Sunday, August 2, 2015

Amor Fati

Bluemont elevation profile
George Sheehan may be considered today's running philosopher, but maybe Nietzsche was on to something too. Let me explain.

Seven-some miles away from the car, Rohan and I wound along the shoulder-less curves of Snickersville Road on the return trip from Bluemont. Beyond the neat rows of trees shielding us from the sun, bucolic fields reached for the mountains, cows lazed and occasionally announced our presence, and horses shied away from us while we fantasized that they might canter along with our strides. 

But despite this pastoral and picturesque Virginia countryside, the hills came like unrelenting sets of waves. Conversation ceased as we powered up each steep face and tried to ease down the backside to save our quads. 

Right about this time, I started to mentally thumb through my catalog of mantras: “smooth and easy,” “powerful and efficient.” And I thought about that singular piece of advice, which all marathoners (or even racers at any distance) receive from the magazines, experts, and those who have “been there”: run the mile you’re in.

And while this running commandment that has been passed down through the ages sustained me for a few minutes, my mind started to dive deeper into thought. That’s when Nietzsche’sphrase “amor fati” bubbled up. 

I first came across the phrase a month ago reading Kate Atkinson’s book “Life After Life, and have been infatuated with it ever since. Like Ursula Todd, the book’s main character, I initially pronounced it “a more fatty.” Which, on this particular run, got me thinking about “amor,” and could it be “love of fat”? I mean, who doesn’t love an avocado these days or a certain anthem from 1978?

In actuality, it means “love of one’s fate,” or as Ursula comes to understand, “a simple acceptance of what comes to us, regarding it as neither bad nor good, (stay with me here). It’s focusing on being, rather than on becoming. We worry away the present, seldom appreciating where we are, in order to get to what we assume will be a better place.

Recently on runs, for example, I find my thoughts at mile two drifting to where I will be at mile ten. Rather than becoming weighed down by the enormity of covering those eight or however long miles, I try to refocus and say, “Yes, we will get there, but we must be here first. So let’s be present and give this part right now – painful or powerful – its due.

As Rohan and I tackled another set, I chose to accept, instead of dwell in, this dark place. I tried to simply (or perhaps not so simply) accept what came. Accept what the run gave or took from me. A “this too shall pass” mindset, whether I was in a good place or bad. Knowing that pushing through the dark places meant getting to a lighter place on the other side.

Frank Shorter expressed a similar sentiment when he said that, “Experience has taught me how important it is to just keep going, focusing on running fast and relaxed. Eventually it passes and the flow returns.

And sure enough, during this philosophy meets running session, I came back to reality – to the task at hand – and noticed that Rohan and I had arrived at the final climb of our toilWe stared down the hill we had both noted on our way out some fifteen-and-a-half miles ago. It seemed to reach beyond the tops of the trees and disappear around a bend where we knew it would still continue to rise. We each took a pull on our water bottles, exchanged a fist bump, and climbed. I felt the effort strain my hamstrings and a grimace break across my face. Our breathing came in ragged gasps. And as the road began to curve revealing the final climb, I thought, “Amor fati.” The pain didn’t dissipate, but the mental stress of willing it to fell away like the road behind us. We surged up and over the lip and rode down the backside where the road unspooled with our strides. Our footfalls fell in synch and we appeared to move as one fluid organism charging for home. And there it was: acceptance.

Friday, July 24, 2015

We Begin Again

I returned to my front steps this morning, shirtless, wrung out, dripping – the hallmarks of a mid-summer Virginia run. The dark and cold mornings that defined this past January seemed a distant memory. But I still remember them.

I remember the tail end of what I would consider the first real training week. That Saturday morning called for 18 miles, a.k.a. serious mileage. I had plans to meet up with Rohan to do “a new route I’ve wanted to try.” “I just want to get some hills in,” I said, thinking ahead to the rolling elevation profile of my impending March half marathon.

I had no idea.

I awoke to a room dark as pitch. Rain tapped the windows, eventually changing over to the unmistakable hiss of ice crackling – popping and snapping like fire – against the glass. What the forecasters call a wintry mix, and DC-ites call a bread, toilet paper, and water emergency. I let out a heavy sigh and pulled the blankets up.

When Rohan and I eventually let out, the sleet had tapered to a fine mist. Steel-colored clouds stretched across the sky and the air carried the unmistakable scent of snow.

The now infamous-run, which we refer to only as “Bluemont” for the town this ribbon of torturous inclines and declines carves through, led us each to new places, both literal and figurative. The elevation profile looks like an EKG of someone who suffered a massive heart attack or, as I prefer to call it, “shark’s teeth.”

