If you grew up in New York when I did, as a kid you no doubt played stoop ball or stickball or other street games using a Pensie Pinkie or a Spaldeen – pink rubber balls with a strong capacity to bounce back. I think it was the Pensie Pinkie that was stamped with the designation “Vulcanized Rubber” which I never gave much thought to until this past weekend when I ran the Vulcan Run 10k in Birmingham Alabama.
I loved playing stickball even though like most athletic endeavors I was terrible at it. We played the Long Island version where you painted a strike zone box on a brick wall, usually down at the school yard, and threw balls and strikes to opposing batters. We used official stickball bats with black grip tape on one end, but for some reason most batters gripped the opposite end. Although I was terrible at stickball I continued playing past my college years with a group of guys every Saturday morning. I even kept score with a scorebook because as terrible as I was I was convinced I was better than I was getting credit for and the statistics would surely bear that out. The guys made fun of me for keeping score, but that didn’t stop them from always asking about their batting averages and ERA! Ultimately the statistics confirmed that I was not very good at stickball, but I was pretty good at collecting and crunching the numbers.
When I started running in 2013 one of the things that hooked me was the data collection. Virtually every run I’ve ever done is recorded on one or more running apps giving me a world of trends to analyze. Lately the data has been depressing, causing me to lose a little of the passion I had built up for the sport. In the 12 months since my second NYC Marathon my average pace has increased from 8:19 to 8:40. I used to regularly have months running 100+ miles when my average pace was below 8 minutes per mile. Now I haven’t even had a day when my pace has been under 8:00 in a year and a half. My last half marathon was 10 minutes slower than my average, about 18 minutes slower than my best. To top it all off I had a sore piriformis and bronchitis the entire month of October and ran a total of just 60 miles, the fewest I’ve run since my third month of running in July 2013. I’ve been wondering if I’m done with running and if the couple of races I’ve already signed up for will be my last.
I ran the Vulcan Run 10k in 2015 in 48:08, a brisk 7:45 per mile. That was good enough to finish 194th overall, which earned me the special tech shirt given to the top 200 finishers. I also finished 4th in my old man group. Given my recent history I had no aspirations beyond finishing under 8:30. The race was on a new course this year that began and ended at Sloss Furnace, a national landmark which was once one of the largest producers of pig iron in the world. It is pretty cool to see and certainly a better back drop for the race than the Boutwell Auditorium where it used to start. I began the race in a bit of a panic since Map My Run decided to freeze and I was desperately trying to figure out what was wrong on the run. Eventually I gave up and resigned myself to no music for this race. I still had Nike Run Club and my Garmin tracking me, and they were telling me “hey, don’t get too excited, but you’re running a pretty fast race”. Mile 1 flew by in 8:09; by mile 4 I posted my fastest split at 7:21. I suddenly had a whole new perspective on this race, daring to think I might win the coveted Top 200 shirt.
I approached the finish line without a lot left in the tank and although runners were passing me, my last mile was 8:06 and my app said I had run the race at 7:59 so I felt pretty good. Turns out my official time was 50:23, 2 minutes and 15 seconds slower than 2015 but much faster than I’ve run anything in nearly 2 years. I finished 220th, just missing that shirt, but winning the old man age group and coming in second in the male senior grand master category.
Vulcanization is a process discovered in 1839 by the U.S. inventor Charles Goodyear that improves the physical properties of rubber making it stronger and more elastic. After this bounce back race I feel pretty vulcanized myself.