Saturday, January 12, 2019

Phish at Madison Square Garden - Dec. 30, 2018

Any multi-show run in one venue plays out like a single, giant show, so I listened to the Dec. 29 show on the morning of Dec. 30, the second set while doing my 14-mile run.  That way, I would not have missed anything by the time we went to the show that evening. 

"Corrina" was not only nice to hear, but well played and reminiscent of its bust-out on 12/30/99 (Big Cypress Seminole Reservation, Florida). "46 Days" had a swifter-than-usual tempo and a jam that was rocking in the first half, and pretty in the second half; but Trey pulled a 2011-style ripcord - within 30 seconds of Mike and Page establishing a nice vi-IV pattern that could have totally been explored, Trey forced a segue into a sloppy "Cities". The fun of the first set was a "Wolfman's Brother" into which Trey crowbarred elements of "Party Time", probably trying (but failing) to swerve the jam into that song proper.

Set II of 12/29/18 gave us the absolute best jam of the four-show run.  Shortly into the opening "Carini" jam, they shifted into a major key, and instead of the usual 10-plus minute jam, we got a surprising segue into the jam-of-the-night in "Tweezer". People will be talking about this one for a while. There was such great interplay, with Trey and Fish initiating stops and starts to goad the crowd into some "woo"s and, afterward, they did a pretty, uptempo jam, followed by a segue to "Death Don't Hurt Very Long". But instead of taking the solo himself, Trey threw solos to Fish and Mike before another segue back into "Tweezer", which had another pretty but, by now, perfunctory jam which was brought way down for a segue into "No Quarter".  

With "Death Don't Hurt" as well as "Turtle in the Clouds" played on Dec. 29, we had six remaining Kasvot Vaxt songs on the table as we arrived at Madison Square Garden for the Dec. 30 show. We had decent seats in section 202, across the arena, but with an almost head-on and unobstructed view of the stage.  The sound was not so bad, either.

Opening with "Alumni Blues -> Letter to Jimmy Page -> Alumni Blues" followed by "Mike's Song" gave the show a classic '88 feel, but a big surprise came in the place between "Mike's" and "Weekapaug Groove" usually occupied by "I Am Hydrogen".  Instead of that song, they busted out "Glide II", played exactly once before by Phish, on 5/16/95 (Lowell, MA) - though the real bustout was actually when Trey blew everyone's mind by dusting it off earlier in December during his solo tour.

Speaking of old dormant songs tested by Trey during his solo tour, the short acoustic number, "Bliss", from the 1996 album Billy Breathes that mostly serves as an introduction for the album's title song, also showed up for the first time ever at a Phish show on Dec. 30.  It came off of a "Crosseyed and Painless" that was seamlessly segued out of "Weekapaug" and led into "Billy" as on the album.

After that, there was about 18 minutes of dancing, with "No Men In No Man's Land" laying down some funk and "Weekapaug" showing up again in the middle of a "Tube" jam. "More" closed the set to great and powerful effect, as it often does. As first sets go, that one was pretty hard to beat.

If Set I kept things mostly classic, the first two-thirds of Set II stayed firmly rooted in 3.0 with a fifth Kasvot Vaxt song ("Cool Amber and Mercury"), a large "Everything's Right" that included a big major-key bliss jam, a "Plasma" that had Page tearing it up on the clavinet, and a 20-minute "Light" during which Chris Kuroda's lights were the definite MVP of the jam - not that the band was too shabby either, especially when they peaked, brought it way down, and peaked again.

To close out the set, "Wading in the Velvet Sea" was a pleasant choice, and it was followed by a very 3.0 "Split Open and Melt" (and you know how I feel about those).  That almost did not matter though, because the encore more than made up for it, with a rare four-song selection of classic-era tunes - "Funky Bitch", "Wilson", "Rocky Top" and a "Cavern" that included a nod to Kasvot Vaxt ("Your time is near, the mission's clear, you'll face plant into rock.").  