It was the kind of run that – having come through clean on the other side – has changed you. You are a different person when you return to the car from the one who set out – hardened somehow.

It has been six months since that run. Over the past half year, Rohan and I have texted each other that one word – “Bluemont” – and it was enough to bring pause to whatever the recipient was doing. Those breath-stealing climbs and quad-pounding descents still linger in our lungs and legs. The word was not (and is not) one taken lightly.

I bring it up here because this week the schedule calls for 18 miles. In other words, serious mileage. I stand at the beginning of yet another training program – as I have for the past 10 years – seeking to once again redefine what I once thought of as “the limit.” That training plateau where you believe, “I have reached the edge and can go no farther.” Where you live at the margins for weeks on end, hanging on. I thought I had reached it last November and then again this past March, as I had back in 2009 and 2004. But each time I have begun, I have ended in new territory – changed, hardened, stronger.

One text went out on Monday: “Bluemont.”

And so, we begin again.

Friday, May 16, 2014

5K Roundup (or A Tale of Two Races)

Last weekend, I made the somewhat rash, somewhat thought out decision to race back-to-back 5Ks: the National Police Week 5K on Saturday and the Angel Kisses 5K on Sunday. There’s something liberating about going into a race having no expectations and no clear grasp on your fitness level, particularly when your diet has consisted primarily of what I can only describe as the post-marathon beer and ice cream nutrition plan. So, it was with a come-what-may attitude that I laced up and lived through the tale of two races.
Guns blazing

National Police Week 5K
Rohan and I rounded the final turn and came into the homestretch. I felt a slight surge of adrenaline but it wasn't time, not for the real thing. Despite the easy pace of our warmup, my shoulders were already slick with sweat courtesy of the heavy humidity. Before we pulled up to a jog, I turned to Rohan and said, “Ok, in an ideal world, we turn onto 4th street like this and we’re shoulder to shoulder and alone. How do you feel about a tie?” He started laughing. “I was thinking the same thing last night! And we split the pot.” “And we split the pot,” I replied. In addition to battling for cash, the Police Week 5K also features a team competition, of which Rohan’s team (1 Life to Run) has won the past three years.

We nervously stood on the start line, sizing up the other runners around us, fingers atwitter, and stepping from foot-to-foot. When the gun went, Rohan bolted to the front followed by two other runners, and then me. I was content to sit on the shoulder of the St. Joseph tank top in front of me. Our group made two quick turns before a long straightaway that would bring us in front of the Capitol. The pace felt fast but comfortable. Rohan pulled 10 feet in front of me followed by a shorter runner in baggy shorts. “I’ll see you later,” I thought, snickering at baggy shorts.

The day before, I’d been at the eye doctor, and the conversation turned to running as it often does with me. He told me about how his son can turn a 4:50 mile, which got me thinking, “How fast can I run a mile?” As this thought crept back into my head over that first half mile, I looked down at my watch and my eyes bulged when I saw the 4:37 staring back at me. I tried to pull the pace back at that moment but when I looked at my watch again, it said 4:34.

With a more deliberate adjustment, I came through the first mile in 4:59 – the fastest mile of my life. Literally. Ever. The smirk disappeared when I realized I still had 2.1 more miles to run. “This is where I die,” I thought.

The course curved and we ran a jug handle in front of the Capitol. Baggy shorts had taken off and I really would see him later…after he’d crossed the finish line far ahead of me. I started to reel Rohan in at this point, and looked at my watch again: 4:50. “Maybe this is what 90 miles per week gets me.” Well, it didn't get me much farther.

St. Joseph tank top went by me like I was standing still. Mercifully, I reached mile 2 and saw a more reasonable 5:30. Still, I felt death coming on. I glanced over my shoulder, and it wasn't death, though, but another runner gaining ground and in a hurry. I turned my eyes down at my watch and realized I still had .75 miles left. An eternity. Lead poured into my legs. I lived the awful dream of trying desperately to move my legs but simply couldn't get away. If I could have managed to form audible words, I would have said, “I am dead in the water.” But it came out, “Gaaaack.”

The finish line finally came into view and I threw every last bit I had into it and came across the line in fourth, salvaging a 16:53. Rohan followed just eight seconds behind, though I didn't see it because my hands were locked around my knee caps.

It wasn't the finish we had imagined, but 1 Life to Run captured its fourth straight title, I found out I could run a sub-5 mile, and could still turn in a sub-17 5K.

