Learning from the 2012 Brooklyn Half

On May 19 I had the pleasure of running the hugely popular Brooklyn Half Marathon. This NYRR event sold out within a matter of hours after registration opened, and had over 14,000 finishers. The race starts in Prospect Park at 7:00 a.m., a fact for which I was grateful despite the inconvenience of having to get out of bed around 4:00 a.m. to get there in time from South Orange, NJ. The temperature was forecast to peak at around 80° F but it was about 58° when we started — quite reasonable. I was happy to avoid another scenario like the 2012 Boston Marathon, where the punishing heat made us renounce all ideas of any goal other than survival.
My goal here was to crack 1:30:00 for the first time. (By way of background: I am a week short of 54 years old and have been running seriously for about four years, after over 20 years of consistent but casual jogging. In the grand scheme, a 90-minute half is not spectacular but it is entirely respectable.) My previous PR was 1:30:24 set on March 4 at the E. Murray Todd Half Marathon, which I treated as a tuneup and diagnostic for Boston. Two weeks after that I set another PR for the 10K distance, using that tuneup race almost as a substitute speed workout. I approached both of those races with an enthusiastic but reasonably relaxed, let’s-see-what-happens attitude which I think served me well. Both were among my more disciplined races, with an even, realistic, quality pace most of the way and a slight pickup at the end — and I had fun. Then came the debacle of Boston, a disappointment that took me a week to get over, after which I set my sights on Brooklyn as a way to get some revenge. The months of work that went into Boston had not been adequately rewarded; I wanted to cash in.
Three of us South Mountain athletes set out before sunrise by car to Manhattan, parked in a lot and took a taxi to the start, arriving with little more than sufficent time to dump our official plastic bags with our personal effects at the baggage check and start standing in line to pee. One or two ritual trips to the Porta-Potty were not quite enough for me this time. Standing in my corral for 20 minutes prior to the start I was having doubts about whether I had sufficiently emptied by bladder, which usually gets me through a half marathon without complaint.
We got underway, and Mile 1 went by in 6:43, several seconds ahead of my target pace, but not too bad.
Upon seeing some available Porta-Pottys I made the fateful decision to drain it, and ran a 7:21 for Mile 2. Not good. I was 12 seconds behind the pace and needed to pick it up.
Mile 3 was 6:22, way too fast. I hadn’t meant to make up the deficit in one mile but it happened anyway — my feet were doing that left-right-left-right thing a bit too frequently.
Mile 4: 6:50. I wanted to see a number between 6:50 and 6:52, so this was splendid.
Mile 5: 7:01. Disappointing, but my watch said a total 34:17 had elapsed, a few seconds ahead of the goal pace.
Mile 6: 7:02. Now I was behind the pace again, and not sure why. There had been some hills, but I didn’t think they should have slowed me down so much. Demoralized, I wished I had a Metrocard or cash on me so I could quit and take the subway to the finish at Coney Island, get my gear and go home. Instead I picked up the pace.
Mile 7: 6:32, way faster than intended. What happened to my discipline and self-control?
Mile 8: 6:46. Acceptable.
Mile 9: 6:58, several seconds too slow. I was now paying for the excess of miles 3 and 7, getting fatigued, and looking forward to getting this over with. It’s probably not uncommon for runners in this condition to squint into the distance in search of the next mile marker.
Mile 10: 6:54. A little slow, but my watch read 1:08:29. Still on pace to meet the goal if only I can hang on.
Mile 11: 6:50. Excellent!
Mile 12: 7:01. Shit. From here on I was trying to give myself the “run faster” command but could not get myself to obey. There was no part of me that hurt particularly, and I couldn’t determine which component was giving out: legs, lungs or will?
The final 1.1 miles took me 7:40, a 6:59/mile pace. There is a short, steep ramp up to the boardwalk that surprised me when I ran this course two years ago, but this time I was prepared and charged it with furious anger, exhaustion or no. Over the last couple hundred meters the motivation of seeing the finish in sight was enough to get me to stop obsessing at long last and run much faster than at any point hitherto. But it was too late: my official time was 1:30:01. I had missed it by two seconds.
south-mountain-brooklyn-half.800x600.jpg
Failure to hold the pace in miles 12 and 13 killed me, but the chain of cause and effect leads back to miles 3 and 7 in which I squandered too much energy, and further back to the bathroom episode which brought about my anxiety about recouping lost time. Further still, and we come upon the real teaching point of this experience. There’s no doubt that my fitness was good enough to run the course in 1:29:59, and experience shows that I am capable of executing a plan. So what went wrong? At Boston a spectator was holding up a sign that said “Running is 80% mental and 40% physical.” We got a kick out of the joke, but like most good jokes, it points to the truth. My successful races in March were ones where my attitude was more relaxed; I ran for enjoyment, not just to achieve goals. In the days preceeding this race I created too much pressure by vowing to redeem Boston, and added an extra, unhelpful layer of uncertainty and doubt. For best results, this sport of distance running requires you not just to tune up your physical fitness but also your head — your other 80%, if you will.
That brings me to the happy conclusion, after all this hand-wringing and overthinking. Next time I will crack 1:30:00 by 10 or 15 seconds, because there will be nothing to worry about: I know I can do it. And I still have ahead of me the pleasure of passing this landmark.
P.S: It was a successful day, my sloppy performance notwithstanding. I beat my previous PR by 23 seconds and came in 22nd of 363 in my 50-54 age/gender group. But that’s not all. Five of us South Mountain Runners were in the race, and three set PRs. The unstoppable running machine Lucky John Parry (rightmost in the photo) ran 1:21:50 and was 9th, yes 9th of 554 in the men’s 45-49 age group in this competitive, massive field. Our own venerable head coach Bill Haskins posted a 125:18, 29th of 948 M40-44 (on the left on in the photo); Hamish Wright (next to Bill), 1:24:43 and 29th of 1339 M35-39; and two other locals not shown in the photo ran strong.
But wait, there’s more. This South Mountain team was 9th in a field of 63 in the men’s 40+ category. Translation: we kicked some ass. And we look forward to going back and kicking some more.

