October 15th – November 6th …The final three weeks leading up to Halloween were nerve-wracking for me. The foot injury was healing, albeit VERY slowly, the amount of road work I was able to complete leading up to Marathon Week was minimal and other cardiovascular workouts needed to be supplemented. As I worked on the rowing machine or pedaled the upright bike, I knew I was putting in the effort – the last time I felt this physically fit was 1991…my junior year in college rowing on the varsity crew team. Yet with all the effort I exerted whilst attempting to permit my heel to heal, my self confidence began oozing out of me as if my heart were a sink and someone left the water slightly on….if you listened closely, you could hear the drip, drip, drip of my assuredness wash down the emotional drain.
…and while that sound of consistent, relentless dripping is considered to be a form of pure torture to most people on this planet, it sounded like The Temptations to a certain 4” schmuck. The sound that my self confidence made as it steadily circled the emotional drain was music to The Tool’s ears. The grin only broadened on his miserable little face as Marathon Week drew closer. While I prepared my body for my annual battle against the streets of New York City as well as my own inner demons, The Tool had been hard at work preparing his final siege. He prepared his battle strategy with a growing sense of pending victory circling over his bulbous head.
The battle would be fought in several stages. First, the final weekend team practice scheduled for Halloween morning which officially kicks off my Marathon Week. An easy five mile run – a rather routine test of my physical well-being that would either prove to be a boost of confidence that I sorely needed (hopefully my heel would hold up and I would not feel any pain afterward – an indication that the rest I gave it paid off)…or an incredibly solid first attack executed by The Tool which would give him a tactical advantage for the rest of this campaign. The second test would come on Wednesday evening, only three nights before Marathon Sunday – the final team workout in Central Park. At this point in the week, the tactical advantage could either be strengthened by either side, or a stalemate could be claimed going into the Big Day. The third skirmish between my soldiers of self confidence and these mighty minions of the Terrible Tool (this little 4” moron decided to alter his name, supposedly for marketing purposes. Marketing research apparently concluded that this enhanced name would look better on advertisements brain-wide. This schmuck was feeling like a rock star) would take place during the 48 hours leading up to Sunday morning. With all the work completed, there was nothing more I could do to help me heal the injury. There was nothing more I could do to strengthen my endurance. All that remained was to eat and sleep properly. The battle lines had been drawn. All that remained was for the first shot to be fired and for the armies to be turned loose on one another.
Regardless of the outcome of these three stages, victory would only be claimed on Marathon Sunday. But the strategic advantage going into the Big Day was now the prize being fought over within my mind and heart…and body.
Halloween morning, I slowly slid out of bed and placed my feet on the floor. I took a deep breath, and stood up and felt…nothing. A smile crossed my face. The Tool scowled. I walked to the bathroom, showered, changed and got ready to head over to Central Park…and the foot cooperated completely. As I strolled to the team’s meeting location, the music blasting through my earphones sounded fantastic. The Tool, in the manner of a cranky octogenarian, mentally yelled at me to “keep that damn racket down!!” ….and I ignored the little schmuck. We stretched. We loosened up. And then with took off up the West Side Drive. No pain thus far. The group I was running with pushed a pace of 9:15 per mile through miles 2….3….4. No pain. My arms swung as I stayed with the group across the transverse and down the east side drive. I looked at my watch four miles into the workout: a pace of 8:40 per mile. Way too fast. I backed off and let the group finish as I worked on finding my race pace for the Big Day. There it was: victory in the first battle could be claimed by the soldiers of my self confidence. A battle well fought. As I slowed down and came to a halt in front of my team, who stood along the sidelines of the Poland Spring Marathon Kickoff 5 mile run cheering on the various runners that were finishing their workout, I must have been beaming. I needed the burst of confidence…and I got it. I walked home with a quiet swagger that I had lacked for basically this entire month.
To be on the safe side, I took Monday and Tuesday off from workouts. No running – just some time in the gym lifting weights and working on core strength. Nothing too demanding at all. I knew that taking two days off from running after a very positive five miler was beneficial for my body. The Tool used these 48 hours to his advantage, quietly redeploying his soldiers of self-doubt along strategic areas. As I sat in my office that Tuesday afternoon, I felt my foot bother me just a bit. For a moment. Nothing horrible. Just a tweak. Right? I loosened my shoe in the hope that this simple action would make that slight twinge go away….and it did.
