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Running another Philadelphia marathon

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I never expected this. For over 20 years I was a typical jogger, going out two or three times a week for about four miles at a leisurely pace. With no goal other than fitness and enjoyment, I was unconcerned about going farther or faster. Suddenly I was 55 years old and lacing up my shoes for my fifth marathon.

It started in the winter of 2008, when a friend with marathon experience invited me to join him for a half marathon in Central Park, and I discovered that I enjoyed running nonstop for two hours. The idea of a marathon, hitherto almost inconceivable, became attractive. In the fall of that same year I ran Philly in 3:51, and loved it. I had the appropriate attitude of humility and respect for the distance, running a disciplined, well-regulated race the likes of which, ironically, I haven't been able to match ever since.

Next was New York in 2009. By now I had moved to South Orange and fell in with a delightful gang of experienced, enthusiastic, and talented distance runners known as The South Mountain Running Collective. I became ambitious, and wanted to meet the Boston qualifying standard of 3:35. Like a fool, I went out too fast, and had to struggle and suffer to hang on over the last 10K, attaining the goal with only seconds to spare. Going out too fast is the classic mistake in distance running, though you might think it would not be so difficult to avoid.

But this performance got me to Boston in 2011, where I repeated the same error, albeit not as drastically: another positive split, but I beat my goal of 3:20 by five seconds, and easily qualified again for Boston in 2012. (Runners call it a negative split where the second half of a race is faster than the first, and it is well established that it is far more effective than the reverse.)

And how could I resist going back to Boston again? I could not, and trained with a view to another personal record (or PR, which is also a verb in runnerspeak) of about 3:17. But the temperatures were in the high 80s that day in April. We were forced to revise our plans and focus on simple survival. Hence my disappointing 3:43, 13 minutes short of Boston qualification (BQ) for my age group.

By now I was thinking it might be nice to get off the crazy train. Marathon training is a time- and energy-consuming pain in the ass, and try though we might to keep it tucked away in its own discreet little compartment, it inevitably has an impact on other people in our lives. And sometimes those people don't like it. But could I really go out like that, credible excuse notwithstanding? With a 3:43?

No. In November 2013 I was back in Philadelphia again to settle accounts with the marathon gods. This time, however, the training cycle had been more challenging. It is not unusual to encounter setbacks of some kind during 20 weeks of training. Sickness, injuries, family dramas, the demands of work — in short, life — sometimes interfere. I had successfully navigated through bronchitis, a death in the family, and other challenges in previous training cycles. But this time injuries cost me a week and a half in August and several more days in October, and I was not able to get all the mileage I would have liked.

Even so, when I walked up to the line, I felt fit to run a successful marathon. The key workouts in the final stage of training had gone well. My injuries had subsided, the weather was fine, even my pre-race jitters seemed noticeably less severe than in the past. This time I did not have a fixed, specific goal. I thought 3:15 was conceivable, but decided anything up to 3:17:30 would be acceptable. And I had a plan, known as 10 + 10 + 10: go out relatively conservatively for the first 10 miles, i.e., at a 3:17:30 pace; pick it by a few seconds per mile for the next 10 miles; and for the last 10K, be in a position to pick up the pace even more, possibly enough to get me there in 3:15.

Once we got underway, embarrassing though it is to admit, I am not really sure what I was thinking. I do recall making a conscious effort to hold back initially. Over the first mile, traffic was congested, and I decided to go with it rather than fight. My first mile was a 7:42, but that was perfectly OK. A slow start was desirable; there was plenty of time to make it up.

For the next 18 miles or so, it seemed that nobody was in charge. The data on my GPS watch says that mile 2 was 7:18; mile 3, 7:08. For miles 4 and 5 I dialed it back to 7:24, but that was still about 8 seconds per mile too fast. The next few miles included a couple of moderate ones, and my average pace for the first 10 was around 7:30. The pushing and pulling continued over the second 10 miles, but the average overall was around 7:25 — consistent with the overall plan, yes, but too late because I had already blown too much energy in the first 10. By around mile 17 or 18 I was still feeling OK, but tired enough to predict that after 20 miles it was going to be hard to maintain the pace. Miles 22 to 25 were 7:40, 7:44, 7:48, 7:56, 7:55.

Crossing 26 with the crowds screaming encouragement, I was able to pick it up to a 6:53 pace, but over the last 10K I averaged about 7:48 and came in at 3:17:23. (The gory details are published at

This marathon experience was different from the previous two in which I was seriously trying to reach a goal. In New York, the last 10K were hellish, but my addled mind had enough command of the numbers to understand that I would meet the BQ threshold if and only if I ran like hell. This motivated me to fight hard against the fatigue. The same was true in Boston in 2011: I knew the 3:20 mark was still within reach, but I had to dig. In this race, the goal was comparatively vague: sub-3:17:30, hopefully something closer to 3:15. For the last 10K I felt fatigue, but it wasn't especially painful — I simply couldn't convince myself to run faster. But I also felt pretty sure that the 3:17:30, and certainly the PR, was in the bag. That complacency probably hurt my cause; a bit of drama, pressure and anxiety might have provided helpful motivation.

3:17:23 represents a PR by over two minutes, and a Boston qualifier with over 22 minutes to spare; it was also good enough for 16th place among 319 men in the 55-59 age group. Maybe I ought to be happy with that. And although I am not completely disappointed with the bottom line, I am pretty disgusted with myself for not having better discipline. The objective numbers demonstrate that I had the fitness; the subjective experience of how smoothly the whole 26.2 went by, weak finish nothwithstanding, confirms it. I am almost certain I was physically prepared to run at least one, maybe even as much as two minutes faster. But I positive-split it by 1:22 and squandered this splendid opportunity.

Why is it so hard to slow down in those early miles? For me, I think one problem — if it can be considered a problem — is that proper marathon training really works. On race day you are fit, tuned up, but also tapered and rested — not to mention jacked up with the excitement. When the gun goes off and you start running, it is extremely difficult to believe that running can feel this easy and still be fast enough. It seems like you should be exerting at least a little bit. Even the minutes and seconds your watch displays at the mile markers do not convince. So, for me, the lesson is: believe it, bitch. It may even be that I could run a faster marathon next time by setting out to run it slower. Then there might be enough gas in the tank at the end to finish strong enough to get a better result.

Wait — did I just say next time? Uh, yeah, I guess I did. Which brings us back to where we started. I said I never expected to be running marathons, much less running them this fast. I said I would like to get off the crazy train, and maybe I will. But it isn't easy. When you're an athlete, you enjoy the challenge of seeing how well you can do, so you keep trying. Eventually the inevitable effects of age overcome the positive effects of training, but that's no reason to give up prematurely. Another factor is that running marathons (and shorter races as well) is really cool, and fun, and profoundly rewarding. It gets into your bones and becomes part of your identity: you're a runner. What's the use of trying to be anybody else?

