Training so far this year has gone fairly well. I’ve begun to take my education into the the sport of triathlon seriously, wanting to learn as much of the details as possible to become a better athlete. I realized that the best way to enhance my own understanding of the proper triathlon training and fueling / hydration processes was to take a course. I wasn’t sure which one of which one to start with – so I first needed to expand my field of mental vision: I needed to think bigger picture. If I went through with this and pursued an education into the sport…what else could I do with it aside from getting my slow butt across an Ironman finish line (or two…or three…or four…)?
The result was signing up for the Certified Ironman Coach course. The course itself was extremely detailed, and the two part final exam was not easy by any stretch of the imagination. However, I worked hard, read a lot, and studied. Part two of the final turned into a 21-page written exam that was VERY detailed and demanding. I can’t honestly say how long it took me to complete – but just seeing it through to the end was a feat for me, so regardless of whether I passed for failed, I learned a TON. When I found out I passed and scored my certification, I got really psyched. You know how sometimes you need to score a win or two in order to get on a roll? Well that’s what I hope this does for me. Only time will tell.
Like I said: I want to use the information I learned to help myself, and if I can help others in the process – AWESOME.
Now that I have taken this step, I’m going to continue my education into fitness by earning a Personal Trainer certification from the National academy of Sports Medicine. I am also going to work toward my Level One Coaching certification from USA Triathlon. These will take a bit more time – but this process has reminded me just how much I loved to learn and study. So for now….one step at a time.
I was signed up for the New York City Triathlon on Sunday, July 16th….but some severe knee pain (something that I haven’t felt in a VERY long time) has resulted in some high-quality inflammation and a pain migraine caused me to defer to next year. I am so disappointed about this. However, I need to continue to think big-picture and heal now so that I can finish Marine Corps in October, the NYC Marathon and the NYC 60k in November, and the California International Marathon in December. So I know I made the right call…..but I am not happy about it. especially after going through the athlete briefing and picking up my gear, etc for it. The expo got be psyched to take another shot at this Olympic-length race.
Moving on….another thing I have been busy working on is something I’ve kept to myself for a while – but now that it’s very close to completion, I wanted to share a little of it with you: I am in the process of finishing my first book. It’s the story of the 500 mile endurance run I finished in 2015, from the Walt Disney Family Museum in the Presidio of San Francisco to the front gates of Disneyland for charity. I’m hoping that the book will bring a little more attention to Do Away With SMA, a 501c-3 charity that tries to raise money and awareness to combat Spinal Muscular Atrophy – the number one genetic killer of kids under the age of two in the world. This process has been tough….but enlightening. I figured I’d share some of it with you. Looking back on 2015, it was 18 of the toughest days of my life. I was battered and bruised – but it was worth every ache. I hope you like it……so without further adieu:
It was one of those days where nothing felt right. My shoes were uncomfortable – the rough terrain took a toll on my feet. My legs felt like lead due to the lack of practice I had running on soft dirt, high grass and uneven / rough ground. I didn’t take in enough water as the miles added up, so dehydration slowly worked its way into this witch’s brew of frustration. I have already logged well over 200 miles, I got a love-tap from a Toyota Forerunner, and I hissed at a mountain lion. I knew the physical aspects of this long-distance would continue to show their ugly faces, but it was the mental part of this game that felt like it had grown out of control. I couldn’t get out of my own head. I kept thinking of my past, reliving every stupid thing I did – every dumb decision I made. Every person I hurt as a result of my selfish character. I wasn’t sleeping well. I couldn’t get the visions out of my clouded skull. While cranking out miles this morning, the mental and physical challenges decided to tag-team me.
