Tuesday, November 20, 2007

49 Seconds: How Do You Define Success?

I'm not sure who has been looking more forward to the end of this marathon season: me or all the incredibly patient people in my life who have had to put up with me. The pacing might have been less than perfect since June, but it's over...six months later.

I'm a believer in not burying the lead (or, as we spell it in the journalism biz: the lede). I finished the Philadelphia Marathon yesterday in 3:41:48. My Boston Marathon qualifying time was 3:40:59. While my race was a personal best by 7 minutes, I missed my Boston dream by 49 seconds.

I guess there is a natural, human instinct to be disappointed with that. For some reason, I'm really not. I crossed the finish line, looked down at my watch, and instantly thought: I did everything I could. There's nothing I could have done differently.

I don't remember the last time I crossed a finish line without second guessing myself immediately. Did I eat enough? Drink enough? Did I go out too fast? Too slow? Did I let myself give up when I truthfully could've pushed harder? What mistakes did I make? Yesterday I didn't ask those questions. I couldn't come up with the answers if I tried.

I arrived in Philadelphia on Friday night. The plan was to get up early on Saturday, go for a quick run, eat breakfast, get to the expo, and then head out to the 'burbs for a friend's baby shower. Everything was going according to that grand plan until we arrived at the expo at Temple University. My friend and teammate Jennifer and I agreed it would be a quick trip, which comes as no surprise to anybody who has shared a race weekend with me. I despise expos. I hate them. I spend as little time as possible at them. Unfortunately there was a 45-minute wait in a line of anxious runners that wrapped around the arena. Admittedly I have little tolerance for these events to begin with, but it mystifies me when race organizers force runners to wait in long lines the day before their marathons. There has to be a better way.

After a little bit of panic (but not an official meltdown ;-)) about being late for the baby shower, I made it there, played baby bingo, hung out with my college girlfriends, resisted cake, opted for water over punch, and headed back to the hotel to get ready for dinner. I had about 30 minutes before it was time to go to the restaurant, so I didn't do as much resting as I generally do the day before a race. I didn't feel tired, drained, or irritable, though, which was a marked difference from the way I felt the day before the Chicago Marathon.

Dinner was a blast. Michelle made reservations for all of us at Dante & Luigi's. The food was delicious (penne vodka), but the company was exceptional. Having such a great group of friends there to support me and each other was perfect. It was relaxing and reassuring just to hang out together for a while.

And then my phone started ringing. And ringing. And ringing. And ringing. Text messages, voice mails, even a few real conversations. There are absolutely no words I can find to adequately explain how startled I was by the outpouring of well wishes I got in the days leading up to the race from my teammates, coaches, friends, and family. If there is ever a time in my life when I somehow feel alone, somebody needs to knock some sense into my head and remind me of the past week. At the risk of sounding ridiculously cheesy, I clearly felt loved!

When we got back to the hotel, I started getting ready for the next morning, until there was a knock on the door. Avi and Deana had arrived and I was beyond excited. I haven't traveled to a major race without these two for a year now. I'm not sure I know how to function without them anymore. They create an instant comfort zone. I didn't think it was possible to feel any better before the marathon than I already did, but somehow my mood only escalated when they arrived. Even after my toenail fell off around 10 p.m. You know you've found friends for life when not only will they look at something as disgusting as a toenail falling off, but they'll head out to the 24-hour drug store to get band-aids to bandage the toe up, too.

We finally went to bed around 11 p.m. and I don't think I slept more than 5 minutes all night. I never have a problem sleeping the night before a race, but I was wide awake until it was time to get up at 4:45 a.m. I jumped out of bed when the alarm went off and made a peanut butter and honey sandwich on whole-wheat bread. I drank a large bottle of diluted Gatorade, got dressed, packed up, and we headed out to the start. As soon as we got there, we found Dave and Eugene and we checked our bags and headed to the bathroom line. With only 20 minutes left until the start we shed our layers of clothing (it was in the 30s with some gusty winds--exactly my kind of running weather!) and jammed into the crowd of tens of thousands of runners. Oddly, I still wasn't feeling nervous or anxious or tired (again, a big difference from how I felt in Chicago). The start and finish were right by the art museum of Rocky fame, so instead of the usual singing of the National Anthem, they kicked the race off with the Rocky Theme and "Eye of the Tiger."

Our starting position was pretty far back, so it took almost three minutes to cross the line. The first mile was congested, but I was content to be patient and wait for a chance to speed up without weaving through a lot of people. Around mile three, it was a clear shot to get on my pace. My original plan that Adam helped me devise was to keep an 8:30 minute-per-mile pace for 15 minutes, followed by an acceleration for 5 minutes at a slightly faster pace and repeat until mile 23, then just go like hell. After about two or three rounds of this, I aborted the plan. The heart-rate monitor wasn't giving me a reading and my mile splits were too fast, so I just concentrated on adjusting my pace one mile at a time, realizing that it was important to conserve energy for later. I thought this plan would work perfectly for me--and it likely would on a different kind of course--but it started stressing me out more than calming me down, so I had to readjust.