As I walked around the city later that evening, there it was again. That little tweak at the bottom of my foot. Must have been due to the amount of walking I did in a pair of Kenneth Coles. Right?
As I went to bed Tuesday night, I kept moving my left foot around under the covers. I could feel that slight – almost insignificant – pain near my ankle. But it wasn’t throbbing. It wasn’t annoying. But it was just enough to cost me a few hours of sleep…and allow The Tool to gain back the ground he had lost during the initial skirmish between the forces of cool (that would be me and my soldiers of self-confidence, for all those playing the home game) and uncool (namely the Tool and his moronic minions). Wednesday, the battle would be joined once more.
The final team practice on Wednesday was a lighthearted affair. Adorned with glow sticks (yes, I ran with an orange glow stick around my neck – not the first time I’ve been decorated in neon…but that’s another story for another blog…..OR NOT), the team ran 1-2 laps around the reservoir as a final tune up for the Big Day. The pace started slowly…but the team appeared anxious and maintained pace times much quicker than anticipated. What was supposed to be a slow, relaxed run felt like a pit crew at Daytona tuning up their engines and giving their vehicles a once-over before parking them in the garage to await the drop of the flag. Fearing that going out too fast on my foot would result in the pain returning, I began slowly. However, like a racehorse (oh come on – I’m the author here – I can stretch the boundaries of believability just a tad, so work with me) stuck in the middle of a large pack coming around to the turn, my instinct to stay with the pack silently turned up my pace and before I knew it I was clocking in with a 9:05 pace. As I finished the first loop, there was one of the team’s coaches snapping pictures (as usual). The following conversation took place. It was brief. It was funny.
Coach: “ummm….Joe…where are you going?”
Me: “I thought we were supposed to do 2 loops.”
Coach: “the head coach said that if you felt fantastic after one loop, shut it down, right?”
Me: “Yeah…but almost everyone is heading out for lap number 2….”
Coach: “yup – but you aren’t.”
Me: “Oh come on….”
Coach: “Dude, on that foot? No. Head back to the gym.”
Me: “…but coach….”
Coach: “head back. God, you whine like a tool.”
…and inside me a little voice chuckled. Shit. …..so I headed back.
As I gathered my belongings at a local school gym prior to heading to the team’s final social event of the training year, I felt that subtle twinge again. It wasn’t uncomfortable. It was not painful. It was simply….there. My heel was letting me know that the issue had not disappeared, and yet it appeared that I could run on it for shorter distances without any hindrance of performance. Feelings of excitement (for the pace I had been able to maintain recently) were offset with nervousness (the distances were short – and the marathon is 26.2 miles….not 5). The battle had been fought, and a stalemate had been reached.
Thursday was difficult at work – I found it very hard to focus on my tasks while this internal battle was being fought. Fortunately, for the first time in my running history, I took the business day prior to Race Day off to enjoy the Expo.
The ING New York City Marathon Expo is a sight to behold. Filled with runners from all over the globe speaking countless different languages, vendors selling their running-focused wares, motivational speakers to gear up those that might need that last minute pep talk, and eager volunteers basking in the joy that comes with the responsibility of handing each marathoner his/her bib number and race packet. I watched as volunteers reached into cardboard boxes and extracted these small plastic packets, compared the name on the packet to the name on a valid form of personal identification, and then presented each marathoner with their bib number. The huge smile that came across each runner’s face was reflected in the smiles of the volunteers. As I meandered through the various exhibits within the conference center, I couldn’t help but begin to feel a sense of pride to be a part of such a global event.
I stopped by the Team for Kids booth, got myself squared away, and then participated in a thirty minute presentation at one of the larger marathon booths. I was asked to discuss why I began running with the team, and also describe my strategy for the course. Since this would be my sixth time running this race, I know where the rough patches are, and I did develop what I considered to be a real solid game plan for the upcoming marathon. And….since I use 100 words when 10 will do….and I looooove the sound of my own voice…..I was more than happy to flap my gums in front of a microphone. I left the Expo Friday afternoon filled with excitement.
I woke up early Saturday morning and was part of an interview on WFUV radio in my hometown of the Bronx, New York. Again the questions were asked: why do you run? How many marathons have you run? How does New York compare to marathons in other cities? What’s your favorite parts of the course? What part of the course do you dislike – if any? It was a great experience – I never was part of a radio show before. Definitely something I want to do again!!
