Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Old Forge Half Marathon: Old Asses Half-Assing Old Forge

"Well this is either a great idea or a terrible idea!" I said as Prem and I were running from the rental house to the start of the Old Forge Marathon and Half Marathon. It was Prem's idea to run the two miles as a warm-up. Because running 26.2 miles wasn't enough for him. I only had to run half that distance so I figured a couple more miles couldn't hurt. Or they could hurt but then it would be a funny story afterwards. It was a cool, crisp 50 degrees, ideal running weather. We ran past two ice cream places and the race start/finish area had a giant stuffed moose and bear, so it was already shaping up to be a perfect day.

Thanks to Coach Prem for the warm-up and photo

Jenn, Prem and I had driven to Old Forge in Jenn's Car 'o Fun the night before and met up with Alison, Bob, Todd, Brooke, Mark and Amy at this amazing rental house with 4 bedrooms, 3 bathrooms and countless moose and bear knickknacks. Whoever decorated this house had a serious commitment to the outdoorsy motif. There was virtually no surface untouched by wood or woodland creatures. We were all up early on Saturday morning. Sleep had been in short supply, due to pre-race anxiety or sleeping in an unfamiliar place with odd noises and hundreds of tchotchke eyes. But coffee, bagels and laughter were plentiful. Prem and I set off on foot and the others followed later by car, bringing our bags with them. I learned two important things: 1) I am too old to sleep in the top bunk of a bunk-bed (though I didn't fall while trying to go down the unstable ladder in the dark so that was a major win) and 2) easy warm-up miles can be very enjoyable and probably even a good idea (though I'm no Prem - for a marathon or ultra, I'm perfectly content to use the first miles of the race itself as a warm-up).

Pre-race, pre-Mark getting dressed for the race.
Photo thanks to Sherpa extraordinaire, Amy!

Waiting around for the start, we were all dancing and goofing around as usual. Prem insisted he was "not racing" (then went on to come in 4th overall!!) Everyone else was sandbagging too, claiming they were unprepared and going to be slow (all lies, everyone was super fast). We called ourselves Old Asses Half-Assing Old Forge. I wasn't thinking of this as a race, just a mini-vacation with tramily in a new-to-me destination. I was happy and relaxed at the start line, having no expectations or goals for the race. Except to make it back alive to my box of Neopolitan JoJos. The course was non-technical and flat, mostly rocky dirt roads with some small rolling hills. I wanted to focus on my form and have a smooth, relaxed stride. Lately I've been working on improving my biomechanics, which are admittedly quite terrible. I have flat feet and my posture is atrocious, from decades of hunching my shoulders inward and attempting to be as invisible as possible. It has taken many years to undo that mindset from the inside out and fixing my posture has been the latest piece of the build-a-better-robot puzzle. I still have a ways to go but maybe one day I'll actually achieve my full height (before I'm old enough to start shrinking).

I started off following Todd and just getting into an easy rhythm with my breathing and steps. Somehow I ended up ahead of him and I worried maybe I was going out too fast, but my legs felt good so I just let them do their thing. I had no idea what pace I was going and it didn't really matter. I wanted to run by effort and feel and didn't care about pace. For a few miles, I ran with a marathoner named Rob and we chatted about our favorite NY state races and our goals (or non-goals) for the day, you know, the typical conversations you have with strangers in the woods. At one point he said it was a flat course and the perfect running weather and encouraged me to just go for it if I felt good. I didn't think anything of it at the time, but apparently my legs decided that was exactly what we were going to do. There was an out and back section where I got to see everyone, then a turnaround at a cone with a giant stuffed bear on it (the bear/moose theme is totally overdone in Old Forge, but I love it), then we were already halfway done and I still felt fresh. While I could definitely feel the effort and some minor aches, my stride felt looser and more effortless than it has in a while and I just kept thinking "Thank you, body for enabling me to do what I love." Bob caught up to me and I got to run with him for a bit. We ran along a cinder-track-like path, and I saw two dogs up ahead who looked familiar. As we got closer I realized it was Beth out running and spectating with Indy and Metta. It was a most awesome surprise!

Photo thanks to Beth! Bob is so fast he's just a blur!

