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.
What actually qualifies a person to call themselves a runner? Truth is, sometimes I even hesitate to call myself one.
But do not call me a jogger. Runners are not to be confused with joggers. A runner would slap your face if you asked him if he was going out for a jog. In fact, now that I think about it, are there any joggers left? Should that label be considered a latin term now? Anyone who would call themselves that and still be able to look in themselves in the mirror would no doubt see cotton gym shorts, chafed thighs and a pit-stained PROPERTY OF t-shirt.
I did meet a woman who runs competitive miles in track meets and insists on being called a sprinter. I myself cannot sprint a mile. Simple rule: if you don’t begin the race in starting blocks, it is not a sprint.
For the record, this guy, Matt Centrowitz, the winner of the 2012 Fifth Avenue Mile, did not come out of blocks. He is a runner. So is Sydney Maree, the winner of the first Fifth Avenue Mile and still the course record holder, who I understand turned 57 earlier this week.
So who’s a runner? Do you have to have run in a race? Is there a two-run minimum?
I think it may be more a matter of the expectations you have when you do go out. In other words, If you think you may be a jogger, you are.
So we have at least three categories now– jogger, runner, sprinter. Then there’s Clydesdales and Penguins, both of which I could technically be, but, which seem to unnecessarily tarnish the reputations of two proud species as well as make it sound like someone should be cleaning up after me with a broom. Rarely is it a good thing to be named for an animal. Personally, I think this what eventually did in Tiger.
I’m leaving out tough mudders and spartans because they are obviously unstable and tri-athletes because I have generally found them to be insufferable. Well perhaps except this one, who I think is kind of cute.
I’m not saying you have to run as your only exercise, but three in one day seems excessive. Like piling too much on your plate at the All-You-Can-Eat Buffet. Really? Must you place your Speedo so close to your Camelback? It’s just not good hygiene. The number 3 can also signal bad luck, like lighting three cigarettes on one match was bad luck in the World War I bunkers. Then again if you are smoking cigarettes on the Western Front in a foxhole and being bombed by Germans, you are already in some serious bad luck.
I’ll stick with one sport at a time for now. So I guess that makes me a runner.
Last year’s Fifth Avenue Mile race went so well, my story became The Mulligan Mile, a major feature in the September issue of Runner’s World. Now, after a few setbacks and a major slowdown, I’ve been trying to ramp up my training so I can save a little bit of face in this year’s running on Sept. 22 in New York. But going fast is just not something you can rush.
Even though I’m now doing many of the same methods I used last year in training, I just don’t have the same foundation of strength and stamina that came through 4 solid months of training and cross-training. And while i still have memories of going fast, my body seems to have forgotten what that’s like. Much of the speed I gained last year (I cut 1:18 seconds off my mile time) came toward the end of my training. Yet, that rapid gain was a bit of an illusion, since it was the result of a lot of little things that I had done religiously during the previous weeks and months that was behind the “sudden” surge in my times. Strength training, full court basketball games, close attention to diet, runner’s yoga, spin classes, even the meticulous journal keeping that I did last year in hot pursuit of my goal– all of it played a role in my success and just hasn’t come together in the same way this year.
Yet this runner, like so many others I know, won’t let the lack of a PR stand in the way of a good run. Unlike pro athletes who are urged to retire before they start to be less of the player they were at their prime (think of the aging Willie Mays playing for the Mets or today, the suddenly human Mariano Rivera blowing saves for the Yankees and coughing up another pennant to the Red Sox) the runner doesn’t have to retire to preserve his legacy. The runner just runs, nods at the clock and keeps going. We don’t ask millions of dollars of our employers or expect stadiums full of fans to pay their way to see us compete. We just ask for a level shoulder of the road, a few feets width of path on the community trail and the occasional temporary road closure for a race.
Lately I’ve felt terrible as I was running– and incredibly good that I have run. Even when it’s slow and kind of sucks to give in to the fatigue, it still makes every day better.
Sunday, I’ll be running the Lehigh Valley Health Network Via Marathon as part of a relay team. I’ll be on the second leg, which connects Allentown and Bethlehem. Maybe I’ll see you out there. I’ll be the guy laughing all day– other than perhaps some of the much too long time that I’ll spend pushing myself along the canal tow-path.
You know they put that trail in there for jackasses, right?
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.
The scale refuses to cooperate. The track training has been too little, too late. The road miles have been inadequate. The toe surgery scar is still prominent. The physical therapy on the neck continues. But let’s face the truth about moving past 40, 50 and beyond: it’s hard to expect everything to fall into place perfectly for very long.
Take, for example, the relay team I’m running with in Lehigh Valley Health Network Via Marathon next weekend. Our “super masters” team of old farts (I’m actually on the younger side of the group) won a third place trophy a couple years ago for our efforts. High fives and back slaps all the way around. Since then, in the span of two years, two of the guys have had cancer operations, one suffered a debilitating achilles injury, one is having so many issues with meds that he’s stopped running altogether. And me, possibly in the best condition of the group, coming off bone spur surgery and a car crash since my last race.
At this point, we don’t need a training schedule, we just need to know when the orderlies are going to empty our bedpans. Now I know why hospitals sponsor so many races. But winning is not the point. Showing up is. So we are fighting on, laughing all the way. We added some younger, fresh blood to keep us going and will just take a mulligan on all that adversity. Full speed ahead.
That realization, that whatever health and good fortune we have can be a fleeting gift, makes me understand even more why my performance in last year’s Fifth Avenue race remains so special to me– it was one of those rare perfect storms of training, motivation and peaking at just the right time.
But I’m too old to make a perfect storm the enemy of a good run. So I have chronicled and documented all my excuses and gone ahead and done it. This morning, I signed up for this year’s running of the great race. If you’d like to join me on September 22 in Manhattan, click here to sign up for New York Road Runners’ Fifth Avenue Mile presented by Nissan.
I hope my mulligan singlet still fits.
The worst part (so far) of my fallback into blortness is showing up for interval training runs and having someone congratulate me on the Runners World article and my performance in last year’s race. I smile and humbly accept the attention, then watch them blow by in the sprints and imagine what they must be thinking. “THAT dude ran a 5:34?,” I can hear them sneer in my head.
Maybe in the same way that last year’s performance inspired a few folks to think again about what was possible, this year’s will offer another lesson. “If that guy could do it, anyone could.” And it’s true.
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.
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.
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.