After the radio show, I went to the team’s annual breakfast which was held near Times Square. Sitting with my teammates and laughing over coffee and runny eggs was just the elixir I needed. We listened to speeches by a handicapped triathlete, two youngsters that represented one of the programs that my team’s charity funds, several of our coaches, and Mary Wittenberg – President of the New York Road Runners. By the time I left this wonderful event, I truly felt that tomorrow morning – Marathon Sunday – would be a day to remember.
While my soldiers of self confidence received motivation speeches that revved them up for the final conflict, The Tool was had at work, frantically preparing his final race strategy. This little 4” sourpuss crossed his chubby, hairy-knuckled fingers and hoped for rain and freezing temperatures. He planned to sabotage my heel and make it hurt. He pounded my self confidence with fears of my foot giving out half way through the race. He tried to keep me from sleeping. His battle plan was clear. The only question that remained: could he carry it out?
As I changed for bed Saturday night after carefully preparing my bag and clothing for the morning, I reviewed the map once more and went over my course strategy:
My New York City Marathon Course Strategy
Early Morning / Pre-Race
- A long hot shower, first thing in the morning.
- Grab a bacon & egg on a roll on the walk to the team buses.
- Pass by Columbus Circle on the walk to the bus – keep the goal fresh in my head
- Before the race, stay WARM. Stay in the team’s tent.
- No caffeine. It’s a diaretic, and there’s no way I’m winding up as one of those disgusting youtube videos.
- Use the port-o-potty right before heading to the corrals.
- Drink enough…but don’t get crazy and guzzle a gallon of Chatteau Bloomberg.
- Stretch with the team
- Nothing but positive thoughts
- Remember my mantra for the day: I am unbreakable.
- The first mile is uphill, over water. Cold winds. Start slow. Don’t get caught up in passing people.
- Watch my footing – people throw clothing on the floor.
- Right from the start, focus on my breathing. In the nose, out the mouth. Keep my heart rate down.
- Ignore the cold – think about getting off of the bridge and into Brooklyn.
- I’m starting on the lower level, so stay away from the edge of the bridge. Men piss over the side of the top level of the bridge, and between that…..and the wind….yuck.
- Mile 2 is downhill. Stay under control. I’ll want to push things a bit here – but refrain.
- Miles 3-13 are basically flat and fast. The crowds will push me along.
- STEADY PACE. Run with even effort.
- I know the pace that I am comfortable with – so run it. Don’t get caught running someone else’s race. Find a TFKer from the pack of runners I usually train with and coast along.
- Average 10:30 – 10:50 a mile here. That will give me enough gas in the tank for what’s ahead.
- Hit the half way point in 2 hours 10 minutes – 2 hours 20 minutes and I am golden.
- Drink water more than Gatorade.
- Remember: these miles are FUN. The hard work comes later.
- ENJOY BROOKLYN. HIGH FIVE some kids. Get the crowd going. Have FUN.
- At mile 14, begin to evaluate how things are going. Go through the physical checklist:
- Feet ok?
- Legs ok?
- Knees ok?
- Hips ok?
- Lower back ok?
- Chest ok?
- Arms ok?
- Neck ok?
- Breathing deep and slow?
- Then recite the game plan to yourself for the second half of the race.
- Slow and steady to the 59th Street Bridge….and then don’t let that bridge beat you.
- Take 1st Avenue easy. Enjoy it. Soak it in. Store up the energy the crowd gives you.
- Still average 10:35 – 10:50 pace.
- Eat at mile 17.5. It’s pop-tart time.
- Watch the footing at mile 18 – sponges + gu = a royal pain in the dimpled Irish arse.
- Mile 20. The Wall. If I do this right, I’ll break it down.
- Go through the physical checklist again.
- The race begins here, and you know it. Focus on getting around those apartment buildings and turning southbound. THAT is your signal that you’re heading home.
- DO NOT WALK here if you don’t have to. Motion creates emotion. You stop here and the body will not want to start back up.
- Laugh at the rappers coming off the Madison Ave. Bridge.
- High five some kids – get the positive juices flowing
- First water stop after the bridge: 2 gatorades, 1 water and the sports beans.
- Gospel Choir between miles 21 and 22 – take in their energy.
- TFK at mile 22!!!!!!!!
- Look for the coaches now – focus on getting from one coach to the next.
- Around Marcus Garvey Park – take some deep breaths, because here comes 5th Avenue.
