I returned home on the bus from Atlantic City, New Jersey to Manhattan’s Upper West Side sore and dealing with mixed emotions. My pace during the Ocean Drive Marathon was exactly what I wanted. I didn’t take the first five kilometers too fast. I focused on my breathing and controlling the swinging motion of my arms. My legs felt fresh. I had prepared as well as I could. The course was flat – although the head wind was going to add a few minutes to my time, I felt supremely confident as I toed the starting line.
But, as in any sport: one odd bounce of the ball – one errant swing of the bat – a shot that sails just over the crossbar – or, in my case, one instance of taking in fuel a third of the way into the race resulting in a lost tooth – adjusted the course of the outcome. It was a firm case of Marathon Running meets Chaos Theory.
Now before you actually begin thinking that I understand higher mathematics, let me clarify: everything I ever knew about Chaos Theory I learned from watching Jurassic Park. I….am…not…kidding. Jeff Goldblum explains it perfectly: two drops of water placed on the exact same spot on a person’s hand resulted in different outcomes: each drop of water moved in a different direction. Why? Could have been the small hairs on the hand. Or the person’s pores. Or the wind. Or simple gravity. Who knows. Bottom line: even when you think a result is rather predicable due to your understanding of most of the important variables built in to its calculation, there is always something within the equation which cannot be controlled or accounted for which effects the outcome.
For me: losing a tooth at mile nine. THAT was Chaos Theory at its best. There was no message sent to me in the days prior from my mouth to my brain, saying the following:
Mouth: “OK folks – we’ve got an issue. Loose crown. Right side of your jaw. Fix it before race day, or else you’re liable to swallow the darn thing.”
Brain: “Understood – thanks for the head’s up. Now where the hell did I leave the Crazy Glue?”
In the days that followed Ocean Drive, I went on a roller coaster ride of emotions. Up and down. High and low. I kept thinking about the fact that, even after feeling so confident and ready for 26.2 miles of running – something as freak as losing a tooth could disrupt my focus on the matter at hand. The inability to fuel during the race caused me to crash before mile 19. The last 12 kilometers went by in a dull haze. The Tool perched himself on my shoulder with a tiny bag of popcorn and a crap-eating grin on his weathered face, enjoying my misery. To the victor went the spoils.
The emotional roller coaster ride lasted through the third week in April. Not good. Not good at all. The timing of this distraction was incredibly poor as well, for on April 29th I would run the race that I had circled on my calendar as the one I was most nervous about: Gettysburg. In order for me to build momentum for the remainder of the year, I needed to bounce back from this doldrums I had fallen into. Quickly. The Tool had sensed his opening and was really making the most of it, playing on my confidence like Yo-Yo Ma plays the cello. He made the most of this opportunity. He was, indeed, winning.
Gettysburg was a marathon that I both looked forward to as well as feared. The smallest field of runners that I planned to run with all year long: 500 marathoners. The most hills of any race I have ever encountered: 16 miles of them, beginning within a half of a mile from the starting line. Very few spectators: this provides The Tool with a valuable edge later in the race – his constant message of pain and discouragement comes through clearly without the strong noise of spectators to drown him out. Water stations every 3 miles instead of every 1-2 miles. And lastly: the weather reports predicted crystal clear skies and 75-80 degrees – without shade, this last factor could make the day go from bad to worse in an awful hurry. In a field of just 500 marathoners, there was no pack to hide within. No pack to draw energy from. I would be alone at some point, and would need to look within to get myself to the finish. Gettysburg would be a pure test….but I didn’t feel like I was ready for such a challenge.
The Friday before Gettysburg, I sat in my firm’s New York City office right near Times Square. I looked west from a high office window, and stared at the New Year’s Ball that sits perched atop the southernmost point of the square. Then I looked down at all of the people, scurrying around like ants. Things look much different 40 stories above the ground than they do whilst standing on the corner of 42nd and Broadway. At that moment, it hit me: success is all about perspective.
I spent more than three weeks contemplating the things that I needed to address or think about before Gettysburg. I racked my brain in a vain effort to mitigate the possibility of Chaos Theory coming into play once more. But this entire time I was looking at my last marathon experience from ground level. Taking a different perspective: I had finished a marathon running constantly into a headwind, losing a tooth and finishing without fueling during the race. If I could do that – why couldn’t I handle hills? Why couldn’t I handle running 26.2 miles in basic solitude? From 40 stories up, life appeared a bit clearer.
From now on, I’m going to stop asking myself “Why?” and begin saying to myself “Why not?” Success in completing a marathon is one part physical and one part mental. And both the physical and the mental need constant training. The physical gets you through the first 20 miles. The mental gets you home.
As I packed my bag for Gettysburg, I felt my nerves tingle. 16 miles of hills. Nervous. Excited. Focused. And now mentally ready. The fields of Gettysburg would witness another battle: myself versus The Tool. And there was no way he was going to win the day.