Back home in New York City, I use training as a method of controlling other emotions. If I feel depressed or melancholy, I put in some miles and let those wonderful endorphins work their magic. If I wake up feeling a bit off, I run – and I come home with things feeling a bit clearer. If something upsets me at work or otherwise, I put in miles on the bike or do some strength training in order to redirect my negativity. The daily pounding handed out by the road over the past 200 miles shredded my ability to effectively utilize my normal attitude adjustment rituals. I was used to being sore – it was the normal state of affairs. I grew to love the dull ache that I lived with. This, however, was different. I was not sore; this, instead, was pain. A pain that kept me up each night. My ribs were still sore from getting hit by that truck. My legs hurt to the touch. My arms and back made trying to sleep extremely difficult due to the constant motion that comes with running more than 7-8 hours a day. In short: I was worn out, and about 6 and a half hours in to my day I simply broke down on the side of the road. As I sat there in the dust truly wanting to call it quits, I thought back to 2005 and my first marathon. Yet another dark period that I couldn’t climb out of – but one that also provided me with a glimmer of hope that I desperately needed.
Looking back on it, November 6th 2005 was one of the greatest – and one of the worst – days of my life. For on that Sunday morning, I finally felt like I had turned a corner from the darkest periods of my life, and began to feel a glimmer of inner peace I so desperately desired, by putting myself through a near-death experience over a course of 26.2 miles of pavement that lay between the Varrazanno Bridge and Tavern on the Green. Emil Zatopek, the legendary Czech distance running champion, was once quoted as saying that “if you want to simply win something, go run 100 meters. But if you want to experience a life-changing event, run a marathon”. Truer words were never spoken.
A few years after my daughter was born, the ugliness that encased our small family unit came to a messy end. I lost my wife to a peaceful yet extremely painful divorce. I lost primary custody of my little buddy – my kiddo – my daughter (and losing custody of her felt like the 7th ring of Dante’s Inferno in and of itself). I lost my home because I constantly over-promised and under-delivered, which resulted in severe financial over extension. I lived in a small basement apartment and felt as though my life was worthless – as if I had nothing to offer anyone and was technically worth more dead than alive. I attempted to end it all – and failed, and all manner of self-respect evaporated. I was embarrassed to associate with friends, as I felt like I had failed them too – I wasn’t the same quality person they grew up on the baseball diamond and football field with.
Each day I woke up utterly rudderless, and climbed back into bed each evening feeling the same exact way. Something needed to snap me out of this, because I wasn’t in the mental state to do it myself.
The failures that I experienced were not new to me. I had seen these types of poor decision-making first hand on a number of occasions under my own roof growing up. I was once the seven year-old child that watched my parents divorce under a horrid set of circumstances. I also played the part of a thirteen year-old boy that watched his father divorce his second wife and marry his third over the course of a summer. As a 20 year-old, I watched from the bleacher seats as my father divorced wife number three and moved on to wife number four.
After experiencing the pain that an ugly divorce inflicts, I vowed to never let my children endure the same pain….and here I was. The fear of putting my daughter in the same position that I experienced as a child raised its horrid head.
My ex-wife and my daughter moved to Queens, and my daughter enrolled in a more challenging Catholic school in Woodside. The combination of a broken family and greater academic competition resulted in Chelsea feeling very discouraged, to the point that, one Friday evening when I picked her up for a Daddy-Kiddo weekend, she walked toward the car in tears. We sat in my Jeep, and spoke about what troubled her. “Dad”, she softly murmured, “…..this school is too hard. I can’t do it. I want to quit.” If you ever heard your child utter those words, you know how they make a parent feel: it’s as if some villain from an X-Men movie reached through your skin and grabbed your heart in his malformed hand, and began to squeeze. Those words were crushing….but they also woke me up out of a coma of self-pity.
That was the moment that reminded me that I have a duty to someone other than myself, to be a good parent regardless of what curveballs like throws at me. My mom saw so many sliders in the dirt that she must have gotten furious in the batter’s box, wondering when the darn pitcher of life would throw her a nice fat fastball to crush. She didn’t give up. She didn’t try to off herself. She saw what needed to be done and she DID it. And here I was, trying to quit and take the easy way out for myself, leaving my daughter and my mom to grieve due to my cowardess. Seeing my daughter’s tear roll down her dimpled cheeks was the wake-up call I needed.
