Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Standing on Common Ground

You are a speck in the midst of thousands of people standing somewhere just behind a starting line. Each individual, though the goal is the same, is here for their own personal reason. Each has his or her own story leading up to this moment. Some are there representing themselves. Many are there in support of other people, or other causes. A few have amazing tales of extraordinary human spirit. Just standing where they are now, they have already defied the odds. What they are about to attempt is a true representation of what can be accomplished with hope, desire, and effort.

A surprising few are actually there for the same reasons you are. But standing on common ground, at this moment, everyone has the same two goals. One is to start, and the other is to finish. In a short time, all will accomplish the first. Within the next 2 1/2 to 8 hours, most will realize the second. Only 26.2 miles away from a lifetime achievement and a ton of memories all wrapped into a medallion hanging loosely around your neck.
The marathon. It's so much more than a race, as many already know, and many more are soon to find out. The marathon. The term is used by the layperson to represent an unimaginable, monumental, virtually impossible task. And in a way it is. Once completed, even the runner says never again, while the seasoned veteran can't help but give a knowing smirk upon hearing it. But for one who believes, and trains well, for one who asks "why not" instead of saying "if only", it is within one's grasp.

The whole feel of the starting line, and the people around you is so much different in a marathon than at the shorter distances. The air reeks of Ben Gay and respect for your fellow runner. Standing on common ground, you know that running royalty surrounds you, because you know what you have had to do just to get here. You understand your own motivation, and your own desire, and you somehow wonder what stories surround you. And you wonder if anyone has the self-doubt that still nags in the background. You can sometimes see it in their faces, but you somehow know it is always there.

They say that the marathon is actually two different races. From my point of view, the first 20 miles is a result of perspiration. These go fairly easily due to the months of physical preparation, the long runs, and the lifestyle changes you have been willing to make to be in top form. The final 10K is mostly inspiration. Once the legs give out, the mind must take over, and reminders of why you started keep you moving towards the finish.
A marathon not yet run is an uncertain future, and for some of us, that's why we do it. Anything can happen when you push your body beyond its stipulated limits. And sometimes, it does. If you're lucky, it's nothing more than a couple of blisters and blackened toenails, which you can carry to the finish line. At its ugliest, it keeps the medal from being draped around your neck, and it can turn your dream into a nightmare. It's the common ground of the marathon runner.

If success was a given, the thrill of the marathon might not be. Many of us do it simply to defy those who say we can't. Others do it as a process of changing our own tapes, which for years said we couldn't. But marathon success is never guaranteed. So much can happen in those 26.2 miles of common ground. Those miles can encompass a runners greatest accomplishments, as well as their most bitter disappointments. Knowing that, after all that training, you could but something went awry and you didn't, is a tough pill to swallow. But it burns a desire to return and defeat the beast. It's not a DNF. It's a UFB.  Unfinished business. You know you will return. It is the common ground of the uncommon person. The marathon runner.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

George Sheehan Comes to Lawrenceville (January 7, 1986)

Non runners look at us and shake their heads in amusement, puzzlement, bewilderment, wondering what this pull is that attracts us to pound the pavement week after week, month after month, year after year. When asked, the answer is not so easily phrased. Runners, by and large, are private people who use their running to be alone with their thoughts, to daydream in an appropriate manner, in an acceptable forum. We use this time for problem resolution, as well as stress release. Sometimes, we use running to race faster. As a competitive runner, although mainly with myself, I am often "guilty" of this. But the run I am writing about today was special, and I knew in the midst of it that I finally had to start sharing my thoughts with other runners.

I woke up early today to find a beautiful white blanket of unbroken snow covering the ground, and it was still falling rather heavily. It has been a few years since I had last run in the snow, which is one of my favorite things to do. I quickly pulled on my special black running tights which had printed snowflakes running up the sides. I had been saving these tights for just such an occasion. Today was the day. A few more pieces of foul weather gear and I was out the door.

I have a nice rolling loop in my neighborhood which covers about 1.25 miles. As I started today's 7 1/2 mile run, I observed that the snow lay pure on the road ahead of me. The only disturbance was left in my wake. My mind started to wander to thoughts of Dr. George Sheehan, who in my opinion, was the most insightful author of running psychology and running philosophy I have ever read. He had an uncanny ability to allow a single run to have a profound effect on his entire life from that point forward. Not only that, but he would then write about his experience and share it with the rest of the world, so that whoever wanted to could actually benefit from his experience.

What a wonderful, caring, and giving man he was, I thought. He lived his life to benefit other people, both through his profession and his writing, and he has ensured that his legacy will live on throughout my lifetime and beyond. We all have intimate thoughts while on the run. Why not share them with the rest of the world? I'll bet he could have written something wonderful about today's run. Here is a man in whose footsteps I would be honored to follow.