Despite the lack of any 2.0 era songs in the show, and the way the 3.0 and 1.0 songs were played in separated clumps, this show felt like it had a ton of variety and, most importantly, the playing was incredible - a band doing what it does best on the night before its year-end spectacular.  It was my 10th Dec. 30 Phish show and, once again, it did not disappoint.  I came away satisfied with it being my last show of the year.

The next night was everything New Year's Eve should be, with big, fat jams in "Down With Disease" and "Seven Below"; a fun song sandwich that put "Passing Through" (KV song #8 after "Play By Play" was the seventh in Set I)) in the middle of the "Harry Hood" jam; and, of course, an elaborate production to ring in the new year (this time based around one of my favorite newer songs, "Mercury" and a ninth KV tune "Say It to Me S.A.N.T.O.S.").  I watched it with friends at home on Jan. 1 and it felt like I got to ring in the new year all over again.  

Fans seem to be using "This is what space smells like" (from "S.A.N.T.O.S.") as a catchphrase, but when it comes to Phish's New Year's Run, I think the next line is much more appropriate - "You will always remember where you were."

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Phish at Madison Square Garden - Dec. 28, 2018

Happy New Year's Run!  Now that all that Christmas crap is over with, we can get down to the real holiday season.  It is Phish's 17th Dec. 28th show ever (and my seventh!) and by Jan. 1, they will have played at the venue 65 times total, just a few shy of the 69 Elton John will have racked up by the spring.  We see you, Billy Joel, with your 106 MSG shows, and we are coming for you.

For this show, Gloria and I scored floor tickets through Phish mail order, so we got the full sound and lights, with an excellent view of the band and, occasionally, some decent dancing room, staying around the middle.

Being the first show since the Halloween run, it is no surprise that Phish wants to explore the new Kasvot Vaxt songs that they debuted in Las Vegas, so we got two of those songs - "We Are Come to Outlive Our Brains" to open the show and "The Final Hurrah" as a highlight of the second set - and I am sure there are more to come over the next three nights.

"Martian Monster" provided a 3.0 Halloween double shot at the top of the show, but until the "Walls of the Cave" closer (with its awfully bungled intro but high-energy redeeming jam), the first set looks on paper like it could have been from 1998, with a raging "Axilla I"; a rocking "Free" that kept things hot and heavy without pushing any boundaries; "The Wedge", which always feels both out of place and perfectly welcome wherever it is played in the set.

But do not let the set list fool you.  The quick swerve into a major-key in "Ghost"; the herky-jerky, noisy stabs in "Meat"; a "Sparkle" that was well-executed into its speedy coda, but without the frantic, frenetic pace of the old days; Trey's killer counterpoint during Page's organ solo in "Maze"; and an "If I Could" that retained all the beauty of the later versions, but at the more brisk tempo of the earlier versions, this was unmistakably the non-jam side of 3.0 Phish at its best.

Oh, you want to talk about the jam side of 3.0 Phish?  Check out the raging jam that saved "Walls of the Cave", and then follow me into the second set, where "Set Your Soul Free" got things going with a long jam that stayed mostly moored, but explored a lot of pretty textures before getting weird at the end and falling into "Swept Away".

The minute-long "Swept Away" always leads to "Steep".  Any old fan like me remembers the 1990s versions of "Steep" that were merely another brief, two-minute pit stop.  The 3.0-era "Steep" is a beautiful slow jam that builds on the theme of the backing vocal melody. While this version did not quite meet the majesty of the Baker's Dozen version (8/1/17 Maple) at this very venue, or even the 7/10/11 version from Camden, Trey and Page showed - as they did with "If I Could" in the first set and the lovely "Shade" (I am not crying, you are crying) later in the second set - that the tender moments can be some of the best. 

Holy moly, I just realized that Phish has only done this new "Steep" five times since the 2009 reunion, and I have seen four of them!

While it was super fun to have some extended play off of "The Final Hurrah", the bigger, better jam came in "Fuego" which is always reliable, often a highlight.  Count this version, which peaked twice, in that latter category, even if (at only 10 power-packed minutes) it did not stretch out into transcendence like the back-to-back monsters of 7/4/14 and 7/8/14.

