“Anyone can run 20 miles. It’s the next 6 that count.” – Barry McGee, winner of the bronze medal in the 1960 Olympics
As my teammates and I crossed the halfway point of the marathon on the Pulaski Bridge (the bridge that takes us from out of Brooklyn and in to Queens), and I recorded a personal best time for the half marathon distance, The Tool decided that it was time to fire the first volley and throw his soldiers of self doubt into the fray. I accepted the internal challenge and maintained my pace alongside my two TFK buddies. But just the simple act of firing that first volley caught me by surprise. His initial plan must have worked – I had forgotten that he even existed. And then I realized: that was the key to running a great marathon – never letting your self-doubt catch you by surprise or gain control over any portion of your mind while you’re in motion. The Tool had drawn up an effective battle plan. He made himself known as a legitimate threat and I paid heed.
His initial volley scored a direct hit on my focus. Instead of thinking about the crowds, my pace, or talking to my teammates, my attention turned to my foot. It didn’t hurt yet – but I was already thinking about how I’d handle it if the pain began to show itself. Worrying about an injury makes running a race like this more difficult than it needs to be. This distraction knocked me for a mental loop, like being sucker punched by Lennox Lewis. And then, as I waddled forward in the daze that immediately follows a shot to the mental jaw like this, something wonderfully unexpected happened. It wasn’t in my race strategy. The Tool never accounted for it. And I was thankful for it: I got some help. Perfect timing.
As we came off of the bridge and were about to be greeted by the Queens faithful, I looked ahead and saw a large video screen. Surrounding the video screen was the Asics logo – now it made sense. This year, Asics sponsored three large video screens that would post pictures and comments from anyone that wanted to support a marathoner on the course. Friends and family could sign onto a website, enter the runner’s name, and then send them a picture and/or text message that would be flashed onto these large screens each time the corresponding marathoner passed over a covered marker on the racecourse. There was no guarantee that any one person’s message would be selected for viewing – I’m sure there were tons of submissions to the site to begin with. But as I passed over the covered marker, the screen changed and I received a message of encouragement that came as complete surprise. To me, it was getting a shot of pure adrenaline. To The Tool, it was like a smart bomb. Suddenly, the fog lifted.
Technology is truly incredible. In a race like this, the GPS watches a lot of us wear allows our progress to be tracked via a satellite, thereby providing accurate split times, distance covered, and overall race time. The tabs that we wear on our shoes electronically track where we are on the course and how we are doing. The applications available on smart phones and through the internet allow family and friends to track their runners for the duration of the race from any computer or smart phone in the world. And technology allowed me to receive a jolt of motivation just when I needed it the most. At that moment I also realized that people are following me….friends and family that love me are checking on my progress. So…….I better get moving.
Now it was The Tool’s turn to deal with the dull haze that comes with a harsh and surprising counter attack. I felt like I dodged a bullet. A big smile came across my face as I made the left hand turn and began listening to the Queens crowd. The noise only lasted a few minutes – this part of the course was mostly made up of office / industrial space, so residents are sparse but enthusiastic. As I ran through the quiet Queens streets on my way to the 59th Street Bridge, I took stock of how my body felt, staying with my race plan. So I took a roll call:
Left Foot: “Not sure, chief. I’ll get back to you.”
Right Foot: “Hey – I’m fine!”
Left Foot: “you are such a brown nose.”
Nose: “I heard that!!! Take that back.”
Me: “Enough – I’m busy here. Ankles?”
Ankles (in two part harmony): “We’re fine.”
Calves: “MOOOOO!!!! ……just kidding. We’re fine, chief.”
Me: “Well that was stupid. Moving on – knees?”
Me: “Nice. Hamstrings?”
Hamstrings: “We’re good to go, boss.”
Back: “Yo Yo Yo!!! Baby got BACK!!! …….sorry. That got away from me for a moment. I’m fine.”
Me: “Everyone’s a comedian. Abs? Abs?”
Abs: “OK dude – we’ve been listening to the stomach whine and cry all morning. Are you kidding??? A bacon & egg on a roll – and that’s it?”
Me: “I know, I know. A mistake. But let’s get through it.”
Abs: “Fine – but you owe us a week without any plank exercises. Got it, bucko?”
Me: “Fine. Deal. Just shut up. Arms?”
Arms: “All we can do is swing like this? Can’t we do something more….fun? We can wave our hands in the air…..We can do the YMCA without music….we can even flip off random spectators!!”
