Friday, December 26, 2014

The New York City Marathon, Part II

Sunday, The Day Begins

I am delusional. I think I am in a race in New York City, but, in fact, I am in a warm bed in an old farmhouse with the branches of thousands of apple trees embracing the house, my friends, my family, and me. I hear a dog off in the distance, a muffled bark at deer crossing through the trees like phantoms in the night. A fog has seeped into the hills and I wonder how the deer know of the time change? Time change? Suddenly, I am awake. I am in the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Manhattan. What time is it? I will run a marathon in a couple of hours, and with the time change earlier, I am worried I will miss my five-thirty bus to take me to the start of the race on Staten Island. Where’s my phone? My wife digs into my side, “Go back to sleep,” she says. My daughter is in the hotel room with us, and my wife and I share a tiny double bed. We lie tight against each other, and she wants to stay in our dream of being together at the farm. We are in the green grass on a hillside high in the orchards with the trimmed brown trees and dark red apples and the grey fog below us, and time, itself, is standing still. It is four-fifteen. It is too early, but I get up and dress for the rain and the cold and the wind; time to go down to the lobby and join with other runners drinking coffee and eating bagels. I wonder if this will be the best part of my day.

I say goodbye to my wife and daughter. My wife gets up, hugs me, and takes my picture on her cell phone. I am sure I look like an Eskimo about to race the Alaskan Iditarod. She says, “You look warm. Good luck.” I tell her I am way too hot with all the clothes I am wearing: I have on black tights and running shorts and gray sweat pants; I have on a tight-weave, short-sleeve, running shirt, a lightweight, long-sleeve running shirt, a gray sweatshirt, and a multicolored running jacket. I am carrying a scarf, wool hat, and two pairs of black gloves. I am ready for a blizzard. I only need goggles, a sled, and White Fang, and I could be prospecting in the Great North.

I hear a mumble from the other bed; something like “Good luck, Dad.” It is our daughter; she is in our dream too and beside us on the hillside looking out at the forested ridge above the farm. She senses I am about to descend into the fog. “I love you, Dad!” she says. “I love you both,” I say, heading to the door. “See you soon,” my wife says. “Yes, soon,” I lie. With the race starting at nine-forty and the course not reaching Manhattan until mile sixteen, and given my pace, which has slowed considerably since the hamstring injury in the spring, yet alone my ongoing marathon malaise all fall, my wife and daughter can spend the entire morning in bed; they can wear the white terrycloth bathrobes hanging in the closet, eat eggs benedict from room service, drink champagne from long-stem glasses, and still have time to take luxuriant baths before meeting me; they will not see me coming off the Queensboro Bridge until noon or sometime thereafter. My race, concluding in Central Park, will not end until an hour or so later, not until I run the gauntlet up to the Bronx and back. It will be another hour to find them, time to recover, and nightfall before it is all over. On the other hand, I think as I close the door softly, placing the “do not disturb” on the knob, “soon” is rather vague; if they have to dredge the East River, it could be days.

I realize upon leaving the hotel that it has stopped raining, but it is very cold and wet from Saturday’s downpour and, as expected, the wind has picked up for what appears will be a blustery November day. The wind, in particular, is disconcerting. I hope it will die down before the race begins, though according to last night’s weather report, that’s not likely. I shiver, put on my two pairs of gloves, pull down my gray wool cap over my ears, and trudge up to the New York Public Library. I am not alone, in addition to the homeless and the junkies huddled together outside of Grand Central Station, other runners are walking up 42nd Street toward the library. They look like phantom deer in the dark.

I see glistening buses with their twinkling running lights lined up two-by-two down 5th Avenue at the intersection with the public library; it is like I am looking into infinity as the buses extend down the street beyond my vision. Suddenly I realize thousands of runners must be using the buses to get to Staten Island. This is why so many of us stay at the Grand Hyatt and all the other hotels in Midtown. The hotels are the great beneficiaries of this event, even though the race never passes by any of them. At $400 a night for the room, along with the other costs of getting here and being here, the hit on our finances is enormous. Running the Big Six Marathons in Chicago, New York, Boston, London, Berlin and Tokyo is an expensive proposition: money well spent if you are ready; a highly questionable enterprise if you are not.
I am on a bus by five-fifteen heading to Staten Island. The man I sit beside appears to be older than most of the other runners. He tells me he and his wife are here for five days to enjoy the city; he says he is in charge of running, she handles their itinerary. They spent last night at a Broadway musical his wife arranged back in Wisconsin. He couldn’t remember what they saw, he says, but he was glad to be off his feet. I spent the night bunched together with a thousand people in Times Square, freezing in the rain while my friends and family took pictures of the glassy neon billboards. Later we walked blocks and blocks looking for an inexpensive restaurant before settling on an Irish pub near the hotel. A blonde-haired bar maid from Northern Ireland wished me luck. That was a good sign, I decide, though I turned down her offer of a free draught until later. My family roots are from Northern Ireland; maybe my ancestors are reaching out to me here in Manhattan; maybe they are organizing a work gang to help me get through this madness. My companion on the bus mentions he has run a number of marathons, but this is his first in New York. He laughs at how crazy it is to be doing this at our age – how crazy it is in this weather. He too is a good omen, I decide. I feel much better with him and thoughts of my distant ancestors as the bus drives through the darken city. Twenty minutes later we cross the Verrazano Narrows Bridge and stop at the empty tollbooths on the very edge of Staten Island.

