A Game of Roads: A Song of Ice And Runners

Runners by Ernesto Burden

How routes get chosen for a group run, and what happens when they don’t.

It’s 7:45 on a crisp, sunny, 15 degree January morning in New Hampshire. There are about a dozen middle aged men in black winter running tights, windbreakers advertising various marathons they have run (Boston heavily represented), and hats pulled down over their ears. These men have formed up in roughly three groups, a herd of stubbled-faces, foggy breath and sweat, clustered at the ends like a barbell, strung out along an 800 meter stretch of quiet, snow-banked country roadway just beyond a three-way intersection. Group A has turned right at the intersection. Group B is in the process of revolting and turning left. Group C (the handle of the barbell), is caught in the middle, vibrating in the dynamic tension of the moment. These men are debating directions and eventual total mileage of the run, loudly as is required by the distance, though their voices carry well on the dry, cold air.

A lone woman runner, unknown to the members of Groups A-C, and who was overtaken by the group minutes before, now picks her way through the foremost members of Group A and disappears quickly up the road, thinking possibly amused, potentially rude things about this wave of mamils (middle-aged men in lycra) that turned her peaceful, solitary Saturday-morning jaunt into a confused, noisy parade. She’s likely not encountered such a thing on this particular stretch of Bedford back road before.

I have some culpability for the whole business; the sudden crowd appearing like a rowdy carnival around a quiet, tree-lined corner and disturbing this poor woman’s solitude, the confusion, and I suppose the mutiny that’s underway.  Here’s what happened, how running routes usually get chosen for group runs, and what happens when they don’t.

Autonomous collective, self-perpetuating autocracy, or anarcho-syndicalist commune?

There’s a bunch of guys from our running club who get together on Saturday morning to do a long run. Longer in marathon training seasons, shorter outside of those, but just about every Saturday. An email goes out to a list of about 40 people. Some respond, most don’t, but people always show up. Usually there’s a distance goal, such as, “this morning we’ll be doing 10, feel free to show up early or tack on more after.” Or, “this morning, we’ll be doing 20 because that’s what the Boston plan calls for, but there are places that people can cut out and get 10 or 15 instead.” There’re a couple of guys who take responsibility for sending out that email. They are neither elected nor compensated. When they don’t send that email someone else does. It may be the only society I can imagine that could function this well without any sort of government.

Gnostic divination and beef entrails

I’ve always presumed the emailers select the route. Or confer with others to select the route. I don’t know how they determine it exactly. Perhaps a close analysis of terrain and elevation cross-referenced against the training plans of the entire group by way of computer simulation. Or maybe gnostic divination utilizing a map of Southern New Hampshire and humanely harvested, grass-fed, locally-sourced beef entrails. Strange to say that I’ve been running with these guys for many years, and never really inquired into how the route is chosen. I know that on those weeks when I am running long on Saturday instead of Sunday, and the mileage number in the email fits my plan for the week, I show up, have a great visit, lots of excellent conversations with friends I may not have seen for a few weeks, and don’t give much though to the route (except to complain about the overabundant hills).

Into the unknown

This morning there was no route. There was mileage. The email said 10. I showed up. We got out of our cars at the gym parking lot at exactly two minutes before seven. There was milling about, greetings, silly-looking plyometrics (picture much leaping, high stepping, bounding, lunging, in stretchy black pants, then remind yourself you are thinking a bunch of 40 and 50 year old guys and picture it again and shudder). Then somebody said, “hey, why don’t we run over to the west side?” And somebody else said, “But not that same way we always go, how about we go down over the Queen City Bridge?” and that was it. The group was off and running, with the general intention of running 10 miles, and on the west side, getting there by way of the Queen City Bridge, but no more.

And there I was a mile or so in, feeling pretty fleet and running up in the front, and thinking, hey, I live on the west side. I run those roads all the time. Maybe if nobody suggests anything, I’ll suggest something. I will be the guy who picked the route!

So now I commence to thinking about the route. I have run thousands of miles around this city. I know many, many segments of road down to the tenth of the mile and can put together an exactly X-miles run in my head without a flicker of doubt.

Why then, you ask, didn’t I pick one of those familiar routes? I think it was because I wanted to show this group of ultra-seasoned Manchester runners something new, a route they’d never taken before. Hubris, my friends, or madness, or both.

Wherein I seize the reins of power

“Why don’t we go up Boynton,” I say casually to the guy next to me, “and then hang a left in that neighborhood just past the gas station and go over the bridge there. It’s nice. Country roads, some hills. I ran down there a few weeks ago.”

“Sounds good,” he says. And since we’re in the front, that sort of seals it.

“Where are we turning?” somebody calls out on the far end of the Queen City Bridge.

“We’re going to Boynton,” I yell.

