Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Boston Marathon 2017


When you hear the name, something invariably pops into your head. Maybe you think of the Red Sox, or MIT, or of tea parties. Maybe you think of seafood, or music and art. Maybe you have friends or family there, and it gives you a warm feeling. For me, and many other runners, when we hear Boston, we think of the marathon.

And for good reason. It is the world's longest running annual marathon, hosting over 30,000 runners per year. Those are just statistics though, and you can't truly appreciate the scope of the event until you find yourself surrounded by all of those excited runners in Athletes' Village. Men and women train their a$$es off to qualify for one of the world's most famous events. It's an achievement all on its own just to find yourself on the starting line.

I didn't qualify for Boston. I need to run a marathon in 3:10 to do that, and I missed the mark by 4 and a half minutes at Run for the Red. As is the case for many runners, Boston is a culmination of many years of training, a recognition of one's dedication to the sport. When I failed to qualify, it only meant that I had to keep working, to keep making myself stronger. So that I could one day be part of the mass of talented runners.

But fate decided I had earned that privilege anyway. Yesterday, I found myself in Hopkinton, suffused by the palpable joy and anticipation of more people than I had ever seen at once in my lifetime. I felt a pang of guilt, as if I had sneaked my way in. But that was quickly overcome by the sheer exhilaration of the fact: I was running Boston Marathon!

How did it come about? About 3 weeks ago, a fellow LUNAR (Lace Up Now and Run) friend, Sheila, shared a post that a blind runner, Mike, was scrambling to find a guide for Boston to replace his previous guide, who'd gotten injured. I figured it was a long shot that I would get picked, but I eagerly reached out with my excited offer!

Barely two weeks before the race, I got a reply. And after some communication, it was set in stone. Unbelievable! It all happened so fast as to be surreal. My mind honestly could not contain the reality of it. I called the BAA and sent countless emails to make sure all of the details were ironed out. I kept thinking the rug would be pulled out from under me. That it was just a dream. It was not!
"It all starts here"

I've signed up for races on short notice before. But this was entirely different. Who the heck runs Boston Marathon on two weeks notice?! And not only that, but to help fulfill the dream of a disabled runner! I hadn't run a sanctioned marathon in 6 months, my New Years Day solo marathon notwithstanding. I'm training for an Ironman! And I had already registered for a half marathon just the weekend prior.

It was frightening. I had suffered my first DNF at Syracuse half-marathon just a month and a half ago. Would my body hold together for a full marathon? And it wasn't just about me. I had promised to guide a blind runner for the entire 26.2 miles. I didn't have the luxury of bonking out halfway, because I wouldn't be ruining the race just for me, I'd be ruining it for him too. And Mike, it turned out, was a super cool guy.

Boston is challenging too. It's not a victory lap after a year of training. It's hilly. It's windy. And mother nature always throws something extra at you on race day. This year it was heat! No joke. It was HOT. Burn-your-skin-to-a-shade-of-lobster hot. But I'll get to that.

My amazing friend Meghan allowed me to stay with her over the weekend of the race. Actually, it was her sister's house. It turned out Meghan's entire family were amazingly kind and generous! Truly I was blessed. And they hosted two other LUNAR runners, Michael and Charles, who had traveled all the way from Michigan for the race. I had no clue I was going to meet them until I arrived!

Me, Mike, Charles, and Michael
Photo Cr. Meghan

They had qualified for Boston the old fashioned way, by being super fast! But despite being powerhouse runners, they were exceptionally fun and down-to-earth guys. I don't know why I say "despite". Every LUNAR I've had the pleasure of meeting has amazed me, and these two were no exception. Geoffrey's daughter Aria was there as well, so the house was packed with awesome people.

Michael is a 56 year old who runs faster than me! He is quite the character. He'll talk your ear off about running if you give him the chance, and he doesn't hold back any of the gnarly specifics, including precisely how many deuces he has to drop before race time, or how much chafing his manly bits may suffer throughout. I got to run with him and Aria on both Saturday and Sunday before the race. Michael is definitely a memorable "old fart".

Charles is a tall and devilishly handsome runner in his 40's. We hit it off immediately, talking at length about the challenges of dating while training as much as we do. By the end of the weekend, we were exchanging some rather intimate details about one another's escapades with the fairer gender. I don't know how Aria put up with us; we seemed to amplify each other's um... masculine behaviors. But she seemed to enjoy our ridiculous antics. She kept trying to force us to stay up past our early bed times to play pool.

Me, Aria, and Michael

On Sunday, Meghan's family had an Easter meal. I didn't know about it at all. I was sitting on the front porch, wearing only a bath towel, when people started arriving with their kids. But as I mentioned, they turned out to be really laid back folks. And they invited us to stuff ourselves with a tremendous amount of delicious food. I can't remember the last time I've eaten that much or that well. I must have weighed an extra ten pounds on the morning of the marathon. And yes, I did eventually change out of the towel into real clothes.

The morning before that, I headed into Boston with Charles to hit the expo. While wandering Boylston St., we ran into another LUNAR, Noel, also a very talented and prolific runner. The three of got to the expo right at 9am and did some shopping. Not surprisingly, the expo was HUGE. We got out of there before it got too packed. Even that early, it was quite overwhelming.

Me, Noel, and Charles... That filter makes us look like babies!

The three of us parted ways and I went back to my car. Or I tried to. I spent half an hour looking for it and finally gave up. At that point I decided to just head back to the expo and meet Mike, the runner I was guiding. I helped him go up and get his bib, and we managed to be in and out in record time. I did run him into a table, which... yeah, lesson learned. I did have the fun of pushing people out of the way, and then watching them turn around to make a scathing remark, only to swallow it in a hurry. Evil delight, that.

