Thursday, February 25, 2010

Remove the Mask

To many children, and increasingly, many adults, dressing up in costumes is the focal point of the (upcoming) holiday of Purim. There is a certain irony in this as there is no obvious connection between the holiday and wearing a disguise. Still, if we are willing to think a little creatively, there is a much to learn from this practice.

A friend of mine recently pointed out that I have a tendency to intellectualize things. He suggested that rather than letting myself feel things, I transfer my feelings into ideas. I realized the truth of his words when I read something I recently wrote. I wrote it because I felt pained by a particular event. Yet in reading what I wrote the pain was hardly there. There were some challenging points. I, however, was missing in the words.

You might recall that I missed my goal in the NYC marathon by only four seconds. There are many ways I could explain this, but the biggest reason was that I refused to run with some discomfort. I settled into a comfortable pace, a costume if you will, to avoid confronting the pain. Unwilling to feel the pain, I sacrificed the opportunity to achieve.

The Jews during the time of the Purim story were not unified. This almost led to their downfall. It was only through Queen Esther’s efforts to unify them, that they were saved. Three of the main practices of Purim; the feast, sending gifts of food to friends and giving gifts to the poor, revolve around unity. Joining up with others is difficult. There is the risk of rejection, as well as the chance that your differences might divide you. There is a tendency we have to “dress up” to cover up our differences. On Purim, we wear the costumes so that we can easily come together. Ultimately, we must come out from behind the masks and risk being ourselves. It is uncomfortable to feel pain. It feels awkward to put yourself out there, without trying to protect yourself. It is far more uncomfortable and awkward to lose yourself, to become the costume. Taking off the mask can be tough. Leaving it on is not an option.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Costume

It’s a pretty funny line. I have heard it a few times. It goes something like this; “Other than running, how are things going?” The obvious implication is that all I write about is running. If you pay attention to what I write, you know that the opposite is true.

There is a university in Israel called Bar-Ilan. Their logo is a microscope with the scope made from a torah scroll. Their goal, they maintain, is to look at the world through the eyes of the Torah. A perceptive reader might suggest that my symbol should be a microscope partially made from a running shoe. Although this imaginary reader would be correct that I write about running, this is only superficially true.

When I write, running is just the outer shell, the costume I put on, as I attempt to convey my inner thoughts. Although I really enjoy running, I am not interested in writing about it. I want to write about life; its challenges, its meaning, its complexities. So why do I use running, a subject that at times, I must admit, I must awkwardly twist to connect to my subject? The answer, I suspect, connects to the costumes we all don, the ones we wear to cover ourselves, hiding ourselves from the world, and often from ourselves.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010


As I stood under the wedding canopy with the woman who, only minutes before, had become my wife, I listened to the words of the officiating rabbi. After quoting something that my father OB”M had told him, Rabbi Schwartz quoted the sages and said “a person is never jealous of his/her child or student”. I have recently had several occasions to think about those words.

During my recent trip to Israel, I saw a number of students who had recently moved to Israel. This decision involved a commitment to live in a different country far from friends and family. For many, it also involved a decision to join the Israeli Army. I was impressed by the courage that these students demonstrated. I felt a certain sadness as I looked at these young adults who were living their lives with such idealism. I wondered whether I still possessed this sense of idealism. I wasn’t jealous however. I recognized the wisdom of the Rabbis’ words. It seems to me that they were not merely describing reality in saying what they did. The reason a mother is not jealous of her child, is because in her child’s success lies her own success. Similarly a teacher feels good when his student succeeds as he has achieved through his student’s achievement. The rabbis encouraged us to feel good when another person achieves something. Look at it as your own success and there is nothing of which to feel jealous.

I thought of this idea when I spoke to my brother on Friday and heard about his achievement in his latest half-marathon. I was really happy for him that he broke his PR by almost 20 minutes. It was harder to feel good about the fact that he passed my PR as well. I had thought that I was far enough ahead that he would not be able to beat me. I was impressed by his achievement. I was jealous of his time. I have to work harder to see his success as my own. Until I reach that point, I have to train harder. A family record is out there for me to reclaim.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Oh Brother

I was exhausted. I was no longer sure which time zone I was in. Truth is, upon waking up, I had no idea where I was. Still, after only three hours of sleep, I got out of bed and got dressed to run. I wouldn’t have missed that run for the world.

Growing up, I had a very close relationship with my brother. We shared more than a room. We shared secrets. I recall many evenings falling asleep on the lower bed of the bunk bed discussing life, or, when we were too young to care about such things, a good laugh. I wasn’t the easiest roommate. I was a slob. Still, more often than not, Eric who was always organized, put up with me. He paved the way for me with our parents and with school. Despite a difference of over four years, we were more than brothers. We were friends.