Angel Kisses 5K
A week before Angel Kisses, my dad and I met up to preview the race’s new course. The majority of it traversed my daily running routes with the exception of a 200m jug handle .25mi from the finish. That diversion featured a steep uphill followed by an even steeper downhill that sent one hurtling toward the finish line. My dad and I agreed that should the situation arise, that short uphill would be the perfect spot to make a decisive move.

The morning dawned 10 degrees cooler than yesterday, but the zip in my legs had gone and in its place, the lingering exhaustion and memory of Saturday’s effort. I chatted with a couple runners at the start line to gauge how fast everyone might be going out. Everyone seemed to agree that they’d be around 17 minutes. “Hmm,” I thought. “This could be interesting.”

At the gun, my pre-race chatters took off in a swift pack and began a steep climb that would take us out of the neighborhood. My legs already felt tired but I ground up the hill to try and stay with the lead pack. Out of breath at the top, I thought, “You could have done that better,” but I forged on with little other choice.

The pack hung about 10 feet in front of me. My thoughts toggled back and forth from “keep contact” to “meh, another fourth place finish isn’t so bad.”

We came through the first mile in 5:17. “Much more doable,” I thought, but that 5:17 felt much harder than the 4:59 had the day before. Our pack made a left turn onto the stretch of road where I run my 400m and 800m repeats. “Slight down into slight up” I thought. I stayed on the left side of the road knowing that would give me the best tangent later in the race, while the other three drifted to the right.

All at once, the group seemed to slow and I began making up ground. One runner came back to me then completely dropped off. I used the gradual incline to reel in the other two and maintain contact. My childhood friend’s father was a course marshal and tossed me a “Good job, Brad." “Thanks, Mr. D,” I said back as casually as I could. We crossed back over the main road and came upon mile 2. I didn't bother to look at my watch. “Place not pace,” I thought, as things had indeed gotten interesting. I pulled even with the second runner as we began a steeper climb. Having run it many times over, I knew the pitch down was coming. The leaden feeling in my legs began to return and I pulled back on the pace, knowing what was to come, knowing that I didn't have to burn myself out here. Even slowing, the second runner dropped off.

I fixed my eyes to the back of the orange singlet slicing his way through the 2K walkers. At the crest of the hill, I’d pulled even. His chest heaved loud gasps. I hurt, too, but hearing him breathing so hard, I knew I had a chance. On the back side of the hill, I was content to stay next to him and let him listen to my easy breathing. Volunteers started waving wildly to send us into the jug handle. “Isn't this convenient,” I thought, as my plan came together. A couple feet before the turn, I began to accelerate and cut the diagonal across the road as I came to the top of the hill. My arms powered me forward and when I reached the top, I heard only my own footsteps hitting the pavement. I gave a quick turn over my left shoulder and nearly did a double-take when I saw the empty road behind me. “Did I make the right turn,” I wondered. Momentum carried me downhill and I took one more look as I made the final turn to the finish line. Orange singlet was duking it out with runner three. I took the break off and came hurtling down the final straight, taking first place in 17:03. In that last quarter mile, I’d opened up a 16 second lead.

I tried to walk off the nausea that overcame me but had to grab my knees. Still, that bile in the back of my throat was nothing compared to the sweet taste of victory. I smiled through the deep breaths, letting the win wash over me, having avenged last year’s loss at the line, and finally adding my name to the list of this race’s winners.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

2014 Boston Marathon Redux

The bus rumbled to life and roared away from the curb. A brilliant sun peeked through the buildings and the skyline disappeared behind us in a rush of brick and concrete. I caught a glimpse of the Prudential Center and thought, “I’ll see you soon.” The nerves roiling in my stomach suddenly settled, and I took a deep breath and closed my eyes on the exhale. When I opened them again, nearly an hour had gone by and the bus inched along Hopkinton’s narrow roads in the runner-carrying-convoy until finally coming to a stop at Hopkinton High School. 

Rohan, Shaun, and I stood and filed out of the bus with our running brethren. The three of us unfurled our makeshift mats (i.e. ponchos) at the corner of one of the large white tents, and settled in. The field filled in with eager runners, taking on the look of a staging area for invasion. The three of us fidgeted and shivered in the grass, in both nervous anticipation and the morning coolness. Unable to sit still, I made frequent use of the porta-potty, standing in line, using it, and seemingly getting right back in line.

After two hours, the call to load up wave one came over the loud speaker and the three of us began to shed our extra clothes and join the stream of runners migrating back to the main road. Once we began walking, I became increasingly aware of how hot the sun felt and stripped off even more clothing until I was down to my racing singlet and shorts. Rohan and I exchanged fist bumps with Shaun and made our way to the corrals. 

