November 5, 2009

Time is the school in which we learn

(Click on the comic panel to see the text and blow your mind.)

Marathon dopamine has been rushing through my brain for days. I haven't slept well all week, and only partly due to the effect of the time change on my infant daughter. My body is pretty much back to normal, but my head is still filled with the race.

Two nights after the NYC Marathon I woke at 3 am and couldn't get back to sleep. My mind was empty, but my metabolism thought it best to be at full speed. To busy my brain I counted off the race miles, one by one, like sheep. And strange to say, for every mile I could vividly remember the course and the sensations in my body. I remembered children's faces and the backs of runners before me. I remembered tiny decisions I made about timing and potholes.

My memory is notoriously poor. But during the race it was as if time passed more calmly, even if with a greater violence. I had a feeling of being not just affected by time but part of time, like a blob of dye flowing in its current. As Meb Keflezighi said in The New Yorker, "Cherish it. It's a beautiful thing, when you can click the miles along. It's a beautiful thing, and you better cherish it."

I have experienced that kind of metronomic intensity on only a few occasions. Counting down the days to my wedding, I remember being carried along on a kind of wave of nervous bliss. I felt confident that the river was carrying me to the right place. As the officiants did their thing I inhabited every part of my body at once, my thoughts were inspired but nearly foreign as I improvised my vows. The grin rarely left my face during the ceremony and the reception.

Three weeks earlier than her due date, my wife started having regular contractions. At first I figured it was a false alarm but it was a good time to rehearse what little we'd had time to learn. As the intervals narrowed the reality seeped in imperceptibly. I can remember each contraction - not, I hasten to add, like my wife must remember them. But I recall my metabolism settling in for a long haul (it turned out to be pretty short), I recall every minute in the car on the way to the hospital, and each deep contraction once we were in the last phase. I can taste the quality of the light as it fell on my daughter's head for the first time. (It glistened on the slime that still covered her.)

These occasions are in a different league from a race. They were permanent changes in my life and the lives of those I keep close. The race is ephemeral. It's just that it got deep into something I can't usually hold in focus.

To be able to carry that sensation of time at all times - that would be remarkable. That would be the curriculum of the race, the reason to keep going back to school until you learn it. And you never fully learn it.

I chose the title of my last post more or less by chance, from a poem by fellow Brooklynite Delmore Schwartz. I had already decided to use the same poem for today's title too, mainly because it rhymed. But now that I'm at the end of the post and I see what it's about, it's clear there was a hidden logic. So to make my point I'll just toss you the last stanza of "Calmly We Walk Through This April's Day":

Each minute bursts in the burning room,
The great globe reels in the solar fire,
Spinning the trivial and unique away.
(How all things flash! How all things flare!)
What am I now that I was then?
May memory restore again and again
The smallest color of the smallest day:
Time is the school in which we learn,
Time is the fire in which we burn.

November 2, 2009

Time is the fire in which we burn

New York City Marathon 2009!

It was an amazing day, a total blast. It's quite something to be cheered for, and really moving to be cheered for 3 hours straight. It's all true what they say about the New York crowds - people come out, even on a damp, gray day, to raise really a beautiful racket.

I remember ever step, but somehow the race just flew by. My milestones weren't the mile markers, they were my friends and family along the course.

Bridge to Josh and Bryony (Mile 7): Couldn't believe how slow I went up the Verrazano Bridge, or how fast I came off it. Feeling very professional in my new arm warmers. Suddenly it's my home borough of Brooklyn. Over there is where you turn off to go to Lowe's and Ikea. Hey, there're Josh and Bryony! My first supporters of the race. Big energy boost, feeling great. Abruptly realize I'm hard to recognize in my sunglasses, hat, and brand-new arm warmers.

To Melissa, Karen, Dave, Katherine, Mike, Leah, Brian, Sara, and the Giant Duct Tape Flower (Mile 7.75): Next thing I'm running through my own neighborhood. I've been looking forward to this since I got up at such an ungodly hour this morning, because my wife will be showing up with a 4-foot flower made entirely out of duct tape, created by friends' awesome kids. Before I come to the Flower of Power I see neighbors Sara and Brian - enough energy to get me running way too fast. Up ahead I see a strange thing, yes, it must be the flower. Melissa's waving it like the national flag of Yippeestan, my friends are whooping, I'm hooting and hollering and running like a spazz. Now I'm really pumped, and my pace increases. Later, Melissa would tell me what was running through her mind: "What's up with those arm warmers?"

To the Bishop Loughlin HS band playing "Gonna Fly Now (Theme From Rocky)" (Mile 8.86): I'd read about these guys, but I wasn't prepared for just how awesome they were in person. They play this tune over and over for hours. All I'm doing is running for a while. They're the heroes. By now I'm locked in a slightly too-fast pace.

To Judith and Gabriel (Mile 11.98): Next thing I know I've passed the annoyed Satmar Jews, and come to the hip part of Williamsburg. The hipsters don't hoot like the earlier Brooklyn crowds, but they wave enthusiastically. Despite holding a sign with a giant picture of me on it, Gabe and Judith don't recognize me until I run straight at them pointing and yelling. And yet I feel it's too late to jettison the arm warmers.

To the half-way point (Mile 13.1): Totally jazzed by Gabe and Judith, I make it to the half-way point exactly on schedule. Even so I know I've run most of the first half too fast. I don't care, I'm having a great time.

To Sue at Engineer's Gate (Mile 24.41): The second half of the race is a lot more interior to the runner. I slowed a little, well, a lot, but loved every band, cheered every disabled runner I could, and cursed the Queensboro bridge for being so steep. First Avenue rocked though the headwind was discouraging. The Bronx was fun. Harlem and Fifth Ave flew by in noisy blur. I realized at around Mile 23 that there wasn't much left in the tank. Sue cheered for me behind her camera just inside Central Park. Hope she got a picture, because I got jazzed again and accelerated just a little.

To Columbus Circle: Mile 24 had slowed me a lot - that hill is brutal, and despite deep concentration I couldn't pull much more out of my legs. I was running 40 seconds per mile slower than my target pace. Still, I started steeling myself for a flashy kick at the end.

To the finish: I turned it on as soon as I saw the turnoff up ahead. I did a quarter mile in 1:27, my fastest pace of the day. Abruptly however, it turned back off. My legs stiffened into uncooked pasta, my hands started tingling, I felt impossibly light and brittle. I could hardly move. One hundred yards to go and time had frozen, like in a dream. So I waddled. I waddled at my slowest pace of the day on broken macaroni legs so I could get this thing done.

And then it was. Done!

I felt amazing. Still too tired to take off the arm warmers though.

Although I missed my main target by a couple of minutes, there were several reasons to be satisfied:
  1. I put down everything I had on the course, and had nothing left at the finish.
  2. I ran the first half faster than my first half-marathon a year ago.
  3. I ran the second half faster than I ran the same distance in August in the NYC Half-Marathon - which I was trying to race.
  4. It was my first marathon, so I had no idea what to expect.
  5. I had an amazing day from before the start to well after the finish.
There's more to say about everything, but that's the course. I had no idea how amazing Meb Keflezighi had been, or that shoo-in Paula Radcliffe had come in fourth. The vibe was intense and hushed after the finish. But more on that later.