Thursday, March 25, 2010

A Tale of Two Systems

“Winning isn’t everything, it is the only thing”. These words, reportedly uttered by Vince Lombardi have been taken to unfortunate levels in sports. Performance enhancing drugs have affected many sports including track and field, baseball and cycling. College sports, while seemingly staying clear of PED issues, highlights the win at all costs mentality in other ways. Sports, which is supposed to be an extracurricular activity for college students, has become the focus at too many universities, with athletes who are students in name only, hired gun coaches, who commit all sorts of ethical violations in their quest for victory, and unethical administrators who should know better, joining in this very profane trinity.

To be sure there are many sports programs that combine the quest for winning with real academics. John Feinstein wrote a wonderful book about one such group of schools in “The Last Amateurs”. Most of the sports that do not produce large amounts of money (everything other than basketball and football), seem to find the balance as well. Still, it is difficult not become cynical as one follows college sports these days.

This is precisely why all of us, whether or not we are college basketball fans, should be rooting for Cornell this evening, when they take on basketball powerhouse Kentucky. Cornell, comes from the Ivy League, a league which plays most of its game on weekends to lead to maximal class time for it athletes. They play a deliberate though entertaining game that highlights passing and teamwork. Before this tournament began, Cornell had never won a single NCAA tournament game. Kentucky is led, if I can use that term, by John Calipari, a man who stands out for his sliminess and win at all costs mentality, in a profession where those traits are plentiful. Kentucky has a graduation rate of under 40%. Its star player John Walls is their latest hired gun, who will play one year and then continue on for the greener pastures of the NBA, where money can finally be handed to him over the table.

Kentucky is the favorite and will probably win the game. No matter what the score, it is clear to me that Cornell are the only winners playing tonight.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


What is it about underdogs that make them so appealing? Why is it that I can turn on the radio during the NCAA basketball tournament and find myself rooting for a small school that only moments before, had never entered my thoughts?

This has been a good week for underdogs. Little Northern Iowa, located somewhere, I suppose, in Northern Iowa, defeated mighty Kansas who many had picked to win the whole tourney. There were other upsets including Cornell, who one expects to produce Nobel Prize winners and not basketball wins and St. Mary’s, but it doesn’t get any bigger than a school with a direction in its name (I mean who even knew that Iowa HAS a North?) defeating a mighty Goliath?

From Baseball comes the news that the Minnesota Twins resigned hometown hero Joe Mauer at a hometown “discount” of $184 million over eight years. Mauer who grew up in the Twin Cities, will stay at home and remain the face of the franchise. Getting over the shock of the numbers, Mauer could have earned (if one can use that term in this context) as much as $300 Million over 10 years if he had entered the free agent market and allowed superpowers like my beloved Red Sox and the hated Yankees get into a bidding war. Increasingly that is what happens in Baseball. It is nice to see a small market team win big.

Finally, from the world of running is the victory of Peter Kamais over Haile Gebrselassie in this past week’s NYC Half Marathon. It wasn’t supposed to be much of a race as much as a coronation for Geb. Still, Kamais who is hardly a household name (even for running geeks like me) defeated one of the all-time greats.

We are used to the favorites winning. There is, after all, a reason why they are the favorites. It gives us hope to see the real life script turn out like the movies. It is nice to see the little guy rise up, even if for but a moment and remind us that the race is not always to the swift. I know who I’ll be rooting for on Thursday night when Cornell takes on Kentucky.

Thursday, March 18, 2010


“Remember the Sabbath and keep it aerobic”. With these words a Los Angeles area Reverend told her congregation that there would be no services this Sunday due to traffic caused by the LA Marathon. This got the author of the article where is saw this quote thinking about the relationship between running and religion. Specifically, what does one do when there is a conflict between the two?

When I read these words, I immediately thought of all the times I have chosen religion over running. Among those times are the following:

• Not running on Shabbos, either for training purposes or races
• Carrying a bottle in a race, when a kosher sports drink was not available
• Getting up 45 minutes early to pray before going for a run

End of discussion? Not necessarily. All of those are actions. What about in thought? It seems to me that although running is not a religion, it is a devotion of sorts. It comes with its list of rules, both dos and don’ts, goals as well as evaluation of success and failure. There are those, who will say that running can be a spiritual experience. I feel that way myself. What does one do when the values of religion conflict with some part of another important area of life? It is easy to say to always choose the religious value, but how is that determined? One’s health and mental wellbeing are important from a religious perspective as well.

I’d love to have some sort of easy answer of how to find the correct balance, but I’d be lying if I said I think I am there. For now these two parts of me, continue their dance, sometimes easily sometimes awkwardly.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Who Do You Think You Are?

There is a new show on TV where celebrities examine their family history. The show, “Who Do You Think You Are?” which originated in Ireland, was brought to the US by Lisa Kudrow (Phoebe from “Friends”) who was featured in the show’s first episode. Kudrow went to Belarus after discovering that she had relatives who died in the Holocaust. There she felt an overwhelming sense of sadness and anger. In an interview, she described her 11 year old son’s desire to go back in time and kill Hitler. I don’t know her personally, but I can’t help but wonder whether she got anything more from her experience examining her roots.