I keep scrolling back up through this post as I write it. I know I'm missing a huge amount. Countless conversations and adventures with Charles, Michael, Aria, Meghan, and her super cool family. The experience of meeting Mike for the first time, knowing we'd be running together for a long time the next day. The massive and constant love and support I got online from friends and LUNARS. But if I tried to recount every detail, I would never stop writing.

After a very full weekend, Monday morning arrived. Thanks to Meghan, the logistics of getting us to Hopkinton was very straightforward. She had run the last four Boston marathons, and this was her first year spectating. She told me that the experience was very different. As a runner, you only have to worry about yourself. But this time she had to worry about a lot of things, some of which were out of her control. It gave her a new appreciation for all of the friends and family who had supported her in previous years.

Meghan dropped me, Mike, Charles, and Michael off and we got on the shuttle buses. The amount of coordination that was required to facilitate such a massive race boggled my mind. Everything was well-organized and ran smoothly. After a short ride we arrived at the Athletes' Village with plenty of time to spare.

The sheer volume of runners was colossal. I quickly lost Charles and Michael. I helped Mike navigate the crowds, and for the most part we avoided stepping on any runners sprawled on the grass. We navigated our way through the two massive staging areas. We got some coffee and snacks, and then waited in the long lines for the port-o-potties. The guy in front of us had a very strong British accent, which tickled me.

We spent a couple hours waiting for our wave (4) to be called. We eventually got reunited with Charles, and met his friend Christina, who he was running with. They were in Wave 2 and were soon called. Watching thousands upon thousands upon thousands of people stream through the chute towards their starting corrals was mesmerizing. The entire time we sat and waited, the runners poured through the chute in a never-ending river.

Thirty thousand people. I can't wrap my head around it. That's more than the population of the town I live in. That's more than the entire staff, faculty, and student population of the University I work for. It's more people than the Baltimore Running Festival, which had five races at once. It's more than the Boilermaker by a factor of three, and that crowd never seemed to end. And every single one of those people walked from the Athletes' Village to the starting line.

Then Mike and I were there too, slathered in sunscreen that somebody offered us from their front lawn. Time seemed to compress. Your senses are constantly stimulated to the max, and it just doesn't feel like that much time passes. The whole race was like that. A huge amount of sights and sounds engage 100% of your mind. Screaming cheering spectators every inch of the way, even before we started.

I could barely remember waiting in the starting corral. Because suddenly we were running! After days off anticipation and a mind-numbing disbelief, I was suddenly running the Boston marathon! The roar of the spectators was near deafening. There were runners in front of us and behind us as far as the eye could see, and this would be the case for the entire marathon. I had never before run a race where I was always surrounded by people.

The miles flew by. Not because we were running quickly. It was too hot for that. But because there wasn't a single moment of the race that wasn't awash with the energy of the runners and spectators, and the sheer magnitude of what I was doing! And of course I had to be conscientious of Mike the whole time. Despite my best effort, I ran him into other runners.... pretty much nonstop. After the first couple minutes he told me to stop apologizing.

The heat! It was almost 70 when we started. There was a tailwind in the beginning, which was apparently quite rare. But with how much we were sweating, an occasional cross draft felt really good. We stopped at almost every single table and grabbed several cups of Gatorade and water. Everybody ran slow that day, and quite a few people dropped out. Most of us had trained through the winter months, and while 70 may not seem that hot, to us it was a heat wave. The course had no shade, and there wasn't a cloud in the sky. Scorch city.

But we kept on going. Mike and I encountered quite a number of other blind runners and their guides. We even encountered a pair from Japan! Hiro and his guide.

"Konnichiha! O'tenki wa totemo ii desune!" I said ("Hello! The weather is very nice!).

"Atsui!" The guide replied ("It's hot!").

"Hontou desu ka!" I laughed ("I know, right?!"). We passed them again later and I complimented them on their speed and asked how many marathons they'd run. That was about when I burned out on the Japanese I knew. It made the race all the more amazing though, that I could have a conversation with runners from the other side of the world!

Before the race, Charles had told me about the Wellesley college girls. I couldn't recall if this was before or after he remarked on the many many beautiful women in Spandex. He'd told me that the girls would kiss passing runners. And I don't mean bashfully on the cheek either. These were full, tongue-in-the-mouth, drool-everywhere, kisses.

I thought he'd been exaggerating at the time.

He had not. It seemed like every single female student was on the side of the road, and about half of them had signs that said things like, "I just aced my bio exam! Kiss me!" or "kiss me I'm [adjective]" or "I'm single! Kiss me!" And sure enough, runners ran over there to receive their smooches. Sadly, I could not risk pulverizing Mike into the barriers, so I only got to look on with longing. Charles told me later that while they ran together, he'd asked Christina, "so are you going to kiss any girls today?"

She did. And Charles also got to play with dogs while waiting for Christina to take one of five bathroom breaks. So clearly he had a grand ol' time as well. At one point he had four German Shepherds licking sweat off of him. Seriously? Boston Marathon for you.

In no time at all (but actually about 3 hours in), we ran past Meghan and Aria. Meghan had told me ahead of time she'd be cheering us at mile 16.8. And there she was, yelling her head off! Apparently she'd also gotten to see Meb Keflezighi run past earlier (much earlier)! She'd waited forever for the opportunity, and seeing him in his last Boston was extra special. She also saw Galen Rupp and Jared Ward. And Meghan screamed her head off when she saw Desi Linden run past. Astonishing!