I survived the 2012 Boston Marathon

In December 2011 I started 20 weeks of training for the Boston Marathon on April 16, 2012. For this my fourth marathon my goal time was 3:17 to 3:18, a two or three minute improvement over my person record (PR) 3:19:55 that I ran Boston in 2011.
For those not familiar with the marathon game: this goal represents not a spectacular but a thoroughly respectable time for a man in his mid 50s For context, consider that a world-class male marathoner will run 26.2 in a few minutes over two hours, and the guy who won the men’s 50-54 age group last year ran a 2:34:52 — preposterous, but conclusively demonstrating that it is possible. From my point of view, anything under around 3:10 is seriously kicking ass, and getting much below 3:00 is unfathomable.
At my modest level of experience one has already learned that it is unusual for a training cycle to go smoothly from end to end. Injury, sickness, extreme weather, or a personal or work-related situation of some sort will often present challenges in addition to the expected physical and logistical demands of the mileage. I was therefore grateful that this time my training had gone remarkably well — mild winter, no death in the family, no more than a few days downtime due to a cold in February. Then, in the days just preceding the race, the organizers saw the forecast for temperatures in the upper 80s and began to email dire warnings to race registrants. As the forecast temperatures rose, so did the tone of alarm in the emails. In the last of these they urged anyone who was not extremely fit to withdraw from the race, and those who did not should slow way down, forget about racing and treat it as an “experience.”
I grudgingly revised my race plan. The PR goal was abandoned; instead, I decided aiming for a Boston-qualifying 3:30 would be acceptable, a full 30 seconds per mile slower than my ideal. But fear and uncertainty set in. During the last two days I had an persistent, unpleasant feeling that I could not quite identify — until 3:30 on the morning of the race, when I awoke in my hotel room to the realization that my problem with this enterprise was simple: I did not want to do it. Running 26.2 miles in the high 80s has never been on my list of things to do in this life. I must have understood that while this was unlikely to end in catastrophe, it was certain to be truly painful — even more so than your typical marathon effort. Hence my fantasies about running away rather than running the race.
We have a robust community of accomplished distance runners in the area where I live, and one of my running companions was also in this race — I’ll call him Patrick. When I mentioned to him that I was tempted to bail on the project, Patrick reminded me that we aren’t just in this for ourselves. All of us support and encourage each other so strongly that we are invested in each other’s success. I was never entirely serious about walking away, but this strengthened my resolve. It takes character to be insane.
The nervous early hours of race day morning went by quickly, and then we were in the starting area, already sweating in the sun at 10:00. The Boston Marathon has upwards of 20,000 runners, so the start is staged in three waves which in turn are organized into corrals based on expected pace. My friend Patrick and I were both assigned to the first corral of Wave 2. Patrick is similar to me in age, but a substantially faster runner, so I was pleasantly surprised when we spontaneously decided to run together. And off we went, at a pace a little below 8:00/mile for the first several, largely downhill miles, thinking this sufficiently conservative.
The first 10, 12, 13 miles went by in reasonable comfort. No longer attached to PRs, we made the ride as fun as possible, engaging with the crowds, entertaining ourselves, watching out for each other. We drank copious amounts of water and Gatorade, as did everyone; around the hydration stops we kicked our way through masses of discarded Poland Spring cups. We also dumped countless cups of water onto ourselves; our clothing, shoes and socks were saturated most of the way. And our 8:00/mile gradually gave way to 8:15, 8:30, 9:00, and beyond as we let the conditions dictate the pace.
