Before The Mulligan

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.

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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?”

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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.

The Second Half

Do you seem to run faster on the second half of a short out-and-back training run? I always do and I’m not sure if it’s because I’m dogging it on the way out or I’m hauling butt on the way back.

Or is it simply the way life is– we take our good ole time when we are young and fresh and time seems to last forever, until at some point, we get a sign that we are no longer as young or as fresh and we turnaround and head in.  And even though every step is harder,  things seem to speed up as we near the end of our run.

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For those of us at or near midlife, we are on the back portion of the out and back and life is moving along rapidly, calling us home.  The kid who was just in training wheels is now learning to drive a car.  The kid who just learned to read is now writing books of her own.  The delusion that certain things would last forever is acutely and painfully disproved.

I’m in no hurry to get there, but I’m not afraid of it either. What I’m afraid of is letting today go without appreciating it.  The final part of the run can be painful, weary, isolated.  Yet it’s every bit as refreshing, rewarding and important as the early, carefree moments of the run that seem like so long ago.  I’d rather finish with a strong kick than trot home dejected and spent.

From my bathroom window this morning I could see dead leaves hanging on the sycamore tree, just waiting to fall– and in fact I did see one tumble to earth– daring me to believe that summer was over.    If it is, it is. I can’t order the leaf back into the tree.

But, no matter the season, or whether i think I’m on the way out or the way back,  I can enjoy what today gives me.

The Beloved, Dreaded Vacation Run

Did you, or will you, run on vacation this summer?  For me, taking a run during a vacation trip is simultaneously annoying, disruptive and restorative. Something I have to force myself to do– and never regret.

Here’s what I was thinking last summer when I was on vacation with my youngest daughter at the idyllic family camp Rockywold-Deephaven in New Hampshire.

Why the F am I putting myself through this when I could be sitting on the calming shores of Squam Lake and doing absatively nothing? Why am I enduring torture — however briefly– when I could be laying on the cozy bed in my cabin, eating chocolate chip cookies, or reading that book I’ve been carrying around for months without finishing?

Why am I running at all?  This goal [of running a competitive mile for the first time in 32 years] notwithstanding– is it all that important to me that I can’t give myself a treat, blow off a week and just enjoy some down time?

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Heading out on the last vacation trip of the summer this weekend? Will you run?

Stop.

I’m finding that the less time I spend ruminating about philosophical questions like those, the better off I am.  Instead, let’s tackle the practical.  I am here on this vacation alone with my youngest and have exactly 2.5 hours each day that she is taken care of in her little kids camps.  So that’s all the time I have to do grown-up things like, well anything that doesn’t involve playing with, swimming with, canoeing with, eating with, chasing ping pong balls with, or resolutely resisting the exhortations of a first grader.  Writing is rushed and cramped when she’s pestering me to use the computer or posing the existential question “What can I do now?” or the heartwrenching classic: “I want to play WITH YOU”.  If any parent out there can ignore that statement for very long, I’m not sure we are paddling in the same canoe.

No, the point of this vacation isn’t to run.  It’s to enjoy her company and explore nature and bask in the glory that is old fashioned summer time.  Enjoy some good meals without having to clean up, feel the cool of the magnificently alive lake, which makes chlorinated pool water seem like a man-made facsimile– the tofurkey of water. To rest, to relax, to find clarity and simple pleasure.  To escape.  To rebuild the body that’s subject to life’s pushes and pulls, to restore the mind that is bogged down with worry and fear and deadlines and schedules and emails.  To see, to feel, to hear, to touch, to taste what has either not yet been or has long been forgotten.

On the days I run, the rest of the day is so much better– relaxed, brighter, present, focused. On days I don’t run, it’s dreary, heavy, lazy, sticky, blah. Like cookie batter.  I’m more easily agitated by the requests of a kid who just wants to play with her Dad.  She is asking me, on bended knee, to be with her forever.  And in order to say yes to her without reservation, I must say yes to my run.  And the truth is, it will, in it’s own way, be the best part of the day.

Time check. I’ve got 30 mins left to pick her up from the kids camp.  Time enough to say “YES” to my running shoes and bye to my blog!

Where did you run on vacation this year?

Area 51

How did you mark your last “big” birthday?  I marked my birthday this year the same way I did last year– by going alone to a deserted jogging trail to see how fast I could run a mile with only my breath, my pride and my fear of slowing down before my time.  Last year, this Birthday Run was in the middle of training for my first competitive mile race in more than 30 years.    There was a lot at stake for me last year, in that I was turning the big 5-0 and taking a mulligan on trying to do what I was never able to do as track athlete: break five minutes in the mile.