We hit Heartbreak Hill after mile 20. The whole course was hilly, but I could see what all the rage was about. Heartbreak is a big hill! It made it that much more impressive that the elites ran as fast as they did. The hill does gobble up an occasional runner, including, unfortunately, my friend Michael.

"The heartbreak is over"

Michael's day had started out great. His coaching plan had been good and he had a very ambitious goal for the race. He ran conservatively due to the heat, but by mile six his feet were on fire. He dropped to a more comfortable pace, but by the time he reached Meghan he was alternately walking and jogging. He sucked down water and Gatorade at every stop and ran through every sprinkler. He felt so bad he wished he could've thrown up. He even took his shoes off at one point, his feet were so hot. He got his photo taken with his shoes in his hands, which made him laugh.

Michael figured he just had to get to the top of Heartbreak hill and he'd be home free. But halfway up he stopped. He dropped his head. He felt lightheaded. Angry runners collided with him as he struggled to the side. He was done. The volunteers thought he was saying, "water!" But he was saying, "meds!" He had to lie down. With the help of an EMT named Steve, he was taken to a med tent on a gurney. 

They called Charles, who was one of Michael's emergency contacts, but he wouldn't receive the message until he picked his phone up at the end of the race. So nobody knew what was going on. Meghan almost drove to the hospital. They had threatened to send Michael to the hospital. Believe it or not, he had hypothermia! His core temperature was 94 degrees, his lips were blue, he had all the textbook symptoms.

They gave him IV's and put him on a hot bed. Of course his body immediately started cramping up, but they couldn't do anything about that until his temperature got back up. A nurse named Natalie talked him through it all. Finally his temperature came up and an athletic trainer massaged his muscles. Michael was given the choice to go to the hospital or take a shuttle back to town. He decided to go to Boston.

The race was hard on everyone. Just about everyone ran slower than their goal time, including Mike. I was lucky in that I didn't have a goal, except to love every minute of it as I guided him to the finish. As we got closer to Boston, the crowds became thicker and more ecstatic. Mile 22 was Mike's fastest split of the day! It was a bit painful keeping up with him as he suddenly turned on the jet engines, but I managed. And that last turn onto Boylston Street!
Blurry pic, but the street sign says "Boylston St."!

I can't overstate how incredible that is. It seemed like half the population of Boston was on the side of the roads screaming at us as we approached the finish. There wasn't a single empty inch of sidewalk. It was a continuous cacophony of ecstatic shouting! And then to see that street sign: "Boylston St." My heart almost exploded in my chest. And that final stretch.... Wow. I couldn't even feel my body. I can't compare it to any experience I've ever had. It was powerful.

I made sure to let Mike finish just ahead of me. I pumped my fists and shouted wildly, trying to compete with the spectators. We finished in just under 4 hours and 52 minutes, but it didn't feel anywhere near that long. I felt incredible, like I could run another marathon.... until a few minutes later.
The finish line!!

After some doing, we all managed to reconnect again. Everyone was in a panic over Michael, but we found him too, high on drugs. He was disappointed of course, he told me.....

You know what Michael, if you're reading this, you're awesome. I'm not going to repeat the self-bashing, because I've been there. I've had a lot of lousy marathons, and I even had my first ever DNF recently. It sucks. But if you're as insane as I am (and I'm pretty sure you're even more insane!) then you'll get over this and get back to doing mind-blowingly crazy things in no time. Anybody who can crash that hard and then say, "ambulance? No thanks," is tough as nails in my book. It makes for a much better story than, "yeah, I ran a race and got a medal." You're going to be telling this story to your grand-dogs for years! And of course, I still think the whole story is a lie and you don't want to admit you got totally sidelined by an over-amorous Wellesley lady!

We had an insane amount of pizza afterwards. And I'm just overlooking.... so so much. Charles got to see a man in an assless Bumblebee costume (100% true). I saw Santa Claus. Michael got to see the Old Ironsides and the Heritage Trail. Being a spectator, Meghan was reminded of how truly amazing Boston is, after burning out on running it 4 years in a row. She was reminded of how incredible everyone was: The elites, the folks raising money for charities, the disabled runners, and just all the regular folks who make the epic journey!

And that's what it's all about. I got a huge number of compliments for volunteering to guide a blind runner. Even my mom teared up at what a great guy I was. But, to be honest, it surprised me a little. I didn't think I did anything so special. The biggest thing I've learned about running is that... it has nothing to do with running. It's about the community. And the community is amazing.

Me and Mike post-race!

I want to give back to that community. I want to keep meeting amazing new people. LUNARs, like Charles, Michael, Noel... John and Deborah who joined us for the pizza party.... Maddie, who I sadly missed but ran an astounding race after a challenging winter of training. Friends who go out of their way to support us, like Meghan's incredibly generous family. Volunteers who take many hours out of their lives to make it all possible, like the ones who made sure Michael made it out OK. And the countless people who inspire us with their courage in so many ways. And just everyone in Boston who make us feel so welcome, and the whole world that was there for us after the bombings in 2013 (which Meghan and Mike experienced first hand). And folks like Aria who make us laugh so we don't take ourselves so seriously!

I know I'm missing people. People I should thank. I'm forgetting key events. I only transcribed a third of the notes I got from Michael and Charles about their races. I'm forgetting so many people I met. The lady I met at a rest stop on my way home who'd also run the race! It was such a transcendent weekend: An entire lifetime packed into 3 days. I totally forgot that I stopped in Western Mass on Saturday for my niece's fifth birthday party!

