Friday, August 30

FCF Racing - Summer 2013

Things did not look good for the future of the illustrious Andy Francis Race Career around this time last year. I was still on my way back from the second of two right knee surgeries, and the recovery was going much more slowly than the other two times I had attempted to get back to normal after going under the 'scope. Indeed, there is still some strangeness in that knee that I suspect will never be resolved but is at least fun to show people at parties. It wasn't until early September 2012, more than two months post-op, when I could finally jog a little bit, with my first run of any significant distance taking place in London on an important quest to find the city's Chuckstop. It's still odd the things I can and cannot do easily on my knees; basketball and football games don't give me any trouble, but hiking in the woods and going down stairs pose significant challenges for me. Running 10 miles? Sure. Swimming with a kickboard? Hell no.

Limitations aside, I've slowly but surely worked my way back to pretty good shape and have enjoyed a full race season so far in 2013. I know the hammer could drop again at any time, but there's not much I can do about that, and I'm determined to fire as many bullets as possible in the interim. With my triathlon season having wrapped up at Presque Isle this past weekend, I thought it'd be a good time to tell some tales about the events I did this spring and summer to set the table for the always-glorious fall race season, during which one can do some serious road racing and then spend the rest of the day drinking beer and watching football. As Isaac Brock in Modest Mouse once sang, "sometimes life's okay."

St Malachi Run
Road race
5 miles
16 March

I did a couple of races in late 2012 once I got back to the point I could, with mixed results. I made my return to running by keeping my perfect streak of Towpath Marathon participation alive, though this was the first time I did the 10k instead of the half marathon. I posted an unimpressive 50:03, but whatever, I was out running and the weather was pleasant. A birthday 5k netted me a so-so 22:29, followed by the annual Pigskin Classic, where I posted a 21:39 and Ohio State posted a 26-21 win.

My first race in 2013 was my first shot at Malachi, a five-miler in Ohio City traditionally seen as the start of the local running season. It couldn’t have come on a much nastier March day, with very cold temperatures and the sort of chilling rain that has aspirations towards snowdom. An ugly day for a run and an ugly run, as I was only able to manage a 37:48, not even sub-7:30. On the bright side, my man Rosencratz had a strong race, and Guinni were enjoyed afterwards, the day before my first totally sober St Patrick’s Day since some year beginning with “19.”

Cleveland 10-Miler
Road race
10 miles, obviously
27 April

Another local tradition, the Cleveland 10-Miler was a good opportunity to stretch out my distance running a bit more than the usual 4- and 5-mile training runs I had been clocking. This was the first one where I really felt like my conditioning was holding me back, as I registered a 1:17:53, far from my 1:12 best in 2010. I didn’t feel bad this day, it wasn’t too hot, I was running well … and I just couldn’t run as fast as I wanted to. From miles 5-8, I just felt the 7:30 splits that I wanted were slipping away from me. I finished with a couple of decent miles, but not where I wanted to be.

Speaking of 2010 – every one of my PRs remains from a period between Sept 2009 and May 2010, except triathlons, which are impossible to compare quantifiably and accurately year-over-year. They’re all tough ones to beat, yet I’m convinced I can topple all of them. Unfortunately, the easiest mark on the board is my marathon PR (3:54), and I think I’m out of the marathon game.

Cleveland Marathon
Road race
26.2 miles
19 May

Ha, I didn't do this one at all. I ran about 50 meters with a water bottle to give to Nena and rode my bike around the neighborhood for a while. Whatever, I've conquered the Cleveland Marathon three times already, get off my back.

Cleveland Challenge
Scavenger Hunt
Approx. 5 miles
8 June

I wrote about this fun run at length previously this summer – it’s here for completeness sake only. Sadly, this would be the only race I would run while sporting a Darth Vader mask for the rest of the summer.

First Town Days
Road race
6 July

Back to my home town of New Philadelphia for the annual 5k race as part of First Town Days, our summer Independence Day festival named after the fact that Phila was Ohio’s first permanent settlement. I was talking with some fellow racers prior to starting, including a few who had never done the race. This was my eighth running, making it the one I’ve tackled the most times, tying it with Pittsburgh’s Great Race for that honor. I stressed to the competitors that it was a tough course, mostly owing to its hilliness, including a killer run up Wabash Ave at the start of mile 3. I said this numerous times both the morning of the race and during the week prior to it.

And you know what? I’m right. It is hilly, and it’s tough. But no amount of saying that out loud seems to get my body to remember what that feels like, and how difficult it really is. I posted a 22:52, slower than all but two of my previous seven efforts, but those fall within a pretty tight distribution. Six of them, including this one, fall into a thirty-second band of finishing time, which is bizarrely consistent considering the ups and downs (hill joke!) of my running career. Next year (barring injuries, as with every claim I will make in this piece) I’m smashing my 21:38 course record, and that’s all there is to it (except for the above disclaimer).

