Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Reflections on the Marathon

This is my first post since the marathon.  My doctor advised me to avoid strenuous exercise immediately following the race, so I took his advice and avoided blogging at all costs.  It has been a busy but exciting time for me.  In addition to my children, which are a handful, I also changed jobs.  I know it sounds a bit goofy but I really think that the confidence I have gained by finishing marathons aided me in having the confidence to move to a new company after having been at my old one for 14 years.

So NYC 2014 will be the year everyone will remember as the Windy Marathon.  All the stories are true.  I almost had a skull cap pulled off my head by the wind.  People were being pushed around particularly on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge which had no mile markers because they would have gotten blown away.  I had pinned a piece of paper to my shirt with my name on it which was ripped off by mile 5.  For the rest of the race, I was called “Dad.”  Last year, I was able to make it the whole way through with 2 of 4 safety pins attached.  There were a lot of bad split times (I’m talking to you, Tiki Barber!!) due to people expending a ton of energy running into the wind during the first half.  We looked like 50,000 mimes sans makeup.

As usual, I was in the last wave of runners.  I had planned to do a run/walk method with 6 minutes of running followed by 1 minute of walking.  My watch is set up to notify me automatically which makes it easy.  I had decided that I would ignore the first walk break as I wouldn’t be across the bridge after 6 minutes.  I felt surprisingly good at the beginning of the race.  I say surprisingly because my training for this marathon stunk.  Like really bad.  I figured I had some energy now, so let’s see if I can push it a little farther.  So I skipped the first break.

Then I skipped the second break. 

Then the third break. 

I was torn because I knew that I really needed to pace myself but was excited because I hadn’t run 20 minutes straight in a while.  In recent races where I didn’t sprint out the starting line, I ran more consistently (and slower) but was able to finish races running as opposed to walking with terrible cramps.  But of course, once the gun goes off in the NYC Marathon, adrenaline takes over. 

At this point, I was in Brooklyn and had passed the “Sweep Bus” which sat on a side street like a vulture ready to pick off stragglers.  I finally got my emotions under control and decided to stop running at the next break.  I was ahead of my pace time, so I wasn’t worried.  I knew I would bank time for a while (i.e. come in under the 16 minute per mile pace I hoped to average) and then slowly start to “spend” those seconds as the race progressed.  At the 5K, I was 5:43 ahead of pace.  At the 10K, 8:09.  I was doing AWESOME!!!

So, at this point, imagine me as Wile E. Coyote (Super Genius), right after he ran off a cliff trying to catch the Road Runner.  He continues on for a while, slowly becoming aware that he is hovering high over the desert floor below.  Then he plummets like a stone.

(Quick side note re: Wile E. Coyote.  A coyote’s top speed is 43 miles per hour.  Roadrunners top out at 20 miles per hour.  Rather than buying out the store at Acme Corporation, Wile E. would have been much more successful had he just run down the Road Runner.  Point of the story: Sometimes you should just do what it is that you do well.  Have faith in yourself.  Don’t over complicate things and the rest will take care of itself.)

So by the 15K, I was 7:30 ahead of pace.  I had failed to notice the ground under me had disappeared and that I was running in mid-air.  I began to plummet.  I’d tell you my time at 20K but I can’t because the time markers were being pulled from the course.  Between 15 and 20, the cramps started getting pretty bad.  I started losing time on my average mile.  Even worse, I started not to care.  The sweep bus passed me.  The people inside looked warm.  Even worse, they looked happy.  My thought is always that if I start a race, I finish a race.  However, my sister and I have joked a few times about getting just bumped by a passing car in order to have an excuse to not finish.  When I ran the Harry Chapin Race in 2013, I thought that it wouldn’t be the worst thing if the dog that snapped at me caught a part of my leg.  “Of course, I couldn’t finish the race.  I was bit by a dog!!”  Sounds much better than “I was running like crap so I quit.”

With the timing sensors cleared off the course, I wouldn’t be timed again until I got back into Central Park.  Because I am usually in the back of the race, my family understands that this is a possibility and didn’t freak.  A couple of friends who were following me on the tracker were nervous that I was in a hospital or had gotten caught by a freak gust of wind and ended up in one of the rivers.

The halfway part of the marathon occurs on the Pulaski Bridge between Brooklyn and Queens.  I always like to draw strength from my Polish Heritage while running across this bridge but 2014 wasn’t the year for that.  In 2013, prior to the full marathon, the farthest I’d run was a half marathon about 3 weeks before.  The halfway point was a celebration; after that, I was setting a new personal best with every step.  Every time my foot hit the ground, I was farther than I’d ever been before.  It really felt amazing and filled me with hope.  A lot of runners have different feelings on this which I believe contribute to the “wall phenomenon.”  The runners can’t get out of their heads the idea that “I don’t know if I can do this as I’ve never done it before.”  For me it was the opposite, “I’ve never done this!  Let’s see what else I can do!!”

