Monday, December 19, 2011

Taking Out the Trash

This past weekend, while I used my hashbrowns to sop up the last remnants of hollandaise sauce from my eggs benedict and the spicy remnants of buffalo chicken dip lingered from the night before, I realized something had to change. My wife put gas in the car on our way back from breakfast club and, God forbid I sit there with my thoughts for two seconds, I pulled out my iPhone to check e-mail only to find further confirmation from my uncle: “Get in the weight room, slug.”

I’ve likened not running to that Seinfeld episode where George stops having sex and he suddenly becomes a genius, whereas when Elaine does it, it has the reverse effect. Jerry explains to Elaine that for a woman, sex is like the garbage man. When the garbage man is on strike, the trash piles up and it’s hard to think straight. At this point, I need a dumpster.

And so, with renewed dedication, I laced up an old pair of running shoes and went to the gym hoping to toss some of those garbage bags away. I noticed, however, that the rules of running simply don’t apply at the gym. First of all, my shirt had sleeves and my shorts came down below mid-thigh…lest I suffer this humiliation.

I project my own insecurities onto the much bulkier dudes in the gym. You know, the ones who rip off pullups the way I rip off mile repeats. I fantasize about one of them saying something snide about that 15 pound dumbbell I’m carrying around, something that will let me say, “Well, Meat, we could step outside and have ourselves a race.” Of course, that would do me little good now because it’d have to be a one-legged race, carnival-style.

Anyhow, I walked out of the house yesterday evening to two of my neighbors chatting. They know about my ankle because they were two of the people I cornered last week on my journeys to and from the mailbox, desperate for human contact.

After the, “How’s it feeling?” formality, one of them chimed in with, “I just don’t know what time it is anymore. I used to know it was 5:30 when you’d run by my window.” That sound you just heard was my heart breaking…or my ankle popping. They sound eerily similar.

When I walked into the gym, one of my “gym friends,” i.e, a person I only talk to when I run into them at the gym, pounded out some miles on the treadmill. She threw a wave at the window having seen my reflection. We caught up on races past. “I saw you at Hot Chocolate a couple weeks ago,” she said. “You didn’t see me, though. You were in the zone!” Ah, a shadow of my former running self. She asked what I was training for now to which I lifted up my warmups and showed her the ankle brace. This elicited that face-pucker-response, the one where the person looks like they just bit into a lemon and sucks in the air around you, as if to say, “Ewwwww.” Then they offer useful commentary: “You must be going crazy.” I am. But it just means I can write snarky blogs.
“What are you going to do here?” she asked.

I gestured at my chest and ran my fingers over the ribs I’m normally so proud of in any running environment. This is one of those strange juxtapositions though between gym world and running world where, as Tom Petty would say, "You don't have to live like a refugee." I briefly considered that Quentin Cassidy may have lied to me when he said, “Gaunt is beautiful.”

“Well, considering I have this massive upper body,” I said, pausing for sarcastic effect. She looked skeptical as I let it sink in, then I got an, “Oh, haha. Right.”

Thanks for playing along. I almost pulled out the John Stamos as Uncle Jesse and remarked, "Of course, I'll just be toning tone." I know, first Point Break and now Full House? They said it couldn’t be done.

Finally, I got on with it. My good friend who I’m helping with a 5K program is in turn helping me with some strength training.

I did a little bench press (moving the pin from 230 lbs to 150 lbs), some pullups (with the weight assistance), and some dumbbell rows. I finished with some Jay Johnson core work, i.e., the exercises I’m more familiar with but would probably get me made fun of to the tune, "Check out twinkle toes over there."

By the end, there were whispers of that satisfying exhaustion that comes at the end of a good run. I felt traces of endorphins coursing through my body and thought that for now, this will have to do.

The strike may not be completely over, but service has resumed on a limited basis.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Tales from the Sedentary Life

The view from the couch, dear readers, is a lonely one. Since spraining my ankle six days ago, the couch has become my island, and my dog Mattie has become my Wilson. If I had a telescope, I could be creepy, paranoid, “Rear Window” Jimmy Stewart, instead of the Jimmy Stewart we’re all used to watching this time of year on AMC.

When the alarm goes off in the morning, I hobble from bed to couch, fire up the laptop, balance it on my good leg and prop my right leg up on a stack of pillows. There I sit for eight hours until the work day ends and I can swap my work laptop out for my own laptop…and stay on the couch.

With all this couch time, here are some observations and ramblings on the sedentary life:
  • I feel fat.
  • Mattie about sums up how we
    both feel.
  • Every day I download the Mike O’Meara Show podcast and listen to it while commuting, grocery shopping or otherwise doing some task that needs to be joy-infused. The guys occasionally do a segment where they talk in their “fat guy” voices and go around the room saying what they want to eat. My wife and I have started to speak to one another in fat guy voices because, though I can’t exercise this week, I still eat like I’m running 60 miles a week. It goes something to the tune of, “I’ll have 12 cupcakes topped with chocolate ice cream.”
  • Irony rears its ugly head again when I watch this video posted by Runner’s World’s Mark Remy, essentially talking about getting off your butt and exercising. I nod vigorously at the message then slump further down into the cushions in despair. Then I pop another motrin.
  • My dog worries about me. She sits with me on the couch and follows me around the house, and this time it’s not for food. My neighbor came over to walk her on Tuesday afternoon and she started whining and would not leave my side until I told her it was ok. Love that damn dog.
  • I am desperate for human contact. The highlight of my weekdays has been the trip to the mailbox. I swing over there on my crutches with a backpack on. The dog mills around in the grass. I linger to see if any neighbors are outside who might want to chat. I settle on our neighbor’s Russian parents who I don’t think understand a word I’m saying. The next day I go outside, everyone runs in.
  •  
    I'm fat.
    
  • I think my wife is trying to make me fat. Earlier this week, she asked Facebook what she should bring her “poor, lame husband” home for dessert. I weighed in on each comment, which ranged from Cinnabon and Silver Diner milkshakes to cocaine (you know, for when the Vicodin gets weak); that night I ate 12 mini cupcakes and a cup of chocolate PinkBerry.
  • I love The Big Bang Theory.
  • I did all of my Christmas shopping online.
  • When I’m sick or otherwise incapacitated, one of my favorite remedies is to watch movies. I hole up in the basement and emerge when there’s food. Between 4:00 p.m. Saturday and 10:00 p.m. Sunday, I watched: Any Given Sunday, Beerfest (twice), When Harry Met Sally (hush), There’s Something About Mary, Pirates of the Caribbean, and if I could have gotten off the coach, I would have dropped in Point Break. And yes, we own Point Break.
  • When you don’t have an evening run, there. Is. So. Much. Time. In. The. Night. I read a book in two days because I had more than 15 minutes before turning the lights out to go to bed. 
  • Another reference to the podcast above, I never really got this reference they kept making to “Whatever happened to Baby Jane” … until now. Substitute "chair" for "couch" and you'll know how I feel. And, in no way am I implying that my wife is Betty Davis. Without her, I wouldn't have eaten this week...thank God for crock pots.

  • The good news is that I went to the ortho. It’s a sprain. I have a better ankle brace that means I can ditch the crutches. I’m targeting a January 2 return to the roads.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I just saw the mailman drive by. Wonder if he has time to chat.


Wednesday, December 14, 2011

To the PR Setter Go the Carbonara


I hobbled into the kitchen and watched the ingredients unloaded on to the counter. I took stock while the gas sparked under a pot of water and then again under our largest pan. Garlic, prosciutto, milk, butter, cream, parmesan and romano cheese, eggs (just the yolks), chives, cinnamon, pasta.

“I brought eggnog, too.”
“Because the pasta’s not heavy enough?” I asked.