Hands: “YES!!! We LOVE THAT!!! Please please please!! Please let us give the finger to that dude eating the hero sandwich as we pass by!!”
Me: “Arms – keep swinging. Hands – SHUT UP. Thank God I don’t know sign language.”
So aside from my left foot, everything appeared to be going as planned. But as is the case with most feature films nowadays….isn’t that when things begin to get FUBAR? (for the uninitiated: if you don’t know what FUBAR is – google is your buddy). Some twists and turns through Queens, and then my teammates and I began to close in on the 59th Street Bridge. 15 miles into the race. I’ve averaged approximately a 10 minute per mile pace. My progress was faster than I ever had expected from myself. But The Tool was right. I went out too fast. 12 miles into the race, the 10 minute pace felt fantastic. Three miles later…the pain began.
As I passed from mile 14 to mile 15, The Tool unleashed hell. First, my left heel began to hurt. The pain came suddenly, and it surprised me even though I had been worried about it for weeks. Things were going so well – I just figured that I was going to get lucky and the injury would not show its face all day. No one is that lucky.
And then – like a general sending his reserves into the field of battle for the purpose of making the enemy retreat, I come face to face with the 59th Street Bridge. If you’ve read this blog to this point, you know that this bridge has been my nemesis for the past 6 years. Each time I’ve arrived at the base of this transverse, I became intimidated and had to walk to Manhattan. I vowed that this would be the year that I conquered this bridge. I looked inside myself and I found the will to keep running – but the pain in my foot quickly escalated as I began the climb. I told my team mates that I wouldn’t be able to keep up with them – that they should carry on and I’d try to catch up with them.
The Tool sensed victory. He pressed the attack. The pain was felt in my heel and my ankle. How quickly it spread again caught me by surprise.
The incline was a steep. And if I tried to run this hill, I’d have nothing left and there’s still 10 miles to go. My pace got slower. 11 minutes….12 minutes per mile. My feet were shuffling now, and every time I landed on my left foot, it hurt.
I was now alone. I thought of using my Ipod for motivation – an obvious move of sheer desperation. My team mates were no longer beside me – I felt no peer pressure to maintain the 10 minute per mile pace.
…13 minutes per mile pace now. About halfway up the span of the bridge. The wind off the water gave me goose bumps. Around me, several runners began walking. The foot hurt. I was getting hungry. I wish I didn’t forget those pop tarts. And I was never able to maintain a 10 minute pace for 26 miles before – what made me think I could do it now? Maybe if I just walked for a minute of two I could gather myself….
….The Tool claimed victory. He was king of the moment. He had a plan and he executed it to perfection. My strategy for the course was left on the span of that bridge. The next 10 miles would now be about simply finishing. Any chance at finishing with a personal best time in a full marathon was set adrift on my ocean of daydreams. I began to walk. The Tool raised his boney arms over that bulbous head and exclaimed “Victory!” As I began to walk the remainder of the incline and crossed the mile 16 marker, I looked out at the Manhattan skyline. The United Nations. The Empire State. The Chrysler Building. I drempt of hitting 60th street feeling fantastic. I wanted to be able to high-five strangers as they leaned over the barricade. I wanted to bask in the feeling of the sunlight on my face as I glided up first avenue. With my foot in this condition, however, any dreams of that glorious gallop would have to wait until 2011. Now, instead of entering the borough feeling like a champion, I felt like Leonidis and his 300 Spartans when confronted by a million Persians. If I wanted victory, I would have to think of a quick response to dealing with the pain. As I began the descent into Manhattan I realized…I better think quickly.
The grin on The Tool’s face was broad. He felt that all he’d need to do was tighten the screws a bit, and I would fold. I’ve felt horrible during marathons – I once ran 3 in a month (which qualified me to join the Marathon Maniacs), and in the middle of this 3-race ordeal was the 2009 Marine Corps. Marathon – which felt like an 8 mile run immediately followed by an 18 mile death march. I was sick to my stomach that day, constantly having to throw up on the side of the road before continuing on. The Tool knew I had a high threshold for pain – but this was different. I was never truly injured before. This was uncharted waters for me – and he was trying to steer me right into the rocks.
As I continued the descent toward the loving arms of the crazed fans in Manhattan, I had to quickly develop a plan to deal with what existing circumstances. If I fight the pain, it will only get worse. If I try to tell myself that the pain doesn’t exist, the rest of my body will openly rebel against me. I have to contain the issue. I have to accept it. Then I remembered how U.S. Special Forces deal with moments of pain: they try to embrace it. Feeling pain is better than dying. Feeling pain motivates them to finish the task at hand. Pain can keep a person aware and alert. Embrace the pain. Easier said than done, because I am the very definition of a pansy.
