Saturday, July 31st ……..So today’s TFK workout was 11 ½ miles beginning in midtown on the east side, over the 59th Street bridge, into Long Island City (in Queens), and then on to Roosevelt Island for two laps of its perimeter before retracing our steps and heading back to our meeting place on 59th and Fist Avenue. All week long I have thought about this run, mainly because traversing the 59th Street Bridge brings back several rough memories of marathons past.
I started running the New York City Marathon in 2005 – so this year will mark race #6 for me. As you’ll learn soon enough within this blog, each of the prior five races I’ve run on the first Sunday in November was made much more grueling than they needed to be – mainly due to my lack of proper preparation. One of my many mistakes in training in the past was the lack of hill work. There is an old saying that “hills are speed work in disguise”…..well in addition to making you faster, the act of getting to the top of a hill provides the runner with a small sense of confidence. Since I simply don’t like hills (I never have and I never will, by the way), I chose to avoid them during training from 2005-2009. They were simply no fun at all. They weren’t easy – they were hard. And most everyone that knows me understands that I cannot stand having to actually work hard.
For the past five years, I have gotten to mile 15 of the New York City Marathon in decent shape. My pace would be slow and steady. My mind would be focused and filled with positive thoughts. Then, after making a sharp left turn, I would come face to face with the base of the 59th Street Bridge. It’s dark and silent, as the race plods along the lower level of the bridge and no fans are permitted along the span. The first instinct is to look up at the ground that needs to be covered and the incline that it’s sitting on…..and that is a HUGE mistake. At that very moment, at the base of this bridge, like clockwork, my inner voice begins yelling in my ear. The things that are yelled into my brain by my inner voice are expelled at such a volume that all of the existing positive thoughts are drowned out by the noise. Every year, that voice sounds in my head. Every year, arriving at the same spot, that voice gets louder. Every year, the commentary narrated by this inner voice becomes more and more negative. This voice of negativity has even morphed into a character in my head. If a police sketch artist asked me for a physical description of this inner voice, my response to the policeman would be the following:
“Well Officer, I see him as approximately 4” in height. Jet black hair, styled in a swept back, spikey, Growing Up Gotti look. Beady eyes set in such a permanent squint that it makes everyone think that, as a baby, he was nursed on lemons. Nose hair that peaks out from below the nostrils – if he sneezes, he’ll look like a party favor. He wears a battleship gray Armani suit, with the sleeves pushed up to his elbows, because he still has aspirations of being an extra on Miami Vice. A white T-shirt under the suit jacket finishes off the Miami Vice wanna-be appearance, with his chest hair wandering up and out of the collar. His shoes are patent leather roach-killers with no socks – his vain attempt at looking professional….yet casual. His left ear is pierced, with a gold earring sporting his initial protruding from his earlobe. He wears a thick gold necklace over his t-shirt, with a large Japanese letter dangling from it (he thinks the Japanese letter means “warrior” when, in fact, he bought it from a tiny shop on Canal Street…..and it actually says “I love marshmallows”). Although he never so much as sat on a motorcycle in his “life”, he has a large tattoo on his right forearm that reads “Live to Ride, Ride to Live”…just because he thought that it would make him look tough. Finally, as a finishing touch, he wears a large gold pinky ring with a huge fopal (that means Fake Opal”, for all of you playing the home game) in the center.”
(Now I know what you’re thinking. You’re saying to yourself “Joe, you really need to lay of the Diet Coke, take a few deep breaths, and step out of this Never Never Land that you frequently visit….and join us all back here in a little realm we all call REALITY”. Well I’ve visited that realm on several occasions and have decided to run for the hills each time, simply because I couldn’t find anything decent to watch on T.V.)
In 2008, I even decided to name this inner voice. I needed a name that would convey the hideous traits of this character. The name would have to sound gruff. Harsh. It would need to sound like something a person would mutter under his/her breath when a person cuts in front of them while on line at a grocery store. After an hour of deep thought (and yes, I actually did spend 60 minutes of my life pondering an appropriate name for my inner voice), I came up with what is, in my opinion, the verbal embodiment of my inner negativity. I dubbed him……….The Tool.