At about this time, I noticed that the snow that lay ahead was no longer unbroken. There was a single trail of footsteps ahead of me, already carved in the snow. I hit the split timer on my watch to mark the completion of my first loop. Whose footsteps were those that lay ahead of me? Was I just repeating my own footsteps, running around in circles, or were these actually someone else's footsteps, beckoning me to follow? As I continued my run, I felt a strange presence, as if I were not alone. It was as if George Sheehan had come to Lawrenceville, GA, and was with me, stride for stride. I quickly started recalling the few brief times I met him.
When I still lived in New York, I used to see him at races in Prospect Park in Brooklyn and Central Park in New York, where he was basically just another good age group runner. People didn't make a fuss about him there, as this was his home running ground. He wasn't a guest there; he was competition for other people in his age group.

Then there was the year he was a guest speaker at the Salisbury Winter Flight run in North Carolina. Everyone clamored to see him there, but he was just as friendly and approachable as you could imagine. The last time I saw him in person was at the Old Reliable Run in Raleigh the next year. I remember passing him at about the two mile mark of that race, which I had never done before, and noticed him wheezing heavily. I asked him if he was all right and he just smiled and kept on going. He announced to the world two days later that he had cancer.

As I ran my sixth and final loop, the road behind me left the impression that a marathon had just been run along the left hand shoulder. I had just run the last six miles of my wonderfully snowy run with Dr. George Sheehan. Not only is he still alive, but he taught me a most valuable lesson today. It's okay to walk, (or run) in someone else's footsteps, but never, ever forget that, each step of the way, you are also forging your own path, which others may then chose to follow. Have no regrets about the trail you leave.

Why do I run? Sometimes a run can make a day a little bit better than it otherwise would have been. But once in a blue moon, as George Sheehan so consistently pointed out, your whole reason for being, the way you look at life can be changed by a single run. For me, it was once upon a snowy morning in Lawrenceville, GA, where I experienced first hand what it's like to create my own footsteps, as well as follow in the footsteps of someone I have the greatest admiration for. I also got to the experience sharing a run with the immortal George Sheehan. I have wanted to write about my own running thoughts for years. January 7th, 1996, Dr. Sheehan told me, was a great day to start.

If you are not familiar with Dr. Sheehan, please do yourself a favor and get acquainted with him. You will be amazed by his insights and observations. And who knows, you may even want to follow in his footsteps.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

The Mirror Lies, The Runner Dreams

I swear, I have not aged a day since I started long distance running back in 1982, at least according to both my mirror and my imagination. I look in the mirror, and the image that stares back has the exact same youthful appearance it did all those years ago. Anyone who knows me will readily agree that I don't act any more mature than I did in my 20's. Most would even say I've regressed. I delight in that intentional lack of progress. 

I look in my runners logs from years gone by, and know that I can still beat those fast times of prior years if I just train right, eat right, sleep right, and have the right course with the right tail wind on the right day. I just know in my 42 beat per minute heart that my breakthrough year as a runner is still out there, in my future. And if you tell me to grow up and start thinking my age, I'll tell you to get lost. I like believing this way.

Every new year, I wipe the statistical slate clean, and I start entering my runs in a new log. And shortly before the new year, I get to add another increment to the number they call my age. It just so happens that the augmentation I added late last year makes my age end with a five, and that means I get to compete against a new group of runners with higher numbers in their age than those I was racing with before. I don't think that age determines much more than who you are competing against. It certainly is no excuse for slowing down.

Along with every new year, there is, for me, a renewed determination to run more miles, and to best my race times from the previous year. In 2000, I actually succeeded in that goal for every distance I raced, with the exception of the ½ marathon. Part of that is because 1999 was not a particularly stellar running year. My goal for 2001 will be the same, and again, I have a chance, because this past year, although an improvement over 1999, I still fell short of my fullest potential. I figure if I can succeed again, and continue the upward spiral for each of the next 20 years, those lifetime PR's will be within my reach by the time I retire. There are 60-year-old men running sub 20 5K's all the time. I want to be like them. The fact that I've run one sub 20 in my life, years and years ago, and that these speedsters were running 16 minute 5K's at my age shouldn't make a difference, right?

Mirrors don't tell the future, or the past, but with a vivid imagination, they tell lies about the present. They only capture the moment of your gaze, in reverse. The mirror is who you are at any given moment. We age so gradually that, from one day to the next, we can't place our finger on when exactly getting older happens. As runners, some of us are guilty of believing we can buck the trend, and stop the process altogether: maybe even reverse it. Somehow, even among fellow runners, I sometimes think that I am the one will stay speedy while all my age group competition slows to a crawl. Aging and its effects might be for some people, but not for me.