I feel the wind blow against me as I step off the bus and onto the hard road surface; the early morning air is cold on my face and seeps through my heavily bundled chest and legs. The wind pushes against me as I pass through three security checkpoints, two checkpoints manned by the New York City police and one consisting of a body scanner/metal detector; the wind fights me every step of the way as I walk through the staging area, as I repeatedly show my bib number to race officials and police officers, everyone shivering in the last of the night air, everyone freezing as I walk the long sequence of passageways, roadways, sidewalks, and residential lanes, directed ever onward by an endless host of volunteers in heavy marathon-issued coats as they point the way further and further into the secured area; the wind is relentless as I arrive at my corral, a large cordoned off area where I will wait for the next three hours for the race to start: for the heavens to pick me up and blow me over the river of runners and drop me off twenty-six miles later in Central Park; the wind barks at me like a tethered dog until I spot a sheet metal shed and sit protected against the leeward wall. I am with five other runners and together we watch our corral fill to capacity: runners in coats and gloves, wrapped in blankets and black garbage bags; everyone wearing orange Dunkin' Donuts knit hats handed out by race volunteers. I too get one and wear it over my wool hat. We all are excited with our carrot tops yet miserable at the same time.

I am told we are in the old Fort Wadsworth military installation on the Brooklyn side of Staten Island; the old fort, which helped protect the city for three hundred years, will fill with 50,000 runners, all of whom must be in their respective corrals before the race can begin. My guys and I are sitting on a cement foundation of the corrugated yellow shed. Together we watch the Italians spread out as a group over plastic tarps on the lawn; we see the Swiss, the Germans, the Peruvians, and the Japanese too find room in the packed area. My buddies are from northern California, the Netherlands, Sweden, West Virginia, and Australia. I am impressed with the distance they have traveled, with their fortitude, and the lengths they have gone to get here, and I am so aware of their youth: only the guy from Northern California is in his mid-forties, the others are in their twenties and thirties. I am the Old Man of the group; soon they will realize I am not wiser and have no advice to impart, no thoughts at all to share with them about running; I sit with my orange Dunkin' Donuts hat over my gray wool hat pulled low on my head and my tight scarf covering my face and wonder why I am doing this. I see myself stripped bare. I have nothing to give and nowhere to go from here but down, down, down…

I watch the clouds break up in the early morning light and speed across the sky; a continuous stream of shifting shapes and shadows crossing the corral, like a flickering movie. Trees twist; leaves swirl and fall in full sail.

“I like running when the temperature is in the mid-forties,” says the guy from Northern California; his hands, in thick gloves, are hugging his chest; he sits next to me in a heavy jacket zipped up to his nose; his Dunkin' Donuts hat pulled down on his head. He tells me he will deposit his coat in the bagging area before the race begins and pick it up afterwards. “I run in a few races like this every year,” he says, “but I prefer triathlons.” He coughs into his glove. “This is my off-season activity,” he says. “Too cold to swim.”

“I too,” says the guy from the Netherlands. “I like to run in weather like this.” He is sitting on the other side of Northern California and has a quick smile; he is slim and young, and way under-dressed; he too is wearing an orange hat to cover his ears; he continually clasps his chest and appears to be freezing. He says he came to New York with his girlfriend; he was chosen in a lottery held in the Netherlands and won a slot into race after being turned down three years in a row. This is his first time in the States. “New York is very big,” He says.

I agree. “— and fucking cold!” I say. Fucking New York. Running in the high-fifties or low-sixties would have been nice. I can’t remember the last time I ran with temperatures in the low-forties. Running twenty pounds lighter would have been nice, running with more workouts under my belt and a few more hills in my routine would have been nice too. I can see them looking at me. How long will the Old Man last, they wonder. I wonder too. Twenty-six miles, that’s all that matters.