Speaking of peaks and transcendence, have you heard this "Bathtub Gin" yet?  After Page gets down on the Rhodes for a while, Fish speeds up the beat and, suddenly, I am transported back to 6/28/00 in Holmdel, for a high-energy, funky/happy jam. The similarity in vibe was uncanny. 

So after all that, does ending with "Possum" leave me a little flat?  Yes, just a little - but watching everyone else, from newbie kids to old dudes, go bananaballs over it always makes me smile.  I am sure it gives Jeff Holdsworth a warm fuzzy, too.
"Slave to the Traffic Light"
And if I can not feel the same about a version of "Bouncing Around the Room" so lame that even I refuse to defend it, at least we ended the show on about as pretty a note as one can, with "Slave to the Traffic Light", perhaps to tie it in with the other such moments on this rainy, yet mild December night in New York City.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Mississippi Gulf Coast Marathon (Part Three)

It is no secret that race directors and the USA Track and Field organization have a bug up their butts about GPS watches.

This is, of course, with good reason.  Most runners now have the darn things and there are a lot of discrepancies that can occur because of the way that they calculate the distances between points.  Without going into great detail, the general accepted consensus is that, mile to mile, they are pretty accurate, give or take a fraction of a second.

But those fractions of seconds add up over long distances.  So if my Garmin is off even as little as a quarter of a second off per mile, that is no big deal for that one mile; but over 26.2, I am looking at a differential of more than six seconds by the end. 

Naturally, race directors and the USATF completely dismiss complaints about GPS discrepancies, claiming that their race courses are meticulously measured and thoroughly vetted, and are therefore not subject to such discrepancies.  Thus, they are the gold standard of accuracy...

...except when they are not - like at last year's Mississippi Gulf Coast Marathon or the Rehoboth Beach Marathon in 2011, when the courses were glaringly short; or the countless races where I had been sent into a wrong turn (or a missed turn).  Even at major events like last year's Mississippi Gulf Coast race, at some point, the directors have to admit, with eggs on their faces, that an error had been made (though the silent USATF never admits there is ever a problem). 

Because no matter how accurate the measurements are claimed to be, there are still humans doing it; several, in fact, for each course measurement.  And humans make errors, no matter how much people like that idiot Liza Recto from the Lower Potomac River Marathon (whose poor instructions caused runners several precious seconds) try to get around copping to it.

Also, I have read that many courses are designed to be slightly long just in case of these kinds of errors occur.

So, all that being said, if my time on my Garmin (3:04:15) was 33 seconds different from the official time (3:04:48), is it not possible that seven seconds (almost one-fifth of the differential) can be accounted for as some kind of human error?  There is legitimate proof that there was definitely some kind of error at this race, as no one could deny that the 11-mile marker was waaaay off.

I am certain that neither the race director nor the stuffy USATF would entertain a complaint (they completely ignored my legitimate and completely prove-able argument about that moron Liza Recto), and I will accept that the official time stands. But in my heart, I will always feel like the Mississippi Gulf Coast Marathon was my unofficial PR - the race in which the weather and nine years of hard training came to fruition and its triumphant conclusion.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Mississippi Gulf Coast Marathon (Part Two)

After doing a mile warm-up jog and trying to stay warm at the start line during yet another pointless playing of a recording of the national anthem (seriously, when can we stop suffering through that nonsense before a race? A freezing race starting line is not exactly the place for patriotism), we were finally off and running the Mississippi Gulf Coast Marathon.

The lead runners went out way in front and I hung back as much as I could.  Even now, 19 marathons later, I still have to remind myself not to start out too fast.  The rule is, was and always will be "If you think you are going a little too slow, you are probably about right."

I used my Garmin GPS watch to keep track of my splits and, indeed, I hit the first mile at 6:53, only slightly faster than the magic 7:01 pace that would bring me a personal record (3:03).  The next few miles were 7:00, 6:53 and 7:07.  I could not slow down any more than that; I was already having too much fun looking at all the beautiful houses on the tree-lined Scenic Drive and enjoying the awesome tailwind.  Perhaps it was too early to start talking about a PR, but I was about 11 seconds in front of the goal time and the seed was already planted in my brain.

