Ortega River Run 5 Miler: Humidity, Hills, and Other Hefty Hindrances

Oretga Photo #1.jpg

The weather forecast in the week leading up to this race confirmed that my arch nemesis, high humidity, would be joining me on every step of this race. But that was the just the beginning of the obstacles I would face in this race. A close second on my nemesis list is hills and they would be a part of this experience as well. And then there’s that omnipresent wild card that always looms in the background, just waiting for the right opportunity to strike to spoil a competitive running effort: the digestive tract. I had to endure multiple trips to the restroom on race morning (something I ate the day before was seeking its revenge). I also felt demoralized by the  temperature on race morning, which was 10 degrees warmer than my UCF 5 miler in October with comparable humidity at 90%.

A whiny voice in my head protested, “How many more hindrances will I have to face before toeing the line for this race, for which I have trained so well?” My head was not in the right place, and was squirming and screeching like a colicky baby. The thought bubble above my head before the start of the race was something like, “Why not just tie my arms behind my back, bind my legs at the ankles, and let me roll down the course like a human slinky today. It just might improve my time.”

But I gave it my best effort anyway (not really). The first mile felt hard and unpleasantly warm, but at least I had something to show for my efforts – my fastest first mile time in a 5K since 2016 (7:38). So at least it’s good to see that my track interval training with the Track Shack Five and Dime group is starting to restore some of my long lost speed (my first mile at the UCF 5 Miler in October was a full minute slower). Not surprisingly, Mile 2 felt even harder, but I was hanging on at 15:55 as I crossed the two-mile mark (7:57 pace). I knew my hopes of breaking 40:00 were dashed at this point, but I still pressed on. The death blow came in mile 3.

As I turned a corner at about halfway into mile 3, I looked up and saw a towering highway bridge looming in front of me, which apparently had experienced a massive growth spurt since the last time I ran this race a decade ago.  I have no recollection of anything more than a gentle rolling hill at this point in the course from 2008. And this was the point of the race when bad met worse.  I was already severely dehydrated (I was dehydrated even before the race, thanks to the other “runs” that occurred earlier on this fine day), my legs were screaming with rapidly worsening dehydration cramps, and I was thoroughly demoralized from cursing in my head over and over again how this was my third consecutive race in ridiculously inhospitable humid conditions (during “late fall” and “winter” months) in this delightful state.

And just like Lloyd Bridges, who picked the wrong week to quit many of his bad habits in the movie, Airplane, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v46plhmxXU4, I “surely” picked the wrong day to quit on myself on this bridge. When the going got tough, I just started whining uncontrollably and gave up. I surrendered control over the one thing I could control in this race:  my will to persevere and do everything possible to triumph in the face of adversity. After all, I wasn’t the only one running in these miserable conditions. Yet as soon as I gazed upward (with my jaw on the ground) at that towering bridge span, I felt the will to persevere jump out of my cowardly lion heart and crawl under the nearest rock.

And so I began my no-hearted (which is even less than half-hearted) attempt to run up that bridge. I spent the entire time telling myself various self-affirming thoughts like: “This hurts way too much,” “You could barely run on the flat and straight stretches of the course, how are you going to handle this,” and, finally, the kill shot: “This bridge is going to slow you down to the point that you should just drop out of this race.” And then it happened:  I stopped running and started walking. The sense of shame and anger I felt was overwhelming and distracted me even more from what I needed to do – just shut up and run.  For the first time in my competitive running career in a race shorter than a half marathon, I was walking and I grew sicker as every not-so-impressive-looking runner passed me as they bore down to slay this dragon that had just eaten me for breakfast. I walked for about two or three tenths of a mile and then started to run again near the crest of the bridge and settled back into a rhythm. The sad news was that even with that stretch of walking, I was still at the exact same time at the 5K mark in this race (25:00) as I was in my 4-mile race last week, which was very respectable under these conditions.  But my little tantrum was going to prevent me from making the most of this effort.

Mile 4 was more of the same disruptive and damaging thunderstorm in my head. This mile had several rolling hills that I also didn’t recall from my previous effort here a decade ago. Now with every step I took I could hear, “Just drop out,” “This is isn’t worth it,” “Why suffer like this if all you will have to show for it is a terrible finishing time?”  I tried to block it out, but ultimately I struck a deal with the devil on my shoulder:  “I’ll take another break when I reach mile 4 and just walk the rest of the race.” Really?  I reached mile 4 and, once again to my surprise, was only 30 seconds behind my pace for the 4 mile race I ran two weeks ago. Again, nothing wrong with that pace and more than enough opportunity to break 42:00 with a fast last mile. But the cowardice prevailed again and I was truly planning to walk most of that last mile in my mopey state. Only sheer macho pride wouldn’t allow me to do that – I keep seeing weekend warriors pass me and I felt so angry and humiliated that I forced myself to run as fast as I could in my compromised state. So, even after another two tenths or more of walking, I managed a 9:15 last mile and finally crossed the line and put an end to this painful lesson in self-imposed obstacles.

After all of that whining, I finished 261st of 1309 runners (top 20%) in a highly competitive field in the 40th anniversary of this renowned Jacksonville road race. My time of 42:56 (8:35 pace) was almost a minute faster than my effort at the UCF 5 Mile race in October, and today’s effort was under much more challenging conditions.

Ortega #2.jpg

The retro shades (circa 2005) that I’m wearing here are neither a fashion statement nor a useful mechanism to shade the sun. They are simply a prop to hide my tears of anguish and disappointment. Big boys don’t cry, right?

