Monday, March 20, 2017

On Going "Old School"

The drab, grey, winter morning in Upstate New York was nothing to write home about. As I coasted along the shoulder of the asphalt, I'd sometimes veer over a little onto the two-foot-wide stretch of dirt alongside the campus road. The feel of some dirt underfoot, combined with a little imagination, helped to mentally transport me to some faraway singletrack—away from the cars and the parking lots and the generically designed state office buildings. The daydream would only last a few seconds. Sometimes it was the sudden impact as my feet returned to pavement, and other times it was a 25 mile-per-hour blast of wind to the face, that would snap me back into the present moment. Whatever the reason, I'd find myself back at the University of Albany in the midst of another five-lap jaunt around around the campus roads.

2017 was my fifth time at the Hudson Mohawk Road Runners Winter Marathon, and the first where I was able to wear just shorts and a long-sleeve base layer shirt. Another year, another 26.2 miles around a campus with zero scenery in less-than-ideal running conditions.

Somewhere during the second lap my mind began to wander as I actively searched for a reason why I continued to run this marathon year after year. The only scenery is a bunch of brick buildings and some highway traffic and the occasional a
glimpse or two of a middle-class residential neighborhood. There's not even a significant hill to mix things up a bit.

I considered the race registration process—paper forms only, by mail or day-of. Normally I'd mail my entry fee of $25 and save five bucks, but this year I splurged a little with the $30 race-day registration. At $1.15 per mile, that's not a bad deal for a road race these days.

I considered the swag. A long sleeve cotton t-shirt with the race logo on it—nothing more. And for the finishers' awards, a paper certificate printed with the race information and each runner's name and time handwritten at the bottom. No fancy medals, tech shirts, or bags full of sponsors' freebies. No post-race beer, concerts, or parties at this one. Just the usual assortment of fruit, chips and cookies, along with some amazing vegan quinoa soup. The mid-loop aid station consisted of two parents with their kids, handling the cold like pros while passing out cups of water and Gatorade from the back of their Ford Windstar.

I considered the starting line. I overheard just before the race that the marathon had 26 entrants, down from the usual 40-60. (A few years ago, they had just over 100—the highest turnout in the race's 44-year history.) The low numbers this year may have had something to do with the marathon getting postponed by two weeks because of horrible weather conditions, and the fact that this year the runners club was hosting 10-mile and 20-mile races concurrently. There are 19 marathon finishers listed in the 2017 results.

I imagined marathons as they were during the 1970s running boom. I hadn't even been born then, but I've heard strange rumors about how computers, smart phones, Go Pros, and GPS watches did not exist 40 years ago. Back then, race lotteries were rare, average finishing times were much faster, entry fees much lower, and swag and amenities were minimal, if anything. Races didn't draw recreational runners by promising to make participants feel like rock stars, nor did they charge exuberant registration fees.

Running is a simple sport that has been made overly complicated by all the fanfare, production, and technology that have evolved as a byproduct of the sport's popularity. At the risk of sounding curmudgeonly, I am quick to point out that all of the aforementioned characteristics provide an overwhelmingly positive contribution to the sport. Awards, social media, and exciting race courses keep many people active and interested in running. However, I enjoy taking a break from all of that once in awhile and just running a race to run it. And sure, I could just do a 26-mile solo training run anytime and not pay an entry fee, but the race against the clock certainly adds to the appeal of an organized event. Also, it's nice to sometimes take a break from the trails for awhile. Road running still has a certain appeal to me as well, particularly in the winter.

It struck me then and there, how, to me, the most appealing aspect of the HMMRC Winter Marathon is the perception of an old-school flavor. That morning, I ran just to run. I ran to test my fitness over 26.2 miles. I did not run for a memorable experience or any tangible reward. Ironically, it is the complete lack of an experience that is the most memorable. I enjoyed the complete and utter simplicity of running five identical laps alone, free of spectators, cameras, and other characteristics of big city—and even small city—road races. Today, it is probably the closest I'll ever get to experiencing a marathon in the footsteps of our road running forefathers. And that's why I'll be back in Albany next February.

Thank you to the HMRRC and the course marshals and all the other volunteers who spent their morning out in the cold to keep us runners safe! 

Mile 0.3. PC: Bill Meehan.
Let's blame Cormac McCarthy for the liberal use of conjunctions without commas in this post. After reading a few of his novels I just couldn't help it. ; )

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