I have raced through the entire 40-44 year age group here in Georgia. I have followed my own progress, as well as that of many others in my age group, with a great deal of interest over the last five years. Very few veteran runners my age have gotten any faster during that time. Most have gotten slower, and some have totally dropped out of the picture. Yet others have disappeared for a while, and then returned, significantly slower than before. It seems so ironic how the years seem to fly by so much quicker, but our race times get slower. I look at my peers' times and think to myself that I could be beating most of them in races by now, except for one minor detail. I've gotten slower too. But in my case, I've got a series of excuses as to why I've slowed, and the justifications as to why some day in the future, I will be faster than all of them.

I know, I know. This way of thinking is probably something I have in common with many other runners. Maybe, some day, I'll have to accept the fact that I can't stop getting older, and I can't stop the reminders my body and the finish line clock keep giving me. Some day, I may settle for being content in just holding steady from one year to the next. In the big picture, even that is a virtual improvement. But although I may be getting closer to that point, I'm not quite there yet. I still plan to break 22 minutes for 5K this year, even though I didn't do it once last year, or the year before that, or the year before that.

What is it that my mind refuses to process when the mirror stares back? I must be how old I am. After all, when I was born, Eisenhower was president, and he was re-elected to another term after that. I must look how old I am. Surely people don't think my daughter is my sister when we are seen together. I didn't learn about the John Kennedy assassination in history class like she did. I was sent home from school early that day, during history class. My teacher could work no more.

So, here I am, 45 years old, and feeling like I'm still 26, as I was when I started long distance running. And I continue to imagine I still look the same, too. I just refuse to accept my aging age quite yet. If I was a coin my age, I would be worth many time my face value today. But I am me, and can't even gauge my own face value. My face looks the same to me as it did way back then.
If all goes according to plan, the mirror will continue to lie, and I will continue to dream. This year may be my breakthrough year, when I suddenly run effortlessly to age group victories, and I finally realize my potential. And if it doesn't happen this year, that's okay too, because I still have my whole lifetime ahead of me. 

Just don't wake me up.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Getting Better

Getting Better

The other day, Dad asked me "So, when are you going to start writing again."  Now, I can finally answer "Today Dad.  Today."

April 16th, 2015 marked the end of my 33rd year since I first started running.  Most years, I commemorate each new running anniversary with a run.  But on April 16, 2015, my anniversary passed without a run, or a celebration. Instead, it passed with prohibitive pain in my left foot which made even getting out of bed in the morning a formidable challenge.  The lack of acknowledgement of the day was not such a big disappointment, but the fact that I encountered this injury while rounding into the best shape in several years hurt a lot more than the foot itself.  As a result of this injury, my focus on Big Sur at the end of that month turned to forfeiture of the race for the second year in a row.

At the end of April, 2015, Kelli and I went back to Big Sur, my bucket list race, and I had to watch it from the sidelines for the second year in a row.  We flew out to San Francisco the Wednesday before the race, and started our sightseeing right away.  Day one of the trip was awful.   After flying in early that day, we walked over 9 miles all around the hills of San Francisco, and my feet both swelled up badly, and every step became more and more painful.  I crashed in bed that night wondering how I was going to get through the next day’s Yosemite hike.  But the next morning, something odd happened.  When I got out of bed, my feet did not hurt so badly, the swelling was down, and in fact, my feet felt better than they had in a few days.  Each day after, despite averaging 5 miles of walking a day, my legs and feet felt better.   

In fact, the day before the race, Kelli and I were even talking about “walking” the Big Sur 21-mile race we had registered for the next day, but after a day of debating it in our minds, logic won out.  But we did get up Sunday morning, and I went out and ran 3 miles.  It was my first run in over two weeks, and the foot seemed to do pretty well. All the pain and heaviness was absent for that run.  But it also ended up being the last miles I would run for over a year, as my condition soon after turned south and got progressively worse.

These foot issues had arisen before.  This was the second year in a row, at about the same time both years, where my feet, and sometimes my legs hurt with every step, and just walking created excruciating pain.  In my mind, it felt like a crippling pain, and running again became the furthest thing from my mind.  I saw a podiatrist about this the first year it occurred, and one of his theories was that I was suffering from Psoriatic Arthritis, a condition that affects about 10%-30% of people who suffer from Psoriasis.  But I have never been diagnosed with Psoriasis, so I didn't give it much of a thought.  He was just a foot doctor, anyway.

Even though I was not running, my symptoms got worse.  The pains and swelling that started in one toe  advanced over the next several months from my feet to my shins, to my knee, to my hip, and finally to my neck and shoulders, to the point that I could not even turn my head.  I was having to allow extra time in the morning just to get out of bed and shower before work.

