Thursday, December 31, 2015

2015: A Year in the Rearview Mirror

This is only the second post I've made all year. I could use some lame excuse about how I was busy or that I never got around to it, but in the end all I can say is that there is no excuse. If anything is for certain it is that this year has been crazy. If I could use one word to describe 2015 it would be "emotional." In some ways it was the best year of my life. In other ways, it was the worst.  As per custom from the last few years, here is a rundown of 2015.

2015 started off great. The Patriots won the Superbowl in February, which, for anyone who knows what kind of fan I am, was beyond awesome. Tessa and I went down to Massachusetts to watch the game with some friends who we don't get to see often. The game was great, the atmosphere was nerve-wracking but great, and the win was obviously great. 2015 was off to a tremendous start.

In March, I was offered the head coaching position for the middle school track team at Gray-New Gloucester Middle School. I had been an assistant coach at the middle school a few years before and had found my way up to the high school, so I wasn't entirely sure that I would enjoy going back to the middle school. After some contemplation I decided to take the position. I continued to coach the high jump at the high school level a couple of days a week while coaching the middle school. It turns out that this was a great choice as coaching middle schoolers, while it may not seem it, was somewhat refreshing. They tend to be a little more eager to learn than some of the high school athletes who think they know it all by the time senior year rolls around.

One of the middle school athletes I coached went on to compete in USA Track and Field for a Maine team during the summer. I coached her individually as she competed primarily in the 400 meter and 800 meter events. She ended up breaking the state 11-12 year old 400 meter record and narrowly missed the 800 meter record. I couldn't of been more proud of her accomplishments!

I once again ran the Patriot 5k in May. With my wedding coming in June, this was my focus race for the year and trained extremely hard for it. After all, it is one of my favorite races so I wanted to have a good showing. I changed up my training from previous years in an attempt to set a 5k PR. Going in with the expectation that I would run well and PR but without the expectation of a specific time kept me loose heading into race day. I ended up PRing by 19 seconds with a time if 16:34. This was completely unexpected but I was extremely proud of it!

June of 2015 brought the highlight of the year and of my life. I married my best friend on the 27th of June in what turned out to be just an absolutely perfect day for an outdoor wedding. We were joined by many family and friends who watched us get married. Certainly a day that Tessa and I will never forget. Here are a few pictures of the day.

During the summer, I set several more PRs while running for Unum in the Maine Corporate Track and Field Association. It was a great season that ended with us winning another state championship and with me winning the Tim Smith Award. The Tim Smith Award is a prestigious award handed out to the top distance runner of the season and is an award that at least four Maine Running Hall of Famers have won before. It was truly humbling winning this award but I was even happier that Unum won another state title.

As the fall came around, another cross country season started up. Our boys team was coming off back-to-back seasons of having gone to the state meet. This was the first time they had done this since the late 80's; however, us coaches weren't sure if the 2015 team had the talent to make it three trips in a row. We had some good freshmen mixed with some experienced seniors, which is a combination that could go a number of ways. It turned out that the boys team was better than advertised and made it to another state meet. The girls team showed a lot of improvement from 2014 with the addition of some solid freshmen. Both teams are trending up heading into the 2016 season!

With the conclusion of the cross-country season comes hunting season here in Maine. Tessa isn't usually too crazy about one long season heading into another as they both take up quite a bit of my time, but the fall is my favorite time of year because of cross country, football, and hunting. Spending time in the woods with dad while hunting for whitetail deer has been something I've loved to do since I was 12 years old. This season was no different. Dad and I hunted hard through a variety of different conditions - cold, warm, wind, snow, and so on. On Monday of the last week of the season, I saw the largest deer I had ever seen on hoof. I didn't have an opportunity for him as he was moving swiftly through the trees. The next day I returned to the same spot, hoping for the very slight chance that he had hung around the area. I hadn't been seated in my stand for more than 30 minutes when he walked by again. I couldn't believe it! I took the opportunity to take the deer, which turned out to be my largest deer I have ever taken. It was a humbling and proud moment for my dad and I and is a hunt I will never forget. So far 2015 had been unbelievable.

The Christmas season was upon us as December rolled around. All of my family and friends were happy and healthy which is the best gift anyone could ask for. It was looking like 2015 was going to be a tremendous year.

How quickly things can change.

Uncle Jeff and I sharing a laugh at a prior Christmas party. Aunt Cheryl in the front.
On Tuesday, December 15, 2015 my Uncle Jeff unexpectedly passed away at his home. I had seen him two days prior at a family Christmas party. We sat, talked, ate food, shared stories, and had a beer together. My uncle and I had a tradition of going to a concert a year together over the last 10 years or so and we talked about the next one we were going to see. Everything was normal and everyone was having a great time. Then, the evening of December 15th, two days later, my mother called and said right away that she had some terrible news. My mom and Uncle Jeff were extremely close. He lived a few towns over from my parents and they saw each other often and talked every other day. The news was absolutely devastating. Uncle Jeff was a tremendous person. He was always willing to help others and always put family first. He would work holidays so others could be home with their families. He was always good for a laugh (as seen in the above photo) with his quick wit and humor. At the time of this blog post the reason for his passing is inconclusive. Uncle Jeff was great in a lot of ways; however, one thing he wasn't good at was routine visits with a doctor. His diet wasn't exactly stellar and he wasn't a regular exerciser. If there is anything that anyone can take away from such a terrible thing is that diet and exercise, along with regular checkups may save your life, or at the very least extend it. Personally, I'm good at the diet and exercise piece but need to take better precaution by visiting a doctor more regularly. Uncle Jeff had a major impact on a lot of people and will be truly missed.

