Monday, November 26, 2012

My Unofficial Philadelphia Marathon Results

One of the joys of running a marathon, aside from the general feeling of impending death, are the brief yet timely moments of levity. Because, although the majority of the 26.2 mile trek is spent contemplating if anyone would really notice if you took a taxi cab, there will also certainly be times where you can't help but laugh.

These can come in a variety of forms. The male (and occasional female) runners who attempt a nonchalant jog off the course, only to post up against the nearest concrete wall, or bush and... ummm... lighten their race weight. Occasionally they will come from witty banter between runners and those drinking on the sidelines, and of course the inverse, those on the sideline, and those drinking on the course.

But for the most part, the quick bits of laughter or smiles come from a well positioned and authored sign.

It seems to be one of those topics of conversation that permeates the post-race discussion, the same way Super Bowl commercials are discussed after the game. Which sign the runners and spectators thought were the funniest. This years Philly Marathon was no exception, as many signs sought to capture and distract the 22,000 runners who participated.

You had the old favorites, the staples that live on from year to year. Signs that survive in their variations, most notably the highbrow humor of "shitting your pants", otherwise known as my personal favorite.

"Smile if you've pooped your pants", was well positioned in the early miles, written beneath smiling pictures of two runners, whom I can only assume were the friends these spectators came to support.

Then there are the topics of signs that pop up for one year only, usually capitalizing on a current bit of pop culture humor. This year's bit of mockery came to us courtesy of Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan who was just a TAD off when he told a radio host that he had run a sub 3:00 marathon, only to have it be revealed later that his sub 3:00 was more like a 4:15.

"According to Paul Ryan the last hour doesn't count. You're almost done!"

And there were others...

"If Marathons were easy, they'd be called your Mom"

"Do it faster. That's what she said"

This is to say nothing of the men and women in costume, Ghostbusters, Greek warriors, pirates, giraffes, and even, Jesus.

But there was one other sign that caught my attention, a play on an old line...

"Pain is Temporary, Online Race Results Last Forever"

And that is true, cause in this day and age, results of the race are almost immediately available online. All you need is a last name, a bib number, even just a first name, and you can see how you or someone you know did. Hell, you can even see out of all the 'Dan's that you ran that day, where you finished.

But, as I would like to believe, the results of these races aren't merely numbers or splits. So, for the fun of it, here are my highly unofficial race results from this weekends Philadelphia Marathon.

1.) Cowbells Revisited

So this may just be me, but I don't get the cowbell.

I mean, I get it. I just don't get it.

I guess it's just that at moments when I am looking for some kind of external motivation, the first I think of is not a loud, clanging noise.

But having said that, I've found something worse. Cause it seems that there may be some kind of cowbell manufacturing shortage due to the recession cause at this years race, instead of incessant banging of cowbells, there were more than a few incessant banging of pots and pans.

Yes, there were more than a few pockets of spectators standing outside with wooden spoons and pots banging their little hearts out.

But I'm not trying to judge (I mean I am a little), cause look, over the course of 26.2 miles, there is certainly a large need for crowd support. I guess I'm just asking you to reconsider, if you are thinking of bringing your cookware with you to the next race.

I want you to just think about the next time you are doing something difficult, say moving a couch. I want you to picture the next time you are moving a couch or a bed up a flight of stairs. Then I want you to think if you think it would be helpful or less than helpful if I were to stand next to you with a wooden spoon beating out a not so rhythmic beat on your frying pan.

Just saying.

2. Everybody Poops

Seriously, next time your in a long line at the port-o-potty check out just how long each person takes once they are inside.

You'd be surprised just how long some people take...

3. The Hottest Part

So there was something I didn't know about a flame. I didn't know that there is a common misconception about flames.

Let's say for the sake of this example, that we are looking at the flame on the top of a candle. Picture the flame bouncing atop the small black wick. The way the tip of the flame bats around, it's yellow glow descending down, slowly morphing into an orange, then finally, just before the dark mass atop the wick, there is a tiny slice of blue.

As it turns out, the hottest part of the flame is not the yellow or orange areas, but rather that blue streak that lies just underneath.

Now maybe I was the only one who didn't know that, but it seemed worth bringing up in the context of this weekend.

