Why do you think that Friday the 13th is bad luck, but there’s nothing particularly dangerous about Thursday the 12th? One second you are fine, then the clock strikes midnite and you have to watch out for black cats and sneezing your head off.
Numbers also bestow mythical titles upon people like Home Run King Hank Aaron or Ironman Cal Ripken.
It’s even worse with us runners. A 3:59.59 marathon may seem worthy, a 4:00.01 marathon is shit. A 4:59:anything mile is a dream come true, a 5:01 is years of frustration and angst. It’s stupid. And yet, there it is.
The clock doesn’t give mulligans. But we can take one whenever we want because no matter what the clock or calendar says, what it means is within our minds. What 5:04 (my fastest high school mile) meant to me was that I left something on the table that I think I should have had. And that could have been the end of it.
But sometime last spring, I decided it meant something else: a call to arms to take back my body and draw a line in the cinders. And whether I got there or not, I couldn’t worry about that. What mattered is that I was trying. And when I did that, without fear of failing, the meaning of that number changed.
And so too, the meaning of Thursday, September 12 is up to me to decide. Bad luck? Good luck?
I’ve come to understand bad and good are not particularly meaningful words. What’s good for the mouse is bad for the cat. What’s good for the tree may look bad to the falling leaf.
Instead of good or bad, I’m going with useful.
And whether it’s a time that motivates you to do better, or a PR that builds up your self-respect, or age or anniversary or salary or blood pressure reading or other objective measure that’s assigned a number, be mindful of what meaning and use you choose for that number.
Then make it useful to shake off the numbness, wake up and live.
Do you have something important in your life that you can’t find the time or energy to do? For me, one of those somethings was writing. You see, even though I’ve been a professional writer for years (I’m an advertising copywriter by day and aspiring author by night), I had never really been one to keep a regular journal until recently.
But when, over the past few years, my life got more and more complicated, writing was there for me, like an old friend and confidant. I found that sitting down and just writing whatever was on my mind to be an incredible outlet for my emotions and all the things I couldn’t find a way to say in person to anyone who would listen. As I wrote it down, it helped clear my mind.
I also started writing about my running in a way I hadn’t since high school– when I meticulously detailed every single race I’d run for all four years of varsity track. It’s not just that looking back on that log today brings back some glorious past of mine. It’s that I now realize how important it was to me then to write it down. Writing made it real.
Even if the perceptions I had then were flawed and imperfect, writing gave me a chance to share what was going through my teenage mind and give light to things that were important to me. I had always thought a journal was about keeping memories– but I realize now it’s about letting them go so they don’t eat you up inside.
But from those high school days until I started training for The Mulligan Mile last year, I never had any reason to write about my running. It was just something I did, not something that really mattered in my life.
Yet with a pursuit like a big race and with a changing life taking place in front of me, I was learning so much about myself so quickly that my head was spinning constantly. I needed to write to sort out the trinkets from the treasure. In trying to cut seconds off my fastest mile time, with a specific plan, a specific goal, a specific race date and after I had told so many people what I was attempting to do, I was not about to leave anything to chance.
But where would I find the time to do all that writing as I was taking more and more time from my busy life to train?
What i found was counter-intuitive to me. The more I wrote, the more I ran. The writing didn’t take away the time from running– it freed up the mental energy that I needed to keep going when the training got more difficult. Writing illuminated the darkness.
By writing stuff down, I could let go of the thoughts and doubts and pain and stop carrying it around with me on my runs. Plus my writing gave me a magnifying glass to look at the little details of my life and a telescope to see the big picture— to gradually become aware of what was really going on inside me, as I recorded my thoughts when I got back from runs. I even sometimes used a dictation app to capture the thoughts as I was standing, dripping sweat on my patio– too much like a sprinkler to walk into my apartment and spray saltwater all over my computer.
Is there anything in your life that is a great challenge or opportunity for you? Anything that keeps you up at night? Write it out and let it go. Then take your mulligan and keep going.
