Likable apples

One benefit of having a twenty-plus-year working relationship with an editor, especially one who has a hankering for well-chosen photos and microstories, is the freedom (within reasonable limits) to put personal touches on the broader topics I write about when monetizing my logorrhea. I can't travel these days to most of the places I still count as my favorite running spots -- and as I'll get into next time, I recently tried and gave up early -- so I can instead rely on a combination of recall, coercion and technology to "visit" these places and incorporate them into my themes. That's what I did for my latest for Podium Runner, which "takes place" 2,000 miles away from where I wrote it.

I was recently thinking about hills, which I rarely run down anymore for fear of further damaging my cartilage, and therefore rarely run up because I'd then have to run back down. (Though I have an incredible view of the mountains forming the Foothills and one "fourteener" from my street and for the duration of any selected run, eastern Boulder, where I live and operate, is itself quite flat.) I have never really been into the idea of short, fast hill repeats per se as pertains to adult road-racers, but cross-country is different, and that's where most my advisory/directorial focus is now. And there are lots or ways to perform hill repeats, even in the same spot.

In 1978, when I was going into third grade, my family moved from a duplex in the south end of Concord, N.H. into a just-built modern log cabin on nine swampy acres in the northern reaches of the 65-square-mile city, a part which is naturally called East Concord. My mom's parents had owned the place in the South End and lived on the other side, and now my parents, my sister and I would continue living under the same roof as my mom's folks in separate dwellings. From the time I was in seventh grade until I graduated in 1988, I lived further from Rundlett Junior High School and Concord High School, both about seven miles to the south, than any other Concord student. A quarter-mile to the north and I would have been in the town of Canterbury (pop. ~1,500) and therefore in the Belmont school system; a little over a mile to the southwest and I'd have been slated to attend Merrimack Valley instead of watching kids who did go there moon me out the window of buses on their way west from Loudon to MVHS, as I waited for a Concord bus to swing north to grab me and a few other scattered de facto hillbillies. You kind of have to know something about Merrimack Valley and Belmont in those days to appreciate my bemused speculation about where either of those untaken paths might have taken me, calamity-wise.

At the same time my home from 1978 to (occasionally) 2004 was under construction -- and special-needs people live there now, though I'm not sure how all that that transpired, exactly -- the first trees were being planted on a wide, southward-facing slope just behind my family's property, to the east. The first winter I lived there, I took my four-year-old sister halfway up the hill with an old Coleco plastic sled, skimmed down between saplings with her in my lap, and promptly got us lost cutting through the woods on the way home. At one point when I stopped yelling for rescue (which scared my poor, oft-admiring sister, whose life was apparently then in the hands of an eight-year-old), I realized I could actually see my dad's Subaru through some trees less than 150 feet away. Such ended a minor misadventure and commenced, in a sense, a practice of climbing this hill because it so often seemed like a good idea to be up there.

After that, I knew the way and over the years would hike the hill alone just to check out the view, which on a clear day offered a view of, well, the State House dome and little else. The top of this hill, as I learned from one of my grandfather's dozens of USGS maps, was about 560' above sea level, or 220' above my house. Considering the highest point in Concord doesn't quite reach 900', these are serious local fluctuations. (My grandfather had those maps because he retired in the early 1980s from the N.H. Department of Fish and Game. I doubt he ever used, or could properly read, a topo map himself, so I consider myself lucky to have chanced into a household rich in these amazing maps long before the Internet or even formal orienteering.)

I took the photo below on my last visit to what is now Apple Hill Farm last October.

When I was prodded into joining the cross-country in ninth grade, I would sometimes incorporate a clockwise quadrangular-ish loop of the orchard into the last part of a run. It wasn't easy. Starting at around the seven o'clock position on a standard clock face, as if anyone's seen one of those lately, I would climb the quarter of a mile or so to the top, at the northwest corner. Then I'd turn and run east along the fence separating the orchard in Concord from the town of Canterbury (there are houses over there now, accessible from a steeply rising cul-de-sac; those went up in the early 1990s). This meant a slight dip, a small climb, another dip and another climb until the right, southward turn down the steep portion of the descent. The last part of the loop, longer and gentler than the climb as well as the first part of the descent, swings by what is now the home of the orchard owners and then the public sales house. The final 100 meters or so are on the dirt lane heading back to Route 132, and then you have the option of adding one or more additional loops.