I look up as the guy from Sweden swoops down in front of us. He had gone off to find a port-a-john and now is back. He is in black leggings, a yellow running jacket, and the obligatory donut hat. When I first sat against the shed, he told me he had just run the marathon in Reykjavik, Iceland; he is now my expert on cold and what to do about reindeer on the route. “The last time I ran in New York," he says, “the weather was like this.” He pauses for effect, “but, guess what?  I was so hot in Brooklyn, I threw away my jacket, hat, and gloves and later, even, my long-sleeve shirt!” How absurd! How could anyone toss his jacket and clothes in weather like this? “I was so hot, but then, when I reached Manhattan,” he says, “the wind on First Avenue was freezing, I was so cold!  Only, I didn’t have anything left to put back on."  He laughs.  "Oh man, what an experience!”  We all laugh at this, like this is the funniest thing in the world…  “This year,” he says, “I've learned my lesson, I am not going to freeze in Manhattan.”

I wonder why has he told me this. Is he a demon? Did he really run in Reykjavik?  I planned to take off my sweat clothes before the race, but I wore my old running jacket so I could toss it as well; the ratty gloves and old hat can go too; my long-sleeve shirt if I have too.  That’s what I told my wife when I packed them. That’s what I assured my daughter I would do when we discussed this: I had learned my lesson from earlier runs. Don’t worry, I said, I will dump my clothes. But now I am thinking, maybe I should wait until after Manhattan; maybe right before entering Central Park. It’s so cold and windy, what will it be like when I am alone and facing the furies of First Avenue?

I get up and check the temperature as I cross the corral to a row of fifty or so port-a-johns lined up along a parking lot; I find the shortest line and wait my turn behind a woman who looks to be in her thirties. She says she’s from Kansas City; she flew into New York yesterday. She says it is cold in Missouri. The wind gusts up and barks at us. “Not as windy,” she says.

We are herded into our respective lanes. It is eight-thirty. Though I am part of the first wave of a billion or so runners, I am placed in the last large group; I am at the tail end of this dog. I expect to be handed a broom to help with the cleanup as clothes, water bottles and plastic bags full of half-eaten food, banana peels, and power bar wrappers are strewn everywhere on the ground.  Abruptly, after forty or so minutes, we surge forward; runners start taking off their sweat clothes and winter jackets; many throw their donut hats to the side. I too take off my sweat clothes and retie and double-knot my shoes.  I’ve lost my guys from the shed and my will power from what I said I would do earlier. I pin my bib to my jacket.  I keep my two hats on my head.

I am caught up in the moment, everyone is. We move forward as a group through the various waiting areas and stop at the very base of Verrazano Narrows Bridge; the Swiss are singing a loud song in French or German – maybe they don't even know.  They are jumping up and down, giving each other high-fives. The Japanese are singing too and so are the Peruvians. Everyone is taking pictures of themselves and with each other and shouting to the world. But I am speechless. I am thinking I should be shouting too or at least have a song to sing, but I can’t think of anything. This is my moment, after a year of waiting for this, after months and months of prepping; here I am: wide-eyed and dead silent. The noise and song and celebration surround me, but I am a deer in headlights, and, in the din, I hear a loud horn, or a shot, or a boom, or something, and, just like that, with a series of yells and me wondering, “Oh my god! Have I been shot?” we all start running. Within steps of passing under the race tower and over the electronic mats, we begin the long climb up the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge; the wind is blowing us backward and forward and sideways and I can’t handle it. I am pushed and pulled and swatted and poked, and as cold as it is on the bridge, with my jacket and paper bib rippling hard in the wind, as cold as it is as I struggle up the great metal expanse crossing the bay to Brooklyn, less than a mile into the race, already I have a problem: I knew it. Fuck!

The Race
[To be continued.]  

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The New York City Marathon, Part I

Pre-Arrival, Three Days Before

We are passing through; we are in rural Adams County in south central Pennsylvania on our way to New York City. We spend the night on a farm on the Eastern slope of South Mountain. We sleep in soft beds under thick quilts in a restored farmhouse built in the early 1800s; we lie undisturbed in the ancestral embrace of the only family who has ever lived in this house deep in the heart of orchard country. We are passing through. We are back.

We arrive after the harvest; thousands of bushels of apples have been picked, yet hundreds of apples are still on the ground, apples that fell before the pickers could get to the trees, rows and rows of red apples, carpet runners under the trees, strips of dark red apples crushing the high green grass. The blue rented minivan looks out of place next to the white farmhouse on the gravel lane alongside the organic red runners slicing through the trees.

We walk up a small hill early in the morning to the farm’s solitary vineyard, five acres of vines and aging yellow leaves, the grapes harvested and sold to a local winery. The leaves decaying, curling, hide the remaining clusters of the dark purple fruit; we pick a grape, and another, and the juice tastes sweet.

We view the surrounding mountainside: the amber and gold forests of the hilltops, the red and white barns, the black lanes and red brick farmhouses, and the dark brown trees: rows upon rows of trees lining the mountain slopes, spotlighted in the rising yellow sun.