Lorain Summer Sprint
7 July

Two races in two days seems a bit ambitious, but when the first one is a 5k and the second one is a sprint triathlon at which that you're not expecting to break any records at, it's not such a big deal. I figured I'd be pretty much fully recovered in time for this race.

And I was right, at least as it pertained to racing fatigue. What I didn't count on was recovering from my one-year-old nephew, Diggity. You see, after the FTD race ended, I went to visit my sister for a while, and of course ended up with D chasing me around their house. I can't overemphasize how much my sister's kids like chasing me. The sight of me running away is like crack to them. Anyway, while eluding his tenaciously wobbly pursuit through the kitchen, I absolutely crushed the small toe on my right foot on the wooden frame of the doorway leading to the dining room. As soon as I hit it I knew it was trouble, and it took all the restraint I had not to yell out. O U C H.

Later that day in Cleveland I finally took a look at it, and wow. It was so crazy-looking that I took a photo – I considered posting the image here but ultimately decided against it. Imagine a little toe on a normal male foot, then imagine it twice as big and totally purple. I’ll email you a shot if you like. It was amazing. Those of you who I sent a pic of my smashed purple toes on the other foot from last fall (the City STILL hasn’t removed that stupid metal shiv): this looks exactly the same as that. I may or may not have broken it, but I tend to take a cavalier attitude towards potential breakage of digits, as we will see. I might have been more proactive had it been the big toe, the Captain of the toes if you will. I declared myself fit to race the next day, even though walking was somewhat painful.

Nick and I hit Lorain, got set up, and I found myself a bit nervous. I knew that I'd finish, of course, but I also knew that I hadn't completed a triathlon in nearly two years - my lone attempt last summer was abandoned about 100 meters into the run. I was as apprehensive for this one as I had been for any race since my first triathlon, back in '08. Naturally, I forgot to bring my swim cap to the beach with me, a fact that Nick fortunately realized during the pre-race announcements. Short on time, I had to flee to the transition area and back, helpfully tiring myself out before it was time to hop into Lake Erie. We’re off to a good start here.

I raced OK, managing not to bump my toe against anyone in the water and scoring a 1:19:22 that pretty much means nothing in the vacuum of non-standard race courses. I can tell you that my race notes say, “I felt really old and slow,” that my 5k time was a poky-even-for-triathlon 25:11, and that I’ve had toes feel better than my little right one did that day. But hey, I’m back in the tri game.

Huntington Triathlon
21 July

I was feeling even more confident heading into this one, after breaking back into multisport at Lorain and following three weeks in July of solid training and dietary habits. I think I performed well, finishing in 1:16:14, which is even more nonsensical than my Lorain time because the chip timers didn’t work and there’s no event breakdown. Yes, it’s faster than the Lorain finish, but the relative lengths of the courses aren’t entirely clear to me.

On the good side, though, I felt different running. At Lorain, I was basically trying to get through 5k so I could be at the finish line and stop, though I did execute my traditional two-hand slam on a lowered basketball hoop on the side of the street, this time without the accompanying hamstring pull. At Huntington, I was running. I had an Age Group competitor with whom I was dueling throughout the run. I was behind him by about 100 m after leaving the bike area, and shortly after I overtook him, some spectator even went out of his way to tell the guy that I was an age grouper.

For those of you not familiar with this competition, the Age Group pass is the most important one you can make. Getting ahead of any 30-34 year old male is crucial for someone of my demographic makeup; I want to pass everyone, of course, but those are the ones that boost your age group and gender placing, and the ones you can be assured started at the same time as you, so when you pass them you’re really passing them.

Anyway, shut the fuck up, spectator guy. We both know how to read numbers on calves, and “33 M” is fairly unambiguous. This ain’t your concern. I kept my lead and finished strong, even charging up a steep hill just before the finish. This was the first race where I really felt like I was doing it again. My buddy Dave K also completed his first career triathlon here, which was a solid accomplishment. I ran back a bit on the race course to offer moral support, and a race volunteer asked me, “was there anyone behind you?” I answered, “there were a lot of people behind me!” but she was actually wondering if there were still people starting their runs, as I was in the “out” lane. There weren’t. I ran a bit with Dave, but forewent a second go at the finisher’s hill. Also: I won a sweet orange towel afterwards – not only does it match our bathroom d├ęcor, but it’s the only towel I’ve ever owned with an instruction manual.

The Thunder Run
Road race
27 July

Emboldened, I decided to enter a local race instead of taking a week off before my next swim-bike-run endeavor. The Thunder Run, a small library fundraiser run in Cleveland Heights, seemed to fit that bill perfectly. There was no thunder this day, but there was considerable rain – fortunately it held off until post-race, though frankly I don’t mind a bit of precip during a run.

