More personal archeology

Good Grief. In the the spirit of this ancient post, here’s more on the never-ending digging out of my personal mess, I’ve just unearthed a red vinyl hot water bottle marked “Return to DHHC.” DHHC stands for “Dick Hall’s House Clinic.” Dick’s House was my college infirmary. (I think they call it the Health Center now.) I have a vague memory of being given this thing to hold ice to apply to an injury sometime in the late 1960s. Maybe it’s time to do what it says and bring it back.

And now the Dick’s House memories come flooding back. I was sent up once to get x-rays. (Guys who run well, run. Guys who don’t run well whine about injuries.) Checked in, sat down, and eventually the nurse, a burly former Navy corpsman, a really good guy we all liked but who took absolutely no nonsense, arrived with a wheel chair. “Hop in,” he said. I don’t need a chair,” I said. I’m only here for x-rays.” He glared down at my 132-pound self. “Get in the chair.” I got in the chair.


No pain, a gain, again


It was a wonderful, warm pre-dawn today, with a big waning moon and a beautiful morning star. And my run was virtually pain-free for the first time in a couple of months, even on a some gentle hills.

My trainer Liz had moved me over from mostly strength and general flexibility to a specific set of stretches that I find challenging but that seem to have worked really well, along with a sort of massage move—it uses a door hinge!—suggested to me by H’s PT Kristie that hits the inside of my achilles. I won’t be ready to try running even moderately fast for a good while yet, but just shuffling along getting a little of that good rhythm going is a treat. The fact is, I’m a pretty happy guy when I’m fit to run, and a pretty miserable one when I’m not.

Many years ago, someone who knew me very well enlightened me about myself when I was undergoing the tortures of English grad school. “Look, you’re smart. But you’re not an intellectual. You’re basically a physical guy.” Which saved my sanity by exploding me out of the grim seminars that had already seemed to suck all the life out of literature and were beginning to do the same to me.

I went to work at McDonalds. Then in a textile factory. Then as a gardener and general dogsbody on a rich family’s estate. I wasn’t happy at McDonalds, but I rather enjoyed the rest.

At the same time, I started running again, training with an ultra-marathoner whose races were 50-milers and 100Ks. (He’d go 10 or 12 on a short day, I’d go 6 on a long.) And as I gradually rediscovered my sport, I also learned from the other guys out there that my shins no longer had to scream. I learned about “running podiatrists,” who could prescribe and fashion these things called “orthotics” to put in your training flats. And better yet, someone had invented good training flats!

It turned out my problem wasn’t anterior compartment syndrome, requiring surgeries I’d declined to have, but simply a mechanical imbalance now easily corrected. I was in clover. Somewhat underemployed, but happy as a clam.

And now I could run pain-free. I’d also learned a lot more about training. So I ran long/strong lactate-threshold workouts every day and easy-go longer runs on Sunday. High-mileage weeks. And I raced only during short periods when I’d sharpened to a peak. The pure Lydiard. Results weren’t big-time or profoundly impressive, but as I’ve written somewhere else, I would have kicked my own ass in what was supposed to have been my prime. Which made me happy. And this morning has made me hope happily for the old-guy version.

 


Second-hand Rose

When you run in the winter, the idea is to be cold when you step out the door so that you’ll be comfy and not over-heated after a half-mile or so. For lots of runners, including me, this means a light or medium layer or two under a windshell. Last winter, I used mostly an Adidas pullover that was cheap, ratty, and almost perfect.

(Cheap and ratty are plusses, not minuses, to most people hauling around the roads in February. I still occasionally pull out the profoundly disreputable ancient dark green snap-front, circa 1964, that I used in college.)

But toward the end of cold weather I got a look at a Patagonia Airshed—not cheap, not ratty—and felt a flutter in my heart. It’s basically a perfectly-realized version of the random stuff I’ve been wearing for years—the same simple basic pullover, but made with more thought, more care, and better material.

But I’m not paying $119 for it.

Turns out I don’t have to. One turned up on Patagonia’s Worn Wear website, and I snatched it.


Bug Banquet

I headed out for a long run this morning.

(As I type this I realize how malleable and relative the term is. A few decades ago the same distance would have been short. Ah, well.)

What I want to write about, though, is the astonishing number of flying specs of annoyance that accompanied me for most of my shuffle. There are always a few pests dotting around, but today was one of those days—very humid, very still, very—what?—heavy, when they seem to really swarm.

When you’re moving along, you have to breathe, and your nose needs some fairly forceful help from your mouth. And so a number of the little buggers wind up on the wrong side of your teeth. Most of them you can breathe out or cough out or spit out, but there are always a few who choose to use the other exit. This morning’s cloud of protoplasm was especially thick, and I got home thinking I really didn’t need my normal breakfast.