But I’m left with a slow-healing skid mark on my soul. This was the second consecutive time since October that I had run a five-mile race and wanted to drop out. What on earth is going on here? For every year in my competitive running career until 2017, a five mile race was a long sprint – dropping out was never a thought that crossed my mind. The first episode of wanting to call it quits at the UCF 5 Miler was a little more understandable because it was my first race in 18 months and I needed to rebuild my competitive mindset.  But now, after four months of quality training (two months on my own and then two months with a great training group), how could I be having these thoughts?

After much soul searching, I have concluded that I am entering a “growing pains” phase of my racing career.  I am now in a period when nothing comes easy and everything hurts, even under the best of circumstances. On the physical side, I have good days and bad days, but I can get myself physically prepared to turn in a respectable performance, but only if the course is pancake flat and the weather conditions are pleasant. When adversity elements are factored in, however, that’s when the wheels keep falling off ever since I turned 50. These past four years of competitive running have been the most “consistently inconsistent” efforts of my running career. To make matters worse, instead of focusing on enhancing my mental game to ensure better results in my old age, my mental game has become considerably weaker, which is a recipe for disaster. So the challenge is clear: either I raise my mental game and find the will to overcome adversity in my competitive running for the remainder of this year or I find a comfortable chair and start playing bingo. This competitive running thing is a hobby and it’s supposed to bring me an enhanced sense of purpose, fulfillment, and well-being. Otherwise, I can just keep living the rest of my life without competitive running and I will have plenty of opportunities to feel demoralized.

On a positive note, my son, Alek, placed 13th of 1309 runners and 1st in his 20-24 age group in today’s race in a time of 31:00 (6:12 pace). This is his third race in the past month in the Jacksonville area and he has excelled in all three. He placed 9th of 2700 runners (and first in his age group) at the Donna Half Marathon last week in a time of 1:26 and was first overall in the Beaches Chapel 5K in a time of 19:21 in windy and difficult conditions on a beach course in the previous week. The only thing keeping him humble these days is that he was 25 seconds shy of the family record for 5 miles in his effort today, a record that I posted for eternity in November 1981 in Madison, Connecticut (30:35) in my senior year of high school. He is tired of hearing about the family record ever since his high school cross country running days when he came within 2 seconds of this milestone.

Alek - Beaches Chapel 5K - Feb. '18

Alek - OrtegaAlek recently joined my running buddy, Steve, in telling me in the past few months that perhaps I just need to adjust my ambitious competitive running expectations and then I won’t be such a frustrated and demoralized mess all  the time. In each instance, I thanked them for their kind and thoughtful suggestion, and then barked out this reply:  https://getyarn.io/yarn-clip/74fb1d8c-a6da-4c7a-8d2e-493ed03b0990

I will be applying a new sense of competitive resolve to my next race: the Winter Park 10K on March 24.  There will be hills and there will be humidity. But this time, the competitive running coward that dwells within me will be locked in the basement and not permitted to join me on race day.

Like the Coors beer commercial says, we all have our mountains. So climb on and drink responsibly when drowning your sorrows. And never, ever give up.


Ortega Medal



Run 4 Love 4 Miler: An Unromantic and Insufferable Date with Orlando Humidity

Run 4 Love 4 Miler Start

A foggy and humid start to the Run 4 Love 4 Miler

The things we do for love.  I love distance running and I love competition.  I’ve been at this competitive distance running game for 38 years and I’m no stranger to pain and disappointment.  I have my good days and I have my bad days in races.  Sometimes my head isn’t in the right place and I give less than my best effort, sometimes I didn’t train adequately to perform my best on race day, and sometimes I’m trying to bounce back from a setback due to injury or illness and I fall short.

But today wasn’t like that.  I did everything within my power to prepare myself to excel in today’s race. First, I joined the Track Shack “Five and Dime” Training Group with Coach Wayne in early January and have been training hard with a group of friendly and dedicated runners in well-designed and challenging track interval sessions and tempo/hill runs to get into prime shape for races in the 5K-10K range.  I haven’t trained this hard and this consistently to prepare for a road race since 2010 when I trained with Coach Paul and the Personal Running Solutions group in Jacksonville. In addition to logging 20-25 miles per week of rigorous and smart training since early January, I also have been cross training on the indoor rowing machine for approximately 10,000 meters per week to enhance my strength and endurance. My running is helping my rowing and my rowing is helping my running. Last but not least, I busted my butt in today’s race, struggling to overcome ragged breathing and oxygen debt-related cramps from intense exertion for much of the race. I deserved a much better outcome than what I got, yet the one factor out of my control today had the last laugh yet again. The debilitating and demonic presence of Orlando humidity had me in a death grip from the moment I set foot outside.

Let’s start with the good news.  My training regimen paid off.  The only reference point I have for today’s performance is to compare it to the UCF (“U Can Finish”) 5 miler that I ran in late October 2017 (see previous entry in this blog). I ran that race in virtually identical and miserable conditions (95% humidity) and turned in an abysmally slow time of 43:42 (8:44 pace).  By contrast, I ran a 32:55 (8:13 pace) today in the same miserably humid conditions. Today I finished 190th of 1502 finishers (top 12%) as compared to my top 17% finish at UCF. By all objective standards, today’s performance was an encouraging step forward on the long road back to regaining my mojo as a competitive distance runner after all of the injury-related and career-related setbacks that my training regimen endured in 2017. I expect to see an even more impressive improvement in my next race.

