Sunday, September 28, 2008

All that glitters

I think everyone who partakes in an amateur sport, at some time or another, entertains the dream of running in an Olympic or world championship. I often did on days when I felt extra spunky on a run. It is just that I happen to also be a realist, even when I have my head above the clouds. Therefore, I rarely won, even in my dreams. Cracking the top ten was a fine and dandy doer even for a dreamer.

The idea to revisit cross-country in a big way started when Coach Bill Squires asked some of my workout friends and me if we wanted to run on a team for him in the cross-country Nationals to be soon held in Boston. Bill was between jobs and looking to showcase himself. He had been providing free coaching during the past two years for us, so it was the least we could do for him. He registered us with the USATF as Team SISU and gave us singlets with the team name. Sisu is a Finnish word which roughly translates to courage or toughness.....OK a closer translation would be balls! While waiting for my race, I watched Rodgers and few other people I know in the 1990 Masters XC championship race, thinking, I could do that. I could stay up with those guys (not yet realizing that age 36 is very different from 40+). So the seeds were sewn for a goal. Oh yes, I was about 200th place in the open championship.

Over the next three years, I trained hard but my heart really wasn't into it. I blamed it on the new duties of fatherhood rather than the physiology of aging. My times were getting slower and it was getting more difficult by the year to compete in the open division. As I approached age 39, I read that the National Masters XC champ would be returning to Boston but that the open division race would now be held at a separate time and location. This didn't bother me because I would be a master. I slowly started “ramping” up training. There was a lot of grass running leading to repeat miles on a boring, flat, devoid of shade course I laid out around the outside of the track on the school grounds. This was the best I could do in park-bare Weymouth to get a necessary pillar of cross country training. One can transition from grass to roads but you cannot go from road training and expect to do well on grass. I trained through a 5k developmental XC race to get the first feel of running in spikes since college. Then after a couple of weeks where many of my repeat miles dipped under 5 minutes per mile, I ran the New England XC champs. I finished 3rd, just barely loosing out in a last minute battle for second with Jack Fultz (two time winner of the Boston Marathon). Then, I fully backed off on the training and did my goal race. I was 7th in the Nationals and exacted my revenge on Fultz, who finished a couple of places back.

So, my goal was complete.....or so I thought until the invitation to the Worlds came in the mail. USA was the host country for the first time in 20 or 30 years and Buffalo was the host city. Hmmmmm. Doable! Very Doable. The race would be July 12 which was at the end of my hard to change, already scheduled vacation. The wife and son did not want to give up our Nova Scotia trip so the compromise was a slightly shortened Nova Scotia trip, then shuffle off to Buffalo. My first thoughts when opening the invitation: July 12th in upstate New will probably be 90 degrees and humid. So bring on the encore presentation of repeat grass miles and Sunday fartlek workouts. Add some weight lifting type workouts to boot. Then resist the urge to remove that extra clothing layer in the spring all the way into the summer. By the time we transition into summer, I'm still doing my workouts when it is 80 degrees with a rain suit on. This culminates in my last full length workout 5 days before the big race. I ran an easy paced 11 miles on a 90 degree day in a full rain suit. Since 90 days are rare in Aylesford, Nova Scotia and most locals were suffering in the heat, I was quite a sight to the locals in my heavy running gear.

Sunday- There is heavy bumper to bumper traffic through Maine that afternoon. We decide to drive an extra 50 miles and sleep at home in our own beds in Massachusetts.

Monday- Then, go west, young (errr old) man. We make it as far as Syracuse and stay in a motel. Tuesday- Next morning I wake up and I cannot put any weight on my left leg. It is two days before race day. First thought, panic! The next thought: okay, what did I do that was unusual 1-2 days ago? Ah, heavy clutch activity in our standard transmission car in Maine. I hobble out to the car and continue a gimpy shuffle off to Buffalo.

Wednesday- I wake up in Buffalo and the leg has made quite a recovery. A short run confirms my opinion. I go to a team meeting /athlete orientation. WAVA (World Amateur Veterans Association- the arm of IAAF that handles us geezers) and IAAF(the organization that runs the Olympics) officials “lay down the law” about conduct, random drug testing, etc. I rest in the motel for the afternoon and watch my son. My wife goes and tours around Niagra Falls.