Reeling from the devastation of losing Uncle Jeff, it was hard to get into the Christmas spirit. Tessa and I went through the motions but were never really fully into Christmas this year. We had a tree and my parents came down on Christmas day to exchange gifts. Overall it was a low-key Christmas, which is what we all needed.

The next day we packed up and headed to Lamoine to visit Tessa's father. We brought our two dogs, Doug and Lucy, and were ready to get away for a night. Some of you may remember Lucy from a blog post back in 2011. We arrived a Lamoine, took the dogs for a walk with Tessa's dad, drove around to various parts of Lamoine to see certain things, then returned back to Tessa's parents house.
Lucy on the left, Doug on the right
We were sitting around, talking, having good conversation, when I saw Lucy giving me the look that she needed to go to the bathroom. So I let her and Doug out the door, not thinking twice about it. Tessa's parents lived 50-75 yards from a relatively quiet road and they were always good about going to the bathroom and then coming back to the door once they were done. A few minutes later I opened the door but no Doug and Lucy. When I called to them 2015 instantly got worse. The next thing I heard in the quiet night was what sounded like a car hitting a tree, followed by two whimpers. I ran back in to tell Tessa and her dad that I thought a dog just got hit down on the road. I sprinted outside and into the dark street to find Doug standing next to Lucy, who was laying in the road. No car was in sight. She was still alive as I gently picked her up and loaded her into the back seat of Tessa's dad's truck as we headed to the emergency vet. He drove with Tessa in the passenger seat while I sat in the back with Lucy. She died a few minutes later.

I am devastated by the death of my "adventure buddy" Lucy.

How can two loved ones in my life be taken so unexpectedly and so closely together? I am going to struggle with that question for the rest of my life.

I know this is a fitness blog so maybe these stories that aren't necessarily health-related don't belong. Keep in mind that writing and reflecting can be therapeutic for us and for our minds and souls. Sometimes we just need to sit down with our thoughts and let them out.

2015 was the best and worst year of my life. I have never been more excited about a January in Maine.

Being an avid runner, I am dedicating this running season to my dog and my uncle. I went on countless runs with Lucy over the 5 years we were together. She used to cry incessantly with excitement at the beginning of every run we'd go on. Running was one of her favorite things to do. Uncle Jeff wasn't much of a runner. In fact, I don't think he had ever run much at all at any point in his life. He used to ask me about my races and about high school cross country season and how the team looked. I am dedicating this season to him too because if he had a little more consistent exercise, maybe things would have ended differently. I don't know. It just seems like the right thing to do.

For 2016, enjoy every minute you spend with your loved ones for you don't know if it will be the last. Make time to take care of yourself. Schedule a visit with your doctor or primary care physician.

Enjoy all that life has to offer. It is too short not to.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Running on empty

Anyone who knows me knows that I'm a runner. I could talk all day long about the benefits of running--increased metabolism, weight loss, mental relaxation/reduced anxiety, increased bone density, improved cardiovascular health, the sense of being free, the "runner's high," and the list goes on. One could also make the argument that running can save you...

In ancient times, we needed to be able to run to hunt and capture our food. We don't necessarily need to do this anymore, but we might need to be able to run to escape danger, save someone, or catch someone. Or, you might need to run if you run out of gas...

About a week ago, I was leaving a Gray-New Gloucester high school track practice to head home when I saw my car was very low on fuel. It was later in the day, about 4:00 pm, and I knew Tessa was going to be home relatively soon. Knowing that she had a long day, or week, or maybe life (if you ask her) at work, I had plans to get dinner ready for her that night so she didn't have to worry about it.

I was in a hurry and didn't want to waste time cutting through town in Lewiston to the nearest gas station--which was in downtown Lewiston. If anyone reading this who doesn't know about downtown Lewiston, well, it is a place nobody particularly enjoys going to. Plus it would have taken too much time. So I rolled the dice and decided to jump on the highway and get off the nearest exit, which was about 5 miles down the turnpike in Auburn. I knew there was a gas station immediately off the turnpike...and I thought I could make it.

My Honda Accord made it 4 of those 5 miles when my car sputtered to a stop alongside the shoulder of the highway. It was about 4:15 pm and had started to snow. I swore at myself a few times before thinking about what to do. The nearest gas station was about 1.5 miles away--a mile along the highway, then a half-mile along the off ramp. So close yet so far.

I grabbed my phone, Googled the gas station phone number, then called the number. I asked if they had any gas cans available for people who run out of gas. The attendant said they didn't have any to borrow but did have some for sale. He said they were 2 gallon gas cans and I said "perfect," because I needed a 2 gallon can for my chainsaw anyways.