I have to stop writing. It's late and I'm tired and I still have to scrounge up all these photos. So much love. So much adventure. So much fun and hilarity. Late nights. Too much mac and cheese (as if!). Mosquitoes on the front porch (in April?!). Too much intimate detail about Michael's bodily functions and Charles' ex-girlfriends (but really, no such thing as too much). Photos on cellphones that will hopefully never see the light of day. And the love. I said it once. But the love. Incredible. That's what I feel. Love for all of these many many unbelievably wonderful people.

Good night and thank-you for reading.

I can't believe I almost forgot to thank Mike! Mike, thank-you so much for the opportunity and privilege of running with you. It was a truly incredible and singular event, and it would not have happened without you. Thanks for making all of this possible.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Conversations with Emily

Running can occasionally be terrifying. A few years ago I lived in a more rural place. There was a particular road I would run on that bordered a deep ominous wood. When I ran on that road in the dark, I was convinced the trees were full of monsters. And this was a long road. I had plenty of time to visualize these ravenous beasts leaping out and devouring me.

I told this story to Emily as we ran the Skunk Cabbage Half Marathon together on Sunday. She told me that she too found the dark super scary. She runs in the wee hours of the morning with a friend. Emily has to run a mile on her own before joining her running buddy. The very first time she did this, she ran over a minute faster than her usual pace! Apparently the hills around her are full of coyotes and bears and - most likely - land sharks.

I didn't plan to race the half. I'm running Boston Marathon on Monday, so I used the half as a training run. No, I didn't qualify for Boston; I was four and a half minutes off. But through a set of random and fortuitous events, I'll be guiding a blind runner. So not only do I get to run in Boston, I get to help another fulfill his dream as well! Awesome all around.

Emily and I have run some of the same races, including the worst one either of us has ever run. We still b!tch about that race. It's a monthly ritual for us, to reminisce about how brutally awful that race was. It's a guilty pleasure, the one time we can unleash a wave of whining and complaining. "Remember how horrible that race was? I still gag when I remember the humidity." Aaah, good times.

Me and Emily at the start of that awful race...
The last time we smiled that day.

Anyway, we've run some of the same races, but never together. I figured since I wasn't racing anyway, I would keep her company, as long as she could tolerate my inane chatter. And Emily did me a favor, really. If it wasn't for her, I would've felt compelled to race it. And that would have been even dumber than usual for me. I suppose I could have run with my buddy David, but this is the third half we've both done in 2017, and I get enough bro-time with him on the car rides.

The weather for the race was perfect. It was an exceptionally nice day. I ran in my kilt and no shirt, because of course, and somehow Emily still let me run with her. The announcer had lost his megaphone, so we couldn't hear anything he shouted. But I had run this race plenty of times before, so I knew exactly where all the bears, coyotes, and land sharks were. We were off!

The race started somewhere in this picture

The race overlaps the roads I used to run on years ago, including the road with the monster-filled forest. We talked about dogs. I told Emily about my husky Anya. Anya's the reason I started running. We would run on snow-covered trails together, the 3 month old puppy leaping rather than running through snow that threatened to swallow her whole.

I told her about Kasha too, my next dog, who I also ran with, until he couldn't keep up with me. I don't have either dog anymore, which led me to tell Emily the awkward stories of my exes. Emily is happily married with two awesome kids, so I doubt she can relate to all my many relationship failures. Although running in a kilt may indicate a reason...

I'm predominantly a cat person, which likely also explains my many faults. Emily is a dog person, and unlike me she's managed to hold on to the dog, and she seems happy and rambunctious (the dog; but also Emily). Emily talked about her kids, who are super cool. She told me about their many little achievements with pride. And just hearing her talk about them got me excited for their successes as well.

Land shark... I think

Emily and I are both hard on ourselves, with our training, our diets, our expectations of ourselves. I often overlook my accomplishments and focus on the things I'm not satisfied with. But when she spoke of her son and daughter, there was nothing but joy there. And it reminded me of the pleasure of life, of existence. Kids don't have expectations. They just do the things they do. But those things often blow your mind without even meaning to. And that feeling is something that's worth holding on to. A child can inspire you with the smallest achievement.

In the second half of the race, Emily increasingly focused on her run, so I filled most of the space with... I don't know what I said. At one point I talked about Ivan Drago. Emily hadn't seen the Rocky movies, so she thought I was just speaking Russian for no reason. There's a big hill at about mile 10, a hill I'm all too familiar with. Emily crushed it with aplomb.

After that I just tried pushing her to go as fast as she could. I picked up the pace and told her to keep up with me, lest the coyotes get her. I said all sorts of things that I hoped were motivating. She turned on the music on her small portable speaker to amp herself up even more. One of the first songs was Eye of the Tiger, which was quite apropos. Later on Eminem came on, and apparently dropped an F-bomb just as we passed another runner.

We blasted the last few miles, gobbling up exhausted runners and serenading the hills with loud punk rock. I'm quite conscientious of the effort it takes to shut down the mind and ignore the cries of an aching body towards the end of a race. At that point the spirit takes over, and watching Emily push herself to her very limit was awesome. Being there to experience that second-hand is totally different than experiencing it yourself. I know what I can do, but watching her fly down the street like a screaming locomotive despite the pain in her legs reminded me of how much strength all people are capable of.

You have to be strong to run in typical NY weather...

We crossed the finish line only a few seconds off her goal. Had the course been flat and had she not felt compelled to talk to me on occasion, she would've undoubtedly done it - and will, next time! It was an exceptional half marathon. I can't recall the last time I had enjoyed one so much.