Thursday- It's race day! Out to Akron Falls, the site of the cross-country venue. We reserve a spot in a campground only a couple of miles away for afterwards, then off to the race. I was wrong about the knee jerk temperature prediction. It wasn't 90 and humid. It was 99 and humid! My race was last as they started with the older age groups of both men and women. Half hour before race time, warming up. The course is 10,000 meters (6.21 miles), has a lot of up hill in the first half (my forte) and is flat or downhill in the second half. The last mile culminates in a lot of downhill (my weakness). 10 minutes before race time, there is an announcement. 24 people treated by medics on the scene today and 10 of those requiring hospitalization. The event has been postponed until further notice. Shock and disbelief set in. A meeting was scheduled at the Games headquarters tomorrow. It was only announced in English. A Runner from Portugal standing next to me is lost in concept due to the language gap. I don't know the language but I do know a little Spanish. I successfully get the concept across in the third party language. Back to the campground. We see groups of teens heading into the campground with cases of beer, possible impending bad weather, and a race possibly still to be run. There are broken beer bottles on our tent site. We decide to leave. Buffalo is out of the question for accommodations with the Worlds now in full swing. Severe weather alerts are starting to come across the radio. We pull into a motel in Akron Falls. I forget the name. I think it was the Bates Motel or something like that (psycho violins sound effects scream in the background). The manager, who has a strange resemblance to a young Anthony Hopkins shows us to a room. My 5 year old son goes to sit on the bed and it collapses <>psycho violins. Mr. Hopkins shows us another room and the bed is fine. We take it. Later, I check the bathroom and see an old porcelain tub style shower with a white vinyl shower curtain. The light in the shower is a bare bulb hanging from two wires. There is no cover plate protecting the electrical outlet. <>more shrieking violins Now there are violent thunderstorm warnings and a tornado warning for this area. I have the urge to shut the TV off for fear of a Hitchcock film festival being the feature presentation.

Friday (the 13th )- Well, we made it through the night. No conversations with a long dead mother or daggers in the dark. It's off to a meeting that hopefully will not be run by a fellow in a hockey mask named Jason. An official looking person comes in and reads a brief statement. The gist is that the race will be run Monday morning at 9:00. This looks grim for me. My wife must be back to work Monday and Horror Hotel is out of the question for even another night. I see the Portuguese runner I met yesterday and tell him that it is unlikely that I will be able to run. He tells me in Spanish, “Hay uno o dos cuartos vacĂ­os en mi edificio en la aldea del atleta (There are one or two empty rooms in my building in the Athlete village).” This is confirmed with a WAVA official so the wheels of Instride's scheming gears start to turn. My wife and son head home. I stay and eat in the Athlete village and take a flight from Buffalo to Boston. I miss my scheduled work in a nursing home on Monday, but they were already in the process of giving my work to a multi-health service corporation. So a delay till the following weekend shouldn't ruffle any feathers. So it's settled. I continue the quest. Take that, Jason!

I was on the tenth floor of a building without air conditioning. The only people who spoke English on my floor were those from New Zealand and they generally kept to themselves. I wasn't going to go to Opening ceremonies tonight (sounded too pomp and circumstance for me) but changed my mind to get some human contact after many hours of solitude. It was clearly my best decision of this adventure. I had never experienced the full roar of tens of thousands of people cheering on the home team when we entered the stadium in our USA uniforms. I was placed in the front row for the procession because someone decided I looked good in my uniform (somebody better give that official a drug test). There were fireworks, Elvis impersonators parachuting to a target on the 50 yard line, a Chubby Checkers concert, acrobats and dancers. All in all, it was quite entertaining. Ingrained in my mind was that Ruth Anderson as the torch person to light the “Olympic flame.” She dropped the torch after lighting the flame and the flammable material from the torch must have spilled and caught fire. The platform was engulfed in flames but a quick acting fire fighter whisked her out of there with only suffering minor burns rather than doing a Joan of Arc imitation.