We hear workers talking in Spanish trimming the trees. Most of the field hands have left the area following the harvest south; the apples picked off the trees now in cold storage or at the processing plant where, pressed into sauces or strained into juices, they will be canned and bottled and shipped to thousands of small grocers and large supermarkets, like the stores in the shopping centers where we live or in the neighborhoods where we will be this weekend.

We spot one of our friends coming out of the farmhouse, carrying her camera and walking along the lane away from us; I jog down the hillside to tell her where we are and that she shouldn’t go too far as we still have a long drive to the city. Returning to the hilltop out of breath is not a good sign, but I don’t want to leave. Not yet.

I study the blue sky above us: thin, white cirrus clouds slowly seeping in from the North. The forecast calls for rain tonight with temperatures dropping all weekend; rain to continue Saturday and end with cold and blustery conditions on Sunday; no rain, but a stiff head wind on Sunday. This morning on the hilltop, I see the wispy white fingers beckoning me.

I am at home in the orchards: the organic continuum of the countryside, the rural mosaic my wife and I escaped when we were so young, the destination and extended family to whom we always return; here now is the place I could remain; the feeling is overwhelming…

I feel it pushing against me. A gusty breeze is kicking up this early Friday morning. A storm is coming.

I see so vividly the disaster about to unfold. Standing on land so gloriously cultivated by generations of family members and so solidly grounded in the shelter of South Mountain, is there any reason to leave?

Arrival, Two Days Before

We drive out of the Lincoln Tunnel and the city sparkles; it is exciting and exasperating all at once. We arrive early Friday night to rain and endless chaos in Manhattan; we are here for Sunday. Tonight, though, is Halloween: cold, wet, and bright. A crazy world of towering skyscrapers, shiny steel structures and gray stone buildings, endless windows, fanciful manikins and pictures of anorexic models on large billboards, traffic signals and bright, electric neon lights filling the night sky; vehicles rushing by, yellow taxis, black limousines, cars honking, whistles, arms waving, transit buses and the crush of noise against the rental van; pedestrians by the thousands: hurrying home, some dressed in costumes, everyone merging together, along with the homeless and the restless and the way-too-busy – indeed, it is Friday night and Halloween, and we are soon part of the decadence and madness of 42nd Street in Midtown Manhattan.

We have entered what seems like an international runners convention sponsored by the travel industry. In the Grand Hyatt, guests in wintery running attire have taken over the lobby; everywhere we see men and women in heavy jackets promoting Italian, Swiss, and other European running teams. It is a distortion, we know. Most of the city is not like this: the quiet neighborhoods, the distinct boroughs where residents live their lives, cities upon cities upon cities surrounding Manhattan. To me, the numbers are overwhelming: so many people live here, but, like us, more are arriving by the minute: Sunday will see thousands of runners in the city, runners from international locations as well as from the States and surrounding region – 55,000 in all and, adding friends and families, the number will bubble to more than a million; a bonanza for the hotels and restaurants throughout the city, the shops and department stores, the theaters and the tourist attractions. I feel the press of everywhere to go, everything to see, everyone around me all at once.

We say goodbye to our daughter after we settle in our small hotel room; she sets off to experience Halloween with her friends on the Upper West Side. Watching her leave so happy and excited to be in the city, I wish I was with her. Instead, we eat dinner in a nearby Italian restaurant; it offers a two-pasta dinner for marathoners. At the table I bask in the new persona, like wearing my own Halloween costume. I would get a stiff drink if I didn’t have my wife and friends watching. They want to believe, after all, after taking days off from work and spending so much time and money to be with me, that I am ready and Sunday will be a celebration. For their sake, I want to believe too.

I suffer from defeatism and deep down it is overwhelming. The clock is ticking like a heartbeat: less than 36 hours and dropping like the temperature. The thoughts reverberating, like breathing: cold and windy Sunday, cold and wintry Sunday, old and rickety Sunday. Now in my sixties, I am, indeed, too old for this and even if I am not, I have not trained at all for cold and windy conditions. Though I packed my winter running clothes: my leggings and tight-weave tee-shirt that I’ll wear under my long sleeve running shirt and windbreaker, though I packed a scarf, wool cap, and two pairs of gloves as well as extra socks, though I told my friends I would be ready for the conditions come what may, I am not into it at all and I have not run in this wearisome attire in months, in fact, not since the dead of last winter. Nor have I trained on hills; my effort toward the end ignored hills in favor of distance, and now I dread running across the expansive steel bridges on the course. I envision sixteen miles into the race, being brutally exposed to the punishing wind while crossing the Queensboro Bridge from Queens to Manhattan, being pushed like a crumpled newspaper against the cold metal railing and plummeting, plummeting over the side and dropping like a bright orange ball of flame between the frigid girders, snuffed in a plume of black smoke into the chop of the East River. I am not horrified by this thought.

