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September 14, 2016 § Leave a comment

In July I’m flown to London, England, to compete at the World Beer Mile Classic as a member of the Canadian beer mile team. I stay with a friend in Wimbledon, 13k from the London Eye. Is this the reference point of London? 14k from Covent Garden. She tells me that when the Wimbledon grand slam is in play you can see Roger Federer wandering around between matches out here, Serena Williams too. I run the Commons, ducking under tree branches, leaping dried-up ravines. When I packed for this trip I bubble wrapped six Phillips Slipstream Ales for the race, and sealed them in Ziplocs for the flight. All six survived the travels. Back at the flat I drink one to see how they’ve settled, and for the next couple of days I train by drinking water from that bottle.

On my second day in London we run in Richmond park. There’s a red dirt trail circumscribing the park, 11.6k around, and I start easily like I did on every run on similar dirt roads in Kenya, I start with kilometres slower than 5:00 pace and the familiar meditation settles in. By halfway my muscles are loose and ready to run. The race is two days hence and so it’s not the time to be aggressive, but still I dig in a bit on the uphills and float the flats. After the run we eat in a greenhouse café amongst the Persham nurseries plants. Elderflower water, grilled vegetables, and a Lavender, rose water and almond cake.

On Thursday before Sunday’s race Corey Bellemore runs a new beer mile record of 4:39. He does this solo in Ontario. Before this effort he wasn’t even on the radar and now he’s the world record holder. He has to be at the Championships. It’s late notice, but you can’t hold a championship race without the record holder, not if you can get him to the start. Nick McFalls contacts him and offers to fly him out, and Corey accepts. He flies Friday and arrives Saturday, and the day after that he breaks his own world record winning the championships in 4:34, 3:59 for the 1573 meters of running and 35 seconds cumulative for the chug zone. It’s an incredibly graceful performance and possibly the last times we’ll see him run one, as I expect he’ll focused on trying to make the 2020 Tokyo Olympics in the 800m or 1500m. I finish 5th in 5:07.

A few days later I fly to Dubrovnik. I use Strava heat maps to discover running routes in cities I’ve never visited, and on the platform I discover a segment switchbacking up Srd Mountain rising from Old Town Dubrovnik to Fort Imperial. 175 others have run this route. I jog to the start at 2:00 p.m. in the afternoon. It’s hot. 30 degrees near the airport in the shade, but up this mountain, razed by fires and the 1991-1995 war, there is no shade. The sun is directly above and achromatically harsh. The path is steep and scrambly and there are more cutbacks than I’d noticed when I looked at it online. Small rocks that shift underfoot. Bigger rocks with no purchase, just a sharpness you don’t want to encounter. White stones reflecting a sun intent on eclipsing dimension. Halfway up I’m slowing. I want the Strava segment record and I went out conservatively but I’m still dying in the heat. My legs turn rubbery and then acidic. I feel as though my electricity has been cut.

What you don’t know about Strava segments until you’re home and have uploaded the run onto your phone is if you broke the record or not. Sometimes you know you were faster than the time but you don’t know if the segment was recorded (it’s usually reliable, but every now and then the watch glitches and the segment is lost). Other times it’s close and you hope for a crown to appear while you wait for the run to upload. This record, 12:56 of 13-18% grade climbing, is held by a Swedish beer miler. He set it in on my birthday in 2015. Back at the place my run appears on Strava. 12:57. I missed the record by 1 second.

But my flight doesn’t leave until mid-morning the next day, so I decide I’ll come back and try again, earlier, before the heat and before anyone else is on the mountain. That afternoon I head to Zaton Mali, a quiet fishing village north of Dubrovnik. I bring a towel, my computer, a book. Gverovic-Orsan is a cellar restaurant in an old boathouse, and I settle in at a table on the pier on the Adriatic. I order black risotto, octopus salad, seafood gnocchi. A bottle of Posip (white wine). This is what I need. I’m beginning to understand I crave small towns, fishing villages, mountains and water when I travel, and crowds and major tourist destinations don’t appeal to me. I don’t want to miss what invites the crowds, the beauty of old town Dubrovnik, but I want to pass through with my journal and camera and end up somewhere quieter. This afternoon there are two local families at the restaurant, and me. Between courses I dive into the Adriatic and swim until boat traffic stops me. I flip onto my back and face the sun and let my legs and arms starfish in the sea. For a while I don’t think about anything, but eventually gelato finds its way into my mind. I swim back to shore and climb out on a rocky beach and head back to my table, drying quickly under the hot sun. The salt from the Adriatic crusts and feels tight on my skin. I order an espresso and a lemon gelato, and watch the families’ four kids playing on a dock 20 meters off shore.

That night back in Dubrovnik there’s a techno party at Fort Imperial atop the mountain. At 11 p.m. I start walking up the same switchbacks I ran earlier in the day, 2.5 kilometres, and arrive around midnight. I’m still thinking about tomorrow’s run, the Strava record attempt, and this isn’t really where I belong anyway so I don’t stay long but I’m there for an hour or a bit longer before walking home.

In the morning I drink a syrupy Croatian electrolyte drink, the sponsor of their Olympic team, it says so on the bottle. I eat a couple of pieces of chocolate and drink a mug of earl grey. It’s time to warm up. I jog to the segment, reset my watch, and start.

It’s cooler. There’s a breeze off the water. Still, I’m shirtless when I begin and I start even slower today and build through the middle, so that by the time I reach the last couple of switchbacks I’m feeling strong and accelerating, and I sprint the last stretch along the castle’s cliff side and around the corner, and I keep sprinting 50 meters beyond that until I know I’ve covered the segment and maybe even another one I didn’t reach yesterday. Back at my place I upload the run and a crown appears, but it’s not the one I wanted. It’s from a shorter segment earlier in the run, one I didn’t care about. For some reason today my watch missed recording the segment, and I have no time. One of my splits from the climb was 28 seconds faster so I think I would have beaten it, but it appears this segment wasn’t meant to be mine, not this year at least.