Trips to my Primary Care Physician proved futile, and a referral specialists in Ortho and Neuro did not help.  A trip to an Urgent Care Center when the pain and inflammation in my feet was so bad I could hardly walk resulted in testing, and results of a false positive for Lyme Disease.  This misdiagnosis was accompanied by massive quantities of misappropriated antibiotics over a period of several months with no positive results.  Finally, near the very end of 2015, I saw a Rheumatologist, who confirmed the podiatrist's theory after a full year of battling the affliction, and finally got me on a medication therapy that worked for me, and slowly...very slowly, I started to get better.

This entire past year has been one of caution and distractions.  I did not even attempt a run of any duration until February 2th this past year, when I ran a full mile without stopping for the first time in nearly a year.  Over the next couple of months of sporadic training, I finally ran 3 miles again without stopping, But for the rest of the year, I never really got back in the swing, and only had one month all last year where I ran over 40 miles.  I didn't yet trust my body to hold up.

But now, in the final months to wrapping up my 35h year of running, I have started running a little more regularly, and with a little more confidence again, and though I am much slower than I could ever imagine, it feels as good as it ever has.  In fact, in some ways, it feels better.  To gain back something you though was lost forever adds a new level of appreciation you could not possibly achieve any other way.

In nearly 35 years, there is a lot of history to look back on, including many personal accomplishments which have provided a lifetime of memories. but before I go down memory lane, I have a confession to make for the first time ever.  I am actually not positive that April 16, 1982 was my very first run. But whenever it was, it was only a pathetic mile that beat me up, and it was my final attempt in a series encompassing several years before this time, when running finally stuck.  In previous writings, I have always referred to April 16th as the date I started running, but until I ran a few more times after that and it started weaving its way into my lifestyle, I had no idea that this day would be day one.  But I do believe it was pretty close to, if not the exact day I started running "for good."

I knew running was sticking when I signed up for, and ran, my first road race, which actually wasn’t my first road race.  I had run a 10K race a couple of times previously in the late 70’s, pretty much totally untrained, but it was a race my father’s company sponsored, so I basically jumped in.  But on June 26, 1982, I ran the Shelter Island 10K, and a week later, I ran the Firecracker 5K in Massapequa, and I was becoming a runner.  

Dad and me at the first race we ever ran together.  The Massapequa Firecracker 5K, July 3, 1982.  Note that I am wearing my T-shirt from my previous race, the Shelter Island 10K
One cool thing about running in the early days was that I got better, and I got better fast.  My first 5K was between 25 and 26 minutes, and my first 10K was over 58 minutes, but by the end of the year, my 5K was down to 20:30, and my 10K was under 44 minutes.  PR races were a possibility every time I raced and the memories of these first races are still as vivid as if I had run them yesterday.  And the night before every race, I tossed and turned due to the shear excitement and anticipation of the next morning’s race.  And there was a possibility that every race could be faster than the race before.  I was getting better, and had yet to realize my limits.

A funny thing about a PR is you never really know you have run one at the moment you run it.  All you know for sure is you have run a distance faster than you ever have previously.  The fact that you have run a PR does not really crystalize until years later, when the time still stands as first your performances, then your dreams of accomplishments, decline.  It takes a long time to let go of the dream that maybe you still have a faster time in you.

In September, 2005, Bob Cooper published an article in Runners World on-line called “The 25 Golden Rules of Running."  It had been published in the printed version of magazine several years earlier but even now, it still holds up pretty well.  Embedded right in the middle, standing at number 12 was one called “The Seven-year Rule” which basically states that no matter when you start running, you can expect seven years of improved performance.  This is true whether you start running at 25 or 55.  When I started running, I was 26, which meant I could in theory expect to get better until I was about 33.

Looking back, I think at this point, at age 61, I am confident that all my PRs are well behind me.  But when I look back at my accomplishments, my PR history spans many years.  My very first PR was at 5 miles in early November of 1982.  It was also one of my most unique accomplishments.  In a three week span, I ran 3 different 8K/5 mile races in under 34 minutes.  The fastest was my first, a strong 33:06.  Never since that three week stretch have I run another one in under 34 minutes.  In March of 1983, less than a year after I started running, I set my 5K PR at around 19:52.  It was an early goal of mine to break 20 minutes for a 5K, and in my entire history of running, this was the only time I ever did it.  Later that year, I set my 10K PR with a fairly solid 41:30 and it took many years of trying after to realize that this was as good as it gets for any of those distances.  

