The holiday season is upon us, and as usual I’m staring at my to-do list with a growing sense of angst. Shopping, cleaning, shopping, socializing, shopping — these are not my strong suits. Instead of getting on with it, I fritter away my time while complaining to no one in particular that this year I’m finally going to make good on my annual threat to spend the whole of December under a rock.
I imagine many people experience this time of year as an exciting build-up to cheerful and festive holiday celebrations. But for runners, at least this runner, there’s not a lot of exuberance at this time of year. The big moments of the fall are in the books already: marathons have been run (not by me) with (one hopes) no permanent damage done; the fall Cross Country season has concluded, except for a few national meets; indoor track has begun with an early meet or two, but no one seems to be taking it too seriously yet; and road races are few and far between – a stark contrast to the cornucopia of 5Ks we had in October and November. As for training, it’s hard to love it this time of year. It’s cold and dark most of the time. Fortunately, we have an indoor track available one night a week, and even the hacking cough that always sets in after the first night of huffing re-circulated air seems worth it for the chance to run workouts comfortably in shorts and short-sleeve t-shirts.
Exuberant or not, for me, the turning of the running year has changed for me in other ways, too. For one thing, I race a lot less (barely at all during the winter months), and for another I set myself more modest goals, e.g., making it through the January and February without any major illness or injury. I tell myself that MAYBE, if I do manage to string together a few consistent weeks of training, I’ll at least think about entering a masters mile or something, but it seems like a long shot.
So, given all of that, it’s a little hard to explain why I signed up for and competed in the “Assault on Mt. Hood, a 3.5-mile race contested on an ever-changing route at the Mt. Hood Golf Course in working class Melrose, Mass. Actually, it’s a little hard to explain why so many do, in fact, voluntarily enter this peculiar event that always seems to arrive about the same time that winter does. (The web site for the 2018 edition proudly, almost gleefully, displayed photos of runners disappearing into the blizzard that arrived the morning of last year’s race.)
The cold weather cross-country is not the only thing that sets the race apart. Unlike other seasonal and alliterative running options – Turkey Trots, Jingle Jogs, Santa Stampedes, and Dreidel Dashes – the “Assault” is not trying to be “jolly.” It offers a rugged and slow course that traverses fairways and cart paths, climbs steep hills and plunges precariously down them again, and sucks the air out of your lungs like the real Mt. Hood (elev. 11,249’). And yet, despite the challenges, the race has a devoted following. Why is that?
It’s probably the nutcrackers. Yes, definitely the nutcrackers. The race offers a dazzling variety of these decorative figures as prizes, in styles ranging from the traditional to the modern to the whimsical. Standing 12” tall, they make a great addition to even the most pagan household. No wonder that this race is the only one that has the whole-hearted endorsement of my family, on the condition, of course, that I come home with the goods.
Easier said than done. I haven’t raced since October, haven’t done a proper workout for months, haven’t run a cross-country race in over a year, and haven’t been on this course for several years. * I’m sure to be a lot slower, which is bad, but I have the advantage of being in a more forgiving age group. Anyway, it was in a moment of unguarded optimism that I entered the race, and now that I’m here, I’m trying to hold on to what’s left of it as I jog around the course with my teammate Tom, both of us bundled up in multiple layers of high-tech clothing.
(* One of the most annoying things about my aging memory is that it isn’t reliable about recalling how long ago something happened. I’ll be sure it was only 2-3 years ago that I visited that museum, saw that play, ran that race, and then someone will dig up evidence to prove that it was a decade ago. It happened with my memories about running the Mt. Hood race, too. As I was making my way through the maze of neighborhood streets to the entrance of the golf course, and later while warming up, it all seemed so familiar that I could have sworn it was only a few years ago – five at most — that I last raced here. No, it was way back in 2010, and I was a young man of 52 with clear lungs and a bright future ahead, or so I imagined. )
As the race itself approaches, I fret about shoe and clothing choices. I’ve chosen spike-less cross-country spikes, warm leggings, and two warm layers under my CSU singlet. I’ve got a knit hat and two pairs of gloves. I’ve never really known how to dress for a race when the temperature is below freezing, and I’ve probably overdone it a bit. But at least I’m comfortable as we all gather in the bowl of a fairway for the uphill start. It’s nice having teammates at times like this, and I’m even more grateful when several of us notice Terry off to the side, and slightly out of the bowl, and realize the advantage of taking the high ground for the assault.