After hanging up, I looked around my car for any running gear I might have had stashed away. I was currently wearing a pair of jeans and everyday shoes, and I wanted to get gas and get back as quickly as possible. I found a pair of running pants in my work bag (one of the perks of working at a gym, I suppose?) and an old pair of running shoes in the back seat. The shoes were far less than ideal, but I was about to attempt a 3 mile run, not a marathon. So I grabbed the shoes and changed into my running pants. I was wearing a sweatshirt and had a pair of gloves and a hat in my car that I threw on. I grabbed my driver's license, debit card, and cell phone. I wrote a note on a piece of scrap paper indicating that the car was out of gas and that I'd be right back, included my phone number, turned on the emergency flashers, and carefully opened my car door. I put the note in the driver's side handle then began my run down the shoulder of the highway.

I probably looked like a total idiot to most people as they flew by. I stayed to the far end of the shoulder and kept a pretty good pace. My goal was to get to the station, get gas, then get back before it was dark--because running in the dark along the highway in the snow is just a bad idea. Actually, running alongside the highway at all isn't really a good idea, but what choices did I have?

After getting to the exit ramp, I continued to hug the shoulder as I took the exit. I made it to the gas station maybe 10 minutes after leaving my car, but it felt like an eternity.

I grabbed the gas can, paid for it while making small talk with the attendant I spoke with on the phone, then headed outside to get gas. Three-quarters of a gallon later (didn't want to carry that much weight), I headed back the way I came. After getting back onto the shoulder of the highway a police officer pulled over and asked if that was my "car back there." Ignoring the obvious of me carrying a gas can on the highway, I said yes. He told me he called it into the state police just in case and for me to "be careful" in getting back to my car. There was no offering of a ride, or lecture, or anything. It was snowing and getting dark and he told me to be careful when I was running on the highway.

"Ok thanks," I said.

I continued the mile or so back down the shoulder of the highway, facing the oncoming traffic at least. By the time I made it back to my car it was about 4:45 and pretty dark. My hands were cold as I tried to unscrew prep the gas can. The trickiest--and most frightening--part of the whole adventure was getting the gas into my car because my fuel door was on the driver's side, which was the side closest to the traffic on the highway. So I leaned around the backside of my car and was able to get a good enough angle to get the gas in without getting smoked by oncoming traffic. As soon as my thirsty Honda guzzled down the 3/4 gallon, I was on my way back to the gas station I was at 15 minutes prior.

I fueled up, then headed to get dinner and get home. I had pulled into my driveway about 30 seconds before Tessa pulled in so I wasn't able to get dinner ready in time. It wasn't until a few days later that I told her about my highway adventures and, well, that's a story for a different time.

The lesson I learned from all of this is that if you run out of gas, it'll take much longer to do what you need to do than if you don't run out of gas. But if you do run out of gas, it pays to be a runner and to carry around your running gear...because you just never know when you might need it.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

2014: Our Year

The number 14 was always my "lucky" number. It was the number I wore on my singlet throughout high school cross-country and track. It became part of my life. My AOL screen name (remember those?) was Preach14--Preach being my high school nickname because of my last name and 14 because it was MY number. I still use that number here and there for certain things that need remembering. It's been a random yet calculated part of my life for a long time.

It was New Year's Eve, 2013. The clock was about to strike midnight when I looked at my then girlfriend and said, "2014 is going to be our year."

She asked me what made me think that it would be our year and I'm sure whatever my response was couldn't possibly have prepared either of us for all the incredible things that have happened this year.

After all, of all the years, why was 2014 going to be OUR year?

Well, 2014 didn't exactly start great. I had plans to propose to Tessa starting in November 2013. If all had gone to plan and the ring had come in on time, we would have been engaged in Mexico in December 2013. But the ring arrived late, and I was forced to wait until 2014. After trying to coordinate when and where I would propose for what seemed like a thousand times between January and March only to be foiled by one thing or another, I finally dropped to one knee on April 6th, 2014 and she said that magical three-letter word.

In May 2014, I ran a 5k PR of 16:55. My goal for the year was 16:45, a time I would never reach due to lingering, nagging IT and hip problems, but it was a PR nonetheless.

In early June 2014, I coached a kid to a high jump state championship. Working with him throughout the season and experiencing the ups and downs of the season with him, only to watch him win the title was better than if I had won it myself.

On June 16th, 2014 Tessa and I closed on our first house. To say we were happy and nervous about this at the time would be a huge understatement. After working tirelessly on our house during the summer to make it our own, we couldn't be happier with our decision to buy that house.

In early July, Tessa and I traveled to San Marcos, California with Unum's corporate track team to compete in the corporate national championship meet. As a small, underdog team of 17 who lost athletes at an alarming rate due to injury, we were the real life "little engine that could" story. This was truly the most fun I've had as an adult--memories that I will never forget.

In mid-July, 2014, I was promoted to Wellness Director at the Northern York County Y in Biddeford, Maine. While it was hard to say goodbye to all the friends I had made in Portland, it was the right decision career-wise.

In late July 2014, Unum Track won another state championship. Our team was absolutely loaded this
year and it'll be exciting to see what we can do in 2015!

In August 2014, I finally met Tessa's mother's side of the family that I had heard so much about. We took a week-long trip to Old Forge, New York. Old Forge is a little town tucked into the Adirondacks. Her uncle has a beautiful house overlooking one of the lakes there--it was a fun week that unfortunately came with a terrible stomach virus. Ailments aside, I was glad to meet her family before our wedding.

