The Eternal Saturn Return Part 4: Montreal 2017

There is a saying that goes: “No expectations, no disappointments”.

I’ve always viewed this particular idiom as a double-edged sword.  

On one hand, it’s true that if you don’t think about the end result, there is no way you can be let down in the end.  Not having expectations allows you to remain in the present and not focus on the what-ifs.

But on the other hand, without expectations what is the point of having any goals at all?  How are you going to get anything done? We have to open ourselves up to be let down every once in awhile; this is what makes the successes taste sweeter.    

I understand what the quote is trying to say; I just don’t think it’s entirely true.  Both expectations and disappointments – if handled properly – can fuel us and propel us to greater heights than we thought imaginable.  

In life, our expectations going into any situation or event are what determine our level of enjoyment and can at times be an excellent predictor for success.  There is a fine line between hopeful and desperate, between confident and arrogant. We must learn to balance along this line in order to achieve the greatest possible outcome and be satisfied with it.

For example, let’s say you like to play the lottery – as my great-grandfather did for many years.  You would be pretty foolish to expect to win the grand prize.  If you expect to win and become obsessed with winning, chances are that when you inevitably don’t, you’ll be incredibly miserable.  But if you are able to turn that hope into something positive and focus on the big picture, your world won’t be shattered every time the numbers don’t go your way.   

My great-grandfather was able to accomplish just that.  He would play the lottery for all of us – his family – so he can leave us with something before he died.  

But his desire to win never prevented him from sharing all of his love while he was with us.  He wasn’t demoralized every time he didn’t win the lottery – that would’ve driven him insane. Instead, he focused on what he could control.  And he left us with more than he could have ever imagined.

He understood why he played the lottery.  And that purpose fueled him. The disappointments never crippled him.               

Thus, without even realizing it, both expectations and disappointments shape how we experience the world around us.  It predicts how we will handle the peaks and valleys of life. All of the successes. And certainly all of the failures.      

This is the story of the 2017 Rock ‘n’ Roll Montreal Marathon.

~

I’ll never forget the game between the Oakland Raiders and the Kansas City Chiefs that occurred on October 23rd, 2011.

Anyone who knows me knows that I am was a die hard fan of the Raiders since I was four.  I lived for the team – the outcome of their game every Sunday affected my mood for the rest of the week.  Even though they have only made the playoffs a handful of times since I started following them, I loved everything about the team: the jerseys, the mystique, the fanbase.  Everything.

I identified with the team in a deeper way than the common fan does; I saw myself through the team as if looking directly into a mirror.  When they were winning, I felt like all was right in my life. And when they were losing, well, that spoke volumes too.

And on this particular day, I once again attached myself to the team.  I desperately needed a win.

I needed something to go right in my life.  I needed something to cheer for.

You see, on October 23rd, 2011, it was decided that my brother and I would move in with our grandparents for an unspecified amount time.  My brother would live with one pair of grandparents, and I would live with the other.

There had been an argument the night before; a meeting I had organized – in order to get to the root cause of our problems as a family – had taken a horrific turn.  And later on the next day, my mom and dad decided it would be best if my brother and I lived with my grandparents while they worked things out.

As I sat in the basement of the house I grew up in, I watched that football game alone with a bitter emptiness inside of me.  

Before our relationship soured, I used to watch games while sitting on this same couch with my dad.  During this particular season, I watched games here with my friends while my parents were away every weekend.  

But here I was, watching the game alone on one of the worst days of my life.  Because I knew when the game clock struck zero, that meant it was time to get in my car and drive away from my house – the house I grew up in.  

I sat there quietly for most of the game.  The Raiders were getting trounced; two quick touchdowns put the Chiefs up 14-0.  The team looked absolutely lost. The game – and my life – was unraveling before me.

I wanted something to happen.  I wanted to will the team to victory.  I wanted to feel like there was some magic left.  

I needed something to go right in my life.  I needed something to cheer for.

~

The previous year my friends, my brother, and I watched football every Sunday at the nearest Buffalo Wild Wings – a solid thirty to forty-five minute drive from where we lived in North Jersey.  