So where were my other 6 years of getting better?  They came in longer distances.  My 10 mile PR, perhaps my best race ever, came in 1984, at the Capital Trail 10 miler in Raleigh NC.  I believe I ran the 2nd 5 miles in under 34 minutes, and I felt great at the end. My finish time was 1:08:20.  My half marathon PR came a few years later at Kiawah Island.  My goal that race was a sub 1:34:00, and I made it with about 10 seconds to spare.  

But the marathon was one race that I never achieved a feeling of running the best I could.  I had run about 20 of them between my late 20’s and early mid 40’s, but none of them were quality races because I had never trained properly for one.  I broke 4 hours barely a couple of times, but whenever anyone would ask me what my marathon PR was, my answer was simply “I don’t know.  I haven’t run it yet.”

Finally, a day after my 49th birthday, 23 years after I started running, and with proper training, I ran the marathon I could call a PR, with a 3:53 at Twin Cities.  It was a special day in my running life, because it was the only time I stood at a starting line of a marathon knowing I was going to run a PR.  I regretted that I had not trained properly for a marathon when I was younger, as I probably could have run a 3:20, but I’ll never know.  But after this race, I think I knew that ALL my PRs were not in the past.  There was no longer a change to get better.  I had maxed out at every distance.

Getting better.  All this history leads me to the purpose of this essay and why I am writing it now.  The last few years, I have looked back and know I no longer have a change of getting better at any distance.  For a very long and real stretch of time, I was positive I would never even run again, and was consumed with nothing but thoughts of overall deteriorating health.      

Today, about a year after the initial correct diagnosis and treatment, I can once again run, but it has taken most of this past year to have the confidence that another relapse isn't looming in the near background.  I have dealt with this before, and it never gets easier.  In fact, every time running throws a setback in the form of injury or overall health, it takes longer and longer to trust your body again, and it is all too easy to just give up and find less challenging interests, (like drinking beer.) 

 But I have also come to a truth that I had to go through this journey to clearly see.  Getting better is not just about improving on minutes and seconds.  Getting better is not only for the young or for the healthy.  It does not mean just going faster or going longer.  In fact, getting better is the only thing I care about right now, and it is the only direction I can go.  My running will never be any faster than it has been in years gone by.  But I can get better each time that today represents an improvement over yesterday, and I have had that a lot lately.  I have a feeling that this is how I will be measuring PRs in the future, but in a way it feels just like it did nearly 35 years ago.  In this past year, I went from hardly being able to get out of bed, to a slow deliberate walk, to a slow jog, to a full return to running  In more ways than ever before, every day, in every way, I am getting better.

Me and Dad again, almost 35 years later, after his 90th birthday.  Still walking!

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Father's Day 2016

Today is the day before Father’s Day, and I wanted to have something special this year to give Dad, who is now 89 years old.  But when you are 89 years old and proclaim that you already have everything you need, then knowing what to give can become a challenge.

This morning, as I did my 3-mile run through the neighborhood, I pondered what I was going to do for Dad to honor his day.  Dad was never especially fond of “things” to begin with, and material goods really hold no value for him anymore.  I think that this comes as a result of a combination of age and wisdom, but it sure does make it hard to come up with the perfect gift.  So my focus of my run was to create an idea for a gift that I could deliver to him tomorrow.  As my body covered three short miles, my mind wandered across the universe.  These are always the best kinds of runs.

Dad only ever had a very small and select group of friends, all acquired over 60 years ago, but they were all very special friends.  At this point, he has outlived almost all of them, and the couple that remain are in very poor health.  He has no interest in acquiring new ones at this point in his life.  But he treasures family more than ever.  Family is about all he outwardly has any more, and they bring him more happiness than anything else in his life.

Dad is still as active as his 89 year old mind and body allow, which is really quite a bit.  His likes his quiet time, enjoys watching sports on TV, and he enjoys reading.  He is also still a very good bridge player, and plays most weeks at least once.  He still spends time at the gym nearly every day, walking a couple of miles three or four times a week, working with weights, and doing exercises in the pool after a nice sauna.  You would not know he is soon to be a nonagenarian if you ever met him.

Two things that Dad gets particular joy from as things relate to me is when I am running, and when I am writing.  I used to do a lot of both.  Dad knows that I am at my absolute best when running and writing are both taking place in my life, so when I am doing both, it gives him great joy.   Over the past couple of years, I have struggled with both my running and writing, either due to physical limitations, or attitude, or in some cases both.

Only very recently, my running has found a weak pulse, and though I am hardly a regular runner again quite yet, I am actively working on that as a long term goal, and am starting to at least think like a runner again.  But the writing has been the even bigger obstacle.  I have not written anything worthwhile in a year or longer, and Dad will still ask occasionally when I am going to start writing again.  When he asks, I just shrug and tell him I don’t know, and then I feel bad because I know how much joy it would bring him to see me writing again.  I have to be moved to write, and nothing moves me like when I am running.  So this morning, since I was running anyway, I concentrated on what I could come up with to write, with the hope of massaging the thoughts into the words that I will have to hand him tomorrow morning. What you are reading is what I will hand him tomorrow.

