Thursday, November 7, 2013

THE (RUN-)WALKING DEAD: NYCM 2013 "Event" Report

After two October trips to the pop-up Halloween store, it appears that the zombie apocalypse is nigh.  It used to be that female-targeted Halloween costumes tended to the "Sexy/Naughty/Slutty".  While that remains true, now it seems that "Sexy/Naughty/Slutty Zombie ___________" is the order of the day.  The title of this post, therefore, comes from the fact that this blog - moribund for so long - simply refuses to die.  It may also reflect my guiding experience in last weekend's New York City Marathon.


Every marathon race is a 26.2-mile journey (YES! that's the official marathon distance, dammit) that begins long before the runner toes the starting line.  In this case, my journey began in the late summer of 2012, when I was lucky enough to be chosen by Achilles International to guide a triple-amputee Marine who would be doing his first marathon in a handcycle.  Alas, Superstorm Sandy nixed that.  Then came Boston, where I was assigned to run with an above-the-knee amputee (we'll call him TS) who was shooting for a 4:30 finish.  As with so many of life's endeavors, things did not go as planned for TS there.  He set out a bit too fast in the first half, but the second-half fade spared us from being much, much closer to the finish line at the time of the bombings.  We made it to Mile 25.5, and immediately made a pact to try again in NYC in November.

So, for me, NYCM 2013 started more than a year earlier.  For TS, this would be a race almost seven months in the making.


If finishing time is the only measure of marathoning success, then NYCM 2013 would have to be filed as an unqualified disaster.  Fortunately, though, it isn't, so it wasn't.  And because the metrics are not conventional, neither should a "race report" be.  Rejoice, therefore, Dear Reader, since this post will not take you through a mile-by-mile recap of the good, the bad, and the ugly which tends to comprise the marathon race experience.  In fact, this wasn't really a race at all, so I won't treat it as such.  Instead, I would characterize more like a series of wonderful and discrete experiences tied together by consistent forward motion towards a blue and orange banner in one of the world's most famous parks.

Knowing that his training had not been optimal, and dealing with a problem in his knee (as in, his only knee), TS dialed back his original 4:15 goal.  As I pressed him, he cagily said "4:30-4:45".  Having run and paced and guided quite a few of these things by now, I prepared myself for a mostly pleasant five-plus-hour amble through the Five Boroughs which are New York City.  It was a good thing that I did, because it turned out to be all of that and more.

What follows here, though, is a list of the encounters, images, and memories with which I left New York City.  Maybe every significant life experience changes in some way.  Serving as a guide for NYCM 2013 certainly changed me as a runner; time will tell how much it has changed me as a person.


View from the AWD starting area
The ride from Midtown Manhattan was dark and long, though the sun was up by the time we got there.  TS and I rode together, and I mostly just sat quietly, preparing myself for the long day ahead.  The Achilles bus was full of Athletes With Disabilities (aka, AWDs) and their Guides.  All of the athletes on our bus were ambulatory, as the wheelchair/handcyclists require special transportation.  AWDs span a wide range in terms of the conditions which lead to their needing a Guide.  Amputation, blindness, paralysis, and cerebral palsy were among the reasons I heard from fellow Guides and their runners.  We were shuttled to a special AWD staging area, and the most striking visual was the scores of wheelchairs and other adapted contraptions which would allow so many people to pursue their dream of hurtling 26.2 miles through the five famed boroughs of New York City.


Having been on the course during Boston 2013, and having pored over every announcement about heightened security at NYCM, I was prepared for anything.  TS was checked quickly and allowed to bypass the metal detector/body scanner, since his composite carbon-fiber prosthetic leg would have set off the machine.  I was extended no such courtesy, and therefore waited, and waited, and waited while a malfunctioning metal detector was resuscitated by NYPD officers.  Not surprisingly, the police department was out in force, but I noticed many officers with special badges, including "Auxillary", "School Safety Division", "Taxi Squad", and others.  Everyone was on call.  And virtually every one of them was attentive and courteous.