This was my Post-New York Marathon meal.
It’s the type of meal I would normally shun, not for its lack of deliciousness, but for its running, and hell even its life, consequences. You can feel your heart slow down after this meal. Minutes and perhaps even days of your life disappear with each mouthful. But, it’s heavenly.

For those reasons, it only comes around after I finish a marathon; when the health rules are slightly lax, and the guilt for eating a meal such as this subside, or at least hide for a few hours.

My cousin and I were at a Caps game recently and had the following exchange:

“I always get you something after you finish a marathon…any requests?”
“I want the meal.”
“The carbonara?”
We both let out a heavy exhale.
“The carbonara.”

One September night back in 2007, I’d finished my run for the evening (more often than not these days, I can mark time by race training, and it was a run for the Chicago meltdown year), barbeque chicken crackled on the grill, and my wife and I had just finished putting the finishing touches on the guest room. We watched a pair of headlights swing around the front of our house and then heard a car door slam. Cousin Jane had arrived.

Rachel and I had been married for just over two years when her cousin moved to the D.C. area after completing her chemistry Master’s and needed a place to stay. The doors to chez Holzwart (rolls right off the tongue, doesn’t it?) flew open.
Up to then, Jane was my funeral buddy. Rachel and Jane’s grandparents passed fairly close together and we found ourselves in Billerica, MA for their funerals. Jane made it a point to come over to me while I sat awkwardly in the funeral home, trying to play it cool, but she was on to me from the start. And she delighted in calling me on it.

You may also recognize Jane from our wedding pictures…she’s the one not smiling. In any of them.

That first night, we sat down to that barbeque chicken, and I eyed her as she ate half of it before putting her napkin on the table. “What’s the matter? You don’t like the food?” I asked. I would later learn that regret swirled through her head at that moment.

But, with my wife playing rugby at the time, our friendship grew from one of convenience to a legitimate bond. She drank our gin. I initiated her into the ulcer club that is being a Washington Capitals fan. We bonded over ab workouts in the basement (do people still do pilates?), the art of sarcasm, food, and more specifically, what brings me to this post today, high caloric meals.

One evening, Jane declared she was cooking. “I think it’s going to be pretty good,” she said. “But it’s probably best if you don’t see what goes in it.”

Which in my head meant, not just unhealthy, but really unhealthy.

The house filled with the heavy aromas of garlic, simmering cream, and various salted pork products. In short, heaven. And heart attack.

The three of us shoveled forkfuls of this creamy, cheesy, congealing, concoction into our mouths at an alarming rate. Then went back for seconds. Then regret. Not that we went back for seconds, but that our stomachs wouldn’t let us go back for thirds.

If she could somehow work beef jerky into it, it may be the most sensuous meal I’ve ever had.

And so, the post-marathon meal was born. It may only be surpassed by a helping on the following day after everything has had a chance to coagulate. Jane hates leftovers so we end up with what’s left, which is generally a lot. It calls to me whenever I open the fridge, even for just a bite, which inevitably turns into several. Cold, hot. It doesn’t matter.

The one thing Jane and I never bonded on was running. But this was her way of appreciating the effort. And my way of getting her to cook for me.

Do you have a post-marathon/post-goal race meal that you indulge in?

Monday, December 12, 2011

A Twisted End to Running in 2011

So, this is what cankles look like on me.
Irony can be twisted. And so can ankles.


Saturday began as one of those perfect running days. There was a snap to the air, a clear blue sky, and the promise of chocolate chip pancakes. My running partner Rohan and I set out on the Fairfax Cross County Trail for an easy 10-miler. We settled into an early rhythm and the conversation flowed as easily as our stride.

The trail was damp and muddy and we joked (oh, how we joked) that we could consider this a successful run if neither of us fell as we slipped and slid through the patches of mud.

“Steady climb coming,” I called back to him, as we wove our away along the singletrack that would eventually switch back to the top of the hill looming above us.
“What races are you signed up for in 2012?” he asked, while we bowled along. Little did we know irony lurked near the top of the hill.
“Let’s see, I’ve got the RnR DC Half and the Backyard Burn Trail Series in March as well. I’m pretty stoked to get into a race series and….”

There was a snap! and I lurched out and grabbed on to one of the trees. I braced myself for the delayed pain. When it washed over me in one hot wave, my body flushed and I fought the sudden urge to vomit.

“We’re going back, right?” Rohan said.
“Give me a second,” I said, hands on my knees, swallowing the sour saliva. “Maybe I just tweaked it.”

Then I looked down at the baseball that had suddenly formed where my calf met my ankle. “Yep, we’re going back,” I said.

Except back was 3.2 miles away.

“Ok,” I said, starting to work this one out. “You run back to the car and meet me where the trail intersects Vale road.”
“You sure you’re gonna be ok?” he asked. And then I heard it. It was manliness calling, and I had to answer. Of course it could have just as easily been stupidity, but either way, I had to get back to the road.
“What choice do I have? We're in the middle of the woods.”

I took one step toward him to try and get out of the leaves and back onto the trail. I nearly buckled. We looked at each other. “Um, I’m gonna need your help getting out of here,” I said.

My baseball has now turned into a grapefruit.
I turned my right foot out and stepped gingerly. The pain shot up through my leg and stopped in my stomach. “I’m ok,” I said. “Just meet me at Vale.”

Rohan took off down the hill and I hoped he didn’t sprain his ankle trying to get back, but I waited to share that thought with him until later. I started my roughly one mile journey to the road. I hopped on my good leg. I hobbled, dragging it behind me like some sort of zombie-basement-of-the-science-building-type character.

I came upon a man and his dog. “You need anything?” he asked. Cadaver parts, maybe, I thought.
“Just need to get to Vale road where my friend is going to pick me up.”
“Is it the black guy?”
“Yep.”
“He. Was. Hauling!”

I needed to move faster. I tried to remember how long NHLers were out thanks to sprained ankles and reasoned that I’d probably be out 4-6 weeks. That put me at mid-late January. I could probably still train pretty hard for my half marathon, but, man, the holidays could be dark times. Then I thought about how this would get me out of vacuuming the house this weekend. Hmm, silver lining?

I finally reached the road just as Rohan pulled up. “How’s it feel?” he asked. “Never mind, I just looked at it.”

Great.

We pulled into the ER. I hopped through the doors and to the front desk. As soon as I sat down, the triage nurse called me back. Note to self, if going to the ER, get there at 11:40 on a Saturday morning to reduce the wait. “Do you want a wheelchair?” she asked.
“I just hopped a mile on it. I think I’ll be ok.” Of course then I nearly fell trying to sit in the chair.
“We’ll get you a wheelchair to take you back to your room,” she said. “What’s the prob– whoa! How’d you do that?”

Great.

As soon as I finished my explanation, Rohan jumped in. “Do you have any petroleum jelly?” We all stopped and looked at him. “My lips are really dry.”

I just shook my head at him. He pulled surgical lube from a drawer to which they cautioned him not to get any in his mouth. Before they wheeled me back, we took pictures and I joked that I’d be tagging everyone on Facebook. Hahaha, boo hoo hoo...We laugh to keep from crying.

When I got back to my room, the nurse came in with my chart, “So which ankle is it?”
“Two guesses,” I said.
He took his eyes from the chart. “Jesus!”

Great.

Another nurse (like I said the hospital is light at 11:45 a.m. on a Saturday) started asking me some background questions. Do I use drugs or alcohol? Do I drink everyday or (something inaudible)?
“What was the second choice?” I asked.
She turned and peered at me over her glasses. “Socially.”
“That one.”
“Do you have any petroleum jelly?” Rohan cut in.
“Can this be about me for five minutes?” I asked him.
“Sorry! My lips are dry.”

The murse wheeled me out for x-rays. The tech wheeled me back. “You’re going to live,” he said.
“Is it bad?” I asked, hope in my voice.
“I’ve seen worse.”

I returned to the room to find Rohan twirling a tube between his fingers. “Check it out. Industrial strength,” he said, his lips glistening.
“I’m happy for you.”

We waited for the doctor to come back in. Rohan found a pair of socks in the drawer and slipped them on. I'm giving him a hard time here, but he certainly kept me entertained.
 “They won’t even know they’re gone,” he rationalized.
“Did you hear my ankle pop?” I asked him.
“Wait, that was your ankle? I thought you snapped a branch.”

Great.

Finally the doctor came in. “It’s not broken,” she says. I wait for it. “But.” There it is. “It’s a pretty bad sprain. You’re going to need,” I brace again. “Two weeks until you can run again.”

My face relaxed. “That’s it? I thought you were going to say 4-6 so I’ll gladly take two.”
“Darn it. I should have said longer.”

The nurse came in behind the doctor with some crutches, an air cast, and a horse pill of ibuprofen.

“Do you want a clean sock for your foot?” she asked, sweetly.
“You should take that,” Rohan said, trying not to laugh. “I hear they are pretty comfortable.”
“Is that, right?” I asked.

She rummaged through the drawer. “I know we have a pair of socks in here somewhere.”
I shook my head at Rohan. “Here we are.”

I swung through the hallway to the parking lot and climbed into the car. “Home?” Rohan asked.
“Home? I have a sprained ankle. I’m not sick. We’ve gotta get some food.”
“Thank God,” he said, reapplying the chapstick.

So we bee-lined it for the nearest diner. At least I still got my breakfast and, sticking to our original measuring stick, no one fell. I guess you could call it a successful run.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Cure for the Crappy Run

This is what I feel like on "Crappy Run Wednesdays."
Earlier this week after a non-descript five mile run, I decided I needed to add a little zip to my legs, which were still recovering from Saturday’s Hot Chocolate 15K. I slipped onto the dark golf course, paced out about 30m and kicked off my shoes. I ripped off nine strides and bounced back to the house. It was the cure for the crappy run.


In my head, they became “Crappy Run Wednesdays.” In fact, my training log mostly had “another crappy Wednesday” scrawled in the notes section. During my buildup to NYC this year, Wednesday’s always read “Recovery Run.” My goal was to run anywhere from 40-70 minutes depending on the week in my training program at around 7:30-8:15 pace. The run was simply about being on my feet and logging miles to let those battered muscles loosen up and adapt to whatever torture I’d done the day before.

Whether it was the accumulated mileage, the fact that I also made Wednesday mornings my gym days, or some combination therein, Wednesday afternoon runs felt like crap. My legs either grew fatigued, a fog rolled in around my head, or I simply had no lungs. My stride felt awkward and it became near impossible to find a rhythm. Some days I just wanted to stop where I was on the trail, curl up, and go to sleep.

I like to think that my body was going through a one-day taper, finally taking the opportunity to exhale and heal. But that could just be wishful thinking.


I tried everything. I switched up my eating plan from pretzels to a bowl of oatmeal. When that didn’t work, I went the opposite direction and ditched the snack all together. It wasn’t pretty. People nearly died or lost limbs from the hanger.

I even tried wearing one of my “key workout” outfits, you know, my fast clothes. Didn’t matter. Every run became a slog. It happened enough that I would start to doubt my ability to put my body through a much harder key workout the next day.

Then one day, after a particularly bad run in the rain that reduced me to a walk about half way through, I threw in some strides after my workout.

Strides are just 30-50m pickups that you can do in the street, on a hill, or in the grass. I alternate for the variety. Each stride starts with a slow progression until you build up to nearly full speed in the middle, back it down to a stop, and then walk back to the start.

I typically do 9x30m strides once a week, after my easy run on Mondays. Why not 10? I like to break them down into three sets of three because I’m OCD like that.

I started doing them because I read that they help make your running form more economical and increase your turnover. All true things.

But what I really liked about doing strides was how I felt afterward. My logy legs had the zip I hoped for on my faster runs. Each rep chased away the fog around my head and I was suddenly alert, explosive, and even fired up.

My workouts did a complete 180. Don’t get me wrong, I still fought through a lot of those Wednesday runs, but the strides I incorporated at the end gave my sleepy legs and mind the pop I needed to conquer that Thursday workout. I returned to the house buzzing with confidence instead of flat and lamenting yet another “Crappy Run Wednesday.”

Monday, December 5, 2011

Nothing Sweet About the Hot Chocolate 15K - A Redux

Rohan and I survie this debacle.
Nice legs, right?
I'll be the first to admit, I was lured in by the race schwag. And in fact, I used it to sucker others in as well. It went something like this:
"We signed up for the Hot Chocolate 15K. Oh, you haven't? You get a jaaaacket."
"Take my money."

And so it would go from runner to runner, like some sort of nefarious chain letter, until the race reached its max at 20,000.

Let me say this up front: No jacket is worth what we went through on Saturday. If I'm going to work this hard for a jacket, it better say B.A.A. on it.

The early warning signs were there. To request a corral, I had to find old race results, take a screen shot, highlight my time, and e-mail it to the race. Last time I checked, an online form was pretty easy to create.

Then came packet pickup. You couldn't pick it up on race day. Somewhat inconvenient but certainly not out of the ordinary, particularly for a race this size. But let me set the scene for the non-DC-ites. The Virginia, Maryland, DC area has the distinct honor of having the country's worst traffic. The Beltway, i.e. the road that loops through all three areas is particularly nightmarish during rush hour. The race is located at this place called National Harbor, which sits just outside the beltway on the shores of Maryland, staring across the Potomac at Virginia. National Harbor is a contrived city center that, as Andy Dufresne said in Shawkshank, "has no nearly earthly business being in a [Maryland] hayfield." It's so isolated (how isolated is it?), hey let me tell you, it's so isolated that no metro stops are nearby. It's a two lane exit with only one way in. So, in order to pick up your packet, you have to traipse out to National Harbor. During rush hour. On a weeknight. 

It took my two friends and I 3.5 hours roundtrip.

On top of it all, we had to pay $10 to park at the "race site" on race day. You'll understand the quotes in a minute. Or we could park and take a shuttle in. We opted to park.

Ok, enough setup. 

It's 6:20 a.m. on race morning. Five of us pile into my CRV and we begin our trek out to National Harbor. Traffic is sparse and we hum along as the sky begins to lighten through the windshield. We pass the exit about five miles from Woodrow Wilson Bridge, the bridge that will lead us into Maryland and ultimately to National Harbor. At least that's the plan. Megan, Alejandra, and I point out to our other two passengers that this is the exit where traffic stopped on Wednesday night at packet pickup.  We ooh, ahh and recount how unfortunate it was. Two miles later, we are no longer recounting. We are living it.

Red tail lights glow in the pre-dawn light, not such an uncommon scene in the D.C. area but certainly odd at 6:45 a.m. On a Saturday. The car sighs all at once. We eye the clock. We eye the traffic. We have 75 minutes until the race starts and 2.5 miles to go. Our breakfast club mates who are running the 5K, which starts at 7:30 (pretty good idea to start the shorter race first), text us and say they've been on the bridge for 45 minutes. My friend, Rohan who is on a bus, says he will never run this race again...if he gets to run it at all.

At 7:15, our friends on the bridge bail. We lookup the race site and it's Facebook page hoping for a delayed start or some sort of information, but it's empty.

We discuss alternatives and finally settle on bailing on the traffic jam, getting off at the last exit before the bridge, cutting through Virginia, into D.C., and over to Maryland the back way. 

This is Alejandra's first race. Ever. And we try (not very well) to stay positive so that this experience isn't ruined for her. The following exchange occurs:

"I don't mean to be Debbie Downer," my friend Joe says, "But I'm not sure we're going to make it on time."
"Well, I'm going to be Reality Rita," I say, "And tell you that this blows and we're never going to get there."

Miraculously, we arrive at National Harbor at 8:00 on the dot. We are part of the ant line being led toward the hill, which at this point could also be taking us toward an ant trap and certain doom. Either way, we park and start to get a jog on toward the starting line. Because the starting line is a mile away from the parking garage!

Since we're already late, we frantically search for a place to go to the bathroom. It could be a store. It could be a porta-potty. It could be that we pretended to jog past the cop car and down a trail, then dart into the woods where the barren trees do little to hide what's actually going on here. These were all viable options.

As we make our way to the start, there's a blast and that all too familiar scene of a dam breaking and a wave of runners tumbling out of it. We think we've missed the start, but it's only the 5K...at 8:15.  

Finally we arrive at the 15K start. I say good bye to my friends as we go our separate ways, because, yes, I took the time to send in my race results to get a better starting position, and I'm glad I did.

I use this delay to take one more trip to the woods, err, bathroom, that's even less discrete than the first stop. 

In my corral, we mill about like cattle awaiting the drive. It's cold and the announcements are few and far between. When Mr. Cheesy DJ voice finally comes on, he tells us it'll be five minutes to the start. Sarcastic cheers go up. Five minutes passes and we're told it's another five minutes because there was some mishap with the 5K, which we later found out was that the lead cop took the leaders the opposite direction around the course. Seriously. I couldn't make this up. Then we get DJ gems like, "Heeeeey, I assure you there'll be literally tons of chocolate waiting for you at the finish line. Take your face...and dunk it. Then stay there." To which I thought, take your microphone and...never mind. He also continued to say that the course starts as a five mile out and back, which in my head registered as 10 miles, and I wondered what sort of DJ math he was doing since the entire race was 9.3 miles. It wasn't until the three mile mark that I figured out it was 2.5 out and 2.5 back. Anyway.

At long last, the gun goes off at 9:00. We bottleneck through the impossibly small starting arch, which I'm sure at one point seemed like a good idea for 20,000 people to squeeze through.

There was a race. It was fine. I heard from my wife and friends that the course was too narrow and the lanes choked. I had to grab cups from the water stations because the volunteers (at least at the first one) were too lazy to actually hand them to us. I covered the 9.3 miles in 56:25, good enough for 20th overall and 6th in my age group.

By the end, it was nearly 11:00 a.m. We got back to the car. Waited another 45 minutes to get out of National Harbor (20,000 in through two lanes, 20,000 out through two lanes), which we passed by reading aloud the Facebook posts from the brand new page "Hot Chocolate DC Epic Fail" (what did we ever do without social media?). And met up with our friends -- the ones who wisely bailed on the race -- for some much needed pitchers of beer.

Look, I'm not a race director. I understand that most races have to be logistical nightmares behind the scenes and a maddening amount of work goes into them to pull off a successful event. But someone didn't do their homework for this one. There's no shortage of races in DC, and large ones at that (Marine Corps, Cherry Blossom, Army Ten Miler, National Marathon). Somebody should have tapped into that knowledge. One of my colleagues today said as I recounted some of this to her, "Boy, you runners are picky." I gently explained that we're not picky. We simply have raced many events and we know enough to say this works and that won't.

The race tagline was "Will run for chocolate." I will never run for chocolate again.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Streets of Philadelphia - A Diary

My lady and I after she rocks the Philly Half.
When I was in college (which is creeping further and further away these days), I used to be the sports editor for our newspaper and the sports director of the radio station. The sports editing position gave me a blank space to write a column each week. The radio position gave me fodder for that column thanks to road trips (and general shenanigans) to call football, basketball, and hockey games. One of my favorite columns to write was a running diary of our road trip escapades. While we loaded the car up last Sunday for Philly, something felt oddly familiar about the experience. It got me thinking, in place of a race recap (since I wasn’t running, anyway), how about a race diary? So, here, dear readers, is a diary of my Philadelphia Marathon experience.


Saturday


7:00 a.m. – the alarm goes off; I’m in disbelief both at the time and the incredible hangover I have after having three beers the night before…stupid marathon training


8:00 a.m. – my friend Leikny comes over; she’s driving up to Philly with us to cheer on our friend and former co-worker who’s running the full marathon; she’s never been with a group of runners before


8:05 a.m. – we convince Leikny that we need to eat before we leave even though we’re meeting her brother in Delaware for breakfast at 10:15, err, 10:30…stupid marathon training


8:07 a.m. – the three of us shovel oatmeal in our mouths, a dangerous decision because oatmeal can get that “bad texture” quality to it, the gag-reflex inducing one where you have to swallow carefully or it’s coming right back up


8:20 a.m. – we pull out of our parking space and are aimed at Philadelphia


8:21 a.m. – we pull back into the parking space because my wife, Rachel, forgot to pack underwear


8:26 a.m. – we pull out of our parking space (again) and are aimed at Philadelphia (again)


10:17 a.m. – we pull off 95 in Delaware; barren fields stretch out as far as the eye can see and I’m reminded of a joke that I heard when I almost lived in Saskatchewan for a year (a blog post for a later date). It’s said the land is so flat your dog could run away and you could watch it for three days


10:18 a.m. – the GPS says we’ll be arriving in four minutes, yet nothing is on the horizon except telephone poles and a strip club; not sure about the state of Delaware


10:20 a.m. – civilization appears in the form of the University of Delaware, which then begged the question: what the hell is a blue hen?


10:22 a.m. – we arrive at a nice local organic brunch place


10:24 a.m. – a quick survey of the menu; steak and eggs for $10? I am sure about Delaware…and I love it!


11:30 a.m. – back in the car; the mood is decidedly brighter now that we have full bellies and we’ve managed to chase away any hangry pains


Noon – Leikny pulls out her iPhone and starts to play DJ


12:04 p.m. – Leikny remembers that I was Freddy Mercury for Halloween. It takes her five seconds to pull up Bohemian Rhapsody


12:05-12:09 p.m. – we recreate the famous Bohemian Rhapsody scene from Wayne’s World (another halloween costume of mine from long ago); subsequently, I feel old


1:00 p.m. – we pull into the Westin in Philadelphia and quickly find a small patch of grass for Mattie to pee on; oh, right…Mattie came with us; we are not ready for kids, yet for all intents and purposes, Mattie may as well be our child…it’s actually pretty disgusting...disgustingly adorable!


1:10 p.m. – the hotel lobby is full of runners; the hotel, however, is not full of vacant hotel rooms; we wait around the corner and find our friends who are running the next day; we spend the next hour talking injuries, nerves, carb-loading, weather…typical marathon day conversation; a glazed look comes over Leikny’s face


2:10 p.m. – our room is ready; there are three of us + a dog; there is one bed


2:10:30 p.m. – we call for a cot


2:15 p.m. – we head downstairs and walk over to the expo; it’s easy to find, all you have to do is follow the trail of red schwag bags


2:17 p.m. – I announce that I’m hungry again…stupid marathon training


2:45 p.m. – we leave the expo after getting Rachel's half marathon bib and schwag; then head right over to the Reading Terminal to do the sensible thing and shop at a market while starving


2:54 p.m. – Rachel gets in line to buy an apple; I get in line to buy beef jerky; apparently beef jerky is better than sex even if you’re not running a relay race


2:56 p.m. – the beef jerky is gone


3:30 p.m. – Rachel and Leikny decide to get their eyebrows waxed; seriously.


3:31 p.m. – Tweetdeck


3:33 p.m. – Words with Friends (36 point word...boom!)


3:35 p.m. – Fruit Ninja


4:00 p.m. – we return to the hotel and 2/3 of our contingent have fabulous eyebrows


5:30 p.m. – we meet up with our marathoner friends and walk down to THE italian restaurant that apparently every runner decided to eat at; I wonder if the wait is ever 45 minutes at 5:30 any other night than marathon-eve; oh, well...to the bar!

