Monday, October 25, 2010

A World Apart

More than any marathon in the world, the New York City Mararthon is known for the diversity of peoples and cultures one encounters during the race. Each neighborhood has its own sounds, sights and smells for the runner to experience. Still, there is only one neighborhood which tugs on my soul and conscience.

Years ago, long before I became a runner, I saw a great picture in Sports Illustrated the week after the marathon. Five chassidic girls in matching dresses, stood, in age order, holding cups of water for passing runners. Without reading the caption, I knew these girls were from Williamsburg, where there is a large contingent of chassidim. Each year, the marathon passes through the heart of the neighborhood.
Chassidim seem to make other Jews uncomfortable, even those of us who are Orthodox. While most Jews try to cover upp signs of their Jewishness, or at the very least minimize them, Chassidim are openly and obviously Jewish. They dress differently and speak differently, and perhaps most significantly, they choose to remain separate, while most of the rest of us try to integrate into society around us, at least to some degree.

As I enetered Williamsburg last year, I was struck by a change in the atmosphere and energy level. While in every other neighborhood, the runners are embraced by the locals, in Williamsburg, they are largely ignored (or at least given the feeling that they are ignored). It is not that the locals are rude, far from it. Children stand out each year with drinks and candys for the runners. Still, it is clear that, given the choice, the chassidim would love to be able to go about their daily existence, without the inconvenience that the marathon presents.

For me as an Orthodox Jew, I experinced various emotions and thoughts as I ran through Williamsburg last year. While I have clearly chosen to live my life differently, I have much respect for their way of life. There are moments in my life when, overwhelmed by the secular nature of modern life, I wish I could withdraw to a more spiritual and insular community. Converesely, there are moments when I feel embarassed by chassidim and their distinctive ways. Why can't they just try and fit in? I looked around, feeling at once a sense of kinship with the locals, while at the same time, more than most most runners, feeling the sting of being ignored. I watched as other Jewish runners tried to greet the chassidim in Hebrew and Yiddish, but I continued to run in silence.

Although it might seem strange, I welcome the mixture of feelings and even the discomfort I feel as I run through Williamsburg. With more than half of the marathon still ahead of me, I know I will be embraced and welcomed in a way unique to New York. Still, it is this small chassidic enclave with its silence, that speaks to me.

Thursday, October 21, 2010


Great minds are lightening rods. You might love what they say, you might hate what they say, but it is hard to ignore what they say. The great Chassidic master, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, a profound and enigmatic thinker, was one such individual. Recently I have been thinking about one his sayings; “if you believe that you can destroy, believe that you can repair”. Like much of what he wrote, there are many layers in this short phrase.

At first glance, Rabbi Nachman seems to equate destroying and repairing. If so, he is saying that if you can do the former, you can just as easily do the latter. Personally this does not ring true. I find that it is far easier to destroy something than to repair it. Recently, in a film about the Yugoslavian civil war and its effect on the national basketball team, Vlade Divac said “It takes a lifetime to build a friendship and a moment to destroy it”. Fixing something that has been broken is difficult. Even now, two weeks from the NYC Marathon, more than two months removed from knee surgery, I struggle t get back to where I was as a runner. Even more challenging is the fact that the struggle is more mental than physical. I have no problem putting in the miles I need to improve. What I am struggling with is the mental willingness to push hard enough to get back to where I was. It seems that during my injury imposed layoff, I lost something; something I struggle to regain.

So what was Rabbi Nachman saying? I believe he was encouraging us to recognize the strength that we possess within. We have, he says, the ability to change things completely; to go from one extreme to the other. Just as we can take something that is working and functioning well and destroy it, we can do the reverse. We can reignite the broken relationship, repair the broken heart and recover the passion and commitment we once possessed. It is not easy, no where as easy as destroying. Still, the choice lies within.

PLEASE donate in my mom’s memory to help children with cancer:

Monday, October 18, 2010

Of Cleveland, Friends and Runs

We drove about 900 miles this weekend to attend my closest friend’s son’s bar mitzvah in Cleveland. Here are some things I took out of the weekend.

