Category Archives: Sports

Swimming With Ray

When my fellow middle-aged, amateur swimmers and I came up for air after a particularly hard workout, the last thing we wanted to hear was “swim an easy 50 to cool down.”  We wanted to rest and recover. But Coach Ray believed in recovering while we swam. He said it would boost our stamina and endurance.  This turned out to be a brilliant foresight. 

 The first time I met Ray, he made me feel right at home even though I was a nervous wreck on the inside. I came to him because I wanted help leaving my comfort zone.  I feared I had reached a point in my life where I might never again learn a new skill, which was depressing. I was an old dog in search of a new trick.

 That’s why, in my mid-40’s, I finally mustered the courage to sign up for the Masters Swim team at my local YMCA. I was shivering but determined as I walked gingerly across the wet tiles toward the edge of the pool. I admitted to Ray that I was a total novice with no swimming experience. He was nonplussed.  

 He told me to get in the pool and start swimming.

 I soon realized what Ray’s other swimmers already knew – the guy was a genius when it came to coaching.  He knew exactly what to say to get a better result out of each of us. With the patience of a saint, he tried to correct my lifetime of bad habits.  Pretty soon, this former-band-geek-with-absolutely-NO-athletic-ability started to think of herself as a swimmer (I’m still not sure about the “master” part).

 As we gazed up at Ray between sets, he flailed his arms and swung his hips from side to side in surprisingly helpful demonstrations of perfect technique. He shared anecdotes about other swimmers he’d coached; he was especially proud of the youngest ones. He could not hide his love for the sport, and for his swimmers of all ages.

 In the moments between our drills, we also got to know one another.  Relationships formed gradually as we exchanged breathless tidbits of personal information during our 30-second rests between laps. We all had different reasons for being in the pool, but Ray was absolutely determined that we’d all get faster. He was our biggest champion and an eternal optimist about our swimming abilities.

 One of his favorite drills allowed for no rest at all, but rather an ‘easy lap’ between one set and the next. “Recover while you swim!” he bellowed.   He knew we could do this because to Ray, our hodgepodge collection of lawyers and professors and consultants were real athletes.  Because he believed this wholeheartedly, eventually we believed it, too. We swam, we recovered, and we swam some more.  

 But then Ray didn’t show up one morning, or the next. Worries were shared; inquiries were made, until our absolute worst fears were confirmed. Ray had passed away at home. He was only 57.

 Sometimes when I swim, I let my mind lapse into a gentle rhythmic complacence as I stare at the black line on the pool bottom for lap after endless lap, focusing only on my next breath.  Like that black line, Ray was always there to provide direction and guidance.  His presence was as certain as the rising sun, until it wasn’t.

 I am devastated that my coach is gone, but I’m not alone in my grief. I have my team.  We are strong; we are athletes now. At our first practice after Ray’s funeral (standing room only and overflowing with his young swimmers), we traded memories of the sets and drills he had taught us over the years.  With no choice but to get back in the pool, we mustered the stamina and endurance Ray had built within us. 

 We recovered while we swam.

 

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Ray (in red) with members of our Masters team. In his memory, we re-named our team “the Rays.”

 

 

 

 

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Marathon Memories

A year ago, I ran the Boston Marathon. This year’s race will bring back plenty of memories and a flood of emotions, none stronger than relief that I don’t have to run 26.2 miles ever again.

I was a nervous novice last April when I boarded a bus to the starting line from the Boston Common. My seatmate for the hour-long ride was an ultra-marathoner from California, whose many running achievements included completing 3 marathons in 3 consecutive days. Hearing all this comforted me, because he was living proof that such torture was survivable. Maybe 26.2 miles wouldn’t kill me after all.

The “Athletes Village” in Hopkinton, where the Boston Marathon begins, is less a village than a muddy field of port-a-johns. As I waited for one, I considered the fact that I’d just taken a really long ride so that I could spend the next few hours (OK, several hours) hoofing it right back to where I’d boarded that bus. Apparently insanity loves company, because 36,000 others were in the same boat.

The starting line, where I joined a gamer crowd of other charity runners with more chutzpah than sense, was a party. The loudspeakers, the banners, and the happy crowds promised 26.2 miles of bliss. Or something.

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It was a lie.