In September 2014, we went to Yankee Stadium to watch Derek Jeter play in one of his final home games against my AL East Champion Orioles, nonetheless. Tessa has been a Jeter fan forever, so we spent some time to make sure she could give her final farewells.

In October 2014, the varsity boy's cross-country team I help coach qualified for the State meet for the second year in a row. This was the first time that Gray-New Gloucester boy's cross-country had qualified for States two years in a row since the late '80's. Tessa enjoys hearing about the kid's successes--or at least I think she does. Those successes put me in a good mood, which is obviously beneficial to her!

In December 2014, we went to the Bethel Inn, the site where we are getting married, and spent a night tasting wedding food. This was a big step in the wedding planning process and left us feeling assured that our guests were going to be eating some good food!

With one week to go in 2014, who knows how it will end. One thing I do know is that 2014 has been our year.

Can 2015 top it? There are lots of good things planned in 2015, like, ya know, a wedding. I have some individual goals that I'd like to accomplish too.

I'm a firm believer in if you keep a positive mindset and surround yourself with successful, like-minded people then you will have an enjoyable life. Sure life has its ups and downs, but looking for the silver lining and keeping a smile on your face will often times help you down the road to happiness.

2014 sure has had plenty of happiness.

Monday, September 29, 2014

20 years of running

Through the years, a lot of people have asked me how I started out as a runner. Well here's my story:

It was 20 years ago this month, in September, that I ran my first competitive race as a middle school cross-country runner. I had always played little-kid soccer while in elementary school, where my dad was our coach and a lot of my grade school friends were on the team. It was actually because of soccer when I first heard about cross-country.

In the early 90's, my dad took the team to watch a high school soccer game at Maranacook Community School (my future high school) so we could watch the big kids play soccer and maybe learn something. It was during the game when a bunch of people ran out of the woods covered head to toe in mud. They didn't say a word while running to the top of the hill that overlooked the soccer field. There were whispers and chatters about who these people were and what they were doing. Come to find out it was the infamous Maranacook cross-country team, a team that would go on to win six state championships in the 90's after winning a bunch in the 80's. They were doing their traditional mud run, something I would come to learn all about years later.

Me, second from the left after winning the
1997 conference cross-country meet during
my sophomore year

Running was always enjoyable and seemed to come naturally to me, too. At age 10 or 11, I remember being bored at my babysitter's house one day so I decided to see how many times I could run around her house without stopping. It was a pretty big house with a hill in the front yard, so it provided a good challenge. I ran it 76 times (not sure why I remember that number) before calling it quits.

Another childhood memory of running was the 4th of July tradition we had at our house. My brother and I would light sparklers and then see how far we could run before the sparklers died out. There was always the added challenge of trying to outrun our dog too.

As middle school approached I decided I didn't want to play soccer. I wasn't all that good (the only goal I remember scoring was for the other team, although my dad disputes this to this day) and wanted to try something new. I thought about the cross-country team and, at the time, thought that cross-country literally meant running across the country. For some reason this absolutely fascinated me.

So I signed up for the middle school team, beginning what ultimately would turn into a true love of the sport. I ran two years in middle school and four years of high school. I can honestly say that being a part of that high school team was crucial to my growing up. Through running on that team I learned all about discipline, commitment, hard work, winning, and losing. Those are life lessons I'll carry with me until the day I die.
Class B XC State Championship, 1999

My high school career was good as I was captain of the cross-country and track teams my senior year. I had a decent senior year in cross-country but a non-existent senior year in track due to mono. This was devastating to me as I wasn't able to compete much at all, which was incredibly disappointing after coming off a solid junior track season that saw me running a personal best 4:48 1600 meters. There was some potential there, but I felt like I'd never see it through.

As my high school career came to a close, I was recruited to run by a couple of small colleges here in Maine. I opted not to run in college, deciding instead on a bigger school in UMaine Orono where I would undoubtedly meet a lot more people and have more of a social life than if I had decided on one of the smaller schools.

So I basically took the next seven years off from running. Sure I'd go for a run here and there in college and afterwards, but I never put in the kind of work or commitment it takes to be good at it. I had run a lot of miles in high school and figured my legs and body needed a break, even if it meant a permanent one.

After college, I had through hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2005 (not running, but hiking across the country...kind of), moved to Colorado in February 2006, then back to Maine in October 2006. After moving back to Maine, I was throwing a football around with some old high school buddies, Josh and Lincoln, when for some reason we started talking about the Boston Marathon. Still not sure why to this day, we decided then and there that the three of us would run Boston in 2007. We didn't know anything about the marathon other than it was 26.2 miles, it had a hill called Heartbreak Hill, it was in April, and it might be fun.

So my running career was reborn again, sort of. I trained, kind of, through that winter and early spring. I'd average 4-6 miles around Portland, with my longest training running being 9 miles on a treadmill at Planet Fitness. My weekly average might have been 25-30 miles, maybe.

Boston painfully came and painfully went. We weren't able to walk right for days after that debacle. However, I finished in a modestly unofficial 3:36:35, with Josh coming in around 4 hours and Lincoln, who didn't train at all by the way, around 4:30.

This sparked something in me. I started casually running again, then, in 2009, started running in local road races and trail races. I'd struggle mightily compared to where I had been, but I stuck with it and was back out there nonetheless.