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October 2, 2015 § Leave a comment

You’re not going to get a better night than this, not ever, because here we are an hour before sunset and the sun really will have to set tonight, we’ll watch it slip behind the high school and send the last of its light glancing off the new architecture, the one-way panes and the marble, while the Garry oaks look painted, not moving at all, and spectators walk around in t-shirts with light sweaters tied round their waists. Flags are slumped around their poles bloody exhausted. Pollen floats above lane 8 of the track, no idea where it came from, it’s not arriving by any kind of a breeze. Tomorrow there’ll be a supermoon total lunar eclipse.

Someone exits a car and yanks a fold-out table out of the trunk. Two parking spots over Chris Kelsall, the man who is Athletics Illustrated, rummages in the back seat for a couple of cameras. A skinny guy in a yellow t-shirt arrives with a 6-pack of some pineapple flavoured Jamaican beer, and starts to do a dynamic set of exercises. A stockier guy in a paler yellow tee arrives with a sixer of Shocktop in one hand, his girlfriend’s hand in the other.

Kelsall fires up one of his video cameras and asks me what I’m hoping for tonight. What’s my A goal. I look up from where I’m tying my shoes on the track. God man, I don’t know. I want a p.b. as a minimum. I’d love to break 5:00 but I’ve some good miles in my legs this week, and half the UVIC Vikes cross-country workout from this morning. This could be great. It could be a disaster. And Chris calls me on it. Already building in excuses. It’s true, if I’m going to race this thing I just need to race it. If I’m going to go through the effort of setting aside a night for a beer mile, if I’m going to invite cameras and spectators, I just need to shut my yaw and run with whatever brio I have.

We’ve assigned a handler to each runner, to each of me, Peter Corrigan (ranked sixth in Canada in the 5000m this year) and Trevor O’Brien, a former 3:41 1500m man. The handlers will grab our empty beer bottles and set them on the table so that we can measure how much remains. Updated Kingston rules allow a generous 1 oz per beer.

There’s never really any fanfare for these events. Most races aren’t fully committed to until the morning of the race, and sometimes only a couple of hours before the start. Even then, maybe you’ll show up to the track and there’ll be a kids soccer game on the infield, or a mum with her pram strolling the outside lane. Maybe there’ll be some maintenance underway, or the cops’ll have gotten wind of it and you’ll walk through the gate and just have to keep walking, one loop like that’s your purpose and then you’re back at the car. There’s never any guarantee it’ll run, and that’s one of the warnings you have to give potential spectators, too, that they may show up for nothing more than a bit of gossip. You hope it’ll run, because once you’ve made the final decision and you’ve purchased the beer there’s a momentum that takes hold. There’s an electricity to it, and now you desperately want to do it, but there’s a real possibility you’ll have to quell this desire and go home and drink alone.

But tonight there are no hitches. If the cops are on hand they’re watching keenly, too, hoping for something special. There actually are a couple of mums, their kids just graduated out of prams, and they’re watching too. With all the construction around the school right now the only way to cross the grounds is through the track, and even some random passersby have stopped to watch. This is what I mean about the electricity. There’s a density about it, like the density of a black hole, and you feel sucked toward it without even knowing what’s happening, and even though nothing is underway as of yet.

Then suddenly we are underway. The beers materialize on the table, four each, and the three racers are on the line. We grab one of our beers and bring it close to our lips, our left hands curled around the cap ready to twist. We get an On Your Marks, and then Go.

I’m through the exchange zone in 6.2 seconds. It’s actually slow for me, compared to my practices at home. I figure I can be out in about 5.2 but on the track here it doesn’t feel smooth. I’m surprised later to see that it was as fast as 6.2. Honestly the beer mile has become a technical exercise for me. The clock starts when you’re standing at the true mile start 9m from the finish, and in the exchange we have to grab our beers, open them, drink them, and cross the finish line. I want to know how fast I can navigate these 9 meters. This is purely oiling everything that moves, for me. It’s the way I used to practice three-point shots, or spot kicks. You do and do and do until the neural pathways are laid down, until you just can’t miss, anymore than you could accidentally wander off the oft travelled woodsy path into dense underbrush. You’d have to try to miss. Not that I’m sitting at home drinking and drinking, not that I’m doing that, but I practice with water from a beer bottle. I do do this. Anyway, here we are on this eclipse eve and I’m out and running, and I can hear footsteps behind me which I assume are Peter’s since I’ve spent enough nights at the pub with O’Brien to know that while he’s the running pride of tiny Paradise, Newfoundland, he’d be a bit of a drinking embarrassment to the Newfs in general, at least when it comes to speed. My first lap of the track is 66.2 and whoever’s behind me, which is indeed Peter although the Newf beat him off the line, has closed so that he’s only about a second behind me at the transition. A transition I burn through. 6.5 seconds, which means I’m clear. This is the first beer mile for Trevor and Peter, and so while Peter comes into the first exchange feeling good about his chances, he hasn’t ever had to drink after running a hard 400m. I was 66.2 for that first lap, so he must have been 61 or 62, which means he doesn’t really have a lot of spare oxygen with which to hold his breath while he drinks. And so yes, I’m through the exchange in 6.5 and from that point on it’s a time trial.