The first mile was a blur; a joyful celebration. Several helpful spectators offered us beer and donuts, suggesting this race was all going to be such great fun! After about 2 miles, I passed an iconic Boston sign informing me that I was “Entering Brookline.” Good one, Ashland!

This marathon offers some of the world’s best people watching. I’d always enjoyed watching the runners, but watching the crowd from the middle of the road was even better (except that I had to be, well, running). In 2014, I swear that every third person wore some variation of a Boston Strong t-shirt.

Not all the people watching was motivating, like the hundreds of runners who dashed off the course and into the trees (sometimes not nearly far enough into the trees) to take care of personal business. Let’s just say the call of nature was more than birdsong and the whistling wind. Thankfully I avoided this detour, meeting one of my major marathon goals (some people want to run fast; my goal was to cross the finish line while still vertical and to avoid peeing in the woods).

Things started to get interesting in Wellesley. This is the halfway point of the race, and a famous milestone because of the screaming college women holding signs begging runners to stop and kiss them. Whether this is a charming tradition or a sign of the feminist apocalypse depends on your perspective. I pondered the question with the limited oxygen that remained in my brain as I passed the campus, un-kissed.

Wellesley leads into Newton, where I planned to shine in all my glory. The Newton Hills may be intimidating and daunting, but they are my home turf! I’d run up and down those hills hundreds of times (though never after a 17-mile warm up). No sweat.

Ah, there was plenty of sweat. One enterprising little boy, an angel right from heaven, offered me a dripping sponge from his bucket of ice water. That sponge had surely swabbed the loamy armpits and dripping noses of God only knows how many other runners, but on race day, germs were way low on the list of things I was worried about.

I didn’t run up those hills so much as I shuffled like a drunken sailor, but I made it past them and into Brookline. At that point, I’d covered 21 miles of the course, which was longer than my longest training run. Conventional wisdom said the last stretch would be easy because “it was downhill” and I’d have “plenty of adrenaline.”

21424-8Well, yes and yes. It still sucked. But the gauntlet crowds of Boston were like nothing I had ever experienced. Running past the Citco sign in Brookline and crossing into Boston felt like being pushed by a powerful ocean wave. The city embraced me and enveloped me and the finish line just met me like an old friend.

This Marathon Monday, I’ll be watching by the Newton Hills. I don’t miss the running, but I do miss fueling for the running. They say you learn a lot about yourself while training for a marathon, and I learned two things: first, I am not a fast runner. Second, I am excellent at consuming carbs.

To the Boston Marathon field of 2015, I say good luck. When you board the buses in Boston Common, I’ll be on my second cup of coffee. When you pass Ashland, I may break out the beer and donuts. And when you cross that finish line, I’ll salute your stamina and have another beer.

Because I wasn’t bragging – I really am fantastic at consuming carbs.

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Me, after crossing the finish line in 2014

The Lenten Season

If college football is a religion, last night was Fat Tuesday. In a giant marketing expenditure shaped like a football stadium, The Ohio State Buckeyes and the Oregon Ducks put on a show for the faithful. The much-anticipated College Football Championship (do I have pay someone a dollar to write that?) was like the last day of an evangelical tent revival: players knelt in prayer, swore oaths, and sang the songs of their people. Can I get an AMEN?

Today, however, the Lenten Season begins. My calendar says there are 233 days until the next Michigan football game, when I will worship my team freely once more in front of my flat screen every Sabbath, oops, I mean Saturday.  Hail to the Victors!

Until then, we all must wait. College football fans will have to be content with a trickle of news reports about who’s committed where, and which recruits are split seconds faster than which other recruits. We will pay way too much attention to high school athletes with big potential and even bigger biceps.

Eventually there will be Spring Games, but they are nothing like The Real Thing. A Spring Game is like fish on Fridays – a sorry substitute for red meat but something we choke down anyway, having nothing else to nosh on. The red meat comes in 233 days.

This time of year, I miss my weekly dose of team worship. I miss carefully selecting my team apparel each Saturday, hanging the flag outside to broadcast our religious sect to passersby, and blasting the fight song from an old marching band CD. I miss partaking in the sacrament of chips and beer.