With another sub-7 in the fifth mile (6:58), I knew I had to calm my excitement and slow the hell down.  I have done this all too many times - start out too fast, crash by the end.  I did not want this race to end in suffering.  This was supposed to be a happy race, through and through, and I was determined to keep it that way.  So the next few miles were deliberately slower - 7:08, 7:10, 7:08, 7:04, 7:11 - and it felt like I was crawling.  Plus, those miles put me about 22 seconds behind my goal PR pace and no matter how much I tried to convince myself that I did not need to go for a PR, I could not get the nagging thought out of my head that it was possible.  Perhaps that is why I did the 11th mile with a 6:58.

(By the way, if you are watching the videos, you will notice that my math was a little off.  Doing math is a great way to keep my brain occupied while running, but it is not easy to do it accurately!)

Still not certain that a PR attempt was the right move, I hung back some more for the next three miles, even getting caught up in a conversation with a fellow runner.  So miles 12 through 14 in Gulfport were 7:04, 7:05 and 7:12.

More than halfway through the race now, and 37 seconds behind PR pace, it was time to decide what kind of race this would end up being.  The flat course and the tailwind made it possible to stay so steady with so little fatigue.  If there was any chance to ramp it up and get some of those seconds back, it had to start immediately.

I went for it.

To make up 37 seconds in 12 miles, I needed to run 6:58s consistently. That seemed unlikely.  However, there was one saving grace - my PR goal pace had a built in cushion.  A 7:01 pace overall would get me to the finish line at 3:03:32.  But my PR is 3:04:42, so that gave me 70 seconds of wiggle room.

I ramped up the effort for the next several miles and made up a decent chunk of time.  Unbelievably, I ran my fastest two miles yet in Miles 15 and 16 (6:52 each) and kept the effort strong and solid, coming in with 7:01, 6:59, 7:02, 7:03 and 7:01, for miles 17 through 21.

Five miles to go and only 20 seconds off of that 3:03 goal, the PR seemed completely within my grasp, especially with that built-in cushion.  But my grasp started to slip as each mile got more labored.  There was no way I was ever hitting a wall at this race, but I could definitely feel my energy fading away as I managed to run Miles 22 through 24 at 7:02, 7:04 and 7:02 - a marvelous feat at any other marathon, but every second counted now.  I kept telling myself that I only needed to push myself a little more and it would be over and I would be triumphant.  I was picturing where I would be on my five-mile course and how close to home I would be.  I was also picturing what it would be like to cross that finish line breaking the PR that has been standing now for almost a decade.

The 25 second deficit from the goal pace would put me at the finish line at 3:03:57.  All I had to do was run the last 2.2 miles in 15:52.  That would be a 7:12 for each mile.  7:12 had been my slowest mile, when I was barely trying.  If I use every last bit of gas in the tank, surely I could pull that off.

Then, the course's one and only hill came in Mile 25 and threatened to put the kibosh on the whole thing.  Not a natural hill, this was an exit ramp off of Highway 90 and onto Interstate 110, which literally crosses over Biloxi.  At first, the incline felt good - I could finally use some different muscles (my quads were raring to go).  I even passed a few people.  But heading up the incline and into the 15 mph winds that had been at our backs (at best) and from our left (at worst, which still was not bad) knocked my penultimate mile down to a 7:16.

Still, every uphill has a downhill, so I gave it everything I had for Mile 26.  Despite my hamstrings practically screaming for mercy, I lengthened my stride as far as it would go as I saw Gloria and my friend Marshall cheering me on from the minor league baseball park where the finish line was.  All I had to do was hook around the stadium, enter from the opposite side, and traverse the outfield wall and first base line to the finish.  And with a 6:50 (my fastest mile of the race), I made up almost all the time I lost in the previous mile (my slowest).

This was it.  PR, baby.  I had done it.