Here’s what I looked like:

Louis Cinquino
What will you do to mark your next “Big” birthday?

I would say I looked hopeful and ready.  I knew I wasn’t in good enough shape yet, but I had a deliberate plan that I trusted.

This year, the day marked my first timed mile since October of last year.  I feel a little embarrassed to admit that now, given the response to my article in the September 2013 issue of Runners World. So let me explain.

The official story is that an election-night car accident, a lazy winter of recovery and a spring that sprung into toe surgery (bone spurs on my left big toe knuckle– I’ll show you my scar if you show me yours) gave me ample excuses to stop my intense training for a while, which turned into longer than I planned.  But perhaps here’s the real reason:

I never signed up for another race after running the Runners World Half in October.

Then in the best shape in years, I kidded myself that I could just maintain that edge without a race to look forward to and train for.  Big mistake. For me (and maybe you?) not having a race scheduled meant not having a reason to fend off the late night snack binge but finding plenty of excuses to not show up for track intervals or long Sunday runs.  I’d share them, but I don’t want to give you any ideas.

So I toed the starting line of my mile on my 51st birthday looking like this.

Louis Cinquino
Have you signed up for your next race?

I was both anxious and relieved. Anxious because I knew my weight had gone up and my conditioning had gone down as I got back up on my feet after the winter hibernation, the ongoing physical therapy on my neck, topped with about 6 week of crutches, surgical boot limping, labored walking and geriatric-paced running.

Yet I was relieved and alive in a way I can write about, but can’t truly explain.  The thought that came to mind was that of a low-budget super hero, incognito behind my shades.  I slowly slipped on the cape (i.e. removed my shirt- gasp!).  It was like I crossed through a threshold, leaving behind the dimension of lethargy and injury and weakness into the realm of the race, the secret world of the strong. In training again.

I could sense I would now transformed into a radioactive warrior with immense powers to push  myself to new limits into an unmappable, alien territory where I was no longer Ordinary Guy who jogs.  I was now Runner Man, protector of health, defender of speed, the huffing and puffing  weirdo. The Middle Age Boy Wonder.  I ran my heel across the cinders for a proper starting line. And off… Flame on!

The delusion of being a cross between The Flash and the Human Torch lasted about 30 yards when the reality hit– I was further behind than I thought.  My mind remembered what it was like to be in shape. My lungs and legs? Not so much. The pain and suffering lasted a little over 7 minutes, hardly worthy of mentioning other than as a footnote and another starting point for my next comeback.

And so. Here I go. I’m signing up for The Fifth Avenue Mile again.

Join me?  No experience necessary. BYOC*

*Bring Your Own Cape

Mulligan, Take Your Mark. Part I of many to follow…

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???

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If you had another shot at something, what would it be? What would it mean to your life today to pursue it?

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?

Alone.

Training for any kind of race is a lonely endeavor.  Even when you surround yourself with other runners or have the encouraging support of a friend or the loyalty of a coach, at some point we all realize the sad truth: no one really gives a flying fig about our training except us.  And every step we take is ours alone.  It’s both scary and the entire point of running.

Here’s some thoughts I had last year during my training for The Fifth Avenue Mile, the first competitive mile I would run in over 30 years:

Being on my own is a scary thing to face every morning when I wake up.  I start each morning with the same  thoughts that hit me as I wake:

1. Where am I?

2. Am I alone?

3. What’s about to go wrong next?

Because of running,  being alone is not something new for me, but it is something that is still taking getting used to. It’s of course, a perfect place for a runner to be. Alone is a place I’ve sought, possibly even what brought me to running in the first place.  The lonely romantic struggle of the long distance runner.  Alone against all odds, persevering against the body’s will, to endure nature’s elements and fight off gravity with every raised leg.    There was a freedom in running away from the raised eyebrows of the townspeople when I was a teenager– why would a kid want to run by himself on the side of the road leading out of town, then just turn around and run back?

Now, it’s the liberty to run toward something unknown– a new, perhaps even better, life.

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Do you like to run alone?

Back then, I conformed to get good grades and positive attention on the outside, but inside I was happiest when I could be apart, be different.  To be alone on the shoulder of that road from time-to-time. No running partners. No coach. No plan. No intervals. No watch. No GPS. No electrolytes or recovery bars.  No wicking fabrics.  For some years, not even running shoes, just sneaks. This was pre-iPod, pre-waffle shoe, pre-Pre.

Alone. The good kind of alone.

Do you like to run alone?  Has that changed as you’ve gotten older?

Teeing It Up

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.

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Have you noticed how things change when you start writing it down?

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.