Here the race actually gets kind of boring. I don’t hear any splits, not a single one, so I have no idea what kind of pace I’m on. I could be challenging Lewis’s world record, or I could be running a personal worst, though I’m pretty sure I’m somewhere in the middle. When I do the autopsy later I see I ran 69.6 for my second lap, 6.9 for my third beer exchange, 70.2 for my third lap. Boring. Dead steady, and no drama. When I come into the exchange for my final beer the Newf is sitting on the ground drinking his third. He ran 2:46 for an 800m beer time trial a couple of nights before but this is more volume than he’s used to, and he’s sitting on the rubber trying to figure out how to finish up the third beer, which he doesn’t. After my 6.9 final exchange he drops his half-full beer and bolts, thinking he might be able to help me on my final lap. He flies past me and I can’t attach. He decelerates and still I can’t attach. I have nothing left. Maybe it was yesterday’s hill sprints, or this morning’s part xc workout, or some big miles earlier in the week. Maybe it’s just how I’ll always run a mile as a pure distance runner, slow and dying. I can’t attach and I feel my form letting go, but I tuck my head and bury myself with a 68.8 final 400m.

And I still don’t know what I’ve run. I ask someone with a watch but they don’t know. The next person I ask says 5:01. Someone else says 5:02 and another says 5:00. Later it’s confirmed as 5:01.2, a super master’s world record and the 6th all-time performer. The current world record is Lewis’ scintillate 4:55.78.

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September 15, 2015 § Leave a comment

I stared out the window of the 17th room on the 17th floor of the Hyatt, downtown Vancouver, the 7:00 a.m. sun glancing off a taller nearby building, my headphones stuffed in my ears. Stared at the cloudless contrailed sky and the swimming pool a swan’s dive beneath me, and listened to an Enigma song. I inverted into a headstand and stayed up for about a minute.

Sunday morning, April 19. Race morning. I flipped out of my headstand and pulled things out of my bag looking for something I could warm up in. Anything. A shirt with sleeves or even shoulders, shorts that didn’t expose my upper thigh, but I’d forgotten all of it. I had my racing flats, split shorts, and my singlet with my number already attached. I also had a cotton t-shirt from my race package, which fit. A rare and fortunate warm April morning on the west coast. Slipped my singlet over my torso. Cotton race-issued t-shirt over that. Drank a small glass of water. Rode the elevator down 17 floors and went outside and started jogging.

Eleven nights of sweating through sheets heading into the race. Nights of headaches and a dry cough that sometimes escalated into dry-heaving. I wasn’t feeling bad during the days, but the nights were awful. I wasn’t sure I would race.

But races always give something back. There are moments we love, even on our worst days. Moments when we actually do notice the scenery on a scenic course, or when our bodies express their perfect cadence, perhaps only for a few seconds but those are the seconds we remember. And so it was I took the ferry to Vancouver for the Sun Run.

The race itself was uneventful. Start at a pace we think we can hold and let attrition wage its war against the pack, the slow squeezing of muscles and lungs, heart and mind. The group I was in hit 5km in 16:00. With 1km remaining Oliver Utting surged hard, and by the finish had put 10 seconds on me to claim the master’s title. I was second master in 31:50. This was good, given how I’d been feeling coming in. Most of the race felt sustainable, and I only lacked power near the end.

A week later, the Times Colonist 10km in Victoria. This was the race I was most anxious about. The start is about 1km from my place and I knew a lot of people who’d be out either racing or spectating. If the Sun Run had been a disaster I’d have pretended the local race was never on my calendar. I’d have picked up a Fantastico coffee on my way down to cheering. But I felt good. I felt optimistic, and the truth is I love racing. Plus I wanted to try the new adidas Takumi Sen flat. This Japanese engineered 5.9 oz rapturous thing.

Well, and I’d made a deal with a yogi: I’d come to yoga if she ran the race. I couldn’t very well not run myself.

The guy I had to beat for the master’s title was Philip Samoei from Kenya. He started in my pack but bolted around 3km and built up a bit of a lead on me by halfway. Not a huge lead, maybe 10 seconds, but he looked strong. I stung my lungs over the next  couple of kilometres, up the hill from the cemetery and past the Terry Fox statue, and still I couldn’t close the gap, and ahead Philip had caught another Kenyan. I figured they’d work together to the finish; that they’d stay clear. But actually I was feeling pretty good. Burning lungs, sure, but I didn’t feel like I needed to slow down and so I kept pushing which eventually paid off. I caught both Philip and the other guy by 8km. There’s a short and often decisive hill with a mile remaining. I ran as hard as I could up that and got the gap I needed, and stayed clear to the finish. 31:36, my fastest on this course in a few years.

After these two 10kms I went back to one of my favourite races on the calendar, the Whistler Half Marathon (and 10km). You’re not going there for a fast time. You run Whistler because Dave Clarke puts on an incredible event, and you run for the scenery, and here is one of those races during which I actually do notice my surroundings. This course is arresting.

Many courses use scenic as a euphemism for hilly. This one could use hilly as a euphemism for the hors-catégorie it actually is.

I brought the Adidas Takumi Sen flat, having adored them in the TC. If they felt good for a full half marathon they’d be my new every race shoes.

My main competition was Arya, a 1h07′ collegiate from Oklahoma who bussed over from Vancouver where he was visiting his Grandma. It’s still a relatively small race and all the fast guys were in their track seasons, and so it was Arya and I found ourselves alone in front after three kilometres. We ran side-by-side to 10km and then he tucked in behind me, which made me think he didn’t have the bit. I worked the uphill at 14km and he started falling back, so I pressured him a bit more and it sent me clear. Whenever I checked behind on a straight, though, I could see him coming around the last bend. I hadn’t finished my past few half marathons with any verve, but I felt strong in this one and I don’t think any small part of that was the yoga I’d been practicing for (at that point) five weeks. I wasn’t feeling the usual late-race tightness through my hips. I felt like I was popping off the ground better. By some alchemy of these new racing flats and my yoga, I was feeling good. 