I took a deep breath, muttered to myself “this is gonna hurt”, and then slowly began to jog off of the ramp of the bridge and onto 60th Street. Half a block of screaming fans, four rows deep, yelling and screaming in the shade of the bridge. Immediately you can hear people yelling “Joe!! Looking good!! Keep going!!”, “Go Team for Kids!!”….that helped me.
I had taken The Tool’s first assault. Some casualties were assumed. But I kept moving. It was a mental smack in the face to The Tool. And that pissed him off. Now the battle would only grow more intense.
As I slowly jogged down First Avenue, the only word that accurately describe the scene is…NOISE. LOUD, LOUD NOISE. As I passed under the bridge and into the sun, I was greeted with a corridor of noise. The fans were at least 5 deep on both sides of the avenue, for three miles. The buildings caused the yelling and screaming to hover in the air, which added to the moment. As I made my way down the avenue on my way to the Willis Avenue Bridge and the brief dip into the Bronx, I originally thought I’d feel the strength to release my inner Kenyan and take off at a 9:30 per mile pace. But the foot injury negated that possibility all together. I mixed jogging and walking through miles 18 and 19. They handed out sponges and a horrible-tasting gel to take in that give runners a quick energy burst. (It’s not made by Godiva, so I politely decline). At Mile 19, The Tool snapped out of his fog and began to execute the next wave of his onslaught. All the way up First Avenue the only words I could mutter to myself over and over again was “pain is my friend”. Yeah….what a buddy. A real pal.
As I slowly worked my way through Spanish Harlem and onto the Willis Avenue Bridge, I remembered my game plan. This was my chance to mentally prepare myself for the last 10 kilometers. While the crowds are thin, I could concentrate on what I am doing without distraction and think about the task at hand. The Wall was a minor concern at this point. The pain, however…that was another issue altogether. It was becoming unbearable. I could hardly put weight on my left heel without yelping like a puppy that just caught his tail under a rocking chair. The pain traveled to my ankle. I also felt the back of my left knee tighten up, caused by overcompensating for my heel. “Pain is my friend….pain is my friend”….
The Tool: “Joe – shut this down. Quit. Your leg is killing you. Just stop. All of my pieces are on the playing board. I cannot turn up the pain dial any higher – it’s pegged at 10. You have nothing left. You are done. Beaten. Just shut it down. Surrender. Quit. This isn’t that important.”
This was it. The Wall. The Tool waited until this moment to unleash every weapon in his arsenal. As I wound my way past the Mile 20 marker and closed in on mile 21, my body had run out of fuel to burn to keep me going. Marathoners call this feeling “The Wall”. We all go through it. We all deal with it. I believe that breaking through The Wall is one of the reasons we actually enjoy running this distance, and why so many people come out and support the runners on Marathon Sunday. If this were a 20 mile race, The Wall wouldn’t be an issue. It’s the last 6.2 miles that make this race special. It’s THE TEST. Pass or fail – break through or quit. This is the moment that every marathoner can look back at after the medal is placed around his/her neck and say “there was a point where I felt like I couldn’t go on – then I found something inside of me that made me keep going”. The Wall allows the marathoner to find out what his/her limits are…and then redefine them.
My moment had come. Time to make a decision. Quit or finish the race. My thought process began with one simple concept: well, it’s only another 10 kilometers. Then out came my inner drill sergeant….You already banked 20 miles. You’re going to let this little 4” prick make you quit after logging 20 damn miles? Joe, you’ve gotten this far on the basis of your training, discipline and consistency. To all of this, you must now have to add resolve. There is no victory without sacrifice. Now stop complaining. Take whatever this little schmuck can throw at you, and then spit it right back in his face by NOT STOPPING. All go – no quit. Now move! I promised my friends and family that I wouldn’t quit. I promised myself I would finish. This injury is nothing compared to what others deal with.
As this inner pep rally was going on, The Tool tried to distract me. The heel. The ankle. Now the damn knee. I was a little dizzy. I started to develop a headache. The Tool was making a last ditch push to claim victory. He was so close he could taste it.
