Monday, November 29, 2010

Unbroken- A Story of Tragedy and Hope

What gives one person to survive in incredibly trying circumstances when another gives in? This is a question that has been asked in various contexts, among them the Holocaust. I have read attempts to try to figure out how some made it through the living hell of Auschwitz, while others did not, or could not.

I recently had occasion to think about this. I just finished reading "Unbroken", an unforgettable book about Louis Zamperini's life. Zamperini, at one time a favorite to first break the four minute mile, put his running dreams on hold when World War II broke out. As an officer in the Air Corps, he saw action in the Pacific theater. After a plane he was in went down, he survived in a lifeboat, with no food and little water for almost seven weeks , and then for two years as a prisoner of war in a hellish Japanese POW camp. Finally, after the war, having become an alcoholic in his attempts to deal with his personal demons, he managed to recover and continues, at age 94 to live a productive life. The author of the book, Laura Hillenbrand (who also wrote the bestseller Sea Biscuit) chose the title to describe the trait that got Zamperini through the challenges of his life. He was, it seems, at least in retrospect, unbreakable.

A former student of mine, a young women of only 20, was found dead yesterday after having gone missing on Saturday morning. I did not know her well, but I have been unable to get her out of mind since I heard the terrible news. Apparently, behind her quiet and sweet disposition, there was a world of pain. This bright and beautiful young woman, who seemed to have so much going for her, had struggles that were not clear to me and, perhaps, not to others. At moments like this, I am left only with questions. I do not know if other students will reach out to me, but I am unsure what to say; to them or to myself. For now, I watch from 3000 miles away as her family, friends, classmates and teachers try to figure out how to deal with this terrible tragedy. I wish I could be there; for them as well as for myself. I hope that now, belatedly, this young woman has found peace through her pure essence, an essence that is unbroken.

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

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Keeping It Real

Sometimes, in trying to write deep or philosophical ideas, the truth gets covered up.

I was reminded of this on Sunday during a 10 mile run. Despite the fact that winter is only a month away, the weather here in New Jersey has been fantastic. Although it was a little cool when I headed out to run, the cool air felt great as I breathed it in. As I fell into my rhythm, I passed a duck pond, surrounded by trees, some of which still stubbornly held on to their foliage. Later, a huge flock of birds, perhaps less appreciative of the good weather than I, flew overhead heading for a warmer local. Further on I passed some small waterfalls, no less beautiful for having been man-made. There were ducks in the water, which seemed to not mind the artificial lake anymore than I did.

For almost an hour and a half, I breathed in the air and my surroundings, feeling thankful and appreciative for the many kindnesses that G-d has given me. That might not be deep or philosophical, but it is real.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Long May You Run

Meeting someone who is among the best at what they do is pretty cool, but meeting a hero is more than that; it is inspiring.

At the NYC Marathon expo, I met two of the greatest runners of all time; Ryan Hall and Greta Waitz. I enjoyed meeting two people who made it to the top of the running world. Still there is a limit to what I take away from the experience. While I understand that good genes alone would not have led to their success, there is not much that I can learn from them. While I wouldn’t mind if Asics would offer me an endorsement deal to become a full time runner, I am not exactly waiting for that to happen.

I remember when I first saw the picture of Matt Long. It was not the picture one expects to see on the cover of a running magazine. While he was clearly in shape, his body was covered in scars. I opened the magazine curious to find out who this man was. Once I started reading I was captivated; captivated by the story of a fire fighter who was fit enough to qualify for Boston and to complete an Ironman Triathlon, and then had his life change when he was literally run over by a bus. As someone who sometimes allows life’s challenges to get me down, I was amazed by his comeback. Not only did he survive a near death experience, not only did he relearn to walk, but he ran the NYC Marathon, only a few years after his accident.

I got to meet Matt at the expo. He was there signing his book “Running Long”, which tells the story of his comeback in great detail. As much as I enjoyed meeting Ryan and Greta, I was inspired by Matt. I don’t know if I will ever qualify for Boston or complete an Ironman. I certainly have no plans to get hit by a bus. I do plan on being more resilient, of learning to keep on going even when I want to quit.
Gives new meaning to the term long run.

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

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Family That Runs Together...