“Ernesto’s got a route,” somebody else says.

“Okay,” somebody from further back yells. “As long as somebody knows where we are going.”

Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown

And just like that, I am leading the run. I am the Route-Master. I have been in many challenging leadership positions over the years. And I think there’s a common symptom in all of them. The dueling sense of experienced competence and dire uncertainty. And above all the need to continue forward toward a clearly stated goal. Ten miles. Maybe a bit more. I need to find a way to convey that this is now the goal. Maybe a bit more.

Some of these guys need to be back by 8:30. They said so at the start of the run. I’ve never mapped this loop. I’m estimating. No, guesstimating, the distances. My inherently obsessive nature begins its litany of what-ifs. I am no longer relaxed. There are a lot of guys behind me expecting 10 miles.

We go up Boynton and I note, again casually, to another one of the guys, “if we turn here this may be a bit longer than 10.”

“That’s okay,” he says. We turn.

“Just so long as nobody minds if it’s just a bit over.”

“No,” another guy says. “I won’t complain. Unless we get to 12. Then I’m complaining.” Another guy agrees. Okay, then it’s unanimous. Nobody minds if we are a bit over, but 12 miles is outside of a bit.

Quantum running mechanics

Alright, I think. This isn’t going to be 12. Is it? I don’t think so. I’m rerunning the route in my head. I feel myself speeding up. Like if I run faster, I can actually make the route shorter. But we’re committed now, and I’ve got a 10 or 11 man tail to this comment strung out a third of a mile behind me.

We wend down a hill, up a steeper climb. We see another runner, a woman, ahead of us and close the gap, then sweep around her like a barbarian horde, all fur and horns and swords and galloping hooves, and then come to a T intersection. Here, I know, if we turn right, we will run a bit more than a mile and come out on Route 101. Then it’s a right turn and straight back to Granite Street. I’ve done it before. Will it be less than 11 miles? I think so. Left turn? I have no idea. I turn right. The lead pack goes with me.

We’re 800 meters down the road when we see things have fragmented. The revolution’s commenced. Someone near the tail of the comet has stopped. There’s a debate going on. Someone, perhaps the Cap’n, has insisted that if we turn right we’ll end up running 15 miles. They are going left. Five or six guys in the middle are vacillating.

Leadership in crisis

It’s as though the temperature has dropped, from 15F to -150F, and all moments, all time, has crystallized into this frozen singularity. Do. We. Turn. Back? Group B makes the left at the intersection.

“Do you know how far it is if we keep going this way?” someone asks.

“Yeah,” I say. “It’s a little over ten. I resume running up the road toward 101. Most of the guys follow.

Contingency plans

I have survived the attempted coup, but now I have to demonstrate that I can as promised feed the people, keep the schools open and defend the borders. I began to calculate contingency plans, just in case my guesstimate of the total distance of this loop is radically wrong.

I consider the fact that my house lies between the parking lot where we met and this spot. We could go there. I could bribe my remaining people with coffee and then drive them back in the minivan. But no, that would never work. As much as runners hate it when someone tacks on too many extra miles, they hate taking rides worse.

My friend Curt, the first time we ran together, had a painful bout of plantar fasciitis about halfway through a very hilly long run. I offered to call my wife to come pick us up. He has never forgotten, or forgiven, this grave insult. It’s been years.

No, there is no contingency plan. Like when the Fed tweaks interest rates, we’re just going to have to ride this out and see where it takes us.

The end

Since it’s 1,720 words too late to say, “to make a long story short,” a George RR Martin epic of a blog post if ever there was one, I’ll just tell you how things ended up. We got to the parking lot at exactly 11 miles. And everybody was fine with that. (Or so they told me, because they are all pretty nice guys.)

We briefly hoped to hear that the other group had ended up running 15 miles due to their faithless left turn, but nope, they ended up running 10 exactly.

And that’s fine, because by my estimation, they missed a mile of the workout. How so?

Well, the first mile of the run was considerably slower than the others. And this I would say was a warmup mile at warmup pace. Which clearly cannot figure into the actual workout.

Further, given that most of the runners in this group are over forty, we aren’t getting stronger daily by virtue of having slept through the night like teenagers do. We have to win back the fitness we’ve lost to time and age each time we workout, before we even begin to make gains. That extra mile was just that – a reclamation of youth lost. A time machine. A fountain of youth.

Who explained this principle to me, once, long ago? The Cap’n.

Who led Group B as they turned left? I’ve heard that it was the Cap’n.

I’ll forgive him. But just as Curt has never let me live down offering to call a ride for him, I won’t forget.

And what was the greatest benefit to all of this, aside from the fitness earned? The opportunity to use a line by the immortal Nigel Tufnel. Because while most Marshall amps have volume knobs that go to 10, “these go to 11.”