As we sat there in the truck, I told her that I understood how hard school could be, and that every kid feels the way she felt at certain times. I tried to console her, saying that she could do anything – there was nothing out of her reach in this life. All she needed to do was work hard and try hard…and never quit. At that moment, I went on to make her a simple deal: if Chelsea would do something hard for me – try harder, work harder, and study harder, then I would do something hard for her. “…but Dad – what will you do?” she softly inquired. I told her that she could elect the feat that I would strive toward.
Two weeks later, when I picked her up in front of her mom’s apartment on a Friday evening, Chelsea had a big smile on her face. She cracked open the door to the Jeep and couldn’t wait to tell me the news – but first, a few questions needed to be answered. The conversation went something like this:
“Dad….what’s a marathon?”
“Well kiddo, it’s a really long road race. Like over 20 miles or something. Why?”
“Do you think you can run one?”
“Well bud, anyone probably could, if they trained right. …..why?”
“Dad, are there any marathons in New York?”
……..oh…….crap. I see where this is going……..
“…why yes, kiddo. The New York City Marathon is one of the biggest in the world. It’s on TV and everything. So again, I’ll ask……ummmmmm……WHY?”
“Well Dad, I made the decision. I learned a little about the marathon today in school. The whole thing about Greece, and that runner guy who ran to Athens…..and you know how you promised to do something hard for me? WEEEEEEELLL…….can you run the New York City Marathon?”
OK – this is the moment where I was a duck on the pond: I looked calm on the outside, but under the water my little webbed feet were moving 90 miles an hour trying to come up with any reason at all why this wasn’t a great idea. Aaaaaaaaaaaand…….NOTHING CAME TO MIND.
She very happily strapped herself in to the back seat and we set off for the Bronx. I signed up for the marathon lottery that evening. Unfortunately, I wasn’t selected through the lottery to run, so I took whatever money I had available and signed up to run for the New York Road Runners Foundation by making a specific donation to the charity. I didn’t have much money in the bank – but what price can a parent place on being a role model for your kid? I felt it was the right move at the time.
All summer and fall, I’d take myself out for simple runs in old sneakers. Did I wear good running shoes? Nope. Did I know anything about nutrition? Pizza is a food group – so I think you can make your own determination there. Did I know anything about proper hydration? I’ll just grab some water when I’m thirsty – what’s so hard about that? Did I follow any type of training plans? Put it this way: I went to Barnes & Noble and bought Marathon Running For Dummies…..and then proceeded to leave it on my coffee table for weeks at a time, assuming that I’d learn what needed to be done via osmosis. By Halloween, the longest run I ever completed was somewhere around 8 miles. But other than that….I was ready for this.
That morning in November of 2005, my alarm clock began its job at 4am. At first, the slow-paced beep it exuded was polite in tone – as if to say, “Joseph, please awaken from your slumber – you have a long day ahead and you must get started”. How gentle. So gentle, in fact, that I ignored the little digital apparatus altogether. I figured that it wouldn’t mind. I figured wrong.
After a full minute of my clock’s polite banter, it began to get annoyed with my obvious laziness. So it did what any parent does to a child that won’t come to the dinner table after several summons – it took a more stern tone with the object of its growing frustration. The beeps became louder and quicker, as if to say “Look – I don’t like being ignored, Joe. So get up. Now. I’m not joking. Move it. And don’t make me ask you again, or else….” I hadn’t slept very well – I tossed and turned all night out of sheer nervousness and excitement. I managed to fall asleep three hours prior – so this alarm clock was really being quite disrespectful and, as a result, did not deserve my attention, in my humble opinion. So I covered my ears with a pillow, knowing that it had no snooze button (I had broken it by throwing a sneaker at it a month ago). It had now become a battle of wills.