When I was growing up, there was a commercial that tried to encourage prayer. The commercial showed a family praying. It closed with the phrase “The family that prays together, stays together”. Leaving aside what I thought of the commercial, or the idea of selling prayer as a way to connect a family, the motto has stayed with me. Recently, as my wife and some of our children have joined me in running, I have been trying to think of a similarly catchy phrase. “The family that runs together, has fun together”? Definitely not a keeper. “The family that runs fast together, lasts together”? Obviously, I have a long way to go.

Yesterday, only one week after the marathon, I, along with four of our children, got to sit on the sidelines and cheer on my wife, as she ran a 5K. Then a short while later, I got to “pace” our 6 year old daughter in a one miler, while her older sister ran solo, not needing my help.

Although my wife finished in 28:30, a time that was disappointing for her, I enjoyed sitting on the sidelines for a change rooting her on. From the first time I ran three years ago (35:28 at the same race) Rochie has given me nothing but encouragement. She has put up with my obsession with running, and the costs, both monetary and time, that come with it.

After Rochie caught her breath, it was time for the one mile run. Maayan, the child who is most likely to run a marathon with me one day, has the makings of a great runner. She is thin, full of energy, and like her mom, very determined. In the past she has done the run-walk method; running as hard as she could, until she could no longer breathe, and then having to walk, before breaking out, once again, in a mad sprint. We decided (by “we” I mean me) that her goal for the race would be to go slower but to run the whole time. While we ran, she gave a running commentary (“Look at that little boy. His t-shirt is almost as big as he is”), while I tried my best to get her to look where she was going. Although her breathing was a bit heavy, and I told her she could slow down a bit, she kept on running. Without 1/10th of a mile to go, we saw her older sister up ahead, who was walking a bit. I called out that she better start running if she wanted to beat her younger sister. She broke into a sprint and managed to finish in 10:29 good for 10th in her age group. 17 seconds later, with a finishing kick of which I can only be envious, Maayan crossed the line, placing 6th in her age group.

As we drove home after the race, everyone was chatting excitedly, even our two youngest who are not yet old enough to run. I tried to work on my slogan (I couldn’t even figure out what could rhyme with “The family that races together”). I couldn’t come up with anything, but I am not worried. We have time to work on it.

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

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

NYC Marathon Recap

2:00AM I wake up… three hours early. I guess those two alarms I set were not necessary.

5:35 I leave for the bus with my wife and youngest son. I am glad to have the company

6:15 After getting on the bus, I am greeted by a friend and fellow runner, Martin. Apparently I am his good luck charm as he has run two races with me and set PRs in both. Maybe I should start charging him money to race with him?

7:20 We get to Staten Island. Instead of helping us stop, the volunteer at the bus drop-off waves us on thinking we are an empty bus. Amazingly, the driver gets back on the highway. After a mutiny by the 40 plus runners, she agrees to drop us by the side of the road rather than going around to the next exit.

7:25 I find a port-o-potty. This will be a common theme throughout the day.

7:30 I make it to the minyan (prayers) area 30 minutes late. Certainly not the best prayers ever. My mind is everywhere but where it should be.

8:15 Having checked my bags, I hang out with some of the runners. It is cold. We stand around the few warmer areas trying to stay warm.

8:55 We head to the starting area, although the race will not beginfor 45 minutes. What do I do while I wait? Put it this way. When I passed the starting area yesterday on my way to work, I looked fondly at the bushes on the side of the road.

9:40 The cannon goes off. Sinatra is singing New York New York. Everyone is cheering. Fighting the adrenaline, I start out slowly as planned.

I knew I would be thinking of my mom, but not his soon. I fight back the tears and run on.

Someone calls out “Go Team Lifeline”. It is Ralph, a guy I know who is running for Team Ohel. I cheer for him and say hi.

Mile 2- We get off the Verrazano Bridge and the good folks of Brooklyn are waiting and cheering.

We pass the “Marathon Bank”. I can not understand how they are not outside running some sort of promotion.

We pass all sorts of doctors offices including orthopedic surgeons and psychiatrists. I can not understand how they are not outside running some sort of promotion.

Mile 3- My bladder is getting bladder-er.

The crowd support is amazing, but no one is cheering for me. Desperate for some love, I call out the name of my charity to some Orthodox Jewish women. Scared, they ignore me.

Mile 4- The lines at the porto-potties are insane. There are no lines at the Dominican restaurant. I dash inside.

I hear someone cheering with a strong New York accent and think of my dad. I know he would be out here today cheering for me if he was still with us.

Mile 5- I see someone in a Red Sox hat. I call out “Go Red Sox”. I will do this four more times during the race.