Next on the race calendar is the Ortega River Run 5 Miler in Jacksonville on February 24.  If the laws of probability are smiling on me that day, the humidity will be below 70% to give me a fighting chance to run the sub-40:00 finish at that race that I know I have in me.  In the meantime, I plan to get the most out of my next three training sessions with the Track Shack Five and Dime training group to ensure that I’m fully prepared.

In closing, I’d just like to say that “I would do anything for love, but I won’t do that” (race in 95% humidity) ever again. It’s nothing more than an exercise in banging my head against the wall. It’s like asking a stock car driver to set a record at the Daytona 500 but first insisting that he let 30% of the air out of his tires. My age and my body mass are two big strikes that I already have working against me in my effort to remain relevant as a competitive distance runner.  And, as the saying goes, three strikes and you’re out. Oppressive humidity is that third strike for me.  Today’s dew point was 70 degrees. According to research on competitive distance running in humidity in the study in the link below, hard running is “very difficult” in those conditions.  Add old age and large body mass to that equation and hard running becomes “just plain stupid” under those conditions.


But at least the stylish (and enormous) finisher’s medal for this race provided some welcome “heart balm” for the agony and frustration I endured today.Run 4 Love Medal.jpg

UCF (“U Can Finish”) 5 Miler: An Inauspicious (and Dreadfully Humid) Return to Road Racing

I was so eager to return to road racing and the blogosphere with a bang after a year and a half away from it due to nagging injuries and a slow rehabilitation process. Alas, the only bang that occurred for me in today’s race was the starter’s gun. It pretty much went downhill from there.

Before I describe the details of today’s race, let’s turn the clock back to the Fall of 2016.  I was on my sabbatical and delivering lectures in several countries and enjoying the pinnacle of my global impact as a scholar and teacher. I also planned to get a little extra bang for my buck during this wonderful semester away from my full-time teaching duties at Florida A&M College of Law by getting ahead on my distance running training. I would be based in the U.K. and Australia during much of my sabbatical and enjoying glorious non-humid weather, which would enable some significant training and fitness gains.  Sabbatical started in August, most of which I spent in Orlando and I logged 100 miles that month – a good start that I planned to build on for the remainder of the fall. Little did I know that 15 months would pass from that time and not once would I hit 100 miles in a month again.

I started my sabbatical with a week of lectures in Birmingham, U.K. in September and was enjoying some great runs on the beautiful campus of the University of Birmingham in glorious sunny and pleasant weather. And then my best laid plans for upgraded training during sabbatical went up in smoke in the blink of an eye.  I was simply walking out of a room on campus when I felt a sharp pain in my hip and lower back area that felt like someone had whacked my pelvis with a sledge hammer.  I shrugged it off and allowed my pre-lecture adrenaline to put the pain in the back of my mind.  When I returned to my lodging that evening, I was virtually crippled and writhing in pain.  Two days and 8-10 Advil per day later and I wasn’t able to overcome the pain.  The first night with the pain was so severe that I didn’t sleep a wink and I couldn’t even move, let alone get out of bed, without extraordinary pain. And I had to travel from Birmingham to London by train with a massive amount of luggage through it all. My first few days in London were spent similarly immobilized and shrieking and cursing through the pain.

Long story short – this unusual bout of pain that came out of nowhere was here to stay for the short term anyway.  I was able to walk without pain a few weeks later in London and Cambridge, but running during sabbatical was out of the question until the last week of my time in Australia in late November when I was able to run 2 miles on the treadmill and do a few workouts on the indoor rowing machine. That gave me some hope that I might return to being a competitive athlete sometime soon. I slowly rebuilt my training base starting in December and through Spring 2017 with about 30-50 miles of treadmill running per month and lots of indoor rowing (about 60,000 meters per month) to rebuild my strength, flexibility, and endurance. I transitioned to running exclusively in May and started to build my distance each month from May to September – 50, 60, 70, 80, 90 miles per month – most of it on the treadmill, but braving the heat and humidity 2-3 days per week as week as well.

Our move to Baldwin Park in July helped jump start this renewed focus on running and I acquired my new running buddy, Steve, in August, with whom I run on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 6:45 a.m.  That momentum was interrupted with an inordinately stressful month of October filled with work and ill family members that derailed some of my progress and fitness leading up to this race. We saw the first few cool days of the season in the week leading up to the race after a miserably hot and humid hurricane season in Orlando, which gave me some hope that the race conditions might be favorable. Spoiler alert — Not!

This race is aptly named the “U Can Finish” 5 miler because “finish” was about all I did that was commendable today. Merely finishing has never been a goal in my 37 years of competitive distance running. But today I was literally telling myself to just drop out after each mile of this race that twisted and turned around the University of Central Florida’s campus. Fortunately, my ample macho pride would not permit to drop out of this short race. And the knowledge that my training buddy, who drove to the race with me, was running the race about 3 minutes behind me today was that little extra push I needed to propel me to just finish.

This was without question the longest and most miserable 5-mile race of my career. With new lows like this, it’s almost impossible to be disappointed with my future efforts. To cap it all off, I suffered a short bout of dry heaves after I crossed the finish line. After standing up straight again following my brief stint being doubled over, I grabbed my finisher’s medal with entitled alacrity.  I used to scoff at finisher’s medals for races below the half marathon distance. After today’s effort, I felt like I desperately needed a piece of hardware to help mend the hole in my heart and soul after this painful and futile effort. I waited a year and a half for this?  I decided to clone my finisher’s medal below for some additional “bruised ego balm.”