I’ve always kind of railed against yoga for runners. There’s a positive correlation between tightness and running speed. I also think many runners bring their competitive mindset into the practice, which is a mistake. We push when we shouldn’t push, push when we should be relaxing into a posture, breathing into a posture, breathing into change instead of fighting for it. We compare ourselves to someone on the next mat. We want to see improvements and get in a good workout.

But this isn’t the yoga practice. We should be looking for small increases in range of motion. Eliminating restrictions. The yoga I do uses the breath itself as the practice, and stretching supports the breath. It’s a moving meditation. We breathe through an hour of stretches, then meditate for 20 minutes. Sometimes I feel sprung the next day and my legs have no energy, but in two days’ time I feel great. I’m balancing muscle tension. Yoga reduces it, and a short stimulus like strides increases it. An ice bath increases it. If I’m racing on a Sunday, my last yoga practice will be on the Thursday.

And so I came into the last kilometre of Whistler with a lead of about a minute, and I kicked home well. 1h11′ which I think would put me under 1h09′ on a flatter course, better than I’d raced in two years.

Next up is the Victoria half marathon on October 11, and then I’ll be switching to 1500m training and heading back to the Beer Mile World Championships in Austin on December 01. Trying for a sub-5:00.

Beer Mile World Classic

September 8, 2015 § Leave a comment

I take the MUNI to Civic Center and march the long underground with my beer in a small cooler, hand-held like a briefcase so it doesn’t shake. Four Amsterdam Blondes, precious cargo, get a sticker. Long clacking strides through the corridor beneath the city like I’m on assignment. Up the stairs into the blazing San Francisco sun. I’m headed to meet the rest of the Canadian Beer Mile team at host Konrad’s; Lewis, Phil and Jeff, and from there we’ll take an Uber to Treasure Island and the race site.

We sit in Konrad’s two-bedroom and pass an hour watching Friends reruns. Rachel just found out Ross loves her, but he’s now in China and when he returns he has a new girlfriend, and I’m still sad watching it even though two decades have passed since it first aired.

I haven’t seen the race course, so Lewis describes one of the corners to me, then we practice walking around a corner in the apartment while chugging water from a beer bottle. Is it really a 90 degree turn? Lewis tells me it is. And there’s grass and sand and a curb we need to navigate each lap. When we arrive at the site we discover there are also 25mph winds, and they don’t die.

What kind of messing with the formcharts would have to happen for us to beat the USA? This is the question we consider once we’re out of the car, beer in hand, ice melting and soaking the back of the Uber’s trunk. They’re the favourites, the Americans. With three to count and only three Australians racing, and one of those injured and fighting a cold, we’re pretty sure we will be ahead of them. But the US team. Nielson, the first man under 5:00 and he’s looking hale and determined. At the party the previous night he told us yes, he’s fitter than when he ran 4:57. Cunningham, a 5:07 guy (and 3:59 straight miler), second at the Beer Mile World Championships in Austin last December. Anderson, who ran 5:05 two weeks ago and finished fourth in Austin. Michael Johnson just ran 5:11. AJ Acosta, a 3:53 open miler with unknown beer mile potential.

In Australia the betting odds are released. I’m 21.00 and seeded 7th. At first blush I’m actually happy about it, but then I look more closely and see I’m pretty much tied for last. I haven’t raced a beer mile since December, and boys are running fast, so they can’t really give me better odds. Still. My best time is 5:09 and my worst time is 5:21. I’m consistent and think I can move up a couple of spots on race day. There’ll be a few who have bad days. There’s no way I’ll make an impression on the top three, though. Aussie Josh Harris is the favourite, followed by Neilson and Lewis Kent. But who would bet against Lewis or Josh? On August 7th Josh broke the world record, and later the same day Lewis claimed it with his still standing 4:55. The two of them have been the most consistent and quickest beer milers of all-time. Neilson, though. He ran 4:57 in 2014 and hasn’t run one since, nor does it appear he has even raced a non-beer event. He’s the Salinger of our guild. One blazing race of brilliance, and where’d he go? Until today. Bearded and ready for his first public beer mile.

I’d estimate this course is 10 – 12 seconds slower than a track. It was certified by one of the world’s top certifiers, so it’s accurate, I saw the signature. But really. Grass, grates, sand, a curb? Organizers John Markell and Nick MacFalls contacted over 40 venues and nobody would allow them to host the event. Then Treasure Island agreed. Like the Beer Mile World Championships last December, these guys created a show despite not securing their ideal location. Fantastic organization, fantastic work pulling off this event. Look over the water at the downtown San Francisco skyline, look at the way the setting sun flares the Bay Bridge. Palm trees and banners, and even five feet tall posters of six of the athletes, and this crowd. Let’s forget race times. There’s a title on the line. Let’s just race.

They line us up halfway down the finishing straight and call us forward individually, starting with the Canadians. We’d requested Neil Young’s Rockin’ In The Free World as our team song, but the sound system has been turned off and it’s just the announcer’s voice we hear echoing down the parking lot and then out over the water, the echoes becoming faint. A bit of crowd cheering. Lewis the world record holder is introduced first. He’s a tall man, looking more like Craig Mottram every time I see him. Tall with an easy looking cadence. When they call his name his powerful stride torques and adducts on the pavement and it looks like the pavement is tearing away, not the carbon rubber sole of his shoes. The crowd is a leaning frenzy of arms wanting to touch the world record holder, and the “White Horse of Ontario” high-fives them on his way to the start line. I’m up next. “His age, I kid you not, is unknown!” the announcer’s voice is breaking into the mic. “Racing since the time you were born, the old gastric ghost!”. Phil “favourite bar is the Ceeps” Parrot-Migas, and Jeff “the beard many love to luxuriate over” Mountjoy round out the Canadian team. The Australians Josh “Harry” Harris and Kevin Craigie are introduced without fuss. They reach Blanchy from Australia, and the guys starts walking, no joke, and for a moment I think he’s just going to stroll the entire way, and it’s comical, but then he rips off his Aussie overcoat and is wearing bum huggers, green and far too tight for any man. With the crowd in hysterics he starts jogging.