Learning from the 2012 Brooklyn Half

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On May 19 I had the pleasure of running the hugely popular Brooklyn Half Marathon. This NYRR event sold out within a matter of hours after registration opened, and had over 14,000 finishers. The race starts in Prospect Park at 7:00 a.m., a fact for which I was grateful despite the inconvenience of having to get out of bed around 4:00 a.m. to get there in time from South Orange, NJ. The temperature was forecast to peak at around 80° F but it was about 58° when we started -- quite reasonable. I was happy to avoid another scenario like the 2012 Boston Marathon, where the punishing heat made us renounce all ideas of any goal other than survival.

My goal here was to crack 1:30:00 for the first time. (By way of background: I am a week short of 54 years old and have been running seriously for about four years, after over 20 years of consistent but casual jogging. In the grand scheme, a 90-minute half is not spectacular but it is entirely respectable.) My previous PR was 1:30:24 set on March 4 at the E. Murray Todd Half Marathon, which I treated as a tuneup and diagnostic for Boston. Two weeks after that I set another PR for the 10K distance, using that tuneup race almost as a substitute speed workout. I approached both of those races with an enthusiastic but reasonably relaxed, let's-see-what-happens attitude which I think served me well. Both were among my more disciplined races, with an even, realistic, quality pace most of the way and a slight pickup at the end -- and I had fun. Then came the debacle of Boston, a disappointment that took me a week to get over, after which I set my sights on Brooklyn as a way to get some revenge. The months of work that went into Boston had not been adequately rewarded; I wanted to cash in.

Three of us South Mountain athletes set out before sunrise by car to Manhattan, parked in a lot and took a taxi to the start, arriving with little more than sufficent time to dump our official plastic bags with our personal effects at the baggage check and start standing in line to pee. One or two ritual trips to the Porta-Potty were not quite enough for me this time. Standing in my corral for 20 minutes prior to the start I was having doubts about whether I had sufficiently emptied by bladder, which usually gets me through a half marathon without complaint.

We got underway, and Mile 1 went by in 6:43, several seconds ahead of my target pace, but not too bad.

Upon seeing some available Porta-Pottys I made the fateful decision to drain it, and ran a 7:21 for Mile 2. Not good. I was 12 seconds behind the pace and needed to pick it up.

Mile 3 was 6:22, way too fast. I hadn't meant to make up the deficit in one mile but it happened anyway -- my feet were doing that left-right-left-right thing a bit too frequently.

Mile 4: 6:50. I wanted to see a number between 6:50 and 6:52, so this was splendid.

Mile 5: 7:01. Disappointing, but my watch said a total 34:17 had elapsed, a few seconds ahead of the goal pace.

Mile 6: 7:02. Now I was behind the pace again, and not sure why. There had been some hills, but I didn't think they should have slowed me down so much. Demoralized, I wished I had a Metrocard or cash on me so I could quit and take the subway to the finish at Coney Island, get my gear and go home. Instead I picked up the pace.

Mile 7: 6:32, way faster than intended. What happened to my discipline and self-control?

Mile 8: 6:46. Acceptable.

Mile 9: 6:58, several seconds too slow. I was now paying for the excess of miles 3 and 7, getting fatigued, and looking forward to getting this over with. It's probably not uncommon for runners in this condition to squint into the distance in search of the next mile marker.

Mile 10: 6:54. A little slow, but my watch read 1:08:29. Still on pace to meet the goal if only I can hang on.

Mile 11: 6:50. Excellent!

Mile 12: 7:01. Shit. From here on I was trying to give myself the "run faster" command but could not get myself to obey. There was no part of me that hurt particularly, and I couldn't determine which component was giving out: legs, lungs or will?

The final 1.1 miles took me 7:40, a 6:59/mile pace. There is a short, steep ramp up to the boardwalk that surprised me when I ran this course two years ago, but this time I was prepared and charged it with furious anger, exhaustion or no. Over the last couple hundred meters the motivation of seeing the finish in sight was enough to get me to stop obsessing at long last and run much faster than at any point hitherto. But it was too late: my official time was 1:30:01. I had missed it by two seconds.


Failure to hold the pace in miles 12 and 13 killed me, but the chain of cause and effect leads back to miles 3 and 7 in which I squandered too much energy, and further back to the bathroom episode which brought about my anxiety about recouping lost time. Further still, and we come upon the real teaching point of this experience. There's no doubt that my fitness was good enough to run the course in 1:29:59, and experience shows that I am capable of executing a plan. So what went wrong? At Boston a spectator was holding up a sign that said "Running is 80% mental and 40% physical." We got a kick out of the joke, but like most good jokes, it points to the truth. My successful races in March were ones where my attitude was more relaxed; I ran for enjoyment, not just to achieve goals. In the days preceeding this race I created too much pressure by vowing to redeem Boston, and added an extra, unhelpful layer of uncertainty and doubt. For best results, this sport of distance running requires you not just to tune up your physical fitness but also your head -- your other 80%, if you will.

That brings me to the happy conclusion, after all this hand-wringing and overthinking. Next time I will crack 1:30:00 by 10 or 15 seconds, because there will be nothing to worry about: I know I can do it. And I still have ahead of me the pleasure of passing this landmark.

P.S: It was a successful day, my sloppy performance notwithstanding. I beat my previous PR by 23 seconds and came in 22nd of 363 in my 50-54 age/gender group. But that's not all. Five of us South Mountain Runners were in the race, and three set PRs. The unstoppable running machine Lucky John Parry (rightmost in the photo) ran 1:21:50 and was 9th, yes 9th of 554 in the men's 45-49 age group in this competitive, massive field. Our own venerable head coach Bill Haskins posted a 125:18, 29th of 948 M40-44 (on the left on in the photo); Hamish Wright (next to Bill), 1:24:43 and 29th of 1339 M35-39; and two other locals not shown in the photo ran strong.

But wait, there's more. This South Mountain team was 9th in a field of 63 in the men's 40+ category. Translation: we kicked some ass. And we look forward to going back and kicking some more.

marathon report in 17 syllables

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for twenty weeks we
train for Boston only to
get burned by the heat

I survived the 2012 Boston Marathon

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In December 2011 I started 20 weeks of training for the Boston Marathon on April 16, 2012. For this my fourth marathon my goal time was 3:17 to 3:18, a two or three minute improvement over my person record (PR) 3:19:55 that I ran Boston in 2011.

For those not familiar with the marathon game: this goal represents not a spectacular but a thoroughly respectable time for a man in his mid 50s For context, consider that a world-class male marathoner will run 26.2 in a few minutes over two hours, and the guy who won the men's 50-54 age group last year ran a 2:34:52 -- preposterous, but conclusively demonstrating that it is possible. From my point of view, anything under around 3:10 is seriously kicking ass, and getting much below 3:00 is unfathomable.

