Friday, March 27, 2009

Impressions from the Holyoke Road Race

Last Saturday was a beautiful day for a run through the streets of Holyoke, and apparently I wasn't the only one who thought so, because there were a lot of runners. As I stood in the middle of them waiting for the start of the race, a helicopter flew overhead and there was an announcement (I think it came from the helicopter) that said 4,000 runners had registered for the 2009 Holyoke St. Patrick's Day Road Race. (You can see the results here.)

A crowd of that size makes for a lively run but not necessarily a fast one, unless you're an elite runner (which I most surely am not) and get to start at the front of the pack. I spent the first mile weaving around people, trying to find a rhythm. In the second mile, the hills start and I didn't really feel comfortable until after the third mile. Ultimately, I finished with a faster time than I ran last year but I found the race to be frustrating, mostly because I didn't run as well as I felt I could.

Anyway, some of the highlights for me were:

  • The guy running with the baby stroller that had no baby in it, but a cooler full of beer that he was hadning out to anyone who wanted one.
  • They spectator handing out green jell-o shots in honor of the day.
  • The guy I passed in the first mile of the race--the easiest and flattest part of the course--who said to his running partner, "Man, this course is so easy--it's great."
  • Hanging out in front of Francie's with a well-earned, cold Guinness in my hand and enjoying a fine early-spring day.

I'll definitely give it a try again next year.

Friday, March 20, 2009

I Think I Might Be

Five months ago, I ran the Hartford Marathon. A few weeks ago I got my finishers' certificate from that race, which officially documented my 1686th place finish.

I mention this because tomorrow I'll be running in my first race since the marathon, the 34th Holyoke St. Patrick's Road Race. Now, I did participate in the Hot Chocolate Run last December, but I stayed alongside my five-year-old for that one, so I don't really consider that racing. Tomorrow, I'll be racing.

So, I've been training for the race over the past couple of weeks and today I find myself wondering if I'm really a runner--you know, the type of a person who, well, I don't really know what a runner is, other than a person who runs a lot for no real good reason other than the fact that he enjoys it. But I don't know if that describes me, because I've got bad knees and I'm overweight and I wasn't really happy with how I finished the Marathon (I didn't break the five-hour mark) and I get really annoyed at people who can run a lot faster than I can, even when they haven't been running at all and I've been training for weeks.

Maybe a better way to think of myself is as a runner-in-training, someone who runs with the goal of getting better.

Maybe I shouldn't be thinking this way at all and just get on with it.

Either way, I plan on being at the starting line tomorrow at 1:00 with 3,000 other runners, participating in one of the biggest races in Massachusetts outside of the Boston Marathon. Last year when I ran this race, there was plenty of support from people in Holyoke, including one guy who jumped out from the crowd and sprinted with some racers in a effort to share his flask, and one house that set up a table full of cups of beer, if water wasn't your drink of choice. And last year it was really, really cold, so this year, with warmer temperatures, I'm expecting an even more raucous crowd.

In the end, I guess it doesn't matter if I'm a runner or not. What matters is enjoying myself and making it to the finish line with a decent time.

If I can do that, the Guinness at the finish will taste all that much sweeter, and I don't have to debate myself over whether or not I'm a drinker.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

St. Patrick's Day

A leprechaun, or maybe it was more than one, visited our house last night. Lured, as everyone knows they can be, by a homemade green shamrock pin, they found themselves rapped by a clever box-and-stick trap.

No doubt their penchant or mischief got them into trouble, because there was a sign in the trap that clearly said "Do Not Pull Shamrock."

Once they found themselves trapped, the leprechauns had to pay for their freedom with 7 gold coins. Before leaving the house, though, they made mischief with their favorite target: a pair of shoes.

Tonight the St. Patrick's Day celebration continues, with a batch of homemade shamrock shakes.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Season Ends

2008-2009 Northampton YMCA Basketball League UMass Squad

UMass' forward waits to get into the game.

Today is that special day of the year when workplace productivity across the land plummets as everyone scurries to fill out their NCAA brackets. I'm not different, but I looked over my picks in a much more somber mood than I have in the past, because the 2009 YMCA Youth Basketball League season, or YBL, ended Saturday with a sad thud.

Actually, the championship game won't happen until March 28th, but for me, the season is over after my son's team lost, in overtime, in the first round of the playoffs.