Finally the Americans are introduced and the music finds juice. Blur 2 thumps and now the atmosphere has ignited as they call up the home team. Chants of “U.S.A., U.S.A., U.S.A.!” Brian “the Franchise” Anderson, AJ Acosta the Hayward Helium, and the last man to the line, the big American hope, James “the Beast” Neilson. He’s drinking Budweiser from a can which must be 20 degrees celsius by now, sitting outside all day, and I don’t know how he can drink something so warm. Before the race his wife Mimi saw me pulling my Amsterdam Blondes from a cooler. She raised her eyebrows surprised and said “James doesn’t do that.” and I wondered if she was trying to plant seeds of doubt, not that I’m the guy he needs to worry about because I think Josh and Lewis will give him all he can handle. But still. I feel like he’s handicapping himself, but maybe he’s just that good.

The three big men get out fast. Lewis is straight to the front, followed by Josh and Neilson. I get out in fifth and am fourth coming into the first exchange. By the end of beer two Lewis already has the jump on the field and Neilson tries once and Josh tries once to bring him back but neither close. Neilson is already struggling on lap two. His beer is actually foamy, too warm. I’d heard the same complaint from some of the others in the earlier heats, but Neilson’s really isn’t landing well and he isn’t running well either. It’s not his day.

After the third beer Lewis’ lead is unassailable and Neilson is lagging. “Beast, please, for the love of country run him down!” shouts the announcer but he only falls further behind. Josh is in second but his beer is clawing at him. He slows down to avoid vomiting. I move past him, and Brian moves from fourth past both of us, so that at the end of the third lap Lewis is going to win unless something bizarre happens, and I feel a certain exhilaration about this. The world record holder in hot form is destroying the strongest beer mile field ever assembled. Second will go to Brian or me. Which, ok, that’ll be Brian. The guy has wheels, it turns out. He hits the homestretch and starts sprinting and I try to respond but he powers away and beats me by a full two seconds. Josh “The Chunder From Down Under” Harris vomits and has to run a penalty lap, but here’s a guy who has run four of the top nine times all-time and he’ll atone. Plus he’s a fast enough runner to have a legitimate shot at qualifying for the Australian Olympic team in the marathon and, it turns out, he’s just a damn fine gentleman. Neilson crosses in 5:45 but is disqualified for having over double the allowable amount of beer left in his cans.

Some race stats:
Lewis Kent: 5:09.7
Brian Anderson: 5:14.7
Jim Finlayson: 5:16.6
Michael Johnson: 5:26.0
Michael Cunningham: 5:38.3
Jeff Mountjoy: 5:48.3
Nate Beach: 5:55.1
Kevin Craigie: 6:34.0
Josh Harris: 7:00.0 (with a penalty lap)
Phil Parrot-Migas: 7:16.0 (with a penalty lap)
A.J. Accosta: 7:45.0 (with a penalty lap)
James Neilson: 5:45 (DQ – over 4oz beer remaining)
Charlie Blanche: 6:13 (DQ – over 4oz beer remaining)

Cumulative Beer remaining in bottles:
Least: Brian Anderson
Second least: Lewis Kent, Jim Finlayson
Most: Blanchy and James Neilson, both with over 8oz.

Cumulative drinking time (in seconds, including travelling the 9 meter exchange zone):
Lewis Kent: 30
Jim Finlayson: 31
Brian Anderson: 33
Josh Harris: 35
Michael Johnson: 36
Jeff Mountjoy: 36
James Neilson: 38
Michael Cunningham: 42
Phil Parrot-Migas: 51

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April 6, 2015 § Leave a comment

Four races this year, different enough I could be trying to discover where my talent lies. If we convert my races into a track 10 000m based on percentage away from the world record, here’s what I’ve run, in chronological order:

January 8km road (25’47” / WR 21’51”): 31’01”
February half marathon road (1h09’27” / WR 58’23”): 31’16”
March 5km road (16’24” / WR 12’59”): 33’12”
March Beer Mile track (5’18” / WR 4’56”): 28’12”

Sure the conversion isn’t robust (can we compare James Hansen to Zersenay Tadese?), but if event talent is the question, the conclusion is stark. And so I’ve accepted an invitation to compete in the Beer Mile World Classic in San Francisco in August.

But I don’t want to be a beer mile specialist.

I want to see if I can get back down into the 1h07’ range for a half-marathon, and if I feel like I’m getting close I’ll head to Portugal in September for the Porto and Lisbon half marathons, not necessarily to run fast but rather because if you’re fit and you race half marathons, who wouldn’t want to race along the Douro river early morning when the fishermen are casting their lines, before the port cellars of Gaia open for the day. Plus it’s close to Italy and there’s a month between races; not necessarily a greater seduction, but an attraction nonetheless.

In the meantime back at the MS clinic I’m being tested for peripheral neuropathies. Yet another new doctor. With the nascent uncertainty about my diagnosis we’re now looking at possibilities other than MS. This new doctor is checking my peripheral nerve conduction speeds. He attaches a sensor to the proximal part of my femur, one of the muscles, then jams a needle into its distal counterpart. He tells me to contract the muscle. To resist his pressure as he pushes against my leg. But I’m a runner and for thirty years I’ve learned to block certain pain and to be finely tuned to other pain. There’s a certain type of pain I’ve trained myself to move with rather than fight. When he tells me to contract and resist I am feeble. He pushes my leg and my leg flops back to the bed.