I clocked an 18:49, good for 10th, and … wait a minute … what’s going on here? I felt fleet afoot, but did I really shatter my personal 5k record by more than a minute?

Nope. I sure didn’t. I, along with all the runners before me, ran the wrong course. I had a strong suspicion as I was running that something was awry. Mile 1 seemed pretty solid and I was running well, and then all of a sudden hey, there’s Mile 2. Clearly it was too early for a marker, and I was immediately concerned about the length of the course. I was also concerned about this strange fellow who basically stared me down the entire time I was passing him, like Laura Dern in Jurassic Park seeing her first dino. I pressed through both issues and finished, but as soon as I heard my “time” announced, I knew it was wrong. Here’s what happened. Take a look at this course map. See the loop around the tennis courts and baseball diamonds at the top right? We all missed that right turn and continued straight towards the water station. Blah. Nena got 30th and she said she was the first runner where they noticed everyone was going the wrong way and started routing them properly. They’ve had this race for four years – odd that this would happen now.

I was a little disappointed because I thought I was moving pretty well and had a chance to challenge my PR of 20:03, or at least get close. I know it was an honest mistake by the organizers and that it’s not a professionally-run race, but it’s frustrating to pay for an event and end up with a meaningless time. It’s also funny how they never once acknowledged the snafu, even with the 1st place guy “broke” the course record by 1:40 and all the runners were chatting about it post-race. Oh well, good exercise, I suppose.

Cleveland Triathlon
4 August

One of my traditional “focus” races is the Cleveland Triathlon, which was my first tri in ’08 and remains a favorite mostly due to its location in Downtown Cleveland. I think most athletes have these focus races, which are sort of like Majors in tennis or golf, upon which they put added emphasis. This and the Towpath are my two big ones.

I continued to feel strong during the week headed into this event, having even gotten a chance to put in some good swimming workouts while in Tennessee the week prior. The Friday before this Sunday race, I elected to play some pickup basketball with some fellows from work. Towards the end of the game, I reached into a passing lane to deflect a very sharply-thrown pass and caught its momentum directly along the long axis of my left thumb. This made my toe-smashing episode seem like a little tickle. It got real fat, real fast; I basically couldn’t move it after about an hour. Yikes. Even now, four weeks later, it only bends on the top knuckle at a 60 degree angle, where my other one clocks 90. This concerned me going into the race.

It turned out to be mostly OK, and I think I had a pretty good race, with a total time of 1:36:24. Don’t let that time fool you relative to the others – Cleveland has a longer bike course (16 miles) than standard (12 miles) because it’s set up for the International distance racers (24 miles) to do three laps, and they couldn’t very well have us do one and a half. It’s a bumpy, hilly bike course too, and a good challenge. About three miles in, I heard this odd friction sound on my tire. My first thought was: flat. It didn’t look flat, but it was still noisy so I pulled over and checked, and it was indeed not flat. The brakes seemed to be aligned, not rubbing the tire, but I took it off and replaced it, yet it kept barking at me. Finally, I found the piece of sticky paper that had gotten stuck in my brake assembly. Damn you, litterers! I carried on but that cost me some time. There are some significant bumps on the Shoreway bike course, and the rattling they cause my bike frame was bad news for the thumb. I could see them coming from a distance each time and steeled myself like Billy Chapel getting ready to toss a curveball. Thankfully, I was able to get off the cycle, though my transition from bike to run (T2) wasn’t good, primarily because I couldn’t grip my shoelaces to tie them very well.

As a fun surprise bonus, they also mismeasured the running course – it was 3.5 miles instead of the nominal 3.1 miles (5k), saddling me with a 26:28 (8:30 mile pace) not reflective of the good race I ran. I saw these two guys about 100 m and 150 m ahead of me as I was running with a little over a mile to go, and was determined to chase them down. I did just that, though I was dismayed once I got close enough that they were both in the 35-39 age bracket (a more competitive group that, thanks to USAT’s annoying rules, I will join next year – I won’t get to do one race as an actual 35-year-old for which my official age is 35) but it was still worth it.

North Ridgeville Lions Run
Road race
10 August

Feeling increasingly confident about my running speed and endurance, and replacing my old Sauconies (memorably described by Nick as "the sort of shoes you'd expect a homeless person to be wearing') with some new, cheap (like I care if it's version 5 or 6 of the Ghost), light, and strikingly ugly Brookses, Nena and I signed up for a local 10k race. it also gave us the opportunity to get a few of her XC team's runners to compete, as the course was near her school district. I stayed resolute in the face of two consecutive mismarked course distances.

I felt quite good this fine morning, and had the running to prove it early on. I was smoking through the first few miles, passing Nena's top two racers in the second mile (they were doing the 5k distance). According to the on-course timers, I was sitting at 20:50 after three miles, not far from my personal PR. That record, incidentally, is 42:47, set at the Great Race in Pittsburgh, on a day where I felt amazing and on a course with a substantial net downhill.

