Tuesday, May 31, 2011

An Old School Race Report

As I drive home each day after work along the West Side of Manhattan, I watch with some measure of envy, runners running next to the Hudson River. Particularly on days when there is heavy traffic, I would much rather be out there with them. There is one part of the running scene that I don’t love though; the trendiness. As I watch the runners with their cool outfits, high tech watches and fuel belts filled with drinks with all sorts of artificially colored drinks, I find myself thinking yearningly of the origins of the New York running scene.

Back then, NYRR was a running club, with a president who only earned six figures if you put the decimal point up until four places. Runners ran in cotton (polyester was plaid, not moisture wicking), had only a few types of shoes to choose from, but most importantly, they ran out of passion, not because it was cool. That’s because it wasn’t cool. Running was mostly a fringe sport that attracted quiet ectomorphs.

The Van Cordlandt Running Club has been hosting trail races on or around the legal holidays. Yesterday was the latest. Despite the high heat and humidity, I knew I had to be there, having run their races before, and getting to run with my friend Yoni sealed the deal. The race had the feel of what races must have been like back in the day, with no fee, no free shirts, great people and a beautiful course. Each runner kept their own time (yes, I admit, mine was on a Garmin) and ran on a trail soaked in mud. The hosts did a great job providing us with plenty of drinks, as well as fruit (I shouldn’t expect otherwise when the guy in charge is a Fruitarian) and lots of encouragement.

It was not a day for pushing the pace and I regrettably allowed myself to walk a few of the challenging hills. Still, it was a challenging run, made easier by the shade of the trails. After a break at the half way point, we convinced ourselves to do a second loop so we would complete the Half Marathon we were shooting for. We crossed the finish line drenched, tired and smiling from ear to ear. No non-runner can imagine the incredible sweetness of watermelon after running in the heat. Sadly, I suspect that most runners can not appreciate the no-frills, all thrills type of race that we experienced. I think I will leave the Garmin home next time.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

A Different Finish Line

There are moments when I just thank G-d for being alive. As I ran easily around the track the other day, I had one such moment.

It was a warm and humid day; the kind of day that you try and stay inside. My first day back on the track since my marathon. As I ran along at a pace that would have once been hard, a gentle breeze touched my face. Even the dryness of my mouth felt impossibly good. Just as with the low moments, I know this feeling can not last forever, but I am just trying to take it in.

This Sunday is a 5K not far from where I grew up. Last year, I got one my one and only trophy there, in far lesser shape than I am in now. I feel like I would crush this race. I will not be running it though. This Sunday is my mom’s Yahrtzeit (the one year anniversary of her passing according to the Jewish calendar). I will spend the morning fasting, and try to spend the whole day thinking about life, family, G-d, goodness and stuff. There will be no race this Sunday. There will plenty of times for that. This Sunday I will cross a different finish line.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Good or Good Enough

“The perfect is the enemy of the good”. Bill Clinton once used these words to describe his policy goals (perhaps his life goals as well). A focus on getting everything exactly right, he suggested, would come at the expense of doing a good, albeit imperfect job. A friend of mine recently told me a slight variation of these words. In his version “good is the enemy of good enough”.

Now that the euphoria has partially worn off from last week’s marathon and qualifying for Boston, I find myself thinking about my friend’s words. There are two ways to look at least week’s race. It was good, maybe even really good by my standards, but perhaps, with hard work or a different approach, I might do better. With this approach, last week’s triumph becomes this week’s baseline. While this has the effect of forever aspiring higher, it comes with an equal forever needing to go higher; a lack of satisfaction with reaching the goal. On the other hand, if I look at last week’s achievement as good enough, than I am done. Literally or conceptually, I cross running off my to-do list and figure out what comes next. Here to, this is a mixed blessing. While it might allow me to celebrate my success, this approach would eliminate my discovering how fast I can go. Even more, it turns what is more about process, at least for me, into being about results.

For now I aim for the middle where I feel good. Good enough to dream.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Shipping Up To Boston- A BQ Race Report

Race Morning- My mind is a mess. Am I ready? Is it going to be too hot? What effect will the rain have on my time? Can I do it?