- There is a city in Pennsylvania called “Mile Run”. I was disappointed to discover that it is not a city of moderately fit people. A “run” according to Google is a creek.

- On the way there we passed a sign that must have been put up by the Department of redundancies department. It read “Mile Run- One Mile”.

- That was much better than the factually incorrect sign we passed on the way back. This one read “Mile Run- Two Miles”.

- My wife is even more competitive than I thought. During the ride she told me that if she trained as much as I do, she would be faster than I am. Mustering up all of the maturity I possess, I told her that if that happened I’d either stop running or get divorced. I was joking…I think.

- When one forgets to pack running socks, it is good to have a wife who also runs. Thankfully, they were not pink.

- It is a REALLY BAD idea to eat eggplant parmesan the night before a 15 mile run.

- It is REALLY, REALLY BAD to take doubles.

- It is just plain STUPID to do so, and get less than five hours of sleep.

- Thank G-d, Suburban Cleveland has many wooded areas.

- Fall foliage is beautiful, but there are some things for which leaves were not intended.

- It is good to have a good friend who doesn’t abandon you when a 15 mile run that should take two hours, takes almost three.

- A grandmother can never be replaced, but it takes a special lady like my friend’s mom, to try.

- Watching your children play with your friend’s children is priceless.

- True friends are special. It would have been worth the drive, even if it had been 9000 miles.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Gift

If there is one quote that is most commonly used by high school runners in their yearbooks, I would guess it is the famous quote from the James Dean of running, Steve Prefontaine. Pre used to run at the front of the pack in order to push the pace, and when asked why, he said “To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift”. Recently I found myself thinking about “the gift”.

When my knee injury required surgery and a two month break from running, I was extremely disappointed. I had been making progress and thought that I might qualify for Boston in the NYC Marathon. The injury made than an impossibility. Despite my best efforts to keep fit while I was recovering, I put on some weight and lost whatever speed I had. In the time since I was given the green light to start running, I slowly started adding on miles. This Sunday was my first big test. I ran my first race, a ½ marathon, which was by more than two miles, the longest distance I have run post-injury. Despite being more than nine minutes off my best time, I felt good about running well and pain free.

And yet…

A friend of mine decided to join me for the race despite not having run a step in almost three months. Without any training, he beat me by eight minutes. Without any training, never having run a ½ in his life, he just missed my PR, a PR I set with 55 miles a week of running. Although I joked about it with him afterwards, I would be lying if said that it doesn’t bother me. While I am naturally broad, even at my thinnest; he has the runners build. While I struggle to improve my speed, he was running sub-five minute miles in high school. Many would say he has “the gift”.

And yet…

I don’t know whether he will ever run a marathon, let alone qualify for Boston. It is not that he doesn’t want to; he freely admits that he just doesn’t have the level of commitment it takes, for now, at least. I, on other hand, will work as hard as it takes, to reach my goal. If I am less naturally qualified than others, than I choose to work harder to get to the finish line as quickly. Through all of this, I have started to apply this stick-to-itiveness to other areas of my life. Some people have told me that I am their inspiration for getting in shape. I have raised tens of thousands for charity and lost 100 pounds.

I will keep trying. To do any less would sacrifice the gift.

PLEASE donate in my mom’s memory to help children with cancer:

Monday, October 11, 2010

Staen Island Half Recap

5:00 I wake up from a dream where instead of a bus taking me and a bunch of other runners to the start of a race, we are taken by plane. Only thing is, the plane is driving not flying. (Sadly, this is the fastest I will go all day.) I guess I am nervous.

5:25 About to head out the door, I eat two bananas and a pack of Sports (Jelly) Beans. Breakfast of Champions.

5:35 I pick up my friend who has chosen to run the race on the spur of the moment. He has not run a step in almost three months. I urged him to reconsider. I told him that I thought he would get injured. I am really afraid that he will beat me without any training.