Then – it happened. My clock lost all patience with me at exactly 4:02am. The beeps became loud and fast enough to pierce the down pillows, enter my inner ear and travel down my spine. It felt like being awakened by your worst enemy running his fingernails across a chalkboard. “GET UP RIGHT NOW, YOU LAZY SCHMUCK” said the clock. My resolve to stay hidden under warm blankets had finally been broken by Sony. I slowly wiped the sleepers from my eyes, reached over and shut off the alarm. The sudden silence was soothing.
Before I went to bed, I had laid out my running clothes: my extremely worn yet still functional black technical shirt, a pair of black running shorts, a pair of knit gloves, thick socks, and my weather-beaten running shoes. The race bib was attached to my shirt already. I had charged my Ipod. I had done all of the prep work the night before – so this morning should be easy. All I had to do was get up and get dressed. I swung my legs over the side of the bed, saying to myself – “Motion creates emotion”. The day I had had spent the past six months training for had arrived. Sunday, November 6th, 2005: The ING New York City Marathon.
I jumped into the shower and basked in the soothing hot water that cascaded on my head and shoulders. Realizing that I needed to wake myself up, I turned the water from hot to cold, and was jolted to life by the temperature change. That got the heart pumping. I finished my shower and went continued the Marathon Morning routine: I applied Body Glide to my inner thighs to defend against the chaffing that was bound to happen in a race of this kind, shaved, brushed my teeth and hair, and changed into my racing garments. Knowing that the day’s temperature was expected to hit 60 degrees – but it was only 40 right now – I threw on an old jacket, grabbed my bag and bottles of Gatorade, and closed the front door behind me. I inhaled a deep breath of the cold pre-dawn air and walked to the curb, to await my morning chauffer…my mother.
J.R.R. Tolkien once wrote that “it’s a dangerous thing, stepping out your front door”. That exact quote rattled through my brain as I walked to the curb, and for good reason: the first person to ever complete the run that I was about to undertake dropped dead at the finish. The legend is told that Emperor Darius of the Persians (circa 500 BC) attempted to take over ancient Greece through invasion. The Athenians found out about the coming invasion, and sent troops to intercept. Sure enough, Darius had his ships make ground in the Bay of Marathon and a great battle ensued. The Athenians – fierce warriors who loved their country and the freedom it provided, defeated the mighty Persian army and drove the invaders back to the sea. With the victory well in hand, the Athenian general dispatched a runner named Phillipedes to Athens with news of the triumph. Phillipedes ran the twenty five miles from Marathon to Athens as fast as he could, arrived at the foot of the Athenian throne, and pronounced “Rejoice! Victory!”….and then he dropped dead at the feet of his king.
Now – fast-forward approximately 2,300 years. It’s 1896, and the first Olympic Games were being held in Athens. It was decided that, on the last day of the Olympiad, a group of athletes would run in the footsteps of Phillipedes, from the town of Marathon to the Coliseum in Athens. The winner of the first marathon was a Greek runner…and more than half of the athletes could not finish. Word of the Greek runner’s victory spread throughout the country and stirred a sense of deep nationalism. Word of the difficulty of the event spread throughout the world – and the allure of the event now called the marathon began to take shape.
As word of the marathon carried from city to city through newspaper reporting, cities began organizing their own marathons (in the United States, the first – and now widely considered the most prestigious – marathon was run in Boston). Marathons run in other cities became very popular events to attend. Interest in this form of long distance running began to take shape.
OK – grab your remote control again and fast forward 12 years. It’s now 1908, and the games of the fourth Olympiad were being held in London, England. The committee of people responsible for scheduling all of the events mapped out the twenty five mile course that would take the marathon runners through the streets of the great English city. When the plans were laid in front of Queen Victoria, she demanded that the start of the race be moved back one mile and 385 yards so that the royal family could watch the start of the race from the balcony of Windsor Castle. This change in the marathon route resulted in the current length of the modern day marathon: 26.2 miles. (NOTE: if you ever find yourself on the sidelines of a marathon, cheering on the masses, I would recommend finding a spot near the mile 25 marker. Why? Because marathoners that know the race’s history tend to vocalize their disdain for the added 1.2 miles by yelling “God insert expletive here the Queen!)