I always assumed the loop was close to a mile, and in the GPS era, I can say I was close. When I realized the kinds of workouts I would sem-unconsciously fall into during my formative years of a competitive runner on this beloved slope, I collected some data from MapMyRun from my remote office in Colorado, i.e., didn't actually run it. Then I realized I had a correspondent or two in the area who might owe me a favor or two, and requisitioned his services to obtain more reliable data. This is the result.

The fun part of this is the story behind the runner shown in the photo. Eben is one of the top runners in New Hampshire. I was one of the top runners in the same state over thirty years ago, and for a variety of straightforward reasons, this was a lot easier to achieve then than now. As only one of many examples of this, I was second in the state in the indoor 3,000 meters at the 1988 State Championships, and just today, by himself, Eben ran almost 20 seconds faster than I did for that distance. It won't be long before his times at 5K and below are all better than my lifetime bests. This background is significant in that his father, who took the photos for the Podium Runner article, was the only freshman besides me on the 1984 Concord High cross-country squad, and he only signed up at the last minute at my insistence because he was my best friend at the time and I didn't want to be the only kid making the half-mile trip from the junior high to practice every afternoon. Besides, I knew nothing about what I was getting into anyway, as I had only just committed myself to the experience at the behest of my dear mother.
Rick beat me every race that fall, and by increasing amounts. He wound up sixth man (I was eighth or ninth) on a decent team that qualified for the "New Englands," then consisting, hilariously, of only N.H., Vermont and Rhode Island, the three lowest-population states in the six-state region for which the event continues to be named (Connecticut started going in 1985, and Maine joined sometime in the mod- to late 1990s. Massachusetts continues to hold out, as it has since the Nixon administration.) Rick was sick that day and came in dead-ass last in the race with a time of 19:53. I watched this as one of the sweats-holders at Bryant College in Rhode Island, then with a best time of 19:31 to my credit, and realized I would like this already alluring enterprise if I could somehow appear closer to the front of the pack than I had as a neophyte, where I was among the midpack laggards paying for reckless starts and feathered-haired galoots in double-striped tube socks.
As gutsy as he always was in racing, Rick wasn't much interested in training over the summer -- a surprisingly common malady in those days even among the state's best. He never beat me after our ninth-grade campaign, but he did steadily improve. In the next-to-last race of our cross-country careers, at the 1987 Meet of Champions, I was running ill and half-inspired and wound up just outside the top twenty. Rick ran the race of his life and was right behind me to pick me up in the chute. A half-hour later, we, as co-captains and the only four-year members of the team, learned that Concord had achieved the low score at the Meet of Champions. I think this was the first time this happened, but it;s hard to verify. It wouldn't happen for many years afterward.
I consider myself in retrospect to have been a fairly weak captain, other than by setting an example by training hard in the off-season and getting others to join me a few times a week. I didn't pay a whole lot of attention to the younger, slower kids on the team, which may have been standard (I mean, I was 17, and kind of stayed that way until my mid-forties) but leaves me feeling a little regretful when I get to thinking about it. Still, I had at least four regular training partners the summer before we earned that title, and by early August I could usually get Rick out the door for four or five miles mainly by showing up at his house unannounced in the early evening and "asking" him if he felt like a light workout. I like to think that maybe this made some of the difference in the way he closed his season.
Fast forward 30 years, when Rick's son Eben is a freshman at Concord High. By this time, 2017, middle-school programs has become standard nationwide, and most kids running cross-country as freshman already had anywhere from one to three years of running experience. Eben seems to have blended his dad's talent with his dad's friend's early obsession with the sport, and was already running times in ninth grade that I didn't reach on similar courses until I was a junior. He has continued a wise and steady progression, and has benefited from being on the best teams the school has ever featured. In 2017, CHS won the Meet of Champions for the first time since his dad and I wore the colors in the days when people of all ages un-self-consciously danced, or tried to move, to Michael Jackson songs. In 2018, they did it again. Last fall, they were no match for D-II juggernaut Coe-Brown, and while things were looking similar heading into this season, it's hard to say just what we'll find out this autumn. New Hampshire being a small state, it stands a stronger chance than most of staging some kind of meaningful season, especially because the Coe-Brown coach, Tim Cox, whose efforts were almost profiled in Outside Online last year, is sort of the head of all things high-school running in the Granite State and incredibly dedicated to the cause. And he's not alone. If you care to, you can follow these efforts here.
Eben doesn't run indoor track (like his dad did, he cross-country skis over the winter), so with the spring season wiped out, I've been helping set up his training for this fall. If that get stymied, there is still spring. I would rather everything be operating in accordance with pre-2020 standards right now, but since none of is, I am really happy to have a chance to be a part of a concrete goal. Leaving me with some bullet points, which really don't need to be set off like this:

  • My life is far from tragic right now, but I seem aimless in spite of a fair number of things keeping me amused between orgasms on a daily basis. Come on, no one reads this far anyway, even skimmers. I've been attending very small track workouts on the weekends and even participating a little, mostly because running fast for even 400 meters has become such a rarity that I practically get a buzz from a couple of quarters. I see the important people in my life a few times a week. I continue to strive to learn songs I'll never be able to play properly because I can get better at my own takes on them. I also surprise myself sometimes.

  • I have another training piece coming out for Podium Runner, probably this week. Also, I was contacted on Tuesday by a Runner's World editor, as they are planning to run an article on tempo runs I wrote for the late Running Times in 1999 in an upcoming print edition, and she wanted an updated bio. I never expected this article, or in fact anything I wrote in those days, to have enjoyed such a lively existence. Almost two years ago, I detailed its evolution, conceding that the editors' tweaks to its original lavender prose probably made it better for the medium.

    Despite my regular criticism of some of what's appeared in Runner's World over the years (its online companion's stuff at RWOL, in contrast, has always been good), it never seems to tweak the wrong balls, because the publication falls under new ownership between all of my significant outbursts. (This is to the extent anyone notices now, anyway; the old crew, before the 2007 Rodale, Inc. acquisition of Running Times, certainly did.) I'll also probably go on criticizing the Rock 'n' Roll race series even though without it, the company that now owns it wouldn't have money available for, among other things, paying freelancers for Podium Runner content. And they pay very quickly. I feel roughly as shitty about all of this as anyone running for Nike should about the fact that they receive paychecks from an entity widely recognized as Satan's own abusive pimp.

  • Kind of related to that, I am deferring a bunch of potentially grating shit to a future post, mostly about masks, because none of it is well-formed enough to constitute even a poor choice of a publicly declared thesis. I recently started following Matt Taibbi on Substack, where the former Rolling Stone writer has launched an ongoing series of glorious salvos against his own industry, highlighting the areas in which the left-leaning press (Taibbi is best classified as a Sanders liberal) has adopted the same tap-into-bloodlust model as Fox News has. So, he's a meta-critic who has watched journalism evolve from within and studied the main drivers behind the phenomenon.

    I am toying with the idea of doing something similar, obviously on a much-reduced scale: A mixture of public and subscriber-only posts, with the latter focusing on the ways in which the mass media covers running and how ingloriously self-driven and flagrantly counterproductive and dishonest much of it is. I'm not talking about the dedicated running media so much as the tripe that regularly shows up in the form of harried opinion columns in some of the country's largest newspapers. There is also the matter of being middle-aged with a load of middle-aged runner friends around the country who share my generational obligation to take the piss out of today's freakish road-race scene; these people regularly assure me that some of the phlegm I cough up here is stuff that's on a lot of their minds, but some of them are coaches and teachers whose core ideas on these matters are best not cast into the public domain. If I can get even ten monthly subscribers for even a buck, it would provide me with a tacit sense of obligation to do a little more than just rant without qualifying my ideas more thoroughly. I'll figure this one out soon enough.