He concludes I have (or had, and am stable but have permanent nerve damage from) Guillain-Barré. This was the original diagnosis from 11 years ago, back when MRIs revealed only one lesion and so they couldn’t classify it as Multiple Sclerosis. After these tests, after going through my chart and reviewing my 2014 MRI, he says he’s pretty sure this is all it ever was. Guillain-Barré. He’s not ruling out MS, but he says it’s unlikely.

But what about my 2009 symptoms, I ask? And the 2009 MRIs? Those scans were worse than the 2004 ones and were used to make the diagnosis. Stress, he suggests, for my subsequent flare ups, and he didn’t compare 2014 MRIs to older ones. He didn’t look at them. He said the most recent ones were the only ones that matter here. If it is MS, these scans would show the most damage. They would tell him all he needs to know.

But what if there was an improvement? And what about my eye exams that were abnormal and now aren’t?

He clocks my disappointment. Jim, this is good news, he tells me. But to me this is non-news. I know I’m stable. I was hoping for something a little more miraculous. I wanted him to be confused and to tell me what I had has disappeared, and to not have an explanation. I’d hoped to be told I’m getting healthier, not that I’m permanently damaged but not getting worse. Plus it doesn’t clear up the question of MS. I still don’t know if I have it and am managing the symptoms, or if I had it and have somehow recovered, or never had it at all. I’m asking too much of the medical system, I realize. The answers to these questions may never arrive. Maybe the answers aren’t what matter and what’s important is refining our former selves. Still, I can’t help but want certainty.

And so on Wednesday morning, April Fool’s day, I arrive for an appointment with my regular neurologist. A nurse takes my blood pressure. She takes me into the hall and says she’s going to time me to walk 25m as fast as I can without losing control. My heart rate spikes. I’m going to kick this walk’s ass. She says Go! On my second step my adidas Samba’s gum rubber sole sticks to the linoleum when my heel touches; it grabs the floor and tries to stop me dead but my momentum is crashing forward. I reach for the wall to stop from falling but my hands are slick from adrenaline and they slip. In life I run more than I walk, and if I have to do anything for speed it’s never walking. The low arc of a walker’s gait, I try to explain to the nurse, from the floor. She stops her stopwatch. Let’s try again, she says.

The nurse finishes her preliminary examination and my neurologist replaces her. We run through a familiar gamut of tests. She reads the report from the doctor who said it’s likely Guillain-Barré. I biked here on tired legs. My helmet is on the adjacent chair. I have a bit of a chill from the ride and the thin layer of sweat now cooling. For five years we’ve had the same routine. I lie on the table. She pokes my feet with a toothpick and I say yes when she asks me if I can feel it. My muscles resist her pressure. I touch my nose and then her finger. Nose, then finger. I track her finger with my eyes as she moves it across my range of vision. Good, she says.

There are things Guillain-Barré can’t explain, she tells me. The abnormal eye exams. Lesions on the spine, on the brain. Not many spots, she says, but here and here, and she pulls up my MRI scans on her computer. The lesions are faint. They aren’t the bright flares one sees when MS is certain. She’s sure this isn’t only Guillain-Barré. There’s an auto-immune component, an inflammatory component. It may still be MS, but it’s mild and whatever this is, I’m managing the symptoms.

What confounds me is she doesn’t ask me how I’m managing things. I’ve seen seven neurologists and all of them agree I’m doing well. I seem to be healthy. They tell me to keep doing what I’m doing. This what they actually say: Keep doing what you’re doing. Yet in 11 years not once have I been asked What are you doing? Presumably these specialists became neurologists in order to understand disorders of the nervous system.  How is it possible I could have MS, and then not? What did I do between 2004 and 2015 to go from being unable to walk to racing half-marathons? Maybe I don’t have MS and so the answer isn’t germane. But the neurologists also all agree something has been going on. I’ve had symptoms. I’ve been in a wheelchair because walking was too difficult, and I have abnormal test results related to my nervous system, and it looks like I have permanent nerve damage. The neurologists all know I’m not taking any medication, and still nobody has asked what I’ve been doing to be able to not only live a healthy life, but race marathons and half-marathons and beer miles. I don’t think I’ve done anything special and I certainly haven’t been obsessive with how I’ve lived. Still. How are they not curious? How have they not been curious when all of them, for the better part of 11 years, have gone from believing I have MS to believing I don’t?

At the end of our 90 minute appointment my neurologist sits down across her desk from me and closes my file. She tells me I look healthy. She tells me I sound healthy. There’s really nothing more they can do for me. My file will remain active but there’s no need to book another appointment. If anything changes I’ll see my GP and he and I can decide the next step, but for now I’m being discharged from the MS clinic.

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January 22, 2015 § Leave a comment

Here at the Circuit of the Americas F1 race track Jack Colreavy, Australia’s second fastest beer miler of all-time, is stretched out on the asphalt in a pit lane garage, his head resting on his backpack. The day’s sun has been replaced by evening floodlights and 8 jumbotrons, a buzz of circuitry both physical and psychological. We’re 12 miles from downtown Austin, Texas. A lone star on the lone star state, isolated from the major city electricity. Colreavy is a stunt double in Unbroken, Angelina Jolie’s film adaptation of Hillenbrand’s biographical novel about an Olympic runner and war hero. Earlier in the day he called Angelina on the phone to see if she’d be able to come to the race. She couldn’t. But really, the thought of who will be in the crowd isn’t part of his evening musings. In an hour he’ll be racing the first ever Beer Mile World Championships, and his mind is partly on the $2500 first place price and the $2500 world record bonus. Mostly, though, he wants to win this thing out of personal and National pride, and, like the rest of us, he’s thinking about how catastrophically it could go wrong if it does go wrong.