Saturday, The Day Before

We go outside Saturday morning and it is colder, as forecasted. A rain is falling now with no let up in sight, at least not until later tonight, so we have been told on the TV in our room. The combination of the cold, rain, and wind when we go outside for breakfast is numbing. Not a great day to be in the city. My daughter joins us at the local breakfast diner, reporting on a night of parties and Halloween celebrations, and I so wish I had joined her. We get in line outside the hotel to take the official bus to the Jacob Javits Convention Center where I am to pick up my race packet, and together with my friends and family, we will enjoy all the sports booths at the exhibitors’ hall. It isn’t long before we are standing in the aisle on a bus and crossing the city.

We engage in loose conversations with others on the bus. A tall woman in her mid-sixties with a thin face and short, stringy hair and a toothy grin stands behind me. She says this is her second time running the New York City Marathon, but it has been ten years; not only has she completed the Big Six marathons, tackling Berlin, Tokyo, London, New York, Boston, and Chicago, but she also has completed a marathon in every state in the union. In fact, this is her hundred-and-first marathon and, she confides as the bus pulls into the Javits Center, this will be her last. As we move forward to get off the bus, she adds behind me, she is tired; she is tired of running marathons. Me too, I say. Me too, though I have barely started. I can feel her tiredness seeping into my pores and my morning enthusiasm drains out of me. Here is a runner who has accomplished so much more. She has been to the mountaintop, but has nothing to show for it but a bunch of old bones. At the center we go our separate ways, and in telling her story to my wife and daughter, they think she is amazing. I think, rather, she is a witch sent to haunt me, or, if nothing else, a bad omen and I need to exorcise her from my memory. I swear, as she walked away, her head swiveled and she stuck her tongue at me. I want to scream, but she has sucked my energy.

I separate from my group when I get my bib and race packet. The exhibition hall is packed with so many people, I realize I could walk past my family and our friends and never see them. This is not at all how I imagined enjoying ourselves visiting all the booths and sports exhibits, and when I finally find everyone through a series of text messages and cell phone calls, we decide to leave the crowds of the convention center and enjoy our day instead as tourists, guests of the city.

We walk the five blocks in the cold rain to the subway and slowly work our way to the 9-11 Memorial in Lower Manhattan. My umbrella has turned inside out against in the stiff wind, and I now feel the rain soaking through my jacket. I keep thinking this is not good, not good at all, as I walk the long blocks with my cluster of friends and family. I should be in a museum somewhere or at the theater, anywhere other than here, and I can feel my nose starting to run, my throat getting sore, and this is inevitable, I decide, as we study the rain pepper the pools of the 9-11 Memorial.

We meet a man at a deli near the memorial. We are seeking a respite from the rain and he approaches us with a big smile and limited English. He is in his late fifties and wears a Greek team running jacket. He is very gregarious, and soon is sitting with us at our table. My friends and family enjoy talking to him and we learn it is his first time running the New York City Marathon; he recommends we travel to Athens, where the conditions are much nicer; he tells us we need to pay homage to the Mother of all Marathons. We agree and my family says we will include Greece in our list of marathons that I will run, and he is very pleased. I am wondering who he is; really, is he for real or is he too an omen? Is he a god in disguise? Will he show up tomorrow?

I am lost in thought. Someone asks me what I am thinking.

I want to ignore the others and say, “If you are a god, I need help,” I want to say it directly to the Greek man with the comforting smile. I want to say, “Please, please help me,” but I lie, smile, and say nothing. When he leaves, he touches my shoulder and says he’ll see me when it’s over.

We tour the Empire State Building later that afternoon. Too much time spent standing out on the observation deck, and I am thoroughly chilled, tired, and dismayed by the wind and rain. The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, where the race will begin on the tip of Staten Island, appears off in the misty distance, like a figment of my imagination; I feel like it’s the day before D-Day and I am staring at Omaha Beach from across the Atlantic Ocean. The bridge is miles away, miles and miles and miles away. I need to go back; I need to go to the hotel; I need to lie down in our room with the TV off and the curtains pulled across our windows overlooking the twenty-six miles across the city. I need to get psyched. I need time alone to commit suicide.

Sunday, The Day

[To be continued.]

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Myrtle Beach

“You’re fucked!”

My friend Shaun is standing beside me in the weight room, and we are both staring at ourselves in the large mirror on the wall.  Behind us are all sorts of weight equipment, benches and treadmills.  Shaun is pumping 40-pound weights while I am struggling with 20 pounds, wondering why I am not using my normal 15s.

“You are totally and royally fucked,” Shaun says with an added “umph,” lifting one of the barbells to his chest.  Shaun is a little wisp of a guy who I used to run with back in our thirties.  Later in our sixties we met at the same gym by chance and he has been advising me on my running ever since.