At my modest level of experience one has already learned that it is unusual for a training cycle to go smoothly from end to end. Injury, sickness, extreme weather, or a personal or work-related situation of some sort will often present challenges in addition to the expected physical and logistical demands of the mileage. I was therefore grateful that this time my training had gone remarkably well -- mild winter, no death in the family, no more than a few days downtime due to a cold in February. Then, in the days just preceding the race, the organizers saw the forecast for temperatures in the upper 80s and began to email dire warnings to race registrants. As the forecast temperatures rose, so did the tone of alarm in the emails. In the last of these they urged anyone who was not extremely fit to withdraw from the race, and those who did not should slow way down, forget about racing and treat it as an "experience."

I grudgingly revised my race plan. The PR goal was abandoned; instead, I decided aiming for a Boston-qualifying 3:30 would be acceptable, a full 30 seconds per mile slower than my ideal. But fear and uncertainty set in. During the last two days I had an persistent, unpleasant feeling that I could not quite identify -- until 3:30 on the morning of the race, when I awoke in my hotel room to the realization that my problem with this enterprise was simple: I did not want to do it. Running 26.2 miles in the high 80s has never been on my list of things to do in this life. I must have understood that while this was unlikely to end in catastrophe, it was certain to be truly painful -- even more so than your typical marathon effort. Hence my fantasies about running away rather than running the race.

We have a robust community of accomplished distance runners in the area where I live, and one of my running companions was also in this race -- I'll call him Patrick. When I mentioned to him that I was tempted to bail on the project, Patrick reminded me that we aren't just in this for ourselves. All of us support and encourage each other so strongly that we are invested in each other's success. I was never entirely serious about walking away, but this strengthened my resolve. It takes character to be insane.

The nervous early hours of race day morning went by quickly, and then we were in the starting area, already sweating in the sun at 10:00. The Boston Marathon has upwards of 20,000 runners, so the start is staged in three waves which in turn are organized into corrals based on expected pace. My friend Patrick and I were both assigned to the first corral of Wave 2. Patrick is similar to me in age, but a substantially faster runner, so I was pleasantly surprised when we spontaneously decided to run together. And off we went, at a pace a little below 8:00/mile for the first several, largely downhill miles, thinking this sufficiently conservative.

The first 10, 12, 13 miles went by in reasonable comfort. No longer attached to PRs, we made the ride as fun as possible, engaging with the crowds, entertaining ourselves, watching out for each other. We drank copious amounts of water and Gatorade, as did everyone; around the hydration stops we kicked our way through masses of discarded Poland Spring cups. We also dumped countless cups of water onto ourselves; our clothing, shoes and socks were saturated most of the way. And our 8:00/mile gradually gave way to 8:15, 8:30, 9:00, and beyond as we let the conditions dictate the pace.

Our friend and coach -- let's call him Bill Haskins -- was monitoring our progress from afar via the Athlete Alert service, which sends to your phone or email address a snapshot of a runner's pace and time as of 10K, 13.1 miles, 30K, and finish. Every time Patrick and I crossed one of the electronic timing mats together, I drew deep satisfaction from knowing we were sending the signal back home to Bill that his runners were hanging tough, and hanging together.

Around mile 17 the course takes you through about four miles of what are called the Newton Hills, the last of which is known as Heartbreak Hill. We ground our way up the first hill at a moderate but steady pace, and I felt encouraged. I was experiencing some pain, but nothing too extreme.

By the top of Heartbreak I felt like shit, and struggled to hold a pace faster than 10:00/mile. Every step was pain from my hips to the soles of my feet. I wondered if there might be some way of putting my foot down that did not hurt. In retrospect I realize there is indeed such a method: it's called walking. Thousands of people were doing it, but we never seriously considered it an option.

A couple miles after Heartbreak, Patrick was suffering even worse than me; he bade me go forward without him, and I reluctantly complied. At long last, the right turn onto Hereford Street, then left onto the final stretch of Boyleston. For the last quarter mile I managed to increase my speed to something comparable to the 7:30 I had originally dreamed of averaging, and crossed the finish in 3:43:41. Unable to decide whether to puke or pass out, I did neither. Patrick showed up about a minute and a half later. We greeted each other with the greatest high five of all time, then staggered onward together to collect our medals and head home.

All of our running friends commended our courageous performance. It is gratifying that we had the fitness and the fortitude to get through this with dignity, and the intelligence to manage our pace and hydration well enough to avoid the hospital. But in terms of absolute performance, it was a terrific frustration and disappointment. Nobody wants to train for 20 weeks and 1000 miles just to be thwarted by a one-day spike in temperature (the days following and preceding were of course much cooler). The post-race challenge for me has been to get my head around what happened, accept it, and move on. This too, I realize, is part of this strange and wonderful sport of distance running.

Highlights from 2011

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Here are a few salient events from another interesting year:

  • I won myself a trophy for third place in my 50-54 age/gender group in a half marathon in Monmouth County, NJ. This is remarkable because it was not long ago that the very idea was inconceivable. The trophy itself is hideously ugly, but I am glad to accept it nonetheless.
  • I ran my third marathon, in Boston. In short, it was a successful and rewarding venture. See this report if you want the gory details.
  • I won my age group in not one but two local 5K races -- small ones, but still... The second was noteworthy because I was actually disappointed in my performance, feeling sluggish and uncomfortable and posting a slower time than I thought I should. Winning my age group and still not satisfied -- have I lost my mind?
  • My stepfather died at the age of 93, in March. He was an accomplished astronomer who led a long and productive life, and is remembered with great admiration and affection by hundreds of people.
  • In May I crashed the shit out of my car, with two of my kids in the back seat. It wasn't good, but could have been far worse.
  • My uncle died at the age of something like 88, in August. He too was a smart man who managed to get through his long life pretty much doing as he pleased, founding and running a successful aerial photography business.
  • One of our cats, Master Lin-chi, used up a couple of his lives. First he disappeared for a full week, during the summer. He had us grieving and stapling flyers to trees all over the neighborhood. Then he walked into the house, skinny and filthy but very much alive. We have no idea where the hell he was.

    As if that wasn't enough, he then surpassed this performance by surviving an encounter with a car with nothing more than some bruises and abrasions. I took him to the vet (and what a splendid vet he is, Felix Escudero at the emergency clinic in Bloomfield, NJ) who pronounced him OK.

    I don't remember if it was before or after that incident that I called him to come home one evening, when he hadn't been seen for 24 hours. When he still didn't show up I called a little louder, and heard a faint whimper in the distance. Following the sound, I located him in the back yard two houses away, trapped in what's know as a "Have a Heart" trap -- a cage that automatically closes when an animal enters to get at some bait, stepping on a metal plate in the process. It seems that our neighbor had set it to to catch some other creature that had been giving him grief, and then saw fit to leave for the weekend. Thus Lin-chi sat with no food or water, next to a little pile of his own shit, until I rescued him. I got him out and otherwise left the trap as I found it, shit included.Master Lin-chi

    (You may say, obviously this cat should live entirely indoors, and I wouldn't disagree. But it's not an easy policy to enforce, and I am of two minds about the issue of letting cats go outdoors -- a topic for another day.)
  • Like so many others on the planet,we endured extreme weather, including tough snowstorms, a brush with a hurricane in late August, and a seasonally inappropriate winter storm in October that left us without power for a full five days.
  • Our four kids got a year bigger, all them thriving and developing and fascinating my wife and me.
  • My lovely wife and I observed another wedding anniversary, and are still crazy about each other. It's a glorious thing.


