Wednesday, November 28, 2012

A Race WELL Run

If you had asked me last week to name my favorite race, I am not sure that I could have answered you. I might have mentioned my first half-marathon in Miami, my first marathon, or perhaps running Boston this past April. After this past Sunday, I have THE answer.

As races go, it was pretty nondescript. It was a local 5K with a small crowd and a cotton t-shirt as the only schwag. It was far from my fastest 5K and only about two minutes faster than my slowest. So what made it so great? The company.

Our daughter Maayan is the 4th of our seven children, and thus, the dreaded middle child. I think we treat her pretty well, but I think she sometimes feels that she doesn't get enough attention. Sunday was her chance to shine. Despite the fact that she never ran more than a mile before, she said she wanted to run the 5K. I was impressed by her spunk and I already know about her tough spirit, so, despite my concerns about an 8 year-old running that far, I agreed. I knew she'd have to walk part of it, and maybe even most of it, and I figured we'd be out there for about 45 minutes, with a pretty good chance to finish last. I expected there to be other kids there, but I assumed they'd be better trained. I was a bit concerned when Maayan said she didn't want to be last.

We got to the race and signed up. Maayan looked both adorable and beautiful with her long hair pulled back in a ponytail, her skirt, winter jacket and gloves. It didn't hurt that she has a smile that can melt my heart. As we waited on the starting line, it occurred to me that she was the youngest by six or seven years. Then, as the Mayor blew the air horn, we were off.

She started out at a pretty good pace, running the first half mile at less than 10 minutes per mile pace. We both knew she couldn't hold that pace the whole time, but I let her choose when to run and how fast. We were towards the back, but a funny thing happened. Every time we took a walking break and the people behind us got closer, Maayan took off. She was, as usual, very determined. As we ran the course, which went through a section of town where most people are Hispanic immigrants, Maayan quickly became a favorite. People on the side smiled and called out “La NiƱa” and “La Primera”, which even I understood, despite my anemic Spanish skills. Despite becoming increasingly tired, particularly when we hit a couple of hills towards the end, Maayan refused to quit.

As we neared the finish line, I looked at my Garmin and realized that she was going to beat the time that I ran at my first 5K, nearly five years before, by a couple of minutes. She sprinted across the line with a giant smile on her face, finishing in 33:39. A number of people many times her age finished afterward.

As we waited for the awards ceremony, I hoped against hope that they would give her an award. I didn't dare say anything to her about it, as I didn't want her to be disappointed. As the Mayor got up to speak, people came over to congratulate her, giving her high-fives and even took her picture. Suddenly the mayor said “Before I give out the trophies to the winners, I'd like to call up someone who inspired all of us today”. As it dawned on Maayan who he was referring to, she perfectly combined 8 year-old shyness, with pride. Needless to say, the whole crowd broke out in applause.

I suspect she has many faster days ahead of her, and I expect that she and I will run more races together. I doubt any of them will be more special to me than this one.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012


I'm truly amazed by what my friend Mark accomplished on Sunday. It's not that he completed his first Ironman (2.4 mile swim, 112 on the bike and 26.2 mile run for those who are wondering), although that's certainly impressive enough. It's how he did it. It all leaves me wondering, what does this mean for me?

I have to admit that when I first heard that Mark signed up 12 months ago, I thought he had made a huge mistake. Sure, he was a great cyclist and a pretty fair runner, but he couldn't swim. I don't mean he couldn't swim well. I mean he couldn't swim at all. We're talking about floaties and a kickboard in the kiddy pool. He was giving himself only about one year to learn to swim 2.4 miles in open water. Even knowing how determined he is, and even with the fact that he doesn't know how to quit, I thought he was nuts. I didn't tell him, because the $700 or so he paid to sign up was non-refundable, but I certainly thought it.

Then a funny thing happened. He refused to fail. He shook off the naysayers and his own fears and he started to learn. Along the way, he considered quitting, but he never gave in to the little voice that told him that he had bit off more than he could chew. Like a little kid, with an atomic jawbreaker, he kept on going, sure he would get there. And of course, he did.

As I watched him cross the finish line on my computer the other night, I found myself considering what this means for me. I have to admit that somewhere, not so far in the back of my mind, I'd like to do an Ironman one day, although I too can't swim a lick. He's tried the old “if I can do it, you can do it” approach with me, but I'm not so sure he's right. After all, he's younger and single and can afford to pay for lessons and the race fee and, and, and. How much of this is sound logic and how much is the pessimist in me, I'm not so sure. I often see the glass as completely empty and am amazed at the optimism of the guy who sees it as half empty. Yet, there is this little voice in the back of my head that says “maybe”.