From the time we arrived at the start area until I made it back to my friends' Upper West Side apartment some 8+ hours later, I saw more uniformed police than I had ever seen in a single day in my life.  Other shows of high-alert included police buses, armored vehicles and strategically hovering helicopters.  I was able to take the following picture from the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge:

The ubiquity of armed personnel watching over 50,000 runners and more than a million spectators was simultaneously comforting and unnerving.  After Boston, authorities weren't going to take any chances.  Since the 2013 NYCM went off without an incident, their abundant caution worked.  Still, perhaps some day such measures won't be necessary to thwart prospective wrongdoers, or even to assuage public concern about bad things happening.  For now, though, reality dictates differently.


Staten Island gets the race start, and - as in life - apparently not much else.  On the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge we climbed the first big "hill" amidst a cold, strong crosswind as we headed towards Brooklyn.  The eerie quiet of the first few miles soon gave way to people, lots and lots of people.  People yelling.  People dancing.  People playing musical instruments.  People holding signs.  People clapping.  People encouraging every single person who went by in the most unequivocally positive terms.  It's not something one sees every day, and certainly not in a city of over 8.3 MILLION (!) which would not be named a bastion of congeniality on a normal day.  The New York City Marathon makes for not a normal day.

Brooklyn was a blast. 

Because TS lost his left leg above the knee, he has to run as far to the left of a course as he can, which is the safest thing both for him and for other runners (in fact, my job as his guide is to create a buffer zone between him and the field).  That means that we always stayed close to the spectators on the left side of the road.  And so, in Brooklyn, began the high-fives.  Little and medium-sized kids were the most eager to get a hand-slap from a passing runner.  I tried to get every single one (often yelling as I passed, "MAKE SURE TO WASH YOUR HANDS!"), and then, to my surprise, nearby adults would extend their hands, too, offered with a sincere word of praise.  Not just the parents, either.  Adults cheering alone.  People in traditional garb from other countries.  Old people.  Religious people (well, not the Hasidic Jews in Williamsburg).  Even some of NYC's finest extended a hand along the way.

Brooklyn included people of virtually every conceivable nationality and skin tone.  To think that they all convened just to see us (us!) was a happy realization indeed.  I heard my name yelled by a guy I know from online running circles, the only time that would happen over the course of the race.


During the first half of the race, I was pretty pumped up, so I checked and rechecked our pace to make sure I didn't lead TS out too fast.  Unfortunately, that I didn't didn't matter.  It wasn't his day to chase a new marathon PR, but he stayed laser-focused on that finish line.

After settling into a decent groove, putting us on pace for a 4:45-ish finish, TS started slowing down.  Runners often describe that feeling as the moment in a race where "the wheels come off".  Well, not long after we started experiencing that, we came upon an AWD who was the literal embodiment of the phrase.  At almost exactly the Mile 14 marker, TS and I say an Achilles AWD in a prone handcycle off to the side of the course.  The athlete seemed dazed and confused.  He also did not speak much English.  Turns out he's Italian, which felt like karma since I have been shirking my self-guided Italian study and was thus able to say only, "Io non capisco l'italiano" ("I don't understand Italian").  The right rear wheel on chair was cracked.  It had been temporarily held together with duct tape, but as he sought to move the hand pedals, the wheel just came off the axle.  He seemed like he might be hurt, so we called on available race medical volunteers until they thought they had found one who spoke Italian.  10-15 minutes after we came upon the poor prone fellow, we were moving again.

I have tried to find out what happened to him, but no one seems to know.


Dealing with the athlete in distress was our welcome to Queens, so perhaps in an effort to get back into "race mode" (or, at least, "finish mode"), I was less aware of my surroundings in Queens.  It's also just a few miles.  Still, I remember more high-fives; more clever signs ("SMILE IF YOU PEED A LITTLE"; I smiled, even though I hadn't ... yet), and more wild cheers.

Then came the Queensboro Bridge, where we had another AWD encounter.  This time, it was a stopped Achilles amputee, whose prosthesis had become unsafely loose.  We needed a specific hexagonal key to tighten it, but no one had one.  I tried "MacGyvering"it from detritus I found on the ground (a paper clip, a zipper pull, a piece of a key), but no luck.  So, I jumped the concrete barrier, ran up to an ambulance, and asked for help.  No dice.  We left that runner and his Guides behind, but saw him pass us a while later, which made us happy.