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when you awaken at some ungodly hour
ease your way around your dreaming spouse

to sneak through the house like a thief
and put on your running shoes

and even the cats look at you
as though you've lost your mind:

you will ask
why am I doing this?

because when you begin to run
down the street
your footsteps will echo
off the sleeping houses.


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running, running we run
our thousands of feet
follow the road
towards Boston.

somewhere along mile 25
I understand this moment
as no different from any other.

devoid of content,
this very moment
is exactly emptiness.

Running the 2011 Boston Marathon

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I rode Amtrak from Newark on Sunday and lodged at the Hilton in the Financial District. After putting down my gear I went to the expo where you get your number, and did not hang around long. Those big convention center affairs are oppressive and I wasn’t much interested in shopping. The marathon included a pasta buffet dinner, and having no other hot date lined up I decided I might as well. It was no better than satisfactory, which is OK for these purposes. After dinner I lay in a hot bath and managed to let the jitters subside to some extent. Got to bed reasonably early and woke up at 4:15, an hour ahead of the alarm and redundant wake-up call.

Even if you aren’t ADD-afflicted, It is good practice to arrange your countless little items the night before.

The buses to the start in Hopkinton were about a 12-minute walk from the hotel. Instead I spontaneously shared a short cab ride with two other runners, also strangers to each other. Everywhere I went I found good vibes and camaraderie. It’s easy to strike up a conversation with people with whom you have such an intense common interest. On the bus I sat next to a Canadian woman who had to be well over 60 and who knows what it is to train in truly cold weather and snow — not like us New Jersey wimps. Before the start the runners wait for a couple hours in an outdoor area known as Athlete’s Village, where armed guards, attack dogs and razor wire keep the athletes from escaping. Despite the forecast for textbook-perfect weather, it was cold, and the ground was wet. I wished I’d had as much foresight as the people who brought ground cloths and other appropriate equipment. I was shivering much of the time, my cotton layers insufficient against the wind.

For readers who are not familiar with the marathon game, a little context: the world record is just a little over two hours. From my perspective, anything under three hours is astounding. The entrance requirement for the prestigious Boston Marathon is to demonstrate your credibility by running an officially recognized marathon within a set time, adjusted for gender and age, in the 18 months prior to the race. The Boston qualifying standard for my age bracket is currently 3:35; all Boston qualifying times will become five minutes tougher as of 2013. Having qualified in New York in 2009, I was now here to crack 3:20:00 and needed to average a fraction over 7:37 per mile. It’s all relative, to be sure, but I think it fair to say that a sub-3:20 marathon, when you are six weeks short of 53 years old, is pretty damn good. It’s a BQ (Boston Qualifier) with 15 minutes to spare, 10 minutes by the 2013 standard.

My training had gone well, and I had plenty of sage advice from experienced, excellent Boston marathoners (e.g., a guy whom we will call Bill Haskins to protect his privacy), hence a pretty clear notion of what to do. Stick to your pace and no faster — as with any marathon. Beware of the early miles which are downhill, and can seduce you into going too fast and trashing your quads. If you’ve managed your pace intelligently, then after the last of the infamous Newton Hills around mile 21 you can pick up the pace and seal the deal.

At last we get moving, and the cold is an issue no more. There is no other sound like the patter of thousands of shoes trodding the asphalt.

These are my unofficial mile splits:

Mile 1: 7:57. Too congested. There was little I could do about that so I tell myself not to worry, in fact maybe this is good. Start out easy and make it up later.

Mile 2: 7:07. Oops. Didn’t mean to make it up all at once.

Mile 3: 7:11. Shit. Got to get this under control.

Mile 4: 7:26. Still too fast.

Mile 5: 7:40. Thank you.

Mile 6: 7:37. Brilliant.

Mile 7: 7:39. I’ll take it.

Mile 8: 7:34. A little overexuberant, but acceptable.

Mile 9: 7:32. Dude, come on.

Mile 10: 7:49. A little erratic now. Maybe compensating for the sins of the past couple of miles though I don’t remember for sure.

Mile 11: 7:27. Compensating for the preceding. Definitely too erratic now.

Mile 12: 7:57. I saw an open Porta-Potty and decided to go for it though my need was not urgent. It just looked like a good opportunity. But it took numerous seconds.

Mile 13: 7:15. Again, the mistake of trying to reclaim lost time in one shot.

Mile 14: 7:29. Trying to ease up.

Mile 15: 7:35. Not bad.

Mile 16: 7:19. Oops. Maybe getting a little too cocky about feeling strong at this stage.

Mile 17: 7:48 Again easing off. Soon hereafter I encounter my one-man support team among the onlookers, the incomparably charming — not to mention stupendous runner — John Parry, who gave me wonderful encouragement, running alongside me for maybe half a minute. I tell him my legs are a little beat but the engine is still strong. He says, keep running relaxed. I yell back “I love you, man!” as we part.

Mile 18: 7:50. The Newton Hills slow me down. I might also have lost a few seconds talking to John, but it was well worth it.

Mile 19: 7:26 Fighting back. Starting to fatigue.

Mile 20: 7:45. Nice to be here, realizing it will all be over before too long. Unless I melt down between here and the finish, that is.

Mile 21: 7:56. The dreaded Heartbreak Hill. It doesn’t quite break my heart but it slows me down.

Mile 22: 7:21. Again battling back.

Mile 23: 7:48. Getting smacked around. The margin of error is dwindling. Must step on the gas.

Mile 24: 7:35. I’m proud of that.

Mile 25: 8:04. Hurting. A few minutes later, rough calculation tells me I might make 3:20 but not by much. Got to pick it up.

From 25 to 26.2: An 8:00 pace. Definitely fading badly in the last two miles. Turning left on Boylston into the final stretch I give it my best effort to run like hell, my legs so thrashed it’s like a bad dream. But this final gambit gets me over the finish line at 3:19:55. Success.

I was fairly well tattered after the finish, light-headed, leg muscles locking up. But I drank plenty of fluids and managed to limp onto the subway and back to the hotel, where I decided I deserved a pint of Guinness at the bar. This is Boston after all. Then, back to the bathtub to let it all sink in.

When it’s all over you get to ride the train back to New Jersey and take a picture of yourself displaying your medal.

The Boston Marathon is a class act. The volunteers were consistently great, the crowd tremendously supportive, and the organization seemed to me just about flawless. The atmosphere is uniquely exciting. It’s a kick to be among a great mob of runners who range from quite good to quite very damn good indeed. I had some fun along the way, the pain of the last 10K notwithstanding. I enjoyed chatting with a few runners during the first 12 or 13 miles, though I am of two minds about doing that. On one hand it gets you out of your head for a bit and provides a distraction, helping you to relax and enjoy the ride. On the other hand, it’s a distraction. You might inadvertently adjust your pace to the other person’s (or vice versa) instead of running your own race. I suppose that at a more advanced level there’s no wasted breath or concentration, but I think at my more modest level of performance it can’t hurt to socialize in moderation.