I chose a race that was late in the fall (almost in November) to avoid the oppressive Florida humidity. Well, that decision backfired in a big way– the humidity was at 97% at the start of the race today with ominously gray clouds that shrouded the sky and speckled the race course with a light drizzle. Even by Florida standards, the humidity was unmanageable for me today.  I sweat profusely when the air conditioning is on in Orlando – running today made me concerned that I would cross the finish line so dehydrated that they would need to hook me up to the nearest fire hydrant to refuel. And my dry heaves episode was a good indicator of my level of dehydration today.

I placed 264 of 1504 runners overall (Top 17%) in an abysmally slow time of 43:42 (8:44 pace).  The only consolation I feel is that more than 80% of the field was slower than I was (and most were younger, too).  But that’s a dreadfully low standard.  And I must confess that it doesn’t give me much comfort to know that most of Central Florida is in worse shape than I am because that, too, is a low standard.

Now that I have recovered from the physical pain and disappointment from today’s performance, I plan to bounce back in 2018. After all my injuries and ailments this past year (including hip, foot, and back issues in the past month alone), 2018 just may be my last big chance to redeem myself and I’m going to give it my best to prepare for “aging up” to a slower age group (55-59) in 2019. I will spend the next three weeks trying to rebuild my mileage to where it was in September and then I will transition to cross training on my indoor rowing machine and complete the Concept2 Holiday Challenge (rowing 200,000 meters from Thanksgiving to Christmas) to help prepare me for a few short road races in January or February.


Postscript:  A mere two days after this race, I just ran a 3-mile training run with Steve this morning in normal conditions for this time of year (50 degrees and 50 percent humidity) and we ran 3 miles at an 8:52 pace (comparable to my race pace on Sunday) and it felt easy.  But I’m not bitter!


ORC Race Into Summer 5K: Heat, Humidity, and Redemption

There have been only a few (painfully memorable) times in my adult life when I ran races on back-to-back weekends. Not surprisingly, the “Round II” of those back-to-back races were not among my best performances. As such, I did not toe the line of this race with a bubbly sense of confidence or enthusiasm. Indeed, had it not been for Alek visiting Orlando this week during the break between his spring and summer terms in college, I surely would not have entered the Orlando Runners Club (ORC) Race Into Summer 5K on June 11. Moreover, those of us who have lived in Central Florida for more than 10 minutes know that the concept of “Racing Into Summer” is a foolish (if not catastrophically stupid) proposition.

We arrived at the race far too early (as usual) so that Alek could engage in his “pre-game ritual” of a lengthy warm-up run. By contrast, I stepped out of the car and felt “warmed up” two steps later. I begrudgingly ran a half-mile warm-up while Alek insisted on a rigorous 2-mile venture. He returned rather steamy and sweating profusely. My half-mile warm-up jog was plenty to shake out the kinks and drain about a gallon of valuable water and electrolytes from my body.

ORC 5K - Thing 1 and 2

Thing 1 and Thing 2 are sweaty and ready for the start

The field was small, but remarkably fast.  Let’s face it – only die-hard, well-trained runners would torment their bodies under these conditions. Most of the weekend warriors opted to stay in bed, which inspired incurable envy in my heart. This year’s field was only 180 runners, down about 25% from last year. Not too surprising in light of these conditions. Given this small and fast field, my finish percentage (top 28% — 51St of 180) was not nearly as impressive as my other 5Ks in the past three years in which my finish percentage hovered in the top 10-15%.

But here’s some good news for a change. My 24:38 (7:56 pace) performance in this race was a full minute faster than last week’s race in Hamden, CT (25:36) and the 5K race that I ran with Alek last June in Orange, CT (25:32). Although this Orlando course was mercifully flat and pleasantly scenic on a paved park trail, the race day conditions were extremely unfriendly yet again. Like last week’s race, the temperature at the start was pushing 80 degrees and the humidity was oppressive (above 90% this time as compared to the already-challenging 75% humidity last week). Nevertheless, I battled the elements and placed second in my 50-59 division, this time taking home a medal (instead of some donated cookies) for my trouble.


ORC 5K - FinishingHolding on for dear life as I storm toward the finish

For the really impressive spin on these results, chew on the following (since I have no donated cookies to offer you). Alek and I ran this race (and last year’s 5K race in Orange, CT) on the same courses and under the same weather conditions. And yet the old man improved by a full minute in the span of that year, whereas the 21-year-old, 0% body fat, Division I lightweight competitive rower was 10 seconds slower compared to his time from last year. So I guess my aggressive hill training and indoor rowing training in CT last month actually did yield some benefit (and I have the persistently sore legs to prove it). Upgraded training almost always makes an impact in my times in races located reasonably close to sea level, unlike last week’s rocky mountain low. Alek and I both struggled mightily under the grueling heat and humidity in this race, but let’s be clear: I fared better in this longitudinal study of these two races in June 2015 and June 2016. Much to Alek’s chagrin, it’s age before beauty this time, baby.


ORC 5K - Alek Finish

Alek finishes strong to place 8th overall in 19:09 and secure first place in his 20-29 age group

To Alek’s credit, he has been impressively consistent and strong in 5K races since his high school cross country days with almost exclusively rowing training and virtually no running training. All three of his post-high school 5Ks were within a 10-second margin just above or below 19 minutes.

But my performances have been as variable as New England weather. And yet there’s a disturbing “reliability” in my 5K efforts on closer review. Basically, if you want to predict how I will perform in a 5K in my fabulous 50s, just check the weather and the course profile. My two best performances (Feb. 2014 and Jan. 2016) were on flat courses in cool or cold weather, whereas my two worst performances were on hilly courses in CT in warm or hot weather (June 2015 and June 2016). You don’t need a Ph.D. in statistics or exercise physiology to detect the painfully evident story in the cold hard facts below.