Competing in the 5k at Corporate Nationals in July 2014
That was only five years ago. Through discipline, commitment, and hard work--the same things Maranacook cross-country had taught me all those years ago--I have started coaching cross-country and track and field at a local high school, joined Dirigo, which is Maine's elite running club, joined Unum's corporate track team, and continued to pound away on the pavement and trails. I've found new ways to challenge myself, such as running 30 miles on my 30th birthday, running 31 5ks during my 31st year of life, and by running everything from a 400 on the track to a marathon on the coast of Maine.

Most people slow down when they get older. I prefer the opposite. I'd rather speed up, get better, faster, and stronger. I want to be running PR's into my 40's and beyond.

Anyone can do this if they choose.

People have often asked me what I'm going to do for a "crazy" challenge to myself this year. Honestly, I don't know. 20 years since I first ran competitively is a big deal to me.

I may try to qualify for the 2016 Boston Marathon. Maybe I'll try to PR in the 10k and/or half marathon. Perhaps I'll competitively run a Spartan Race. Or maybe I'll be content on winning a State and National championship with Team Unum.

Regardless, here's to at least 20 more years of running!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Corporate Track Nationals

As summer kinda sorta starts to slow down, I can't help but think what an amazing summer this has been. It all started off when my fiancé and I closed on our first house in mid-June. We were thrilled and nervous all at the same time as owning a house is a major responsibility. Were we actually becoming adults? Who knew?! Then, a few weeks later, I was promoted at the Y, moving from group exercise instructor and personal trainer at the Greater Portland YMCA to Wellness Director at the Northern York County YMCA in Biddeford, Maine. This truly was exciting in a bittersweet kind of way--as excited as I was for new challenges in my new position, I was really going to miss a lot of the good friends I had made in Portland. Nonetheless, the promotion was the right move during what was already a busy time with house-related things.

Of course, all this life excitement was happening during corporate track and field season. As some of you know, Tessa and I both compete for Team Unum. Before this year, Unum has had a rich track and field history with 5 national championships and 20+ state championships to its name. Although they have won many titles, they hadn't been to a national meet in quite some time...until this year.

Even though Unum is a Fortune 500 company, they don't give a dime to their track team. Funding, as I understand it, ended sometime around when the economy started going south. So it has been up to us as a track team to raise the money we need for the things we need. And this year we needed to go to Nationals because in its 37th year, it would be the events last year.

So, huge fundraising efforts lasting the better part of nine months included bulb/plant sales, a silent auction, a bowl-a-thon, and a garage sale. A lot of money was raised through a lot of hard work and generous people, and we were able to fund our trip to San Marcos, California for the 37th and final Nationals meet!

Recruiting people to take time off from work to fly across the country for four or so days was harder than expected. We ended up with only seventeen people, six men and eleven women, compared to twenty to thirty something for the other teams in our division. Nonetheless, the people who had committed were true rock stars: Nationals record holders and Hall of Famers, a just-out-of-college distance freak, team leaders, former college athletes, up-and-comers, and solid weekend warriors. Overall, you couldn't have asked for a better mix of people. Maybe, just maybe, we were the little team that could...

The meet was a two day event and started with a 5k on Saturday, July 12th. My specialty! The course was a fast cross-country style course that looped twice to make it a hair over a true 5k. Three men and three women ran this event, with the men taking 1st in the 0-29 age group, 1st in the 30-39 age group and 3rd in the 40-49 age group, respectively. The women took 1st in the 0-29 age group, 2nd in the 30-39 age group, and 1st in the 60-69 age group, respectively. These finishes, while seemingly impressive, netted us a 2nd place 5k win for both men and women. The scoring at Nationals is very bizarre; they score based on how you do against the best overall time or distance in your age group. Head-to-head relays were scored straight up based on finishing place. Each athlete was allowed to compete in only four events all weekend.

Not exactly the start we had hoped for but not a bad start either. As the day moved along, we lost one of our men to a lower leg injury. Our seventeen strong were now down to eleven women and five men. We collected a number of medals though and just as many laughs as we really began to gel together as a team.

The first day, July 12th, ended with us in great position. Our tallied the estimated points and said we had a decent lead on the field, which included defending champion SCVAL, which I believe stands for Southern California Valley Athletic League. They had some extremely impressive athletes on their team!

As the second day came, the weather remained So Cal hot with dry, blazing heat and not much shade. Eric, the guy we lost to a lower leg injury, carried the Olympic torch that was used in the 1984 Olympics partway around the track as part of the opening ceremony. That in itself was a really cool experience!

The second day, July 13th, started terribly with a third place finish and three fourth place finishes, and we lost two more men to hamstring injuries. Our six guys were down to three, but our eleven women were holding strong, albeit with a few bumps and bruises. Things were not looking good for Unum capturing its 6th national title.

Seeing that we needed some team adjustments due to the injuries, our coach did what he does best. He started moving people around, taking some out of certain events and plugging them into others. It was like watching someone put together a puzzle that just didn't want to fit. But somehow he made it fit.

What happened at the end of the day was truly awesome. Tom, our coach, had tried calculating the team scores with two events left. We had just won the crucial Women's Relay and were prepared to run our last two events; two events that I was in. Feeling pretty fresh from the previous day where I had run the 5K and a very slow 1600 meters as part of a relay (we were the only team to enter the event, so no need to go all out here), I was ready to roll.

