Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Pride and other relative terms...

"It's all relative"

A term I used to use in high school with my particular group of friends. It was a way of infuriating each other, or an outside party. An excuse really, a way to win any argument by stating that nothing could be proven, because... it's all relative.

I found myself reviewing this idea, specifically when it came to the outcome of a race. I guess you could say it's a frequent topic here on this blog, defining success for ourself and others. And I guess I've alluded to the fact that success, much like everything else, is a relative term.

To some the numbers 3:10:59, and 3:11:00 don't seem very far apart, and to others they are difference between a Boston Marathon Qualifier, and a nice effort. And those are the easier ones to define. Times, while still subjective, are at least universal. A second or minute to me is the same length as it is to Geoffrey Mutai, or Ryan Hall.

But what about those things that are not so easy to quantify. The things that exist in those white spaces between the numbers. The things we can't define. Things like effort, heart, or courage. How do we measure these things?

I guess, if we follow the line of thinking put forth by Einstein, it would all be relative, and therefore up to the perspective or judgement of each individual. So to my mom, who is famous for saying "I couldn't run to the mailbox" a "3:11:00" is a success, while the BAA would disagree. But even this is the easier stuff. What about the person for whom it is most difficult to define success?

You.

This question stuck with me over the past week before my most recent race. Having had a solid time goal in mind, it would seem odd that I was having trouble attempting to define failure/success. And yet, I did. My mind raced over a series of contingencies, mentally preparing for things out of my control, hills, heat and all of those things in between. But through out all of these, one thing remained constant. One thought, beyond all thoughts of pace, splits, and finish times. One thought that never changed. The thought, the goal, that I wanted to make my friends proud. So as the race approached, and good luck text messages from them rolled in, I felt to tell them my race goal.

To make them proud.

And they responded simply, and concisely.... that they were proud already.

And there I was, caught in a grey area. Caught between the black numbers that by all accounts should decide success and failure, and the words from my friends that I was a success already, despite not even setting foot on a race course yet. And then something clicked.

That maybe it's not up to us. Maybe it's not up to us whether we are succeed or fail. That things like success, or failure, or pride don't exist within us, or with our permission.

That they exist somewhere in between, somewhere in the grey areas between you and the people who love you.

This blog is dedicated to the many people who make my grey area larger than I ever thought possible...

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Reflections on a weekend

- New Englanders are far more ethical with toilet paper than Philadelphians

- The word Munson doesn't entirely disguise ethnic slurs as much as you would expect.

- That the less I invite GU to hang out with my small intestine the better.

- That friends who never cease to amaze you can still amaze me.

- Dodo makes one hell of a cornhole partner.

- New Englands largest half marathon is not QUITE as large as you might imagine.

- Shirtless Magoo is not QUITE as fast as he might imagine.

- B Tags do actually work from time to time.

- That the success when racing with friends is more contingent on the friends and not the actual racing.

- Mad Man Colameco, AKA Bob Colameco, AKA Dad, can take some serious photos.

- The line "First name 'The', last name 'Coodes'", will most likely always make me laugh.

- That laughter bonds us faster than anything else.

- New England is not ready for us.

- That the voice that tells you to stop, can be the same voice that tells you to keep going.

- That running uphill isn't as bad as it looks.

- That running downhill isn't as fun as it looks.

- That a 5:39 instead of a 6:30 first mile qualifies as "Out too fast".

- That seeing your family cheer for you makes you realize they've been cheering your whole life.

- Water can make your shoes heavy..

- That friends who believe in you are the best way to believe in yourself.

AND

- That any dream worth fighting for, is one you'll had to defend along the way.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The things we can't tell ourselves


I remember it being a cold morning in Fishtown when I first heard it. Out for an early morning group jog, we were coming back around an abandoned warehouse on what I liked to call our “Scenic Route”. We in a tight pack when a cross country runner from Eastern University said it to me in a way only a college kid can.

“Hey man, why do you raise your arms so high.”

I didn’t have a secondary answer for him, deciding not to offer my first which contained several curse words and some direction as to where he could stick his arms.

Truth was that I had no idea that my arms were so high. Having never had any formal coaching, I had no clue there was wasted energy in my running motion (though it would make sense as to why all my race photos looked like I was mid high five). I simply ran whichever way was comfortable, and apparently, that was comfortable.

I needed someone else to tell me.

So whether it was my arms, or where my feet land, I’ve had a lot experience with people pointing these things out to me, offering me advice I couldn’t offer myself.

I found myself sitting here, thinking over these various instances. Thinking that despite having received large amount of mechanical suggestions on my running form, that the best bits of perspective I’ve been offered, the things I couldn’t tell myself had nothing to do with my arms.

You see, this all started with a facebook post. A simple line that stuck with me for more than a day. 
"There is greatness in all of us."

I read those words, and instantly thought to myself, "How true.", finding beauty in its simplicity. My mind continued on, tracing over the greatness I see in those closest to me. The quiet dedication in the way my brother faces the GREs. The faith of my sister, starting a new career as a nurse. The friends who, without limits, seem to care more for me than themselves. 

Though somewhere along the way, my mind hit a speed bump, and I read the quote again.

"There is greatness in all of us."
The word us stared back at me. And somewhere it hit me, this quote means me too. 

That the greatness it speaks of, exists in me too. Which for someone like me, who on any given day can feel anything but great, isn't something that comes so easily. And that's where my brain remained, lost in the gray area of believing there is greatness in everyone, and yet unsure if it is true about me. And there I was later in the day, staring at the facebook page again. This time when my eyes were done reading the words of the quote, they moved slightly to the left, and read the name of the friend who posted it. 

A friend who I see greatness in.

And I felt a peace. That much like my arms, this may be one of those things you can't tell yourself.

Because greatness, it seems, is best defined by those closest to you.


 

Monday, June 20, 2011

When no one else is around

The bright orange cotton t-shirt shifts coarsely over my sticky skin as I stand out of my chair. The dried sweat a gift from a day's worth of volunteering out in the mid July heat. As I walk across the small square beside Lloyd Hall, I glance up at the now retreating late afternoon sun, then down at my watch.

"5:36"

Twenty four minutes till the race. My legs feel dead with each step, shot from a long day of use.

"Lucky," I think to myself, "my race isn't until midnight."

Twenty four minutes.

My eyes scan the crowd, searching for any member of the unlikely five man relay team. Five men of different sizes, colors, and personalities. David, a short, italian man. His age hidden considerably by a youthful, and cheerful face. Kenny, a wiry man, who's light blue contrast his light brown skin. Stacy, who's light brown skin runs over his muscular and toned body. Tyrone, the hints of gray in the hair atop his six foot frame reveal his status as the oldest member of the group.

And our anchor leg Juan, a mid thirties Puerto Rican man with more tattoos than stories to tell about them. A man I’ve known longer than any of his teammates, and yet, the one I know the least about. A friendship where closeness is defined more by proximity than connection. Who’s engaging humor, either by design or necessity, draws you towards him. And after countless mornings and miles with Juan, the singular aspect of him that I have found to understand is, simply put, that I don’t. Which speaks to the unlikely nature of this collection of runners. A collection of all shapes, sizes and colors, but one that shares one thing in common. They are all homeless. And I am their coach, which on this day is equal parts running strategist, nutritionist, manager, and I hope, friend.

I pause to reflect on the course of the day. A day that began at 9:30 in the morning, when I picked up Juan, Tyrone, and Stacy from the shelter and drove them down to Lloyd Hall, the site of the twenty four hour race made up of relay events, an ultra-marathon and other races in between. My mind runs over eight hours of “volunteering”, two trips to Whole Foods, sunburns, and more than a few comments about female runner’s backsides.

I glance back down at my watch.

“5:50”

Ten minutes.

I weave back over to the makeshift staging area that the guys and I had set up. A pair of black metallic chairs framing a blue cooler. To the left of the cooler I spot David, our opening leg, bouncing on the fumes of anxiousness and nerves that any runner can identify. His brown hair shows the early hints of sweat, as he nods back to me. Perched in one of the metallic chairs as though it were a leather recliner is the fifty year old Tyrone, where he is playing host to several young females. In between the short bursts of laughter from his audience, I catch a few words of his story, recognizing it as one I have heard before, though I can’t help but stand there and listen all over again. I notice the familiar eye roll of Stacy as he and Juan join us.

We share a quick huddle, and discuss race order, last minute advice and a quiet goal to finish first above all the other homeless relay teams. And after a quick national anthem amidst pre-race chaos, we send off David.

An odd quiet sets in after a few minutes, as David makes his way along the 8.4 mile loop around Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River. We each exchange looks as reality sets in that this race will last over six hours.

Time and a few more bagels fade away when an announcement plays over the sound system, alerting the lead team that there runner is one mile out. Kenny begins to stir, checking his shoe laces and stretches muscles already stretched four times over. Our attention drifts back to the Michael Jackson playing over the loud speaker, and few more discussions of “race motivation”, a euphemism for, safely put, girl’s backsides.

Some time later, lost in another story of Tyrone’s the loud speaker peaks my focus as the man’s voice says “Team Brotherhood/New Jerusalem, you’re runner is one mile out.”. Instinctively my eyes dart down to my watch, and checks what my brain already knows. David is flying.

“57:38”

Before I can get a word out, Juan leaps from the seat next to me and utters a phrase, part question, part statement.

“We’re in first.”

Seven minutes or so later, David comes whipping into the exchange, making eye contact with Kenny, who darts off down the thin cement path. David stammers in amongst the bouncing excitement of Tyrone, Juan and myself, his once neatly combed brown hair now tangled across forehead with sweat. He paces back and forth through the mini concourse adjacent to our staging area, smiling only the way a runner again, intermittently between gasps for air.

1:04:58

Juan mills around, attempting to find out if any of the other homeless team’s runners had come through. Our attention shifts to our senior member Tyrone, and suddenly the group of five runners isn't just a group of runners anymore. Juan and Stacy begin to talk up to Tyrone. He launches into his unusual and specified sets of stretches that resemble a ballerinas more than a runners. And after a brief lesson that the GU packets say fifteen minutes before the race and not forty five, he deems himself ready. He packs his pockets with a few more GU gels when the now familiar voice rings through the thick July evening. And once again, our teammate is one mile away.

Tyrone and Kenny exchange and the race goes on.

The sun finally gives way, and the relief of darkness begins to creep its way along the river. Juan paces around the race area, attempting to confirm that we are ahead of the other teams, and by how much.

Amidst the excitement, I find my way over to a chair, attempting to give my legs a break before my race begins at midnight. I peer around at the collection before me. I watch Stacy, our most experienced runner begin his process, quiet and determined. I watch Kenny attempt to cool down, his once red shirt now a skin clad crimson. I watch Juan, focused and wonder if I’ve ever seen my friend this excited about anything. I sit there, and wonder if they ever needed a coach at all.

Minutes pass by and night slowly takes its official hold on the city. Stacy has made his way to the exchange area, to prepare alone except for the neon gatoraid bottle in his hand. I consider walking over to say something, but my brain reminds me I know Stacy too well to make that mistake. He’s ready.

Tyrone comes barreling through a few minutes later. He extends his large hands, and proceeds to pass out high fives and chest bumps to those willing and those not. And Stacy disappears into the darkness, leaving one runner left to go.

Juan.

A peanut butter powerbar is slowly washed down with some gatoraid, as Juan begins his preparation. I review with him pacing, GU, and he makes an unlikely promise to me. That at the top of the hill of my race, a half mile out, he’ll be waiting for me, to run me the rest of the way in.

“That would be great.”

I muster these words, both surprised and touched by Juan’s. I watch him walk off, he removes his shirt revealing more tattoos, and revealing more about this man than I knew when he entered my car this morning.

The next hour and half is a daze. My own race preparations, friends and volunteers return from dinner and showers to watch the guys finish.  Juan and Stacy make their exchange, and I check my watch.

“10:53”

I do the math quickly in my head, hoping if Juan runs fast enough that I’ll still be here to watch him finish.

Stacy returns and slips into his usual cool down, pacing laps around the concourse, followed by a sea of volunteers. I watch him for a moment, his hard won sweat reflects the moonlight, and somewhere between a few head nods and deep breaths, I catch the glimpse of a smile.

“Would all those signed up for the Midnight Madness Race begin to make their way to the starting line.”

The loud speaker once again draws me from my trance, I check the watch and let out an internal sigh. Too soon.

I make my way to the start, fighting in through the mass of racers assembled at the front. My body slips in close, wading in as muscles bounce anxiously. Pre-race instructions are given, but barely audible over our collective beating hearts. And then, the gun.

Legs and arms pump around, chaos drives us forward in a pack. Hearts and lungs scream as a wave of shock rushes over them. Too fast. We wind around Lloyd Hall, as the early makings of a lead pack begin to form, past a few dozen onlookers who have gathered to watch us sprint by. A cluster of applause and cheers fly from the group, out of the corner of my left eye I catch a glimpse of a familiar face. A leaping Puerto Rican, skin glowing in the moonlight, popping his head above the crowd in front of him. It all goes by in a flash, and I hear.

“Go Dan!”

And the race goes on...

My legs burn as I begin the short, yet unusually grueling ascent up around Philadelphia’s famed Art Museum. One mile to go. Sweat drips down my face, the once tolerable July night air now swims around me. My feet pivot around the lest bend, my eyes dart around to see three figures seated on a bench, a box of pizza spread out before them. Juan and Tyrone leap up, pizza still in hand screaming for me to push on. I wheel by them, and down towards the finish.

Finish.

Breath slowly begins to come back into my chest, and the post run haze recedes. Juan, Stacy and Tyrone meet me back at the finish, and we each launch into our race recaps. Paces, passes, and tales of GU pass between us. The conversation begins to die down as the reality of a long day in the sun and 1:30 in the morning show their heads…

“1:45”

“It’s late” I think to myself, reflecting on the several days that seem to have taken place within these past thirteen hours, when a hand lands upon my shoulder. I spin around to see Juan, serious and out of breath, standing beside Tyrone.

“Come with us.”

He says, and the three of us make our way over to the front of Lloyd Hall. They lead me over to a small table, upon which are three large wooden boards covered in white papers. A lone light shines from the top of entrance to the hall, barely illuminating the papers in front of us. Juan bends down, and scans a particular page with his finger.

“Tell me if this says, what I think it says.”

I lean in with him, and let my eyes adjust as they follow his finger. They survey the various columns of the spreadsheet before me, tracing two lines one block. In plain black ink, a lone number stands across from “Brotherhood/New Jerusalem”.

The number “3”.

Third place.

I turn back to Juan and Tyrone who stare back at me with the anticipation of a child waiting to open their Christmas presents.

“Holy shit! You guys won third place!”

The words barely make it out of my mouth before the jumping and celebrating begin. Our bodies almost in unison dart off with one purpose. Stacy. We find him seated around the corner of the building, when Juan relays the news. His head cocks to the side, and we are once again moving as one group to the poorly lit table. His eyes follow Juan’s finger just as mine had done a minute earlier. His mouth curls into a smile, and the celebration grows.

Four bodies, dancing and yelling, make our way back to staging area where we announce to anyone within ear shot the official third place finishers in the relay event. Three fingers are thrown up, feet climb up on chairs, and pictures are taken. And all the while, Juan operates a shuttle, taking all those hearing news back to the table, I join in on a few.

And we take more pictures.

The celebration begins to die down, and we each retreat to various sections of the race area. I make my way over to a table, assisting in the ultra-marathon competition. Stacy heads inside the hall to sleep, and Tyrone succumbs to his inevitable GU hangover and passes out in a chair next me. Quiet seeps back into a place once filled with loud cheering and music. An occasional runner makes his way by the table, as all around us the event seems to finally take a deep breath. Eye lids grow heavy, as more and more people make their way to the comforts of beds.

Quiet.

I find myself drifting, the names and numbers in front me waxing in and out of focus. Fighting my body one last time, I stand up to take a walk around to wake up. I make my way through the darkness, stepping over sleeping bags, careful not to disturb anyone. I move over in the direction of our cooler, when my eyes notice a shadow hovering over a table in front of a lone beam of light.

Juan.

I pause, then slowly move towards him, his face pressed tightly to the piece of paper, his eyes squinting in the darkness. And I stop. I stare over at him, as he remains motionless, smiling, eyes locked on the black ink before him.

Quietly, I stand there, staring. And my brain runs still, maybe for the first time all day, and I see my friend, not homeless or rich, just my friend, when he thought no one else was watching, smiling at what he accomplished.

And I took one last picture.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Lessons from the pool

I'm two weeks into my initial attempt at the ever illusive "Cross Training", and I am pleased to report that I have already learned quite a bit.

Mainly, that I don't like cross training.

But before you write this entry off, I will admit that I have gained useful knowledge as well. I have chosen swimming as my cross training activity. Swimming, as any swimmer will tell you, is a sport full of tiny nuances and intricacies, where tiny little details make all the difference in being successful. And over the course of two weeks, I have been able to pick up on several of them.

For instance, I've learned that is very difficult to breath under water. In fact, despite my many efforts, I believe it's almost impossible. It's MUCH more useful to breath out of the water, and the put your head back in. And let me tell you, if you reverse the order, it really is far less effective.

Now, I know what you are thinking. You are saying "Dan, I knew that already.".

Okay, okay, maybe you did, maybe you didn't. But try this nugget on for size...

Did you know, that swimming works best when you move your arms AND your legs at the same time?

But in all seriousness, if you haven't guessed it already, I'm not the strongest of swimmers. Don't get me wrong, I float and all, and I can get from one end to the other. I just don't move very quickly, and have a tendency to drink the water as I do... through my nose. Did I mention, that I don't love swimming.

Having said all that, there is something here that along with the eight mouthfuls of water, I have pulled from the pool. And that is that its hard. It's hard and thats okay. And that the tired old cliche', that the hard things are the only things worth doing, may be a tired old cliche' for a reason.

Truth is that I will probably never be a great swimmer. That I probably look like an idiot while I try to do it. That I am no tri-athelete.

But that's okay. All of the gasps for air, mouthfuls of water, red eyes, and burning nostrils are okay. It's hard, and I like that. And for all I know, I won't get any physical benefit from any of this. But I do know, that I'll get something.

Something from looking whats hard in the face, and diving in anyway.

So here's to a summer in the water, and (fingers crossed) remembering to breath out of it!

Monday, June 13, 2011

The things we know, and the things we feel...

So in various circles of life (work, old friends, etc.) my identity is boiled down to "runner". As a result, I've found myself engaged in a recurring conversation. It usually follows the same pattern, the person I am speaking with either reveals that they would like to start running, or runs currently. And after a few volleys of questions/answers, I find myself inviting them to go for a run with me. At which point, I hear the familiar line or some variation of it...

"Oh, I don't know. I run much slower than you."

I tell them that it doesn't matter, and that none of us mind running at whatever pace they would like. They seem confused by this, and I can't blame them. I can't blame them, because I once felt the same way.

"Why would they want to run as slow as I do?"

And somewhere along the way, I joined what my friend once described as "the community of runners". A community where, even if untrue, our similarities out number our differences. Where distances are relative, and paces are personal. A community of people who know, without needing to be told. A place where everyone is welcome. Where we don't care how fast you are, or how slow. Where we don't care how old you are, or how old you feel. Where no matter what, you are welcome.

And I know this, cause friends of mine, better people than myself, taught me.

They told me, I was welcome.

They told me that I could complete that race and they told me they liked my t-shirts. They told me I was strong and then told me how to get stronger. They told me it was okay to run with music, that I could PR, and I should come back next week. 

And then they told me I was their friend, and I knew it to be true.

And the only things that pale in comparison to those things that I know to be true, are the things you can't know.

The things you feel.

The first time you are surrounded by these people that you know are your friends, and despite that you know you are welcome, you feel welcome. When you know they've cared about you for some time, and then you catch their eyes and somewhere, for the first time, you feel it.

You feel it.

You see I misspoke before when I said there are "things" that pale in comparison, because it is my experience that there is only one thing. Just one thing.

I've been lucky enough to have had many friends over the years tell me they love me. But I'm truly grateful for the times they didn't need to say it.

The times I felt it.

Thank you for the best birthday present I ever could have asked for.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Excessive Heat Warning

I'll keep this one brief.

There's something about heading out for a run, when by all reasonable standards you should not. Whether it's snowing, or raining, or a thunderstorm, or like today, extremely hot. There's something about running down the street and catching sight of peoples faces as you run by. Their eyes widen with shock, surprise, or in some cases, concern. There's something about being looked at like your nuts, that, in an odd way, spurs you on. A badge of honor.

But aside from the interaction with the public, there's a deeper interaction. Something deeper, when you are out there, like tonight, getting your ass kicked by the heat. When every time you stop, you feel as though someone shut the oven door behind you. Where you actually feel your feet burning in your shoes. Where your pulse isn't just something you can feel, but something you can hear as well.

And yet, despite all of this, somehow, you are able to look up at whatever, I'll call it the universe, and say...

"Is this all you got?"

And you keep going...

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

My Top 5 Least Favorite Things to Hear During a Race

5. A Cowbell

I'm not sure what the deal with the cowbell is. If I had to guess I would say it was once a way to call the attention of a specific runner. Having said that, I hate the cowbell. And I believe I can trace the origins of this back to my childhood.




 My grandparents used to have a small shitzu dog named, "Shotzi" (spelling unclear). Now as a training technique they would fill an empty soda can with pennies, tape the opening shut and shake it at Shotzi when she was doing something wrong. So it is possible that somewhere in the recesses of my already warped brain, when I hear the cowbell I am recalling the noise of that soda can. It's plausible that what the man shaking the cowbell meant as "Great Job! Run faster!" I interpret as "You stupid dog, stop peeing on the carpet!". Which as you can imagine, is not exactly inspiring.

4. "You look great!"

Liar!

I'm not exactly sure why people cheering on racers think we lose the ability to detect bullshit.

I don't look great, I don't even look good. I, in fact, look awful. And believe me, I have about 8,000 mid race photos to prove it. Ones that evoke a "Good God, I look like death on a stick", and those are the early mile shots. In fact, I have never actually seen one of those race photos they e-mail you and said "Hey, I look pretty good here.".

"You look great!"

"No I don't, up yours Banana balls".

3. "Relax your arms"

I used this line, but I am really talking about anything yelled to you by a vigilante "coach" who has placed themselves somewhere on the course to offer unsolicited advice.

From my experience this guy usually follows the same basic formula. Mid forties, usually rocking sunglasses, a race hat, and some kind of race jacket from the late 90s. He has most likely positioned himself somewhere in the late miles of the race, frequently perched in the center of the road, perhaps atop a highway divider.

"Relax your arms!"

"I'll tell you what? How about you come down from your sermon on the mountain there, champ, run twenty miles and then you can tell me what I should, and shouldn't do with my arms."

2. Melissa Etheridge's "Come to my Window"

Okay, I'll explain.

Last September, I was running in what was formerly known as the "Philadelphia Distance Run", which has been swallowed up by the fast rising tide of the "Rock N' Roll" series. Which has seemed to take what was once a nice little half marathon and turned it into a "Rock N' Roll" Half Marathon. The only difference seems to be that they have added "music" along the course, and OH YEAH, raised the price about $30.

Anyway, last September I am running this race with my man, Tyrone. Tyrone, at the time, had never run more than ten miles, so these steps he was taking on the eleventh mile were the furthest he had ever gone. I could tell he was hurting, and his spirits were quickly dropping. I found myself praying that we would come to a music checkpoint soon, and that the music would propel us to the finish.

Luckily for me, my prayers seemed to be answered, as I heard in the distance the fast approaching music station. As we drew closer, however, I began to make out the song this band was playing...

"Is that? Is that Melissa Etheridge's 'Come to my Window'?"

Yes, yes it was.

Thank you "Rock N' Roll"! Nothing gets me quite as fired as alternative lesbian rock!

1. "You're almost there!"

I can't say I have ever done it, but I am guessing if I polled every runner I knew, this line would top the charts of things we like to hear the least. And I say that for one reason, and one reason only...

I know damn well how far I have to go. I've been counting since, oh I don't know, mile one. Believe it or not, I actually know the race distance before I sign up. So whether it's a marathon or a 5K, I am quite aware, usually painfully aware, of how much further I have to go.

Not to mention, that unless you are screaming this two feet from the finish line, you and I have sorely different ideas of "almost there".

Honorable Mention

"Keep going!"- Oh really? Think I should?

"The finish is just up ahead"- Oh, is it? What gave that away, all the other people running in that direction?

"Any joke about Beer."


Now, I'm gonna tone the bitterness down here a bit. The real reason I wrote this was to offer my own personal preference of what I DO want to hear.

What I really want, is for the people cheering me on to know what I am trying to do. Know the time I am shooting for, and be keeping track. Yell for me to go faster, or just "GO!". Hold a sign of something I won't expect, something to make me smile. But, honestly, it doesn't really matter.

Because, truthfully, just showing up is enough.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Running Partner

I hunch over in the plush leather couch, bending to my feet. My fingers wind their way through the thin red laces of my running shoes. With my eyes cast down, I hear the faint slam of a screen door and hear the hum of a distant voices. Their words pass through my mind, catching every odd one until a full phrase registers.

"Looks like Daniel missed his chance."

 The familiar tone of my Uncle Jim, my host for the weekend up in Boston, registers instantly.

I bounce up and move into the cozy New England kitchen illuminated by the 9am sun. As I pass through the doorway I pull the attention of my uncle, fresh from his own early morning bike ride. He lets a coy smile slip across his face before speaking.

"I just past Bill Rodgers out running, about a quarter mile down the road."

Instinctively, my eyes locate my iPhone and white ear buds situated on the kitchen table in front of me.

"If you hurry you should be able to catch him. He's wearing a blue shirt."

My uncles final words are a blur to me as I hastily hit the screen door, darting off in the direction he pointed. My mind flashes over an image of the man, and a race, the Boston Marathon, the two inextricably linked in my mind. The perfect race, and the man who's legend it created. The four time winner, known as much for his success as his iconic and charismatic personality. Boston Bill, Olympian, friend of Prefontaine, possibly the greatest American marathoner of all time, just a quarter mile down the road.

My shoes hit the end of my Uncle's pebbled driveway, treading now on the steady pavement of Hill rd. Legs begin to pump, as I throw everything I've learned about a "nice, easy" warm up out the window. I fumble with the iPhone, attempting to lodge the small white buds into my ears, when the white tan line of an absent watch catches my eye.

"FUCK!"

Scenarios play through my head, calculations of odds of finding Boston Bill weigh against the 100 yards back to the house. Abruptly he brakes fly on, and the large white farm house begins to grow as I approach it. Two sharp turns on the pebbles, and couple "thwacks" of a screen door later, I am once again locked in the chase. I wrap the watch around my wrist, and hear the beep as it searches for a satellite.

The beeps pass carelessly through my mind, as my focus remains in the distance, attempting to squash the stress now pulsing through my lungs. The watch continues its search, but I don't need it to tell me I am going too fast. The familiar tightness creeps up my legs, as my breathing continues to labor. My head stretches to see around each bend and curve of the narrow New England streets. No blue shirt. The discomfort continues to grow, while doubt seeps in. I quickly count the number of streets I have passed, and the various combinations of alternate routes he might be jogging down. My legs fight to slow down when in the distance I see a young woman walking a small white dog. Compromise. My brain enters into the agreement with my rapidly tiring body. Ask the girl if she has seen the man in the blue shirt, if she hasn't, slow down.

"Excuse me, have you seen a man in a blue shirt."

The girl turns to me, black cell phone lodged between her ear and her shoulder. Her eyebrows raise, as she extends a finger pointing dead ahead.

I mutter a thank you, combined with a wave and press on. I round the next bend of trees, hugging closely to edge of the pavement, and there it is.

The blue shirt.

Fifty yards away from me, Boston Bill Rodgers bounces, to my surprise, right towards me. The distance between us narrowing by the second, his gait coming closer into view. His arms swing effortlessly and calmly at his side, his left hand clutching a Poland Springs squirt bottle. A tiny "V" of sweat rests down the front of his blue tech tee. His stride is smooth and slow, his eyes focused on the road in front of him. I slow down a hair, and quickly rip the ear buds out of my ears, embarrassed to be such a "new" runner in front of the man who made distance running popular again in America. My thoughts race trying to find the appropriate thing to say as I notice a wide smile has already broken out across my face.

"Could I trouble you for a handshake, sir?"

"Oh, sure."

His response and tone reveal a hint of surprise. I circle back with him, jogging along side him. As I shake his hand, I study his face which somehow looks both familiar and foreign to me. Age, perhaps, or just the natural limits of your minds eye.

"How far you going?

His words catch me off guard, as I had little time to plan anything other than getting to this point. Somehow the idea of saying "A one mile tempo run to find you" seemed a little too close to the stalker image than I wanted to be.

"I hadn't really planned it to be honest."

I launch into the story of my Uncle Jim coming home and how I'm visiting from Philadelphia and unfamiliar with the area. Silence hangs for a moment and then.

"Well, I'm going this way for a little while. What are you training for?"

And with that the smile that my lips had worked overtime to try and tamper down now beamed across my face. He took a swig of his water and off we went.

Over the next mile and a half we spoke about various running topics, all the while his questions and comments focused almost entirely on me and my running career. We spoke briefly about my hopes to qualify for New York, a race he also won four times, but somehow that little fact didn't come up. Instead thrilling stories of marathon finishes, he spoke of how I should pace myself through the heat of a late June half. Where you'd expect impressive stories of first place finishes and american records, he offered advice of dealing with shin splints and his own current achilles issues. And I hung on ever word.

The tall green trees lining these small rural New England streets provided the back drop as he finally informed me he needed to turn off to use the restroom. I thanked him for the time, and asked if he wouldn't mind pausing for a moment for a picture.
 
As he turned back up to depart, he spun around and offered me one last slice of advice.

"Good luck in Fairfield, you'll do it. I can tell the way you talk about it."

I stood there speechless.

"Oh, and if you run into the race director tell him Bill Rodgers says hi."

And with that he was gone. His aging, yet sturdy legs carrying up the hill. I let myself watch for a moment, as the legend who treated me as anything other than a fellow runner faded from sight. I finished my run, pausing every few miles to send another round of gloating text messages to those would understand. And taking a few chances to look at the picture now stored on my phone. Perhaps I was looking to truly believe it was real, or perhaps I just wanted the moment to last longer.

The truth is, I don't know, but I do know that when I line up to race in a few weeks, those kind words he spoke to me will be running through my mind.

OH...

And if I see the race director, I'll be sure to tell him my friend Bill Rodgers says "Hi."

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

I choose to call it freedom...

It's one of those runs, one that if you are a runner you have experienced. A run where all the stars and planets are aligned, or the Gods of running are smiling down upon you. You lace your shoes up, and after a few minutes you, for lack of a better term, just feel good. The pace and the miles fall back from focus, and your mind clears. And somehow, an eight mile run turns to ten, and ten to twelve, until finally daylight, hunger, or maybe just gravity pull you back home.

These runs are hard to describe, yet unmistakable to those that have experienced them. You could run down a list of their characteristics, highlighting the long distances traveled, the pace held, or simply just the appreciation for the scenery you are passing through. All of which, when explained to a non runner would seem equate to a great run. Though, lost in the translation, in my opinion, is what lies at the core of what make these runs so unique.  Something that is not often considered synonymous with running. And yet, when you are in it, and you come to that intersection, to that red light, and your head turns left and then right, and you realize you could go either direction, you feel it...

Freedom.

Subtle? Yes, but present nonetheless. When you come to that light, and you stare off in any direction, whether you are looking up from the base of a giant hill, or down from it's peak, it doesn't matter, cause you know. You know you've got it, and there's nothing that this road can throw at you that you can't handle.

And you feel it, whatever it may be. I choose to call it freedom.

Something that can only be defined by you. And something, that in my opinion, can only be understood by feeling its absence. Yet, I have to admit, I don't think I'll ever fully understand it.

I can't help but sit here and reflect on past days, or years, when life was different. When life was rarely a matter of choice, and freedom seemed as illusive and foreign as one could imagine. Days were simply an exercise in completion. A series of actions to prevent consequences. Of feelings best described by loneliness and inevitability. And above all else, the recurring truth that tomorrow would be worse than today. That thought, dull and painful, would  slowly and almost gently drip through my mind, swaying in and out of my consciousness. Those moments of awareness marked by the chains that bound them to me.

And then I'm back, and the light turns green at the intersection... and I choose.

I mentioned before that, once again in my opinion, freedom can best only be understood after you've felt it's absence. And I sincerely believe that. Because somewhere along the way I learned something. I learned that only person who ever imprisoned me, was me. And that those chains that I thought bound my wrists, were really just resting in my closed hands, waiting for me to let them go. And that the walls that held me in, blocking my sight, were just the lids of my tightly closed eyes.

And I can't help but sit here today, full of gratitude that someone, one day, dared me to open them.

This blog is dedicated to those people, and of course, to those intersections when they turn green.

Happy June 1st everyone.