I am truly blessed to have the friends that I do. David, who has quickly become addicted to running races. Geoffrey and Meghan, without whom I would not be training for an Ironman. Even my one time archnemesis, Lesley, was there, manning a water table! She's the one who biked the Tour de Keuka Century Ride with me. And of course Emily, and the many other runners on LUNAR and beyond who inspire me with their hard work and success on a daily basis.

Running Skunk Cabbage was the highlight of running. It's not just running through the snow in the dark. It's not just about rubbing sore muscles while guiltily gorging yourself on greasy foods. It's not just about looking out the window at a torrential downpour, knowing you have to go out for over an hour in it. It's also about beautiful days with amazing people and great conversations.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Weight Loss is Simple but not Easy

Losing weight is simple. You just have to eat fewer calories than you expend. But it's not easy. If losing weight was easy, obesity wouldn't be at an all time high. The weight-loss industry wouldn't be making record amounts of $$$s. Our healthcare system wouldn't be bursting at the seams with all the folks going in with diabetes, heart disease, swollen ankles or whatever (I know I know, healthcare has a thousand other problems too). Clearly being thin is getting harder, not easier.

And why is that? Because foods these days are delicious, and cheap, and convenient, and just, super-full of sugar, fat, and salt. And healthy foods are expensive, and take more time to prepare. Most of us are crazy busy and often eat on the go. And when we're at home we barely have the energy to reach for the closest brightly colored box. Boxes with names on them like, "Sugar Dopamine Crunch" and "Stress Relief O's". Or whatever is on the shelves these days.

And even "health foods" are.... not. Gluten free? They just replace the wheat with something else. It still has the same calories and other junk. Granola? A bowl of granola for breakfast can easily hit a thousand calories, and most of that is sugar. Protein bar? Sure, when they say protein, they mean soy protein; enjoy your belly fat. And even meat and vegetables stop being healthy when you cover them with cheese, sauce, or a delightfully crunchy breading.

Where's the sauce? Where's the breading?

And I'm not immune to delicious foods. I quit ice cream... and then "unquit" ice cream at least twice. I finally had to give up sugar altogether because it was ruining my stomach. I had to quit alcohol too, because it's just too amazing at doing its job. But whenever I quit something, something else sneaks in to take its place. I've been eating Halo Top recently, and sure, it has fewer calories than ice cream. But that doesn't help when I eat three pints in a sitting.

Now you're thinking, if there's so much stacked against me, do I even stand a chance?

In order to lose weight, you have to decide to do it. But wait! You scream in a rage, "I did decide that! I totally want to! You're full of lies you b@stard!"

Wishing for something isn't making a decision. I "decide" to clean my room every day and I never do. It's disgusting. I constantly decide to go have my car detailed because the inside is covered in mud and sweat stains. I never do. I decided once to learn guitar and quit after a couple months. I decide sh!t all the time. I'm the czar of decision-making.

Also the czar of healthy eating...

Most of those decisions were clearly bull$hit. It wasn't a decision, it was just wishful thinking. Why? Because I didn't really care. I don't have time right now for a dating life, so I don't care how dirty my room or car is. Playing guitar is something I'd like to do, but it's not really that important. If somebody came along with a magic wand that makes you a guitar expert, I'd be like, yeah! Point that $hit at me!

So too is it with weight loss. Most of us want that magic wand to make it happen instantly. We google for those magic wands. "Lose 20 pounds in 15 days" I saw on a magazine cover recently. If you tried to do that, you would literally die. That isn't making a decision. That's looking for a magic wand. As if you'll stumble across it in a pile of loose change.

We all know how to get fit and be healthy. Eat fruits and veggies, meat and whole grains. Cut out fast food and processed foods. Cut out sugar. And yet.... we don't do that. And I get it. I too like to do things even if I know they're not good for me. Life is stressful, especially in today's age, and we need our escapes so we don't go insane.

Running is an escape for me. Lying in a pile of oozing laziness and watching Netflix is an escape for me. Vaping up a veritable storm cloud is an escape for me. Booze used to be an escape. As was food. But I replaced them. And that's important to realize. You can't just eliminate an addiction. You have to replace it with something else, preferably something less terrible for you.
A veritable storm...

When I decided to lose weight, I replaced my obsession with food with an obsession for being thin. Seeing my calories below my budget at the end of the day, seeing my weight drop on the scale every week, and seeing a shredded body appear gave me the dopamine hits I used to get from eating food.

You may think that's wrong, that it's just as unhealthy. Maybe. I'm still trying to find a balance. I'm not as obsessed as I used to be. But if it is something that you want - to lose weight or get in shape - then it has to be an obsession. Unless you're one of those self-moderating freaks of nature, in which case this post won't make sense to you anyway.

Being svelte used to be the norm. You had to really work at being extra sized. Only rich folks could afford to eat that much. But now it's the exact opposite. It's actually less work and less money to be chub-tastic. You have to work to not put on the pounds. You have to essentially deny your human nature.

Denying my human nature

But thankfully we have these awesome brains. We can decide things, and then do the work to make those things happen. That's our power! And once you engage that power, it becomes easier. But hitting that switch in the first place is hard. It's like to trying to turn on the lights in a dark room. Some folks stumble around in the dark for a long time. Some never find the switch.

Making the decision to change your lifestyle will - by definition - change your life. That's the hard thing to accept. That's why we look for the magic wand. Because the magic wand would make our dreams come true without us having to change anything. Making drastic changes is scary. And we don't like to do scary things. Making decisions is scary.