Cause you see, I used to think that the hottest part, was the tip of the flame. The tip that extended upwards from the match, or candle that I was using to lite something else.

But I was wrong.

Cause, as it seems, the warmest place is not the brightest, or the flashiest part, but the part you can barely see unless you really try.

Which brings me back to this weekend.

But not everything needs explaining.

4. Point to Point

There is a strategy in racing that frequently gets lost or overlooked by many runners. One that the leaders and elites employee that the masses seem to ignore.

 And that is this idea of running point to point.

If you watch the elite runner's race, you'll note that they attempt to take the most direct route from turn to turn. They'll memorize each turn of the course, hug the inside of every turn, and run directly to the next one. This is done for obvious reason, that the most direct route to take to the finish line is ultimately the fastest (think running around lane one of the track versus lane eight).

The same, however, is not true if you watch the racers behind them. Instead of watching what you would picture a NASCAR race looking like, you observe what looks more like normal lanes of traffic. Where each racer sticks to their own lane, even if that lane takes them widely around a turn or corner. This is frequently why those who wear satellite watches, tracking their speed and distance end a race with a watch reading a longer distance than the race (26.9 miles instead of 26.2).

But while I usually try my best to run a point to point race, I couldn't help but gain an appreciation for the not so direct route this past Sunday running with Troy, both in the literal and the non.

Cause I guess you would say that the two of us didn't take the most direct route, be it in the race, or in the path that led us to it.

Troy, the homeless man, and me, the with the scars I try best to hide.

But if this Sunday taught me anything, is that maybe taking the direct route is the preferable way to go, but that a path that ends in a finish, no matter how many detours you took along the way, is a finish nonetheless, and maybe one worth celebrating even more.

5. The Shit We Get/Charity Bibs

Someone once had a line  that said that we only do the races for the t-shirt. That all the training, and the sacrifice is simply so that we can walk around with the t-shirt that says "marathon" or some other race distance.

And that holds some truth. Cause for those of you who don't know, you actually do get quite a few things for running a race.

Before each large race, you usually have to attend an Expo, where you will pick up your race bag. A bag that is stuffed with all sorts of things, your race bib, your chip timer, a thousand coupons for various things, a race shirt, sometimes sunglasses, breath mints, and on at least one occasion, a harmonica.

But for many people, Troy included, this past Sunday, what many lined up for wasn't something that was given before the start of the race, but what was waiting for them at the end.

The finisher's medal.

There are some things in life that require no words at all, and some that exist beyond word's capabilities, seeing Troy wearing that medal would qualify as both.

But as I sit here now, thinking back on it, I find myself thinking of the most important result of all from this man's Philadelphia Marathon.

Cause you see, there are some that would say that there was a lot that has been given to Troy.

And I guess they'd be right.

But while I wouldn't argue with you that Troy had been given many things, I would argue over the question about which of these things was most important.

Cause you see, that while Troy was given many things, everything from a bed at St. John's to the shoes he ran in, to the finisher's medal itself, I would argue that the greatest among them wasn't given to him by anyone from St. John's Hospice, or Back on My Feet.

I would argue that the greatest gift Troy received was given by someone else entirely.

By Troy himself.

Because I believe that in life there are many things we need, things that we need from others, things that lead us to the starting line of a race, but then there are other things, things that we can only give ourselves, the very things that get us to the finish line.

Things that we can only give ourselves, the very same things that no one else can ever take away.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Long Shots

Long Shot (noun): "A venture unlikely to succeed."

So for this blog I'm going to try something a little different. Instead of writing about a race or experience that has already happened, today, I am going to write about one that has yet to. Cause while I normally sit down to write about these races, with the sights, sounds, and sentiments of the ending or finish still fresh in my mind, this entry centers around one possibly in doubt.

One that hardly seems like a safe bet, which, ironically, seems like an appropriate place to start.

Like many of us, I think, my father taught me how to gamble.

No, he didn't take me to the race track, or hand me wads of cash to take to the blackjack table. No, my father chose instead to teach me in other ways. Ways that began when I was quite young. 