I used to watch football with my dad at our house every weekend, but when they bought a second house two hours away in South Jersey, the DirecTV NFL Sunday Ticket package went south with them.  

When I visited home from college, I wanted to be able to see my entire family, so I preferred going to North Jersey where everybody lived.  I didn’t want to have to choose between my grandparents and the Oakland Raiders.

So for the 2010 football season after I moved back home, I put my foot down and told my mom I would be taking my younger brother to Buffalo Wild Wings every Sunday with my friends.  He had been going to South Jersey with them every weekend against his will. And I wanted to restore some semblance of tradition.

Even though that season was another fairly mediocre one for my Raiders, there were some magical moments.  Midway through the season, one game in particular – a game against those same Kansas City Chiefs – sticks out.  

Whoever won this game would be in first place.  After eight years spent in the cellar of the division, this was easily the Raiders’ biggest game since 2002 – the year they had made it to the Super Bowl.  

It was the game of the week, and I took it upon myself – even though they went away every weekend – to reach out to my parents and let them know it would mean a lot to me if they were able to come to Buffalo Wild Wings for this one particular game.

Throughout the year, we became friendly with this one bar patron.  Even though he was a New York Giants fan, he watched all of the games – especially ones that people at the bar had a rooting interest in.  Through conversations with him, it was apparent he knew football. He had funny catchphrases and was extremely personable. It became a treat to stare at a wall of television screens for six hours every Sunday with him.

But my parents accepted the invitation, even though my dad had rejected similar ones throughout the season.  He knew what this particular game meant to me, and that it could be significant to our relationship if we watched it together.

All of my worlds merged for this game.  My brother, my friends, my parents, our friend we had made at the restaurant.  And of course, the Raiders.

Right before halftime, the Chiefs – already leading 10-0 – were driving to score again.  Things were looking grim, and the excitement I was infected with before the game had worn off.  I was desperate for something to happen.

That was when our friend leaned over to us and told me, “Don’t worry, they’ll come up with an interception here.”

And the Raiders did just that, intercepting the ball on a play where it looked like the Chiefs were going to score.  It was a small victory, but considering it was halftime and the deficit could’ve been much more than ten points, I accepted it.  

We cheered and once again, our friend leaned over to us – between forkfuls of salad and swigs of Red Bull – and asked me which team was going to get the ball first in the second half.

“We are,” I beamed.  I was optimistic that maybe by putting points on the board to open up the second half, the Raiders could change the momentum of the game.

“Don’t worry, they’re going to return the opening kickoff for a touchdown,” he coolly replied before heading towards the restroom.

I nervously laughed, as I wanted to be optimistic.  But this kind of blind faith made me skittish, especially when it came to sports.  

I took the rest of halftime to decompress; I was anxious all game, so I took this moment to unwind and talk to my friends and brother.  

Yes, I wanted the Raiders to win.  But more than that, I wanted to share a positive moment with my dad.  Maybe it was exactly the kind of win we needed to build on.

As the second half started and the conversation at the table came to an end, I looked up at the television screen and couldn’t quite process what was happening.

“Alright, let’s get a good return.”

“Wait, he has an opening…”

“Nobody is going to catch him!”

Jacoby Ford returned the kickoff for a touchdown.  I ran over to our friend who was going through a similar reaction, and we exchanged an emphatic embrace.  

He might’ve just been happy that he nailed his off the cuff prediction.  But I was happy that not only did he nail his off the cuff prediction, but my team was back in the game.  Maybe that was the spark we needed.

Fast forward to the end of the game.  After various lead changes, the Raiders now found themselves down 20-17 with 24 seconds left to go and no timeouts.  The Raiders had the ball at midfield and just needed to find a way to get close enough to kick a field goal to tie the game.  But with no timeouts, I had little hope.

Our friend leaned over once more.  The entire bar was standing and watching the game. He told me that they needed to throw it deep.  

Again, I laughed nervously, because the Raiders were running out of time – you didn’t want a long throw to waste too much time.  Or worse, result in an interception. No, a shorter pass to get into range would be better.