And this isn't just about eating or exercising. Sometimes you have to make hard decisions at home, with your loved ones, at work, or somewhere else. If you're in a relationship that isn't working, sitting around and hoping it magically gets better will only result in more misery down the road. You have to make the decision to have that painful conversation about what's wrong, or maybe even to end it. If you're being treated like cr@p at work, you have to make the decision to do something about it.

Nothing will just fall into your lap. You're in charge of your own life. That's intimidating. But it's also empowering. You can accomplish almost anything.

Once you decide to do so.

Maybe the decision-making can wait a little bit...

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Syracuse Half Marathon: My First DNF

On Sunday I ran - or tried to run - the Syracuse Half Marathon. I'd signed up for it - and for Lake Effect the previous month - in the hopes that it would be an apocalyptic snowy deluge. It wasn't. The weather was pretty nice for a race (almost 40!). The announcer at the race start even mentioned that it was the best weather the race had ever had. My friend David, who was standing next to me, joked, "he could've just said it's the nicest weather Syracuse has ever had and he'd still be right."

Upstate New York joke. Right at ya.

I met David at his place at about 5:45am. He made me eggs and coffee. We parked at Destiny mall and hopped on the shuttle to the race start. There were over 6000 runners in the race, so we were pretty jazzed. The sun started to come up as we rode the bus, giggling in anticipation (or something equivalently manly). That sentence was a little vague; was the sun giggling? Who knows.

We got to the Oncenter and it was swarming with people. All of the bathroom lines were already hundreds of millions of people long, so we went outside to the port-o-potties. Then we went back inside and traversed every square inch looking for coffee. Finally we found it. Outside. I don't see why they couldn't have parked their truck inside. There's enough space in the Oncenter to park a jet. Maybe even an ocean liner.

We did an easy warm up mile and then hit the johns one more time. We got got into the starting corral with a couple minutes to spare. We fought through the massive crowd like jerks trying to get to the section for our paces. We were pretty excited! I hadn't seen any of the other LUNARs running the race, except for Charlie, who happened to park right next to us at Destiny.

Two jerks in a massive crowd.

My goal for the race was to run it faster than I had run Lake Effect. Preferably by a large margin. I had carb loaded - INSANELY - before the race. I had originally planned to eat a lot just on Thursday. But then I had a work meeting Wednesday where there was a ton of food, so I though, screw it, and ate a bunch Wednesday too. But then Friday came around and I had all this ravenous momentum going so I just kept eating. My one day binge turned into an almost full week binge.

It turned out to be a really bad idea.

I'd had an awful stomach thing in January that I've mentioned a couple times. I finally got antibiotics for that and recovered. I was OK for about a month and a half and then it started creeping back. I knew that one of the things it caused was malabsorption, which was part of the reason I ate so much (but mostly because I have zero willpower).

I had a moment of divination this morning and realized what had exacerbated my issue. Sugar. I had eaten a ton of crap over the holidays and early this year, which caused me problems originally. Then I took a break from ice cream and felt good. But then I ate a F@#KTON of sugar while I was "carb loading." I just need to quit sugar forever.

But the stomach issue caused another problem: dehydration. Super bad dehydration.

The first mile I was OK. I had to fight through the huge number of runners to get up to speed, so my pace was all over the place. Sometimes too slow and sometimes too fast. And then I ran up the hill probably too fast. I started to feel cramp-like twinges throughout my legs, but they weren't bad enough for me to care.

Then, just before mile two, I got a massive cramp in my right quad. I tried to run through it and failed. Then I tried to walk through it. Fail. Then I stopped and massaged it for a little and started moving again. Super fail. It wasn't just the excruciating pain. I physically couldn't run. I couldn't even walk without a big limp. I stopped and waited for a couple minutes, hoping it would pass on its own.

It did not.
And now for something completely different...

So I got on the sidewalk, and walked back. In my mind I kept thinking that the cramp would go away right as I got back to the starting line, and how funny that would be. But it did not. The leg ended up hurting all day. A bunch of LUNARs waved at me as they ran past. I was highly visible in my kilt. In retrospect I wish I had taken it off. It was pretty humiliating.

Fellow LUNAR and scarf-knitting extraordinaire Emily actually stopped and came over to me to check that I was OK. That was super nice. She was taking time out of her race to show her support and care (and to make sure I wasn't going to die). That meant a lot.

A few blocks from the start I put my bib in the trash. Then I got a TXT from Shawn saying his wife had seem me limping dejectedly and checking that I was OK. I walked over and joined him at the Oncenter.

It turned out be exactly what I needed. Had it not been for Shawn, I probably would've fallen into a negative thought spiral and gotten super depressed. But Shawn had been struggling for months to get back into running after his third brain surgery, and that gave me a lot of perspective. Plus he's just a super cool guy. So we hung out and talked a lot and I ended up feeling pretty darn good.

Plus, I'd been racing for almost six years, and I was about due for a DNF. Even at LehighValley I'd managed to finish. Barely.

So I was disappointed, but I got over it pretty quickly. I had gotten really dehydrated and my legs broke. It happens. And beating myself up over it wasn't going to help any. I went back to the finish line to wait for David to cross. Then we headed home. I spent the rest of the day relaxing, and watching Netflix and eating too much food, because I had given up on the week.

I had a good swim and bike ride Monday morning and then spent the day walking around waterfalls with my cousin who I hadn't seen in ten years. I'll get back to my old self soon and life is pretty good, all things considered. Plus, this gives me an excuse to run Syracuse again: To get my sweet sweet vengeance.

This, and several other recent experiences, have taught me to not be overly attached to minutia. To not obsess over any one workout or any one race. To not pin my self-worth on always being able to perform to some ridiculous standard. These are all just stories. And I can tell the story of how I blew up at mile 2 of the Syracuse Half if it helps someone feel better about their own challenges.

