Sunday, August 15th ……A lot of people complain that they do not sleep well the night before a race. Strangely enough, I never seem to encounter that problem. I fell asleep Saturday night to the annoying sound of my own inner voice (a voice that I have developed an entire character around, and that I have dubbed “The Tool”) spewing negativity into my brain, and I woke up to that same mild cackling. It was a feeling that I compare to falling asleep on your sofa just as some horrible movie is coming on – let’s use Reds (which I consider to be the single WORST movie of all time – simply brutal…and those of you reading this blog that have never heard of this carwreck of a film, google it……you’ll regret that you did) – and then waking up 6 hours later to the immediate realization that some independent film channel has decided to run a “Reds Marathon” all day long.
I waddled into the shower….The Tool hopped onto my shoulder and wouldn’t give me any privacy. I got changed into my running clothes (a TFK electric lime green running singlet, black short with an under-layer of Nike spandex, TFK green and blue socks, my Garmin running watch and my lucky leather marathon chain) – and The Tool patiently waited for me on the edge of my bed, whistling a somber tune that brought a sinister smile to his face (a la Lurch working his magic on the organ during an episode of The Addams Family). I went into the kitchen and drank some Gatorade – as The Tool attempted to pull the cork out of the bottle of Ridge red zinfandel that I left on the counter. Before leaving the apartment at 5:30am to catch a ride to the starting line, I put my ear buds in and began listening to my Ipod – only to have The Tool begin speaking over the music, distracting me from the motivational sounds of Pearl Jam and Dave Matthews. There was no escaping this little 4” nightmare today.
When I arrived at the starting area, my team was already assembled and stretching had commenced. Twenty minutes later the gun went off, and we slowly inched forward. As we crossed the starting line, I started my stopwatch and off I went.
Through the first five miles, I felt surprisingly excellent. Several hills needed to be overcome early in the course, and I climbed each of them without feeling like I spent too much energy at the time – I had plenty of gas left in the tank. Somewhere between miles 5 and 6, however, I needed to use the port-o-potty. OK – let’s deal with this disgusting subject quickly: port-o-potties are horrid. I only use them when the discomfort is overwhelming. I take a deep breath when entering and I think of my time in that big plastic green canister as my imitation of Houdini in the submerged trunk: get the hell out of there ASAP. There you go – the port-o-potty subject has been broached for the one and ONLY time in this blog…..never to be brought up again. Oy.
Stopping for the port-o-potty also meant one important, negative thing to me: the pack of my teammates that I was entrenched in kept going and I now needed to motivate myself for the next eight plus miles. As if on cue, realizing that my teammates had moved on and I was flying solo for a while, The Tool ensconced himself to my shoulder and unleashed an onslaught of negativity usually reserved for mile 15 of the ING New York City Marathon…..
The Tool: “Wow. Eight more to go. Those hills were rough early – I bet they’ll do a number on you later on.”
Me: “Figures – you show up now. Such a coward – waiting for my teammates to take off before showing your face.”
The Tool: “I told you payback was una schifosa (that’s Italian for…..well you can figure it out I’m sure), didn’t I?”
By this point, I am approximately 8 miles into the race. Five miles to go. I am panting. Unfocused. The Tool has me right where he wants me. I am no longer thinking about the task at hand – my mind is beginning to wander off and my breathing has gotten away with me. I have stopped swinging my arms. My form has become virtually non-existent. The wheels are coming off. The little 4” schmuck smells blood in the water and moves in for the kill….
The Tool: “…oh…and I forgot to remind you…you’re all alone right now. The only one that’s gonna get you to the finish line is YOU. And let’s face it: you’d rather be anywhere but HERE. You’re a mess right now. Your legs are achy. Your foot hurts. And you have a ton of crap on your mind. You shouldn’t be HERE. Don’t you wish you were at home, asleep?”
I began to falter. My pace slowed. My head was in the clouds. The wheels had, indeed, come off and the car was out of control.
….and with that, I slowed to a walk. The momentum was killed. The Tool claimed victory. I hung my head as I began to walk toward a water stop. I quickly drank two cups of Gatorade in the hopes that the potent liquid would revive me. While it would provide me with the energy I needed to cross the finish line in 2:25, which was a personal best for me, the orange fluid could do nothing to repair my messed up psyche. For my goal was to crack 2:10. I was on pace and I had the ability to do it. Yet I allowed my internal turmoil to get the best of me and I folded like a cheap lawn chair. My final sprint to the finish felt great – but it was short and meaningless as far as I was concerned. I let The Tool get the best of me. By earning a personal best time, it would appear to my teammates that I accomplished something…but to me, all I took away from the race was that I do not have complete control over the mental aspects of the sport I am coming to adore.
I rode the subway home after the race completely disappointed in myself. I have less than three months to beat The Tool into complete submission. My work was obviously cut out for me.
I sat at home in an ice bath, and I replayed the race in my head – and while I did, I came to a simple conclusion: in order to run the marathon that I know I am capable of, I must fire on all cylinders on race day. This means that I need to:
- train my body to handle the actual distance (this I know I am doing, better than ever before),
- trust that, when the time comes, I’ll have the heart to push through the pain and soldier on after the body literally runs out of fuel to burn (I’ve done this before – so I know I have the heart of a marathoner), and
- develop the mentality of a strong athlete which, to me, means blocking out all of the negativity that pulsates through the body and mind in the heat of battle and – when necessary – go into a bubble where nothing else matters but what I am doing at that very moment. Nothing can distract me.
Well, it’s that last point where the problem now appears to be. I have just experienced the feeling of disappointment in my own performance. While on the train I realized that I had fuel left in the tank. Every race I’ve run before this one, no matter the distance, I have always been completely out of breath and fried by the time I crossed the finish line. That feeling of exhaustion as I lined up to get my bag after the race was the one that I craved, because it told me that I gave it all that I had. If I walked away with that feeling, I would be happy with my performance regardless of my time. Today was different. I sat on the #4 train and held my head in my hands – that feeling of exhaustion had eluded me because I didn’t give it my best. And, in the immortal words of Steve Prefontaine, “to give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift”.
Today….I sacrificed my gift.
Now I know what you’re thinking by this point: I’m usually a lot funnier than this. All of my prior blog entries are MUCH funnier…and all of my future ones will be as well…but I needed to vent about this race because not every race can go the way you want it to. As I sat in that ice bath, I began allowed myself s few minutes to soak in the disappointment. As I reached for my towel and began to dry off, I remembered what my high school football coach told us after we got royally pounded one Saturday afternoon early in my sophomore year. As we sat on the benches feeling sorry for ourselves, he got our attention and looked at us with eyes that were almost devoid of true expression. What came out of his mouth echoed in my head as I looked myself in the eye through the view of the bathroom mirror:
“Gentlemen, take five minutes. Sulk if you want to. Go ahead. Shed some tears. We got handed a good ol’ down home country ass-whoopin’. But I want you to do one thing for me, and that is…burn the memory of how this ass whoopin’ feels into your skulls. That way you’ll never step out on that field and give anything less than your best again. You deserved today’s beating. Let it be the last.”
I looked at myself in the mirror and made myself a promise aloud. It consisted of two words: “Never again.” ….and somewhere, deep in the recesses of my brain, a little 4” tall schmuck could be heard talking to himself….. “let the games begin”.
“When you get to the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on.” – Theodore Roosevelt