At this point, I felt a bit low.  The wind whipped across the Queensboro Bridge; the sky was still gray.  It had gotten crowded on the course, which presented more challenges in terms of keeping TS safe.  We still had over 10 miles to go, and we were walking.  A lot.

It's not very often that I have the impulse to punch a 70-something year-old (much less a runner) in the face, but at about Mile 15.5, we experienced the one act of nastiness amidst a day of otherwise unfettered kindness.  As an elderly gentlemen passed us during a stretch of walking on the bridge, he literally yelled that we were "taking up half the path".  As he kept moving, I replied, "Sorry [sarcastically] . . . we have a disabled runner here."  Most people would apologize, or otherwise acknowledge their overreaction, but he instead doubled-down: "I don't give a shit!  You should be in a single file."  When we caught him less than a half-mile later, I might have eased over to the left again just a tad closer than what one might call socially acceptable.  My job is to keep my runner safe.  Other runners, beware: I take my job seriously.


Manhattan brought what Manhattan is known for bringing: crowds.  People lined up 10 or more deep.  Lots of well-dressed folks sipped coffee.  A few of those who leaned their Starbucks cups over the railing were surprised when I pantomimed helping myself to their tasty hot beverage.  Reactions ranged from pulling away, to laughing, to offering their cup with the greatest sincerity.  We may have been moving slowly, but I was having fun.

The East Side blocks ticked off.  Somewhere, maybe around 100th Street, I started hearing a loud female voice roaring, "JESUS!  JEE-SUS!!! JEEEEEEEEESSSSSSSSUUUUUUSSSSSS!!!!!"  Turned out to be an older black woman, waving a black leather-bound bible.  "JESUS!!!!!!!!"  We walked.  "JEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE-SSSSSSSSSSUUUUUSSSSSSSSSSSS!!!"  We jogged a little.  And, finally, we reached her.  Looking more through me than at me, she let it rip, the bible shaking in her hand: "JEEEEEEESSSSSUSSSSSS!!!!!"  I looked at hear, smiled, and said, "No, thank you."  Some runners around me smiled.  TS yelled something about foregiveness.  We forged ahead.  She kept screaming.

A few blocks north of the Church Lady, another exuberant spectator was putting on a cheering spectacle of her own.  On the right side of First Avenue I noticed a younger black woman, slim, with bleached blond hair.  She was sprinting up and down the side of the course, pointing at runners and screaming, "This is YOU runnin' fast," over and over and over.  It was also her, but it's not clear if she appreciated the irony.

And then, seemingly in a flash, we reached the Willis Avenue Bridge, for our brief foray into The Bronx.  As we neared the end of our first pass through Manhattan a guy yelled, "You're almost in the The Bronx!"  I jokingly asked him, "Is it safe?"  His response: "You won't be there long."  I felt so much better.

The Bronx really was just a blip.  A little over a mile and then we were on our final bridge, the Madison Avenue Bridge, for our return to Manhattan and the final push towards the finish.


The gray skies finally cleared, the temperature rose a few degrees, and we were in the home stretch.  More walking.  More high fives.  More cheers and signs and massive good will.  We were moving slowly, but no one seemed to hold it against us.

I had a nice moment with an older lady in Harlem.  She was in a wheelchair/scooter, sort of slumped, with a sign which read "Harlem HEARTS You".  I looked straight at her and smiled, and she sat up straight, beaming a huge smile back at me.  A perfect little moment like I've never had before, and likely will never have again.