Our friend and coach — let’s call him Bill Haskins — was monitoring our progress from afar via the Athlete Alert service, which sends to your phone or email address a snapshot of a runner’s pace and time as of 10K, 13.1 miles, 30K, and finish. Every time Patrick and I crossed one of the electronic timing mats together, I drew deep satisfaction from knowing we were sending the signal back home to Bill that his runners were hanging tough, and hanging together.
Around mile 17 the course takes you through about four miles of what are called the Newton Hills, the last of which is known as Heartbreak Hill. We ground our way up the first hill at a moderate but steady pace, and I felt encouraged. I was experiencing some pain, but nothing too extreme.
By the top of Heartbreak I felt like shit, and struggled to hold a pace faster than 10:00/mile. Every step was pain from my hips to the soles of my feet. I wondered if there might be some way of putting my foot down that did not hurt. In retrospect I realize there is indeed such a method: it’s called walking. Thousands of people were doing it, but we never seriously considered it an option.
A couple miles after Heartbreak, Patrick was suffering even worse than me; he bade me go forward without him, and I reluctantly complied. At long last, the right turn onto Hereford Street, then left onto the final stretch of Boyleston. For the last quarter mile I managed to increase my speed to something comparable to the 7:30 I had originally dreamed of averaging, and crossed the finish in 3:43:41. Unable to decide whether to puke or pass out, I did neither. Patrick showed up about a minute and a half later. We greeted each other with the greatest high five of all time, then staggered onward together to collect our medals and head home.
All of our running friends commended our courageous performance. It is gratifying that we had the fitness and the fortitude to get through this with dignity, and the intelligence to manage our pace and hydration well enough to avoid the hospital. But in terms of absolute performance, it was a terrific frustration and disappointment. Nobody wants to train for 20 weeks and 1000 miles just to be thwarted by a one-day spike in temperature (the days following and preceding were of course much cooler). The post-race challenge for me has been to get my head around what happened, accept it, and move on. This too, I realize, is part of this strange and wonderful sport of distance running.

Highlights from 2011

Here are a few salient events from another interesting year:

  • I won myself a trophy for third place in my 50-54 age/gender group in a half marathon in Monmouth County, NJ. This is remarkable because it was not long ago that the very idea was inconceivable. The trophy itself is hideously ugly, but I am glad to accept it nonetheless.
  • I ran my third marathon, in Boston. In short, it was a successful and rewarding venture. See this report if you want the gory details.
  • I won my age group in not one but two local 5K races — small ones, but still… The second was noteworthy because I was actually disappointed in my performance, feeling sluggish and uncomfortable and posting a slower time than I thought I should. Winning my age group and still not satisfied — have I lost my mind?
  • My stepfather died at the age of 93, in March. He was an accomplished astronomer who led a long and productive life, and is remembered with great admiration and affection by hundreds of people.
  • In May I crashed the shit out of my car, with two of my kids in the back seat. It wasn’t good, but could have been far worse.
  • My uncle died at the age of something like 88, in August. He too was a smart man who managed to get through his long life pretty much doing as he pleased, founding and running a successful aerial photography business.
  • One of our cats, Master Lin-chi, used up a couple of his lives. First he disappeared for a full week, during the summer. He had us grieving and stapling flyers to trees all over the neighborhood. Then he walked into the house, skinny and filthy but very much alive. We have no idea where the hell he was.