These failures don't define us. They teach us. So that we can become stronger and more courageous people. So that we can accept that things don't always go our way. That life doesn't suddenly end when one bad thing happens. It's long and full of adventure. And we have plenty of opportunity to be happy and successful.

A photo of adventure!

Thursday, March 23, 2017

You Will Get Better

Whatever you decide to start doing, you will get better at it. You will. It just takes time.

A LOT of time.

When I first started swimming, I naively assumed that my endurance from running would directly translate to swimming. And yes, I had the endurance. But what I didn't have any of was skill. I was like a pit bull that didn't understand why it couldn't chew its way through a brick wall. It was like trying to run a race with my shoelaces tied together. All the endurance in the world wouldn't have mattered.

Instead of accepting that I had to learn how to swim better, I just decided that I was a slow swimmer. I was a lumberjack trying to chop trees with a baseball bat, saying, "whelp, I guess I'm just a slow woodcutter." But this was a defense mechanism. I was accepting defeat early on so that I wouldn't be disappointed later. I was setting the bar very low so that if I did poorly in a triathlon, I could say, "see, told ya so."

It was super lame.

I've had a lot of breakthroughs in my swimming in the past couple months. Even just today I learned something new. I caught a swimming video someone posted online and immediately noticed a difference in their stroke from mine. I applied the change and cut the number of strokes it took me to cross the pool. Also my forearms hurt like heck now.

Instead of whining about how much I suck, I've decided to flip my ego the bird. I want to get better and faster. And since I've made that decision, I've noticed consistent improvement. And I remembered, "oh, right, when you practice something, you get better at it."

"Listen, I don't know how to say this....
But all that practice isn't helping."

You'd think I would've learned this from running. But when I started running I was an overweight alcoholic. It was easy to convince myself that I just had to lose weight and magically I'd get faster. Which was true to an extent. I also didn't really care back then. Once I started racing regularly, my running was already in a decent place. Although certainly it would have been better if I'd trained intelligently.

Part of my problem is that I'm a "natural", or at least I used to believe so when I was young. When I started training martial arts, I got good at it pretty quickly. Although once I got my black belt, I realized that I knew jack$hit. I was fast and flexible, but if I had ever gotten in a real fight, I probably would've gotten killed.

School was easy for me too. High school. I didn't do anything and flew by with great grades. And then I went to college and suddenly realized that I had no clue how to do homework or how to study. And no, I didn't get much better. I graduated with mediocre grades and promptly forgot everything I'd learned. I only vaguely remember how to build a band-pass filter. Resistors. Capacitors. Something something.

Learning a new skill takes a long time. Strengthening your body takes a long time. Doing anything of value takes a lot of hard work. Genetics and natural talent can help.... a little. But it's a double edged sword. I sometimes think of myself as a jack-of-all-trades. I learn new things quickly. But I'm not really an expert at anything. I've been doing karate for over 20 years and I still learn new things all the time.

Or at least I've learned to look menacing.

It's exciting though. It means that you can decide to do almost anything, and if you dedicate yourself to it and keep doing it, you will get good at it. You can start glassblowing right now, and in 10 years you will be amazing at it. That may sound like a long time, but unless you're an octogenarian, you will still have plenty of life left in 10 years, and you'll be able to impress all your friends with your mad glassblowing skillz.

A lot of folks will start something, realize that they won't be perfect at it after a week, get frustrated, and give up. They spend that time instead drinking beer and watching TV. Imagine how many talents you would have if you filled that time up with learning and training. How many languages could you speak? How many mountains could you climb? How many band-pass filters could you build?!

Time is your friend and the possibilities are limitless!

Although some folks will never learn...

Monday, March 13, 2017

Training Makes Me an Idiot

One of the side effects of training a lot is that it messes with my brain chemistry. This is especially the case if I also don't eat or sleep enough. When this happens, I get depressive and have irrational thoughts. And even though I know, logically, that what I'm feeling is absurd, I can't help it.

It doesn't make me want to jump off a building or anything insane. But it does make me say really stupid things sometimes. I'm already my own worst critic. But when I get in this mood, I say things to belittle myself. This is annoying on its own. But it has the unintended result of belittling others as well.

If I work out for 3 hours, and then complain about how lazy I am, it insults everyone else who exercises, especially if they exercised for "only" an hour or two. If I feel like a wimp for using a treadmill because the weather is just too awful, it insults anyone else who uses a treadmill. If I complain about how slow or weak I am, it insults anyone who hasn't yet achieved my paces or level of fitness. And it even insults those who train just as hard, and know how hard it is to train to that extent.

"I don't train at all. And it's awesome. Try it some time."

Being critical of myself is good in that it pushes me to work harder. But not if it causes me to push myself past my breaking point. And especially not if it causes me to lose the people I care about. I've mentioned on this blog many times now important it is to have love and companionship in my life. And yet I act in a way that pushes people away.

A lot of folks tell me I should eat more. I've been trying to! But I'm fairly certain that I still have malabsorption issues from the nasty stomach thing I had in January. It goes away, but then the discomfort comes back after a particularly intense workout. It generally takes me forever to recover from anything. I've had tennis elbow (not from tennis) for over a month. Swimming is keeping that from healing too.

It all turns into a nasty self-reinforcing effect. I exercise a lot. My brain gets screwy and I feel bad. And because I feel bad I feel like I need to punish myself. So I exercise even harder, and say stupid things that pi$$ everyone off. Rinse repeat. Hooray!

