Thursday, January 17, 2008

When is a loss real?

Death is surreal by virtue of its timing. It can only occur once, so therefore you can never relay to curious friends and neighbors how it felt, if it was your own; If it was not your own, you're still in that unexperienced realm of not knowing how to react. Many feel nothing initially. During the men's marathon trials on November 3, 2007, according to USATF, 131 of the fastest American male marathoners got on the starting line at 7:35 am in front of NYC's Rockefeller Center to compete for one of three spots for the American team that would be sent to Bejing for this summer's Olympic marathon. The results roster shows the dry facts. Of those 131 competitors, 104 finished, 26 received DNF (did not finish), 3 received DNS (I'm assuming this is 'did not start'), and the last on the list, bib #13 Ryan Shay, had an empty space where his finisher's designation was suppossed to be. The assumption is that a competitor is not suppossed to die during the competition, and therefore an appropriate acronym has not been created. My reaction to the news of his sudden death, I'm sure, was not too different from that of other competitive runners. A bit of unreality about it. How can someone in such phenomenal condition, and who had years of experience putting his body through exactly the same or tougher stress than this event, suddenly cease to exist? Only 5.5 miles into the event? As a fellow runner who is passionate about running and racing, there is an immediate sympathy. But not having met the guy personally, well, it's kind of an impersonal sympathy. So when my friend Valerie asked me if I had read the article in Runner's World about the incident, and highlighting Shay's life, I kind of shrugged it off. 'No, but I read a lot of the newspaper coverage after it happened.' She said it was really good. I kind of forgot about it, probably in no small part due to the difficulty of the training run we were doing that day. Another hilly course to torture Tamar's hill-worn legs. At least this one was in Sullivan County.
That night I flipped through that issue of Runner's World. May as well go over whatever I missed before I recycle it. I came across the article. I really wasn't feeling in the mood to read it, didn't think it had anything to tell me that I didn't already know. I started reading it. I didn't feel anything when they talked about how tough a competitor he was, what a hard worker he was, how his devoted wife waited at the seven mile mark in Central Park for him to come through, and he didn't. These were all just disconnected details of the life of a grounded, competitive athlete. None of this had anything to do with me. Then I read that his family held a memorial run around Central Lake High track, where Ryan had gone to school. People were invited to walk, jog, or run on the track; whatever distance they wanted to cover was fine. A father and daughter came to show their respects. The girl had met Ryan at a local race, and he had encouraged her to pursue her dream of competing. They wanted to honor him by completing 20.7 miles on the track. They wanted to cover the territory that his untimely death did not allow him to.
As a passionately competitive runner, I understand, live, and breath those numbers all the time. The intricate web of numbers to calculate, manipulate, and masticate is forever revolving in my head as I plod forward to turn the seasons of training into a now decades old dream. I've often thought about the obstacles that would try to stop me in mid-run. A machete. (I think I've been reading too much of the Kenyan crisis, but this is a remote fear.) A deer in mating season jumping in front of me. Falling flat on my face on some ice. And if any of these maladies should befall me and cause my ultimate demise, would someone be there to finish my run? That journal entry space would demand it. So yes, this was the point in the article, and in the whole death of the runner story, that brought out those tough-guy tears. The idea that someone will complete your dream for you is really all we need in this world.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Winter friendships

It's Tuesday, and where am I supposed to do my mile repeats? The track is covered in frozen snow, the trail is a deathtrap of patchy black ice. All I need is a 1600 meter stretch of flat ground, and I'll be happy. The answer is so obvious, it escapes me. There's a back road right next to the trail that fits my criteria perfectly. It's a quiet residential road that parallels my precious trail. My friend Marty announces that he will only be doing part of this workout with me, as he needs to save his energy for a race this coming weekend. No complaints from me. Truthfully, I get anxious at the thought of another human next to me as I struggle to adapt to the stress of the faster paced mile. I know it's good for me, I know it will make me a stronger runner mentally, I know all the great runners practice running fast in training with groups of people next to them.. But I really just find it overwhelming. What if the person starts to talk to me? What if the person picks up the pace? What if their foot grazes my foot and sends me crashing to the ground? No, I really prefer my own company when it comes to doing the bitterly difficult workouts. But I relented and agreed to let Marty run with me today. I was relieved at his announcement of only joining me for part of the workout. We warm up with an easy paced two miles, and then start with the first mile repeat. I set the pace. We're striving for a 7:10-7:15 mile. The first couple of minutes go by. My breathing is steady, Marty's keeping his thoughts to himself; everything is so far not too terrible. We get to the turn around point, and head for the second half of this first mile. My breathing has become more labored, and I'm feeling the effects of the endless hills of Goshen from last week. I'm surprised that Marty is keeping up with me. How can he keep up with me? He doesn't do any speed, and I've been doing speed for a few weeks now. Then he has the audacity to lead! I remind myself that he will be cutting this workout short, while I still have another three of these things to complete. We pass a house with a green cutout Styrofoam letter 'J' lying on the lawn. My ability to hold this pace is running out. I note the numbers of the mailboxes that we pass. They are descending. I tell myself this mile will be over by the time we reach mailbox number 5. This ends up being true. I press my stop button on my watch. 6:58. Well! Now it's OK that I was feeling tired, I was going a little too fast. Marty puts his hands up and says that's it for him. I laugh, as I knew he was going to say that. I try and stay focused, as I only have 20 more seconds before I have to start my next mile. I say good-bye to Marty, and start mile two. I'm happy to be alone again. But I know I won't go as fast. Freedom versus community. They both have their contributions, but this is an argument not suitable for an oxygen depleted brain. I return to simple thought units. Mailbox number 33. There's the green letter 'J'. I pass that house. I hear a female Brooklyn accent call after me. "Hello. How are you." The voice sounded tired, like its owner had been trying for hours to strike up a conversation with passers-by to no avail. I did something I've never done while running mile repeats. I smiled. I almost laughed, but I was just too tired, and couldn't get it together. On my turn-around, still running at the faster speed, I determined to scan the area to locate the owner of that voice. As I approached the house, I see no one. I passed, and again the voice called out, "Hello, how are you, how is your day going?" It kind of sounded like an adult playing a prank. The accent made me want to laugh again, but I still couldn't. I finished that mile, took my minute recovery walk, and got right back into the next repeat. Just as I passed the voice's house, a woman comes out, peeks her head out of her front door, says, "Hello, I like your shirt and your gloves.." I think she was listing other things she liked about me, but I couldn't stop to chat because I was still doing my mile. Now, I must have the ugliest pair of running gloves in Orange County. They're oversized wool workman's gloves with leather pads that I bought at the gas station for $2.99. Was this woman making fun of me? I knew the gloves looked ridiculous, but they really kept my hands warm. I finished up my workout feeling a bit tired. I never saw that woman again. I was disappointed. I wanted to see if she would notice my new pink athletic gloves I bought that week . I only wore them once. I really hated them. I kept worrying about getting them dirty, and wouldn't even wipe the sweat off my forehead with them. It felt great to put my hideous wool man-gloves back on the next day. Nothing like an old work glove to remind you of who you really are.