In Italian, the name Cinquino means, roughly, “Little 5” and the little 5 that meant everything to me in high school was measured in minutes– as in the five minute mile. I had bumped up against the 5:00 barrier several times in my track career at Notre Dame High School in Batavia, NY. I had run the mile (as well as, exhaustingly, the half-mile and two-mile) since I was a freshman. Any runner born after 1970 won’t believe it now, but I ran track that year in sneakers like these. You can now get infant running shoes that have better cushioning than these. And those are for people who can’t even walk yet.
In 1977, I lost out for first place in the freshman mile Buffalo Catholic League championship when I kicked too early on the final lap and was blown away down the stretch, stumbling home in 5:11 in my first competitive mile. Surely over the next three years, I could cut off a few seconds a year and have my own private Roger Bannister moment by the time I was old enough to (legally) celebrate with a Genny Cream Ale.
Yet shaving off seconds proved harder to come by than I realized. By senior year, I still had not broken five minutes. But my training was going well and I was sure that in my final race, the 1980 Genesee Region County Meet, I would finally get under five.
I was feeling so strong in my training that, in the weekend leading up to the meet I drove my inherited 1971 Plymouth Valiant with a Slant 6 engine and a carburetor I had to wiggle open manually with a screwdriver, to a nearby city for the Diet Pepsi 10K. This was one of the first big national series of distance races that had ever been held in rural Western New York. Perfect tune up in the lag between my final dual meet and the upcoming county meet later that week.
And what a race I had. I still consider it one of the best tactical races I’ve ever executed. The field in my age group was small, but top-heavy. Curiously, none of the current high school runners in my league were there, but I did notice an elite runner who was back from college who was clearly going to win the whole race. There were a few other college age guys there and I had no idea what to expect from them. Then there was one of the top runners from the big city public school that (literally) was in an entirely different league from my small, low-budget Catholic school.
I knew of him from common friends and following his times in the newspaper. He had dropped off his track team for some reason but still looked to be a lock for second place. I eyeballed the rest of the crowd and surmised I had a shot at a coveted third place medal. A bronze from Diet Pepsi? Maybe not enough to warrant attention from a cheerleader (now, maybe if it was Tab or even Fresca, I’d have gotten somewhere). But the award might turn a head at my Student Officers meeting ( I was class Vice President) or National Honor Society (ranked 6th in my class, thank you very much).
As expected, the college ringer ran away with race. I never saw him after the first 1/2 mile. Then, another college guy who I hadn’t noticed before, followed him off into the horizon. The city runner likewise took off and left me to settle in near the front of the also rans. I knew the city runner was all that stood between me and a medal.
By the time we got about halfway, I could still see my big city rival ahead of me, but I was barely keeping up. I can still recall how alone we were. No spectators, no other runners, no traffic. It seemed like just him and me and telephone poles along the black pavement of the country road outside town. Whether he knew I was there, or gave me much thought, I’ll never know. What I do know is that the number of telephone poles between us started to shrink. Four, three, two poles separated us. Somewhere, Lech Walesa smiled, as the poles were now working in solidarity for me, with the hanging wire reeling him in like a Popeil Pocket Fisherman.
He first caught sight of me with a little over a mile to go. Then kept a steady glance as I drew near. I had no idea how this could be happening or whether he was just sandbagging me to kick his way home, but with about a half mile to go I finally convinced myself I was not going to fall in behind. Not even a Jimmy Carter boycott could keep me off that podium.
I pulled alongside him as the race entered the downtown area with only a few blocks to the finish line. The only time we ever spoke, he uttered the line that every middle of the pack, sub-elite runner dreams of hearing on the pinnacle of his racing career as I cruised by him to swipe the bronze, he said “Who ARE you?”
It was a question that I let him answer for himself when they called my name and placed the medal around my neck. But it is a question I ask again, today and every day that I take a moment to think.
Now this story does have a happy ending, but that won’t come for a while. You see, two days before the county meet, after my name had appeared in the paper listing my remarkable finish, my track coach got a call from the erstwhile commissioner of the track league, informing my coach that because I had run in a non-sanctioned road race against non-scholastic runners, I had to be DQ’d from the county meet.