I would have loved to report an elegant and disciplined marathon with a strong, crisp finish rather than a tail of sloppily fluctuating all over the place and then barely hanging on to attain the goal. This performance suffered from my characteristic problem with self-control. It isn’t a willful disregard of pace management, or a consciously arrogant decision that today I am such a superb athlete that I can run faster than planned. I just have trouble gauging pace. This being my first Boston and just my third marathon, the lack of experience might have something to do with it. I could buy one of those GPS devices that tells you how fast you’re going, but I am stubbornly old-school, and frugal. I would rather learn to control myself with a $35 Timex and feedback at the rate of once per mile.

During the slow walk back to the hotel I began thinking I could do better if I tried it again. Ever obsessed with time, I looked at my watch to see about how long after the finish it took me to start thinking in those terms. Forty minutes.

South Mountain, November 2010

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we run before dawn
two pairs of feet trotting along
dark silent streets,
then up the mountain.

a few feet off the road
three deer
foraging in the woods

silhouetted in the dim cold
they look up for a moment
then ignore us

as we continue down the road
the horizon now swelling pink
through the bare trees.

Back pain, bane of human existence

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I wrenched the holy fuck out of my lower back while getting into the car to drive my daughter to school last Friday morning. That simple act seems to have triggered it, but an accumulation of insults must have contributed. I had never had a back experience quite so bad in my 50-plus years. I could barely walk, and had to miss a couple days of work. I could not dress myself without assistance, and was only just able to maintain that essential, minimal autonomy and independence: lower myself onto the toilet to take a shit, and wipe my own ass.

The back is hard to ignore, being right in the center of the body, the hub of everything: arms, legs, head. For the first day or two or three, I tried to be tough. Pain? Fuck pain, I can deal with it. But after about four or five days of it, when you are stiffly shuffling around in your bathrobe, staring out the window at the rain falling from the quiet gray sky... then you understand how a person could get depressed.

I had planned to run a local 5K race Saturday morning, even indulging fantasies of winning my age group. Indeed, the guy who did win it is an acquaintance, and his pace was 2 seconds per mile slower than my last 5K, on August 14. There would have been a dramatic battle to the finish line! (I could have this, I would have that --- yeah, so go into a bar and brag about "could have" and see how many people you impress.) Instead, as runners were milling about the starting area, I was struggling just to get from bed to toilet, taking tiny baby steps, gasping and holding the walls for support.

Debilitating injury and pain get to us for any number of compelling reasons, but foremost among them is that such episodes are prefigurations of our eventual, inevitable death. Yeah you heard me: one of these days you are gonna go down and stay down, and your life will end. We should regard these illnesses and pains of our decaying bodies as opportunities to reflect on impermanence.

And yet there is a hilariously comical element mixed into this mess. A couple of times I burst out laughing at my predicament, stuck somewhere in the middle of a room, unable to stand still, unable to move forward. The vibrations from the laughter made my back hurt worse, of course, so I laughed all the harder -- erasing from my wife's mind any lingering doubt that I am crazy.

Why I am a de facto semi-vegetarian

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The short answer is The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan. I was already generally aware of the atrocious ways of meat production in the United States: extreme cruelty to animals; adverse impacts on human health and on the environment. But the gory details were sufficient to compell me to decide not to participate any longer. There is no excuse for treating chickens, pigs, and cattle the way large industrial producers do, and I refuse to be complicit in a system of which I so strongly disapprove. Indeed, it would be hypocritical of me to do otherwise.grilling_veggies.jpg

That doesn't mean I am a full-blown vegetarian. Homo sapiens is one of those animals that eat other animals in order to survive, and I have no problem with that in principle. If you can serve me a piece of pork that was once a pig who was raised and killed in as humane and environmentally sustainable a way as is reasonably possible, I will happily eat it, mindful of the pig's sacrifice. A roasted rabbit, who led a natural bunny life hopping around and eating and fucking until dispatched so skillfully that Mr/Ms Bunny never knew what hit her or him? Bring it! But getting that kind of meat requires substantially more expense and effort than does the supermarket kind, and as of yet I haven't made the effort, so I have gone without eating the flesh of cattle, chickens, pigs, turkeys, and so forth.

Fish is another matter. Figuring out which kinds are harvested in an environmentally responsible fashion also takes some homework, and they have faces, and they probably don't like suffocating any more than you or I would. But I am content to rationalize that a sardine does not have the cognitive functioning to realize how bad it's getting fucked before it ends up in a can. Maybe I will eventually change my position. For now, I need protein and don't want to depend solely on nuts and tofu. So I eat fish with some qualification.

One might say, let's see you kill and butcher that animal yourself, and then see how you feel -- as Michael Pollan did. I would certainly be willing to give it a try some day -- killing my own food sounds kind of cool, in fact. But for now I am a creature who lives in the suburbs, works in a city, and going hunting with my crossbow is not really a practical alternative. The idea is certainly not forever foreclosed, but for now I am content to allow someone else to kill my food animals for me.

Opting out of industrial meat has not required any difficult adjustments in my diet, because I was already eating a lot of vegetarian meals, rarely consuming red meat, and increasingly eating fresh and local food. I have had to renounce that Cambodian style noodle soup from a Cantonese place near my office, a delicious concoction made with sliced and ground pork as well as shrimp and egg noodles in broth probably made from ducks who undoubtedly fare no better than the pigs.

As for eggs, we generally buy the most environmentally correct ones available, and willingly pay a premium over the industrial kind (think of it as insurance against salmonella poisoning courtesy of a mass producer in Iowa who churns out millions of eggs a week -- you don't need to be a Slow Food connoisseur to see the problem inherent in production on that scale). But that's also a tricky game, since what you read on the carton -- "cage free," for example -- may be bullshit. But I eat salads from a deli near my workplace, sometimes containing a hard-boiled egg about whose origins I know nothing. I am not a purist; I compromise. When I eat my kids' left-over pepperoni pizza, I peel off the pepperoni and eat it, unconcerned about the pizza being tainted with pepperoni residue. And maybe -- maybe -- when Thanksgiving rolls around I will decide to go along with the program and partake of the turkey. We'll see.

The result of this modest dietary change is that I feel fine both ethically and physically. I like to burn a lot of calories running, and have kept on setting personal record times since quitting the meat. Over time, I suspect our family will be eating still more local and fresh, and adjusting our diet according to the seasons in New Jersey. The rest of the family might even phase out the industrial flesh consumption. For now, this is working well for me.

My happy transition to the Vibram FiveFingers

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If you're a runner, then you've undoubtedly heard a great deal of hype about the barefoot/minimalist running movement. Like countless others, I read Born to Run and was intrigued. The prose style is so dreadful that I was tempted to quit, but forced myself to suck it up for the sake of the content.