I pick up my friend YD from across the street and start driving towards Pennsylvania. It is only 4 A.M. but we need to get there early enough to pray, before getting on the bus to the starting line. We have nine friends meeting us for the prayer service. Do you think Ryan Hall ever had to do this before a race?

After a close call, we make it to the bus right before it leaves. The guys on the bus are locals who know the course backwards and forwards. I ask them why the first half of the course will be different this year. Apparently a church along the old route paid the race organizers $10,000 to move it. You can’t make this stuff up. For the rest of the ride I sit quietly and listen as they discuss whether they would stop to use a porta-potty if they had to go during the race or whether they would just go on the run. Ick.

I have been planning to run at a 7:35 pace, but I decide I will start with the 3:20 pace group that will be running at a 7:38 pace.

Mile 1- The pace group is going too fast. What do I do? Trust him? Trust my training? I try and stick with them.

Mile 3- The pace group has slowed down. I decide to trust my training. They will not get me there. I have to trust the training. More importantly, I have to trust myself.

Mile 4- I don’t like talking during marathons. I want to hold onto every bit of energy that I can. I listen as two runners introduce themselves to each other as Mary and Martin. Suddenly I have an epiphany. I recently heard of a brain study that indicates that people with names like Dennis and Denise are more likely to be dentists, as the brain steers people towards activities that sound like the person’s name. I bet that people with names like Mary, Martin and Marc (my English name) are more likely to run marathons. Note to self, never name a child Feivel. He will not be willing to run more than a 5K with you.

Mile 6- For a small race, the crowd support is great. I pass a woman and her young son cheering on runners. Suddenly the boy opens his umbrella and screams “yeah”. I don’t know what that means but it makes me smile.

I am in the midst of a big downhill stretch where I am going much faster than my race pace. I think of my friend Yitzy who taught me how to run downhills properly. I hope I don’t pay for this pace later on.

Mile 8- Some guy with ponytails in his hair, runs past me and tells me that I am looking great. I don’t know if he means it or is just being nice, but it helps.

Mile 10- My right shoe feels lose. I suddenly remember that even with a double knot, my laces come undone when wet. I have to stop to pull the knot tighter. AHH! For the rest of my race, my left shoe will be loose. No time to fix it.

Mile 12- Not feeling so strong. The doubts are creeping in.

Half way- I have not been looking at my time and am not sure if I am on pace. I look at the clock. 1:39:05. A half marathon PR by two minutes. All I need to do is repeat it and I am golden.

Mile 15- A guy starts making small talk and asks me my goal. I tell him “under 3:20”. He says “I guess you are also between 40 and 45”. (That is the qualifying time for guys in that age group for Boston). We run together for a while, until he falls off the pace.

Mile 16- I see a guy bent over, stretching by the side of the road. It is a friend of mine. He gets up, tries to run with me a bit and says “I’ll see you at the finish”.

I have not run farther than this since November. Can I make it to the finish? Will I hit the wall? Will I suddenly run out of gas?

Mile 18- The hills begin here. The hills that beat me last year on this course. The hills that made me walk. I decide that not only will they not beat me, but I am going to sprint up every hill for the rest of the race.

Mile 21- I remember this hill. This is where I feel apart last year. I sprint to the top and am feeling pretty good about myself. What goes up must come down, right? Not in the Poconos. A block later, there is another killer hill. If I meet the guy who designed this course, G-d help him.

Mile 23- There is a woman running ahead of me who is either the Mayor of Stroudsburg PA, or prom queen or something. I mean the whole place is cheering her on. I try and take in the cheers as if they are mine.

I look at my watch and check the time. I can not believe it. I have a shot. Quickly, I correct myself with some negative talk and tell myself that I will probably miss 3:20 by less than a minute.

Mile 24- I see a runner from my group who is one of faster guys I know. Amazingly I pass him. He calls out “Go get ‘em”. “I am trying” I respond.

I pass a synagogue on the right. Why aren’t they out cheering for me? Didn’t they know I am coming?

Mile 25- Less than 1 ¼ miles to go. I look at my watch. I have more than 10 minutes to make it. I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.

Someone cheers for the mayor/prom queen and tells her she looks great and to pass me. She does. A block later, I retake the lead. Moohaha.