I had told Tessa the day before that I was hoping for a challenge. I wanted to be tested. I wanted to be pushed. I wanted to have to work hard to achieve glory. I didn't want it to come easy. It shouldn't come easy.

Well, I got my wish. Tom had calculated that we needed to win the last two events in order to win the meet. No second place or third place finishes from either event. They were must wins.

The first event was one of my favorite relays: the Pyramid Relay. It consisted of a 400, an 800, a 1200, an 800, and a 400. The first 400 would be run by a woman, Shelby, the first 800 would be run by a woman, Lauren, against men from the other teams, the 1200 would be run by our just-out-of-college distance freak, Sam, I'd run the second 800, and the final 400 would be run by Regina, who was just coming off of another relay and who still had a final relay to run afterwards. The goal of the race was to win by getting Regina a huge lead that she could play with.

Well, we did just that. Shelby ran a very good 400, Lauren didn't give a whole lot to the competition and held her own with a really strong 800, Sam blew the doors open in the 1200, I distanced the lead in the second 800, and Regina had a nice cushion to work with as she closed with the 400. Mission accomplished. Now we needed to win one more relay to maybe win Nationals (the points were so screwy that nothing was guaranteed at this point).

The next and final event was a little more out of my comfort zone. It was the sprint relay and who ever has seen me sprint knows that I'm not a sprinter. The 800 is one thing, but anything less made me a little uncomfortable. The relay was set up as 200-200-400-400-200-200. Lots of lots of speed, lots of baton exchanges, lots of things to go wrong. Gulp.

I was running the first of the two 400s. It was to go Laura, who was a little banged up but a gamer and former collegiate jumper and sprinter, followed by Lisa who had to run against the legendary Steve Scott, followed by me, then Sam, then Leo, who was more of a mid-distance guy who has shown great 200-5k range before, and finished off by Regina, who, by the way, was a former collegiate sprinter. We had a solid team, for sure, but there was no doubt, when looking at the competition, that I was going to get my way and have to WORK to achieve the dream.

We practiced a few handoffs prior to the race. Being a distance guy, we could get away with semi-good handoffs in pyramid relays or distance medleys. But not here. The incoming handoffs would be too quick and if any one of a number of things went wrong, well, I didn't want to think about that...

Laura lined up at the start and the gun went off. She burst off of the line and immediately got us into a great position. Next was Lisa, who had to fend off Steve Scott. As she received the baton on the far corner of the track, I took my position and waited for the hand off. I looked back at the guy who I'd be racing: About 6' 3", strong, athletic, and about 19 years old. "Don't run too fast," he said as I looked at him. I gulped. "You too," I replied.

Lisa came cruising down the homestretch and extended her arm. I took the baton and was off. One lap. 400 meters. Mike Martin, our leader who was down with a bum hammy had told me the night before that he wanted me to run a 54 second 400 in this race. I was not a sprinter. My legs and lungs and heart and shoulders were built for hills and distance and slow, torturous pain. Not fast, Band-Aid like pain.

As I passed through the first 100 I felt good. I felt like I was at 95%, wanting to run a negative split at the 200. But then I heard the cheering that wasn't for me. People on the outside track of the backstretch were cheering for the 6' 3" athletic guy. He was running me down. Laura and Lisa had given me a solid lead, and this guy had already cut into it significantly by 150 meters. He was going to toast me. I didn't know how the rest of the relay matched up, but it might not matter. If I gave way to this freak then I would let me team down. Simple as that.

As the 200 meter mark approached, I dropped the hammer. I heard Laura screaming something and Coach Tom yell, "This is your year, Nate! Make him work for it!" More people were screaming. I couldn't hear the guy behind me but I knew he was there. He was on my ass, no doubt about it. He was going to take me in the final 100 when my lame sprint form fell apart.

But that didn't happen because I ran, no doubt, the fastest 200 time of my life. Adrenaline took over and I felt like I was the roadrunner. There was no pain. There was no form to think about. There was just me, the straightaway, and the zebra-cheetah effect. I ran for my life, extending the baton out to a waiting Sam Seekins, hoping he, also a distance runner, would put some distance on these guys.

As Sam took the baton and made his way around the track, I watched as he was able to create a little separation. He came in with a slight lead and handed off to Leo, who showed how valuable he was to this team by running a 27-second 200. Not bad for a 40-something-year-old mid-distance runner. He handed to Regina who gave it her all as she came down the straightaway, giving us a 14 second win.

But was it enough?
Sprint Relay Team
L-R: Sam, Regina, Leo, Lisa, me, Laura

After the hugs and the high fives and the smiles, Sam and I took off for a cool down run as the officials tallied the points. We went through the race, detail for detail, reliving the excitement from minutes before. When we came back to our team, the results had been announced. Our team looked sad. Well, everyone looked sad except Eric, our Olympic torch bearer. He was grinning and holding his index finger out. #1. Sam and I looked at everyone. Then Coach Tom made the announcement.


By 2 points. 450-448 over defending champ SCVAL.

We really were the little team that could.


