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.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Lake Effect Half Marathon

On Sunday, February 26, I ran the Lake Effect Half Marathon in Liverpool, NY. I signed up for the race - and for the Syracuse Half which is next month - for a specific reason. You're going to think I lost my mind.

I won't argue that.

Last year's Syracuse Half was an apocalypse of snow and ice. There was so much snow you couldn't see an inch in front of your face. Also your eyeballs froze. The world was covered in ice, like Arnold Schwarzenneger in that terrible Batman movie, but with less villainy. Unless you consider mother nature a villain. It sure felt that way on that day!

Many of the folks couldn't even make it to the race. The highway was an ice skating rink, but with none of the fun. Just a heart-gripping terror. Those who made it to the race weren't much better off. I watched video clips of the race, and it was mostly a white screen with an occasional splash of color, looking miserable.

Imagine this with ten thousand times more snow.

I was jealous!

Do you think I'm crazy yet? I wanted to run in that disgusting wintry disaster! I wanted to be smashed with hail and caked with an inch of ice and snow. I wanted my beard to look like it had been transplanted from a yeti. I wanted to run on a road that, despite having been plowed an hour previously, was already a snowbank.

So I signed up for two winter halves this year, hoping that at least one would try to murder me with arctic vengeance. Lake Effect Half was cold, and windy, but not excessively so. I was briefly coated in snow, but for the most part the sun was out. The course was an out-and-back, twice, so I did get to enjoy alternately sweating and freezing depending on the direction. But the race was, well... pleasant!

I'm not disappointed though. It was a great race, and I got to run it with some amazing folks. So let's start over.

I left home about 7. As I pulled out of the driveway, my neighbor ran over to me. My windows were frozen shut, so I had to open the passenger door. He needed a jump-start. I stopped next to his car, popped the hood, and got out of my car.

I forgot I was wearing my running kilt.

Kilt: Appropriate for all weather conditions.

To his credit he didn't remark on it. His car wouldn't start right away, so he started yanking wires out of things, which seemed questionable to me. I was hoping he knew what he was doing. Finally the car started. Nothing exploded. I left.

I picked David up at his brand new house. It's a very nice house but I don't think it's relevant to this tale. I guess jump-starting cars wasn't relevant either. Suffer my whimsy! We drove to Syracuse. We had some deeply meaningful conversations, and I don't remember any of them. We got to Onondaga Lake Park, got out of the car, and realized it was cold. It had been about 60 for the three days prior.

We saw Todd, the race coordinator and fellow LUNAR. I had actually seen him the day before, when I went to pick up my race packet. He recognized me as the guy who runs in a kilt. When I die, I'll have to make sure my gravestone is plaid. On the way back from that excursion, I got caught in a cataclysmic rain storm and almost died. I saw another car smash into a guardrail on the highway, which was really exciting.

David and I peed a lot, loitered, and waited for all the rest of the LUNAR folks running the race to arrive. It was a large and attractive bunch! Lois, Curt, Jeff, Chris, Michael, Sue, Steve, Charli, and a couple others I can't recall because I'm a terrible person. A rib crushing number of hugs were exchanged.

Attractive bunch!

I jogged a couple miles before the race, and then waded into the large crowd of runners at the starting line. I insisted on a selfie with all the LUNARs because I'm lonely and want to look like I have friends. Then we were off!

Michael and I ended up running at the same pace, and stayed together for the first 10 miles. We had some interesting conversations, which, as usual, I don't remember at all. But they were edifying! I'm certain. There were a few individuals we made note of as we ran. The ultra-fast runner in first, the lead biker in the yeti costume (really), the lady in front of us with the nice butt who looked like she was on a leisurely walk but was super fast, a guy we passed several times who was just.... HUGE. I kept yelling things at him like "DIESEL", but he had headphones in. And of course the other LUNARs, who all looked like superheroes.


The course went out a little over 3 miles, and then back, and then out again, and then back. On the way out there was a headwind that froze us to the bone. On the way back we would broil alive and strip off clothes like teenagers in a motel on prom night. And of course our paces were all over the place, so after a while we thought, "whatever, let's just not die."

Running along the lake was beautiful, and running with Michael made the miles fly by. He told me to go on ahead after the last turnaround so I finished a couple of minutes ahead of him. The yeti on the bike was impressed with my kilt, and threw chocolate at me. The spectators were great, and the other runners were pretty cheerful. In no time at all I was across the finish line.
Not sure how Michael tolerated my absurdity for so long!

I finished a little over 1:42. Not super fast, but considering all my cross-training and horrible maladies in the past couple months, it wasn't bad!

I immediately turned around and jogged out until I spotted Lois. Then I ran with her for the last mile and a half of her race. She took a brief walk break at one point and told me to go on ahead. "Where would I go? I'm already done!" I laughed. We entertained one another until she finished. I was impressed with her, and all the LUNARs, running on that cold windy day. Unlike me, she doesn't actually like icky weather.

Altogether I ran 18 miles Sunday. I felt good afterwards, although my body has been a disaster since. We went to lunch together at Peppino's, an awesome pizza place. We talked about snot cannons and other stupid things and had a great time, pigging out. I love how easily we all connect with one another, even though we only hang out a couple times a year. LUNARs are amazing and loving folks, passionate not just for running, but in all things in life. It's hard to find such great camaraderie and positivity elsewhere.

Lovely LUNARs!

David and I had some wholly inappropriate conversations on the drive back, most of which I do actually remember, but I can't share here. Something to do with the 5th amendment. After I got home, I reverted to my natural state, a bloated lethargic blob. It was luxurious.

I'm looking forward to Syracuse next month, and to meeting even more LUNARs! And I'm crossing my fingers that on the day of the race, the Earth will reorient itself and the north pole will move to Syracuse, NY, dumping an appropriate amount of frozen destruction upon our heads as we run!

Until then!

I was thinking about not ending the
post with a selfie. Fail.

Lake Effect photos thanks to Paciorek Orthodontics and volunteer photographers.