I hear my friend Aharon calling me. Like me, he is running his second NYC Marathon. Seeing him gives me a boost.

Mile 6- The signs are great. Some of the funniest are rated R however, so what happened in New York stays in New York.

Desperate for cheers, I look for signs that are similar to my English name “Marc”. The closer the better, but I'll take anything with an "M". I smile when I see Mark, feel good when I see people rooting for Marco, am buoyed by signs for Madeline and am encourage by people cheering on Madeline. Hey, whatever helps.

Mile 7- It is getting warmer and I ditch my favorite ski cap.

I see students cheering for their teacher. My students are home in bed. I hope the students who were out there cheering get better grades than the ones my students will be getting.

Mile 10- I am looking for my friend Arie with whom I have reconnected through Facebook. I haven’t seen him in 25 years. He and his fiancĂ© are out there, along
with a million other New Yorkers. No luck, although he sees me.

I pass a sign that says “Run like a faucet”. I call out “more like a leaky toilet”. I have no idea what that means but desperate for oxygen, it seems awfully funny.

My bladder is now at its bladder-est. I stop again. Perhaps it is sacrilegious to say this, but I seem to be having my own modern day Chanuka “miracle”; every time I empty my bladder it immediately refills. I doubt they will make a holiday for my miracle.

Mile 11- I am in Williamsburg, home of one of the biggest Hasidic enclaves in the world. I recognize that that calling out “shalom” will mark me as a dweeb. Recognizing that it is the beginning of the new month, I start calling out one of the three possible phrases that might mean “happy new month” in Yiddish. This ensures that 2/3 of them still think I am a dweeb. Apparently some of the remaining 1/3 does as well. I do get a few smiles and waves.

13.1- 2:01 I am hoping to finish in less than 4 hours and will now have to push on.

I am now in Queens, the borough in which I was raised.

Chabad, a ubiquitous Jewish group used to give out Powerade because Gatorade was not kosher. Now that Gatorade is certified, Chabad’s sign says “free Glatt kosher snack”.Glatt kosher means the snack is some sort of meat. I am really curious as to whether they are giving out cholent or corned beef sandwhiches.

Mile 15- I reach the 59th street Bridge. I have no energy. Even when I hit 1st avenue, with its cheering throngs I struggle to pick up the pace. I start looking for signs that are blue and yellow, as those are Team Lifeline’s colors. Fortunately, those are the colors of some cheese company that is sponsoring the race. I pretend their signs are for me.

Mile 17- Someone cheers for me. It is my friend Steve. It really helps. I look up and see that I am by Lenox Hill hospital, the place where I was born. Apparently, good things happen to me there every 39 years or so. More frequent, if you include the birth of my sister four years after mine, which I sometimes do.

Mile 19- I am battling on. I see a guy with a yarmulke and say “shalom’. Yes, I am that desperate.

Mile 20- Somehow, I have gotten my second wind. I head off into the Bronx.
I pass runners who are wearing shirts that say Team Gimelstob. Justin Gimelstob is a former professional tennis player who has a bet with Andy Roddick for $10,000 to charity, as to whether he can finish the race is under 4:45. I am rooting for him. I like runners. Besides, his name sounds vaguely Jewish and when you are looking for Jewish sports heroes, you’ll take whatever you can get. I ask one of the runners, “Where’s Justin?” and he points to his right. I wish him good luck and I pass him.

I am in the Bronx and think of my dad, who grew up in the area.

While I am running, I hear the sound of someone spitting and then, you guessed it, I feel it hit me. I am grossed out. My first thought is” I hope he is not running for Team Dangerous Communicative Disease”. My second thought is “Hey, that’s warm”. It’s a cold day, what do you want from me?

Mile 22- I pass the point where my wife and kids cheered for me last year. This year, my wife is at a Bas Mitzvah. I miss them.

Mile 24- I enter Central Park. I am hoping to see two friends who are watching the race. Ehud, a new running friend, is one of the nicest guys I know. Despite being much faster than I am, he always offers kind encouragement. Melanie, works for Chai Lifeline and has offered kind words and deep thoughts since we met on the plane to Miami four years ago. I don’t see either of them, but I am glad to think of them.
I am pushing it as I realize I have an outside chance at 4 hours.

Mile 25- I pass the last water stop where a fellow Team Lifeline member is giving out water. I never stop that late in the race. I call out a quick hello.

I see a runner with an Israeli flag guiding a blind runner. Despite my desperation to get to the finish line, I go over and say “Am Yisroel Chai”. He smiles and I run on.