My Mom had volunteered to drive me to Battery Park, where numerous buses waited to take thousands of runners from Manhattan to Fort Wadsworth in Staten Island – the staging area for the race. As she hopped into her Mercedes to chauffer me down the East Side, I felt both guilt (at the fact that she was awake at 5am on a Sunday) and fear (because I wanted my effort today to make her proud, and I had no clue whether I’d be able to handle what was in store for me). As we began to drive over the City Island Bridge on our way to the Bruckner Expressway, she asked me several times if I had everything I needed, including a MetroCard (just in case you cannot finish and you need a way home) and some money (just in case you cannot finish and you need to call everyone and let them know). That’s my Mom – always worried about everyone else but herself. Would help anyone in need. Always wants to make sure that her family is taken care of and is safe. She was nervous. So was I. So I simply told her not to worry, and that I had what I needed. In a way, I lied. But in a way, I didn’t.
I technically lied to her that morning because I made sure that I didn’t bring a MetroCard or money with me. Why? Because I wouldn’t need them. I was going to finish. I had my running shoes, good socks, a bottle of water, some horrid-tasting gels, and a ton of determination. That was all I needed. Or so I hoped.
We arrived at Battery Park at 5:50am – just minutes before the first starting line buses were scheduled to depart. My Mom wished me luck, and I told her I’d see her at the finish line. As I watched her drive away, I realized that I was really going through with this. I was really about to embark on the second most difficult experience of my life – I was about to run the New York City Marathon.
I took a deep breath, turned on my heel and headed to the bus. As I stood on line, waiting to board along with other nervous runners, I kept thinking to myself that if I could handle everything else that I went through over the prior couple of years, I could handle the ordeal that I was about to put myself through. What could be worse than making so many foolish mistakes that it costs you your very soul? I figured that if I was somehow able to handle that torment and still remember to breath in and out on a daily basis, my rather robust personal goals for this marathon should, in fact, be a piece of cake. Famous last words.
The bus took an hour to make it to the runner drop-off point in Fort Wadsworth, in Staten Island. For the next several hours, I tried to stay warm by hunkering down up against a tree and removing myself from the winds that carried with them that extra level of cold that seeps through your clothing. The rolling start that followed was a long, cold march to the line, and then over the Varrazanno Bridge. It is on the span of this structure where the runners are able to see the Manhattan skyline in the distance, putting the sheer distance of this race into optical perspective. Once over the bridge, the runners pass through Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. This is where the journey really begins, as fans 2-3 deep on both sides of the 4th Avenue yell and scream for a band of complete strangers during what some people refer to as the “Worst…..Parade…..Ever”. Bands play every type of music you can think of short of yodeling. New Yorkers basically turn this course into a 26 mile block party, and it’s a perfect illustration of why the Big Apple is so amazing: every race, color and creed are represented both in the field of runners and in the 2.5 million spectators and volunteers that line the streets. No one cares if you are Irish, Black, Ecuadorian, Swiss. We’re just all New Yorkers on that day, with 50,000 of them with the task of trying to make it 26.2 miles and 2.5 million of them with the collective goal of helping these people achieve a huge goal. Seriously – it’s magical when you think about it.