Like many runners, I run with a Garmin watch, which can do pretty much everything a runner can want, other than make me faster. It lets me know how fast I am running, how far I have run and my heart rate. All of this information is stored in the watch for me to learn from. By comparing workouts, I can chart my progress and see how far I have come, and more importantly, what I need to work on. I must admit that I have never done this. I am reminded of this every few months when the watch’s memory fills up and I have to delete all of this information. It is at that moment that I can’t help but realize that, by ignoring my past, I am not progressing as much as I could.

I like the idea of this new show. I hope to get to watch it at some point. For now I have one question for Lisa Kudrow. Now that you have learned about your past, who do you think you will be?

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Man Who Has It All?

He had it all; a loving wife, a best friend from childhood who helped him pursue excellence and the joy we are sure must result from being the best at what you do. Then it was gone.

According to an article in the most recent issue of Runner’s World, Scott Jurek, the best Ultra Marathoner in the world, is going through a crisis. His wife left him for another runner, and his best friend is resentful in that by helping Scott, he sacrificed his own success. The joy from being at the top, who knows if it was ever there?

When I heard that Scott would be running in Brooklyn this past Sunday with a small group of runners, I just had to be there. Not because he is a star. After reading the article, I had to ask him if the sense of self-doubt that came from the article was true. (Besides, the thought of running with a legend seemed pretty cool. It was kind of like having Lebron James show up for a pickup basketball game at my house). With many runners trying to speak with him as we ran, Scott and I spoke for only a short time. Although he admitted that the article was a little overly melodramatic, the basic gist of it is true.

Of course, this got me thinking. We are often so sure that if we had it all, however we define the word “all”, we would be happy. It is the lack of some thing, experience or feeling in our lives that keeps us from being happy. If only we had it, things would change. Scott Jurek shows that isn’t true. Guys like him are not supposed to lose out on any part of their alleged storybook lives. Those who are the best are supposed to be happy, to be free of the doubts that can plague us mere mortals. That is why we as a culture are so obsessed with stars. Sometimes, the curtain gets pulled back and we learn that even people who have it all might be missing out on one of the most important things of all.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Starting Over (One Year to Go)

Every new race starts with a new training plan. Why not use the same plan? Every race is different. If you train for the Boston Marathon (G-d willing- I WILL be doing that in two years) you have to run hills to prepare for Heartbreak Hill. Other races come with their own challenges. Use the wrong schedule and you might be toast.

Tomorrow is Meir’s birthday (our second son). He will be turning 12. That means that his Bar Mitzvah is only one year away. That means that it is time for us to start thinking about what we will be doing to mark that special occasion. You might think that in some ways, planning a second bar mitzvah would be easier than planning the first. In a way you would be correct. We have the addresses for the invitations and we loved the caterer. Those details will not be the headaches they were the first time around. The major difference is the difference between our two boys. They are each wonderful kids. They are so different from each other. Different personalities, different skills and different interests. What worked for Yehuda will not necessarily work for Meir. In some ways this will be more challenging than a marathon as there are no set “training plans” about how to figure this out. We will have to listen to Meir, both in terms of what he says and, more importantly, what he means. Try and impose the same Bar Mitzvah on Meir and we might be toast.

As with my second marathon, I am more confident that I will survive this than I was with the first. Before we know it, we and, more importantly, Meir will be at the finish line of this stage of his life.

Happy Birthday Meir

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Be Happy

There is something comforting about the training schedules that many runners follow to prepare for a race. While some might be physically exhausting, they demand nothing of you other than running, a physical behavior. I know that I have to run hill repeats tonight. There is nothing that says that I have to enjoy it.

Looking at me externally, one might get a sense that I take my religion seriously. I generally make an effort to follow the laws, at least the physical ones. The emotional ones are another matter. Take the holiday of Purim. I gave food to friends and gave as much money as I could to the poor. The obligation to be happy? That was another matter.

I tried. I really did. I even tried dressing up in costume for a while, something I have rarely done, at least consciously. It didn’t feel real. Feeling self conscious, I went back to my regular clothes, still trying to be happy, or at the very least feel happy. I tried intellectualizing it, thinking about the good that G-d has done, both generally as well as to me personally. That led me to once again realize that the distance from head to heart is mush further than any race I have run.

Towards the end of the day we joined up with another family for the festive meal. There, at least for a while, I found a measure of happiness. The husband, who is both a scholar and one of the most kindhearted and genuine people I know, showed without trying, what real happiness is about. I’d love to tell you just how, but it’s not something I can put into words. His father, the kind of man who I wonder whether our generation can ever produce, regaled us with stories from a bygone era. The discussions around the table alternated between deep and meaningful, and light yet joyous. I even felt a sense of connection in being with our oldest son, something that has not been easy recently.

I’d love to say that I learned something that day that has changed things for me. At the very least, how the past two days have been more joyous than usual. I can’t. Nonetheless, I am not giving up. I felt something real the other day, something I want to make part of my life.