6:15 I arrive in the parking lot, where 15 guys have gathered two hours early for a sunrise prayer service. As I am in the year of mourning for my mom, and need to lead prayers, I literally would not be there without their help. I am thankful beyond words.

7:02 The sun rises over the Manhattan skyline right as we get to the main part of the prayers. It is at moments like this where all seems right in the world.

7:15 An old man, who has been running for about 200 years, comes over and describes the course for me. Jewish tradition describes Elijah the Prophet showing up at moments of desperation to help those in need. Could it be?

Clark Kent time. I change from my prayer clothes into my running clothes.

7:45 I figure out the best porta-potty line. Best advice of running advice ever? Get on line right away. When you get back out, get back on line.

8:25 I go over my plan. I hope to run at 8:45-9:00 per mile pace. If I am feeling well, I pick it up at the end. I hope to finish in less than 2 hours. 1:55 if I am feeling great. I:53 if things go perfectly.

8:30 We are off. Adrenaline courses through my veins, or wherever it is that adrenaline courses. I try and slow down.

8:55 I keep on running too fast. I am averaging 8:35 per mile for the first three miles. Up ahead is the Verrazano Bridge, the starting point for the NYC. My heart skips a beat at the thought that despite my knee injury, I might actually make it to the marathon.

9:20 We hit a B-I-G downhill. What goes down must come up, at least on an out and back course. I am not worried. Elijah told me about this hill.

9:35 I spot one of the founders of JRunners, the group that is trying to get the Jewish community into running. I tell him how good he should feel knowing that the group has 20 runners at this race, many of whom would not be running without him. Throughout the race, we shout words of encouragement to each other. Maybe we should be known as the People of the Foot.

9:50 Back up THE hill. I take it nice and easy. I spot three runners helping a wheelchair racer up the hill. I offer my help, although they make it without me.

10:00 We enter Fort Wadsworth. In four weeks, this will be the area where 40,000 plus racers wait to start the marathon. It will feel more like a city than a fort. I think of my brother who ran the marathon with me last year. I wish he could do it again. I guess we’ll have to wait for Boston.

Mile 10 I am feeling good and pick up the pace.

10:05 Less than 2 miles to go. Time to throw caution to the wind. I cover the next mile in 7:20. I see him again. He is wearing all orange, including a huge floppy hat and giving passing runners high-fives. Elijah would never be caught dead in a get-up like that.

10:15 I start trying to pick off runners ahead of me. Hey guy in the all green, you are toast. Hey lady who passed me earlier in the race, it’s pay back time. I even pass the guy who won the race. Of course, he is walking in the opposite direction heading for his car, having finished over a ½ hour before.

10:20 I cross the finish line having run the last 1/3 mile at 6:40 pace. My lungs hurt, but I do not. 1:50:44. It is more than 9 minutes slower than my best, but so much more than I had hoped for.

10:30 I see my untrained friend. He finished in 1:42. It is his first half marathon. Did I mention that he did not train? I think I hate him. At least he is limping. After much inner debate and struggle I decide not to leave him stranded in Staten Island.

I am tired, sore and elated. When I hurt my knee this summer, I never thought I’d be running this soon. The marathon seems like a realistic goal. I wonder what Elijah will be wearing that day.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Four Days in October

I will not use ESPN movies to come up with ideas for my blog
I will not use ESPN movies to come up with ideas for my blog
I will not use ESPN movies to come up with ideas for my blog

…starting next week

There are many reasons not to write about this past week’s ESPN movie “Four Days in October”. I call this blog “Running Thoughts”, the movie was a baseball movie. It is a stretch to write about a movie that I watched while running on a treadmill. Even more problematic, I already did this last week. Then at least, it was a running movie. Still, I can’t resist.