Fly Me Back to the 80’s 5K – Jacksonville – 22:59 – Feb. ’14 – 1st Place  (Flat, cool)

Seasons 52 5.2K – Winter Park – 24:05  – Jan. ‘16 – Did not place  (Flat, cold, windy)

ORC Race Into Summer 5K – Orlando – 24:38 –June ‘16 – 2nd Place  (Flat, hot, humid)

Race Brook Rockin’ 5K – Orange, CT – 25:32 – June ’15 – 2nd Place  (Hilly, warm)

Hamden 5K – Hamden, CT – 25:36 – June ‘16 – 3rd Place  (Hilly, hot, humid)


ORC 5k - Medals

Thing 1 and Thing 2 live up to the prophecy of their race numbers by placing first and second in their age groups, respectively, for the second consecutive year.

This race was one of the best organized and runner-friendly races I have run in recent memory. In addition to usual fare of bananas, bagels, and Gatorade at the finish, there were several friendly vendors serving up samples of post-race goodies like smoothies, energy bars, and exotic energy drinks. There was a festive awards ceremony that also featured a raffle for several amazing gift baskets brimming with generous gift certificates to many Orlando-area business.

The family-like atmosphere that the ORC volunteers provided for the race and post-race ceremony inspired me to register for an annual membership to their running club when I returned home from the  race. I joined ORC to help keep me honest for the brief time that I’m in Winter Park training this summer and for when I return from my sabbatical in December for serious training through 2017. ORC offers three training group runs per week in Winter Park. It is a well-established (40 years strong) and well-organized group of competitive runners. I highly recommend it! Alek and I did a 6-mile training run in grueling heat and humidity at 7:00 AM the day after the race with an ORC running group in Winter Park. It was very challenging but well worth it.  The older I get, the wimpier my training becomes if left to my own devices.  One piece of the barrage of tough-love criticism that Alek threw my way after the race is a point well-taken: my endurance is fine but I need to work on speed work and tempo runs to get  faster in 5Ks.  Easier said than done, but the only way it will happen is if I run in a group with people to chase.

I’ll be training on the CT hills for most of July and August while searching for that perfect blend of fair weather and flat terrain to ensure that I run a sub-24:00 in my next summer 5K during that period.


Hamden 5K Road Race: Nightmare on Everscream Avenue


I visited my father in May, which served as my base camp to undertake a mountain of work on a major book project after completing the semiannual grind of spring semester grading. For diversion and fitness during that month, I had logged 80 miles of hard runs on grueling hills in mostly warm weather in the hilly town of Colchester, CT, and I also did 27K of hard rowing training on the indoor rowing machine. I was eager to test myself in a local road race to see how much athletic benefit I had gained from all that hard work.  Bad move.

I debated long and hard about whether to run this Hamden 5K Road Race because I knew it would be hilly and I knew that the weather forecast for race day called for some seriously runner-unfriendly weather. I was proud of myself for not bailing out and proceeding with my plan to conquer this challenge. (Note to self – stay in bed next time.) After sweating profusely at the starting line in near-80 degree heat and grueling 75% humidity, the race finally began at 9:00 AM, which was far too late for a race scheduled for June.  As I started along “Evergreen” Avenue for this misadventure in competitive distance running, I wanted to whip out a can of spray paint and rename this street “Everscream” Avenue to more accurately reflect the impact that this course had on my legs, even within a few hundred yards from the start. As the hills unfolded into the sky before my weary eyes and stiff neck, I braced myself for this rapid descent into hell that was masquerading as a stairway to heaven.

As I trudged up this mountain of a hill in the first mile (rope and pickaxe not included), my breathing soon became ragged, gasping and gagging like someone who was had just been removed from a respirator. My split for the first mile was 8:45. Just to give you a sense of how slow that is, it’s a pace that is comparable to my training pace for longer runs on hot days in Florida. I literally could have eaten a large pizza and pounded a few beers and still have completed my first mile in training in the time that it took me to complete the first mile of this course. An 8:45 mile split is slow for me at mile 23 of a marathon and yet this was the first mile of a 5K!  I literally wanted to stop and walk at least three times in this race. I can count on one hand the number of times that I wanted to walk during races at the half marathon distance or less.  And yet here I wanted to walk within the first mile in part because I wanted to hold on to a tree to overcome my fear that I might fall over backwards from the extreme grade of the incline.  Most American-made cars would struggle to crest this hill.

But I finally made it to the top of that interminable ascent — more out of anger and fear than gritty determination — only to soon learn that mile 2 featured even more of a challenge for my spent legs –- rolling hills.  So now I had a “royal flush” of all the factors that destroy me in road races: steep inclines, rolling hills, and savage heat and humidity.  Remind me again why I decided to pay $30 and drive two hours round trip for a piece of this pleasure?

After barely surviving the steep incline and the rolling hills, I eagerly awaited the “return on investment” –- the downhill segment in the third mile of the race.  Downhill running used to be my specialty, but alas those days are gone. Now in my ripe old age, the downhill segments hurt as much as the uphill climbs. I was worried every step of the way on those  treacherous downhill stretches that my legs would give out and I would somersault down the pavement to the finish like a runaway meatball (and that probably would have improved my finish time).  It was only by virtue of the laws of physics (“an object in motion tends to remain in motion, etc.”) that I was able to break 8:00 in that third mile (a whopping 7:50 – again, ridiculously slow). And I can’t even claim any credit for that negative split –- I was just the living incarnation of that kid on the bunny slope at the ski resort who missed the class on how to snow plow and just hopes that some benevolent force will cause him to slow down before he suffers a fatal crash. It was truly an out-of-body experience of the worst kind in that last mile as my legs had no choice to keep moving at a jet engine-level of RPMs and somehow not disintegrate as I barreled toward the finish line.