Most of his competitors are here with him in the pit lane. Cunningham slumps against a white plaster wall. Kent, Tully and Macpherson are lined up next to Cunningham, and Liwing is too. I’m on the other side of Liwing, all of us staring out through the open garage door at the track and the swelling crowd and the dazzling lights. The setting is majestic. Gallagher’s in the vicinity, too, but he’s over there being interviewed. CNN. ESPN. The New York Times. Gallagher is the favourite and everyone wants a word with him before the race. I twist the cap of a Budweiser Light Platinum bottle with gentle pressure so that it stays sealed, just testing it. Sometimes the hand slips, but in tonight’s humidity there’s a stickiness I like. Opening them in the race won’t be a problem. The question, for me, is what it tastes like. I’ve never tried this beer. Never had a Budweiser of any sort. A bunch of us are using it tonight, though. It’s Gallagher approved.

A woman from Runners’ World comes over and asks me a few questions. I tell her I’m not the guy to talk to. I’m not one of the favourites. I point to Colreavy. He has been training in New York and is here for one reason: he wants the world record. I mention Cunningham, who closed the final 400m of his debut beer mile in 54 seconds, a split I can’t run right now fresh, with spikes, without beer. Couldn’t ever run, actually, not even when I was a dozen years younger and at my peak. Those are the guys to chat to, I say. I’d mention Gallagher, but he’s buried in that scrum of reporters. She’d have better luck chatting to him if she tried calling his cell. It’d be the only way to pierce to the centre. There’s no way she’d get a pen and paper through to him now.

Someone from Nick Symmonds’ camp threads over and hands us a trial packet of gum. Run Gum, and I flip it over and read the ingredients. 100mg of caffeine. Enters the system faster than caffeine from a tablet. Not bad, I think, and then I see him leave the pit garage and head trackside where he hands gum to children. Which, wow. I wouldn’t want to be their parents.

The boys are starting to agitate. Tying up their trainers. Jesus, it’s only 45 minutes until race start, that came up fast. We group together and head out to the pit lane for our warm up. Up on the jumbotrons we see that the sub-elite race is underway. Brittenbach is going for the masters’ world record. The mark is 5:51 and, after chatting with his coach Doug Consiglio earlier in the day, it sounds like he’s fit for it. He hits 1:13 for the first beer and lap. He’s flying. The guy’s not small, either. The beer bottle looks positively miniature in his hand. Gallagher, Tully, Colreavy, Cunningham, Lewis and I are jogging abreast, keeping our eyes on the screens. A prone photographer snaps a few pictures of us and rolls out of our way. Brittenbach splits lap two in 2:43. He’s going to crush the record, and he’s not the only one running fast in this heat. Tracking him is a heavily bearded engineer from Kingston, Canada.

One of the questions I was asked before this race was: What message do I think this race sends? Clarifying, What happens when binge drinking is not only televised, but celebrated? What happens in public mind when a race like the beer mile hits front page of the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times? As the heroes or villains, what is our responsibility here? It behooves us to contemplate this, at the very least. We are the titans. We are the ones with the platform; the ability to reach others.

Violence in media is a risk factor for violence in real life, although the former doesn’t preordain the latter. The same appears to be true about alcohol. A small, but statistically significant, positive correlation. I don’t yet have solid opinion about my responsibility here. Most of me wants to just enjoy the experience. Can I be held accountable for other people’s actions? These are questions I thought about before flying to Austin, and will think about again after the race.

Brittenbach is kicked down in the last lap by Mountjoy, the Canadian, but his 5:42 still eclipses the master’s world record. In the next race, the women’s elite, Elizabeth Herndon wins in 6:17, a new world record, cashing in on the $2500 winner’s prize and another $2500 for a world record.

We’re up next. One at a time the starter gets us to check our beers, making sure our selected ones are lined up and they’re in the order we want. Most of us have bottles, and we’re told to choose between placing them on the left side on the asphalt or the right side on the grass. Left is the inside track, but we’ll have to drop the bottles to the right grass either way. I stay on the left. Gallagher and Symmonds stay left. The official calls Colreavy up to check his beers, and on his way past me he pats my back and says “Wind back the clock, man”, referring to my 5:09 from 7 years ago. This is perhaps what I like most about this race. We’re competitive, of course, but above all we want to put on a show. For that we need everyone to race well. We actually want our competitors to race well.

Of the 10 of us, I think only Colreavy has ever lost a beer mile, and only because he usually faces Josh Harris, the world number three. The rest of us, the other 9, are undefeated in our careers. We aren’t used to having others ahead of us in a race. Aren’t used to being pushed, having to hurry, having to force things, and with the setting and the crowd, with the cameras and the PA system blaring, and God there we are on those massive jumbotrons! I can see more pores on Anderson’s screen face than his right-next-to-my-face face. With our nerves, I’m intensely curious to see what’ll happen. There’s no way the results will align with the media guide’s formchart.

I don’t know if it’s just anxiousness, if it’s the beer, or if I was simply distracted by the relative immensity of the stage, but the gun fires and after the first beer I’m second-to-last off the line. Easily my slowest opener, ever. Maybe this is how the nerves and distractions manifest for me. Second-to-last in 8.2 seconds, and Gallagher, out first, already has a 2 second gap on me. Nobody’s moving fast on the run, though, except Tully who blazes his first 400m in 61.5. The rest of us spread wide across the track coming into the exchange, packed together and jostling for position.