Before the game, I ran into the league director and told him how much I've enjoyed the season. The whole thing began back in November, with a six-week pre-season program that taught the kids the basics and established a lot of camaraderie among the players. Then the players were divided into six teams and the season began, with one practice a week and games on Saturday afternoons. It was amazing to watch the kids improve from week-to-week and to see them work hard in every game and practice. At the end of each game, whether they won or lost, they lined up and shook hands with their opponents and said "good game," and I could tell that they actually meant it.

My son's team lost far more games than they won, but no one on the team took a loss too hard, for too long that I saw. Yet, I could also see how that might be a fleeting situation, as these seven to twelve year olds are not immune to the competetive pressures that exist in our society and I fear that too soon they will have to deal with all that is bad about competitive sports. So, I mourn not just the end of the season and a nice way to pass those winter Saturdays, surrounded by friends on the stands in the gym at the Y, but the inevitable loss of innocence that will happen, probably sooner than later.

So thank God and the NCAA for providing me with an opportunity to gamble and take my mind off of my troubles.

It was a great season.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Eye Opening Experience

My father used to like to tell the story of when he went to see a doctor for a weird mole he had on his leg.

"Doctor," he explained. "I had this spot on my leg that I thought was a mole and then it fell off."

"Oh my God," the doctor explained. "That's terrible!"

"Why?" My father asked?

"Because now I won't be able to charge you anything to remove it."

My father told this story to poke fun at doctors in particular and the whole medical profession in general. Of course, he didn't reserve his disdain for doctors; he would criticize any profession for pretty much anything, as long as there was a decent joke to be had.

I mention this because I couldn't get his story out of my head the whole time I was at the eye doctor the other day. I haven't been to the eye doctor in a LOOONG time, and figured I'd better get things checked out. There wasn't anything in particular that was bothering me, just a general sense that I needed to be an adult and do what was necessary to keep myself healthy.

So, I went to the eye doctor, where first an assistant put me through some tests that I thought I did pretty well on. I didn't get every letter right on the bottom line, but I got most of them right. In fact, I did better than I thought I would.
But I didn't do well enough to avoid walking out of there with a prescription for reading glasses.

"I can't believe," the doctor said over and over again, "that you've lasted this long without glasses."

"Are you saying that because I'm over 40 and did so well on the eye test that you're amazed at how great my vision is, or are you saing it because I did so poorly?"

He avoided answering me and simply handed me my prescription.

"You can get this filled anywhere," he said. "But we DO have a fully equipped optician right here in the office."

Even without the maybe-necessary glasses, I could see where he was coming from.

I walked right past the optician on my way out of the building, which reminds me of another favorite story of my father's.

It seems that my father had a business associate who would never pay for new eyeglasses. Instead, when he felt like it was time for a new prescription, he would go to a restaurant or two and tell them that he'd lost a pair of glasses. Without fail, the restaurant would present him with a box full of lost glasses. He would them try them on until he found a pair that he liked. Problem solved.

Now, I didn't go that route. I went and about the best $10 pair of glasses I could find, to try them out. And I didn't like them. So I'm still not wearing glasses. But I have made progress: until recently, I probably wouldn't have admitted to even owning a pair of glasses.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Doom On The Horizon

I attended the first of Mayor Higgins' budget discussions the other night at Jackson Street School. Along with the Mayor were Ward 1 City Councilor Maureen Carney and City Council President Jim Dostal. That made the ratio of elected official to concerned citizen a little bit more than 1:2. Our group was so small that we were all able to sit around a table as the mayor went over a very detailed--and very grim--budget picture. What the mayor explained to us was not new information--it's been in the paper lately--the City is facing a $6 million budget gap, mainly due to rising health care costs and declining state aid and other revenue.

For those of you who are thinking that this is just another case of the Mayor playing Chicken Little, I hope you're right and would welcome the opportunity to see where you think thee is still "fat" in the budget that can be cut and make a dent in the budget gap. For those of you who are preparing for the inevitable override, know that in order to raise $1 million, the City has to assess an additional $93 per $100,000 of assessed value. The median home value in Northampton is approximately $250,000, so to close the entire $6 million gap, the average home would see an increase in taxes of $1395. That's a lot of money.

I should say that the Mayor stated that she would not want to see an override for the entire $6 million, that she'd like to see that gap closed significantly before any override is proposed.