The setting was an old tan couch in my parents living room. I would sit clad in my pajama top and tighty whities underneath a fleece blanket watching Saturday morning cartoons, as my brother would maneuver his Playmobil action figures across the carpet in front of me. And invariably at some point, either during Ghostbusters or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, my father footsteps would come creaking down the stairs.

"Anyone want to bet a dollar on last night's Phillies game?"

Of course the question was unnecessary, as the temptation of how many Sour Patch Kids that dollar could buy always proved too much to turn down.

"I will!"

"Okay" he would say through his thick, brown beard,"I'll give you the Phillies and six runs."

Then he would explain again to my brother how that works. How you added six runs to whatever the Phillies scored in real life and after that, whichever team had more runs won.


The obligatory handshaking would ensue to seal the bet. 

"Ahhh too bad son." He'd say as he would plop down on the couch beside me, drawing the sport's page from his back pocket to reveal the box score, "Phillies lost by seven."

From these Saturday mornings I learned quite a bit, first the finer points of gambling, and second, that my father is full of shit, and not above betting his young children on sporting events he already knows the outcome to.

But I'll get back to that first lesson, and what I learned about gambling in a little bit.

So this weekend, for those of you who are not from Philadelphia, or those who don't run is the Philadelphia Marathon weekend. A weekend that consists of the marathon, a simultaneous half-marathon and an 8k that is held on Saturday. A weekend that will draw thousands of runners from all over the globe, runners of varying ages and race, skills and stature. 

The weekend will feature some 200 elite racers, former Olympians, and returning champions all striving to be the first to break that finishers tape.

And just behind those elites will wait a sea of 18,000 registered runners, calibrating their state of the art GPS watches, and bouncing on expensive footwear, with hopes of personal or course records.

And still within that sea of 18,000, there will be one, one runner with a watch with a minute hand on it, standing on donated sneakers, with the hopes of crossing a seemingly unlikely finish line 26.2 miles away from where he stands.

One runner, in short, a long shot.

And I'll be standing next to him.

His name is Troy. A man I met some two and change years ago outside St. John's Hospice, a converted homeless shelter for men here in Philadelphia. A shelter that drips with irony, as it sits each and every day resting in the shadow of the Philadelphia Convention Center, the site of some of this City's largest revenue generating events.

Troy wouldn't stand out to you immediately if you came to visit our Back on My Feet team. He's a shy man, with mild manner that matches an equally gentle disposition. He's caring and trusting, and despite his four decades on this planet, seems to approach his days with a youthful amount of wonder and innocence that you can't help but find endearing. 

I've watched as Troy has grown into a runner that even he admits he never expected to be. I've watched him with his wholly unique running stride (think cross country skiing meets trampolining), trot his way over two half-marathons, numerous 5ks, and countless training runs in between. I've watched as Troy has moved out of the homeless shelter, out of St. Johns, and still despite living quite far from where we as a team meet, continue to come out in the morning to train. 

But when we line up on Sunday, those other runners around us won't see any of that.

They'll see a long shot in donated sneakers.

And who knows, maybe they are right.

But one thing I do know is that despite the races I've run, and despite the fact that I've been doing this long enough to have accumulated enough stuff to look the part of a "seasoned runner", I'm not that far removed from being a long shot myself, if removed at all.

But when I think back not that long ago at the moments in my life where faith was hard to come by, there was one person above all others who cast me as a long shot. It wasn't the teachers, the coaches, friends or family. It was one person, one voice that never believed I could make it to the end.

My own.

Which leads us back to gambling.

Because there's a funny little thing about gambling. There's a funny little wrinkle that I think is best described through horse racing. A funny little thing about odds.

Most of us are familiar with the odds given at horse races; 10-1, 2-1, 17-1, etc. But for those who are not, these odds represent the amount of money you stand to take home if your horse wins. So if I bet one dollar on a horse with 17-1 odds, if that horse wins, I take home seventeen dollars, and if I bet one dollar on a 2-1 horse, I would get two dollars. 

The odds also speak to which horse is most likely to win the race. Obviously, the 2-1 horse has a better odds of beating the 17-1 long shot.

But here is the funny thing about those odds.

You see, these odds aren't set by experts or analysts. They aren't set by race track personnel or horse insiders. In actuality, they aren't set by officials of any kind. 

They are set by the bets that are wagered. 