For context, here's a quick running résumé. At 52 years of age, I have been running for about 23 years, but only casually for the first 20 -- about three times a week, four or five miles at an easy pace. In January 2008 I ran my first half marathon, and loved it so much that I ran a marathon in October 2008 and another in November 2009, the latter fast enough to qualify for Boston. At present I am not formally training for any event, and I run as much as I can in light of my substantial commute, work and family responsibilities -- about 120 miles per month.

After seeing some online discussions (at my local running club) about the Vibram FiveFingers miminalist foot-glove, I decided to order a pair. Scouring the web I found that my size was out of stock everywhere. It was clear that the VFF's Warholian 15 minutes are in full swing. Vibram can't make the damn things nearly fast enough to meet the demand, and one has to beware of scammers who have popped up selling counterfeit versions. I finally back-ordered some VFF Sprints from an outdoor gear place in Oregon, and they kept moving the shipping date back so that it took a full six months for mine to arrive at my door.

Under the influence of Born to Run, I had decided that rather than replacing my Mizuno Wave Elixir 4s, I would just continue to beat the cushioning out of them. They were pretty well-worn by the time I ran the Brooklyn Half Marathon in May 2010 (in NY Marathon-qualifying time, thank you very much), and had over 500 miles by the time I put them aside.

Put them aside, because I ran out of patience while waiting on my VFFs and got what seemed to be the next best thing that was readily available: the Mizuno Universe 3 racing flat. The things are so light they might as well be made of paper. The soles and heels are scant enough to qualify this shoe as minimal. I took them out for a easy-pace ten-mile spin on day one, and felt only minor soreness in my calves the following day. I adopted these Mizunos as my full-time shoe and perhaps not coincidentally, started running faster. Have I changed my stride? I think so, but I don't know. I haven't consciously done anything radical.

At last, three days ago, the VFFs showed up. The first time I put them on it took some doing to get my toes into their individual -- whatever you call them, the counterparts of what we call fingers of a glove. But one learns quickly to become more toe-aware, and the VFF is a fascinating new sensation.

Now comes the potentially treacherous part. There are reports of a lot of people getting injured by transitioning too quickly into minimalist footwear, attempting too much too soon. Maybe I should have gone for a mile or two the first time out. But I like to run, so I went for five miles on a treadmill: the first three at an easy pace, the next couple moderately fast, the last .75 fast. It felt fine. I took the next day off, waiting to see if there were any ill effects. Experiencing none, I got on the treadmill again today for a 1-mile warmup followed by a 5-mile hill climb followed by a level half-mile to cool down, all at an easy pace. All good, and I was feeling strong the whole while. I plan on some more treadmill tomorrow, and will make my street debut the day after tomorrow for around 10 miles.

Thus it turns out that I have made a gradual transition into minimalism in three phases: (1) running in a conventional, fairly light shoe until it was beaten to hell; (2) running in racing flats full-time, then finally (3) running in the VFF. I should also mention that I am uncommonly fortunate and not prone to significant running injuries. But for me, this approach to VFF adoption seems to be working beautifully.

South Mountain, May 2010

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feet and ground
through the damp spring air
infused with honeysuckle

Running the 2009 New York Marathon

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I had the privilege of running the 2009 New York Marathon on Sunday, November 1. This was my second marathon; the first was Philadelphia in 2008. I trained for 20 weeks using a program from specifically designed for a 3:40:00 marathon. In the final week of training I decided to reset my goal to 3:35:59, which qualifies a male in my 50-something age bracket for the prestigious Boston Marathon.

The NY Marathon is a logistical tour de force, with its 40,000-plus runners. Organizers clearly went to great lengths to keep everything moving and avoid excess congestion. Thus the start was divided into three waves, and these in turn were further partitioned into separate routes that only merged several miles later, where the streets were wider and people were naturally spread out more than at the start.

The streets were lined with hordes of cheering people. The atmosphere was highly charged, and despite the fact that I knew better, and even as I knew what I was doing, I committed the classic marathoner's mistake known as going out too fast. Instead of running around 8:14 per mile, my pace over the first 10K was 7:53.

Gradually I calmed down and ran the middle third of the race at a more reasonable pace. But you can't change the past, and by mile 18 I knew I was going to have to pay for my earlier lack of discipline. I had taped to my left wrist a timetable showing how much time had to have elapsed at each mile if I was to attain my goal time, and from consulting it I knew I was ahead of the pace throughout the course. But by mile 20 I was fading and the margin of error was getting slimmer. I concluded that I had nothing left, therefore nothing to lose. I would ask myself, can you stand another six miles of this? Yes I can. At five miles to go: can you stand another five? Yes I can. And so on.

The split times over the last six tell a tale of alternately fading, then fighting back. Mile 20, 8:22 -- too slow. Mile 21, 8:28 -- even slower! Mile 22, 8:12 -- excellent, two seconds ahead of the goal pace. Mile 23, 8:10 -- great. Mile 24 which is largely uphill, 8:49 -- despair! Mile 25, 8:04 -- heroic. Mile 26, 8:22 -- too slow, but we're almost home. For the last 0.2 I was running at an 8:35 pace -- definitely fading fast.

When at long last the great sign that said Finish came into view, I was so spent that it took me a couple of beats to comprehend what it meant. I crossed the finish line and stopped my watch at 3:34:44: success.

Weaving and unsteady on my feet, I was accosted by a volunteer who led me to the medical tent, where I ended up lying on a cot recovering for about 25 minutes. On the adjacent cot was a guy named John from New Zealand, apparently in his 40s, who had also nailed his BQ (Boston qualifier) at 3:17 -- and who had likewise spent everything he had and then some, and landed in the medical tent like me. In a shared state of total exhaustion and elation, we had a wonderful conversation about the nature of this amazing thing known as marathon running. It was a highlight of the whole experience.

During this conversation with John I had an insight: a marathon is at once both a communal, public event -- a grand party, an orgy of thousands running through the streets! -- and at the same time, as intensely personal and intimate an experience as you can have. It is absolutely solitary, but in a way that is neither good or bad. You drop down into ever deeper realms of your own consciousness and find out about who you really are. Think ten years of psychotherapy compressed into a few hours. Or, for you Zen practitioners, think of a week sesshin crammed into a single morning. No wonder the marathon game isn't for everyone. I believe that many marathon runners are motivated by nothing other than a search for the Truth. We intuitively understand what Master Bassui teaches: the Great Question cannot be resolved by the discursive mind.

Second-guessing myself, I speculate that I could well have attained the same result or better if I had run a more disciplined, strategic race. It would have been more elegant if I had conserved energy in the first half and had a powerful finish, running the last miles faster, not slower, than any of the preceding. But as experiences go, what actually did happen cannot be surpassed. It was a marvelous adventure.

Training for the NY Marathon

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This afternoon I was doing speed work on a treadmill as part of my training for the New York Marathon on November 1. I am preparing to run the 26.2 mile course in 3 hours and 40 minutes, or 8:23 per mile, and this is the 16th of 20 weeks of training. Today's assignment, according to the program I am using, was to run seven one-mile repeats at 7:28 per mile, alternating with .25-mile periods of recovery at an easy pace, then finishing heroically with a final quarter mile at nearly full pace.