5:33 p.m. – because I'm not running, a tall Sam Adams Winter Lager is poured for me

5:40 p.m. – I can feel the beer...stupid marathon training


6:15 p.m. – we get seated


6:16 p.m. – the bread basket is empty


6:30 p.m. – the bodily function talk starts; we debate porta-potty strategy and recount the nastiest porta-potties we've ever used; we have officially baptised Leikny into the running culture


6:31 p.m. – Leikny blushes


6:33 p.m. – Leikny blushes again


6:38 p.m. – Paul breaks down proper high-five technique and etiquette ("Look at the person's elbow.); we go around the table high-fiving and I'll be damned if he's not right

6:40 p.m. – Our hydrated friends duck out to the bathroom and that glorious moment occurs when they return to have the food waiting for them

6:50 p.m. – Though I am not running the marathon, I am certainly eating as though I'll lace up in the morning as I devour my plate of pasta and descend upon Paul's extra chicken breast...actually, perhaps it's best that I wasn't running


The rest of the night goes pretty much as you'd expect: PJs, TV, early bedtime.

Sunday


5:00 a.m. – Rachel's alarm goes off. Everyone groans.


5:05 a.m. – Leikny's alarm goes off.


5:15 a.m. – My alarm goes off. Operation Extreme Redundancy ends.


5:50 a.m. – Our friends knock on the door; everyone is wearing pants this time; we walk to the elevators with them


5:51 a.m. – The elevator is full so we wait for the next one


5:52 a.m. – The elevator is full so we wait for the next one


5:55 a.m. – We finally get downstairs to the lobby to meet up with more peeps


6:20 a.m. – We follow the hordes of runners that eventually converge on the starting line; I get that pang of marathon energy and nervousness just being in this atmosphere and my PTMD vanishes


6:45 a.m. – Leikny and I say our farewells to each of our runners as they break off and move into their corrals


7:08 a.m. – Paul's wave goes by; we miss him


7:15 a.m. – Rachel and Karen's wave goes by; we miss them


7:20 a.m. – Natalie's wave goes by; we miss her; it's official: we suck at spectating


7:50 a.m. – Leikny and I arrive near the 10K marker; she waits in line for bagels and coffee, while I hustle over to the course to catch Paul


8:00 a.m. – My phone buzzes to let me know Paul hit the 10K marker, which means I missed him


8:10 a.m. – Leikny arrives with coffee and a bagel; sweet mercy


8:15 a.m. – Karen sees us; Finally!


8:20 a.m. – Rachel goes by and we all high five taking extra care to stare at each other's elbows


8:30 a.m. – My phone buzzes to let me know Natalie hit the 10K marker; we suck again


8:32 a.m. – Mattie wiggles out of her collar nearly running on to the course; I grab her; a runner yells, "How about a leash for that dog?" Before I can respond, he's gone, but in my head it went something like, "How about you go...." never mind


9:00 a.m. – Leikny and I straddle the course between the halfway mark and the half mile left to go point of the marathon; we've missed Paul again


9:10 a.m. – Ms.Ritz shouts my name and I get so flustered that I yell, "Hey! How's it going?" How's it going? Really? That's all I could come up with? Before I could shout anything more clever, she's gone with her friend heading out to Manayunk


9:12 a.m. – I still dwell on the "How's it going" debacle


9:20 a.m. – Healthy Gumbo runs by (one of my favorite RW Loopers), and I'm much better prepared with encouragement


9:25 a.m. – Karen crosses the half looking incredbily strong.


9:26 a.m. – Leikny breaks off to capture Rachel after she crosses the finish; I wait to see if Natalie needs any extra gels


9:35 a.m. – Natalie speeds by looking sharp; and now we wait


10:00 a.m. – Leikny, Rachel, and I stand at the top of the final hill and shout encouragement to the finishers, things other than "How's it going?"
10:46 a.m. – Paul crests the hill and Rachel yells, "Damn you like sexy!" I go running off toward the finish to collect Paul


10:55 a.m. – Paul and I meet up; we share a sweaty man hug then keep moving so that he doesn't cramp up


11:30 a.m. – Karen goes strong to the finish and earns a 16+ minute PR; I trot back to the finish to collect her, while Paul makes his way back to the finish line


11:40 a.m. – Husband and wife reunite


12:05 a.m. – Natalie finishes her first marathon; I run back to the finish and to get her


12:20 a.m. – Our group is all together once again, salty, crippled and cold but all wearing smiles and finisher's medals


The walk back to the hotel is much slower than it was six plus hours ago, but the nervousness is gone and what's left is the delicious fatigue of a hard effort. Though I didn't run today, I was happy to experience the race with  my friends and have a partner in crime to spectate with.


We capped off the trip with burgers and beers at Ruby Tuesdays (it was the shortest walk from the hotel) then parted ways with our friends to head back to Virginia. My only regret was not making it over to any of the Runner's World Loopfest activities but judging from all the race recaps and photos, it is not a mistake I will make twice.


Tomorrow will make nearly two weeks since our adventure. To mark the occassion, we're shaking off the post-marathon rust by running a 15K and of course our breakfast club will celebrate with a feast at the end.


No One Here but Us Deer

The “Stop – Golfers Only. No Runners, Walkers, or Hikers” sign came and went as briskly as if it were a mile post. I trotted on along the dark golf cart path that twisted, rose, and fell over the greens and fairways. There’s something about running on the golf course. It seems that its secondary purpose was always to have runners clicking along its forgiving, manicured greens and fairways. I mean really. Here’s this large expanse of land that’s sole function is to be well-taken care of, lush, quiet, and untouched.

It’s one of my favorite places to run in the fall and winter once the clocks go back and night time arrives at 5:00. I slip out the backdoor after work once the sun has completely receded and the moon burns bright overhead (nature’s headlamp). I unclip Mattie from her leash and she runs ahead, behind, or alongside me at whatever pace pleases her. Dogs were born for fartlek workouts.

We flash by the clubhouse and black windows reveal that we are in no danger of being caught. It’s not until Mattie’s jingling collar sounds the alarms. Some large dog lurking on a deck backing up to the third hole starts barking. “I know you’re out there!” it seems to say. I disappear into the tunnel that runs under a neighborhood side street. Mattie stops to pee as if daring the other dog to come after her. I wait, peering around the tunnel wall to make sure we are still alone. “No one here but us deer,” I say to Mattie who cocks her head in that way curious dogs do. Finally she finishes and we continue on, undetected at least for now.

I associate my golf course runs with winter and cold the same way that burning fireplaces trigger memories of the fall or the way fresh cut grass reminds me of the home I grew up in. But tonight is different. It’s nearly December and I flirt with pulling my shirt off since the air is heavy with humidity and the thermometer read 70 while I laced up my shoes. Yet all other signs point to it being winter. The moon silhouettes the bare tree limbs and the remaining leaves rattle along the ground and crunch under my feet. It’s the warm breeze that doesn’t fit and this truly becomes a run for all seasons.

Mattie and I circle the water hazard at the center of the 10th hole and she disappears for a moment. I make the kissy noise at her to get her to follow when I hear the water slosh. I turn and she’s dipped her paws and belly into the muddy water. I sigh and wonder if I can get by with just wiping her down when we get home or if it’s going to be a full shower. She gallops ahead of me and I notice that the bottoms of her legs look funny, as if they aren’t there. She halts and when I come upon her, I see that the mud is caked half way up her legs. Full shower it is.

My runs since the New York Marathon have largely taken this shape. I head out to the golf course or some other favorite running route and just go for as long as I feel like at whatever pace feels comfortable. I get a slight itch for the structure of a training program but I also like knowing that if I feel tired or beat up, I can take a rest day with no guilt. And when the memories of PRs past surface, I can let the pace drop naturally while the trail takes on whatever course I blazed…and just as quickly return to easy.

