November 28, 2010


Ah, Thanksgiving. What can we be more thankful for than the gift of hunger itself? The one thing better than the food set before us is our endless desire to consume it. Food may come easy or food may come hard, but the day my appetite's gone I will come to nothing. My hunger and my stamina may be one and the same.

The fall season brought bounty enough to this humble runner. With the aim of beating 5 and 3 in one season, I put together a 4:57 at the Fifth Avenue Mile, and 2:52:44 at the New York City Marathon. I'm running faster than ever, and with less doubt. And this week the skies are bright, the breeze is cold, and the air seems to present no resistance as I run through the park. My skin feels smooth.

Problem is, I have a bad case of the fidgets. The day after the marathon I was already sprinting across avenues to make the light. Within a week my easy runs were nearly at marathon pace. On a lark I did the Prospect Park Turkey Trot and ran one of my fastest races ever.

Maybe it comes down to how I remember the last 6 miles of the marathon: like I couldn't go any faster, but also like I wasn't pushing it. I wasn't held back by my legs or lactate or pain of any kind. I was restrained by a momentary satisfaction. And this drives me crazy.

You have to feel like you've gone all the way.  Like hopeless love or heavy drinking, it's not so much a question of suicide as of beating a record. You long to outlast yourself.

So it's more than a capacity for fatigue, a tolerance for pain, or even a reckless charge into the jungles of the self. Stamina is a hunger beyond satisfaction, a hunger for purer hunger, a hunger that feeds its own fire until the fire is the feast.

Why make it easy? I'll entrust my winter endurance training to the ancient martyrs, who smiled at their torturers. To the monkey Hanuman, who crossed an ocean with a leap. To Keith Richards (pictured; QED). To Kafka's hunger artist:

Why stop fasting at this particular moment, after 40 days of it? He had held out for a long time, an illimitably long time, why stop now, when he was in his best fasting form, or rather, not yet quite in his best fasting form? Why should he be cheated of the fame he would get for fasting longer, for being not only the record hunger artist of all time, which presumably he was already, but for beating his own record by a performance beyond human imagination, since he felt that there were no limits to his capacity for fasting?

August 26, 2010

Media Challenge #3 - ah, bliss

I swear I run for bliss, mostly. These days I don't do tempo runs, speedwork or runs with quantified targets. Instead, because of a hurt hip, I look for a pace that makes my body feel good. So that's a bliss run and it's very pleasant. On the other hand, friends, sometimes I just want to crush the competition.

I've been travelling every week this summer, so I never had the energy for a focused workout. In the last 3 weeks I got to practice the bliss run along the river in Chicago, in a wood in Columbus OH, the hills of northern PA, with the seals in Monterey, at altitude in Denver, along the beach in East Hampton, and in my home trails of Brooklyn. Since I had to be away from my family so much, these runs were the consolation of my summer.

Each time I arrive at the Central Park loop where we have our Media Challenge series, I feel the full weight of Nietzsche's eternal return: love every second of your life as if you'll have to repeat it forever. Seriously, I gotta love this loop again? The route mobbed with slow joggers tweeting on iPhones? The agonizing hills? The part that smells like horse shit? If I can find bliss here I'll find it anywhere I guess.

I do a nice long warm-up to try to get the stiff hip to relax and then hit the start line just in time. The horn goes off and suddenly the issue isn't so much my hip as the elbows of a bunch of guys in front of me. Getting out of the scrum is always my first priority, and even though it means I go out too fast I have to get past this pack. I quickly find myself in the lead and for the first time realize that the guy who usually wins this race isn't here tonight. I know I'm not in strong shape, so the idea of leading the whole way wigs a little. Still, speed is busting out of me and I have to work hard to hold back. First mile gone in 5:34.

Soon enough a guy pulled up next to me. I pushed ahead of him for a while, but I was already feeling all those hours sitting in planes, trains, and rental cars, and let him pull out a few yards. In the last race this same guy had paced me for the first 7 minutes until I pulled away forever. Maybe I could do that again.

I kept him in my sights, but I was feeling pretty bad. My legs produced visions of breaking down, my lungs felt tense and cramped. I concentrated on form, light and straight, and that helped a little. But somehow this race seemed to be all about work rather than, say, bliss.