In 2014, just after passing the halfway point, I experienced an intense cramp that started in my left calf and went all the way up in a straight line to my butt cheek.  I had to grab onto the side of the bridge to prevent myself from falling and held on for about a minute or so until my leg relaxed.  This was the first point in any of my marathons where I didn’t know if I could finish.  If the sweep bus was rolling up it may have added another passenger but it was nowhere in sight.

In addition, I kept thinking about you.  That’s right.  You.  I’ve encouraged you to get out and get your blood moving, hopefully inspired you in some small way and I didn’t want to let you down.

My next thought: “OK.  You are going to make it to the finish line.  How?”  I started jogging again and made it about a minute before my leg cramped up and I had to cling to the side of the bridge before I could move forward.  While my walking is slow, it was faster than running for a minute and then cramping for two minutes.  I would walk as fast as I could.  That was the new plan. 
Runners have visions of themselves running.  A popular one is the “Chariots of Fire” where you are running in slow motion but far out pacing your competitors with the music playing in the background.  The accurate part that day was the slow motion.  I was passing no one and there was not a bit of classical music to be heard.  Even at its best, I describe my running style as Grim Determination, so I gritted my teeth and got to work.

I walk very slowly regularly and doing some quick math of me walking at a typical pace had me finishing just in time to get my medal engraved Mondayafternoon.  I needed to quicken my pace to as fast as I could go without triggering cramping.  I noticed that if I wasn’t paying attention to what I was doing, I would go from Grim Determination to leisurely stroll.  I needed to focus. 

Ordinarily during my races/marathons, I say “When I do this next time…”  During this race, I started saying “If you do this again…”

As soon as I started NYC in 2013, I remember thinking that I would run this race for the rest of my life.  This year, I felt a little differently.  Most of my “If you do this again…” fell into the category of “If you do this again, you need to prepare better.”

The worst thing that can happen to anyone is that they experience some degree of success (see Rocky 3).  The marathon is a mental exercise more so than a physical one.  The hardest part about your first marathon is that you don’t know if you can do it.  So you train extra hard, you put down the donut, you quit huffing turpentine.  After you’ve done one, you know that it is within your realm of capability.  You double down on the donuts, you don’t mind skipping a workout here and there and you fill your humidifier with poisonous chemicals.  I fell into this category.  I hadn’t trained as hard as I had for San Francisco ’14 as I had for NYC ’13 and yet I had a faster time.  I trained less for NYC ’14 than SF ’14 and I thought I would set a new personal best.  But I didn’t and the race left me extremely humbled.  That’s actually the good part.

I think that in everyone’s life, they need to get their ass kicked now and again.  Nothing devastating, just enough to keep them humble.  They need to stay hungry (Eye of the Tiger).  I haven’t been hungry in a while (This guy is a wrecking machine, and he’s hungry!  Hell, you ain’t been hungry since you won that belt).

Unlike Rocky attempting the title defense against Clubber and getting poor Mickey killed, I am officially retiring Super Heavy Weight Champion of Distance Running (hereafter SHWCDR). 

Hold on, you are saying.  You didn’t even get bit by a dog!  You can’t quit just because you are running crappy. 

I can and I can’t.  First off, you’re not the boss of me.  But secondly, I didn’t say I was retiring.  I said the SHWCDR was retiring.

I decided during the marathon that the whole SHWCDR thing just isn’t cute anymore.  Something that always bugs me on weight loss shows and marathon human interest stories are the stories where the people said, “I wanted to run a marathon so I lost a bunch of weight and then I did it.”  I feel like that excludes people who haven’t lost weight or who want to use training for the marathon as a way to lose weight.  Their quote says to overweight people (yet again), until you become skinny, you can’t achieve.  You can’t get what you want.  I wanted to show that that’s not true.

So the SHWCDR can retire now because he’s done what he needed to do.  He showed that finishing the marathon was possible.  It’s not an unobtainable goal.

Unlike the marathon, there is no blue stripe painted on the road to show the course.  Where do I go now?

My plan involves re-examining the marathon and the training leading into the marathon to look for ways to improve.  Step 1 is MORE training.  It’s that sort of highly specific advice that will catapult me to the top.  I’ve also noted that my pacing to start the marathon did not go as planned.  Secondly, I need to retire the SHWCDR for the last time.  His mind retired after NYC 2013 because he proved what he needed to.  I am, however, still dragging his body around race courses all over the tri-state area. 

After this long absence, I hope you’ll stay with me.  By the end of the year, my blog might be the only way you can keep up!