“I know.  I know.”  I say. Yes, I know this all the way down to the pit of my stomach.  For the past year I have been preparing for the New York City Marathon, the second in my goal of running the six major marathons of the world, but I am struggling with the realities of what is about to unfold.  Now Shaun knows it too.
In truth, the New York City Marathon is self-inflicted torture of physical fatigue and psychological madness: twenty-six miles across an ocean of mean streets, dirty brick buildings, metal bridges and anonymous residential high rises showcasing a city I don’t even like just to get to an island called Central Park where I’ll probably get mugged soon after crossing the finish line.  It dawned on me at the gym that this feat represents nothing more than a fleeting dream for dotting fools and fading dandies, especially now, especially here, especially me. 

To be clear, I ran twenty-two miles a few weeks back in preparing for the marathon, but later failed miserably in my attempt to run twenty-four.  My excuse: the day was too hot, my feet hurt too much, and, to be honest, I just wasn’t into it mentally, not after spending the weekend with my wife and friends at Myrtle Beach.  Now, this week is the race itself.  There’s no way.  I am fucked.

Still, the feeling, like a gleam of excitement inside me, has begun.  Like I know.  I know.  Someone once said to me, life is composed of exciting moments; well, if that is the case, a new memory is gurgling within.  When my wife Karen and I were driving home from the beach, I first felt it bubble inside me: a tinge of anxiousness – the thrill of the unknown, I guess – that or was it a rumbling of debauchery?  

I look to Shaun and manage a slight smile in the mirror holding the weights at my side. Shaun, with his sandy blonde hair and muscled arms is laughing at me.  “You fool, what are you thinking?” he asks.

“I’m fucked.” I reply, lifting my weights.  “I fucked up.”   

Here’s the situation.  Over the weekend, my wife Karen and I went with some friends to Myrtle Beach to enjoy their company and to celebrate, in part, our 27th wedding anniversary.  This is a good thing.  I want to keep my wife happy and we like our friends, except one or two.  The bad thing is I used the occasion to become a wanton fiend.  I wholeheartedly ate everything crappy I could find and I topped it off by drinking way too much throughout the weekend and getting way too drunk Saturday night and didn’t once workout in the exercise room while staying at our ocean side hotel nor take the opportunity to run along the beach.  Not once did I get my act together, as someone in training would do, in spite of the deadline looming ahead, the trial by fire, the burning sea of New York City.

At one point my wife looked at me in horror when she realized I drank a bottle of wine by myself in a restaurant that Saturday night; she grabbed my arm when I went to order a second bottle; it was like I had returned, once again, to haunt her and our friends with my crazy antics, like she knew I would find myself, once more, sleeping against a hotel toilet for comfort later that night.  Lost was the sixty-one year-old marathon-training, devoted husband and stable friend, gone was the amateur athlete entered in a serious and significant marathon that easily could kill him if he wasn’t ready, negated was the tedious summer of steady recovery from a tear in my upper hamstring tendon.  Yes, on Sunday, when I returned home from the beach, the anxious thrill of the approaching marathon bubbled up from the pit of my stomach, but so too a massive headache throbbed against my eyes and six pounds of additional gluttony sagged over my belt. 

“Everyone I know,” Shaun says, pausing in his routine to be sure he has my attention.  

I look over in the mirror at Shaun and nod my head.  

Shaun is telling me his same old story so I lift the heavy barbell in my left hand as if to say, okay, okay, I’m with you, keep going, and Shaun continues, “I mean everyone, all of my friends, everyone – everyone who has run a marathon after the age of sixty has had a heart attack." he says finally.  "I mean everyone.“

Shaun has told me this before.  I nod my head in agreement.  Shaun must be in his early fifties.  I wonder how many friends he has, like me, who are in their sixties.  I am barely in my sixties and none of my friends, other than Shaun, have had heart attacks.  Of course, my wife would say, given I have managed to alienate all of my friends, and other than Shaun, who I bump into now and again, and a few other buddies I see at the gym, though I don’t know their names, technically I don’t have any friends at all.  She would point out that comparing myself to other old guys in the weight room is not a good barometer of heart attacks, and no one in the weight room from what I can see has the letter “A” tattooed on their chests.     

Shaun’s my authority on heart attacks.  When I retired from running back in my forties, Shaun went on to climb mountains in Europe.  Not the ones that get all the attention, he told me once, but all of the rest.  The last time he went Euro-mountaineering a few years ago, he came home and had a massive heart attack while doing something stupid like sleeping, or watching tv, or cleaning out his garage.  Now he is an expert on heart attacks, as well as the mountains of Europe, and swears that oils, like peanut butter, olive oil, and caster oil, led to his cardio catastrophe. 