Hopkinton residents already lined the streets, cheering, offering high-fives and last minute materials like Vaseline, Gatorade, and one particularly clever stand of beer, donuts, and cigarettes.

As Rohan and I continued our walk together, I turned to him and said, “We’ve come a long way, you and I.” “A lot of miles,” he said, looking straight ahead. And we had, not only to train for this Boston, but since our paths first crossed nearly four years ago on that humid summer afternoon. I still remember Rohan asking what I was training for, and I beamed because I got to say “Boston.” My first. And now here we were, walking to – in this runner’s opinion – the most famous of all marathon starting lines. Now it was Rohan’s first.

We waded through the lanes designated solely for runners, peeling off at one point for a final pit stop - which earned us a wanding from one of the security guards, and surly looks from volunteers -  and settled into our corral. 

Under a cloudless sky, the air felt still and warmish on my almost bare shoulders. But I was so swept up in this most special of Boston Marathons that race director David McGilivray’s proclamation that we were “taking back our finish line” sent chills through me. And for the past year, after all the dedications, the Boston Strongs, the tears, and the triumphs, there was only one thing left to do: run. 

The gun went…and so did we.

Boston’s first mile is billed as the famed rollercoaster drop out of Hopkinton. While it is a marked downhill, it’s truly a tangle of arms, legs, and elbows, a mobile mosh pit of runners jockeying for position, rhythm, and pace. I told Rohan to aim for the outside of the pack to find free running room and had failed to follow my own advice. I spent the first mile shooting gaps and trying not to swipe the heels of the runners in front of me, all while eyeing Rohan’s orange singlet so I didn’t lose him. 

My watch beeped in the melee and I looked down at the 6:20 and swore -  too slow. The crush of runners began to spread out and I took the opportunity to find some open running space and look for that flow. I could sense Rohan on my right shoulder and was pleased to see the 5:57 second mile and let myself try and draw back to a more comfortable 6:05-6:10 pace. However, the third mile flashed by in 5:57. At that moment, I was just grateful to have space to execute.

With a slightly more relaxed slice of road to run, I used the next 5K to establish a rhythm. I conducted mental system checks at each mile: legs strong, lungs good, pace on point, stomach…hmm. At some point, the roiling in my stomach returned. “If I could just get this stomach ache to go away,” I thought…. Through 10K, I noticed that the sips from my water bottle every other mile weren’t cutting it either and the back of my throat had a sticky, sandy feeling.  So, I began taking cups of water at the stations when I wasn’t drinking my Nuun. 

Near mile 9, I roared through the Tufts crowd, remembering my own cheering from that spot two years ago. The course began a gradual but noticeable incline here and I became aware of the sun, of my stomach, and the seconds ticking up on my pace. I turned back to look for Rohan but didn’t see him. I went to my mantra, “Smooth and strong, smooth and strong,” but couldn’t still the churning in my stomach.

“Get ready, boys,” a runner said as he went by. “You can hear it.” I picked up the din of a high pitched frequency down the road and it gathered strength as we drew closer. It could have shattered wine glasses. Runners began migrating over to the right side of the road as if pulled by some force. Then, when I emerged from the woods, I came  to the Wellesley scream tunnel. I fought the pull and stayed in the middle of the road, too busy trying to weather the storm in my head and stomach to engage. I managed a smile but remained focus on trying to right my foundering ship. 

When I came through half, my watch read 1:20, and I began to unravel as I pleaded with my stomach. At 14, I gave in and pulled off to the side of the road after the water station to try and reset. I took several deep breaths and felt the storm inside instantly dissipate. I tapped my head with my water bottle and took off again. A wave of cheers erupted from the crowd, “Come on 1264!” “Get after it 1264!” I waved in appreciation and set off again, but despite the support, the storm returned to my stomach. 

“Get to Newton,” I thought. I trudged on, but having to go to my mental rolodex so early felt crushing. I slogged up the first of the Newton Hills and considered a DNF at mile 17, arguably my low point. I pulled off to the side again, this time to pull myself together. I wasn’t going to DNF (“You bought that damn jacket already”), and I wasn’t going to PR, but I could still come in under three hours. I took a look around, I took in the crowd, three and four deep, deeper than I’ve ever seen it at Boston, the kids reaching out for high fives, the “thank you, runner” signs….And I started up again. It wasn’t pretty, but I was at peace with it. I vowed to appreciate this experience, to soak in the magic and the love surrounding this year’s Boston, and to honor those who couldn’t run this year, to honor what all of us poured into preparing for this year’s race.

I wiped the crusted sweat from my forehead, took a pull from my water bottle, and carried on.