Except, somehow, I had not.  As I rounded the outside of the ball field, I saw the seconds tick past the 3:04:41 that I needed.  Grunting, groaning and moaning in pain, I crossed the finish line with 3:04:48 on the clock.  An amazing result of which I am extremely proud, but inexplicable considering my pace and my splits.  How did it happen?

If it is possible to be both elated and disappointed at the same time, this would be that moment.  But at that point, who cared?  My 19th marathon was my second fastest marathon of my life - at 44 years old, no less.  There was no reason to quibble, nor was there time to do so because from that moment, for the rest of the day, it was party time.  You run a race like that, you celebrate.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Mississippi Gulf Coast Marathon (Part One)

Sometime in September, I had chosen to work toward a December marathon and, investigating races in 33 states, came across the third annual Mississippi Gulf Coast Marathon.  I had not known of the course length error at last year's race (which might have scared me off) - all I saw was a flat race on a point-to-point course in what seemed like a beautiful area.  I had only ever driven through Mississippi on the way to Louisiana and Texas, so this would be a perfect opportunity to spend some time there and visit with a friend of mine who lives in the area.

Training with Hal Higdon's Advanced 1 program involved 800-meter track repeats, hill sprints, tempo runs and pace runs, all of which I did as if I was gunning for a personal record.  While I was aware that beating my 3:04:42 from almost a decade ago was a bit pie-in-the-sky, it was important to train as if it was the goal; that way, I could decide how to approach race day on race day.  If the conditions and my body felt right, I could go for it.  If not, no big deal - run the best race that the day warrants. 

In the days leading up to the race, the forecast was showing rain, but the storm front moved quickly and, instead, it poured the entire day on Saturday.  This made for a soggy occasion for the 5K and beer mile participants, but it worked out for the Sunday marathon and half-marathon runners.  We had a cloudy day in the 40s (F), with some strong winds blowing from the north-northwest on a course that ran mostly due east.  

Cool temperature, a tailwind for most of the course and no sun.  Perhaps a PR would be in the cards, after all.  If nothing else, I could easily sail into a Boston qualifier, especially now that my qualifying time is 3:20:00 as I head into the males age 45-to-49 group.

I had topped off my training last month with a 22-mile run along a course that involved a 400-foot incline during the 16th mile.  If I managed to do that run at a 7:30 pace on the day after doing an 11-miler at an even 7:00 pace, I was pretty sure that this flat course that involved exactly one hill would present little challenge.  

It has been a long time since I have been able to approach a race with this much confidence (or, at least, this little worry). Everything leading up to the race had gone smoothly - the flight arrived on time in New Orleans, where Gloria spent Friday afternoon enjoying the last bit of sun until Monday.  Our room at the IP Hotel and Casino in Biloxi, Miss., was lovely.  Packet pickup was easy.  Our just-for-the-heck-of-it drive through Alabama to the Florida border was a fun adventure.  Parking at the Beau Rivage (near the finish line) was hassle-free on race morning.  The shuttle buses got us out to our respective starting lines (Gulfport for the half-marathon, which Gloria was running; and Pass Christian for the full marathon) with ease.  Save for the chilly morning air with cold winds blowing, everything was going perfectly at 7 a.m.

Nothing left to do, then, but run my best race.

Gloria and I flew to New Orleans on the Friday before the race, and had drinks on the plane at 8 a.m. Why not?

In New Orleans, we had brunch and drinks at Atchafalaya.

MGM Park, where the finish line would be on race day.

We headed to Mississippi on Friday afternoon to pick up our race bib packets at MGM Park, so we would have nothing to worry about on Saturday.

We checked into our room at the IP Casino in Biloxi, Miss., on Friday night and had a couple more drinks. 
Despite the rain on Saturday, we took a road trip through Alabama and to the Florida border, just because.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Trinity Academy 5K Reindeer Run

After running the Trinity Academy 5K Reindeer Run in 2013 and 2014, it was nice to return to this well-organized, friendly and fun race.

And as was the case for the races I ran in the past couple of weeks, the emphasis would be on fun.  But that does not mean I would not work hard, too.  Each of these three 5Ks were replacements for the weekly speed work, prescribed by Hal Higdon in his Advanced 1 training program.