The results are in. The good news is that I finished 39th of 297 runners (top 13%) and placed 3rd (only 9 seconds away from 2nd) of the 20 runners in my 50-59 age group in an abysmal time of 25:36 (8:15 pace). And now for some brutally honest commentary. Let me begin by noting that I have never left a road race prior to an awards ceremony when I was in the running to receive an age group award as I was for this race.  This race was a step back in time in terms of efficiency and use of technology. The race finished in a narrow chute, like most races do, to funnel the weary runners to a buffet of refreshments and support. But this race was different for runners in that chute. The volunteers in the chute were removing the tabs from our race numbers BY HAND to calculate the results. The last time someone removed a tab from my race number at the end of a race was at the height of the disco era in the late 70s. I suppose that (barely) “Stayin’ Alive” would have been a good theme song for my race experience. I knew those bell bottom pants would become fashionable again one day. To add insult to injury, other volunteers in the chute were handing out nice, glitzy-looking medals that said “Girls on the Run” for the little girls who finished the race today.  Conspicuously absent from the volunteers hands were batches of “Old Men Who Almost Died on the Run” medals. The finishing chute also was devoid of any Gatorade, which was a first in as long as I can remember in running hundreds of races in the past four decades. But who needs electrolyte replacement after a nice easy run like that on a cool pleasant day? I grumbled and stumbled away from the finish area as sweat erupted from my every pore as if expelled from a fire hose.

The “feel good” slogan of the Hamden 5K Road Race is “Bringing Our Town Together.”  Kind of makes you feel warm inside, doesn’t it?  Well, here are a few friendly tips for the race organizers if they would like to do a better job of bringing the town together in the future.

  1. Post the race results online within 24 hrs after the race occurs. Come on, this is 2016! A team of preschoolers could have delivered the race results faster than the race organizers did for this race. I didn’t see results online until almost FOUR DAYS after the race!  And this was after the race organizers said that results would be delivered by e-mail the day after the race, which did not occur. Even though I still use a flip phone, I’m nonetheless entitled to technological efficiency from others who greedily seize $30 from me to deliver a service.
  2. Consider offering cookies as post-race refreshments for runners and not as “trophies” for the top 3 runners in each division (especially after some of those runners narrowly dodged cardiac arrest while trying to navigate your Mt. Everest-esqe race course). And it’s a good thing I didn’t experience cardiac arrest on those hills because I surely would have died – I don’t recall seeing any medical personnel onsite as is the case for all road races. The cookies were donated by a local bakery (a nice touch), but the race organizers decided to cut yet another corner and offer these goodies that they received for free as the race awards rather than investing a few bucks (like every other race in the country) on actual trophies, medals, etc. for the age group winners.
  3. Perhaps slip the police officers on duty a few of those donated cookies to ensure that they know where the start of the course is located. This is a small race and there were police officers stationed at the edge of a major road that runners had to cross to access the starting line for the race. They were the “crossing guards” for the runners to access the start. Yet when I asked one of them where the starting line was located, he replied, pointing westward, “I’m not sure – somewhere over there.” Good thing I brought my compass. But I can’t blame the police officers for their ignorance because this low-budget event didn’t even have a sign that said “start” or “finish” on the course. No, I’m not kidding.

And here’s one final musing that encapsulates my race experience.

This is my face …..


… and this is my face at the top of that monster hill in mile 1 of this race:


Any questions?

Needless to say, the next time I see a course profile for a race that looks like the one in the link below, I will be sure to run (in the opposite direction!)


But to end on an upbeat note, my blog was recently selected as a Top 100 Running Blog for Fitness Inspirationhttp://blog.feedspot.com/2016/01/25/running-blogs/  That is why you now see the nifty Top 100 ribbon logo at the top right sidebar of my blog.  I am comforted to know that at least my writing ability hasn’t declined with age!

Seasons 52 Park Ave. 5.2K: A Chilly Jolt of Unpreparedness

Seasons 52 Park Ave. 5.2k Presented by Florida Hospital

The only reason I decided to run this race was because I was scheduled to run the Shark Bite Half Marathon in New Smyrna Beach last Sunday, but I made a game-day decision to bail out on that race because the forecast called for thunder showers, 25-35 mph winds, and 100% humidity for the start of the race.  Any one of those factors would have been the kiss of death for me in a half marathon, but all three of them working together made it a no-brainer decision to stay home.  I was angry and frustrated that Florida weather had thrown yet another wrench in my competitive distance running plans – this was the third time in the past five years that I had to decide not to run a half marathon race for which I had pre-registered because of absurd and unseasonable weather conditions. It’s a good thing that climate change isn’t real though, right?  Anyway, my competitive energy needed an alternative outlet, so I immediately registered for this race scheduled for the following weekend.

I will start with “sunny” headlines that make today’s outing seem reasonably successful.  I finished 166th of 1952 runners (top 8%) and finished 9th of 94 runners in my 50-54 age group (top 9%).  My time of 24:54 for 5.2K (a 24:04 split for 5K) put me at a 7:42 pace per mile in some very inhospitably cold and windy conditions for today’s race.  This time was 1:30 faster than my last 5K, which was a miserably hilly misadventure in Connecticut last June.  And I turn 52 tomorrow (good karma given the Seasons 52 race title), so I can celebrate one more year of being slightly better than athletically irrelevant.