You see the odds move with the money. So if the majority of the bets are being put on a specific horse, that horse's odds of winning will go up, becoming the most likely to win. 

In other words, the more people who believe he will win, the higher his odds to do so become.

Which brings me back to Troy.

Back to the man in the donated sneakers, and back to the point of this blog.

Bet on Troy.

Bet on Troy by liking this link.

Like this link if you believe that there is more to a man than what you can see on the outside. Like this link if you believe that helping someone else, and helping yourself are not two separate things. Like this link if you believe that it's never too late for the human spirit to re-ignite, no matter how small the spark may be. Like this link if you know Troy, even if you have never met him. 

Like this link if you believe that the first step to believing in yourself, is believing that someone else believes in you.

And like this link to show Troy that he's really not such a long shot after all.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Morning After

Election Day!

(Cue witty joke about annoying Facebook posts, or political TV ads)

The first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, the day initially chosen by our founding fathers to be the day that we perform our one true civic duty. It's the sacred task that is as it was all those years ago, the beginning, the heart of this society. It's the principal of one man, one vote, and the best embodiment of those words "a more perfect union", that saw that word "man" extend across race, gender, and discrimination. And it's the paint brush that we all use, with each stroke that creates this never ending portrait of this country.

But this blog isn't about about elections, or Election Day.

Though, in many ways, elections share similar properties with those of running and training. They both set a course across long stretches of time, slowly building and gaining in intensity. Campaigns and training plans begin in earnest with the hopes of of making it to that final destination or finish.

And then the day comes, sometimes months or years, after the start. The day arrives and all the preparation and emotion that went into take hold as the die is cast.

The polls open.

The race begins.

And then, just like that, it's over.

Though for all the words written about the great battles, elections, and competition, few are put to paper about the days that follow. Few are captured about the subsequent moments as the sting of defeat and luster of victory begin to fade. When such events descend further into the past, slowly being rewritten by history's subjective gravity.

But I guess this all became apparent to me in this last week or so, the contrast that exists between the lead up to these elections, battles, or races, and the days that follow. The fury and the urgency in the run-up, and the quiet that follows.

Though, in many ways, this contrast became even more apparent to me after such a contrast didn't occur.

Because, like so many of us, I spent the summer and early portion of fall training for a race to come later in the season. I rose and fell on the ups and downs of training, the good, the bad, and all that lay in between. And just as designed, I ramped up as the race day approached. The tickets were booked, the GU was bought, and the plans were made.

And then... my phone lit up.

"We regret to inform you that the 2012 ING New York Marathon has been cancelled"

But this isn't a blog about that.

Cause as I woke up the next day, the after nothing happened, something else began to sink in. Something that seemed analogous to these campaigns that we have watched over these past few months.

That, perhaps, more important than the outcome of these competitions is what takes place the next day.

Cause it seems to me, nothing is changed from a campaign. That no lives are changed or made by the words or speeches of a candidate, but rather, the governance that follows.

The same, I believe, can be said about running. That while running a marathon can change your life, that change does not occur over the course of three, four, or five hours on race day. The change comes from the principals gained, the dedication, the faith, the commitment that are practiced along the way.

But this isn't a blog about the marathon.

It's a blog about the morning after.

It's a blog about whether those principals, those invaluable principals, carry on with you after the race, whether they continue on into the rest of your life.

But maybe I need to be honest with you. Because I'll admit to you that this blog was never meant to educate anyone, and it wasn't meant to provide some roundabout way to convey a message or conclusion about President Obama's re-election. No, this blog really only ever meant for one person.


A blog written to challenge myself to live up the words I write here on this site. To call myself out, in the face of marathon plans that didn't exactly go my way, to see if I will practice what I preach, or if this blog is just a place for me to try and sound good.

So, in a selfish way, this is my way of sitting here, reminding myself of the funny thing about the morning after. That despite whether campaigns or training plans lasted  three months or three years, that regardless of how they end, one thing is true.

That on the morning after, it begins again with Day One.

So get started.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Mike and Chris, and a Trip Around the Moon

They don’t look like astronauts.

Wrong size. Wrong age. Wrong skin color. Wrong haircut.