Although I am seeing Dad tomorrow for Father’s Day, I also saw him today.  Dad is a religious man, and every Saturday morning, almost without fail, he goes to synagogue.  This is another activity that gives him great joy.  I thought it would be a nice way to start the Father’s Day weekend to accompany him this morning. So after my run, I drove over and accompanied him at the morning services, and then Kelli came by after, and we all had lunch with him and Mom.  I also told him I would be over early tomorrow so we could have a nice walk together.  This is something we do far too infrequently these past few years, mainly due to my extremely busy schedule and lack of available time when we can do it.  In both of our younger day, we used to run, and race together, quite often.  It was the one special activity that the two of us had that was ours and ours alone.  Those runs were almost sacred and helped create a bond that nothing since we started running together can break.  It is one of the things in my life I am most thankful for.

In the back of my mind, I always knew that there would be a time that running would evolving into walking.  But that did not happen until dad was in his mid-70’s.  Yes, the running got slower over the years, but the meaningfulness of the runs never changed.  Even as running shifted over to walking, each time doing it together carried the same significance.

So tomorrow morning, after my 3-mile run, I will once again head over to Dad’s, hand what you are reading now to him, and then we will go on a 2-mile walk. Then I will write about that later in the day.  And his Father’s day gift will have been given.
Happy Father’s Day Dad.  I love you.


Monday, February 23, 2015

The Road Less Traveled

When the alarm went off at 4:00AM this morning, I was unaware of the current weather conditions outside. And that’s probably a good thing, for had I known, I likely would have opted for the extra hour of sleep.  But until I went downstairs, I didn’t know it was raining, and until I turned on the TV, I didn’t know it was 37 degrees outside the warmth of my house.  37 and raining.  I assure you that at 37 degrees, it is a cold rain indeed.  Why would anyone in their right mind go out in that?  Especially an old aging runner who struggles to run a mile at a 10 minute pace.

So I dallied and dawdled, hoping the rain would move out before it was time to run, and as I waited with no positive effect,  it got later and later.  And the rain kept on falling.  While I went through by pre-run motions,  I started thinking of all kinds of reasons to retreat back to the bedroom and avoid the discomfort of this cold rainy darkness.  Surely, even running in the snow would be better.  A bone chilling cold without the accompanying wetness would be better.  Crawling back into a nice warm bed with and cuddling up to my wife would be way better.  But this combination of comfort threats was looming as very unattractive.

About 55 minutes after my alarm first went off, the moment of truth arrived.  It was truly either now or not today.  Thanks to my lingering, my maximum run had already been cut to 3 miles, as I need to be back in the house by 5:30 to start my “real” day, the one I live for others.  But the morning run is my sacred time; my moment of real truth, and in reality, that, more than anything, is what drives me to do it.

Yes, I have running-related goals.  My current long term one is the Grand Rapids Marathon, and training is not just an element of success, but a requirement.  At the time I am writing this, the race is still 236 days, 21 hours, 2 minutes, and 33 seconds away (assuming it starts right on time) That’s still a long time away, so how important is a three mile run on a cold wet morning today?  I mean really?

Even as I moved towards the front door, opened it, felt the wet chill in my face, and pulled the door closed behind me, I took three steps out and as many steps back, opened the door and stepped back in for a few seconds, still arguing with myself.  That’s how close I came to nixing the run.  But something pushed me out again, and it was finally “Game On.”   In all honesty, as I started down the street, I was still wondering if I was dedicated, crazy or something else? Why the hell am I out there, doing a relatively insignificant three miles on a day I wouldn’t send a dog out in?

But as I continued the run (at a slightly quicker than usual pace) the doubt slowly melted, and the insignificance of the run changed to clarity, even in a foggy rain.  Running can be inspiring, but not every run is inspired.  Running can get routine, and sometimes, that routine needs a little shaking up. There is not much better than a cold rain in the early morning darkness to do just that.

My mind started to wander as I observed, even literally, that even a dog would not be out in predawn cold rain like this.  Most mornings, there is at least that sign of life.  I’m usually earlier than most other runners in my neighborhood, but this morning’s silence even encompassed the four legged variety.  The dog “regulars” were not being walked, most likely because their two-legged companions did not want to go there with them.  I was definitely on a road not taken by anyone else at this time on this day.  And I was feeling an overwhelming satisfaction in having this road all to myself.

