Falling Behind the Pack


Saturday, August 21st ……Saturday morning’s long run with TFK was scheduled for Van Cortland Park in the Bronx.  My last long run in the Bronx resulted in disappointment and underachievement – so heading back to the borough of the crime didn’t sound like a great idea to me as the week grew old.  As the work week dragged along, some teammates decided to meet in Central Park instead – and I chose to join them.  At 7am, a small band of TFKers got together to log the mileage that our coaches planned for us: at least 11 miles with hills. 

Now let’s face it, my dear readers: if there is one thing you can count on me to do it’s to make VERY odd decisions…and this one was no different.  Why do I say this?  Because each of the runners meeting at the Park were much faster and stronger than I am.  They all paced at 9:15 – 9:20 per mile for their long runs, while I stagger along at 10:30.  Now that doesn’t sound like too much of a difference; I mean, over a mile, they would only finish about a minute before I would.  Not too shabby.  But the real difference in pacing shows up as the mileage adds up – I can hold a 9:15 – 9:20 pace for 4-5 miles, and feel completely winded afterward.  These guys, however, can start and finish a half marathon that that pace.  Bottom line: they are where I’d like to be.

I knew what their pace per mile was.  I know what my own is.  And I ran with them anyway.  Know why?  Because I am a different man than I was a year ago. 

A year ago, I would be intimidated by people that were stronger than I was as far as running was concerned.  I couldn’t stand feeling like I’d fall away from the pack and waddle in DFL (which, for all of you playing the home game, stands for Dead F*&king Last.  I found these wonderful 3 letters my sophomore year at Iona College, while rowing for the crew team.  We referred to any boat finishing last with open water between their boat and everyone else as D……..F……L).  Allowing my weakness to be obvious to others was NOT something that I had the strength of character to permit.  It takes a strong man to accomplish something meaningful – and a stronger one to admit where he needs improvement.  A year ago, I was strong…but not nearly strong enough.

Through this year, I had the mindset of an athlete – but not one of a winning athlete.  I had the desire to compete.  I had the need to accomplish something hard.  I had the constant craving for activity and challenge.  But the whole concept of getting sweaty….well…..it sounded like WAY TOO MUCH WORK FOR ME.  I had a great HDTV.  52 inches.  Surround sound.  A HUGE collection of movies.  And did I mention the bottles of diet coke and freshly-popped popcorn waiting for me in my humble little man-cave?  Life consisted of way too many distractions.  So I was happy to go through the motions, put in four months of lack-luster effort when it came to Marathon Sunday preparation, and then stagger to the finish line in a twisted mass of blistered skin and aching muscle on the first Sunday of each November.  But as the calendar changed from 2009 to 2010, I realized that I can either be happy with the status quo…or find out just how strong I can be.  And, although the latter required a generous amount of sweat (yuck)…I made the decision to evolve. 

Now this decision was not an easy one to come to.  Laziness to me comes naturally.  I love sitting.  Laying down is even better.  Now hand me a bag of Tostitos, load my 5-disc DVD changer with the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, pour me a bottle of something with no nutritional value that contains chemicals 10 syllables long, and have the Pizza Place on speed dial…and THAT, my dear lab rats, is how we spend a wonderful Saturday.  Then I realized that so many other people were actually moving forward and making progress with their lives, and here I was slacking off.  There’s an old saying: “there is nothing worse than wasted potential”.  Well I saw potential in myself.  As did others.  And here I was flushing all of it right down the gabinetto (for those of you just joining the merry band of misfits that read this blog, that’s Italian for toilet…).  While stepping out of the shower in late December of 2009, about a week before New Year’s Eve, I actually looked at myself in the mirror…and was embarrassed at what I saw.  Now I am not referring to the physical aspects of my persona – although that view was irritating enough to make me cranky for about a month.  Instead, I looked into my own eyes and I saw….nothing.

The man looking back at me in the mirror was the man I was – not the man I was supposed to be.  And that pissed me off.

I remember spending hours thinking about my life and my goals.  I drew them out on a piece of paper.  I mapped where I wanted my life to go.  That was the easy part.  After I completed my rather detailed drawing came the hard part: figuring out how to get started.  I thought it would be difficult – and I was wrong.