On that very next play, our quarterback, Jason Campbell, dropped back and launched the football deep downfield.  It was headed straight for a defender and looked like it was going to be intercepted.

But Ford again came up with the big play in the right moment.  He jumped on top of the defender and snatched the ball away from him.  

The Raiders were now close enough to tie the game.  

The entire bar jumped up and cheered.  Even though we were in upstate New York, we had turned the bar into our own version of the infamous Black Hole.  Even the Chargers fan – who also regularly watched games there and had become our group’s frenemy – was cheering for my team.

The Raiders hurried up and sent their field goal kicker into the game to tie it and send the game to overtime.  As Sebastian Janikowski set up for the field goal, I closed my eyes and envisioned success. I imagined the football heading straight through the goalposts and us cheering.  All of us cheering together.

I opened my eyes again.   

The kick was good.  

I knew we were going to win.  It was going to happen.

Early on in overtime, Campbell went back to the well again, this time finding Ford streaking down the middle of the field.  Campbell launched the football, and Ford dived for it.

He caught it.  Just one long pass was all it took for the Raiders to be in position to win the game.  

I was on the verge of tears.  As the game progressively got closer, my dad – who started out the game pretty cold and distant – also started opening up.  We were all – my friends, my brother, the regular, the Chargers fan, my parents – huddled around the one small television screen in the corner that wasn’t on the broadcast delay that all of the other screens were on.  

As Sebastian Janikowski set up for the field goal, I closed my eyes and envisioned success.  I imagined the football heading straight through the goalposts and us cheering. All of us cheering together.

I opened my eyes again.

The kick was good.  The Raiders had won.

I hugged everyone after it went through, but the only hug that I remember was hugging my dad.  I think it was the first time in the months since I moved back home from college that we had hugged.  Maybe it was exactly the kind of win we needed to build on.

No, in the end he was my dad.  And we loved each other. I knew we were going to win.  It was going to happen.

~

As I sat there on our couch on October 23rd, 2011, I wanted to feel like that magic still existed.  

I needed something to go right in my life.  I needed something to cheer for.

Though I was sitting here alone, I wanted to believe that that magic still existed.  

So when our running back barreled his way through the Chiefs’ defense for a long run, the Raiders’ first big play in the game, I got up and – fighting back tears – bellowed loudly so it could be heard throughout the cavernous house.  It was my version of blowing a war horn, so that my mom and brother – who were sulking in their respective rooms – could come and join me to watch the game.

Let’s turn this thing around.

They quietly came down, but it wasn’t enough.  Sometimes your team loses, and there’s nothing you can do about it.  

The Raiders never scored a point in the game.  They were blown out 28-0.

Once the game finished, I knew what that signified.  So I gathered up my belongings and packed them into my Toyota Yaris.  My grandma and grandpa (the ones I was going to live with) came to help us move, so after packing my car and my mom’s car, it was time to go back, lock the doors, and say goodbye to my house – the house I grew up in.

I know I use the term “sobbing uncontrollably” often in my writing, but this memory really recalibrated the way that “sobbing uncontrollably” looks like to me.  

I felt animalistic – all of these emotions came rushing out of me while I was hyperventilating and shrieking.  I tossed over our garbage cans and looked for things I could kick in frustration.

When my grandfather realized what was happening, he came over to try and console me.  I broke free and then staggered over to my car, fumbling in the dark.

I tripped on a shrub that lined the walkway leading to our front door – one of the many shrubs I helped my dad plant. We would spend every Saturday in the spring and summer working in the yard together when I was a kid.  Even though I would’ve preferred to play with my friends and spend my weekends just being a kid, I came to appreciate the quality time that it gave us together. I tried to uproot the shrub with my bare hands out of anger.  

My mom, grandparents, and brother – all distraught – tried to stop me.  They had accepted the situation, but I hadn’t.

I wanted things to be better.  I invited my parents to Buffalo Wild Wings.  I invited my entire family to our house in North Jersey to watch the Raiders play the Jets.  I had invited my dad to a U2 concert – his favorite band – as an early birthday gift. I held a family meeting just the night before to try and fix all the bad blood between everybody.