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Going to church (watching ESPN) isn’t the same when college football season ends. Where are the Holy Trinity of Chris Fowler, Kirk Herbstreit, and Lee Corso behind the alter of their sports desk? No one is preaching the good news, because there isn’t any. And don’t say baseball season is around the corner – that’s blasphemy.

This year’s Mardi Gras, including last night’s bacchanalia, was a fun party if you are a fan of The Ohio State University. Someone in Columbus bit into the King Cake and found a baby named Cardale Jones, a third string quarterback who was raised from the depth chart by luck both good (his) and bad (J.T. Barrett and Braxton Miller). How TOSU managed to have more QB talent on its bench than most teams get in a decade is a mystery to everyone. I’m not saying Urban Meyer sold his soul to the devil, I’m just asking the question.

Like all religious holidays, Fat Tuesday had to end. And like many parties at mediocre state schools not particularly known for intellectual reflection or scholarly restraint, the party in Columbus ended with dumpster fires and tear gas.

Fans of TOSU can spend their 233 days of Lent nursing their hangovers and wondering if Tom Brady himself could be any better than Cardale Jones. Fans of Oregon can spend Lent taking solace in the fact that their team’s uniforms in last night’s game were virtually unrecognizable, containing no trace of their school colors (green and yellow).  Unless you look very closely at slow-motion game film, you might actually believe that the Ducks had nothing whatsoever to do with that game and cannot be blamed for the outcome.

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I will spend my Lenten Season in hopeful hopefulness. This time of year can be dark and dormant, but Michigan has hired Jim Harbaugh as its next head football coach and the atmosphere in the congregation of Michigan fans has quickly shifted from “it’s the apocalypse” to “it’s the second coming (of Bo).”

Anything can happen when you have faith! Except the speedy passing of 233 days.

The Detroit Lions: My New Back-up Plan

It is a truth universally acknowledged (in my family) that every September my overall mood begins to track a little too closely to the success (or lack thereof) of a certain football team. When my team wins, I’m elated and hopeful and spend my spare time planning the inevitable January Bowl Game trip. When my team loses, I mope and brood and develop a back-up plan for my significant sports-directed energy.

Last weekend, my back-up plan began to break down.

This is painful to write so I will type it quickly with my eyes closed: my beloved Michigan Wolverines lost in the very worst way to Notre Dame last Saturday. Playing under the lights (and under the suspiciously biased gaze of Touchdown Jesus), we were shut out 31-0 in the final game of a storied rivalry series.

I commenced my personal journey thought the Five Stages of Grief.

  1. Denial.  That couldn’t have just happened; I must have been dreaming.
  2. Anger.  Where on earth was the defense – do any of these kids actually deserve a football scholarship?
  3. Bargaining.  If only we had played at home, we would have won. Can’t we extend the series against Notre Dame by one more year?
  4. Depression.  The best days are surely behind us. Michigan will never be a football powerhouse again. The coach will get fired and we’ll have a revolving door of mediocre staff and players until I am cold in the grave.
  5. Acceptance.  If my team can’t win, I will cheer for other worthy teams. What other good games are on?

Lucky for me, there WERE other good games on. I executed my back-up plan.

USC vs. Stanford caught my attention. I always like to see USC lose, ever since they beat Michigan in the 1990 Rose Bowl. And Stanford is so easy to like, with their high academic standards and that crazy tree mascot.

Then Stanford lost.

So I turned to the rest of the Big Ten conference and the prospects of Michigan State, a team I always like to see victorious (well, almost always). They were in a close match against #3 ranked Oregon, but it wasn’t close for long.

Michigan State lost.

Ever hopeful, I looked forward to Sunday. The weekend was not totally shot, because the Patriots were scheduled to play their season opener against the Miami Dolphins. I knew Tom Brady would not let me down. The Patriots don’t lose to the likes of the Dolphins.

But the Patriots did lose. Disastrously. Tom Brady was sacked 4 times in the second half. Just when I thought the weekend couldn’t get any worse, the Red Sox lost, too.

I worried I might actually have to learn something about tennis and become interested in the US Open, but I feared that rooting for anyone at this point was just cruel. I was clearly jinxed.

Then on Monday night, a glimmer of hope and possibility came from the unlikeliest of places.

The Detroit Lions beat the New York Giants, 35-14.