Cunningham splits halfway in 2:29 and has a 5 second lead on the pack. He’s dangerous, my pick to win this thing. One of two sub-4:00 straight milers in the field and, unlike Symmonds, the guy can drink. Seven of us, including Gallagher and Symmonds, are tight together splitting 2:34 to 2:37. Only Liwing, the Swede who raced a beer half marathon two days ago, is off the back. McPherson has already dropped out after folding to his second beer.

This is where the complexion of the race starts to express itself. Two beers in, two laps in. The third lap is the tough one. It’s the one we need to survive in order to get to the last lap. That’s all it is. Survival. Put the work in on the third lap, because adrenaline will lift you on the fourth. Cunningham’s out quickly after his third beer, but it’s Gallagher who impresses. He crushes his third beer. The exchange is a bit deceptive with the timer starting when you cross the first mat 9m from the finish and stopping at the finish, so the ‘drinking’ time includes 9m of travel. But timing from when the beer hits Gallagher’s lips to when it leaves them, wow. 4.8 seconds. He’s a couple of steps behind Cunningham and is clawing those back. In fact by the time they hit the end of the third lap, Cunningham and Gallagher are reaching for their beers at the same time. We’ve a 185 pound former hockey player from Winnipeg, a guy who swears he couldn’t break 65 seconds in an all-out 400m sprint, vs a 3:59 miler from Maine who closed his first and only beer mile in 54 seconds. In distant third is Colreavy. I’m a couple of steps behind the Aussie, in fourth, and have a bit of a lead over 5th. One beer and one lap of the track to go.

And honestly, it appears to be over before the running starts. Gallagher slams his beer in 4.7 seconds, looks back as he rounds the first corner, and sees nothing but space. Cunningham is still drinking, and Colreavy and I are just coming into the exchange. The announcers are a bit wild at this point, their voices leaping an octave. Gallagher’s pressing for a sub-5:00 but they know, too, that Cunningham can roll and if he’s sharp like he was in his debut, he can make up 50 – 60 meters. Gallagher’s maybe 20 down the track before Cunningham drops his bottle and attacks.

But to everyone’s surprise Gallagher extends his lead. Cunningham’s kick has been drawn out of him from the fast early pace, and Gallagher has the bit. Two life-sized bananas are pogoing on the infield like a Halloween rave, chasing Gallagher around the final bend. He takes a quick look behind as he hits the final straight, slips and torques his flats centripetally. Looks like he may have rolled an ankle, but he’s a hockey player and a bull and if there was any pain he didn’t feel it, and the crowd is leaning into the track now, spectators bent double yelling at him because a sub-5:00 is absolutely possible here with 120 meters to go. He’s not looking back anymore, he knows he’s going to win; the only question is the time. The crowd is a frenzy of arms and movement, and the announcers’ voices are breaking and they’re reading the clock as Gallagher sprints to the finish, 4:56, 4:57, 4:58 and it’s so close but the clock stops at 5:00.23.

Cunningham crosses 7 seconds later in second, breaking his old best by 12 seconds, and I finish third in 5:21.

In the post-race interview Gallagher is fired up. He’s holding the trophy aloft with one hand, and his other hand is balled in a fist and he’s speaking fast but clearly, challenging current and disputed world record holder James Nielson. There’s some question about the veracity of the world record, and though I wish the sub-5:00 had first been broken on a night like tonight, in a race like this, I have to believe beer milers don’t have a lot to gain by cheating.

A night later and I’m arriving home in Victoria with the first ever documented beer mile injury, a blocked salivary duct on my lip where I banged myself with a beer bottle. It will need surgery. Colreavy messages from New York, having flown home earlier in the day. He’s at a bar and was just approached by a group of girls who saw him in the race. “I love this sport,” he writes.

People ask me what next? They want to know, only partly in jest, if it will become part of the Olympics. It absolutely won’t. I think it will be a supernova event. It will flare brightly for a short period of time, then fade. But we’re all enjoying its surprising thrust into the limelight.

 

 

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December 3, 2014 § Leave a comment

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I arrived in Austin too late to attend the Beer Mile World Championships press conference, but the word is Sweden’s Markus Liwing was a mess after setting a world record Monday in the Beer Half Marathon. A beer every mile for 13 miles. The European beer mile record holder shattered the former half marathon record by over 2hrs with his 2h46′, and he’ll be lining up for tonight’s mile. Guy’ll become an instant legend if he pulls off an upset over this field.

We have 10 in the elite men’s race, and six of them have goal times faster than the current world record. This race will be scrutinized, though, and so I wouldn’t be surprised to see times a bit slower than personal bests. Judges will be tipping cans after each beer. Disqualification if there’s anything remaining. The favourites are Nick Symmonds (3:51 open mile, 5:19 beer mile), and Corey Gallagher (5:01 beer mile, #2 all-time) but the field’s tight. Tough to call the win. The biggest news right now is the venue change. Flotrack had secured a high-school track for the race, and were called last night to say we have to move. The high-school is on heritage land and they’d prefer it if we don’t race the beer mile there. We’ll move to the Circuit of the Americas track, an F1 site, which means a) we’ll be running on pavement (no spikes, and a number of us didn’t bring flats), and b) if anyone breaks the world record, it won’t count. Otherwise things are going ahead as scheduled, and nobody here is griping. We’re just enjoying being a part of it.

After I checked into my room I joined former women’s record holder Seanna Robinson for a bite at a German Sausage place on Rainey street. Charming spot in an old converted home. Bratwurst sausage on a pretzel bun, and a dish of roasted beets, squash and kale. Seanna’s superstitious about drinking the night before a beer mile, but neither of us had tried Hops and Grain, the race’s sponsor, and we didn’t want to go in cold. We ordered two cans of the Greenhouse IPA. Not the race beer (they’re canning up a special low-carbonation brew for the event), but it gave us an idea of what to expect. Mine took 7.5 seconds.