    As if that wasn’t enough, he then surpassed this performance by surviving an encounter with a car with nothing more than some bruises and abrasions. I took him to the vet (and what a splendid vet he is, Felix Escudero at the emergency clinic in Bloomfield, NJ) who pronounced him OK.

    I don’t remember if it was before or after that incident that I called him to come home one evening, when he hadn’t been seen for 24 hours. When he still didn’t show up I called a little louder, and heard a faint whimper in the distance. Following the sound, I located him in the back yard two houses away, trapped in what’s know as a “Have a Heart” trap — a cage that automatically closes when an animal enters to get at some bait, stepping on a metal plate in the process. It seems that our neighbor had set it to to catch some other creature that had been giving him grief, and then saw fit to leave for the weekend. Thus Lin-chi sat with no food or water, next to a little pile of his own shit, until I rescued him. I got him out and otherwise left the trap as I found it, shit included.Master Lin-chi

    (You may say, obviously this cat should live entirely indoors, and I wouldn’t disagree. But it’s not an easy policy to enforce, and I am of two minds about the issue of letting cats go outdoors — a topic for another day.)

  • Like so many others on the planet,we endured extreme weather, including tough snowstorms, a brush with a hurricane in late August, and a seasonally inappropriate winter storm in October that left us without power for a full five days.
  • Our four kids got a year bigger, all them thriving and developing and fascinating my wife and me.
  • My lovely wife and I observed another wedding anniversary, and are still crazy about each other. It’s a glorious thing.

why?

when you awaken at some ungodly hour
ease your way around your dreaming spouse
to sneak through the house like a thief
and put on your running shoes
and even the cats look at you
as though you’ve lost your mind:
you will ask
why am I doing this?
because.
because when you begin to run
down the street
your footsteps will echo
off the sleeping houses.

My fabulous car crash

post_crash.720x540.jpgSo I’m driving along a two-lane highway in upstate New York on a pleasant afternoon in May, with two of my four kids in the back seat: Josie, my stepdaughter, almost nine years old; and my daughter Gabriela, eight. One of them says, hey my iPod battery has run down. Let me see that, say I, and start to fumble with the iPod and a charging device. Now I look up and see I have drifted into the left lane and say oh shit — steering wheel in my left hand, iPod in my right — and overcorrect to the right. Next thing I realize is that we are going off the road, and I have enough time to think, ok, we are going off the road, what next? Next is that terrible sound and sensation of thud. Then I realize that we are upside down, and I am thinking, ok, this isn’t good, and start trying to figure out how to extricate myself, having forgotten for the time being about the girls. That’s the last thing I remember until an indeterminate number of minutes later, when I’m on my back being questioned by paramedics.

According to what I’ve been told, another motorist driving behind us saw the whole thing and came to our aid. We had gone into the ditch on the right of the road and rolled one and a half times. She helped each of us out through the holes where the windows had formerly been. I am told I was conscious and talking, though I remember none of this. She then got my wife Amy’s phone number from Josie, and called her. Amy set out driving the five-plus hours to where we were, with our other two kids coming along for lack of any child care.

I can remember having trouble reciting my address when asked by the paramedics, and being told that we would take a helicopter ride to a hospital better equipped for head traumas than the nearest place, which happened to be half a mile from the site of the accident. Josie and Gabriela were taken there, and got lousy care. Josie had been briefly unconscious and had a gash on her leg below the knee, good for ten stitches; Gabriela had some cuts on her hand but was otherwise relatively unscathed. The personnel attending to Josie should have had the sense to follow standard protocols for kids who have likely concussions, but did not. We got her proper follow-up care after we got home.
The girls told me that as we were about to be loaded into our respective ambulances, I gave them the thumbs-up sign. It’s gratifying to hear that I tried to give them some proper parental reassurance.

