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Monthly Archives: July 2015

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Cloudy, cool.

Several weeks ago, I woke up for a four-hour training ride. I consulted a weather app on my phone. Fortunately, the app predicted a zero percent chance of precipitation.

I started early. The weather was cool and cloudy, humid. Not many people were up and about at that hour on a Saturday morning.

I had ridden about an hour and fifteen minutes when it began to rain, lightly at first. Then it rained softly but steadily. I rode to a sheltering overhang on a nearby auto dealership. The rain splattered in a straight line on the sidewalk beneath the edge of the roof above. I pulled out my phone to see how long the rain might last. Once again, the app promised a 0% chance of precipitation that morning. And for the next two hours and 30 minutes, the app proved to be 100% wrong.

The rain stopped for the last 15 minutes of my ride. Here is what my bike looked like after I arrived home.

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Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you are probably right.” Henry Ford

For 2015, the Afton Trail Run implemented a new system. A web page showed who had entered both the 50K and 25K races. The pages displayed each participant’s name, age, and city of residence. The page also projected finish times based on each participant’s prior race history. Perhaps because I had not run the race last year, the page omitted to project my finish time, though it noted that I was 56 years old in an age group ranging from 50 to infinity.

The page offered a projected finish time for a relative youngster in my age group, an experienced ultra marathon runner who had just turned 50. The website predicted that he would finish 11 minutes faster than my best ever time on the course and faster than any other member of our age group. I figured that this guy (let’s call him the “Inevitable”) had ample time to stop to read the morning paper and still beat me with plenty of time to spare.

While I always enjoyed Afton, it had always been very difficult. The course followed trails on the eastern border of Minnesota overlooking the St. Croix River. The course traced a series of climbs and descents. The Afton 50K website said that the course offered 4,670 vertical feet of climbing. And, just as hard and maybe harder, the course offered 4,670 vertical feet of descending.

Saturday morning, July 4th, race day.

I woke up at 4:00, grabbed a little breakfast and began my hourlong drive to Afton. The sun rose blood orange over the horizon. Apparently, forest fires up in Canada had spread smoke into the upper atmosphere and made the sunrises and sunsets gorgeously dramatic.

When I got out of the car, dew dampened my feet as I wandered through runners milling around nervously near the start. John Maas, a farmer from Sleepy Eye, Minnesota, had pressed me pretty hard during at least two of our races at Afton. John and I greeted one another and looked around to see if we could spot the Inevitable. We did. He wore nice gear and a confident expression. It looked like we wouldn’t see him again until the picnic following the race.

The race director stood on a stepladder and addressed the 200 or so runners gathered there. He didn’t need to use a microphone. He got down from the stepladder and told us to go. The race had started. John and I began the steep downhill right out of the start running side-by-side. The pace was stupid fast. John and I watched the Inevitable pull away even as we ran far faster than we thought wise. We eased back.

As John and I ran, the course provided vistas every now and then looking out over the St. Croix River valley. A humid Minnesota summer morning sky rested bright but heavy. At a few places, we saw a few runners dotting the course in front of us. The Inevitable was visible, at least for the first few miles. After that, though, he was much too far ahead. I told John that I thought that we had seen the last of him.

We had plenty of time so John told me a story. Four years ago, when he was 50, John ran a 100 mile race. With 40 miles to go, he was eighth. He began to overtake people. With less than seven miles to go, John was second. A fan encouraged him. “You can do it!” the fan said. John said that, at the time, this irritated him. He laughed and said that you get a little grouchy after running 93 miles. (I wouldn’t know. I hope I never do.) Anyway, John poured himself into it. With a mile to go, John caught up with the guy in first place, passed him and went on to win his first big race.

John said that the lesson was for us to just “play our own game.”

“You never know,” he said, “maybe he will just come back to us. 50K is not that long a race but plenty can happen.” (I form friendships easily with people exhibiting peculiar views of the term “long.”)

At mile 21, we descended a steep, rocky slope down to the St. Croix River. I had been running ahead of John as we visited but the downhill hurt my thighs. John seemed unaffected and ran ahead, a few yards at first, then 50, then 100, then he was gone.