The second half of the course passed as smoothly as the first half had, though now I was in the zone and keeping mostly to myself, just happily ticking off miles. I ran steadily up all the hills and let go on the downhills, not trying to control anything, just allowing my legs to find their own way. At one point I somehow managed to kick a rock into the back of my own right Achilles, which stung for a few steps but I couldn't help but laugh at my stone hacky-sack fail. Since I'd worn my hydration pack and had my own gels, I hadn't needed to stop at any of the aid stations so it had been a continuous and surprisingly fluid grind since the start. Somehow I had just gotten into a groove and stayed there for the full 13 miles. There was one last hill up a paved road, which I crested seamlessly, then sprinted downhill to the finish. I'm sure it didn't look fluid or fast from the outside (I probably looked more like a lumbering elephant), but it sure felt fantastic. I haven't run that far that fast and felt that good in a long time. But that's running - some runs are a pile of crap, some runs are a piece of cake. I like to think the effortless feeling days are the reward for persevering through the sufferfest days. Every day I get to run is a good day, but I am especially grateful for those perfect, relaxed days. It's such a wonderful feeling to glide through the wilds of life, surrounded by your favorite old asses.

Bob, Todd, Jenn and Mark crushed the half and Prem, Alison and Brooke all had super strong marathon finishes. We hung out at the finish area, eating, cheering and dancing until Brooke came in. I think we even made it into the official race video with our dance moves to Salt-N-Pepa's "Shoop." After the race there was a lot of eating, euchre playing, exploring Old Forge/Webb, laughing, hilarious picture taking and more eating. Warm-up miles and cool-down dancing may become my new race routine because it really helped limit the typical post-race soreness.

We did it!


Sunday morning, Jenn, Alison, Prem, Todd, Brooke, Boden and I did the 2ish mile hike up and down Bald Mountain, which had beautiful views and a cool fire tower to climb at the top. Then it was time to clean up and head home, with full, happy hearts and stomachs.

Bald Mountain

Of course we have to climb it

All the thanks to the RDs, volunteers and runners who make events like this possible. And infinity of thanks and love to my tramily for filling my life with so many adventures and so much awesomeness. I know one day my running escapades will end, but until then I'm going to savor every wild, weird, wonderful moment of the terrible, awful, beautiful, amazing torture paradise that is distance running.

Lyric of the moment: "I don't recall a single care. Just greenery and humid air. Then Labor Day came and went. And we shed what was left of our summer skin..." ~Death Cab For Cutie "Summer Skin"

Sunday, September 9, 2018

The Trails of our Lives: Steve

These are The Trails Of Our Lives, the stories of our adventures, our demons, our victories, in running and in life. If you're interested in participating, please email your story (how you started running, how you ended up on the trails, your struggles, your triumphs, your photos, anything you want to share) to jen@fromrobotwithlove.org.

This is the story of Steve, one of the most impressive and accomplished athletes and humans I’ve been fortunate enough to know. I have long admired his determination and strength but especially his kindness. He became my friend forever when he bought me an ice cream cone after a college cross country meet. But in all seriousness, he was a good friend at a time in my life when I really needed friends but didn’t realize it and still thought I had to get through everything alone. Steve was just there for me and I will forever appreciate it. 

Dear Running
By Steve Chabot

Dear Running,

I’m not quite sure how to say goodbye to something that has defined me for more than 25 years. Especially since it’s a physical act that I can no longer do. At least not in any way that I would find satisfying.

First, the necessary caveat. This letter (if you will) is purely an exercise in self-indulgence, and the topic is certainly a “first world problem.” I feel guilty just typing this, knowing I should instead be writing another letter about the inhumanity of our country’s current immigration practices. Or, you know, working on my online course for my superintendent’s certification, or answering some of the 200 emails I get each day, or doing a million other things for work. But all that said, and as cheesy as this feels, I’m going to write it anyway.

So, here goes.

The sport of running has been at the center of much of my life, and now I have to say goodbye to it. Running gave me a reason for being during times when I struggled to find any reasons at all. It smoothed out the edges of my creeping depression, obsessiveness, anxiety, jealousy, insecurity, and anger. It made me confident, and strong, and happy.