Before I knew it, the run was over, and I realized that the misery that my mind had imagined before I started never developed.  In fact, it ended up being a more enjoyable run than many.  The cold rain had faded into the background, even though it never let up for the 30 minutes I was out playing in it.  But lost in thought, I had forgotten about it all together.  The main evidence that the rain continued during my run was not the perpetual discomfort, because it had been replaced by contentment.  The evidence was contained in my shoes and clothes, heavy and soaked. 

During my run, I was reminded of a poem by one of my more favorite poets growing up, Robert Frost. In his poem The Road Not Taken, he wrote
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

I mused back to an hour earlier, facing that fork in the road, the one between closing the front door in front of me and going back to bed, or closing it behind me and taking the road less traveled, at least this day. Will today’s run make me a better runner in the long run?  Not likely.  Was it important for me to not skip today’s run as I prepare for a marathon nearly eight months from now.  I haven’t even started training for it yet, so again, the answer is no.   But the real question is, did this morning’s run contribute to making me a better person today?  To that question, my answer is a resounding yes!  On a gloomy, cold dark morning, I took the road less traveled by, and today, that has made all the difference.   

Monday, December 22, 2014

The Dad Chronicles-Chapter 1

One thing I love about this time of year is that things usually slow down a bit at work, and it presents an opportunity for all of the family to spend time together and celebrate just being a family.  I am very fortunate that my family has somehow mostly settled in the same geographic area, and four generations of us can get together with an hour’s notice.    

Yesterday was such a day.  My daughter Monica offered to host a Chanumas gathering at her house to spread some holiday joy (and we found out a little later, the flu virus, compliments of her middle of her three sons).  My younger brother David was there with his lovely fiancĂ©e Linda.  Monica’s husband Wes arrived a little later with their three children, coming from another family gathering on his side of the family.  Together, that family has made me the proudest father and grandfather in the world.  And my mother and father were there.  They are still the glue that keeps us all as close as we are as a family, and chose to re-retire in Atlanta, just to be near us all.

During the visit, I made plans to see Mom and Dad today. At 83 and 88 years old respectively, they are both still vibrant and alert, look much younger than you might expect, and though there are signs of slowing down with both of them, they both still think about their own future with the assumption they will still be around for a while.  They are both still very active, alternating their time between here and Atlanta, with summers spent in Asheville, NC.  And they still drive back and forth when they go.

There is nothing in this world that I can do to make my father any happier than when I am running and writing.  That is probably because he knows it is a sign of contentment on my part, and a parent wants nothing more for their children than peace and happiness.  Well, I am running regularly again, and I am writing as well, and when we talked about it yesterday, he was almost in tears.  I could see that he could not be any more proud and pleased.

Of course it takes many things for me to arrive at my “place” but is seems to always start with running.  I have been doing it on and off for over 30 years, and writing about it, on and off, for about 20.  I say on and off because, as many things, it has ebbed and flowed.  There have been months I ran close to 300 miles, and there have been years I have not run a step.  There have been times I wrote every day, and there have been years I have not picked up a pen, or had a creative thought. And all around it, there has been the rest of my life, sometimes turbulent, and at some times, seemingly perfect.  But it has always been eventful.

Those of you who have read my writing over the years know that my father and I have had a special bond over the years, created by, and held together by our common passion for running.  When I first started running in early spring of 1982, Dad was already a seasoned veteran, who already had about 15 years of “jogging” under his belt.  But he never really caught the racing bug until I promoted it to him shortly after I started running.  Looking back, it is surprising he didn’t race all along.  I knew that I had a competitive spirit, but only discovered it in my father once we started racing.

I decided earlier this week to go through all my running logs in order to create a spreadsheet of every race I have ever run and documented.  After going through the first couple of years, I can see this is going to be a mammoth undertaking, but it has already brought back a flood of memories, and taken me back to the smells, feels, and emotions of each race.  I am so thankful that I journalized my runs so consistently for so many years.  And I found myself getting emotional mostly about the races I ran with my dad.  Over the next few weeks, I will share our running and racing history as best as I can.  It will be interesting to see if he recalls the races the same way I do.
This is for you dad.  Hope you enjoy!
1982 Races
OK, so we had actually done a couple of races together before this one, but I don’t count them, because I was not yet a “real” runner, and ran them mainly to support my father, whose company sponsored the race.  I also did it for the T-shirt, and was very disappointed when, the second time I did it, T-shirts were not even offered.  The race was called the Riverdale Ramble, and to this day, I  believe it was the most difficult 10K course I have ever run.  It was bad enough to give anyone a bad attitude about running, but was not bad enough to deter me for actually starting to train in the spring of 1982. So, fast forward.