The magnificent thing about this program is that it works. It gets gradually more demanding, calling on you to run farther and farther, run fast for progressively longer periods, run uphill for miles at a stretch, and so forth. And you do it. How? With your feet, one step at a time. Left right left right left right. At the end of week 17 there is a 23-mile run, then you taper off into a more merciful and gentle regime designed to let you recover from that exertion while staying well tuned until race day.

Cranking out the one-mile repeats on the treadmill I experience a remarkable sensation of freedom and power. Sure, it's hard work, but this body -- miraculously -- rises to the occasion and not only does it, but does with confidence and relative ease. When the third and fourth repeats feel lighter and easier than the first and second, it seems as though one is getting stronger even while expending energy.

Today I had a weird and moving experience while banging out the last quarter mile at something close to as fast as possible. As I heard my feet drumming and felt my lungs working, there came to mind an image of a virtuoso pianist performing the closing measures of some fabulous show piece, perhaps Franz Liszt. The pianist dressed in formal concert attire, hands flying everywhere, her whole being absorbed in concentration, the music filling the darkened hall like thunder, the audience absolutely entranced. Nobody even thinks a thought, there is nothing other than music. I had the feeling that there was no difference whatsoever between that and this, this and that. Tears came to my eyes.

And the music was over. I pressed the "Cool Down" button, finished sweating for a few quiet minutes, then went and took a shower.

Philadelphia Marathon 2008: Woo hoo!

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Your humble servant Professor B had the privilege of running the Philadelphia Marathon on Sunday, November 23, 2008. The bottom line: 3:51:51, average pace per mile 8:50.7. In relative terms, that's 2529th out of a field of 7261 finishers.

For those who like to look at pictures, I have a couple over here.

If you like both pictures and sound, feel free to download this clip of me expressing my gratitude to runner and running guru Rick Morris of, and while you're at it don't forget to view the incomparably profound postscript to that message. (My watch said a couple minutes less than my chip time, most likely because I accidentally stopped my timer for a while while fumbling with the splits. I was deluded when I was bragging about 8:49:something in the video clip.)

If you like textual narrative, please read on while you wait for those fat-ass AVI videos to download.

* * * * *

As I mentioned in a previous post, I signed up for my first marathon and began training in earnest last summer, following a program intended to prepare you to run a four-hour marathon. It usually called for six training days per week -- though I was not able to fit in more than five -- and mixed various types of workouts. With precise instructions as to speeds and distances, the program is highly scientific and technical, designed to develop speed, endurance, lactate acid processing, oxygen uptake, and so forth. The treadmill was more a necessity than a convenience for accurately regulating speed, so I did a mix of treadmill and outdoor running.

The coolest thing about this training regime is that it works. My wheels got a little beaten up at times, but my engine kept getting stronger. It was also highly addictive. Crack pipe became my nickname for the treadmill. The "easy" runs, at slower than marathon goal pace, were times of soothing relaxation and enjoyment.

I did my last of a series of progressively longer "long" runs on Election Day, November 4. I cast my vote for Barack and ran my 23 miles, and was more than pleased with the outcome of both contests. Per the program, there followed a sort of holy period where you run relatively little, concentrating instead on recovery from the last long run while staying tuned up for the great day.

My girlfriend -- let's call her Amy, to protect the innocent -- was phenomenally supportive throughout this project. Empathic and generous by nature, she also knows from experience what it's like to train and run races. We made arrangements for the care of our respective children and drove together to Philadelphia on Saturday to stay overnight a downtown hotel.

Also lodged at the hotel were our friends, whom we'll call Jennifer and Alain. The latter, an experienced marathoner, is the one who encouraged me to get into this endeavor (i.e., it's all his fault). He was not wedded to meeting or beating a 4-hour goal, so we agreed to run together for as much or as little of the way as felt comfortable, and he encouraged me to move ahead whenever I felt the need.

I made a point of sleeping adequately Friday into Saturday because having known myself for a full 50 years, I expected the jitters might keep me up Saturday night. Indeed, I slept maybe 3.5 hours, but I didn't worry too much about that. Hey, you can always take a nap after the race, right?

My anxiety level was moderate to low the day and night before. But in the morning, as the final minutes ticked off before I was due to meet Alain in the lobby and head over to the site, I was a basket case, anxiously buzzing around the room looking for things that I should have arranged neatly the night before. I thought I had allowed plenty of time, but this was a valuable lesson for next time: organize all your stuff, attach your chip and your bib, set out your clothing and accessories the night before rather than the morning of.

Temperatures at 6:30 a.m. were in the upper 20's. Cold. I did what my marathon-experienced friend recommended: wore a couple outer layers of cotton things that should have been donated to charity long ago, and discarded them in the street once I warmed up.

Within the first few miles Alain checked a mile marker against his watch, and announced that either the mile marker was substantially off or else we were going way too fast. I have since heard rumors that some of the early mile markers were in fact misplaced. A little later, by my calculation we were behind schedule by more than two minutes. We probably slowed down too much, overcompensating for the miles we wrongly thought we had run too fast.

In the days before the race I had gotten the idea of printing out a timetable indicating what time should have elapsed at each mile, laminating it, punching two holes in the lower corners and pinning it upside down to my windbreaker for reference. I actually had this laminated thing ready to go in my hotel room, then discarded the idea because at the last moment I didn't have time or inclination to fool around with any more safety pins. It wasn't till dinner the night before that I heard from Alain that the idea has already been thought of, in the form of a bracelet that you can fashion out of paper and tape, and rotate around your wrist. Duh. That's another lesson for next time: if you're the obsessive sort who likes to know where he is and you're not a savant whose glucose-starved brain can perform hour-minute-second arithmetic on the fly, then carry your little reference thingy if it makes you happy.

After about the first third or so, I moved on ahead of my friend because I was interested in getting back on schedule. Later I calculated that I had overcompensated again and was a couple minutes ahead of schedule, and slowed back down. Meanwhile my friend picked it up a little and we met again about half way through. Amy positioned herself somewhere near the half-way point at a strategic time and waited to greet us as we came around a turn and down a hill. It was well worth stopping for a mid-race hug and a kiss.

At some point I became uncertain whether I was ahead of schedule or behind, but thought most of the miles had probably been fast enough. I focused on the individual mile splits and maintaining a decent pace, staying around 8:45 to 9:00. I monitored my fatigue level, wondering if I was running stupid or smart. I enjoyed the scenery and the rhythm of the feet, and had a good time. The atmosphere was pleasant and convivial, the spectators and volunteers enthusiastic.

Alain and I ran together till around mile 18 or so and then I decided to pick up the pace, as I had planned to do. I went ahead, telling him he might see me later weeping by the side of the road.