For now, I've “liked” Ironman on Facebook and will be getting their little reminders from time to time. At the very least, in this time when there is a new James Bond in the theater, I'm reminded by Mark to never say never.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Harrisburg Race Report

I guess sometimes you get what you ask for. After waxing poetically about the joys of small town marathons in my last blog, events occurred that caused me to have to change from the Philadelphia Marathon this coming Sunday, to yesterday's Harrisburg Marathon. Maybe I should have written about the joys of having lots of money, or hair on my head, but I digress. What follows is my recap from yesterday.

Pre-race I wake up in Harrisburg where the temperature is in the mid 40s. The forecasters have it going up to the 60s by mid day. I have two shirts with me; a singlet and a short sleeve shirt. Now, one thing you have to know about me. I am THE master of over-dressing for a run. My approach is to avoid shorts and a t-shirt when a parka and snow pants are available. I wear balaclavas in the summer. Naturally, I put the singlet back in my bag. I eat a couple of skinless potatoes (breakfast of champions) and head to the starting area.

After waiting on the most important line several dozen times, and meeting a few people,, including one guy who is running his 100th marathon, I line up towards the front waiting for the gun to go off. Then without any Sinatra, or any other music or even warning, the gun goes off. So much for having time to worry. My goal is to run 7:30 per mile for the entire race.

Mile 1- We ahead across the bridge over the scenic Susquehanna River for a little tour around Harrisburg. Basically, it's a short circle around the downtown area, of what is the capital of Pennsylvania, despite being its 9th largest city.

Mile 2 Back to the path along the river. I try and fall into a rhythm as I imagine myself running on a treadmill next to my friend Shelly. I am starting to get warm and going a bit too fast.

Mile 3 Boy, I bet that singlet would feel really good right now. We turn onto a gravel path which is scenic and makes my knees smile. Ok, not really. Still, I start thinking about my next race being a trail race instead of one on pavement. Then back onto the path by the river back towards the bridge. The cheering is good and I'm feeling pretty good.

Mile 4 I almost offer encouragement to a runner before realizing that she is doing the marathon as part of a relay team. Ech. I can't stand those guys. They are always so perky. I'd be smiling too, if I knew I only had to run 6 miles and change.

Mile 5 Back across the bridge. Right back towards the baseball stadium where we started. Well that was a lot of effort to go nowhere. We go a little further and then... you guessed it, back across a bridge. It is this bridge which the website describes as offering “a break from typical solid ground, the closely spaced iron grid work of the Walnut Street Bridge is a welcome running experience (runners may also choose to run on the concrete sidewalk on the south side of the bridge)”. A break from solid ground? Iron grid bridge? Perhaps I should consider toilet water as a welcome break from sports drink.

Mile 7 Speaking of sports drink, the drink they are using is not certified as kosher, so I am stuck with water with sports beans. Have I mentioned that it's hot? Being a small town race, the water stops are not that frequent. This is going to be a challenge.

Mile 8 We pass the governors mansion as we run along the river. There are all sorts of signs with historical markers, but now is not the time to read. I see signs for the Civil War Museum and think of my friend, Rabbi Karp, a fellow civil war buff. There are some interesting statues include one of a soldier with a bayonet. I am reminded that today is Veteran's Day and that running a race is not what makes someone heroic. I pass a little girl doing cartwheels and think of my daughter, Maayan, who loves to do them as well. My family is not with me today, but they are still with me, if you know what I mean.

Mile 9 As with every race, there are spectators with signs. One guy has a sign that says “my father can run faster than yours”. I wonder how awkward it would be if I told him that my father is dead. I decide not to find out.

Mile 10 Than I meet Dennis. I've been looking for someone who is running the same pace so that I have some company. He is shooting for 3:18 while I am shooting for 3:17, which is good enough for me. I don't know it at the time, but we will stick together for the next 15+ miles.

Half way- I am not measuring my overall time and there are no clocks but I am right on pace with what be a PR in the half of around 1:38. I am relieved. Ed Whitlock, recently set the record for 80 year-olds in the half. I might not be fast, but at least my time would be a PR for some age group. Hmm, I wonder what the 5K record is for 90 year-olds.