At the crest of Heartbreak Hill, I high-fived Rohan’s wife and their friend. I wore a grin on my face when the Citgo sign first came into view. I looked deep into the crowd of people stacked on both sides of Commonwealth as I entered the city limits. I whipped my head around to fist pump at friends who’d come out and called my name as I went by.

With 1K to go, I apparently missed Mrs. Onthebusrunning and my father-in-law, but I could see the penultimate turn onto Hereford Street. I climbed that short hill, the noise rising. When I turned onto Boylston Street, the hallowed urban canyon unfurled before me and the noise was deafening. My pace instinctively quickened as the finish arch came into sight, and at mile 26, it seemed to be coming to an end all too quickly. I drank in that feeling and broke the finish line in 2:50:49, my fourth Boston.

In the immediate after, I tried to hold onto that promise of enjoying the experience, but admittedly, falling short of my goal stung. Had I written this in those first few days following Boston, the tone may have been more disappointed than appreciative. But, the passage of time often provides perspective. And on a much grander scale, the city of Boston has shown us that time does indeed heal all wounds and a city can heal itself and emerge stronger and more united than ever before. There will be more races to run, more miles to rack up, more PRs to be had, but there will only be one 2014 Boston.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Back on the Bus to Boston

“Sometimes it’s hard to see – or accept – the runner that you’ve become,” my coach said last week. It was our weekly touch base and I opened up that, well, the race was getting awfully close, and therefore very real, and some self-doubt had begun to creep in. For the past 16 weeks, we’d been fashioning the sword, holding it to the fire, shaping it with a hammer, and finally putting the finishing edge on it. “Even though your body can and has hit the times, it’s difficult to wrap your head around the fact that you can indeed run that fast. For that long,” he encouraged, and I nodded along. “Go look at your log for this Boston cycle and then look at last year’s.”

And so, I returned to my neat rows of boxes, meticulously filled with miles and times. Each cell told a small part of the larger story of this year’s Boston buildup. The casual observer would see a steady increase in mileage with an equally steady drop in pace.

They would read four weeks that ended with 90 and that those 75 mile “down” weeks were, just one year ago, nearly peak mileage.

They would see six weeks that ended with a 20+ mile run. And that when strung together, the month of March totaled 384.2 miles.

But they wouldn’t know that for most of those runs, I would slip into the still early morning darkness and slice through the cold or flow with (or against) a bitter wind. That some mornings I would return to the warm embrace of our house, unzip my jacket, and find that my sweat had frozen and fallen to the floor.

That when I needed it most, I found encouragement in the rarest of places, like when I was the only asshole out in a snowstorm, the sleet stabbing at my cheeks 4.5 miles into a 9 miler and a cab pulled up next to me, the driver rolled down the window and shouted, “You’re killin’ it, man!”

That instead of running an easy five the day after a 22-miler, I would get to pace my dad through an 8K and cross the finish line with him. Or that my mom would simply ask each week, "How's the running going?"

That my running partner, Rohan, and I would forge a deeper connection clicking off long run miles together, often times saying not a word to one another but finding motivation and comfort by just having another person to suffer with, as we discovered the darkest shades of exhaustion.

That my wife would be my biggest supporter, and that her simple words of, “I’m proud of you,” would carry me through my blackest moments.

And in the background of all this, the ghosts of last year’s Boston still haunted my subconscious and peeked out when I least expected them to, but were there all the same, a reminder of the people we were back then and how we chose to soldier on.

I reached the top row of my calendar, brimming with these memories, and I started to believe again.

Because the promise that “we will run again…[and]…finish the race” is nearly upon us. The memories I swore I would hold onto after last year’s race inevitably drifted off in the current that carries our life. But with just days to go and the world’s focus turning rightly back to Boston again, those memories, and even those tears, have come flowing back. Seeing the TV specials, the articles, the videos, the social media posts, my emotions stir and I just want to hop on the plane and get to Boston to soak it all in and be part of it again.

Rohan and I texted one another this past week, and he correctly summed up Monday’s race: “We’re about to learn something new about ourselves. I can’t wait.”

Each race is a new opportunity to reach into the depths of ourselves and discover what we can endure. Running’s philosopher George Sheehan wrote, “[The runner] accepts his body, perfects it and then seeks out suffering, and finds beyond suffering the whole man.”

After Boston last year, we had to find out what we could endure beyond the finish line. And it turns out, quite a lot.

And so, I will run to honor those who lost their lives and limbs. And the selfish runner in me runs to honor the many hours and miles that have gone into prying myself open to prepare for this special event.

I may not recognize the runner I’ve become yet, but am I ready to discover him?

I can’t wait.
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