Mile 26- We pass into the parking lot of the school where the race will finish. I look ahead and there are my wife and two youngest kids cheering for me. I fight back the tears.

Last 300 meters- Less than a lap around the track. My friend YD (2:51 finish and 11th place overall) is cheering for me and tells me to finish strong. I am going as fast as I can, but have no kick left.

3:18:40. 7:35 per mile. My goal on the dot. BQ. Holy cow. I did it. Holy cow.

My wife has a Dropkick Murphys t-shirt with “Shipping Up to Boston” on it. Is it odd for an Orthodox rabbi to like Irish Punk? I am vast. I contain multitudes.

I talk to my brother in Israel. He BQed a few months ago (he is still 33 seconds faster, but I am cool with that). WE are going to Boston. My wife and kids come over. I am in heaven. I am smiling so hard it hurts, in a really good sort of way.

I head home. Home to send out e-mails, FB messages and texts to everyone I ever met. To take my oldest sons to the Red Sox-Yankees game. (The Red Sox will win. It is a Boston sort of day). To celebrate.

My brother, with a small assist from me, sends me a message with one of the cleverest double entendres ever; “You pred because of the beet juice”. (Try and figure it out. It’s VERY funny). So many friends and family members respond with kindness and pretend to understand my insanity.

Come April, G-d willing, I am shipping up to Boston!


A few years ago, I Began a Quest. At first, I was Basically Quiet about it. Little by little, I started to let people know that I thought it would Be Qool to qualify for the Boston Marathon. After running my first marathon in 4:15, I knew I would have to Be Quicker to have a chance. Of course it would Be Queer to want to get faster and not work on it. Realizing that I had little speed, I Began Qilling myself in training. 40 miles a week BeQame 50, which soon BeQame 60+. Many friends BeQame fans of my Big Quest. It soon Became Qlear that their encouragement would Be Qey to my making it. Adding to the pressure was when by Brother Qualified before me. Even with all the training, it Became Qlear that I would need help from the weather. As race day BeQoned, I was very nervous. With longest runs only reaching 16 miles, I was scared I would BonQ. Late in the race, it Became Qlear I would make it. As the emotions washed over me, I tried not to BreaQ down. Waiting for me at the finish was my amazing wife, and two of our Beautiful Qids. I want to Be Qlear; I am thankful to G-d, my family, friends and blog readers. I am BasiQally floating on cloud nine. How will I celebrate? Maybe with a BarBQ.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

A Little Beet Insane

I am not exactly the health food store type of guy. It’s not that I am not into being healthy. I am very careful with what I eat, and as for exercise, I take that pretty seriously as well. It’s just that to me, health food stores are kind of weird, foreign and a bit crunchy, sort of like San Francisco. So what was I doing in a health food store the other day?

I sometimes wonder whether the articles in running magazines are big jokes at my expense. I can just picture the writers talking and saying, “Do you think we can get him to eat cauliflower?” “No, no, no, replies his friend, “let’s write an article about how wearing shorts inside out will make a runner faster”. OK, they probably aren’t doing that, but I am crazy enough to try any advice I read on running. So there I was in a health food store asking for beet root juice. Someone had written how drinking a liter of beet root juice each day during the week before a race was proven to improve performance and so I had to give it a shot.

In three days I make my next last chance at qualifying for Boston. Someone pointed out to me yesterday that this obsession seems to be based on qualifying, more than it does on Boston, and I can’t really argue. I have run more miles than ever for this race, had one of my toe nails turn (permanently?) black and even entered a health food store. It feels a little insane. Yet somehow, I feel this almost existential need to do this. To qualify, to somehow feel worthy, to make into the club.

I suspect some of you, even those who run, can’t relate to this. For those who do, I make a toast and say thanks for the encouragement, as I drink some beet root juice.

Monday, May 9, 2011

What's Up Doc?

My head was still spinning. I had been diagnosed with Type II Diabetes, the disease that killed my father. Now I was at the doctor, the specialist in this illness. He was telling me that I was going to have to check my blood each day. How could I explain to him that I would never be able to do this? That the sight of blood puts me into a state of panic? That by telling me to prick my finger with a sharp object, he might as well have been telling me to cut off a limb each day? He gave me the choice of starting with medicine right away, or trying to lose weight first? I hate taking medicine. I told him I would try losing weight. He asked me how, and I told him that I had purchased a stationary bike and was riding it each day. He told me I would never stick with it.