I recall some of the helicopter ride, such as lying on the floor as the paramedics cut me out of my clothes. Have you ever had the thought — or had someone tell you — as you were getting dressed, that you should wear nice underwear in case you get into a serious accident? As we were preparing to leave for this trip — the return trip following a weekend at my parents’ house — I was looking around for clean underwear, and had trouble finding some. So I said the hell with it, and pulled on my jeans. It’s a safe bet that the paramedics were unfazed by the sight of my dick.
As we flew along I said to them that I usually had plenty of snappy jokes but was sorry that I could not come up with anything at the moment. They said don’t worry about it. It seems that when we’re in crisis, sometimes our minds want to cling to normality. I have this image of myself as affable and funny, so I wanted to be affable and funny.

I was thirsty and asked them for water. They said, sorry, we can’t give you any because you might have to go right into surgery. I thought it unfortunate that they couldn’t give me water because I was thirsty; I was indifferent to the prospect of surgery. I asked whether the girls were ok, and recall hearing one of paramedics remark to the other that it was the third time in ten minutes I had asked that same question — the point being not that I was annoying but that I had a head injury.

There came a moment in which I thought, this is what is happening and I do not like it, but I don’t have to like it. Just be present to what is. That’s what we call Practice.

The first few hours at the hospital are vague. Someone gave me a phone and I spoke to my wife, and ex-wife, crying into the phone with anguish at having rolled the car with our kids in it. I was assured the girls were OK. I remember being presented with the standard forms on a clipboard, and a pen. I was trying to read, lying flat on my back with the clipboard blocking my light, and no reading glasses. I was particularly interested in finding the agreement to pay clause so I could cross it out and initial it, this being my invarying practice. I tried to sit up to get better light, and got into a bit of an argument with my handlers, telling them I do not sign open-ended guarantees to pay arbitrary sums of money for yet-to-be-determined services, insurance notwithstanding. (In fact, no one should ever agree to these terms, but should resist in self-defense and as protest against the broken healthcare system.) They finally said forget it, don’t sign.

I had a concussion, cervical fracture and scalp lacerations. The neurosurgeon told me I was lucky, which struck me as rather a strange remark until I realized that he meant relative to what might have happened. Curiously, these injuries haven’t been particularly painful. People kept offering me morphine, and I would say, no thanks, what for? I wanted to be lucid to enjoy my wife’s eventual arrival. Finally she did, no thanks to the utter lack of signage pointing the way to this primitive outpost in rural Pennsylvania. She stayed with me as much as she could, and spent the night on a chair in the waiting area when they kicked her out of the ICU.

A guy punched staples into my scalp, in a scene reminiscent of the movie The Wrestler. It was painful, so I was joking that it didn’t hurt, and was that the best he could do? As he finished the job, he said he was done but he could give me another staple if I wanted. Not really, I confessed.

About 24 hours after I was admitted, some physical therapists got me out of bed, walked me around the ward and pronounced me fit to leave. My wife drove us all back home to New Jersey, where I convalesced for a month.
Staying out of work was a pleasure. The first few days were difficult, because I was banged up, but the rest was a joy. If retirement is like this, I’m ready. My neurosurgeon told me we could not even discuss running for two months. After nearly fainting from the initial shock (I am a devoted distance runner), I recovered almost immediately, resigning myself to reality and realizing that worrying doesn’t help.
I spent my days shuffling around the house, gradually doing more activities like housework, and taking advantage of the free time to do more zazen than usual. Paperwork and phone calls about insurance and medical bills also consumed substantial amounts of time. The financial impact of lost wages, replacing the car, etc., is non-trivial but tolerable.

Spending ten hot summer weeks in a neck brace also sucked, but I tolerated it without complaining overly much. I came out of the neck brace in early August; at the end of September I ran a half-marathon within the moderately ambitious goal of 1:40:00 that I had set, finishing in 1:38:48. This result is far from a personal record, but coming just a few months after being airlifted away from an auto accident, I accept it with gratitude.