Shortly after mile three, I made a right turn out of a residential area and onto a main road with a group, and thus begun my downfall. Let’s go to the course map, shall we? See the red star marking the start point? Go a bit east of that and you’ll see a wishbone with a roman numeral II on top of it. We approached that from the east initially, ran north along the east curve, north on the little connector, then right, then left to go north to the top of the “II,” then left, down the west pillar of the II, then another left, then a soft right to head down the west part of the wishbone. Got it?

At this point, we turned right onto the main road, Bainbridge. A sheriff was directing traffic and said that the 10k/5k split was “up ahead a little bit.” I continued with the group on Bainbridge, all the way to West Point Dr. There I saw a policeman but no course marking. I asked him if I was supposed to go left and he said, “that’s where they’ve been going,” which was false and incompetent. There, I saw a mile marker facing away from me. I asked a race volunteer and he said “you should be done already!” Confused, I pressed him, and he said “you’re in the 5k, right?” Nope. “Go back that way then!” Great. So I went back west on Bainbridge and rejoined the course, but I knew I’d gone wrong and would be DQ’d.

Turns out that, immediately after the right from the wishbone onto Bainbridge, I was supposed to make a quick left, then take that road parallel to and south of Bainbridge, come up West Point, and so on. There were no volunteers, no other 10k runners around me, one arrow on the road that I never saw (and in fact would have had to go farther out to the road to even see), and the well-meaning but ultimately misleading info from the deputy. Ultimately it’s my responsibility, but it’s an unfortunate situation.

Anyway, roughly 400 m short, I pulled into the “finish” line in “7th place.” I told the girl, no, don’t take my race number, I didn’t really finish, you have to DQ me. She insisted on keeping it and I said OK, but I didn’t really finish this race and you need to keep me out of the order of finish, then another finisher came and she disposed of me. I returned at a less busy moment, and said, hey, for real, please remove me, I didn’t finish this race fairly, which she appeared to do. I took this opportunity to run back and find my error, and then out of spite I ran the part of the course I had missed. I wasn’t super-happy that day.

We stayed for the awards – Nena got an age group 2nd and her runners both claimed firsts. And, of course, they announced me as the “winner” of the 30-34 group (there were only two of us). So I got to make the fun walk up there and explain that I didn’t finish fairly and had to decline the medal. Thanks, girl who I asked to scuttle my finish tag! The race organization who put this on along with the North Ridgeville Lions, who normally do a terrific job, also posted me as 1st in my age group on their online results. To their credit (though it took an email from me) they finally took down my “time” recently. I’m not going to post it here.

Presque Isle Triathlon
24 August

The close of my race season took place in beautiful Presque Isle State Park near Erie, PA, the home course of Nick and a race I hadn’t tackled since ’09. The first year I did it was in rotten weather on the lake side of the park, and the water was crazy. I can’t believe they didn’t cancel the swim. The second year was cold and rainy and unpleasant before the race as well – I still remember standing there in my jammers shivering and listening to uninteresting pre-race announcements.

This year was a bright, sunny morning perfect for an 8 am triathlon start. And, around 8:30, my body decided it should start as well. I just didn’t swim well, took on water a couple of times, never found a rhythm, couldn’t sight the buoys well, just ugly. I started off slow on the cycle too, slow being a relative term on the super-fast PI bike velodrome. Eventually I picked it up, engaging in a cycle duel with three other racers. I lost that duel to all of them, though thanks to my not changing shoes I was out of the transition first and never heard from them again.

They had done the swim start in a curious fashion. Usually it’s by age and gender, like all males under 40 in one wave, then all males over 40, then all females under 40, something like that. This year, to lessen water traffic, they asked participants to self-report their swimming strength. Like any such thing, people overstate their abilities, which is why you see some of the worst members of our society participating as walkers near the front lines of actual marathons. Plus, I never got this e-mail, so I ended up in swim wave four for no apparent reason. Thus, I started behind a lot of people who I was a better athlete than, and couldn’t tell who I was really passing and of whom I was 3, 6, or even 9 minutes ahead. Nevertheless, I blazed that 3.5-mile run course (I did the right one!!! It was supposed to be 3.5!!! Yay!), passing all sorts of competitors at a 7:36 pace. I finished in 1:21:06, a meaningless number as usual. PI is always a tough field – I only got 85th out of 370 (last place held down by the awesomely-named “Dart Summerson”) and 11th of 16 in my age group. Man. My splits bored out my observations about my performance over time; I was 153rd out of the water, had the 103rd best bike leg, and was the 57th-fastest runner. If I’m looking to step up my game in 2014, the path would appear to be aquatic.

Overall, I had a fun- and wrong-turn-filled spring and summer racing series that I’m excited to extend well into the fall.

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