Miles 14-17 Dennis and I continue to chat and run. I remind him to run the tangents, and to slow down, partially to stay on pace, partially because I am struggling. We are at the part of the course they don't talk about on the website. It is an industrial part of town with traffic open in both directions, with a requirement to get across the road. It's kind of like Frogger without the background music.

Miles 18- 20 Hills. Really tough hills. There are three of them in a park that is quite picturesque. We attack them, but they fight back. The ¼ mile with rocks underfoot that are big enough that I can feel through my shoes, doesn't help. We struggle a bit up a somewhat steep overpass. I am not feeling good at all.

Mile 22 I am ready to give up. There's no way I can keep this pace. I tell Dennis to go on without me. It feels like a scene in the movies where the soldier tells his friend to tell his family he loves them. Dennis plays his role perfectly and tells me to hang on until the next mile marker. This is the turning point in my race. If he's not there I give up on the spot and run easy for the rest of the race. Instead I make it to mile 23.

Miles 23-25 Somehow I get a second wind. We are really pushing and passing people. Dennis, who has to be the nicest guy I've ever met, offers encouragement to every person we pass. I can barely talk. Somehow, we are running between 7:10-7:20 a mile. Dennis asks me my PR and when I tell him, he tells me to get ready to break it. I want to ask him our time, but I am too tired to speak. Up ahead is the finish line. Only problem is it's up on the bridge. To get there I have to run underneath the bridge, practically make a U-turn and go UP a sharp hill. That is just cruel.

Mile 26 People are cheering for me using my race number. I am trying to figure out how I am at mile 26 with the finish line still being 100 miles away. It's also moving away from me. Somehow I catch it. 3:16:25. PR by 2:15. 7:30 per mile. I literally feel like I am going to pass out. I have visible dried salt all over my face. 364 days a year I live by the mantra that “food is fuel, not fun”. Not today though. Over the next 10 hours, I eat two bags of chips, two power bars, a banana, two chocolate bars, a bottle of chocolate milk and about 12 servings of chinese food.

My three fastest marathons have all been run at small races in Pennsylvania. Some people try to run in all the famous races. Others try for a marathon in every state. Me? I think I am the king of smalltown, Pennsylvania races, with solid color, long sleeve running shirts. Allentown, I'm coming. Bethlehem Running Festival, piece of cake. Reading Marathon, you are mine!

Monday, November 5, 2012

Thoughts from a Repentant NY(C Marathon)er

Growing up in New York, I thought it was the only place to be. It had lots of people, it was loud, it was fast, it was happening. I couldn't imagine living anywhere else. Then something funny happened. I moved away and stayed away for over ten years. During this time, I discovered something interesting. There were many things I didn't miss about New York. The large crowds, the noise, the energy. Suddenly, I wasn't so sure I wanted to go back.

I've spent a lot of time thinking about running in general the past week, and the New York City Marathon, in particular. I was shocked when it was not canceled right away and then flabbergasted in the way that it was, so close to race day. I thought of my friends who were supposed to be running, as well as what I would do if I had to choose whether to run, but mostly I thought about the victims of the storm and how small and petty we runners must have looked to them.

At one point, I too wanted to run NYC. It was one of the biggest and most famous marathons in the world and it was so close to home. After running it (twice, in fact), I understood why it was so famous. The crowd support, 1st Ave., running through the five boroughs and so much more. Still, I also finished with a feeling of not wanting to do the race again. It was too crowded, it was overpriced, it was run by an organization, NYRR, that I believe in many ways has lost its way. Since then, I have discovered the joys of small town races, with their charm and scenery, cheaper prices and room to breathe out on the course.

I was heartened by the way so many runners responded with kindness in the days following the storm and the cancellation. I'd like to think there is an additional silver lining. Many of my friends who were supposed to run have chosen to run in other races that are relatively close to New York. Some will be small town road races, others involve people trying the trails for the first time. It is my hope that they will discover that there are many great opportunities out there and ways to run. NYRR might not change, but perhaps some runners will.

Finally, given the choice of running or deferring, what would I have done? Would I have let my training go to waste or would I have refused to take part, realizing that it was not all about me? Perhaps the best way to answer the question is with a story.

A rabbi once asked his student what he would do if he found a wallet with ten thousand dollars inside. “Return it” said the student right away. “What are you, a fool?”, said the rabbi. The next day, the rabbi again asked the student what he would do if he found the wallet. This time the student answered “I'd keep it”. “What are you, a thief?” replied the rabbi. Unable to think of any other possibility, the student asked the rabbi what he should have said. “I will not know until I am in that situation”.