Saturday- It is still hotter than Hingham House of Pizza Buffalo wings. Rod Dixon wins the 800 meters in that furnace. I remembered him medalling at the Montreal Olympics in the black uniform of New Zealand.

My travels lead me to discover an air conditioned room in a place housing mostly Australian athletes. The “cool room” was one of the few comfortable places around. They quickly adopt me as one of their own on the basis of his wit and story telling. One of the Aussie women I spoke with makes it through the prelims and semis in the 100 meters. Her physical rehab between races is thorough and her demeanor is incredibly focused. I now have some new found respect for sprinters. I told her that maybe I'll watch her race Sunday night to offer moral support. She says if I do anything other than rest for my race, she would personally beat me up. Considering the size of here biceps and the speed in her legs, I have no doubt that she could keep her word. I followed her advice.

Sunday- I don't know if it is hot enough to fry an egg or humid enough to poach that egg. Maybe I could tell if I could figure out which came first, the roasted chicken or these hard boiled attempts at wit.

It's tough getting to bed. The heat is bad but the temperature in my subconscious is starting to rise. I'm starting to doubt whether I belong in this caliper of competition. I wake up in the middle of the night. I head out to the John. An empty bladder makes for better sleep. I notice that I'm rubbing elbows with Rod Dixon who is draining his dragon in the adjacent urinal. If piss and vinegar count, maybe I do belong here.

Monday- Race day for real! I make my way to a shuttle bus at some ungodly hour for a nearly one hour ride. Even though it was early, the weather was more reminiscent of fire and brimstone than a heavenly dream. We line up on a course that starts right up a hill. Bang! The gun goes off 4 days late and a whole bunch of dollars short. Feeling the adrenalin and a gift of good hill climbing, I'm in the lead pack as the hill levels and then transforms into a gradual downhill. I ease into a rhythm as others up their tempo. People pass me by in droves. The situation reminded me of that childhood nightmare where you are trying to run away from something or someone and going in slow motion. It seemed like everyone in the race must have passed me by the mile mark. I was waiting for the Laugh-In man in a yellow raincoat on a tricycle to come scooting by. Still, this is no time to panic. There are many uphill sections over the next two miles for me to use my strength. I gain on no one over the next mile and a half. On the most challenging uphill on the course at about 2.5 miles, I catch no one. Someone even goes by me. Maybe it is time to panic. However, the little over-achiever voice in my head says I'm out here to do my represent myself, my team, and my country. Have pride and do your best. I retrench and refocus on my race effort, whatever that may turn out to be. Then, a funny thing happened after we hit the halfway mark. The course opened up onto a huge grassy field. It reminded me of the conditions where I did my repeat miles: flat, groomed grass, and hotter than blazes! The tide turned. I started passing people. Only one person went by me in the next 2 miles. He said something in an Eastern European language. I could not understand the words but the tone of his voice was encouraging. He could have been saying that my mother eats kitty litter and I wouldn't have known it. I tend to lean towards kind words because of the tone. Ah! I know. He must have said, “Slovac and steady wins the race.” Well, so much for oxygen debt humor. I start the downhill last mile and I'm still getting by competitors. I pass three more in the final 200 meters. I didn't have the slightest idea as to my place in the race. I was just happy that I gave my all and had done my best on this given day. The race was won by Grenville Wood of Australia. I hope he is as nice as the Aussies who shared their cool room with me. Joaquim Pereira was second, and Francisco Ribiero took the bronze (both from Portugal). The slots started to fill in on a top ten board. Then low and behold, the tenth slot is filled and says Robert Chasen USA. A wry but satisfying smile came to my face. Dream-Mission Impossible is accomplished. Then, as they say on a Ronco commercial, “wait there's more...” The team scores were then posted and the USA won the silver medal (Portugal won the gold).

It may be a team medal I was awarded. However, no piece of hardware on my awards shelf has such a rich individual story to tell. Yes, all that glitters isn't always gold. Sometimes it is the silver lining to a dream fulfilled.

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