“Everyone but you.” he adds, just to re-emphasize his point and to get me prepared for the road ahead.  “Everyone but you.”

Death awaits me. 

“What I don’t get,” he goes on, “is why the hell were you at Myrtle Beach?”

This speaks volumes about my will power, determination and dedication going down the final stretch.  What the hell was I doing at Myrtle Beach a week before the New York City Marathon?

“I don’t know.”  I smile weakly at Shaun.  “My wife is trying to kill me.”

Why else would she even suggest such an idea for our anniversary?  She knows I have no will power and would use the occasion to escape from reality. 

I don’t even like Myrtle Beach.  My friends from North Carolina all spoke so highly of the resort town, and, it turns out, no matter whom I asked, every one growing up in North Carolina experienced Myrtle Beach as the key destination of their summer childhoods.  Their families never drove to the Outer Banks or other destinations along the North Carolina coast, the small towns dominated by protected nature reserves, open sandy beaches, and single family homes, which, my friends said, were boring as hell, but always to Myrtle Beach with it’s mammoth Ferris wheel and board walk and arcade and tons of fun things to do at night as kids or with their families in the shopping centers surrounding the town.

What I saw was a tiny beach pressed by large hotels and high-rise condominiums, packed tight against each other and dominating the oceanfront.  Myrtle Beach was nothing but a box store for the masses, and I realized we were spending our anniversary being part of the millions in the cookie-cutter hotels overlooking the metallic gray ocean, staring down from our dirty balcony at thousands of fat vacationers stuffed into rickety folding chairs under faded flamingo umbrellas.  Maybe this was my excuse: I was depressed.  The width and breath of huge hotels huddled together against the beach, the endless parking lots backing up the hotels, filling in the empty spaces of the city between the row of high rises and the worn out hopping centers hustling entertainment packaged for the millions, like cesspools stretched out into the South Carolina marshland.

“Fucking Myrtle Beach,” I add, grimacing at Shaun.  “and too much fucking wine.”     

A week from the race and, as Shaun can see from the twitch in my face every time he mentions the words “New York City Marathon,” I am in trouble.  My wife, daughter and I leave in two days to drive to the city and nowhere on our schedule is there time for last-minute training.  It is too late for me to do anything but commiserate with Shaun one last time in the gym on the follies of man, the downfall of good men gone bad, and the prevalence of heart attacks in sixty-year-old marathoners. 

In spite of the fact that I am not nearly in the shape I was in a year ago, heavier by ten to fifteen pounds, conditioning not close to as complete as last fall, slower by more than a minute in my runs, and not nearly as tough as I need to be – in spite of all of this, the marathon will go on and I will be in it, a bobbing head slowly sinking below the surface in an ocean of 55,000 runners.

“Hey, look at it this way,” Shaun says, putting his barbells onto the rack.  He moves to the doorway of the weight room, getting ready to go home.  “If you have a heart attack, New York City has some of the best hospitals in the world.”

Great,” I say, “if the cost of the hospitals are anything like the hotel on Myrtle Beach, I’ll be bankrupt in a week.”

What I don’t say, staring at myself in the mirror, is that, just maybe, this is the real me coming to the marathon party, the actual me finally showing up for the boogaloo-down-Broadway.  Me: the sixty-one-year-old dude who runs weekends and struggles daily to keep his weight down, the good old boy who gives up training every time to wine and dine with family and friends no matter where he is or what lies ahead.  No, I am not the invincible warrior who ran the Chicago Marathon last year at a trim 175 pounds, the Thor-like god who completed the 26.2-mile course more than a half-an-hour faster then when I was in my thirties.  No, in truth, I am the station wagon washout from North Carolina who chose to churn up the surf at Myrtle Beach; I am the sad guy who simply wants to complete the race without sinking like a stone and drowning in wave after wave of humanity for the world to see on national tv. 


Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Take a Magic Bean

Take a magic bean.

Beans have always worked for me.  Take a bean, feel better.  Wasn’t that our motto as teenagers?

This is an exercise in futility, I am afraid – no bean will get me ready for the New York Marathon in November.

Instead I am spending my time reading the book ‘On Writing’ by Stephen King.  

Clearly, avoidance behavior at its finest.

Stephen King, the prolific author of the macabre genre, says he writes 2,000 words a day.  This reflects the discipline he has developed over the years and is what he recommends for aspiring writers. 

Discipline.  This is the key word. 

If one wants to be a professional writer, one has to be, you know, that. 

He says it takes him typically from four to six hours a day to write 2,000 words, and he does this six to seven days a week.

I am told, this is, for those of us who need to visualize these things, ten pages a day, day in, day out. 


I think – since I work full-time and am training for the you-know-what in New York come November – I would be wise to cut back on such a level of commitment.  My goal should be smaller.  I can build my stamina later. 

Five minutes. 