Mike and Chris won’t ever be confused for the classic, crew cut All-American look that we have come to associate with the NASA pilots who hurl themselves into space. The twin pillars of the St. John’s Hospice running team, “MikeandChris” (as they are collectively known), since one is rarely seen without the other.

You meet them as a pair, then you begin to get to know what makes them individuals. The way Mike always leans back, and tilts his head when he laughs. The way Chris gives a firm handshake, extending his pointer finger across the inside of your wrist. Then as more time goes by, you begin to learn a little bit more. How Mike tells a story, and the way Chris seems to remember every conversation you’ve ever had with him.

Then after being introduced to you as “MikeandChris”, after seeing what makes them individuals, you find yourself learning what makes them so similar. The kindness in their voices, the gentle nature of their persons, and the way they can speak so easily and reflectively on what led them to, and their experience with being homeless, and ultimately what lead them back.

These are the men I’ve come to know for the last 18 months, and over these last 500 miles.

And still, I can’t stop thinking about astronauts.

But maybe I should explain.

After the successful moon landing of Apollo 11, NASA had planned for additional lunar trips eventually leading to five more visits to the moon's surface. Apollo 12 had been a success, which paved the way for Apollo 13, only 13 would never make it to the moon.

After a rather turbulent training period for the mission, Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise departed the Earth's atmosphere heading for the Fra Mauro highlands, a crater on the surface of the moon. The mission was going according to design until, roughly 200,000 miles from Earth, trouble began. After being asked to "stir the tanks" by Mission Control, Jack Swigert and the crew heard a loud bang, a bang that would later be identified as an explosion in the number two oxygen tank.

The damage was noted, almost instantaneously by the crew. Oxygen and electrical power began to fail in the Control Module, and the crew was forced to move into the Lunar Module, the portion of the spacecraft designed to land on the moon. And just like that, after the mere flip of a switch, the mission to the moon was aborted, and the mission to get these men home safely began.

It was a mission that would prove to be extremely difficult, and require the ingenuity, hard work, and genius of NASA personnel on board and back at Mission Control, as each combined to overcome challenges of rising carbon dioxide levels, trajectory, and power conservation. A mission that would use the moon’s own gravitational pull to slingshot the spacecraft back towards Earth.

And so it was that five days after its launch, the Apollo 13 crew passed back through the Earth’s atmosphere. Then after four minutes of radio silence, splashed down in the South Pacific where they were retrieved by the U.S. Navy.

Years later Jim Lovell, the commander of the mission, referred to Apollo 13 as a “successful failure” in a book that he would co-author called “Apollo Expeditions to the Moon”. It appears in chapter 13, “Houston We’ve Had a Problem”, the actual phrase uttered after the explosion, as opposed to the line made famous in the movie “Apollo 13”, “Houston, we have a problem”.

“A successful failure”

But Mike and Chris don’t look like astronauts.

Though, I guess if I had to identify the lesson these two men have imparted upon me somewhere over the 500 miles we are currently celebrating, I think it would come down to a new appreciation for this phrase.

I’m guessing if you asked the remaining crew members of Apollo 13, they would probably state that given a choice, they would choose the moon over being known for a historic mission back to Earth. I’m guessing that they would tell you that the hardest part of their journey wasn’t the cold, or the limited oxygen, but the view from their window as they passed tantalizingly close to the moon’s surface, and their dream to set foot on it, with the knowledge that they were still so far.

But I’m also guessing that if you asked those back on Earth at that time, the members of Mission Control they would say that it was far more difficult working to bring these men back from the brink of disaster than it ever would have been to simply land on the moon.

And that’s what I think about when I think of Mike and Chris. Not so much about the path they were on when their own disaster struck, but the mission to get back.

The mission to get back.

A mission that I think we can all agree is far more difficult.

And I guess it’s been within that journey, the journey back from the disaster that is homelessness, an experience that only they can tell, that they’ve taught me the most.

That while all successes occur in the face of failure, some begin in the wake of it. That those who get second chances are much quicker to forgive your first. That kindness can never be quantified. That having a song to sing is great, but having people around to listen to it is infinitely more important. That people heal people, then take their turns and do it all again.

And that, sometimes, failure is a beautiful place for the story to begin.