Personal Inventory

Our college coach, the estimable Elliot Noyes had a style and understated humor that still tickles. Or stings. After one of my even-worse-than-normal cross-country performances, he wandered over, got not too close, gave me his sidelong look, and said, “Alvarez, that was a rather genteel pace you set today.” He loved rococo language constructions. Beards and mustaches, for example, were “hirsute facial embellishments” He always called time trials “personal inventories.” I’ve lately been chuckling at how much more useful a term that is for creaky old guys staggering around the roads. A time trial would be ludicrous and bizarre, but a personal inventory is perfect: left knee okay, right knee not so hot, belly jiggling in ¾ time, whimpering moderate….

There was also a wonderfully silly joy of running for Ellie. Freshmen couldn’t compete in varsity sports in those days, so the student newspaper would report on the freshmen teams separately. The college teams—the varsity teams—were called the Big Green, but not the poor frosh. It’s pretty hard to take yourself seriously once you’ve spent a year being referred to in sportspeak as one of the “Peagreen Noyesmen.”


Mt. Cabot Mud

In the Whites, the rocky trails go straight up the fall line, so stretches are sometimes essentially brooks. [For a good laugh, read this letter from an Alabama hiker to the Concord (New Hampshire) Monitor.] But on Cabot yesterday, the whole walk felt like wading. Or mudlarking.

This gets tiresome after a while. I’d have to say this was one of the least enjoyable walks I’ve had among the 4,000-footers. Except—and this is a major point—that I was with two of my favorite people.

H and A are escorting me through my late-life surge to top all 48 of these big (by New England standards) mountains. I wandered up Mt. Lafayette—my first 4,000 in 1966, so you can see I haven’t exactly been in a hurry to check off the list. (I kept going back to the ones I liked.) But now I’m focused on completion, and Cabot was Number 40. Three of the remaining eight are a cluster, and we’ll do those as an overnight. Three more are a natural single long day for a strong walker, but for me it will be two days with a good sleep in between. That leaves two, one of which—Mt. Isolation—actually scares my elderly self a bit. But there’s a decent chance that by fall we’ll have ‘em all.

Party on Mt. Carrigain. You’ll all be invited.


Knucklehead Running

My general reaction to what seems to be a reprieve from prostate cancer has been to try to claw back at least a little control over my own body. I eat way less and much better (mostly veggie). Alcohol is largely off the menu, though the occasional beer is inevitable and a toast for cause is still a joy. I work out with a trainer at the gym twice a week. I’ve lost a lot of weight, and I’ve been running regularly again since November, with a mind to do a little age-class racing.

I’ve been operating under some general rules:

  • Think of the people you love. Be grateful. Be positive. Stay happy.
  • Eat right.
  • Get good sleep.
  • Don’t run if you’re sick or overtired. (Better yet, don’t get sick or overtired.)
  • Warm up thoroughly.
  • Warm up carefully.
  • Make every workout count. Have a purpose. No wasted miles.

 

This is fine as far as it goes, but I’d been fussing a bit to come up with a training schedule that would work for a determined but creaky old man. I can’t really train hard anymore, and I can’t run every day.

After lots of thought, experimentation, the shameless theft of other people’s ideas, and, of course, a great deal of whining and complaining, I think I’ve got it: a basic every-other-day schedule based on the old man’s highest priority:

“Don’t hurt yourself, Knucklehead.”

It’s a two-week cycle of running every-other day (seven efforts every 14 days). Every second workout is a long easy run. In between are alternating tempo runs (my favorite kind of training long before they were called that—I knew it as steady-state or lactate-threshold running) and controlled speedwork, either standard repeats on the track or strong efforts up my favorite shallow inclines in the cemetery.

So: Long run, day off, Steady state, day off, Long run, day off, Speedwork, day off, Long run, day off, Steady state….

Appropriate warmups and stretching, which I used to more or less ignore, I now realize are urgently vital for this creaky old bod.

No peaking or freshening included yet. But I do have a racing goal (it’s a secret, so don’t tell, okay?): A 7:00 mile right around my 70th birthday in January. I may not get there, but it’s a useful target. And it’s not utterly ridiculous, if the Knucklehead doesn’t get hurt.


Annual Blast from the Past

 It’s Bat Day again!

I was raised an only child by kind and supportive parents. Sound middle-class values were expected, but discipline was gentle, love and respect evident, and abuse non-existent. This is the excuse I make for my inability to write good fiction.

Occasionally, though, stuff happened.

When I was in my early teens, the only thing that mattered in my world was baseball. School had always been a waste of time. Other sports were filler. Music was something I murdered on a dented trumpet. My idea of a terrific girl was one who could throw like a boy. (Come to think of it, that’s still my idea of a terrific girl.)