A look back:


It was time to sign up for middle school sports and I was already sick of soccer. The only other fall sport option was something called “cross-country.” I asked my dad what it was and he said something about training for races. I had a vision of doing push ups in a gym, and signed up. My mom told me my grandfather had been the West Virginia state champion in hurdles, whatever those were. My older brother was fast, but he and I had a strained relationship. That was the summer he left for the Army, and it definitely felt like a big transition for me. I started running around the block with my dad a couple times a week after dinner.

I felt free.

1991 - 1994

Middle school cross-country and Track were great. I was faster than Sol, and I got to hang out with Hannah Jacobs and Yen Tran, two girls I had crushes on. By 8th grade I was one of the better runners on the team. It’s probably safe to say cross-country was the only good thing about middle school for me. I was a tiny kid, not even 5 feet tall, and very skinny. I had acne and got picked on a lot and didn’t have much confidence. But running gave me something I was fairly good at and the fitness helped me on the basketball court and I got to occasionally talk to girls. Running around the pond at Robin Hood Park became a near-daily ritual, and helped me exhaust my OCD tendencies and fall asleep at night, something that was a big problem in middle school.

1994 - 1998

High school cross-country and track (along with basketball and nordic skiing and tennis and the mountain bike club) pretty much defined me as a high schooler. That, and being a good student. I was relatively quiet, but drawn to sarcasm and the works of Ed Abbey, Tool, Vonnegut, and all the Seattle bands.

In high school I learned a lot about running from Coach Goldsmith, but it’s safe to say much of what he taught us about distance running didn’t really hit home for me until well after high school. I became obsessed with my times, even though I didn’t train consistently until my senior year. Senior year I had the incredibly bittersweet experience of ending up one spot too slow on a team that won the state championship. I had to watch my teammates win from the sidelines. All year I had floated between ranking 5th and 10th on a stacked team, but calf pain* slowed me down just enough towards the end of the season that, even as a senior, I didn’t get a top 7 spot at states. We were so deep that I was running sub-18’s and yet still not good enough for varsity. That will happen on a team with Mitch Leet and Justin Fyffe breaking 16 minutes on a regular basis, and a slew of talented kids. We must have had a dozen kids under 18:30, and we swept a number of meets. It was an odd experience to know you would be the top runner on half of the teams in the state, while at the same time struggling to crack the varsity squad on the team you’d devoted all of high school to. As cool as it was to see Keene High School in the Runner’s World national rankings, it didn’t feel like my team as much anymore.

Over time I accepted this, but I must admit I still can feel that ambivalence when the subject of state championships comes up. To be part of it, but not really part of it, is a feeling that spans across many areas of my life.

*I hesitated to break the flow of the above story by discussing the calf pain. Sophomore year we did the “12 minute run” in PE class and I just had to beat Brett Ouellette. I went all out with no warm-up. At practice that afternoon we did a speed workout, and I can still remember the feeling of tearing my right calf. It only took a few weeks to recover at that age, but little did I know that my poor flexibility, combined with this and other early calf and Achilles injuries, would continue to be issues for me for the next two decades.

1998 - 2002

I almost didn’t run in college. I spent the summer before my freshman year working construction, lifting weights, and working on my game. I was going to walk on to Hobart basketball. I’d be the manager if need be, and work my way on to the bench from there, and then into games by junior year. I was determined. Then I ruptured my right pectoralis. I had my first real relationship heartbreak. I got to Hobart and was no longer sure about basketball (another decision I regret to this day) or if I even wanted to do a sport anymore because my pec and shoulder were in such bad shape. Maybe I’d just study and party. I dove head first into both, that’s for sure. How many people party five nights a week and still end up graduating Summa Cum Laude? Yes, I’m bragging.

Then I met Justin Siuta and Andy Phillips across the hall, two guys on the cross-country team. I remember hanging out with them one Saturday night after they’d raced, and feeling jealous of their fatigue and pain. They had done something hard, something visceral. What I love most about running is that feeling of satisfaction, of contentment, of knowing you’ve put in a pure effort at one of life’s simplest acts. I showed up at practice Monday and introduced myself to Coach Ron “Live Fit” Fleury. In hindsight it was one of the best decisions I ever made in my life.