Somewhere after the Mile 22 mark, Central Park came into view.  What a sight, though we were still walking and we still had 4 more miles.  At Mile 24, we turned into the Park, still walking more than running.
 It didn't matter anymore, because the time on the clock meant nothing to us.  The only thing that mattered was that a man who'd lost his leg in a car accident about 8 years ago and a big-eared, Jewfro sporting goofball who likes to cover long distances on foot in the company of others were inching ever closer to the Finish Line denied them in April thanks to a couple of terrorists with a horrifically misguided sense of purpose.  For TS, this would be another finish line in a sport he took up before he became "disabled".  We were cold.  We were tired.  We were ready to be done.  But, I think I speak for TS when I say that we also felt like yelling, "Fuck car accidents!" and "Fuck terrorists!" and "Fuck anyone and anything which seeks to get in the way of people and their hopes, their dreams, their spirit!"  We were going to finish, and finish we did, 202 days, 5 hours and 34 minutes after we first started running together in Hopkinton, Massachusetts.  Not fast by most measures, but at least ahead of Pamela Anderson. :-)

Monday, May 20, 2013

Laying It Out There


It's been a huge part of my life since I started on July 4, 2006.  It's been my friend.  It's helped me make friends.  It's been my nemesis.  It's been an addiction.  A lifeline. Therapy. Burden. Opportunity. Buttresser of self-confidence.  Inducer of self-doubt.

Running played a supporting role in the breakup of my marriage.  It is also how I met my current love.

Running has remained by my side all this time, but it has been a complicated relationship.  At some point, after running a marathon PR in April 2011, I lost my zest for training.  I didn't want to get up early to run.  I didn't want to run every day.  I didn't want to run hard.  I sure as hell didn't want to race, at least not without pre-fabricated excuses ("my first 50-miler", or "I'm doing 4 long races in 4 weeks") and solid reasons for why my fitness and performance had fallen so far so quickly ("These damned hip flexors!").

But, I didn't want to shed my identity as "a runner".  As "the running lawyer".  As that crazy guy who runs all those miles, eats & drinks to his heart's content, and always stays trim and toned.

Except that I was living a lie, or at least an illusion.

I've not gone more than a few days without running in the past few years, but I've run less often.  And shorter.  And more slowly.  And, most sadly, I've lost much of the joy and satisfaction which comes from being competitive with oneself, with pushing one's perceived limits and finding new ways of improving, achieving, excelling.

Well, the time has come to reconnect with running, or move on to something else.  So, I tried a running streak (and hit 70 days).  That helped a little.  I guided at Boston.  That was an extremely memorable experience.  I scheduled another Boston qualifying attempt, at Keybank Vermont City on May 26th, and was following Pete Pfitzinger's 16-week, 70-mile-per-week plan. That went okay, until I fell off the bouldering wall and sprained my ankle.

But a key unknown in all of this has been the question that's tougher to ask than to answer: "Just exactly how much fitness have I lost?"  There's only one reliable source to answer that, and it displays its responses in hours, minutes, and seconds.  So, I've been on a racing tear, with four races in 14 days.  Here's the verdict:
  • Flat 5K on May 4 - 20:25 (PR is 18:46); couldn't make my legs move faster than that
  • Half-marathon on May 11 - 1:38:55 (PR - 1:26:xx); chewed up and spit out by hills, humidity and wind
  • Slightly tougher 5K on May 16 - 20:3x, a personal worst on that course since I became 'a runner"
  • 12K (~7.5-mile) on May 18th - 52:44 (a HUGE PR, as I've never raced that distance before), and by far the best race in terms of
    making a realistic fitness assessment and executing intelligently . . . suddenly, racing seemed fun again
So, what's the takeaway from this?  I'm done with marathons.  At least for now.  I've withdrawn from Vermont City, and will instead head to Maine for my second annual Pineland Farms 50K.  I will probably not qualify for Boston 2014, so I won't get to go back as a racer and somehow seek to find some personal measure of validation for the fact that so much was taken away from so many on April 15, 2013.

What does this mean exactly?  Well . . . I'm not on a specific training plan.  I'm running every single day, though, even if only a few miles.  I'm joining friends at the track if I feel like it.  I'm racing when it's convenient and close to home.  I'm rock-climbing.  Lifting weights.  Playing soccer, and riding bikes, and playing tag and slacklining with my kids.  I call it loosening my grip.  Some might call it living.

Where will this lead?  I have no idea, but I do know that allowing one's hobby to become a major source of life stress is basically one big failure.

So, what's after Pineland Farms next weekend?  Other than probably a couple of easy miles the next day, I have no idea.  And I feel much happier about that than I could have imagined.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

I Couldn't Have Said It Better . . .

than so many other articulate, thoughtful, wonderfully eloquent observers . . . .