First of all, it’s October. As a red-blooded American, my mind is on baseball. Of course, my beloved Red Sox, whose miraculous come back victory was the theme of “Four Days”, are home for the playoffs. Even worse, the hated Yankees are still alive. Second, how often do I laugh, cheer and call out to the screen while running on the treadmill? As I watched the Red Sox comeback from down three games to none, down to their final three outs, scenes I have seen many times since their victory in 2004, I found myself doing all those things. Anything that makes me happy while running on the treadmill is connected to running. If I could have a pickup truck with a screen drive in front of me with this movie playing, I am convinced I could run a sub 3 hour marathon. It is that good. Third, there is pathos in watching the movie. Even though I know how the story ends, I found myself getting tense with every Yankees hit and every Red Sox out. Even more so, every Sox fan they interviewed had the same experience I had when I listened to the game as it happened live six years ago, a sense of certain doom. 86 years of futility can do that to a person, a city and even a region. Even if you are not a baseball fan, watching millions of us suffering fools finally taste victory has got to be pretty powerful.

After the Sox won the series, my wife told me about a short story she once read about a community that spent years futilely hunting a bear. After years, someone finally killed the bear. What should have been cause for celebration, led to depression. They came to realize that the failed hunt had brought them together. I fear it has become that way for the Sox. Real fans bemoan the fact that Fenway Park has become a place to be seen, rather than a place for real fans to watch a game, a place where people come to sing “Sweet Caroline”, rather than watch the Sox. It is hard for me to imagine that my youngest son, the only one who is a Sox fan (the others are Yankee fans, how is that for pathos?) will turn five tomorrow in a world where the Red Sox have won more World Series in the last ten years than the Yankees (note to G-d, please, pretty please keep it that way. I’ll be a better person, I’ll help orphans. PLEASE). The 28 years of suffering I went through before the Sox finally won, were worth it for moments of joy like I experienced while reliving “Four Days in October”.

PLEASE donate in my mom’s memory to help children with cancer:

Monday, October 4, 2010

Fox the Phoenix

I have gotten used to not having a TV. I no longer know which shows are on, and other than occasional sporting events, there are few times, I wish I could watch. Only twice, in the 15 years since we got rid of our set, have I felt compelled to run in front of a screen. This past Tuesday was one of those times.

30 years ago, the idea of raising money through running was unheard of. Terry Fox, a young man, in his early twenties, changed that. After his cancerous right leg was amputated, he decided to run across his native Canada to raise awareness and money. Although he was a runner, prosthetics were not nearly as advanced as they are now. There was no internet to broadcast his run and he started out with little notice in New Foundland, with a goal of running over 5,000 miles.

Little by little, his countrymen and media started to take notice. People started coming out to cheer him on, run with him or donate. He found himself running a full marathon each day and then speaking to large crowds at night. All this time he slept in a van. Sadly he didn’t finish his journey. After 143 days and more than 3,000 miles, the cancer returned. A short while later, he died in his native British Columbia.

This past Tuesday, ESPN, as part of a series of sports themed movies, showed a documentary about Fox’s life. Although I had heard about his run, I found myself engrossed in the film. Watching him limp (it is hard to call it running) a full marathon every day, brought me to tears. As I watched, I realized that my “challenge” of running five miles on a treadmill was a joke. More than that I felt inspired; inspired not just to keep on running, but to use it as a cause for good. I found myself thinking of new ways to use running to help others.

Although Terry Fox did not finish his “Marathon of Hope” it would be absurd to view his quest as a failure. By the end of his run, he had raised 1.7 million dollars. Subsequently, over 10 million more was raised in a telethon. By the time of his death, the total had reached over 23 million. Fox’s story didn’t stop there. After his death, his family founded the Terry Fox Foundation, a foundation that continues to hold races, raise awareness and much needed funds. To date, over $500 million has been raised, all due to the efforts of this heroic young man.

When I finished my run that evening, there was still 10 minutes left in the film. I slowed to a walk to watch the rest. Although I had considered running for the rest of the time, it was probably for the best that I did not. It is tough to run through tears.

PLEASE donate in my mom’s memory to help children with cancer: