Friday, July 29, 2011

Icarus

When I was a sophomore in high school, I had an english teacher. Now, I truly believe that all of us, at some point have a teacher. A unique man or woman, who comes along at just the right time in our lives, and touches us in some way. My sophomore english teacher, was NOT this person.

Now for the life of me, I can't remember her name. So, for the sake of this blog entry we will call her Ms. BigFatAss...

Ms. BigFatAss had, how should I put this, a big fat ass. In addition to having a big, fat ass, she also had a bizarre obsession with Greek Mythology, which she loved to impart on all of us. I'll be honest, I don't remember much except for a lot of weird combinations of humans and animals, and a lot of names that ended in an "S". Though there was one story that stuck, the story of Icarus.

As I remember it, Icarus was imprisioned on an island with his father. His father than built him a set of wings made of feathers and held together by wax. When it came time for the two of them to escape the island, he warned his son not to fly too close to the sun. They took off from the island, and Icarus, lost in the joy of flying took off and flew too high, and too close to the sun. The heat of the sun melted the wax that held together his wings, and he fell back to the ocean and to his death.

So here it is, July 29th, and I am about to embark on my mission. A mission that would better be categorized as a crackpot scheme more than a well constructed plan. The likelihood of it's success, rather low.

And that's okay.

Cause someone, somewhere once told me that every dream worth having is one worth fighting for. And at this point, the fights all I got.

So here goes nothing. I'm taking off with wings held together not by wax, but the belief and support of friends. And who knows, maybe I'll fly too close to the sun on this one, and crash back down to earth. And maybe it's hubris, and arrogance, and pride, and all of those things that come before the fall.

But I'm standing on the edge right now, and I trust these wings.


This blog is dedicated to those friends, and what the hell... to Ms. BigFatAss too.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Toilets, Self Pity, a Diving Board, and Other Seemingly Unrelated Things

So I guess it all started last night around 9:30 while I was sitting with my laptop on the toilet. 

Let me start over.

So I guess it all started last night. After a series of frustrating bouts with failed google searches, I wander over to the one seat in my apartment that gets the best internet service. The toilet. I tip down the various seats and renew my frantic google search. 

“FUCK!”

I rub my eyes as the results displayed on the screen match what I already knew in my head. Still my brain complains to the universe.

“Why the fuck aren’t there more marathons run on the east coast in August!?!?!”

The lunacy of the question is lost on me, as I begin to investigate something called the “Drake Well Marathon”. I weigh the pros and ignore the cons. And somewhere between wondering where the hell, “Titusville, PA” is and reading the story of how this race was initially run by 21 participants running 105 laps around a high school track, I look up to see my brother staring at me.

Now, in fairness, it could have been many things at the root of his confused gaze. Possibly my hair tossed and frazzled from anxious fingers running through it, the sheer number of obscenities that had come bounding from the upstairs, or, possibly, the fact that I was sitting on the toilet with my laptop. But I’m guessing he knows me well enough to have seen past all of that, and realize the real craziness was churning within.

So anyway, at this point I was blessed with a moment of clarity. I shut the laptop, and retreated back to my bedroom. And, with full intention of sounding overly dramatic, I passed through another of Kubler-Ross’s seven stages of grief, from bargaining to depression. 

And that’s where I stayed, mourning my loss, mourning the death of my best laid plan. Pouring over the amount of time, energy, and dreams that I spent on this plan that, most likely, won’t work out. Lost and fading, diving head first into the quicksand of self-pity. 

And so it went. Long stares of into the morning sky, and those twinges in your gut that remind you that acceptance is still out of reach. 

And then… a tug at my shorts.

I look down at the five year old face peering back at me, blonde hair framing her wide smile.

“I passed the ladder test!”

“That’s great”

“I can go off the diving board now! Can you come watch me?”

“Absolutely.”

“I gotta practice. Don’t move!”

And her little feet scamper off down the pool deck.

And there it is… perspective.

That sometimes our best laid plans don’t work out. Sometimes we work for years in the hopes of a certain outcome that never comes. Sometimes we hope and pray for A, and are disappointed with B. Sometimes we work for months in the hope to run a specific marathon, only to let registration difficulties spiral us into lonely depths of self-pity. Sometimes we lose a bit of that faith, and hope that things ever work out in this world. 

And sometimes we swim across a pool, from one ladder to another, and get a diving board.

Three frogs sat on a log...


“Three frogs sat on a log. Two decided to jump off. How many were left?”

I remember where I was the first time I heard this question/riddle. I recall instinctively thinking “One.”, because if two decided to jump off, that would leave one frog left on the log. But, when I looked back at the wise gentleman who had just posed this question to me, I reconsidered answering so hastily. I doubted that this man was interested in testing my ability to subtract two from three, I figured there was a deeper meaning behind the question. So I paused for a while and thought…

Since that night, I’ve used this little story many, many times. You see, I was correct that night, the point, or lesson within the question lies not in the number, but the reason behind the number. You may have been able to figure it out by now, having read it yourself. But this lesson that is one of my favorites, not just because of it’s roundabout way of making its point, but also because it is almost always applicable to my life, and most certainly applicable to running.

Someone famously once said “One day you will run a marathon, but you cannot run a marathon in one day.”.  Simpy put, running is a discipline, and a process. Like many other things, it is the opposite of an instant reward. We spend days, weeks, months, and sometimes years training for an ultimate goal. And whether we run or not we all can relate to being part of a process like that. And, I don’t know, if you are like me, over the course of that process there are plenty of speed bumps, or rough patches, whatever we choose to call them. And it’s in those moments, the times when we aren’t exactly certain of what we are doing that I can get stuck. 

I spent a few minutes today speaking with a friend, one who is about to embark on her first marathon training plan. She was telling me about how she has yet to start it, despite the fact that it was supposed to kick off last week.  She told me she was hesitating to get started because she doesn’t feel strong, and  feels “out of shape”. Instinctively, I went to respond. I was going to tell her about how she has no idea how strong of a runner she is, and that she will soon learn that she is capable of far greater than she could imagine. ..

But I figured that was too direct, and easy, so instead I found myself saying…

“Three frogs sat on a log…”

For those of you who haven’t figured out the riddle, the correct answer is “3”. Three frogs sat on a log, and two decided to jump off. The key to the question, is that two frogs merely “decided” to jump off, they didn’t actually do it.

And to me, the lesson is clear. That there is a difference between knowing the right thing to do, and acting upon it. And it’s that distinction that makes all the difference in the world. 

Because, when push comes to shove, results count in this world. At a certain point, our best ideas, our best plans, aren’t worth much if we never act on them. And I say that as someone who spent a long time looking out at the path laid before me, too afraid to step onto it. Months, years, spent theorizing, thinking, picturing how the path would unfold, and what it would be like, only never to take that first step. 

Three frogs sat on a log…

I’d like to think I have jumped, and in many ways I have, but I also know that on any given day my ass can be on that log, that any of us are only given one day at a time to make a decision and act on it.

So, I don’t know, who feels like jumping today?

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Blessing of Not Being Blessed..

So, unless your name is Usain Bolt, you have at some point felt the universal truth of running.

There is always someone faster than you.

It's kind of a never ending finger pointing. "Man, I wish I was as fast as him/her.". Now, I will readily admit that the idea of "fast" is subjective. Seven minute miles in some circles are consider a daunting breakneck pace, while in others it's considered a slow warm up. And don't get me wrong, that is one of my favorite parts of running. There's a race, there's a distance, there's a pace for all of us.

The marathoner feels differently, than the high school cross country runner, who feels differently from the trail running ultra-marathoner. But, as different as all of those races are, the idea of being "fast" is still lingers. After all, in each of these distances, the first one to cross the finish line still wins.

Even my crazy Moroccan friend who runs 5:30 miles during a full marathon (smiling his ass off the whole time.), has someone he wishes he was as fast as. His runner partner, a 6 foot something runner with a stride span 400 meters with each step.

But what about the rest of us?

What about the rest of us? Those of us with stumpy legs and flat feet? Or shoddy ankles and wide hips? What about us? For those of us who's natural form looks less like gazelles and more like hippos? For those of us who don't take as naturally to this sport, those of us who weren't blessed with the "running" gene.

How do we get right with the fact that no matter how hard we train, or how hard we try, we will never be as fast or as gifted as some of our other friends. How do we come to terms with that?

I'm not sure I know the answer. But I do know that I have friends who can wake up after a few weeks off and break my PR in a half marathon.

And I'll be honest, for a second it's hard to swallow. It's hard to stomach when you think over the weeks of sweat, and hard work you put into getting that PR, only to watch a friend break it with what appeared to be minimal training.

And then a friend helped me put it in perspective. She helped me see that I had to fight for that PR. That I had to scratch, claw and fight for every single one of those seconds. And yeah, maybe I will never beat that time. But I do know that I didn't waste an ounce of what I was blessed with. That for every speck of what I was given, that I matched it with all I had to give. And maybe that will never add up to be faster than some other people, some other people who blessed with greater height, or lung capacity.

But there's something to be said for giving everything you've got. For saying these obstacles, these stumpy legs, won't stop me. And realizing, in an odd way, that things you wish you could get rid of, are the things that you are most grateful for.

That maybe, just maybe, the blessings that passed you by, are actually a blessing in itself.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Things we can only give ourselves...

The massive sweaty forearm lifts into the early evening sun, thrusting forward towards me. My brain panics, and then in reflex, I raise my own forearm, sans the sweat.... and muscle. They collide in mid air, muscle and in my case, bone. I glance over at the face of the mountain of a man that I just exchanged this bump with. Beads of sweat slide down as his forehead, his brown eyes meet mine and a small smirk trickles from the corner of his mouth. He keeps walking, and I do my best to pretend my forearm isn't throbbing.

Two hours earlier...


“Any suggestions, coach?”

The man before me asks, his light brown skin contrasting with the bright yellow tech tee stretched to it’s limits about his thick frame. I spout out a few bits of advice, random tips to beat everything from the heat to the distance itself. His brown eyes lock on mine, a seemingly heightened focus, taking in each of my words. 

Our right hands meet, and he pulls me into to his wide chest, as we exchange our standard one armed hug/back pat. I stand as he begins to pace back and forth, noting that Leonard looks more like a running back about to sprint through the tunnel, than a long distance runner about to settle into an eight mile run. I watch him, he’s eyes wide and focused, a twinge of nerves wash over me because I suddenly detect none within Leonard.

Ten minutes later…

The runner’s set is given, and line of sneakers toe the start line. Tension looms in the air for a moment and then the final call is given. A wave of runners ascend the narrow path into the blazing July heat, amongst the cluster of runners I note the flash of yellow mixed in the middle. 


One and a half hours later...

"Why?" The questions burns through my brain, and more accurately my lungs, legs, and soul. "Why the hell did I sign up for a relay race in the middle of July?". My legs push forward, as my brain and heart wage their continued and epic debate. A plea to slow down echoes through my brain, as the delicate balancing act of my will hangs in the balance. I pass from the shadows of the winding pathway, as the sun beats down on my already sun burnt neck. I attempt to keep my head steady, the river to my right and the drive to my left, and then, up ahead of me... a yellow shirt. 

My feet crash against the pavement, each step bringing me closer to my friend, his large build coming into focus. His stride is short, moving slowly through the hottest section of the back half of the race. His yellow shirt now three shades darker from the sweat, water and heart that have washed through the tech fabric. I approach him from the left, his feet bouncing with a hint of pain with each stride. I pat him on the back, leaving behind the only words that came to mind.

"You are the man!"

A brief smile parts his lips, we make quick eye contact, before his gaze drops back into it's quiet trance.

And my own debate continues.

Forty five minutes later

A crowd of friends lingers around the start/finish exchange of this relay race, a hint of dried sweat in the air. We mill around, weathered from the days race. Each of our eyes looking back down the section of the drive known as "Boathouse Row". Runner after runner pass by, our eyes attempt to scan behind each, hoping to catch a glimpse of yellow.

And then, there it is. A small dot of color moving towards us, steadily picking up pace. The yellow dot grows bigger, bearing down us until eventually the sturdy frame of Leonard is squarely in our sights. He comes barreling through the makeshift tunnel we have created for him, striding through a chorus of cheers. 

Finish.

Twenty minutes later...

I wrap my way around the finish area, rubbing my forearm and praying I'm not so weak to see a bruise appear.  Around me runners of all shapes and sizes pass by me. I step gingerly, and barefoot across the Lloyd Hall concourse, when I catch sight of Leonard hunched over on a nearby bench. Concern fades quickly, as I see the phone pressed to his ear. I linger back for a moment, watching the typical serious features of his face locked in a steady smile. He puts down the phone, and with a few thumb clicks, hoists it back to his ear. And my friend Leonard makes another call.

Four days later...

I sit in front of a computer screen. My mind runs over a collection of images from the weekend. Images of laughter and triumph, of agony and smiles. And one of a man, who ran further than he ever had before, raising a phone to his ear, to call and tell someone else. 

And I think of all the people Leonard would thank for getting him through those miles. The people who ran his first mile with him, the ones who brought him to the race, and the ones who coached him up.

And then I think about one more image, one of the man who deserves the most credit. The man in the yellow shirt.

I can't say where Leonard will go from here, or even whether he will ever run another race. But I do know, in that instant when he picked the phone back up, that Leonard had given himself something that no one else can ever give you.

Pride.

My mind runs over these things, these things we can only give ourselves are, surprisingly, the same things that no one can ever take away from us.



Monday, July 18, 2011

Things overheard during the 20in24...


Things overheard during the 20in24

“Who is Christopher George?”

“ RARARARARARARARAT”

“So are you guys all medical students, or something?...
 No, we just have a drunk friend”

“Oh, good news, you only have 4 more hours till your race starts”

“Matthew Kusy… Pure sex”

“And this is Amina, she heads up the program here in Philadelphia”

“Looking good…
Feeling good”

“You guys better have a beer waiting for me when I get back”

“This is my friend Coody…
Coody?”

“Is this slice big enough for ya?.... (fart noise)”

“Where’s my bourbon?”

“Haj Falck? Sounds muslim”

“It just goes down so easily” (spoken over an empty box of Little Caesars pizza)

“Gotta love the self service water stations”

“Wait, all this GU is for this race?

“Steph Lee, STEPH LEE”

“Go get ‘em Chakir… See you in ten minutes!”

“You puked too!?!?!” (high five)

“Hmmm, a lady!”

“I have no idea what my time was…
Like, 1:06 or 1:07…
(Smile)
Jesus…”

“I got your midnight madness right here!”

“Allison Ries just killed that CG”

“Who brought the guy with the beard?”

“Nothing makes me wanna dry hump more than Seal’s ‘Kiss from a Rose’”

“It kinda looks like an ascot”

“I’m sending you telepathic disapproval from Abby”

“No more”

“We want you back, don’t die”

“When should I hit the GU?... Only twice?”

“There’s not enough water. No really, there’s not enough water.”

“No canoodling on the loop!”

“Is this… Is this O Town?”

“Dan, behave, we have guests”

“Greg Richmond, Best CG ever”

“I better see some rhythmic back bends if “Born This Way” comes on.”

“Okay, let’s take our shirts off”

“Shit my ass”

“Hey, what kind of dog is that?...
It’s a lion”

“Can I do anything else for you guys?...
You could put our tent up.”

“He’d be the happiest mugging victim ever.”

“Natalie Morales… dumb as a stump”

“You mean I can’t park ON Kelly Drive?”

“We’re still waiting for Yoder to bring us that ice”

“So what do you do now?...
I still work with the homeless population…
Shoulda said you clean toilets with your tongue and you’re much happier.”

“Wait, THAT is Natalie Morales’s husband?”

“Hey, it’s a pretty great view from the front as well.”

“Think I should go request “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King”

“Where’s Mia?”

“Ugh, I can’t wait to finish this lap so I can start drinking.”

“Raise your hand if you have been pee’d on?”

“Where’s our architect? Matt, is this tent structurally sound?... (Matt stares up at the leaning tent)
It’s standing up isn’t it?”

“So you like America, huh?.. Bad pick up line?”

“It was kind of like a burp with a surprise ending with espresso and fruit punch gatoraid”

“It’s hot”

“It’s really hot”

“It’s really fucking hot.”

“Hey good news, John, Chakir said he’d pace you for the next lap…
NO!”

“Hey, Detery..”

“I PASSED A KENYAN!”

And the thing heard the most, even if it was never said…

“I love you, too”