Mile 26- I am almost there and I am sprinting. I am going faster than 8 miles an hour. Moshe Turk, who does an amazing job running Team Lifeline cheers for me. I wonder if he thinks I have been running this fast the whole time.

4:01:10. I just missed my goal. My bladder did me in. Usually I would feel disappointed, but I am not. Four months ago, I had a knee injury that I thought would keep me out of the race. Three months ago I had surgery. Two months ago I started training. I only ran more than 15 miles once. I feel good. I feel proud. I am back. I will aim to qualify for Boston in the spring. For now I am happy. Happy that I am a runner. Happy to blessed with a great family and wonderful friends. Happy to be alive. Happy.

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

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Letting Go

When I wrote in last year’s NYC Marathon recap how I almost threw away my watch, rather than wearing it for the race, people thought I was crazy. Would it really have been a big deal to wear an extra watch, weighing less than a pound, throughout the race? Later in the race, I came close to throwing away my empty belt rather than wearing it for the last few miles. It felt impossibly heavy.

A quarter of an ounce does not seem like a lot. Neither does three ounces. So why are running-shoe companies always trying to produce a lighter product? Carry around anything for 26.2 miles and it starts to feel like a burden. You might not be able to quantify it, but every bit makes a difference.

What do you do when you can’t get rid of something heavy? When you can’t just deposit it in a trash can by the side of the road? What happens when the extra weight is inside of you? When it’s not the kind of weight that can be lost by better eating or through exercise? What then?

Fear can be a powerful motivator. It can be the thing that spurs you on to push yourself that much farther. Without my fear of failure, of not reaching some self imposed time in a race, I would not train as hard. There are times when the only thing that gets me out of bed to run, is the fact that I am scared of “failing”.

And yet.

What if there is another way? What if I could somehow replace my fear, a fear that sometimes crushes rather than pushes me, with something better, something healthier? What would it feel like to cross the line in a time I have never before achieved, and wait more than ten minutes before asking myself “what’s next”? Would I run faster? Would I enjoy my running that much more? Would I feel calm during the days leading up to the race? What if I let the fear go? Can I let the fear go?

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

Monday, November 1, 2010

Touched by an Angell

As strange as it seems, the last week before a race is the toughest time for me. Although, or maybe, because, running is at a minimum and free time is at a maximum, I go out of my mind. To make matters even worse, it is hard to adjust my carbs-heavy diet during this time and with less running, there will likely be more of me to carry 26.2 miles. This past Shabbos, I found myself reading Roger Angell’s memoir “Let Me Finish”, at least partially, to distract myself.

For those of you who have not heard of him, Angell is a contributor and former editor of The New Yorker as well as baseball writer of note. I knew him as the latter before I knew anything of The New Yorker. My dad bought me a number of Angell’s baseball books, which I appreciated at the time for the baseball more than the prose. Now that I have belatedly discovered the other side of Angell, it is too late to let my dad know how much I appreciate the prose.

Angell, who is 90, writes with a fondness for the past. Although he writes with nostalgia for the people and events of his youth, he refrains from looking at the past as perfect. Although I’d love to feel a connection to my dad’s past as I read Angell, I can not. It is not just the 15 years that would separate them if my dad was alive. Angell’s upper crust Upper East Side childhood, bears no resemblance to my dad’s childhood in the Bronx. While Angell grew up with both a regular dead and a famous step-dad (E.B. White author of Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little), my father’s dad was gone by the time my dad turned 12. Still, as I read through the memoir, I can’t help but feel a connection with my dad, wishing I could discuss this book to him. I dare to dream that I might lend him the book when I am finished, so that we could discuss its content more intimately.

As strange as it seems for a man of 90, each chapter comes across as a blog of sorts. Angell meanders through his past reminiscing wistfully, as he examines moments from his life, as one might examine an old photograph. Each paragraph seems to digress from the one before it, only to be tied together neatly by chapter’s end.

As I read his words, I compare them with my own, and, of course, mine come up short.
Just this past week, I found myself discussing Shabbos with my students. We talked of the real purpose of the day and why otherwise perfectly fine secular pursuits are put aside for 24 hours. Perhaps there was some degree of hypocrisy of reading this book, on the very first Shabbos after our discussion no less. Still, as I thought of my dad and grew nostalgic for a somewhat more innocent past, I felt as if I’d been touched by an Angell.

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