One spring back then, I got a new bat. They were still wood in those days, and this one was a 34-inch, flame-tempered, Jackie Robinson model Louisville Slugger. I carried it around with me, hoping to fall into pickup games here and there. One Saturday my parents, on their way to a wedding, dropped me off in the center of our little town, where I was supposed to get a haircut. But some friends were playing ball on the North Green, across Pleasant Street from the barber’s. Naturally, my bat and I diverted to the game and played until it broke up. Then I wandered over to read ancient comic books at Kenny’s and wait my turn. Got my ears lowered ($1.25) and walked the two miles home. My parents had recently returned. My mother was in the kitchen working on supper. My father, oddly, was stretched out on the padded built-in next to our fireplace in the living room, talking to himself. Vehemently.

“Well,” I thought after a quick look, “I’ll go out in the yard and take a few swings.” It was then I realized I’d left my bat at the barber’s.

Now, my father was (and remains) a kind and even solicitous man. An oath would occasionally pass his lips, but only for good cause, and never directed at family. And although he made a mean whiskey sour and loved a cold beer on a hot day, and a good party anytime, he wasn’t a big drinker. I’d never seen him wobbly, let alone delirious.

But on this warm Saturday, one of his boyhood friends had married a woman dad profoundly didn’t approve of. So, as I was to learn, he’d drunk deeply at the reception to keep his mind off the horror before him, and he had now settled into this rude, high-decibel, semi-conscious, horizontal raving about the all round awfulness of the lady in question and the unfathomable blindness of the groom.

But I needed my bat. And as a monomaniacally preoccupied innocent I returned to the living room and made the request I would have put to him on a normal Saturday afternoon. “Dad, I left my new bat down at the barbershop. Could you drive me down to get it?”

This gave him the chance to utter the sentence that, precisely because it was so toweringly uncharacteristic, has rung down the years in our family to the present day, a kind of facetious epigraphic standing joke that we and our closest friends savor, a line I’ve told him I’m planning to inscribe on his gravestone. “Ah,” snarled my kind father, my partner in hundreds of twilight catches, the man who had taught me how to hit and field and throw. “Ah,” he said, sounding frighteningly mean. “Ah, go get your own goddam baseball bat.”

Stunned almost to tears, I retreated to the kitchen and told my mother. She laughed, which was characteristic and therefore reassuring, explained the situation, and took me to get the bat. Which I broke a week or two later hitting a weak one-hopper to short.

Cut to the present. Mom’s gone (and, my God, we miss her so). Dad’s now living in the apartment over our garage. Paul, in the cottage in the back yard, is not only my daily walking partner, but has put his expertise in genealogy to work on the families of many of his friends (gleefully disproving  treasured myths about Indian princesses and narrow escapes from Titanic tragedy). One day last week, he was talking at tea to my dad and me about the recent release of the 1940 census. This gradually brought us around to my father’s youth, his old neighborhood, and his old friends. He began to talk about this particular friend, and, inevitably, his horrible wife. My contribution to the conversation was the inevitable banderilla, “Ah, go get your own goddam baseball bat.” We all laughed, and Paul asked me, “When was that?” I said I knew it was in the early ’60s, but I wasn’t sure which year.

Then we had a flash. If Paul could use his tracking skills to dig up the date of the wedding, we’d know exactly when this famous family event had occurred. Tap, tap. Nope. Wait a minute. Tap, tap. Birth and death records, but no marriage record. Let’s try the woman’s name. Tap, tap. Birth and death, mention of marriage, but no date. Hang on. Tap, tap. Got it. The date on which my family’s own Gettysburg address was uttered: June 2, 1962.

So we have a 50th anniversary coming up. Party? You bet. You’re invited, dad. Just be sure to bring your own goddam bottle.


Use It Up

My memory is shot, but I’m pretty sure that 50-odd years ago my high school class chose as its motto, Carpe Diem: Seize the Day.

Over the last year or so, I’ve been granted something of a new lease on life (physical life, anyway—I’m fading fast upstairs), and I’m being pretty aggressive about taking advantage of it. I’d become used to husbanding effort (or being lazy—pick your point of view), but a few months ago—mostly, I have to admit, to get me out the door on those dark cold winter mornings—I started telling myself, “Use it up,” and I’ve been more or less living by this little phrase ever since.

I’ve been surprised that whenever I mention it to friends, reaction has been negative. They seem to think it reflects some sort of death wish. No, no, no. To me, “Use it up” is just a slightly down and dirty version of Carpe Diem, which could reasonably be construed as, “Don’t waste time.” It recognizes the end is somewhere out there in future, but it’s not rooting for it to arrive anytime soon.

For me “Use it up” means something like,”Push it.” Or, more concretely, “Do the stuff you love. Cherish family, travel a lot, reconnect with old friends, run hard, walk far.” In other words, be aware of and aggressive about taking advantage of this reprieve, this temporary gift of physicality.

Of course, in its penumbra, as the Supreme Court might say, is this: “Don’t worry if your friends don’t like your mantra.”