With The Tool yelling in one ear and my inner drill sergeant basically yelling in the other, my mind was in utter chaos. But in that chaos, I found a moment of clear perspective. I touched my left shoulder. Then my right. I remembered that I wasn’t alone in this. Now let me clear this up: I am not a huge religious guy. I’m not. But I guess I really like the idea of my deceased family members that I knew and loved, if only for a small amount of time, sitting in box seats right outside the pearly gates while Saint Peter hands out popcorn and diet coke, cheering me on as I compete against my own limitations and inner demons. Between my heavenly fan club (I sort of picture them as the angel-equivalents of bleacher creatures), and my friends and family rooting for me to succeed and following me electronically as well as on the course, I realized that I had the support I needed to withstand anything The Tool had left.
I slowly mixed jogging and walking until I hit the Madison Avenue Bridge, which spills the runners back into Manhattan, through Harlem. It was on this bridge, in front of the Mile 21 marker, that I confronted The Tool for the last time during this race.
Me: “OK. You tried. You failed. Whatever you do from this point on will not break me.”
The Tool: “Six more mil….”
Me: “Just shut up. SHUT UP. I am in control. You said you were the game? I played you. I won. You said you were the pain, and I couldn’t take you? Well I have. 5 miles, you little prick. 5 miles. You won’t break me. I am unbreakable today. You failed. Now sit down, shut up, and let me deal with the mess you made.”
The Tool: “But you aren’t even close to….”
Me: “STAI ZITO.” (again – for the uninitiated – google is your pal)
It was as if someone came along and unplugged the speakers at a heavy metal concert. Silence…in my head. Now all that remained was to focus and finish.
The last five miles passed by in a complete haze of pain and determination. I mixed slow jogging and walking through Harlem. A children’s gospel choir lifted my spirits. I hit Mile 22…and there was the Asics sign again. There was that message again. That lit the fire inside of me. Around Marcus Garvey Park I waddled. Onto Fifth Avenue. Up the steady incline. 23 miles logged. I made it to Central Park.
The fans were loud. Really loud. Louder than I had remembered in my other races here. I was now in my back yard. Today – Central Park was Team for Kids’ home field. The pain was miserable, but I was now close. I took the rolling hills of the park between miles 23 and 25 easy. Mixing a very slow jog and walking, I made it to Mile 25. I was very happy to exclaim “God fuck the Queen!”
1.2 miles to go. Out of the park I waddled, and onto Central Park South. The noise was music to my ears. Fans line the streets and really get enthusiastic, willing the runners forward for one final push to the tape. I began to slowly jog…and not walk. Leave it all on the street – that’s what I wanted to do. That’s what I would do.
Half a mile to go. The pain was there…but it took a back seat to the moment. The turn at Columbus Circle. Re-entering the park, only one word could describe the scene in front of me: Glorious.
As I passed under the mile 26 marker, I decided to look at my watch for the first time in 13 miles: 5 hours, 20 minutes! My God. I could do it – I could set a personal best time in a marathon for myself. I went to my arms and began to sprint. God it hurt – but the fans yelled and screamed as they saw me trying hard. I crossed the finish line in 5 hours 22 minutes.
As they placed the medal around my neck and wrapped me in a heat sheet, the emotion of the moment overwhelmed me. I began to tear up a bit, I’ll admit it. I’ve run this race 5 years in a row prior to this, and I’ve now run 11 marathons overall. This is really the first race where the event got the better or me. As I made my way to the Team for Kids area of the park to collect my bag and get some warm clothes, the one thought that kept repeating in my mind was “you never quit”. I could barely put any weight on my left leg as I hobbled slowly home in the cold…but the feeling of accomplishment – that feeling that comes with being pitted against your own limitations and then claiming victory over them through hard work – that’s the feeling that I crave. That keeps me coming back. That…..and being a hero to my daughter.
…and as I waddled home to get something to eat, a small voice whispered in my ear… “well done. You beat me – today. Enjoy your victory, because in two months you have the Goofy’s Race & a Half in Walt Disney World. And I promise you…..I….will…be….there.”
….eight weeks. Eight weeks to heal myself and prep for a 39.3 mile weekend. I’m running the Race & a Half to benefit the Make a Wish Foundation. Then it’s on to Miami, where I’ll run to raise money for MS research. Then Ft. Lauderdale a month later to run in the A1A Marathon (simply because I want an excuse to get some sun). Then it’s on to Napa and Los Angeles in March.
…eight weeks. I better get to work.
“Get going. Get up and walk if you have to, but finish the damned race.” – Ron Hill to Jerome Drayton during the 1970 Boston Marathon