The easy advice is to just work out less. But I'm training for an Ironman. I don't know what I can cut out. It's a struggle for me to get three swims in a week. Usually I get "only" two. I bike about three times a week, but only one of those is a long bike ride that's over 2 hours. I maybe run a little too much, but I barely hit 30 miles per week. I lift once a week, which is about all I can manage right now.

"I'm fine. Pay no attention to
gaunt, bleeding man in the mirror."

Of course, training is hard for everyone. And not just for triathletes. Even when I "just" ran, I would burn out from a 50, 60, or higher mile week. When I see folks post their epic workouts, it's easy to imagine that it's no big deal for them. So I judge myself that I can't just bounce back from a half marathon or a 3 hour bike ride. But I know I'm being ridiculous.

I'm pretty sure I'll be "one and done" after this Ironman. Even if it's an awesome experience (and I hope it will be!). I just don't like myself like this. I've learned a lot in the past few years, and finally feel like I know what my limits are and what I enjoy. I'm at a point where I don't feel the need to constantly show off with insane workouts.

I'm committed to the Ironman, and I'm excited about it. So I will stick it out, and try to be conscientious of my attitude and behavior in the meantime. The Ironman is a big thing on my bucket list, and it's worth a few months of pain and grief. And after that, I'll be in a place where I can say, "you know, I did something pretty epic. I don't need to keep proving myself." I can shape a life for myself that brings joy not only to me, but to others as well.

And maybe stop taking so many
obnoxious selfies.

So to anyone I've upset, I'm sorry. Know that it's a personal thing, and not because I'm trying to be a jacka$$. I really am amazed and inspired by every athlete I see, even the ones who only just started and can barely run a mile. I've been through the entire trajectory. I can remember a time when one mile was hard for me. Really hard.

I didn't judge myself back then though. I laughed, because my puppy would get completely buried in snow when she accidentally ran into a snowdrift. I didn't compare myself to anyone else, and I didn't have an image I felt compelled to uphold. And I know now that there's a compromise between not caring, and caring too much. The Ironman is the finish line. After that I can relax, enjoy, and stop being such an idiot!

"Stop taking me outside when
there's a foot of snow!"
Also, daylight savings time can go screw itself.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017


I have a lot of reasons for why I run. Mostly to burn calories so I can gorge myself on cookies and pies. But one more reason that's become clear lately is a sense of belonging.

I've struggled with this all of my life. I've always been an introvert, and still consider myself one. I used to drink partly to have camaraderie with other drinkers. I took up photography so I'd have a reason to hang out with musicians, performers, and the like. I need a "prop" like this, because otherwise I'll just stay at home with my cat. I'm too selfish otherwise. All my intimate relationships have imploded because of this selfishness.

I like to give, to be generous. I like to make people feel good, to applaud their successes and inspire them to achieve even more. But I need a switch. Something that I can use to turn on my extroversion. It doesn't come naturally. Running is a solo activity. I've run with friends, and that's great! But usually it's just me, pounding out the miles on the pavement so that afterwards I can eat, like, a bucket of french fries.

But through running I've met an astonishing number of astonishingly amazing people! I didn't mean for it to happen. But it did. And I didn't realize how much I needed that community, that sense of belonging. And I'm thankful that these amazing folks have let me squeeze into their lives.

Technology these days is magic. It allows us to connect with people all over the world. It allows us to talk to old friends we haven't seen in years. It allows us to track family that are scattered thousands of miles apart. But it's also a double-edged sword.

Certainly we are more connected than in any other point in history. At the same time though, we no longer feel like we belong anywhere. Our ancestors may have only known the people in their village, but they were deeply rooted there. They played with, worked with, and lived next to those people all their lives. Those relationships by their nature were deep and meaningful. And even though our ancestors had much less in the way of luxuries than we do today, they generally felt happier.

Being part of a group of people is key to our happiness. Being alone is usually miserable. And though in the modern era, we are all "friends" online with hundreds if not thousands of people, we feel entirely isolated. We post a picture of our smiling faces, doing something cool and interesting. But that's a momentary blip in our lives, and gives absolutely no indication of how we live and feel. It's superficial.

What we post online says almost nothing about us, other than how good our timing is with our cellphone cameras. We like to create a perception that our lives are exciting and full of joy. But we know that none of the folks who "like" our posts really know anything about us. There's no sense of deep connection. No sense that we belong anywhere.

I'll admit that when I post my runs and selfies online, a big part of it is vanity. I like to show off my fitness. Certainly I inspire others as well, and that's awesome. But I'd be lying if I said it wasn't largely selfish. But then that's the reason many of the others post their workouts as well. They want to have that acknowledgment and appreciation. And I don't hesitate to let one of them know how awesome they are!

It's a community. And we all belong to it. And when I first joined it, I thought it would stay "online". But I was wrong. I've met some of these runners in real life. I've run with them. I've partied with them. I've laughed until tears streamed down our faces with them. We've hugged and fist bumped and toppled over each other.

And each one of them that I've met is amazing. The strength and energy that propels their runs suffuses every aspect of their lives. It bubbles out of them in the form of love and laughter. They do not leech off others. They give to others. And when we are all together, the vibe we share is palpable. It's intoxicating.

It's a little sad that I get to experience that level of intimacy and friendship so rarely that every time I do, it feels like I'm high. But then again, maybe it's just because I've been blessed to meet some of the best people in the world. However, even when I'm alone with my cat, I still feel that I'm a part of something now. Even when I'm apart from these strong and beautiful people, I still have that sense of belonging.

Even in my loneliest moments, I can think of them, and feel the warmth of happiness envelop me.