Not only that, but I was happy to participate in this race for the first time as a married man and was thrilled that my wife would be running it, too.  When we got to the site, I remembered how the course involved a loooooong incline through the first two miles, followed by a steady decline for the last one, so I relayed that information to Gloria and we talked about tactics for handling it. The mission was to go hard...but not too hard at first.

I placed myself near the front of the pack and, at go time, darted out on the brief downhill, quickly taking my place in fourth.  But no sooner were we a quarter mile through, we turned onto Smull Avenue and began the long climb.  Pushing with a big effort, but making sure not to spend all of it too soon, I hit the first mile at 5:54.

Determined to stay in that sweet spot, I tried to give it some more oomph, but my body was not having it.  On the plus side, I was closing in on the third place runner.  So even though my second mile was a dramatically slower 6:08, I did what I have always done best - made my passing move on the uphill.  The guy was clearly gassed from the constant uphill and there was no way he was going to come back from it.

Now in third place and cresting the hill, I started laying it all out there - increasing both the rate of leg turnover and the length of my stride.  From out of nowhere, the guy that had been in fifth place bolted past me on the downhill and I found myself in fourth again, with no chance of catching him.  Admittedly, I held back a little bit because I am still in marathon training and did not want some of the aches and small strains in my groin, hamstring and Achilles tendon to be become problematic.  Nonetheless, my third mile was a swift 5:32.

Barreling into the final hard 90-degree turn into the Trinity Academy parking lot for the finish, I finished with 18:18 on the clock, even though my official end time was listed as 18:20.  Not sure how that can happen, but who cares. And even though the man who blew past me to take third was in my age group, his placement in the top three made him ineligible for an age group award, putting me at the top of the males age 40 to 44.  That means I won another warm winter hat with the race's reindeer logo. That makes three for my collection.  

A 5:54 pace not only made for my fastest of the three times I have run the Trinity Academy 5K Reindeer Run, but also a triumphant conclusion to a streak of three 5Ks in as many weeks, in which I have liberated myself from the need to run PRs and simply running the best races that I can.  As a result, I would say that fall racing season has been a success.

Full results:

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Morris Township Turkey Trot 5K

Doing the Purple Stride 5K on Nov. 11 made me feel better about doing short races while training for a marathon.  Substituting a 5K for my usual weekly speed work makes sense and helps keep things fun.

Yes, fun.  Something my mom always texts to me whenever I am stressed out and nervous about an upcoming race is "Remember, this is supposed to be FUN," a reminder that while I am focused on being competitive and fast and pushing my body to its limits, fun should not always be put on the back burner.

In addition, doing a spur-of-the-moment 5K - this time, the Morris Township Turkey Trot on Thanksgiving Day - takes the pressure off.  Instead of always trying to get a PR, it is possible to simply show up to a race and do the best that I can. With that weight off of my shoulders, there was no need to get thrown by the freakishly cold 17 degree temperature and the chilly 13 mph winds.  I just had to run my best race for that day.

The first mile was mostly flat, and in my effort to chase warmth, I knocked it out in 5:49.  But then there was Kitchell Road.

With an incline of about 150 feet in the span of around a third of a mile, Kitchell Road is an exercise in hill training and enough to put a huge damper on the race of all mere mortals.  Superhumans like the winner, William Mitchell, somehow destroyed the course in 16:13 (a 5:14 pace).  I, on the other hand, took 6:09 to get through the second mile, thanks to that killer hill.  So by the time I made it on to Spring Valley Road and then South Street to the finish, my turkey was cooked and my energy gobbled up, as I hit the third mile with a 6:02.

All things considered, averaging a 6:00 pace on a difficult course on what was pretty much the coldest Thanksgiving ever - in a race for which I did not even specifically train - felt darn good.  Coming in 17th place (out of 1,459 overall and 717 males), second of 306 masters (age 40 and up) and first in my age group of males age 40 to 44 was icing on the cake (gravy on the turkey?).