- Right turn onto Fifth at around 122nd street: do NOT focus on the steady 1 ½ mile incline. Instead, focus on the 10 feet in front of you.
- Go to your mantra: I am unbreakable.
- You’ve felt this pain 5 times already – this is nothing new
- Get to the Engineer’s Gate at 90th Street. GET TO THE PARK.
- This is your back yard. Home field advantage. This is Team for Kids’ house.
- Rolling hills between miles 23 and 24 are to my advantage. Use Cat Hill for momentum around 80th Street. Allow the legs to stretch out and let the pace quicken
- At Mile 25, yell “God F&^K the Queen!”
- Make the right onto Central Park South and maintain the momentum. Drop the split time from the 10:30 – 10:50 range to at least 10 minutes flat
- Wait for the ½ Mile To Go marker, then drop the split to a 9:40 pace.
- When you get to the turn at Columbus Circle….DROP THE HAMMER. Go to your arms. Drop the split down. Shoot for sub 8:30 and HOLD IT through the finish.
- The final mile will HURT – but you know that already. The goal is to leave a piece of yourself on the road. DO IT HERE.
- DO NOT QUIT. DO NOT SLOW DOWN. DO NOT LET THE PAIN BREAK YOU.
Before heading to bed, I read my favorite poem, which was written by Rudyard Kipling, entitled simply “If”:
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or, being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;
If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with wornout tools;
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breath a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on”;
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings – nor lose the common touch;
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run –
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man my son!
….I think Rudyard Kipling was a marathoner. “…and so hold on when there is nothing in you except the will which says to them hold on” ….. “if you can fill the unforigiving minute with sixty seconds worth of distance run” ……..oh yeah – my buddy Ruddy was a marathoner. Too bad he never got to gallop up the Varrazanno and take in the New York City skyline. Or be embraced by the people of Brooklyn. Or thank a child for a cup of water in Queens. Or be hit with the wall of noise that is First Avenue. Or come face to face with your own limitations in the Bronx, only to find out that who you are is much more than what you were. Or be soothed by the sounds of a gospel choir in Harlem. Or high-five the children supported by the charity you wear on your chest near Marcus Garvey Park. Or be willed along by the crowds on Fifth Avenue as you struggle to find the strength to go on. Or enter Central Park battered and bruised, yet tasting victory. Or surrendering to the moment and expending every last ounce of yourself in a final sprint beginning on Central Park South. Or watch as a fellow runner falls to a knee with 200 yards to go, his body forcing him to stop – yet watch him rise and will himself to the finish with sheer passion and an unbridled determination. Or feel the self-evolution that occurs as you sprint across that finish line, forever altering your definition of the term “impossible”. To me, THAT is the New York City Marathon. I think Ruddy would have loved it.
I think about what this race means to me. I think about how much I love my city. I think about how proud I feel of my neighbors as I waddle along from Bay Ridge to the Upper West Side. This race is more than just a bunch of people running from point A to point B. This race is much, much more. I welcome the pain – the pain is fare you pay to ride this train.
….so with a thorough game plan in place and feeling incredibly motivated by my buddy Ruddy, I placed my head on the pillow to attempt a final night’s sleep before Race Day. Once I closed my eyes, I sent one of my soldiers of self-confidence into enemy territory on a recon mission. I wanted to know The Tool’s strategy. The data came back almost immediately…and it was not nearly as detailed as my race course plan. The Tool’s strategy looked like this:
- Make sure the foot hurts early.
- Let it get worse as soon as possible.
- Make him doubt himself
- Make him question his ability to take pain
- BRING HIM HELL and MAKE HIM QUIT
…short and ugly.
As I drifted off to sleep, I felt like I was in a foxhole, about to take enemy fire. Since there are no atheists in foxholes, I muttered a little prayer to myself. Short and sweet:
“Hey Big Guy. I know, I know – we haven’t chatted in a bit. Well listen – tomorrow’s pretty big for me. My daughter will be watching. I need to show her that she cannot quit when things get rough. I’m not asking for help, because you’ve got bigger fish to fry. Whatever happens tomorrow, just let me be courageous through it all. Gotta go. Great talking to you. I promise I’ll pick up the phone more often.”
My eyes closed. Race Day comes with the morning light.
“Champions do not become champions when they win the event, but in the hours, weeks, months and years they spend preparing for it. The victorious performance itself is merely the demonstration of their championship character.” – T. Alan Armstrong