I found that I am a creature of habit.  By replacing an old, boring habit (TV, chips and soda, limited activity that required perspiration) with a new, healthy habit (running, changing my diet and basically getting my rotund rear-end off of the sofa and joining the human race for once), I developed positive momentum over time.  Each day got a little easier.  Then….results started to show themselves as the winter turned to Spring.  Weight loss.  Speed.  Endurance.  Hello new me – nice to meet you.

In the Spring, I joined TFK. I developed this year’s list of marathons to finish. And I decided I would set a personal best time for each one I run.  Lofty goals for this lazy S.O.B. (no further clarification needed on this one, lab rats).  I began talking to someone that helped me stay focused personally and athletically.  I needed assistance with this evolution – I was not strong enough to do it alone.  I found that I was stronger when I had a sturdy support system.  The TFKers showing up to practice three times a week began to gel into a real team as the spring led into summer…and my support system grew stronger yet again.  Positive momentum – and lots of it.  This positive momentum generated from he desire to evolve and the strength to admit when I needed improvement got me to this Saturday – running with a bunch of TFKers that were much stronger than I.

It was a smart move for me.  I knew that, in order to get better at running, I needed to run with people that were stronger and faster than me.  I knew, at some point, I’d fall behind the pack…but it wouldn’t be without a fight.

The first 4 miles were rough.  The pace from the outset was much faster than I anticipated.  9 minutes flat.  Up Harlem Hill.  Down at an 8:30 pace.  Up another hill and onto the east side of the park…and I began to drift back.  I stuck with the pack for 4 miles.  Not a great showing.  However…The Tool was nowhere to be seen.  That intrigued me, because he basked in the glory of my failures.  And as I went to my arms and propelled myself up the hill, turning south along the east side drive, I realized why the little 4” schmuck was nowhere to be heard (no seen – he’s a figment of my imagination – and I’m not THAT nuts): I wasn’t failing.  I was testing myself. Pushing myself to a higher plateau.  When a runner tries something like this and, after a while, falls away from the pack not due to a lack of desire, determination, dedication, discipline or effort, but due simply to a lack of endurance…it is not failure.  It is the beginning of the evolutionary process. 

I moved from the east side drive to run along the bridal path, passing the pack as they ran in the opposite direction.  Sure, they were faster.  And yes, they looked fantastic clipping along at that 9:15 pace.  But I remained focused on the job at hand – pushing along at my own pace.  Demanding more of myself than I normally do.  Paul Tergat, winner of the 2005 ING New York City Marathon and owner of a marathon finishing time of 2 hours and 4 minutes, once said that “…you have to constantly ask yourself ‘can I give any more?’, and the answer is usually ‘yes’”.  He was right.  On this Saturday I asked myself if I could give more, and the answer was affirmative. 

My foot was killing me – let’s not kid ourselves.  And I wasn’t breaking the land – speed record.  But I wasn’t stopping either.  After 7.5 miles, I switched to the outer loop of the park and ran another 6 plus miles.  Rounded up, I ran 14 miles on the day.  Not fast, mind you…but I didn’t quit. 

As I limped home, I had a grin that couldn’t be wiped from my face.  This training was HARD.  It hurt.  I knew I’d pay for the effort later.  A migraine was 90 minutes away – I knew it.  But the juice was worth the squeeze.

I’ll leave you with a quote that my grandmother always told me when I was little.  Whenever I thought I couldn’t do something, my grandmother would look up at me (she was 4’7”, so she looked up at basically everyone…but she was also one Irish woman that was tough as nails – real old-school) and say “Joseph – whether you think you can or you think you can’t…you’re probably right”.  Smart woman, my grandma. 

As I climbed out of the ice bath afterward, I once again looked in that same mirror.  There was something different about me.  Something in my eyes that wasn’t there before – some sort of spark I hadn’t seen in quite a while.  I almost didn’t recognize it. But whatever it was, I was glad it was there. 

The man I am hasn’t met the man I am supposed to be yet….but I think he just dropped me a mental text message to introduce himself.  I’m looking forward to meeting him.    

______________________________________ 

“Most people run a race to see who is fastest. I run a race to see who has the most guts.” – Steve Prefontaine

3 thoughts on “Falling Behind the Pack”

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