Under normal circumstances, I might have only given this victory passing notice, but when that time clock struck 00:00 I felt like a lost desert wanderer who discovered a freshwater spring. Finally!

I’m not entirely new to Lions fandom. My parents are from Michigan and my husband is from Detroit. But being a Lions fan wasn’t really something anyone talked about (at least, not proudly). The team was best known as the background entertainment on TV during our annual Thanksgiving after-dinner food coma. No one really expected them to win. The game was an existential exercise: the Lions had to play and lose so everyone could complain about the Lions losing.

Fast forward to this week. After many losses and many disappointments, I am cautiously optimistic about a team that looks surprisingly good. I will watch the Lions on Sunday not only because they are my back-up plan, but also because I am a fan.

I hope I’m in a good mood on Monday.

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College Football: My Guilty Pleasure

College football has been taking some pretty hard hits lately. With disgruntled players considering unionizing and lawsuits over revenue sharing, I can no longer pretend it’s just a game. Ignoring the legal issues to focus on the field doesn’t help. Every bone-crushing tackle makes me cringe and worry about the serious risk of brain injury to the players.

Nevertheless, I confess: I can’t wait for Saturday. I’ll watch a full two hours of pre-game coverage and analysis on ESPN. I’ll proudly wear the Maize and Blue of my alma mater, University of Michigan. At kick-off, I’ll be in position in front of my 60-inch flat screen where I will remain – and there will be silence – until the clock reads 00:00.

But I won’t feel entirely good about it. College football has become a guilty pleasure.

I used to watch games with such joyful and overwhelming enthusiasm – the sport was all about school spirit, athleticism, and sportsmanship – not to mention promising young men earning college degrees while taking the field for the love of the game. What’s not to like?

Plenty, according to recent media coverage.

In April, the National Labor Relations Board voted that Northwestern University football players are employees rather than students, and can vote to unionize.

By late summer, a federal judge ruled that the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) couldn’t prevent athletes from selling rights to their names and images, essentially opening the door for them to be paid to play.

Worst of all, new research on brain injuries indicates that even college football players who don’t suffer concussions show changes in brain structure and cognitive performance. I have never jumped for joy when an opposing player limps off the field, but now I can’t even celebrate the big plays in which no one appears to get hurt.

I’m not sure how I will get through Saturday’s festivities. Beer may help.

But I don’t buy that all the news is bad.

I still believe football players are not employees but student athletes – and the “student“ part comes first. The data back me up: Division 1 football players have a 71% Graduation Success Rate (a percentage which outperforms their non-athlete peers and has been increasing).

As for “pay to play,” it’s not necessary. Scholarship athletes often get accepted to universities they could never attend on their credentials alone – a priceless benefit by itself, not to mention free tuition, room, and board. Of course some football teams earn money for their schools, but individual contributions are negligible. If the top 2 players from every Division 1 football program dropped out tomorrow, those schools would not lose a cent of revenue.

So I don’t feel guilty because players aren’t really receiving an education (they are) or because they aren’t properly compensated for their contributions (again, they are). The head injury risk is harder to get over.

All of us who watch football expect to see injuries sometimes – it’s a rough game, but sprained ankles and torn ACL’s will heal. The brain, however, is tricky. Best-case scenario, a player with brain injuries sometimes loses his keys or has moments of forgetfulness. Worst case, he suffers from chronic traumatic encephalopathy and its terrible symptoms like depression, aggression, and dementia.

Can anyone enjoy watching football anymore?

I intend to try on Saturday. My school spirit is still strong and my heart will beat faster when the marching band (of which I was a proud member at Michigan) plays the fight song. I can’t not watch. I will feel a little guilty for liking it.

Advances in helmet technology, brain injury research, and even changes to game rules may alleviate some of the risk (and also my guilt) in the future. I sincerely hope it does, because I love my college football.

But players’ brains are more important.

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Laura posing with a friend while training on Heartbreak Hill

Marathon Tips From the Masses

On November 11, 2013, I was accepted as a member of the Trinity Boston Foundation Marathon Team.  On November 12, I began interrogating every marathoner I knew.  “Give me a running tip.” “What’s the one thing you wish someone had told you when you were training?” “What’s the best advice you ever got?”