I didn’t feel so bad. John had the legs that morning and I didn’t. Even so, I couldn’t help but feel discouraged. The Inevitable was probably at least 10 minutes ahead and on his way to a course record. John would beat me, too. So I took what wisdom I could from the morning’s chat and just played my own game. I ran the downhills as fast as I could but it was often no faster than a walk. I ran most of the uphills but allowed myself to walk several, too. This is no sin in trail running; sometimes it is more efficient to walk uphill briskly. Most trail runners develop a knack for feeling the slope of an uphill and break into a fast walk once the slope steepens to a certain pitch.

Alone, I was left to ruminate. In the past, I could have run those hills, both up and down. I scolded myself and felt the sun beat down when I emerged from the woods into a treeless field overlooking the river. I let negative thoughts take control. I slowed down.

After plunging back into the woods, a runner approached from behind. We chatted for a few minutes, then I pulled over to let him by. It had felt good to have company and I had picked up the pace, even if I ultimately needed to let him pass.

Just about a mile from the finish I began to climb the last big hill on the course, a hill called “Meat Grinder.” (I needn’t explain the name.) I lifted my chin and looked up. The Inevitable’s back appeared about 100 yards ahead. He was walking, slowly. I swallowed hard and dug in, though I knew that if I came up on someone that late in the race that I could pass him easily. And I did.

The last several hundred yards stretched along a ridge with tall grass lining a narrow dirt path. The sun shone brightly, hot but moderated by a light breeze. I saw the tent over the timer’s table and heard music playing faintly for the people gathered near the finish line at the post-race picnic.

I crossed the line and received a vigorous handshake from the race organizer. John greeted me, too. He held the framed picture that each age group winner receives. We shook hands and he offered me a shoulder to steady myself.

I lost but felt happy. It would be hard to find anyone nicer than John. He had worked me very hard, not just that morning but during several prior races. I’d like to think that I pushed him a little bit, too. Maybe I helped him get to the finish line. I think that we helped each other. He deserved to win and I felt genuinely happy for him.

The Inevitable crossed the line not long after I had. He did not look so good. His friends and family gathered around to help. I felt sorry for him. He hadn’t bragged. Rather, he fell victim to a prediction that he did not make. An algorithm announced that he would trounce both John and me. So far as the website was concerned, the Inevitable really needn’t have shown up. This was a coronation – at least so far as the algorithm was concerned. By the looks of him at the finish, he should have taken the opportunity to phone this one in if that chance had been offered.

It’s embarrassing to admit that after 73 marathons or ultra marathons, I had so easily conceded defeat to an electronic system that predicted winners and losers. I had reconciled to losing before I started. I had feared that it would be pointless for me to show up; the Inevitable was going to beat me badly. Just as erroneous, I thought that I was likely to beat John once again. Instead, I think that John and I helped one another through friendly rivalry. I also wonder if the Inevitable paid any attention to the time the algorithm had predicted. If so, it was way too fast and blew him out before the final miles.

I learned (again) that you never know how things will come out, at least with respect to running a 31 mile race over big hills on a warm weekend. You still need to show up. Maybe if I had paid less attention to the algorithm and more attention to my own pace – played my own game – I would have raced much better. To be fair, I still lost, just as the algorithm would have predicted, but I lost to someone whom I greatly respect and admire – and probably someone that the algorithm would have said that I would have beaten again. Last Saturday, though, both the algorithm and I were wrong: John had the legs and he ran away from all of us. In the end, I think that John just had a feeling deep inside his chest and he pushed hard when it got really tough. I doubt that there is an algorithm to reliably predict that.

Even at age 56, I’m still competitive. I want to win. But maybe it is an encouraging sign that I can feel so happy to see one of my competitors beat me. I might not have felt that way even just a year or two ago. I was OK with it on July 4th, though, and may need to adapt to that perspective more as time goes on. I want my good days of racing but I hope to be gracious in acknowledging others who are just better than I am that day. That’s racing. That’s life.

Maybe next year I won’t check to see who else enters Afton. That way I won’t have the opportunity to believe my own press one way or another. Instead, maybe I will just show up and hope to run with John Maas as long as I can – or as long as he can run with me. If that happens, it will be a good day no matter who wins. And I will believe what I feel inside my chest.

There are some things that you can look up using Google and feel confident in the answer. There are some things that you can’t. I’m not sure that there is a firm rule to distinguish when to believe Google and when not. Maybe if the result depends on somebody’s heart and determination, I had best exercise caution when consulting my phone or computer. So, you read it here first: Don’t believe everything you read on the internet. Of course, here you are reading that on the internet.

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