You in the Eye", "Big Black Furry Creature From Mars", "Dinner and a Movie", "Poor Heart" (with an extremely rough, cringe-inducing start) and the set-closing, face-melting "First Tube". The only lemon reference was the opener, "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean", which is an old 1920s blues tune by a guy named Blind Lemon Jefferson.  I seriously doubt anyone got that one.  At best, they might have known Bob Dylan had done it (I had not).  But really, you know you looked it up.

Other pleasant surprises in the first set were "Ocelot" and "Winterqueen" which still seems to surprise people when they soar, despite the former's loping beat and the latter being a pretty ballad. But my memories of Bader Field and Randall's Island are good enough to know those two songs can knock you right over.

Then came Set II.  "Dem Bones" was funny and mostly on-point with its barbershop quartet harmonies, but the set really started with "No Men in No Man's Land", which rang in 2016 in that very venue. The jam moved and grooved, and eventually landed on a familiar chord progression on the organ.  So when Fish started singing Radiohead's "Everything in Its Right Place" (from the "Amnesiac" album, which I always found to be superior to its acclaimed predecessor, "Kid A"), I was so blown away by just the mere fact that they were playing it that I was frantically text messaging my friend while it was happening, completely missing the key line about sucking on a lemon (and the way Trey manipulated it with his effects box. 

When you get all ambient, where else do you go except to "What's the Use"?  (Not the best version, by the way.)  With "Scents and Subtle Sounds" following, one would think the previous tune would lend itself to a segue into the mellow intro, but instead, Trey went crashing (sloppily) into the main riff. But it was of no matter, for the jam (the longest of the night) was beautiful and explored many different musical spaces.  

The lid got completely blown off of "Prince Caspian" at Magnaball, and no one expects the song to reach those heights, but I will be damned if it was not the closest they have come since then.  It was good to the point that the "Fluffhead" that followed actually left less of a mark (but a mark nonetheless!).  Gloria told me that I kept making my "ecstasy face", and how could I not in a set that had musical peak after musical peak?  That is my definition of ecstasy!

And what is better than seeing Page play the Keytar?  Seeing Page play the Keytar twice - first during the epic "Lawn Boy" on Night 4, and now on Night 11 on the "Frankenstein" encore.  

How does a band keep this feeling going for eleven nights in one venue?  This has gone far beyond being 13 separate shows. This is one long party and one musical journey - a unique experience that has not happened before and will likely never happen again.  We are a part of something big; bigger than we can even comprehend right now.  This, friends, is history, and we are right in the thick of it.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Baker's Dozen, Night 10 (Holes) - Phish at MSG, Aug. 2, 2017

In 2014, I had attended nine shows in a row, swinging from Great Woods, to SPAC, to the Mann, and to Randall's Island. 

Thanks to the convenience of the Baker's Dozen run at Madison Square Garden, a mere 30 miles from home, this show represented my first double-digit consecutive show in my two-plus decades of seeing Phish.  

The only thing that could have made this show even more special would have been for Phish to play "In a Hole", a song they debuted and performed in throughout the fall of 1989, only to retire it by year's end, never to be heard from again, save for a tease 25 years later at Dick's. Despite the longshot odds of bringing it back, it seemed thoroughly feasible, considering the night's doughnut hole theme and the fact that the no-repeat policy means Phish has to reach back farther than their usual rotation of tunes.

Alas, it was not to be, but we did get the debut of "Way Down in the Hole", which I found out later was a Tom Waits song.  The preceding lyric to the title is "You gotta help me keep the devil...", and with "Buried Alive" and an excellent "Kill Devil Falls" following, an unexpected interpretation of the "holes" theme cropped up.  My friend, aLi, texted me, "Death set??"

"Could very well be!!!" I replied as "Guyute" (" I sleep the sleep of death...") and "I Didn't Know" ("...a picture of Otis Redding taken just before he died...") followed, the latter with a short, but very welcome vacuum cleaner solo by Fish. 

The theme started to loosen up and fall away in the second half of the set, but by then, it hardly mattered anymore.  Though there were some minor issues with "NICU" (shaky toward the end), "Meat" (the staccato part to had to be replayed because Fish messed up the timing, and the song did not have its usual final return to the theme), and "Heavy Things" (no "ooh ooh, wah ahh" vocals at the end, which made it seem abrupt), we were treated to a pleasant "Ginseng Sullivan" (though the better bluegrass choice would have been "Old Home Place", with its death reference), a "Maze" that hit all the right marks without straying too far out, a lovely "Waiting All Night" (haters are going to hate, but I love this song), and a boffo climax with "Run Like an Antelope".

Once again, the second set opening slot was the place for the 20-minute jam, this time with the most exploratory "Mike's Song" jam that I have witnessed since Big Cypress, and certainly the most impressive one since 2015's unexpected return to the "second jam". As things got thick and ambient (much like that Big Cypress version), a beautifully vocalized rendition of "O Holy Night" emerged. At first, it was as confounding as it was gorgeous (a Christmas song in August?), but then I got it - "O 'Hole'-y Night."  See what they did there?

There was still one more jam surprise in store, this time in the unlikely form of a "Taste" jam that, thanks to an amazing rhythmic shift by Jon Fishman, became a jazzy jam that offered a whole new realm of possibilities as it went on longer than probably any other version of this song.  Though it seemed clear to me that Fish eventually tried to bring it back to the original "Taste" rhythm, Trey did not seem to be on board with that, so it eventually disintegrated into the ether.

A decent, but unremarkable, "Wingsuit" followed, so "Sneaking Sally Through the Alley" was a welcome invitation to get our dancing shoes back on before the set-ending "Weekapaug Groove".

Bringing the doughnut hole theme back around one more time for the encore, "A Day in the Life", with its three mentions of holes in the final verse, ended the show in grand fashion and we left the arena satisfied after yet another incredible night of Phish to the sound of "There's a Hole in My Life" by the Police.