National Champs!
L-R, back row: Regina, me, Rylan, Leo, Sam Seekins, Coach Tom, Kasey, Sam Kane, Laura, Juliet, Judy
L-R, front row: Laura, Tessa, Shelby, Alice, Mike, Lisa, Eric
As we took our victory lap around the track, it hadn't really sunk in yet. I mean, we only had seventeen people, with three healthy guys. How could this be?

When I had time to actually sit down and think about what we had accomplished, and after talking with my teammates, it was completely evident that this was 100% a team win. If any one of us had not been able to go, we would have lost. Plain and simple. We had just the right number of people to be able to move people around to cover injuries. The people who did go had just the right skill sets, meaning we didn't have too many jumpers or too many throwers or too many of any one thing. We had the perfect amount of skill, the perfect number of people, and the perfect amount of chemistry.

Some of the veterans who had been to Nationals before explained that forty-plus people would often go, but by the time the weekend was over you might not have had a chance to talk with them or even really see them. With seventeen people, the chemistry was just right.

Even though this is said to be the last Nationals, we at Team Unum are dedicated to bringing Corporate Nationals back to life in 2016, possibly in Maine. Until then, there is more hard work to put in, more races to run, and most importantly, more laughs to be had and memories to be made.

I can't think of a better group of people to do that with.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

State Champ? There's no "maybe" about it.

For those of you who have been reading my blog for awhile, you may recall this post from almost three years ago. Well, I'd like to go ahead and update you.

I had the pleasure of coaching Zack during his 7th and 8th grade year and again this year, his 10th grade year. I was still coaching middle school track when he was a freshman, then moved up to high school when a job opening presented itself. I was responsible for coaching the jumpers this year, and of course Zack was a part of that group.

After having success as a 7th grader on the national scene in Kansas, Zack went on to win the Triple C Invitational his 8th grade year. The Triple C Invitational is essentially the middle school championship meet that includes all or most of the schools in Cumberland County in Maine. He won the meet that year with a jump of 5' 8", easily beating second place by 4". The kid clearly had a ton of potential when he entered high school the following fall.

I didn't have a chance to coach him that year but saw him jump in the state meet a week after he set a personal best 6' 0" in the Western Maine Conference (WMC) Championship Meet. He was definitely in the running for a state championship as a freshman.

Turns out he hurt his hip at the WMC Championship Meet and just couldn't do what he normally could do at the state meet -- compete at a high level in the high jump or the 100 and 200 meter dash. He still showed up and still did it, but the results just weren't there as he ended with a jump of 5' 8" (the kid who ended up winning, also from Gray-New Gloucester, jumped 5' 10").

So that brings us to this year: 2014. I was fortunate enough to move up to the high school from the middle school and was able to pick up working with Zack again. After going through 2013's state meet results, I told him during the first week of the season that Class B was going to be wide open this year. Whoever had the better day would win, plain and simple. Whoever worked the hardest during the season and peaked at the right time would take the crown. He immediately responded with, "I want to jump 6' 4" this year and win states."

So we went to work. He worked hard in practice as I pushed him through some different high jump drills. However, when it came to the meets the results just weren't there. He jumped 5' 6" his first meet, 5' 8" the second meet, 5' 8" the third meet, and closed the regular season with a measly 5' 4", and even that was a struggle. Needless to say, frustration was extremely high.

It was back to the drawing board before the WMC Championship Meet. I wracked my brain the weekend after the not-so-good 5' 4" jump...what the hell was going on?

When Monday came, I changed his entire approach. In the high jump, you run a certain amount of steps straight, then curve in a general "J" shape before taking a few more steps, then jump. So we lengthened the straight part of the "J" and shortened the short part of the "J" and had him approach the pit at a different angle. This would allow him to go over the bar more directly without spending so much time over it, reducing the time he had to knock the bar off. Increasing the straight or long part of the "J" allowed him to develop more speed in his approach. We also measured his distance from the the pit, something we had never done before, so he had an exact number he could put his mark at rather than just trying to find it by feel. His flexibility over the bar was still a work in progress but there wasn't much we could do about that with only a week to go before WMC.

Well, the results were instantaneous. He finished third at WMC with a jump of 5' 10" and said he felt way more comfortable and that his new approach was much better. On to States we go...

Saturday June 7, 2014 was a warm day without much wind. It was an ideal day for short, quick bursts such as the 100, 200, 400, long jump, triple jump, and high jump. It was not an ideal day for distance running, but that didn't matter to what Zack was trying to achieve.

I told Zack to do absolutely nothing between his events, and unlike a lot of kids his age, he actually listened. He layed under the team tent between events and just chilled in the shade. When it was time for high jump I went to get him, measure his mark out, and had him run only a couple of run throughs to make sure it was correct. He said his mark felt "great" and he was ready to go.

So the event started. Zack was seeded tied for third at 5' 10" with the number one seed at an impressive 6' 4." He cleared the first heights of 5' 4", 5' 6", 5' 8", and 5' 10" without missing a single jump (you get three attempts at each height). He was absolutely cruising. There were eight jumpers left when the bar was raised to 6' 0", with the number one seed being one of them.

Zack missed his first two jumps at 6' 0" and faced elimination with his last jump. Now, this kid is one cool customer. During the event he had been joking with me about how all he was thinking about was he couldn't wait to eat Chinese food later, or how warm water was better to drink than cold water when it's hot out, or how sunburned he'd be, or whatever. His mind was elsewhere and he was loose. This is usually a good sign in a high pressure situation when it comes to athletes...