I run my next marathon this Sunday. I have run everyday for the last two plus months, other than two days of Pesach (Passover) where Jewish law prohibits running. I have run each Saturday night in the dark, often by myself, sometimes in the rain. I hate running at night, but having no choice, I have done so. Saturday night, on my last night run before the marathon, I happened to run past that doctor’s office. I thought back to our one conversation.

That’s right, one conversation. I never went back. Within three months I lost enough weight that my Diabetes was gone. Within seven months, I ran my first half marathon. Within 10 months I lost 100 pounds and was at my weight from high school. I never drew blood once. In a way he was right. After riding the stationary bike every day for a few months, I started running. I didn’t stick with the bike. I only use it occasionally as a way for training for marathons.

He’s lucky he doesn’t have more patients like me. If he did, he’d have to find a new job.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Worrier King

I am a worrier. It’s not that I enjoy worrying, I just worry. I am always sure that something will go wrong. I worry equally about things that are in or out of my control. With my next marathon only 10 days away, I am top form.

You would think that as a worrier, I would pick a conservative training plan with tried and true methods. Instead, after reading about a different approach in Runners World, I decided to use a different plan. Even the writer of the article said he was nervous when he saw that his longest run pre-marathon would be only 16 miles. There is comfort, he acknowledged, in doing long runs or 20 miles or more. Of course, for him, everything worked out well. He set a PR which had stood for 10 years. As for me, while I am sure I will beat my time from 10 years ago (every time I walk a block in less than a half hour I do that), and am cautiously optimistic that I will PR (I PRed this course last year with less training), I am VERY scared that I will not hit my goal time. Throw in my fear that the weather will not cooperate, and of course, I am a mess. On the positive side, I will not be in mourning for a parent during the week before the race, as I was last year.

Wish me luck!

Monday, May 2, 2011


With the setting of the sun on Friday night, I completed the 12 month mourning period for my mom. It was a moment for which I’ve been waiting for a very long time, at moments yearning desperately for it. It is difficult to describe how it felt. Not surprisingly (To a hammer, everything is a nail) I felt in a way like I was crossing the finish line at the end of a race.

Of course that comparison only goes so far. In a race, the goal is to go as fast as possible, in order to finish in the shortest possible time. In this case, there was nothing I could do to effect the passage of time. Many times, it felt as if time had stopped, as if G-d had somehow slowed the setting of the sun. At times, I wondered whether time was going backwards. During the entire twelve month period, I felt as if I was in a bubble where all sounds from the outside were muffled and those from the inside were intensified. Already hyper sensitive to my feelings, I wanted so badly to shut them off; to drown out their noise. Was this the reason I was forbidden to distract myself by listening to music? To force myself to face my feelings?

There was no training for this race. The fact that I had already been through it with my father did not help. If anything, it made me dread it more. Knowing what was coming in many ways made it worse. Perhaps not always, but sometimes, ignorance is indeed bliss.

When I got home from shul (synagogue) on Friday night, I passed a mirror. I instinctively did a little hand raise, a la Rocky Balboa, similar to what I do when I finish a race. There was a difference though. At races I let out a scream, a bit primal in nature, as I cross, full of joy and relief to be finished, to have reached my goal. I do fell relieved to be done with the mourning and yearn to go back to feeling normal, or at least as normal as I ever feel. Sitting in my regular seat in shul, something off limits to a mourner brought me so much joy, it almost seemed absurd. Is this what it feels like to get out of jail?

I went to a wedding last night and it felt great to hear live music and dance and just be part of crowd. Truth is, even activities that I could do all year, feel different. A walk I took with my wife, as our three youngest children rode on their bikes, was particularly uplifting. Perhaps that is difference from other races. In general when I race, I dress as light and as free as possible. This past year’s race felt so heavy, as if I was carrying someone else with me. I don’t know if it was my mom, or just a heavier version of me. For the first time in what seems like forever, I feel free.