After mile 20 I was looking for signs of serious fatigue, wondering again if I was going to crash into the dreaded wall about which I have heard so many horror stories. But the last several miles went by fast and I felt remarkably comfortable. I was passing people all over the place, as if walking through a room full of people standing still. Soon we were almost home and I stepped on the gas a little harder. I ran the last 200 meters at a dead run.

It really was glorious, an incredible thrill, busting it across the finish line with crowds of cheering people left and right. Without question, the whole race was one of the most rewarding and enjoyable experiences of my life. I am astonished that this body was able to do what it did, and I am overwhelmed with gratitude for being healthy enough and having a sufficently lucky and privileged life to accomodate the training.

The wall must have been somewhere beyond 26.2 because I never hit it. Since the race I have been tempted to second-guess myself, thinking I might have run more aggressively, but that's stupid. Which mistake would you rather regret? It's a delicate balance between fuel conservation and performance.

And it's interesting, is it not, how gratitude and greed can exist side by side. On the one hand you have tears of gratitude welling up in your eyes, and in next instant you're demanding more, scheming and planning to beat this performance next time. Who's up for the New York Marathon in 2009?

PS: my gratitude to the good people at the downtown branch of Urban Athletics for providing excellent advice, apparel and shoes.

Feet and ground: the Zen of long distance running

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I spent a few minutes googling around for online literature -- is that an oxymoron? -- on the subject of Zen and running. Though it surely exists, I found but little. Mostly I found the word Zen misused, as so frequently happens, as a synonym for bliss. According to what I have learned about Zen (admittedly, not much), the heart of the practice is meditation, and meditation in turn is fundamentally not so much about vegging out, escape, self-improvement, or even stress reduction, but rather the practice of sitting with what is. Yes, there are occasional moments of what I call shocking clarity and calm. Perhaps for the experienced, skilled meditator these moments occur more often and for longer periods -- ask me in 20 years and I will tell you. But for the most part, it's about disciplined repetition. Inhaling and exhaling. The attention wandering off, and coming back, wandering off and coming back again. Again and again, minute after minute, day after day, sitting with what is: that dog yapping, a pain in your back, some car passing by in the distance, thoughts swimming around in your head, the movement of the breath. Stilling the mind and ever so gradually getting acquainted with reality.

So it is for the runner. While training for a marathon I have been struck by the strange and fascinating comparison of running and zazen. At first glance they seem utterly different from each other, located at the opposite extremes of activity and inactivity: running your ass off for miles, versus sitting absolutely still staring at the paint for 30 minutes. But both are disciplined repetition; both involve paying attention and then wandering off. Paying attention: feet and ground. Breathing in and out. The stride. The breath. The surroundings. Monitoring body and mind. Feet and ground. Breathing in and out. Then wandering off: following thoughts. Reviewing and editing the past, scripting the future, having a grand old time. Then coming back to what is: feet and ground. Left right left right.... One foot after another, mile after mile: this is reality not delusion.

Many runners are fond of running with digital audio players and the like. I don't believe in that. Yes I have enjoyed using a radio or iPod on occasion. But for serious running I suggest we should eschew such distractions. It's not about entertainment, or trying to make the running something other than what it is, or making it somehow more palatable, or less boring. No. Embrace the boredom, if that's what it is. It's about paying attention to feet and ground.

The Sandokai by Master Shitou says:

When you do not see the Way, you do not see it even as you walk on it.

You could study this text for years and still keep learning more about it. I wouldn't presume to explain what it means. But! (You saw that but coming.) But for me, running is more than just running. It is, in fact, just running. I am convinced that all those who ever put on a running shoe experience this truth whether they realize it or not.

Distance running and zazen: two activities some might call weird, each a wonderful complement and support to the other.


Fast forward to nearly two years later. I am now 52 instead of 50, still sitting every day, and running considerably faster than when I posted the above. I have no means of proving that the practice of sitting has made me a better runner than I would otherwise be. Life is not a controlled experiment: if you do this, you can only speculate as to what would have happened if you'd done that instead. Still, there is little doubt that the sitting practice enriches one's life. It teaches you to pay attention to what is happening rather than just being dragged around by it. This in turn serves you well when you need discipline, self-control, and the ability to tolerate a certain amount of pain and/or exhaustion in an equanimous, non-reactive way. Skills such as these are essential to runners who push themselves to achieve their goals.

Why run a marathon?

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For over 20 years I have been running for recreation and fitness, anywhere from about .8 to three or four times a week for distances of 4 to 6 miles. I have rarely been concerned about performance or proving anything. I was in it for fun and fitness. Suddenly, at age 50, I am signed up for the Philadelphia Marathon on November 23, 2008, and training seriously. How did this happen?

The influence of a running-fanatic friend was a factor. He encouraged me to try a half-marathon organized by the New York Road Runners back in January. This was the longest distance I had ever run and I was not properly trained for it. I was sore as hell for days afterwards, but I loved it. Five thousand pairs of feet trotting through the cold air of Central Park, a kin-hin line writ extremely large. I decided I would meet the NYYR requirement for entry into the New York Marathon in 2009 by running in at least nine races in 2008, and thus open the option of doing a marathon.

Then my running friend got into my head again: Why don't you do Philadelphia in the fall? It's open to anyone who pays the registration fee. I thought this over for a couple weeks, fretting over the difficulty of fitting training into an already busy life. Then just said fuck it, hit the website and did the deed.

Now I am embarked on a formal training program (from the Running Planet) that prepares you to complete a marathon in four hours. I felt irrationally attached to the four hour number even before arriving at it rationally. It's a nice round figure, and four hours of continuous running is quite enough, thank you, so let's get it over with. It's a fortunate coincidence that my running history is such that the four hour goal does appear to be reasonable and attainable. So I am going at it five or six days a week, getting up before dawn to trod the pavement and run around Liberty State Park as the sun comes up, hitting the treadmill at work, exerting myself like never before in my life.

Why do this? I have long been vaguely curious about the experience of completing a marathon and thought it might be interesting to try it some day and find out if I could do it. Then I noticed I was 50 years old. Now seems like a pretty good time to get started, rather than waiting until 60 or 70.

Yes, but that's doesn't answer the question: why do this? I read some place that there are as many reasons as there are runners, but that's another evasion.

Am I trying to outrun the grim reaper? Well, no, I fully expect to die. But first I would like to run a marathon.

But why? Am I trying to prove that I am disciplined and tough? Maybe a little. I don't think I need to prove that I am fit, it's a pretty simple and uncontroversial fact. But I will rather enjoy showing my medal to people. I guess that would be about ego gratification.

Why? Why go to so much trouble for ego gratification, or whatever it is? I don't know. Yesterday I was in Urban Athletics buying gear, and had a chat with one of the co-owners. When I raised this question with him, he simply said, cross the finish line and you'll know why.

I am reminded of something my Zen teacher once said to me: Ultimate truth cannot be known. But it can be experienced. Perhaps Jerry from Urban Athletics was saying the same thing.

Update: A few days later, Sensei was not impressed when I told him this story about the above remark from the guy at Urban Athletics. Ever the consummate Zen dude, he said: why ask why?

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