Now for the “cold and harsh” realities.  I wasn’t ready for anything that this race threw my way today.   First, my distance running training base wasn’t where it needed to be. 2015 was the lowest mileage year (840 miles) for me since moving to Florida in 2006.  I had logged more than 1000 miles of training in all of my other years in the Sunshine State, with the last three years coming in at more than 1100.  Second, the nature of my training was a far cry from what it should have been.  I only did a handful of training runs all year at a sub-8:00 pace.  Worse still, I have become a “fair weather fairy” with my training in the past year in that approximately 2/3 of my training was on the treadmill. Most days in Orlando in the past several months have been too hot, too humid, too cold, too windy, too rainy, too dark, etc. to inspire me to brave the elements.  Here’s a friendly suggestion from my disgusted conscience:  Just shut up and run (outside).  You’re from New England, man – what’s wrong with you?  Not surprisingly, I paid the price for my prima donna training habits in today’s race.  I wasn’t prepared for the cold (in the 40s), the wind (gusts of up to 20 mph making the “feels like” temp in the 30s), and the unpleasant pounding on the uneven and unforgiving brick-lined streets that covered more than half of this course.  I want my treadmill back.  And can you do my nails and fix me a latte while I do my “workout” while watching TV?

It’s actually ironic how wimpy my running training had become in 2015 given how grueling my rowing training had been in that same year.  The only positive feature of my training in 2015 was that I had joined the Orlando Rowing Club and had engaged in competitive rowing training and racing all year. (My business travel schedule this semester has caused me to take a temporary hiatus from competitive rowing, but I plan to return to it by late 2016 or early 2017.) We had practices at 5:00 a.m. and we would trudge through ankle-deep mud and wade in pitch-black water laden with water moccasin snakes to place the coach’s launch (motor boat) in the water, then do land workouts in the boathouse on ghastly hard concrete in some very cold temperatures, and then do demanding workouts on the water for 60-75 minutes, and come off the water completely exhausted before the sun rose.  If I braved the elements to endure all of that on a regular basis in my rowing training in 2015 (not to mention the nagging blisters and sores on my hands and butt), I’m not sure how or why I became such a “spa runner” with my distance running training.

I huddled in my car for 30 minutes before the race in the dark, windy, and cold conditions, refusing to emerge until 10 minutes before the start.  I was hoping that after the sun rose there would be some relief from the relentlessly windy and chilly conditions, but no such luck.  Grimacing from the cold, I found my way to the start line, which was located about half a mile from my car.  To give you a more accurate sense of how cold it was this morning, I was wearing a winter fleece hat instead of a racing cap, along with arm warmer sleeves and warm-up running pants on top of my racing shorts. All of this dorky attire stayed on my body for the entire race and I never felt warm at any point during the race. If you had told me that I would be running races in Florida sporting this kind of clothing, I would have never left New England.  I have run more than 100 races in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic region of the U.S. and I can count on two hands the number of times that I had to dress like this for a race.  It’s just wrong.

I knew that today wasn’t going to be a banner day within the first mile of the race.  A little kid who was about four feet tall was standing in front of me at the start.  My pet peeve is when slow and/or small runners crowd the front of the starting line for races because I always have to bob and weave around them so I don’t trample them like a steamroller.  This perky young lad with a seemingly overdeveloped sense of ambition turned to me before the start and asked, “Is this race 3.3 miles?”  I gently corrected him and said, “No, it’s only 3.2 miles” and continued my response in my head by saying “Perhaps you just focus on finishing the race in one piece, pee wee, so you can have plenty of energy left to continue playing your video games and eating Doritos when you get home.”  As it turns out, the little shit was for real and beat me by more than a minute in today’s race. He claimed first place by a 5-minute margin ahead of the second place finisher in the 10 and under age group.  Shame on me for scoffing at the dreams of the next Olympic marathon qualifier to come out of Winter Park. But my skepticism was well founded.  In my experience, almost all of the elementary school-aged boys who run 5ks crash and burn by the end of the first mile and are incurably annoying with the way that they start and stop all over the course.  But this little whippersnapper was an inspiring exception to that general rule – good for him.  I wanted to shake his hand after the race, but he was too occupied with eating the post-race donuts by the dozen.

Apart from the rude awakening of chasing the powered-by-donuts superhero in front of me in the first mile, I was treated to an even ruder awakening about half way into the first mile.  The wind was horrific and the wind has a way of delivering unwanted items in your direction.  Cupid appeared a few weeks early this year apparently because a runner in front of me was nice enough to blow a saliva-laden kiss my way which landed square on my kisser.  I spent the next half mile wondering what kind of fatal disease I would contract from this unwanted smooch that I feverishly wiped off with my sleeve about 32 times in the span of 10 seconds until my lips were almost bleeding. And then my law professor mind kicked in for further distraction as I pondered whether this unwelcome gift could be considered a battery, reckless endangerment, or negligent infliction of emotional distress.