First 3 miles averaged an 8:21 pace
Mile 4-8:23 (Jennifer catches me here and says something about feeling good, but knowing she should slow down...I tell her to be cautious about her pacing. Everybody feels good at mile 4!)
Mile 5-8:19
Mile 6-8:19 (I got to see Kurt, Sonia, Ben, Guz, Michelle, Brandon, Deana, and Avi for the first of many times here. They are AWESOME!)
Mile 7-8:20 (I took my first Gu here. Goes down just fine.)
Mile 8-8:20
Mile 9-8:02
Mile 10-8:55
Mile 11-8:07 (Took so more Gu here. I pass Jennifer. She is having a break-out day, just two weeks after running the NYC Marathon. I tell her to slow down, but she says her heart rate is low and she feels good. She is rocking the race and I wish her well...)
Mile 12-8:05
Mile 13-8:15 (Avi hops in here to pace me the rest of the race...he rocks, but more on that later! More Gu...as it turns out, it's my last Gu consumption for the race.)
Mile 14-8:27
Mile 15-8:20
Mile 16-8:38
Mile 17-8:29
Mile 18-8:20
Mile 19-8:18
Mile 20-8:41 (Walk through a water stop and my right ITB starts shooting sharp pain from the outside of my knee up through my hip. I struggled to start running again, only barely managing to shuffle until it loosens up. Ouch. Really, ouch.)
Mile 21-8:41
Mile 22-8:13
Mile 23-9:12 (Stupidly, I stop again at a water stop because Gu is now making me gag and dry heave, so I know I need to take in Gatorade. Repeat of before...the ITB has blown up. I have never felt this much pain in my life...only a 5K to go, so I gotta push through the best I can...I know my cushion for Boston is gone now, so I'm going to need to gut it out to make it.)
Mile 24-8:25
Mile 25-9:01 (All I can think about is stopping. I want the pain to end. I cannot run anymore. OUCH. For the love of god, I NEED TO STOP RIGHT NOW!)
Mile 26-8:55
And the .2 - about 2:42? (I dry heaved the whole way in. I'd love to see picture of this...dry heaving while running is not glamorous. It was the most fantastic pain I've ever felt.)

As soon as I crossed the finish line, I looked down at my watch and then realized I was going to fall over. I collapsed right into Avi. I have seen a lot of finish lines in my life...since I started swimming at age 4...and I can say with all honesty that I have never been so glad to see one as I was at that moment.

I couldn't put any pressure on my right leg without hitting the pavement face first. It turned out to be comical as a medic insisted that I get on a stretcher and be taken to the medical tent. Um, no thank you sir. I want to stumble on over to where my warm clothes are please. This guy, whose heart was certainly in the right place, wasn't taking no for an answer. Leaning on Avi, Deana, and Jennifer (who crossed the finish line right after me with a huge PR! I was so excited for her!) we made our way to the food tent. Avi helped me get food and I began to turn into a human popsicle. I was sitting on the ground with my mylar blanket around me, violently shaking to the point that a runner came up to me out of concern, wondering if he could help me find medical help. Good grief, what is up with everybody wanting me to seek medical attention?

So, we go to baggage check and they have lost my bag. I am feeling a kind of cold that gets into your very core and won't leave. To the volunteers' credit, they do everything they can to find my bag and are very attentive to the problem. Deana and Brandon help out...searching around and offering me clothes to keep me warm. Finally, about 45 minutes later, the bag is found. I put on my favorite post-race fleece and realize that I am not only starving but I'm decaffeinated, and this is never a good combination.

After a cup of coffee, and a long, hot shower we headed to brunch with the crew and I devoured everything in front of me. I start to feel a kind of satisfaction that's difficult to articulate. Here I am, sitting at a table with a bunch of friends who gave up a weekend to travel there to cheer me on and congratulate me. I ran my own "perfect" race in no small part because of the unwavering help and guidance of Avi, somebody who gives his whole heart to his team and friendships and I'm lucky enough to be on the receiving end of his incredibly generous spirit. I would not have had this race, which I am so proud of, without him. How could I not feel satisfied? How could I not feel invigorated by the experience? How could I not be inspired by the countless acts of selflessness around me all weekend? How can I not be completely psyched that I will eat pie and drink beer without an iota of guilt this week?!