When we make the final climb up the sixth hole back to the house, shadows dance across the fairway like ghosts. I trace their shapes to the edge of the woods before they disappear into the blackness and betray their escape with snapping branches. Mattie’s ears perk up and she summons one last burst of energy before darting after the figures. I roll my eyes and continue on knowing that she’ll be back shortly. Sure enough, she bounces toward me, tongue lolling out the side of her mouth.


Yes, indeed. No one here but us deer.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Spectating in Philly - the Perfect Cure for PTMD

Look for the green jacket and Mattie at mile 6 and mile 13 in
Philly this weekend; She won't have just run 5 miles.
One of the best ways to fight PTMD (Post Traumatic Marathon Disorder), is to not only put another race on your calendar (hello, Rock ‘n Roll DC Half Marathon), but to go and cheer on your fellow marathoners.

I’ve been moving through our house – and perhaps life for that matter – this past week with what seems like no purpose. My NYC Training Calendar still hangs from the fridge, but there are no unchecked boxes with workouts still to be run, no set eating schedule, and no compelling reason other than routine to lie on the floor in front of the TV every night and do ASI stretches.

With all this free time on my hands, I have started living vicariously through my friends and fellow Runner's World Loopers as they put the finishing touches on their training before taking on the Philadelphia Marathon this weekend.

Three of my Breakfast Club pals will run the full and Mrs. Onthebusrunning is doing the half. I’ve taken to engaging them on Twitter to see how their tapers are going and otherwise stalking them on the book of faces. My friend Paul who accompanied me to NYC has been having a calf issue this week so we’ve been swapping daily injury reports on its status, he’s feeling great after a sports massage yesterday, by the way.

I feel like a junkie who needs to get his racing and running fix. And so, it’s with great pleasure that I accompany my wife and friends to Philly this weekend to soak up some of that good marathon energy and move from point to point on the course to urge them on. It's the perfect way to get everyone back for all the support they showed me nearly two weeks ago. Not to mention the fact that I can take part in the marathon part of the weekend without actually running the marathon.

When I was in New York, my wife and friends essentially ate and drank their way through the Upper West Side, or made their best attempt at it anyway. Meanwhile, I lived a monk’s existence going in and out of sleep on the couch, hydrating with non-alcoholic beverages, and eating my carefully measured carbs while passing up thick, juicy burgers and the like. O me! O life! Of course, it was all worth it. But now I can simply go and enjoy myself.

Plus, with so many Runner’s World Loopers out on the course, I’m so excited to put actual faces to names rather than just profile pictures!

So, if you’re out on the course this weekend, I’ll be at 10K and 13.1 in a neon green Adidas jacket and my intrepid dog, Mattie who will be more lively than in the picture above. Come by and say hi! And good luck to everyone running Philly this weekend!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

2011 NYC Marathon Redux - Part II

(Check in on Part I)

If it’s meant to be, it will be, I said to myself during that awkward run, jog, stop, walk, jog, run period before officially crossing the start line. The bridge seemed to float in the endless blue sky that bent in front of the crowd. I passed under the starting arch, clicked my watch, and thought, This is actually happening.

Based on feedback from Runner’s World Loopsters, I keyed in on three areas of the course: the Verrazano Bridge, the Queensborough Bridge, and the 5th Avenue Hill between miles 22.5 and 23.5.


On the back of the elevation map where I’d scrawled my strategy, I wrote the following for the Verrazano Bridge: Keep it easy. Long way to go. You've run hills before.

I began the steady climb and let the pace come naturally rather than forcing it as I had for all my speed workouts. There was an ease to my stride and a lightness in my arms that I rarely feel except on magical days. I pushed those kinds of thoughts away quickly, knowing that one quarter mile does not a marathon make. My breathing labored a bit but the turnover was there. I looked up and out over the bridge to take in the view of the New York Skyline, knowing somewhere that the finish line and my wife and friends were out there.

A quick glance at my watch and I was running an easy 7:43 pace. I’d gone over this with my Uncle numerous times. If I drop two 7:30s on the first two miles, it’s ok. On my last 20-miler I did the same and ended up averaging in the 6:40s when all was said and done.

The bridge was a strange contrast. The start had been loud and boisterous with all the nervous energy pulsing through the runners and the volunteers. But as we climbed, a silence settled over us as we left the music and the cheering behind. A slight breeze hummed in my ears and mixed with the sound of the soft footfalls from my compatriots. The mood was light and the conversation among some, like the pace, came easy.


The 1 mile marker rose and with it, I could see runners beginning to hit the apex and disappear down the backside of the bridge. My watch calculates the average pace over each mile, not the actual current pace, so when I looked down and saw 7:07, I knew I’d started running in the sixes. The official beep came and I waited the 10 seconds for it to reset: 6:05. Whoa! Everybody relax! I screamed in my head, desperately applying the breaks, which is not easy on the backside of a bridge.


I rounded the bend into Brooklyn and crossed off my first mental checkpoint.  The cheers from the crowd washed over me and did little to help me control the pace. I came through mile 2 in 6:17 and pleaded with myself to slow down the pace. Mile 3 came and went in 6:21. Better, but far from ideal. My plan for miles 2-13.1 was to cruise on the relatively flatter parts of the course in Brooklyn and not bank time, but set myself up for a negative split.

Finally, I settled into 6:30 pace, chucked the race plan I’d repeated for weeks leading up to this and decided my body was telling me 6:30 was the slowest it was willing to run right now. I gave in to the rhythm and just enjoyed the ride on my legs through the second borough. 

While I didn’t find Brooklyn particularly hilly, it did have some rises and falls that the elevation map didn't quite capture. What I enjoyed most about this course, though, was that whatever it took away in an incline, it gave immediately back with a downhill. Mentally, that meant I could say, You're tired because you're climbing. Get to the top and the recovery will follow.

I flowed through Brooklyn and made minor adjustments to my placement on the street since I always seemed to end up running in the path of the sewer grates. The support was electric.

At mile 9, I spotted my friend Kelly who had come out to spectate. As I flashed by, she started jumping up and down, yelling, “Brad! Brad! Brad!” It dropped a tingly shot of adrenaline in and propelled me up the tree-lined streets. Here, the crowds began pressing in on the course, people stacked two and three deep. It was a nice mental break to cruise and take in the cheering.

I reached the half in 1:26:01 chugging up the Pulaski Bridge into Queens. It was a minute faster than where I wanted to be but that training plan was gone and I was riding. Of bigger note at this point was that I got my first glimpse of the Queensborough Bridge. It. Is. A. Monster. It's one of those landmarks that you seem to be able to spot from anywhere, and yet, it never gets closer.

I likened this part of the course to hitting the Newton Hills in Boston. It completely changes the complexion of the course. I’d been warned that the bridge is eerily silent. That it’s a killer hill on any day but in particular after you’ve already put 15 miles on your legs. Some enjoyed the solitude, others yearned for 1st Avenue just beyond.

On my race plan for the Queensborough Bridge, I wrote: Reset here. Enjoy the solitude. Maintain the effort level. Keep your form neat. You've run hills before! 1st Avenue - run within yourself.

I turned onto the bridge, the last shouts of encouragement falling away. Cars thundered by overhead and echoed across the steel beams. The ease with which I climbed the Verrazano Bridge had disappeared. I wasn’t hurting, but I was definitely working. I kept glancing at my watch and saw the average pace falling. When it read 7:03, I didn’t panic. In fact, I didn’t panic when it said 7:15 either. But when it hit 9:38, I knew something was wrong. Sure enough, I’d lost the GPS reception. I kept the panic in check and ran by feel, closed my eyes for a few seconds at a time and took a couple reset breaths. I'd get there when I got there.

Then, I saw that sweet sight of runners pitching downward. We’d hit the declivity. The turnover started to come back and the noise began to build. At first it was a few shouts, but with about 200 meters to go, it was a full on roar. 1st Avenue was jam-packed and the wall of noise hit me all at once. The screams raised goosebumps on my arms as I thundered through. I held back on the throttle and tried to control the pace.