To those of you who weren't at the meeting, I hope that it was because you're planning on attending one of the future meetings. I don't think this is a problem that anyone can or should ignore.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Daylight Saving Time

I've heard all over the place that we have to set our clocks ahead tonight and that we will be losing an hour of sleep, all due to Daylight Saving Time (please note the absence of the "s" in Saving; the word isn't supposed to be plural).

The first thing that I want to point out is that this is one of the happiest times of the year, as far as I'm concerned. We may have gotten eight inches of snow just a few days ago, and we may have endured sub-zero temperatures just the other night, but moving the clocks ahead marks an official acknowledgment that we've got winter on the run. Any snow or cold we get from here on out is just the impotent bluster of a bully who knows that his reign of terror is over.

The second thing I want to point out is that we don't automatically lose an hour of sleep because of Daylight Saving. We set the clock ahead on a Saturday night, after all, and most of us don't have to work on Sunday. Just because the clocks change, it doesn't mean that we can't sleep in. I'm sick of hearing about the whole lost hour of sleep thing; it's just not true.

Now, who's available to take my kids to Sunday School tomorrow morning so that I can sleep in?

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Cold, Cold Night

I woke up this morning and saw a weather forecast on television that stated the temperature in Northampton was -1 degrees.

I did a bit of grumbling to myself about this, but not as much as I would have had I not spent the longest night of my life in an unheated "rustic" cabin in the Green Mountains of Vermont on Saturday.

My two sons and I arrived at Merck Forest and Farm Center around 4:00 on Saturday afternoon and prepared to hike the 1/2 mile or so to our cabin. As soon as I stepped out of the car after the drive from Northampton, I sensed I was in trouble because I was cold and the thermometer said it was 20 degrees. I knew there was nowhere for the temperature to go but down.

We piled our stuff on a sled and slipped on our backpacks and trudged to the cabins, where we met the rest of our party. Once we got settled, it was time to prepare dinner and soon enough, we were playing cards in our cabins by candle light and the light of one lantern.

I have limited experience with cabins. I stayed in cabins a few times as a young boy scout and during a grade-wide camping trip in sixth grade, but that's about it. And staying in the cabins at Merck, I wasn't reminded of those times so much as I was reminded of the cabins I'd seen in movies like The Great Escape and Stalag 17. The cabin we stayed in make those cabins look like state rooms on the QE 2. I couldn't shake this growing feeling that a cabin in the middle of the woods in the middle of winter wasn't where I wanted to be, yet there was nothing I could do about it. I didn't realize, however, how my feeling of uneasiness was impacting my mood until I picked up the notebook in the cabin that was used as a guestbook. As I opened it to read by candle light the comments left by previous visitors, I expected to read someone's desperate last words: "It's 3:00 am and the temperature is below zero. We're almost out of wood, but with my broken leg, I don't think we can make it to safety. Tell my wife I love her."

Of course, the notebook contained nothing of the sort, only records of happy visits and promises to return.

As it grew darker, we settled in for the night. I fell asleep around 9:30 and slept for about an hour. That would prove to be the longest stretch of sleep I'd get that night.

I woke up because I was cold and had to go to the bathroom. One of those problems was easily fixed; the other was not.

When I got back inside the cabin after answering nature's call, I checked on the wood stove and saw that the fire wasn't going as well as it should have been. I poked it and added some more wood, but that didn't work and it was the beginning of a frustrating and exhausting routine that I would keep up all night--trying to get the fire going. I wasn't very successful. It turns out that somehow a valve had closed, so that the fire wasn't able to get enough air. It wouldn't be roaring again until the next morning.

I couldn't sleep, worrying about the lack of heat and my kids. Both of them woke up at one point and complained about the cold, but for the most part, they were able to sleep through the night. I finally fell asleep at 3:30,but Owen woke me up at 4 because he had to go to the bathroom. After that, I lay awake waiting for daylight, counting the holes in the walls I could see as the sun came up.

When we finally got home, neither Sam nor Owen said anything about the cold. Owen talked about all the animal tracks he saw, like the one he claimed was a bison track but to me looked like an LL Bean bootprint. Sam mentioned that he was glad to back at home, where he had a thermostat to rely on for heat.

I couldn't agree more.

Outside the cabin on Sunday morning.
The cabins' interior.
Enter at your own peril.