For the next four years being a collegiate runner was my #1 focus. I became good friends with Greg Stowell, the best runner I had ever met (until I met Mark Miller). I took his advice on “secret miles” and crept to upwards of 80 a week at times. I had always been a middle-of-the-pack runner, talentwise, but I am proud to say I got myself into the low 27’s for 8K. I’ve earned dozens of trophies from road races and team MVP and the like, but the slip of paper that says “Conference Runner of the Week” is the athletic honor I am most proud of in my entire life. I still vividly remember Coach Fleury walking into the locker room one day before practice and announcing it to the team: Conference Runner of the Week. Finally, a break from the coach’s awards and “Well, he showed up all the time” trophies! Everything in running felt very earned. Run a hard ten-miler one day, and do a hard track workout of 800m repeats the next day, all to improve by maybe 8 seconds at the next race. There is no hiding and no bullshit to running.

Hobart was great for me. I gained self-confidence. I did a life-changing term abroad in West Africa. I made lifelong friends (Hi Jen!) and I look forward to going back every time I can make it to a reunion, formal or informal. I definitely stopped being so reserved. I still think fondly about the Hobart cross-country team at least once a week. There are a thousand running anecdotes from those four years, but here is one of the most powerful for me: On Wednesdays, we frequently did 1,000m repeats in a cemetery near campus. Senior year I was the fastest on the team, but Rob Portik, a year younger, could often best me in shorter distances. He was fast and had the strength and pure speed of an 800m runner. I would run five miles in the morning (secretly, sorry Coach Fleury) and then do my best to keep up with Rob during the afternoon speed sessions. I can still remember the final turn of the last 1,000m repeat that day, and finding a gear I didn’t know I had. Passing Rob, and clicking off the final interval faster than I had ever run in my life. I can still feel it and I can still taste it, 19 years later. Fast, Fierce, and Free.


2002 - 2005

The day after I graduated from college, I broke my ankle playing basketball. I would break the other one (guess how...yup! Basketball!) a year or two later. Still, I was able to bounce back and kept right on with the miles I was accumulating. I knew that, talentwise, I was average, so high mileage and hard work were the only way I could be fast. I ran. A lot. I took pretty good care of my body (in AmeriCorps someone named me “most likely to be stretching” during an assembly) and my pectoralis and shoulder had mostly healed, but I struggled a bit to keep my calves and Achilles pain-free, especially the right ones. Still, I won a few local races, including a low-16 performance in Lancaster, NH that netted me a $300 pair of hiking boots. I started marathoning as well, and after a year as a nomad (California, Arizona, DC, and a marathon in Ireland) I got my Masters in curriculum & instruction and became a high school English teacher and (you’ll never guess) a cross-country, basketball, and track coach.

2006 - 2009

My life during these years was ... interesting. My career was going great: teaching, coaching, and chipping away at my principal certification. But outside work I was partying way too much. And when the partying for the night would end, the depression and anger and all the rest of it would flood back in. I know I scared my parents and girlfriends a few times, and I scared myself. I took a sort of hiatus from running, and got really into rugby and MMA. I lifted, and got close to 200 lbs. I wasn’t out of shape, but it was a very different shape than the 165 lbs. collegiate runner version of myself. This version also managed to accrue a broken scaphoid and a broken nose, thanks to playing in a few rugby leagues and competing in a few amateur fights. I still ran on occasion, and even did some more marathons, but my times got slower and the calf and Achilles pain got worse. Burning the candle at both ends didn’t help, I’m sure. I don’t regret these years, but in hindsight I was reckless with myself, reckless with alcohol, and reckless with other people.

2009 - 2011

I became an Assistant Principal at 29, and moved back to New Hampshire for the job and to help take care of my grandmother. I decided I was done with rugby and MMA, and that it was time to recommit to running. As is typical of my personality, I couldn’t just ease back in. I decided to “become a triathlete” and train for the Ironman with my friend Vince. I bought a Kestrel Talon road bike, and eight months later traded it in for a Cervelo P2 tri bike. I took swimming lessons. I did a few sprint triathlons, then some Olympic distance, and then the Timberman Half Ironman in 5 hours and 24 minutes. That was arguably one of the most complete races of my life. One of those days when everything actually falls into place and goes according to plan. I felt like a veteran racer: cool and calm and confident in my training. I knocked off my tenth marathon, and four or five century rides. I was probably in the best endurance conditioning of my life, and then…

Crash. At mile 95 of my final training ride before Ironman Florida, I crashed at 22 mph, broke my collarbone, and got a concussion. So much for the sub-12 Ironman I had envisioned.