But then a funny thing happened. Rather than speeding up, I started to worry about holding on. For the first 15 miles, my head was as clear and blue as the sky we ran under. But coming off the bridge, the thunderclouds began to bloom and by 16.5, I felt like a hurricane was churning inside my head.

I tried to use the energy from the crowd to push through it but to no avail. I shut down everything around me and retreated inside my head to work this out. I started taking both Gatorade and water at each station and found that it only made me feel full and sent my heart rate sky rocketing. My watch was still of no use as it tried to correct itself after the bridge.

At 17, the negotiation began. I could walk. No. I could walk through the next water station. No. If I walk, if I stop, if I lose the rhythm, it’s all over. Just a quick walk to get our head right. If you walk, it’s over.


I started thinking about a conversation I had with my friend Paul the day before. Paul is a vet of many many marathons. "It's always bad at some point," he said. "It's seeing yourself through it. Can you ride it out until that second wind?" Shalane Flanagan called it getting to the pain. I called it getting uncomfortable. When I trained this time around, I incorporated this thought process to be mentally ready: It's going to get uncomfortable in the race so you need to get used to being uncomfortable now. Dammit, I was as uncomfortable as I'd ever been.


When I hit 17, I popped another powerbar gel hoping that would clear the raging storm. I hate this. I’m never running a marathon again. I’m not built to run marathons. I will just run halfs from here on out….NO! I finally yelled. Enough! I recalled conversations I’d had with runDanrun. “When it gets tough,” he said, “Go to the rolodex.” So I did: The early runs. The 12 milers at 5:00 a.m. The sweaty summer miles. The other storms I’d weathered on long runs. The 58:45 at the Army Ten Miler. The jerk on the subway who said I wouldn’t get back to Boston. I thought about my grandmother, about our trips together when I was little and how excited I used to get to see her. How I was doing this for her but how I needed her help now. I thought about all of you who take time out your days to read my blog and how I didn’t want to disappoint anyone.

After this reckoning, an entire mile had gone by. I was at 19.5. A quick systems scan: legs are good; lungs are good; head is…clear! The storm clouds had burned off.

I went through mile 20 in 2:13:06. Ok, you need a 47 minute 10K.

We turned on to 5th Avenue and my stride quickened. The traveling pain (the one that starts in your hips, moves to your calves, to your quads to your hamstrings) that afflicted me in marathons past was nowhere in sight. 

Trees lined 5th Avenue and Central Park was off to the right. I drifted to the left side of the course to run completely unencumbered and have the water stations all to myself.

7:30s. I thought. Then I came through 22 in another 6:41. I kept chopping time off. I can run 8:00s. 8:30s.

On the gradual climb from 22.5-23.5, I wrote: Keep it neat. Earn this. Strong to the finish. Instead of maintaining, I surged and made the right turn into the park with confidence. Yes, there were more hills, but what the course took away, it gave back. The road bent to the right and I saw my wife and friends leaping up and down, screaming for me just as I went by 24, wondering where the hell they got that "Looking Strong" sign. I had 19 minutes to run 2.2 miles.

Runners fell around me going down with cramping hamstrings. Don’t look! Don’t look!

After 26, the crowd was thick. The noise deafening. Sunlight filtered down between the autumn-colored trees. It finally sunk in. This was going to happen. I remembered the video of Meb coming through here alone in 2009 and it all looked familiar. 400m to go, I picked up the pace. 300m to go, I pictured the track back home and just how far that was. 200m to go,  I allowed myself the smile I’d been holding down. 100m to go, I could see the finish line. I let my arms fall out to the side, tilted my head back, and wailed as I came across the line.

The pain came to my legs all at once. Walking at 18 would have been a bad choice. I have seen this moment in my head after each run for 14 weeks and every time I put Empire State of Mind on my iPod after a tough workout. I looked up to the sky at my grandmother before checking my watch. We did it, I mouthed to her. Then caught the 2:55:58 on my watch. I pulled my sunglasses back down and let the tears come freely now.

I hobbled through the rest of Central Park until finally being turned loose onto the streets. I thought about those 1,029 miles to get to this moment, a nearly 13 minute PR, and first time under three hours. I thought how different it was than at Boston this year. I thought about calling my parents and my uncle and giving my wife a big salty kiss. I thought about all of you for coming along for this journey, for spending a few moments with me during a workday or evening and offering your comments. I continue to be overwhelmed by the support of my wife, my family, my friends, and those on the Runner's World Loop. It makes celebrating accomplishments like these all the sweeter and even possible in the first place during the times when the sun disappears and the storms rage inside of us.

Thank you.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

2011 NYC Marathon Redux - Part I

I woke up just before the alarm went off. It was a restless night, but good. The kind of sleep where you wake up every hour and think, “Great, I still have x number of hours to sleep.” The phone buzzed on Mrs. Onthebusrunning’s side of the bed. “Hello?” she answered, doing her best impression to sound awake. “You’re here? Wow, Brad’s not even up yet.”


Except I was. And I had been.


Our friend Ebo had just pulled in to NYC after an all-night bus ride just to come and spectate with my wife and our friend Paul. The clock numbers burned 4:45. I pulled on my race outfit, lubed up the chafing zones, and took one last look at myself in the mirror.


Paul turned over in his sleeping bag as Ebo settled in on the couch for some much needed rest. I padded to the kitchen for a breakfast of brown rice, milk, a banana, and cinnamon all mashed together, a concoction I found thanks to a fantastic blog called Nutrition Success. I shoveled rice into my mouth and sat on the edge of my bed talking to my wife. For every two mouthfuls I had, she ate one. I was happy to share because the nerves had started to settle in. I checked in one last time on Facebook and was overwhelmed at the outpouring of support from friends and family. I read my own post one last time: “1,012.8 miles to prep for NYC. 26.2 to go!”

When the bowl was empty, I took a deep breath, shoved a powerbar and my race strategy in my pocket, a couple fist bumps, and I was outside walking to the subway.
A soft light began to break the darkness between the buildings. I strode confidently toward the subway when I saw the station manager at the top of the stairs. “You just missed it,” she said.

“What’s that?” I asked. “The train?”

“Yep, you gotta wait 18 minutes. What time you need to be there?”
“6:00.”
“You’re not gonna make it,” she laughed, almost taking pleasure in my misfortune.
“I just need to be at Times Square by six, not Staten Island.”
“Oh, ok. Then you’ll be fine.”

Thanks for the heart attack, I thought.

I waited the interminable 18 minutes, and when the train pulled in, I realized that the New York subway is crowded at every hour. More runners began to gather shifting nervously from foot-to-foot. We exchanged knowing glances. I began collecting stories of the other 46,999 runners who would toe the line that morning. There’s something about hearing the “trials of miles” of fellow runners. Whether elites, weekend warriors, mid-packers, and the like, we all put in the work for different reasons to get from mile 0 to mile 26.2.


A man who was running his second NYC imparted his wisdom to me and a young woman originally from Italy who was also a marathon rookie and just wanted to prove she could do it. A woman running her first New York made it clear that she had been injured and was simply trying to finish (Been there, I thought,
recalling Boston just seven months earlier).

Two stops into the ride, a larger gentlemen got on and we started talking running. He, a nine-time NYC vet who was guiding a woman with diabetes during the race. Me, a first NYC-er secretly looking for a PR and hoping to not only requalify for Boston but break three hours. He enjoyed giving me the history of the New York subway system, which I didn’t mind since it took my mind off the race. He pontificated on the merits of the ferry versus the bus, but said not to worry. I liked my new subway friend until my stop came up.


“This is you,” he said. And as I got ready to wish him luck, he cut me off and said, “You won’t run a Boston qualifier today, not on this course. But have fun.”