Before the start at Athlete's Village . . . bubbling with joy and optimismMust we now redefine "it"?
So . . . I am not going to post my usual longish Boston 2013 "Race Report".  Suffice it to say that my amputee runner, co-guide and I were a safe distance away from the finish area at the time of the blasts, are all physically unharmed, and managed the chaos and confusion of the situation as well as anyone.

We got word out to our friends and family; we retrieved our material possessions.  Our inspiring amputee runner will receive a finisher's medal, despite having to stop at the 25.5-mile mark, because the course just turned into a fretful sea of humanity, with the police telling us what NOT to do, but not otherwise giving any clear instructions.

The whole experience has been on the edge of overwhelming.  There are some obvious reasons for that (I was there; I live an hour from Boston; runners/marathoners are my "community"; etc.), and some less obvious ones.

Innocence has become a precious commodity in our modern world.  Loss of any of that precious innocence compounds the very tragedy which takes our innocence.  A vicious cycle.

Every day I think about the Boston Marathon.  About how things could have been different for me.  How they SHOULD have been different for the three people who were killed.  How April 15, 2013 has permanently and indelibly scarred the 200 victims, and so many more of us.  How the attack and subsequent police investigation brought out some of the very best qualities in all of us.  How sad it is that the inspiration towards selflessness, caring, charity and love abates all-too-quickly.  And about much, much more.

Yet, I'm going to stay away from much of that: theodicy; existential angst; political grandstanding; the seemingly insatiable need for contextualizing the inexplicable.  Oh, and the media.

Thank you, Boston Marathon, for everything you have given me, fellow participants, the "local" community, the running world, and the countless people who normally don't give a whit about running yet find themselves moved by an event that brings together 25,000+ people seeking to challenge themselves, motivate others, help charities and otherwise simply choose to live in a way that honors the gift which is our limited time on this planet.

One more thing: Boston has also led me to rethink my relationship with running, including (especially?) the marathon distance.  More on that to follow in the days ahead.

Monday, March 4, 2013

'Cuz Waking Up Is Hard To Do

It's the first week of March, and although snow still surrounds us, it seems high time to end this blog's arbitrary, self-imposed hibernation. So, this blog has awoken.  I, too, am back into a groove of waking up to embrace the day . . . and sometimes, even, to run. :-)  The final way in which this post's title works is that it feels like my mind and consciousness have also awoken, as exciting things are brewing in my professional world, while there's a lot to take in and process in the civic realm.

As of today, I am happy to report that I have run on 52 consecutive days.  The overall mileage has been nothing special, but after an extended training malaise dating back to the summer of 2011, just getting back to running every single day feels like an accomplishment worth sharing.  I'm close to my second longest running streak (having run 100+ days in early 2011).  Most importantly, though, I've eliminated running as a question mark in my day.  That I will run is a given.  With the help of a training schedule geared towards a late-May marathon, structure has returned to my running life.  And that's good. It's satisfying.  It's productive.  It's healthy. So, it's actually quite very good.

A whole heck of a lot has happened since I last posted in the summer of 2012.  Highlights:
  • Moved my office
  • Ran two marathons and an ultramarathon in three consecutive weekends (October-November 2012)
  • Committed to be an Achilles Guide at the NYCM, but Superstorm Hurricane Sandy had other plans
  • Dropped out of the JFK 50-Miler, at Mile 19, after my whole right side basically stopped working at Mile 17
  • Moved my home
  • Moved in with my beloved, and two cats
  • Have started rock-climbing
  • Will soon be doing occasional guest reviews for a running-shoe-oriented blog
  • Committed to being an Achilles Guide at Boston this year
Of course, challenges still abound, but I'm seeing fewer obstacles and more opportunity.  And, it's a comfort to know that running is there each and every day, be it on snowy trails, steep hills or on a treadmill in the rock-climbing gym while watching folks contort themselves gracefully up steep simulated rock faces. It's something I can control.  It belongs only to me, yet I can share it with whomever I choose.

More running, racing, meditating and blogging to come.  Consider yourself warned.