I don’t whether he felt the same way, but for me things changed after he got married. Obviously we would no longer be roommates. Still there was more to it than that. Our conversations were both less frequent and less intimate. We still spoke, but the topics seemed to lack gravitas. Although, several years later, both of our families moved to Israel, they stayed and we did not. This lack of physical proximity came with an additional lack of emotional closeness. It wasn’t anything personal. We each had families, jobs and other responsibilities. The seven hour difference in time and the lack of face time made things tougher. I never doubted his love. I just missed him.

When I started running, I did not realize it would help bridge the gap. It certainly didn’t start out that way. At first, running was just another topic about which we could make small talk during our infrequent conversations. Eric, who had been running for a number of years, encouraged me in my quest to lose weight. He even signed up with Team Lifeline so that we could run together. Of course, we didn’t really run the race together. He finished 25 minutes before me. Running seemed like a parallel to our relationship. It was something we did at the same time, not something we did together.

Things changed during my recent trip to Israel, for my nephew’s bar mitzvah. After I woke up the first morning jet lagged and more tired than I had been in a long time, we went for a run together. Over the two hours we were together, we talked in a way that comes naturally to people running together. We had nowhere else to be and nothing else to do. During that run and the subsequent runs during the trip, we reconnected. Truth is I only recall some of what we talked about. It doesn’t really matter. For the first time in a long time, our relationship was back.

Monday, February 8, 2010

The Uninvited Guest

I don’t know what Ryan Hall got paid for showing up at the starting line and saying a few short sentences. I do know, based on the negative attention Christian athletes have received for talking publicly about their faith, that mentioning God in his remarks was a risk on his part. I was impressed by his willingness to tell us to “run every step for God”. It is in that spirit that I write the following.

On Super Bowl Sunday:

8 millions pounds of popcorn was consumed

28 million pounds of potato chips were devoured

1 BILLION chicken wings were eaten

325 million gallons of beer were imbibed

You would think there would be room for one athlete to speak his mind on abortion, a subject that is particularly personal for him as his mother was advised to abort when she was pregnant with him.

Why is it that commercials that promote gluttony and drunkenness abound without controversy, yet an athlete and his mother can not urge us to reconsider our opinion on a matter that is life and death?

Why can the media celebrate the partying that went on last night in New Orleans, a city known for its over-the–top partying, yet show antipathy for a 30 second commercial that was thoughtful and impassioned?

With hundreds of millions of viewers worldwide is it too much to ask that God be invited to the game as well?

Please note: Christianity and Judaism do not share identical views on abortion. Still, there is enough common ground that I feel the need to speak up on an obviously controversial topic.

Monday, February 1, 2010

A Marathon Love Story

Romance. It is not a word that one associates with running. Until this weekend, I didn’t either.

Along with why Roosevelt did not know about Pearl Harbor and why Bush did not know about the 9/11 bombings, it will go down with one of the great historical questions. How could I not have known that my wife was scheming to join me in Miami for the half marathon? After all, she started running a lot more in the weeks leading up to the race. She started asking me questions about a friend who had prepared for a half-marathon and how she had done so. Still, after some non-denial denials on Rochie’s part, I accepted that I would be going to Florida alone. I even wrote an e-mail that in hindsight seems absurd, about how I would be sacrificing by being away from my family. In hindsight, a comped king-size sweet over looking the ocean, along with the first away time we have had since our son was born over 13 years ago was hardly a sacrifice. It was one of the most wonderful weekends of my life. What follows is a combination race recap and thank you note to the love of my life.

I should have suspected something when Rochie suggested that I get a ride to the airport. She is type of person who would drive me to the airport even if it was in Afghanistan. Still, a little disappointed I got a ride. As we got ready to board the plane, I was dumbstruck to see Rochie waiting nearby, trying to hide out. After convincing her that the surprise was not ruined by my detecting her before she got on the plane, we were off. I couldn’t stop smiling. In fact, I still am as I write.

Rochie explained that she had felt that as supportive as she had been one of my running addiction, she felt she was missing a part of my life. She wanted it all. So Friday morning we went to the running expo. There, first hand, I taught Rochie about all the important things. The free gifts that are given out, the excitement of discovering new flavors of running jelly beans and the latest marathon possibilities in Belize. Somehow, she seemed to enjoy it.