Late in the second mile my pace was beginning to feel a little more manageable, but I knew I was slowing. Thing is, so was the leader. We kept a steady 15-yard gap as I grasped for rags of energy I could assemble into a kick. The last half mile was starting to feel good again (this is why I don't like short races - just when you're warmed up you hit the finish), and at the usual place I started my kick. Last race of the season, mine to lose, and so on. I gave him a good run, but he had hit about the same stride and started a little earlier. So I followed him in by about 10 seconds, and as I collapsed on a bench I reconciled myself to second place. Final, 20:31.

I was exactly a minute slower than the first of the series in May, but it was a lot more painful. I pulled out as much as I could find, did as much damage as I could. Somehow this was kind of blissful too, in the sense that I left nothing undone. I wasn't left with a pile of "what-ifs". I had crushed the only competition that mattered. You know. Me.

So that's the summer season. Two second places and one third place in the media series. Our company team got 5th at Corporate Challenge, and won the Media Challenge series. It's been a brutally hot summer for training, and for me, one filled with too many hip aches, family setbacks, and plane rides. Everything began to feel uphill. But just now it feels good to have thrown some really good punches.

May 22, 2010

Brooklyn Half-Marathon 2010

Last year I trained for the Brooklyn Half as my key race of the season, but an overuse injury kept me on the sofa for that part of the calendar. So I had a score to settle today.

Didn't sleep well at all last night, probably just the excitement. I kept looking at the clock - 3:47, 4:15. The baby woke before 5:00 as I was getting ready to go. Just as well, I was awake and wanted to see her before the race anyway. I gave her a hug and she went back to sleep.

My wife makes me coconut rice to have for breakfast when I'm carb-loading, that stuff is total rocket fuel. On top of last night's farro pasta with kale pesto (Shug writes recipes for a living, did I tell you?), that ensured I had some juice in the legs. Now just to get on with the mental game.

My goal was to beat 1:20, and my fitness in recent races showed I might do it. You never know what you've got in the tank, a tiger or a rock. I aimed to run a very consistent pace, with slight adjustments for known hills, with the aid of my handy Garmin.

I went over super early to make sure to get my number and get my bag turned in. In fact I was early enough to avoid all the lines because no one had arrived quite yet. The park was quietly preparing for something subterranean, or extra-terrestrial, but in any case for something unexpected. I had time to do a few strides on the grass and warm up.

Waiting at the start I chatted with Robert, who had forgotten his watch. I sometimes wonder whether my watch slows me down, since I think I know how fast I can go and check it constantly. I figured Robert, who runs 80-mile weeks in his quest for the nastiest race in the world, would either bonk or PR.

The first two laps in the park shot by, since I know the park very well and could focus on running tangents in a very wide running lane. My goal time meant I needed to keep to 6:06s on average, maybe slower on the big hill, and much faster on that crazy downhill at the south end of the park. Apart from the first time up the hill, I kept well under my mark. I love that park.

Then I figured the long stretch down Ocean Parkway would be fairly flat. But I was running as close to my lactate threshold as I could and everything felt uphill. In fact everything began to feel vertical, except when it seemed vertiginous, or spinning, or upside down. Ocean was deserted except for some grouchy grandmothers being prevented from crossing the street, and a few of us runners. I let a couple of guys pass by rather than pick up the pace, since I wanted to stay rigorously on target. But I wonder if I hadn't been counting seconds if might have gone faster without the watch?

Without a watch I at least would have been able to count down the lettered avenues of South Brooklyn. I slowed considerably between Avenues H - R, but then picked it back up to faster-than-goal for the rest of the alphabet. This gave me an absurd amount of time to ponder the absence of an Avenue Q.

At last the boardwalk and a cheer from my next door neighbor and her baby, and to the finish (where I was outkicked by a really nice guy two age divisions older than me). I came in at 1:19:11, totally shocking myself since I had stopped looking at my watch a ways back. Placed 36th out of 7,006 runners, and was something like the 4th guy over 40 years of age.

One guy I talked to at the finish had a goal of tucking behind the lead female runner and seeing what he could do. Things were going well until he realized he was pacing behind a skinny guy with a ponytail. So he accidentally finished a minute or two ahead of the first woman.

By the way - watchless Robert PR'd.

I looped back and met neighbor Sara to try to catch her husband Brian as he finished. I just missed Brian's finish (1:33 - at his first half-mary!), but we found him and headed down to the beach to soak my legs.

This was the real glory of the race - beyond even the perfect weather, the awesome vibe in Prospect Park, finishing right under the Parachute Drop and in sight of the glorious Cyclone - because we had run all that way to the beach. The feeling of sand between my toes after all that, and the cold water on my legs, was a bliss I cannot describe to you.