My track coach called me into his office to tell me the news. He thanked me for my years of service to the team. Possibly the best road race of my life had cost me the chance at the one track goal I’d be targeting for four long years.
It didn’t hit me until much later– as in 32 years– what this meant.
If you had another shot at something, what would it be?
Below is a piece of the first private blog post I did in preparation for The Mulligan Mile, prompted by my trip back to my high school track to run with the current team. My first time on that track in more than 30 years. What was I thinking???
Today, as the high school track team practiced, I asked the coach’s assistant, and self-proclaimed “Math Girl” to take my picture with my iPhone. And instead of a clueless but carefree teenager with the pleasures and pains of college and jobs and wife and kids ahead of him, she digitally captured a grey-haired, paunchy, weathered, ordinary off-the-shelf old guy. If we had met in the mall, she’d probably thought it more likely that I was an off-season Santa Claus than what I really felt like inside: a soul-searching runner toeing the line for a fresh start to a midlife that had suddenly gotten very complicated.
While the reasons behind my trip back in time may have been cloudy and complicated, I kept most of that to myself. My task here was simple. I was here to run like hell and see what happened. Cotton-free, orthotic-propelled and grateful for the chance to test myself against the same cinder track that had been the foundation for every racing step I’ve taken over the past 32 years. I was here to claim what was taken from me back then. I was here for a mulligan on a race that never happened.
Taking a mulligan on a race that never happened may sound like a quixotic quest. It’s all that and more– and I’m glad you are here to share your thoughts on what it means to live your own mulligans.
You may have read about The Mulligan Mile in Runners World. It’s my personal account of trying to recapture a little bit of the juice of my early years by training to see how fast I could go in the 2012 edition of the The Fifth Avenue Mile. It was both the hardest I’ve trained since high school and the most fun and rewarding. What I went through helped me focus on making every moment count– and I believe that made all the difference in the race and in my life.
If you had another shot at something, what would it be? What would it mean to your life today to pursue it?
Over the past two years or so, I’ve had the chance to take a closer look at life, love and how fast I was running. And I was startled at what I found. The faster I ran, the more my life slowed down– and the better it tasted.
Now I’ve never been one to spill the beans about what’s really cooking inside my kettle, no matter how much pressure was building. I just kept the lid on tight and carried on with a half-smile dotted by sighs and eye rolls at life’s frustrations. I’d open the lid to peek inside occasionally and stir the pot, then go back to work and leave it unattended. Which is fine for awhile as life simmers, but long term, the unexamined pot of chili is not worth eating.
Predictably, as my life became more complicated, and the heat got turned up, the beans boiled. I woke up to find a hot mess all over my kitchen. So I did what came naturally– went for a run and wrote about it.
The untidiness of my life became quite beautiful in its own way. The more I wrote and talked about what I was going through and the training I was doing, the more I learned, the better I felt, the better I trained, and the faster I ran.
Writing helped me notice and remember the details of what was happening in my life– and became not just a healing force in my life but a way to connect to others who were experiencing their own ups and downs.
So I just kept writing and writing. In spiral notebooks, in fancy journals, in dime store tablets and legal pads — with old fashioned ink smeared dead trees.
I also started a secret blog, the legacy of which you are reading now. Here I kept my training history and observations as I prepared for a midlife lark: running as fast as I could in the 2012 Fifth Avenue Mile. The work from those secret blog entries became the foundation of a major feature article in Runners World in September 2013 titled “The Mulligan Mile” and gave me the courage to take parts of this secret blog public.
The reaction to the article — and the idea that we can all use some mulligans in our life — has also encouraged me to further develop the story into a book, which is currently being developed. The book is about how running, and a healthy dose of mulligans, can get you through almost anything in life.
In Taking Mulligans: The Blog, you can share thoughts and see if my observations and stories ring true to you. Together, we will build an understanding of what it means to run like there’s no tomorrow– and live today like there’s no yesterday.