I’m not sure if the look on my face matched the one in my head, but it went something like, “Who the hell are you?
You don't know what I did to prepare.”

I smirked and told him, “Good luck,” as the doors closed behind me.


I tucked in with the other runners taking the bus and followed them the two blocks to the New York Public Library where the buses waited. Another man with a hitch in his stride pulled alongside me. His black and gray mustache spread out wide under his nose. He was riding a 22 year NY Marathon streak. He refused to give me advice after I told him I’d run six marathons prior to this morning. “I’m not going to tell you anything useful,” he reasoned, then tottered off.


Coach buses waited around the corner rather than the school buses I expected that Boston uses. I settled into my seat, pulled my race strategy out and repeated it to myself a couple times before giving in to heavy eyelids.

When I woke again, we were just coming down the backside of the Verrazano Bridge. The decline stirred the butterflies in my stomach as I thought about having to turn around and run back up it. Slow down¸ I said to myself. You’ve run hills before.


I followed everyone off the bus and did a quick pat of my pockets to take inventory. My heart rate shot up again when I couldn’t find my powerbars. I hurried back on the bus, furiously looking between the seats while the first pangs of hunger began to seep in. I finally found them wedged between the seat and the side of the bus. Relief washed over me.


“Thanks,” I said to the driver, waving the bar at him. “I would have been very hungry.”

The runner’s village looked like what I’d imagine the staging area for the D-Day invasion to be. Packs of runners milled about nervously. Some lounged in the grass alone or slept in groups. Others chatted nervously about races past and what was to come. Everyone had someplace to go whether it was in the porta-potty line (where I was headed), seeking out water, or just trying to find an open place to sleep, read, or simply be.

I took the time to make one last evacuation before it was time to head over to my corral. Another runner and I hooked on to one another trying to find the wave one orange bib corrals. We traded brief war stories before breaking off to go our separate ways. Another story for the collection.I surveyed the scene while I unwrapped that sweet powerbar as though I were Charlie looking for the golden ticket. We were a pack of skinny dudes with five o’clock shadows bouncing around from too much anticipation and tapering energy.

With just over 30 minutes to go before the start, they led us up to the start line. I’d been warned that the NY Marathon isn’t a PR course because, in addition to the hills (you’ve run hills before!), you never could break away from the crowd. As we marched toward the start, not only could I see the start line, but I was five rows back, staring down the Verrazano Bridge.


I chatted up a couple more runners, hoping to glean some last minute knowledge. One guy from Massachusetts and I traded Boston stories and established that we had the same race strategy and “maybe” we’d run together if we saw one another out there.

The elite women took off ahead of us and we pondered Mary Wittenburg’s last minute stirring words that the “streets of New York were ours today.”

Finally, the introduction of the male elites came. The sun hung high overhead and though it was below 50 degrees, we felt warm in that pack. A shower of shirts and pants rained down as we discarded our over-garments. I turned over my shoulder to take in the mass of humanity that had lined up behind us. A couple last minute tugs on my ankles to stretch the IT band. A glance upward to my grandmother.

Exactly 52 weeks ago, I sat on my basement couch with a cup of coffee and the morning paper. I watched the same scene unfold over Universal Sports as the dam suddenly broke and the people rushed like water into the four remaining boroughs, knowing that in 365 days, I would be a part of it. New York.

The cannon boomed! We were loose….

Check out Part II to see about that strategy, a dark storm in my head, and the race against time.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Who I Pin My Bib On For

The first warning shot rang out.  A sharp Honk! that shattered the still, cold silence.  Word traveled down the line.  A mild panic spread across the ice.  Honks echoed all around now, "We're here, we're here.  There are more of us then there are of you," they seemed to say. The nervous shuffling grew and became the anxious pitter-patter of steps skating across the thin ice: pit-pat...shhh, pit-pat...shhh.  
My Grandmother and I dancing at my wedding in 2005.
Sensing the mild panic she'd stirred, Mattie's ears rolled back, her tongue bouncing. My collie moved her head in quick jerks from the geese now forming up in a tight circle, to the path ahead of her.  The look was one of desperation, "Please let me go after them!"  
I delivered my own sharp warning, "Mattie!" And she relented, falling back in step with me.  We rounded the water hazard and disappeared over the steep hill that links holes 11 and 12 just as quickly as we'd started it, leaving the commotion we'd caused behind us.  
When I'd set out some 3.5 miles prior, I did so with tempered expectations.  Since Thanksgiving, since my grandmother died, I’d lived in shades of exhaustion.
It was an unceremonious end. My car idled two blocks off the Washington, D.C. mall. I waited for my wife to come down from her office so that we could make the two-hour drive up to Philadelphia where she’d run the marathon that weekend. The phone rang next to me. It said “Mom.” I knew.
My grandmother, the woman I’d nicknamed Mimi, was gone.
The tears didn’t come right away. In fact, they only came after I’d downed two grey goose martinis up with a twist (her drink) later that night at the hotel bar.
Normally during points of tension in my life, I've turned to running as the release valve.  You can run off a bad day at work, a bad night (or week) of eating, a bad anything.  But what happens when the runs become bad?  That week, I was at a loss.  Mimi’s death, I soon knew, had taken a bigger toll on me than I thought.  That was really the first time in my life I've had to grieve, and quite frankly, I didn’t know how to do it.  I thought running could save me, instead, it made things worse.
There's a Tom Petty song that goes, "This one’s for me.  This one’s for me.  Not for anyone else.  This one’s for me."  It became my mantra on that easy five miler around the golf course.
On that cold run as Mattie and I continued to pick away at the golf cart path’s rolling hills, I let the memories come. With only my dog at my side and the prickly darkness hiding me, I felt safe to remember my grandmother. I didn’t have to be strong anymore.
It could have been the sharp, winter air, but it transported me back to my first trip to New York City. I was a little kid wandering along the gray New York City streets with my grandmother and my mom. If Christmas has a look, it’s New York City in December. The city glowed through the backlit storefronts and the white lights shimmered around wreaths, lampposts, and trees. Mimi’s New York was the Plaza, the Oak Room, and 5th Avenue. Yet, she relished the hours I wanted to spend tinkering in FAO Schwartz and even shivered with a smile next to my mom as I zipped around the ice rink at Rockefeller Center. 
Overtaking the last hills, Mattie galloped up next to me.  We stopped and stood together for a moment, huffing and puffing, then began the slow walk across the 5th green, under the fence, and back to the house.  But before we got there, I stopped for a second and closed my eyes.  I had the urge to lie down and catch my breath.  So...I did.  I lay down, legs and arms outstretched, and took in the night sky.  I started to think about my grandmother and how she used to ask about my running, but never really knew just how much work I'd put into it.  Her reference point was always the New York Marathon.  In her last year, she always asked, “You’re running the Boston, right?” And before I could finish my short reply, she’d move on. “What about New York? Have you run New York before?”
I never got to tell her that I’d run a qualifying time to get in to the 2011 New York Marathon, but in some way I tell her along the miles I’ve run leading up to the race.
I like to think maybe now she can watch me and know.
Most of the stars were out and I followed a plane blinking by overhead.  I could feel the blood coursing through me and my heart pulsing in my head behind my eyes.  When my breathing was under control, I lay for a minute longer.  I could hear Mattie's jingling collar getting closer.  She must have finished smelling whatever caught her nose.  I stared to call to her but my face was so cold, it was hard to talk. She was on me, sniffing and licking my face.  "All right," I said.  "Let's go in."  And we finished the walk to the back door.  
Mimi didn’t die of some well-known or even obscure disease.  There’s no ribbon, bracelet or car magnet. There are only the memories I have of my grandmother and how much I truly miss her now that she’s gone. I’m finally running the marathon she always asked about. So, this year I pin my bib on for her. This one’s for Mimi.
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