Before he lined up for his final attempt at 6' 0" I told him to focus, to put every ounce of energy he had into that last jump, and to force himself over the bar if he had to. He took his mark, stood there looking off into space, and let it fly. He absolutely crushed the jump. It would have easily been a 6' 2" jump and maybe a 6' 4". I went nuts, the other Gray-New Gloucester coaches cheered, and Zack came off the pit with a huge smile on this face.

When the bar was raised to 6' 2", there were only four jumpers left. The number one seed was still in but he had missed more attempts than Zack at this point, which put Zack in the lead. I knew it, he thought he knew it, but we didn't really talk about it. I didn't want him to tense up or focus on that. All he had to do was hit another jump like the one he just had and he was in the driver's seat for a championship.

Zack was first of the four to attempt 6' 2" and he missed. It just wasn't a great jump. He may have been tense or maybe he was just maxed out. Either way, the number one seed missed his first jump as did the other two guys.

Zack lined up for his second attempt at the height. His mind appeared to go to "that place" as he focused on the task at hand. I don't usually yell when jumpers are focusing, but I just had to let out a quick and amplified, "Here we go, Zack!"

He took off for the mat, hit the turn in the "J" perfectly, and crushed the jump. I went nuts again and there were hugs and high fives from the coaching staff that was there. Absolutely incredible! All three of the guys attempted the height but all three missed. Zack was in command and everyone knew it.

The two non-number one seeds attempted and missed for the third time (one actually slipped and fell into the mat, which counted as a missed jump), and the number one seed took his mark. The crowd started clapping for him as he made his approach then cheered when he cleared the bar. The height was going to 6' 4".

Zack still had fewer total misses at this point so he was still in the lead. If the other guy cleared 6' 4" and Zack didn't then the other guy would win. He had cleared 6' 4" once this year, and Zack had never been above 6' 0" in his life. If neither cleared the height then Zack would win.

My nerves started going haywire.

Both guys took turns attempting 6' 4" but neither was even all that close. Zack had won but I told him to check with the official to make absolutely 100% sure. He ran up, checked with the official, shook the other guy's hand, and turned around with his arms in the air in victory. The kid had done it.

I've run a ton of races in my life, have set a ton of personal bests, won a few races here and there, won some awards along the way...but I can honestly say that I've never been happier or more proud at a sporting event in my life. Never.

To "discover" Zack's high jump potential partway through his 7th grade year, to watching him win the Triple C Championship his 8th grade year, to watching him struggle through his sophomore year only to end it with a state title...Wow.

His mother told me at the state meet that this would be Zack's last year at GNG because they were moving to Windham (the next town over from Gray). She said Zack didn't want to go and that he had asked her if he could stay with friends and continue to go to GNG. She said to me, "Who knows? Maybe he'll hate it there and will be back at GNG." I didn't ask why but I was crushed when she told me this news.

If this is the case -- and I'm still clinging to whatever shred of hope that it's not and something will change -- then he sure went out in style. Truly awesome.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Lap Around the Lake

The Patriot 5k: The "Lap Around the Lake." Of all the races I've ever run, this one might just be my absolute favorite. Taking place on Saturday, May 17th this year, this race has everything. The majority of the course takes place on a quiet, camp-like road in Gray, Maine and loops you around Crystal Lake, only to finish right where it starts at a church/campground/ball field at the southern end of the lake. The course is about as flat as they come, and has a very fast finish.

The race started in 2010 and had 256 finishers. In 2013, in it's fourth year, the race had 776 finishers, including some of the best recreational runners in Maine. In an attempt to lure big-time runners, the race organizers have started to offer up some pretty nice cash prizes to the top runners, including $500 to the top male and female, $400 for second place, $300 for third place, $200 for fourth place, and $100 for 5th place. Age group winner receive $50 and the top 5 masters runners all receive cash prizes. $250 is given for a course record, and this year they've added a $1000 prize for a new state record. Not to mention other age group placers can walk away with a brick of cheese from local Pineland Farms. Talk about dishing out some money!

While the cash prizes will be enjoyed by only a few, the food spread at the end of the race is enjoyed by all. Never have I seen a spread like this before. Subway comes in and gives away sandwiches, while a local pizza joint will give away pizza. They also have all kinds of snacks, ranging far beyond the normal-but-always-appreciated bananas, bagels, and granola bars. There are mascots and kid games and music and a lot of energy. It's the closest thing to a real race party that you'll ever see!

Of all the frivolous things that are so good and fun about this race, my favorite part is the people who take part in it. A lot of kids I coach at Gray-New Gloucester High School and Middle School run the race (even if it's against their coaches asks), as do parents, teachers, and other community members I have gotten to know over the last few years. Kids who hate running still run this race because it has become such a community event. "Hey, you running the Patriot 5k this weekend?" is a common question you'll hear kids ask each other or the coaches during the week leading up to the race.

If this blog post isn't enough to at least get you thinking about the Patriot 5k, then check out this write-up from the Portland Press Herald.

Whether you're a runner or simply like to exercise or just enjoy some community spirit, then this race is definitely for you.

Is it May 17th yet????