Every morning I should write for five good minutes. 

Five minutes sounds like something I can handle.  Five minutes is do-able.

One page. 

Something, in fact, I can do right now this morning.

Maybe, even, a page-and-a-half.

This way I won’t get overly tired from the mental exertion or be fired for being late for work, and I can save my physical strength for my oh-never-mind.   

Still, we mustn’t forget those beans. 

Magic beans could come in awfully handy with writing too!

Okay then, Stephen King says he goes into a room, the room where he chooses to write, closes the door, and sequesters himself inside (with the blinds drawn) until he produces his ten pages for the day.  Hmmmm….

For me, it would be better if I used my kitchen counter.  Much easier. 

Besides, I like having access to the coffee machine, the refrigerator, the pantry, the bread drawer, the bananas near the knives – much better than being off somewhere in the house with the door closed.  That sounds so secretive...  

In the kitchen, I bet, I can write, say, fifty words easy.  No problem.  Then, I can get up and make myself a piece of toast.   

Fifteen more words and I can refill my coffee cup.

Thirty words and I can look at my face in the downstairs bathroom mirror and practice my visualization exercises: how to smile on the back jacket of my Pulitzer Prize-winning book.

Wait.  What is that thing on my nose?  Where did that come from

I decide, back at the kitchen counter, doing the math: rather than fifty words, if I write 500 words a day, six days a week, I can generate 3,000 words in one week and, say, 12,000 words in a month. 

This would be… hmmmm, let’s see…

This would be sixty pages in one month!  Wow!

This would be so cool.

Let’s see…

If I actually made an effort to combine these sixty pages of words into real sentences (with meaning!) and, maybe even, sorted the sentences into paragraphs to help categorize my thoughts, it could be even cooler!

In fact, it could be extraordinary! 

How difficult can it be to write 500 words and have them bunched together in short, separate sentences with, say, subjects, verbs and, direct objects?  Like, ah, someone doing something to someone.  Simple!  How tough can this be?

Hmmmm....  I must mull this over – especially while I check the refrigerator.  

I wonder what we are having for dinner tonight?  I need something healthy – I am running a marathon after all.

I need coffee…

Okay, I’m back and focused on writing.  What was it, fifty words?

Wait!  I really should wash the pots and pans from last night.

We had spaghetti for dinner. 

Why is it that I am the one who cleans up afterward?  For that matter, why is it that I never clean up after dinner, but always, always, always wait until the next morning? 

What a mess.

I decide at the sink, I like the concept of discipline in writing.

In truth, I realize in running the hot water, I actually thought about getting myself disciplined long before Stephen King’s book. 

In fact, I know, I’ve lacked discipline all of my life. 

When they handed out the discipline gene, I must have been in the line for magic beans…   

I recall a morning, just like this morning, earlier this year (or was it last year?); it was the morning when I first realized the truth:

I am a lazy writer.

At that time, though, I decided, I needed to think about this some more as I really lacked supporting evidence to justify such an accusation. 

Stop.  Now I've just realized –  

I am a lazy runner too – which is why my training is turning into such a disaster!  

My verdict across the board is ‘guilty’ as charged. 

I am a lazy writer, a lazy runner, and a lazy person! 

Becoming more disciplined is just the kind of punishment I need.  

Like breaking rocks…

Thirty minutes a day of actual writing should be my sentence.

Only now I’ll have to come up with a storyline.

Say, wait, Stephen King says he doesn’t like having a plot.  He simply puts characters into situations and let’s them go wherever it takes them.

Whew!  This works for me.

Most of my essays are plot-less and all of my characters, namely me, are in “situations” all the time.

Just like with this piece. 

And I'm not sure where it is taking me, either. 

In fact, working my way out of this predicament (and the one about to unfold in a month, like an impending disaster) is precisely why magic beans could come in so handy.   

Suddenly, I feel as one with Stephen King.  I am all warm and fuzzy inside.  Maybe I too can get published. 

Opps.  Wait a minute...  .

Okay, back again. 

I think the other thing is not to stop. 

I mean in terms of writing.  

“In running,” my old coach says, “the key is not to stop!”  

Only, Coach, when I write an actual paragraph, I feel like celebrating. 

I have to get serious.  

Tomorrow I get serious.  

My 500-word enterprise will begin tomorrow, and I’ll focus on a more compelling narrative too. 

Today is simply practice.  Getting the feel of what it means to be disciplined.
Maybe I need to move my writing to a less “addictive” place. The garage?

But NO, here I sit at my kitchen counter, disciplining myself to write, write, write…

And, that means: focus, focus, focus….

Say, wait a minute, I haven’t actually read the ‘focus’ chapter and Stephen King may have some insight on that too. 

Jeez, this writing business is harder than it seems.  

Maybe I should go running, or, rather, take a magic bean.