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.


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.


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?”
“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.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Breakfast Club

If I had to capture my New York City marathon buildup in two words, they would be: More coffee!

Since June, when the air hung heavy and the thought of fall, let alone covering 26.2 miles at one time, seemed ages away, a small group of us began gathering in the early hours of the morning every Saturday. We pulled up and parked at some point along the Mt. Vernon trail, set off at different paces and different distances, only to meet back where we began to caravan toward the mother of all post-run motivators: breakfast.

Many have come and gone and several guest appearances have been made (Mrs. Onthebusrunning, included), but the core group week in and week out has been my friends Paul, Karen, Natalie, and Rohan. Paul, Karen, Natalie are training for the Philadelphia marathon, while Rohan is just a willing running partner. In fact, Rohan and I covered 18 miles one steamy August morning. When we walked stiff-legged back to the rendezvous point, Paul looked at Rohan and said, “Are you running a marathon this fall?”

“Nope,” Rohan said, throwing his leg up onto a trash can.
“Then why the hell are you running 18 miles?” Paul asked.
Rohan only shrugged. “I guess I just like running.”

And I guess that sort of became the point. Even though we had races way off in the distance to train for, it was nice to know there was someone or some people waiting for you at the end who’d just been through the same thing, could relate, and could inhale a stack of pancakes or an egg white omelet as you recounted the miles together.

It started on a whim. There was a group e-mail. Some back and forth about times and meeting places. Isn’t there something in Runner’s World every month about scheduling runs with others to hold yourself accountable? So, first we became accountable. Then we became dependent.

There became something about waiting for that Thursday e-mail to arrive in your inbox, or Wednesday if we were feeling antsy. Who was going to start the chain? What mileage did people have to cover? And perhaps most importantly, where were we going to go for breakfast?

I thought the title for this blog would be pretty obvious. Then I got to thinking about the actual movie The Breakfast Club. A group of people getting together to serve detention. Sometimes that's the way those long runs feel.

We ran before a hurricane and then gulped down coffee as the wind began to pick up. We comforted and fist bumped one another as the miles began to climb and the races actually came in sight. Suddenly, those 18 and 20 milers didn’t seem as daunting anymore. I caught myself saying, “Well, if I can get through this, I can eat eggs and pancakes with everyone.”

In fact, as Natalie wrapped up her 22 miler last Sunday, she walked by Paul and I and said, “The last three miles, all I kept saying was, ‘pancakes, pancakes, pancakes.’”

With New York this weekend and Philly just two weeks away, I asked my wife what she thought would happen to our gang of running misfits once our goal races were over.

“I’m sure you’ll take a week or two off and then everyone will still want to run something." Then she paused before adding, "Besides, no one’s going to turn down breakfast.”

I let that sink and realized how right she was. There’d be more races on the horizon, more breakfasts, and more coffee. I guess we just like running.
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