One more moment of bliss - watching the 2-year-old children's race. Again, indescribable.

The subway, being what it is, took exactly as much time going home as it had taken me to get there on foot. But I got home to pancakes, wife and daughter, and everything overfloweth.

And with that I declare my spring season at an end. My next key race is the Berlin Marathon, and while I'll race at least once a month until then, there are no scores to settle. Probably I'll try racing without a watch a few times though.

May 19, 2010

Media Challenge #1

It's been a heck of a quarter - new job responsibilities, tons of running, a bunch of PRs, still learning tons every time I run. But time for the blog has obviously fallen back.

Tonight was the first of this year's Media Challenge races, pitting your media overlords against one another (when will we realize our mistake and join forces to fight crime?). The race loops twice around the occasionally-stinky bottom part of Central Park for 3.5 miles. It's a particularly grueling course, and you have to spend yourself very wisely.

I didn't spend myself all that wisely tonight, but I had a great race. Came in feeling pretty good, and was determined to stay with the front runners as long as I could. Unfortunately they set an insane pace for the first half mile (around 5:15 pace), and while I finished the first mile in 5:24, I was still under my target pace of 5:34.

Found myself slowing a lot in the middle before attempting a dignified kick at the end. But the two front guys had lost me long before the end.

I finished in 19:31, which was almost exactly my target. It's just that I ran really unevenly to hit it. That time earned me third place - the winner ran 18:58, or 5:25 per mile - holy cow.

Met up with friends and colleagues afterward. I chatted with Team Fox teammate and super-blogger TK. Lady Ani, who runs for another team, encouraged me before the race just to take it easy, as she blasted Coldplay on hot pink earbuds. Comrade Brenn ran an amazing race himself, and comrade Chris showed up in a suit since he's still recovering from his marathon.  Coach Sue injured herself at Penn Relays, so was out too. So our team's 2nd place position is therefore quite an accomplishment.

Now: onward to the Brooklyn Half-Marathon on Saturday. . . .

February 3, 2010

Manhattan Half Marathon 2010

Last year, a long hot soak in the tub. This year the ice bath.

That's the distance I've come in my first year of racing.

Last year's Manhattan Half Marathon was my first race. First race of the year, first race ever. It was 14 degrees, so cold that you had to break the ice on the cups at the water stations. My cell phone died of frostbite in the baggage area.

But I don't remember the cold. I remember the almost holy sound of breathing and shoes hitting asphalt at the start, not a voice anywhere. I remember the citrus feel of the winter sun. And I remember having no clue how fast or slow I was going. I almost wept when I realized I had come in under 1:30.

After the race I took a hot soak and actually did weep. It hit me that I had accomplished something that I could always hold on to. Since I didn't ice I even got to hold on to muscle aches for two days afterward.

This year's Manhattan Half was similar in some ways, but it was no longer an intriguing new acquaintance. I've made good friends with Central Park over the last year, its hills and twists. This year's Half was warmer and I was overdressed. I'd stayed up late the night before. But it felt great to be with those 2 long loops again.

I met up with Comrade Gregg before the race. Last year I didn't know Gregg, but I knew his name because it was next to mine in the results, which I had scrutinized obsessively. Later come to find out he was co-captain of my company racing team, and now my track club teammate. It's been a great year for meeting people.

Last year's race was so exciting because it was so unknown - I didn't know the Harlem Hills or even my own legs. This year's race was just fun since I knew what to expect, how to pace, and could just enjoy the ride.

I basically hitched for about half of the race behind a woman who seemed to know what she was doing - at least she kept an even pace, even if she stopped dead at water stations and didn't observe the tangents as rigorously as I did.

I ended up with pretty even splits, and pushed it to a sprint at the very end, bringing my system to the brink of real nausea. It's great to get that last little bit out of the toothpaste tube. The lady-who-stops-for-water bested me by at least 40 seconds. But I beat last year's time by a little and felt very satisfied by that. (Last year I was 29th in my age division; this year 28th - progress!)

Last year my wife tried to bring the baby out to the race, and had such a hell of at time parking she missed most of the race. This year we knew better and I just met her at home afterward. Nothing like the warm embrace of the family. I got a nice post-race hug before my post-race ice bath. Fourteen minutes in icy water will reset your clock pretty good. And the next day I had no aches.