I spent the winter recovering, deferred to Ironman St. George a few months later, and gutted it out in something like 16 hours, with no swimming practices and only a handful of bike rides under my belt. It was ugly, but it counted, and I got my Ironman tattoo the next day in Las Vegas. At least it’s a good first-date story. It worked on my wife anyway.

2011 - 2017

I did the math, and it’s not hyperbole to say I’ve probably run 1,000 races in my life. The mileage and the injuries really started to add up in my thirties. I have never been flexible, and the mobility in my ankles and legs is laughable. I mean, literally laughable: my physical therapist sister and ortho wife often force me to demonstrate my limited range of motion to people by doing a squat. I fall backwards before I even get to parallel, and they all share a laugh.

But I love running, so I went to PT. A lot. And I got a foam roller and a lacrosse ball and five cortisone shots over the years, and slept in that damn Achilles-stretching boot. I had a surgical consult, but it would be eight months recovery per leg and no guarantee of improvement. I did some hot yoga (sorry, heated vinyasa flow) and I own several pairs of calf sleeves and half a dozen topical creams. I made it work, because running was what made me feel right. I watched my marathon times creep from nearly breaking 3 hours all the way to struggling (and failing) to break 4 hours. Still, I tried to put in the miles, because that’s how I felt centered and whole.

As my wife and I continued our careers in the greater Portland area and started a family, I felt like I became a fairly recognizable part of the local running scene. I’ve been a race director four or five times, and became a very active member of Portland Trails. I own not one, but two running strollers! I even got to be the male model in Dan Frey’s book on core strength for runners. I made a lot of great new running friends, helped out at some of Hark’s collegiate track meets, volunteered at Tri for a Cure, and the good people at Fleet Feet like to occasionally give me free stuff. Maine: the way life (and running) should be. I love nothing more than building my weekends around local races, seeing my friends, and feeling the endorphin rush of both maximum effort and supporting local causes. It’s a great scene up here in Portland, Maine. You should try it out sometime.


In nearly 27 years of racing, I had only dropped out of two races. One my sophomore year in high school, and one my sophomore year in college. Both times because of calf issues. The feeling of dropping out was so terrible. I hated it more than anything. Then, this year, I dropped out of my last two races in July. I just couldn’t do it. My calves and Achilles are in bad shape. Painful and nearly immobile. I had quit drinking and added “voodoo flossing” and dry needling to my repertoire of treatments, but the sad reality is that for the last few years I have spent more time trying to get my body to be able to run than I have actually spent running. I’m barely able to get in ten miles a week, and I’m always a misstep or a slight over exertion away from another tear, and another six to eight weeks of inactivity. My legs look like they belong on two different bodies, such is the accumulated scar tissue damage. I’m tired of having to gut out a 5K, only to limp up and down the stairs for the next three days.

So here we are. Just sort of … done.

Running has been the most consistent thing in my life for more than a quarter century. And now I just can’t really do it. Maybe there are still a few low key 5K’s in my future, and I will try and replace “real running” with weight lifting, mountain biking, the occasional game of tennis, hiking, and so on, but I know it’s not replaceable. That’s hard to accept sometimes, but it’s reality. And I know it’s a first world problem, and that I’ve been blessed a thousand times over to have the life that I have. And I know I’ve just talked about myself for, like, ten pages. Sorry.

Regardless, I will miss running profoundly. I am so grateful for it, and for everything it gave me. The miles gave me form and substance. The effort helped wear down the jagged pieces of glass in my head and to calm down the frenetic angst in my heart. Life isn’t easy for a lot of people and I think we’re all looking for things that make it feel real, and make it feel worth the effort. Running did that for me. When I ran I felt fast, and fierce, and free. I felt alive.

It’s hard to imagine my life without running, but I’m going to gut it out. And I know it will be just fine, and I know that because of all the running.

Thanks for reading.