And then the horn sounds and we lurch forward, about 350 strong. I’m not really concerned with how slow I’m running, or how many people are passing me. I tell myself I’m being smart, but really there are all sorts of reasons I need to ease into the race, not least of which is making sure I’m getting enough oxygen. Already in the first 400 meters my chest is starting to hurt, although I’m pretty sure it’s from the cold air, not from any other condition. I see some of my teammates up ahead, including Tom, who looks quite strong. (A few days earlier as we were figuring out teams, I had brazenly speculated that I thought I could finish ahead of Tom. This was not a good prediction.)
After the steady uphill, there’s a brief respite, and then a steep climb up the edge of an embankment. Even with my spiffy cross-country shoes, I feel like I’m slipping as I take baby steps to get to the top. Then down a gentle slope, around a field, and a perilous descent down the longest, and second-steepest drop on the course. I’ll learn later that a runner up ahead slipped in a wet spot and went down, and there are moments when I don’t feel stable, either, but I survive without a fall or turned ankle, and reach the 1M mark and bottom of the course more or less intact.
Now the question is whether my strategy of going out easy will pay off, as we turn back uphill. The answer is a definitive, “sort of,” as I do start to pass people, but with so many trying to navigate the narrow trail, I’m chopping my stride constantly, and not making much progress. And intelligent pacing is no substitute for being in better shape, which I am not, so when I finally do get to the top of the hill, I’m pretty tired, and there’s a long way to go.
At about two miles, the course gives us a chance to regroup, and most of the third mile is either flat or downhill. It seems this should make me feel better, but it doesn’t. It feels instead like I’m running with cheap, off-brand replacement legs, and I’m surprised how much they are complaining, even before we get to the last nasty hill that begins just before the three-mile mark. I haven’t caught anyone for a long time, and on flat stretches of the course I can still see Tom pulling away from me. The best I can do is hold my place, so that becomes my focus as I take more baby steps up the hill that takes us past the clubhouse for the last 600-meter loop.
I should mention, because it loomed large in the moment, that the race organizers made sure that the finish wasn’t too comfortable by throwing in one final steep climb about 100 meters from the finish line. I make it up and over the obstacle, re-gather what remains of my stride, and a few seconds later cross the timing mats. It wasn’t very fast, but will it be Nutcracker-worthy?
Forty-five minutes later, sitting around the table in the clubhouse with teammates, I try to be philosophical about the race. It was a good effort, and a good return to an event I had given up on lo these last ten years. I didn’t hurt myself, and if I just keep the injuries at bay, then it’s all about doing some consistent training. It always is.
In front of us there is a table with dozens and dozens of nutcrackers. There are enormous nutcrackers for the race winners, medium nutcrackers for first, second, and third in all the age groups, as well as for members of the top three open, masters, and co-ed teams. Finally, there is an army of miniature nutcrackers that will be given away at the end of the ceremony, just because…
I’m feeling guilty because CSU added me to the masters team instead of Tom, deploying him to the co-ed team. In the end, he finished 40 seconds ahead of me, and had we known that, he would have taken my place with Kevin and Terry, and the three of them would be a lock for a prize. They announce the masters team results first, and sure enough, we finish second and go up to collect our nutcrackers. I realize that if the co-ed team doesn’t place, I’m going to have to give up my prize, earned only through a technicality. But no, it’s not necessary. Patrick, Tom, Eli, and Lisa finish second in their category, and it’s nutcrackers all around.
The next day, Sunday, when everyone else shakes off the race and does a long run on the Battle Road Trail, I sleep in, and when I finally do get up, sip coffee while admiring the powder blue raiment adorning the newest addition to our holiday décor.