As I quickly discovered, people who are crazy enough to run marathons are also incredibly generous about guiding novice runners like me.  I made my goals clear upfront: I want to stay healthy, I want to finish the whole 26.2 miles (preferably while remaining vertical), and I don’t want to come in last. Thanks to the following tips, I think I’ll be three for three on April 21.

JeffGordonWinner1. Just say no to all the free stuff.  I expect many temptations at the pre-race expo, where samples of sports drinks, gel packs, and energy bars will be thrust at me. I pledge to resist the siren call of free stuff. According to my sources, trying ANYTHING new on race day is as stupid as Jeff Gordon deciding moments before the Daytona 500* to swap out his Chevy for a Prius. I heard horror stories of well-intentioned spectators giving runners free bananas which are greedily consumed at mile 18 but make an unwelcome reappearance at mile 20.  No, thanks.

2. Stretch like Elastigirl.  Channel her stretchiness because what the heck – you’re already wearing tights.  Stretch even when you don’t feel like it.  Even when you’re busy. Even when your moans and groans make the rest of your family wonder out loud why you’re even doing this if it makes you so unhappy! (Answer: because you’re crazy).

3. Never skip recovery days. Most marathon training plans include a couple of recovery days each week, and those can be hard to stick to when you’re feeling invincible (which is how I feel for that brief moment when the soreness from my last run wears off but before I remember that hundreds of runners will cross the finish line before I pass the half-way mark). Running is like fine wine: more is not always better.

Marathon runners4. Don’t get your feet wet. It’s a rookie mistake to run through the cool spray of hoses on a hot marathon day.  Getting soaked while running a race is a temporary pleasure you’ll soon regret, because you just created a blister factory in your shoes.

5. Wear wool socks. Speaking of what’s in your shoes, it turns out the cotton athletic socks I’ve been wearing my whole life are all wrong for distance running. I balked at spending $16 for a pair of SmartWool socks, but now admit they have kind of changed my life. Everyone in my family is getting them for Christmas next year.

6. Body Glide is the best product ever invented.  I’ve been running casually for over 25 years and never had a problem with chaffing (what a horrible word – I will never again be able to say “chaffing dish**” without cringing).  Somehow, repetitive motions that don’t bother you at all for the first hour of running can become downright painful by the third hour. I would shower with Body Glide if it came in a liquid form. Whoever invented it deserves a lifetime supply of SmartWool socks.

ChocolateMilkforAthletes7. Chocolate milk makes an excellent recovery drink. I heard this particular gem again and again and was glad to try it. To me, Gatorade is something you dump on a football coach after a big victory or give to kids who can’t stop puking. Chocolate milk is a happy drink and you can drink it straight from the little cardboard cartons.  Bliss.

8. Eat carbs with reckless abandon.  You know what tastes great with chocolate milk?  Bread, bagels, pasta, rice, and more pasta. Muscles need carbs for energy – not protein, not fat, and certainly not kale.  This is my favorite piece of advice ever.  I might even stick with it after the marathon.

9. Run the mile you’re in. Most running advice pertains to what’s happening below the neck, but this one is all mental. Instead of letting your mind perform a continuous loop of depressing calculations (“2 miles down, only 24.2 miles to go!”), be present in each mile. If mile 6 feels yucky, hold out hope for mile 8. When mile 13 kicks your ass, do not fret about half-way points or notice the inviting patch of grass beckoning you to lie down for just a few minutes. Run one more mile.  And then run one more.  At mile 25, you are allowed to do the math.

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10. Wear your name. Let the marathon crowds be your Twelfth Man. My name will be plastered across my front and back (not down your arm with a Sharpie, because I’m told that will sweat off by mile 7).  I plan to run this marathon to a soundtrack of “Go, Laura!” “Keep it up, Laura!” “Looking good, Laura!” (I didn’t say the Twelfth Man would always tell the truth – sometimes motivation comes in the form a little white lie).

When I cross the finish line one month from today (hopefully uninjured, vertical, and NOT last), I’ll have the masses to thank.  To those who gave me this advice, I am incredibly grateful.  To those who will come out to watch the Boston Marathon, I can’t wait to see you along the course. I hope you’ll give me a high five, or a cool drink, or encouraging words.

But please – no bananas.