July 3, 1982- Firecracker Run 5K- Massapequa New York

This was a nice hometown race that is still going to this day, but the year we did it was I believe the 2nd annual.  I have very few photos of Dad and me at races, but for some reason, we got one at this race.  I had run my first 10K the week before at Shelter Island (wearing the t-shirt from it here) and had gotten to about the 3 mile mark when I had to start walking.  My only hope was to be able to run the whole 5K without walking.

First "Real" race together, July 3, 1982
This was an evening race, and I believe it was a warm humid dreary drizzly evening and there seemed to be a nice sized crowd of runners doing it. Back then, everyone who ran in races was a “runner”.  I don’t say this to mock or offend regarding today’s race demographics, but things were much different back then.  If you didn’t run an 8-minute mile, you were in the back of the pack.  Runners were mostly young, male, and athletic, and most races stopped handing out awards at the 50 and over age group, because few people over 50 years old raced.

 If I recall correctly, Mom and my brother David were there too as spectators.  I knew I couldn’t beat Dad.  Though I had been training for three months already, it was intermittent training, and with my natural propensity and body type preferring sprinting, it was talking a long time for my abundance of fast twitch muscle fibers to convert over.

When the race started, I remember actually staying with my father for about a quarter of a mile before he started to distance himself from me and pull further and further ahead.  I could still see the back of his head when I passed the mile marker, but he was well out ahead of me and distancing himself further by the minute.  When my mile split was called at 8:05, I gasped.  I had never run a mile in my life in under nine minutes in training.  This was my first ever experience of what Joe Henderson referred to as “race-day magic.”  I liked it, but at the same time, it scared me, because I had never experienced a kjile like this before, and knew I still had two miles and a little more to go.

I don’t remember much of the detail of the next two miles, but I know dad pulled further and further ahead, and ended up beating me by about a minute.  His final time was in the low 24 minute range, and I think mine was in the mid 25’s, so I actually averaged 9 minutes per mile after the first one.  I do remember I ran the whole thing, and was very tired, but felt accomplished at the finish. Racing was now in my blood, as was a desire to beat him in a race.

October 3, 1982- Suburbia 10K- Eisenhower Park, NY

Between July 3 and October 3, 1982, I ran ten races on my own all around Long Island, and experienced a new breakthrough just about every race. My training became consistent, and I was shattering my PR’s just about every race.  I had run a 5K PR of 22:10 in the Long Beach boardwalk in early August and a 10K PR of 43:55 at the end of September in a new defunct race in Cold Spring Harbor of Billy Joel fame.  I knew I had dad’s number, but after all, I had just turned 27 the day before, and Dad was closing in on his 56th birthday the next month.

I’m guessing Dad doesn’t remember much about this race, as it was a low key race in a very popular park for running, Eisenhower Park.  I had only discovered it less than a month earlier, and had eased into a training routine which included regular runs in this park.  At that time, within the park, there were marked loops of 1 mile, 3 miles, 5K, 4 miles and 5 miles, all with the same starting point, and each route was marked with a different color arrow. A couple of the loops actually went outside the park, and when I went back years later after moving away from New York, I learned that the longer routes were no longer marked because they went outside the park, creating a liability issue.

Log entry from the day I first discovered Eisenhower Park

I was starting to recover from my first ever running injury, knee pain which was caused by a terrible choice of running shoes.  It may have not been the model as much as the size, which was about 2 sizes too small.  As a new runner, missing a single day because of an injury was unacceptable, so I started seeing a chiropractor who was also a friend of a friend. Not so smart in retrospect, but I was a new running addict, and would have run through about anything.

I switched from my original misfit pair of shoes to Saucony, I believe it was the Freedom Trainer, a solid, burgundy-colored shoe that probably weighed about 2 pounds, but boy were they cushioned.  The knee pain started to ease.  Runners are a funny breed, especially when it comes to brand loyalty.  From 1982 to this day, I have never worn any brand of running shoe except Saucony,and doubt I ever will.

As mentioned earlier, I had run a wonderful 10K PR of 43:55 a week earlier but the knee was very tender afterwards, so I had only run a couple of 4-milers during the week.  My expectations were not very high for this race, which was much flatter than the Whaling Museum race the week before.  I remember being surprised at my finishing time of 44:10, not far off from the previous week’s time.  Dad ran in the 52’s, so I beat him with ease, but it was a good race for both of us.

Suburbia Challenge 10K journal entry-Oct.3, 1982

These were the only two races Dad and I ran together in 1982, but it laid the foundation for a long history of memorable races in the years that followed, and a special bond that ended up shaping everything in my life, which probably none of which would have been possible without running.

Next chapter- 1983 races and thoughts.  For everyone reading this that is not my father, hope you enjoy the journey.  For Dad, I’m running and writing.  Are you as happy as I am?