I waddled through Brooklyn, and made it to Queens before my wheels started to come off. I had never run this distance before, and I still had 12 miles to go. For some reason, I had begun to chafe in some sensitive areas, and my shoulders were sore from the swinging motion of my arms. By the time I got over the 59th Street Bridge and into Manhattan, I was in a world of hurt. Blisters had begun to form on the sides of my feet, and I began to feel light-headed. I definitely didn’t take in enough water, and all I had for breakfast was a single bagel and some water. Hindsight being 20-20, I made most mistakes that runners could possibly make…..in a single race. I managed to get myself across the Willis Avenue Bridge, where Mile 20 resided. Mile 20 is technically referred to by the distance running community as The Wall, since it is estimated that most runners run out of efficient-burning fuel (carbohydrates) at this point. The body flips a switch and begins burning fat, which is much less efficient – and this results in a whole array of funky things in runners. Some get dizzy. Some get weak. Some have a hard time focusing. Others power through it since they stuck to a fueling plan and took in the right amount of additional fuel during the race. I’ll give you one guess as to how I felt at this point (and, keep in mind, I had never even tried a gel before this day).
Shortly after I passed the Mile 20 marker, there was a water stop. I grabbed a cup of water out of sheer desperation, as the weariness and discomfort I had carried with me for the past couple of hours escalated into a level of pain that made me begin to panic. Something was really wrong. It hit me quick, with bad intentions – like a Mike Tyson left hook to the jaw. I couldn’t focus. I began to feel dizzy. Really dizzy. Things became blurry…..and then it happened. As my right foot came down onto the street during this blurry few moments, I didn’t realize the small pothole that was directly in front of me. As I was running very close to the curb, my foot went into the hole, and I fell forward, hitting my head on the concrete. Things went black for a minute.
I had scraped my knees and the palms of my hands, and there was a bit of blood from a cut on my forehead, along with a decent-sized knot which immediately began to form. I got to my hands and knees and paused for a moment….and it was in these few precious seconds that a very large Hispanic man kneeled next to me and, in Spanish, began to yell “GET UP!!!!!! GET UP!!!!!!! LETS GO!!!! GET UP!!!” The voice was so loud and so close that it jarred me awake. I shook the fall off, got back to my feet, and basically continued to waddle forward out of a knee-jerk reaction.
The rest of the marathon was a complete blur. I don’t recall running through Harlem. I don’t remember that amazing gospel choir at the base of the Fifth Avenue Hill. I don’t have a single picture in my head of the Central Park hills on that day, Central Park South, or even the finish at Tavern on the Green. I was a hobbling, bloody mess after 26.2 miles – but I survived. A volunteer draped a medal over my head, and I waddled on to the UPS van that held my bag of dry clothes. After I picked up my bag, I worked my way out of the park to the spot where I was supposed to meet my mom and my daughter. When she saw me, my kiddo jumped into my arms and I got the single greatest hug a dad could ever score. She then looked at me and uttered “ummmm Dad – you look crappy.” It was at this moment that I put her down, dropped to one knee and put my medal around her neck. “Now, buddy – you can do anything if you don’t quit. Got it?”
Well I think she got the point, because she went from a struggling student to straight A’s and entrance into a fairly strong high school. My mission: accomplished. Although I was battered, bruised and physically beaten, this was the day I fell in love with running.
Fast forward ten years. Here I am fighting through some of the same pain that made my first marathon such a vivid memory all through the miles I logged. I felt like quitting today. Today the road beat me, badly. It beat me physically and it tortured me emotionally. That was when I found that vacant egg shack along the side of a dusty road and I stopped. I dropped to the wooden floor of the shack and I broke down. Robyn was on her way to me – I tried to describe where I was, and I had faith in her navigating talents – but I didn’t want her to find me so quickly. I wanted to hide in this shack for a while and feel sorry for myself. I was running out of gas, and I was running out of enthusiasm. I trained for well over a year to handle the mileage, but I was not prepared for the emotional turmoil that came with this journey. My daughter and Robyn’s daughter were coming to join the expedition in just a few days, so after several minutes of tears and sobbing, I tried to think of a way to fix my head.
After we returned to the hotel and we grabbed a hot meal, I retired to my room and spent some time doing emotional triage. It was then that it hit me: I will pull a Jimmy Valvano. His motto of “survive and advance” was my motto throughout the darkest days, and it would once again be called upon to get me through the next 200 miles.
Survive today. Advance to tomorrow. All the rest is white noise.