Over Shabbos (the Sabbath), she met many of the friends I had made in previous years. Needless to say, they loved the story of her surprise and her willingness to run. We struggled with the fact that we did not need to keep our six children entertained, but somehow we managed. We went for walks, talked about things other than the relative merit of Target diapers versus Pampers, and the like. With 13 years of catching up to do, we managed.

Saturday night, after an uplifting and powerful pasta party/ Chai Lifeline pep rally, I taught her the all important skill of attaching the timing chip to her running shoes and the need to set 3 alarm clocks. Deciding to throw caution to the wind, I decided not get a wakeup call as well.

By Sunday the nerves were there, after all, as secondary as it seemed, I had come to Miami to run a race. Rochie learned the importance of finding the porta-potties before all else, baggage check and lining up in the proper corral. When I had to say goodbye to go to my corral, I started to cry. I didn’t want to split up, even if it was for a few hours. (For those of you who think I am a doofus for not running with her, I offered, several times in fact).

Ryan Hall, the great American Olympic runner started the race. He said he wished he could be out there running with us. I found myself wondering whether he meant it. Is running still fun for him, or is it a job? He said to honor God with each step. I liked that. I admired his ability to talk about God publicly. Then we were off.

Mile 1- Despite one of the pre-race speakers saying that the 70 degree weather was “perfect for running”, I am sweating profusely. I think of Rochie, who is wearing a Chai Lifeline shirt over a long sleeve running shirt and how uncomfortable she will be. I miss her already.

Mile 2- I have already lost the pace setter who I was hoping to stick with until mile 10. It occurs to me that his name is Eric. This makes me think of my brother who was unable to join me this year. I miss him.

Mile 3- Someone shouts “Good Pace”. I think of Rochie who told me that when ever she saw the word “Pace” on the treadmill screen, she thought of me. I realize that all of you who know by my English name Marc and not my Hebrew name Pesach are wondering what the heck Pace has to do with me.

Mile 4- Someone is carrying a sign that says “Go Skip”. I fight the urge to shout out “I want to run not skip”. Apparently running kills brain cells because I think it would have been funny.

Mile 5- There are paper tombstones set up in a local park to memorialize all the American soldiers who have died overseas. It is good to remember that, in the scheme of things, running is not truly heroic.

Mile 6- Someone has a sign with an alliterative message “Run Ron Run”. I think of my dad who I truly miss. Although I am unsure whether he would appreciate my obsession with running, I know he would have loved Rochie’s decision to surprise me. He loved everything about her.

Mile 7- There is a helicopter flying overhead. I think of Jack Bauer and 24. How about a season where Jack has to stop terrorists from attacking a marathon? I find myself wondering whether in the midst of a marathon I would thank him from saving me from a quick and painless death.

Mile 8- I pass the place where last year I realized that I had lost my bib. I note with irony the sign that welcomes me to San Marco Island. I realize that all of you who know by myHebrew name Pesach and not my name Marc are wondering what the heck San Marco has to do with me.

Mile 9- Ouch. No make that ouch, ouch, ouch. The humidity is taking its toll. I realize that breaking 1:40 is out, but that I might still set a PR if I can handle a little more pain.

Mile 10- The fan support is heavy. Boy do I need it. I tell myself that every sign cheering someone whose name starts with a P is really for me. At different moments I become Pedro, Pascual and Penelope. I shout out to every person who is wearing a Chai Lifeline t-shirt.

Mile 11-OUCH!!!!!

Mile 12- Almost there. I give it everything I have left. I am digging so deep that my feet hurt.

Mile 13- 1/10 of a mile to go. Damn the Queen of England.

1:42:05. A PR by 56 seconds. Top 5%. Over 45 minutes faster that my first half two years before. I’ll take it.

I get my finisher’s medal. I do not put it on. Bethany, a beautiful young lady who is a camper at Chai Lifeline’s Camp Simcha, and is an honorary runner, is supposed to give our team our medals. No matter how long I have to wait, I will not put in on without her. It takes 15 minutes, but I find her. Her smile makes it worth every second.

My race is not over. I start walking back to find Rochie. Along the way I cheer for every member of our team who is still running, who I pass. I know how much the cheering helps me. I also encourage as many random runners as I can. Their smiles warm my heart.

Finally, I see HER. She looks wiped. She is sweaty and exhausted. In other words, she looks beautiful. She is too tired to make conversation. She has the look of determination on her face that lets me know that she will finish even if she has to crawl there. Of course, she doesn’t have to. She crosses the finish line and can barely stand. For the first time in over 17 years, I find myself supporting her. We take the finishers picture together. I hope it comes out well, but it won’t matter. Either way, I will forever have the memory of this weekend etched on my heart. I am married to my best friend. I love her with all of my heart. What more could I ask for?