*For my Boston readers: “NASCAR” is a popular sporting event in the southern United States in which brave men (and a few very brave women) see how many advertisements they can fit on an average sized automobile, and then how fast that automobile can go around and around for as long as you still have beer in your RV.

**For my Boston readers: a “chaffing dish” is what holds the hot crab dip at a bridal shower luncheon or a nice cocktail party in a Southern home.  It’ll be next to the biscuits.  At a NASCAR event, a disposable foil pan and a can of Sterno may masquerade as a “chaffing dish” for the melted Velveeta (served with Ritz crackers).

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18 Weeks to 26.2 Miles: My Marathon Training by the Numbers

Ready or not, I’m running the Boston Marathon on April 21, 2014.

This race will be inspiring, emotional, thrilling, crowded, grueling, and competitive.  I’m exhausted just thinking about it – no way can I prepare for a marathon with this kind of mental baggage.  Last year’s tragedy at the finish line guarantees that this year’s race will be heavy with meaning and symbolism.

There used to be a sidewalk here...

There used to be a sidewalk here…

If I think too hard about what this marathon means to me and to Boston, I’ll spend the next 18 weeks sitting here at my desk churning out heart-wrenching essays and crumpled Kleenex rather than pounding out the necessary miles.

So for now, I’ll sticking to the cold, hard facts about my training (cold and hard perfectly describes the thick layer of ice currently covering every single running route within 10 miles of my house).

Zero: the number of pounds I’ve lost since I started training.

Everyone warned me this would happen but I didn’t believe them.  With all this running, how can I not lose weight?  Maybe I’m just building muscle (this must be the most over-used excuse of all time but it is such a good one).  Possibly my early carbo-loading regimen is to blame. It is unbelievably easier than the running regimen.

Five: the number of years I’ve lived 2 blocks from course.

boston-marathon-19For years, I’ve stumbled out my front door with chilly fingers wrapped snugly around a coffee mug and wandered over to Commonwealth Ave to watch first the wheelchair racers, then the elite runners, then the incredibly fit masses, and finally the true commoners who bring up the rear.  I’ve cheered, I’ve clapped, and I’ve thanked God for blessing me with enough common sense to know better.  Who on earth in his right mind would run 26.2 miles when not being chased by a lion?  What was I thinking when I signed up for this?

Sixty-something: the number of songs I will listen to during the race.

I’m an unapologetic ear bud runner. My playlist is part tribute to the 80’s (my glory days) and part new stuff my kids find.  I’ll hit “shuffle” in Hopkinton and see what shakes out.  Will I hear Indigo Girls ballads while I run through a tunnel of Wellesley students?  Will Queen’s ever-motivational “Fat Bottomed Girls” play as I climb Heartbreak Hill?  My life experience has taught me that God has a sense of humor, so I’m thinking yes and yes.

Seventy: the age I’d have to be to meet the women’s qualifying standard at my expected pace.

Alas (or thank goodness) – I am not yet 70 years old.  I’ll be tremendously impressed with myself if when I turn 70, I can still run at my current 43-year-old pace.  Based on the time standards, I’m as likely to qualify for the Boston Marathon as I am to win the Nobel Prize or become a Hooters waitress (even though I’m slow, I have a “runner’s build”).  And the Boston Athletic Association (B.A.A.) doesn’t give special consideration to other talents such as blogging – not even for writers who can use “Nobel Prize” and “Hooters” in the same sentence.

Five Thousand: the number of dollars I need to raise for charity.getcashforsurveys1

Of the 36,000 official entrants in the 2014 marathon, about 30% of us are running for charity.  The sweaty stragglers tromping through faster runners’ discarded cups and empty gel packets have an extra reason to celebrate crossing that finish line.  I will be crossing for Sole Train, a running and mentoring program that’s part of Trinity Boston Foundation.  In their words, they “aim to inspire the city’s youth to realize their full potential and accomplish goals they never thought possible.”

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I may not be a city youth, but this suburban mom got caught in the crossfire of their inspiration anyway.  By necessity I’ve become a shameless plugger for their cause, which is now my own.  Click here to help me with my fundraising!

 

 

Time for me to sign off – I think I see bare pavement where the ice is beginning to melt, and the roads are calling.  The miles need running.  I’m all about the numbers.

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