How do I define success? Achieving the only personal best time I've had in a year. Rediscovering my love of this sport. Doing it with a real smile on my face, in the company of friends. Running a 3:41:48 on a beautiful course in my home state of Pennsylvania.

I wouldn't trade a second of it. Or 49.


Friday, November 9, 2007

Long May You Run

For some, distance running is more than sport. It is perspective. It's clarity. It's peace. It's where we take risks and crave a kind of pain that reminds us that we're alive. Running is liberation from sadness, a bad job, unkind words, and hurtful people. It's a celebration of friendships, teammates, and a choice to not idly let our years slip by.

It teaches us discipline, dedication, and passion that filter into every other aspect of our lives.

Last weekend I traveled to New York for the ING New York City Marathon 2007 and the men's Olympic Marathon Trials. Driving into the city on Thursday afternoon, I was full of anticipation and excitement for my own runner's paradise: the culmination of the inaugural season of Race with Purpose, working out with my teammates, the rare opportunity to watch America's fastest marathoners vie for three spots on the 2008 Olympic team, and coaching our runners through their race on Marathon Sunday.

On Thursday night we gathered near the marathon finish line for a tempo run. I was genuinely happy, drinking in the chance to run among my friends as we moved through the darkness of Central Park at a speed I rarely achieve by myself, but seemed natural and comfortable in the company of my team. We laughed and celebrated and toasted our first season at a dinner on Friday night -- an evening that, deep down, I may have doubted would ever arrive a few times over the last 11 months.

In the chilly, windy, pre-dawn hours of Saturday morning, my friend and teammate Avi and I once again ran through the darkness of Central Park. We've run hundreds of miles there over the years, but as we cruised onto the West Drive, there was something undeniably different and electrifying about it. The white aluminum barricades flanked both sides of the road and American flags lined the street leading up to the finish line of the Olympic trials course.

As we rounded the full six-mile loop of the park, watching volunteers lay the timing mats, hang the mile markers, and place each Olympic hopeful's prepared fuel bottles on numbered tables, we couldn't stop marveling that in just a couple of hours, history would be made by the country's elite distance runners on the very ground we were running. There were 130 guys roughly our age (and younger) who woke up that morning ready to make a life-long, unfathomable dream come true.

As we completed our own run, we headed over to the east side just south of the Boathouse near the 72nd Transverse, where we'd stand for the duration of the race. The runners would pass by this spot at miles 6, 15, 20, and 25. I'd never seen so many people so completely in love with the sport of running gathered in one place, sprinting from one side of Central Park to the other in order to double the number of times they'd be able to see the competitors, who would make five loops to complete the distance.

Not long after the runners cleared the 10K point, an ambulance blazed toward us from 72nd Street. The barricades made it difficult for it to clear the left-hand turn north, so we rushed to move them back, to allow it to proceed.

It didn't take long for the pace car to make its way past us four more times, each time with the runners more spread out behind it than the last, flying by just inches away from where we stood, cheered, and felt incredible inspiration. As Ryan Hall made his way past mile 25 with the race in the bag, we screamed. He smiled and pumped his arm in the air, enjoying every remaining second of his 2:09 marathon that would lead him to Beijing. Then came Dathan Ritzenhein and Brian Sell to round out the team. Each of them looked as though there were wings attached to their shoes, but Hall's stride was so relaxed, his body just gliding toward the finish, his race plan executed perfectly.

I was in awe. I haven't felt so motivated to run, and run well, in years. But as everybody knows by now, the "runner's high" of the morning quickly turned into shock and sadness as the news spread of Ryan Shay's sudden death at mile 5.5. Talk about unfathomable. As it turned out, the ambulance we moved the barricades for was for Shay. How a 28-year-old elite American athlete simply dies in the middle of the race of his life is probably a question that will never be answered to full satisfaction.

Was it his enlarged heart? Another undetected heart condition? As his wife of just four months, Alicia (Craig) Shay (also an elite distance runner), said in a newspaper article, it doesn't really matter--an answer won't bring him back. What is undeniable is the mark he's left on the running community--from the elite to the recreational to everybody somewhere in between. Just one glance at the outpouring of grief, tributes, and reflection at Letsrun.com tells the story far better than I could, but his intensity, work ethic, and sheer will to conquer any obstacles in his way are pervasive.

And as 38,000 more runners toed the starting line of the New York City Marathon the following day, including 40 of my Race with Purpose teammates, that will to conquer lived on. As I ran up and down Fifth Avenue with one teammate at a time for more than 6 hours, I thought a lot about how lucky I am to be part of a sport and a community that never stops teaching me to be grateful, and even more so in times when personal stability is hard to come by and the fragility of life is amplified--grateful for the serenity and discipline it has taught me, the deep friendships it has afforded me, the health it has brought me, the refuge it has given me.

Onward to Philadelphia...