So each year, from 2005 – 2009, The Tool would appear on my left shoulder as I arrived at the base of this bridge. He would walk up my shoulder and arrive at my ear and, within moments, begin spewing negativity with his cackling voice at such volume that it drowned out any music playing on my Ipod. The inner conversation would begin with simple prods…but, by the time I made it half way up the incline, my body would begin to feel like shutting down. A sample of the heckling I would receive would sound like this:
The Tool: “Hey, hey!! Good to be back!! What’s it been – a year? We need to hang out more often. Why do we always meet at the same spot?”
My Brain: “Oh – it’s YOU. I’m busy. Come back later.”
The Tool: “Wow. Always the same place. Yup. This is it. The 59th Street Bridge. The Gateway to Manhattan, as far as this race is concerned. You must be psyched! Too bad you didn’t train on hills though. This one is HUGE.”
My Brain: “Thank you, Captain Obvious. Now shut up. I’m working here. I’ve just started the ascent and I actually feel pretty darn good.”
The Tool: “I know you started the ascent – I’m on your shoulder and I can see. But wow – that’s a long way up. And you’ve already run 15 miles. What was your longest training run? 12 miles? On a flat surface? You know you aren’t ready for this one.”
My Brain: “It was 14 miles. And I’m fine. Now shut up.”
The Tool: “Well the least they could do is provide water on this bridge. But they don’t. And you look thirsty.”
My Brain: “I am. Now stifle it.”
The Tool: “Wow. No hill training. You are now running farther than your longest training run. And no water. How the heck are you doing this?”
My Brain: “I’m fine. Please shut up.”
The Tool: “So if I’m doing the math right, once you get to the top, you still more than 10 miles to go. And those hills coming up on First Avenue – they are always rough. This race is only going to get harder. Don’t you think you should just shut it down for a bit and walk?”
My Brain: “Once I do that, I’m screwed. You know it. I know it. I’m half way to the top. Now shhhh.”
The Tool: “Half way to the top means you still have all of this incline to go. We need to conserve some energy. Speaking of energy – don’t you think we should have eaten a better dinner last night?”
My Brain: “PLEASE SHUT UP.”
The Tool: “No water. All this hill to go. 10 miles more. More hills coming. 15 miles already in. No hill training. 12 mile long run was your max. Dude…..you’re screwed.”
My Brain: “God this hurts.”
……………….and with that, I downshifted to a steady walk. And once you downshift to walking during a marathon, it is virtually impossible to re-ignite your inner fire and get running at your planned pace again. So, this bridge has historically been the location of the race where my wheels have come off, turning the remaining 10 miles into a death march for me.
I made myself a promise this year, that I would train harder than ever for this year’s race, meaning that I would get my lazy rear-end to organized practices religiously and do the required work – no short cuts. So as the small group I was a part of made the turn 10 miles into this long training run to come face to face with the bridge, The Tool showed up again. He looked around, and noticed that I wasn’t alone. I had teammates with me, all of which knew how this bridge beat me each time I’ve run it. Earlier in the run, they promised to help spur me on up this hill, and they were being true to their word. The Tool paused for a moment on my shoulder, not exactly knowing how to deal with the change in circumstances. He saw that I wasn’t alone – that I had a supporting cast with me, and they appeared focused and determined. Then he looked at my expression – and saw a look that he wasn’t used to seeing: confidence. At that moment, he felt like a grammar school student that studied for a history test all night long, only to arrive at school the next morning to find out that he had a science test that day. He decided that he didn’t like performing in front of a live audience…and with a “poof”, he vaporized into thin air, leaving me to conquer the bridge for the first time in my life.
I began getting slower as the crest of the bridge came into view. Noticing that I was slowing down, my teammate, Nina, yelled out “don’t you dare stop!!! Get going!!!!” As a reflex action, I went to my arms and fought the rest of the way. I had arrived. As I coasted down the bridge and on to 60th street, the sense of pride I felt was electrifying. I have turned the corner. I officially have found some level of positive momentum in my training to build on. After stretching, I went home and realized that my heel was really barking at me. I iced it well and looked forward to the coming week’s workouts. 11 ½ miles. The Bridge. A consistent pace of 10:15 – 10:30 per mile throughout. A gorgeous Saturday – no humidity, temperature in the 70’s, and a light breeze just when I needed it. What a way to end a month.
“To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.” – Steve Prefontaine