The race was over sooner than I knew it. I found myself holding back in the third mile when I should have started my kick because I just didn’t know if my fast-twitch muscles would respond when I summoned them due to my poor training.  As I stormed toward the finish, I heard a faint and familiar voice say, “Go Professor Abate!”  It was my faculty assistant, Celia, who is also a distance runner and, unlike me, is training the way a good distance runner should.  She had just completed a 10-mile training run with her distance running group in Winter Park in those miserably cold and windy conditions and she was nice enough to look for me at the finish because she knew that I was running this race.  While it was nice to have someone at the finish line to congratulate me for my lackluster effort, it was also a painful reminder of how far I have to go to get my mojo back in my distance racing in 2016.  I used to regularly do long training runs in very unpleasant conditions just a few years ago and not think much of it, just like Celia did today. I need to jump start my training soon, but it will be challenging with my upcoming business travels to Australia, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and the U.K. in the next six weeks.  In the meantime, perhaps I should eat more donuts.

Abate Duo Rocks the “Race Brook Rockin’ Road Race” 5K in Orange, CT


Gold and silver swag

My son, Alek, and I were visiting my father in Colchester, CT. We traveled to compete in yet another hilly and challenging road race in this state where I spent my childhood. This self-torture has been a bitter-sweet tradition for me since Alek’s competitive running career began in 2008 as every race on this challenging terrain seems to hurt more than the last one.

The headlines from yesterday’s race are impressive.  Alek (20 yrs old) placed 1st in his 20-29 age group and 2nd overall in the race, just six seconds behind the winner of the race. He finished in 18:59, which is 12 seconds faster than the 5K he ran in another CT town last year, where he also placed 1st in his age group.  Alek is in peak condition now after just completing his second year on Dartmouth’s varsity lightweight crew team, which competes against the fastest collegiate rowing programs in the nation.


Alek strains to keep contact with the race leader

My performance wasn’t quite as “rockin” as Alek’s performance.  I placed 2nd in my 50-59 age group and 20th overall in the race. I hadn’t raced in a 5K since February 2014, and for good reason. My 5K training has been non-existent during this period as I focused on distance training throughout 2014, gearing up for two half marathons that I ultimately didn’t run because of work and schedule conflicts (but I did run a respectable 10-mile race in November with that training – see previous blog entry). Then I transitioned to competitive rowing with the Orlando Rowing Club in January 2015 after a 30-year hiatus from the sport. Rowing is a great and demanding sport (with practices at 4:45 AM), but it doesn’t prepare you to run 5Ks at my age.  Given these realities, I had no business racing in yesterday’s 5K, but I caved in to Alek’s persistence for old time’s sake.


Hating life as I crest the last miserable hill

I ran an abysmal 25:32 in this race, which is slow even by CT hills standards (8:14 pace). To give you a sense of how slow this time was by comparison, I ran a much faster 7:53 pace for my 10-mile race in FL last November, and my last 5K in FL was a 22:59 in February ’14 (7:25 pace). How is this possible?  Two words: relentless hills. In similarly hilly races in CT in the past five years, I had run close to a 24:00 in one of them and a 25:20 in another. But this race was even more challenging than those races. These hills were incessantly steep and rolling and reminded me of the courses I had run in high school cross country races – never more than a few hundred yards of flat terrain before the next hill was summoning you. And the bigger you are, the more your legs scream on these courses, so my not-so-dainty frame was more of a liability than ever on this course.  Even experienced CT runners who train on hills regularly were about a minute slower than normal on this course (Alek researched the race times of the runners in the top five of this race online). But even given these realities, I still could have and should have been faster, but there were other complicating factors.

Five Explanations for My Sub-Par Performance

(Alek prefers to substitute the word “excuses” for my reference to “explanations”)

  1. In the week leading up to the race, I had driven 28 hours up the Eastern Seaboard from Florida to New Hampshire, from New Hampshire to Boston, and from Boston to Colchester, CT and (as if that weren’t enough), we drove another 2.5 hours roundtrip for this race. I ran two short shake-out runs on the days leading up to this race but to no avail. My legs were incurably stiff from all that sitting and every step I took in the race hurt more than the previous one.
  2. I hadn’t done any 5K speed training to prepare for this race and had done limited running training in general. May was my first 100-mile month of 2015. I had averaged only 60-75 miles per month in January-April this year because of my transition to competitive rowing. To give you a sense of how low my mileage has been this year, I have averaged 1100-1300 miles per year for the past five years, whereas based on my mileage to date this year, I will likely only run about 800 miles in 2015.
  3. Ever since moving to Florida in 2006, races with hills always kill my times even when I am in peak running shape. Even Alek bemoaned the challenging hills in this course.
  4. As one of my colleagues aptly remarked recently, the warranty on your body starts to expire when you hit 50. At 51, I feel like I’m living on borrowed time as a competitive distance runner. After 36 almost entirely injury-free years as a competitive distance runner, I feel like maybe I shouldn’t push my luck. A temporary moratorium on road races may be in order soon as I try to make a full transition back to competitive rowing after a 30-year hiatus from my success in that sport in my college days. I have a one-year membership at Orlando Rowing Club (ORC) and I want to compete in a few more races in 2015 to see how things play out as I continue to try to juggle these two sports. In my first race in the Men’s Masters 8 boat with ORC, we won a bronze medal at the Florida Masters Regatta in Orlando last month.  Some bigger races are on the horizon that will provide ample challenge in the months ahead.  I likely will not even think about competing in another road race until November at the earliest when the FL heat and humidity subsides.
  5. 2015 has been the busiest year of my career for my workload at the office and travel for speaking and teaching engagements throughout the nation and the world (Cayman Islands, New York, Los Angeles, Washington, West Virginia, Spain, Guatemala, Texas, Indonesia, Vermont, and Oregon). Sometimes, just finding the time to exercise (let alone train properly) is an enormous challenge.  So I just do the best I can under the circumstances.