I got on the phone with one of my friends as I climbed into my car with everything I owned; I just needed something to distract me as I drove.  I cried on the phone with him the entire drive to my grandparents’ house.

And just like that, the house that I grew up in was no longer my home.  Other than two other times when I went back when nobody was home to pick up stuff that I wasn’t able to take with me that night, I never set foot in that house again – a house that I loved so much.

Apparently when we first moved there when I was a baby, my words to my parents were “Vamos” (Spanish for “let’s go”) as I banged on the door, crying.  I wanted to go back to the apartment that we lived in. And on this night, I cried out that I didn’t want to go and had to be pried away from the house.  I wanted to go back to the way things were before. The irony stings with such bitterness.

Sometimes the things we least expect can cause the greatest disappointments.    

~

If for some strange reason you are well-versed in the history of the 2011 Oakland Raiders, you would know that the rest of that season was punctuated by peaks and valleys.  Even though I lived with my grandparents from my dad’s side, I would watch every game with at my other grandparents’ house, so that I could visit them and my brother – who was now living there.  In order to restore some normalcy in my life, I would also invite my friends every Sunday to watch the games.

To give me something to look forward to – even though I was unemployed at the time – I bought two tickets to the game between the Raiders and the Chargers that was a few months from then on the last week of the season.  I had never been further west than Tennessee in my life, and thus had never been to a game in Oakland. And I had always wanted to visit the Bay Area.

Since the team was competitive, I figured that maybe this game would be important.  It was easy to envision a scenario where the Raiders needed to win that game in order to make the playoffs.  The only thing I wanted was to watch a game that mattered. I needed something to cheer for.

After jumping out to a 7-4 record, the Raiders lost three straight games to bring their record to 7-7.  They squandered the lead they had in the division. And a loss to those same pesky Kansas City Chiefs on Christmas Eve would knock them out of playoff contention.

The Raiders were leading 13-6 with less than two minutes to go in the fourth quarter.  Less than two minutes away from a Raiders victory, ensuring the game I was going to see in Oakland the next week was going to officially be for the division title.  

I was on the edge of my seat.  I needed this. I needed something to go right in my life.     

The Chiefs had the ball.  A short pass turned into a long gain after a plethora of missed tackles.  The Chiefs were in position to score.

My jaw dropped, but I knew all the Raiders had to do was keep them from scoring a touchdown.  A field goal wouldn’t help them; they needed a touchdown to tie the game.

Their quarterback threw a bullet to an open receiver.  He caught the ball and had both feet in the endzone. Touchdown Chiefs.  

I lost all color in my face.  In the blink of an eye, the Chiefs had tied the game.  

This can’t be happening.

The Raiders got the ball again.  After three unsuccessful plays, they were forced to give the ball back to the Chiefs – who now had a chance to win the game.

Please, not like this.  Anything but this.

The Chiefs got the ball and drove down the field.  With nine seconds left in the game, they threw a pass that a Raider tried to knock down.  

But he couldn’t reach it.  The Chiefs receiver caught it and broke free, running forward a few yards before going out of bounds and stopping the clock.  

The Chiefs were now close enough to win the game with a field goal.  

I fell down to the floor, on my knees.  I felt defeated and weak.

Through this entire mess and ordeal, I wanted to give myself one reprieve.  One thing that I could look forward to. Sure, I had to come back to my own personal hell in New Jersey, but maybe that trip to the Bay Area would reinvigorate me and allow me to return completely refreshed with a positive outlook.  Maybe it was exactly the kind of win I needed to build on.

The Chiefs lined up for the field goal.  

I closed my eyes.  I couldn’t watch. I couldn’t even try to envision what success might look like.  

My only chance right now is to hope for a miracle.  I thought about our friend from Buffalo Wild Wings. I wondered what he might be up to.  I miss him.

I opened my eyes again.

Their kicker connected with the ball with a loud THUMP.  But when I heard two consecutive THUMPS and the picture on the screen went out of focus momentarily, I knew that could mean only one thing.

The field goal was blocked.

I crumpled onto the floor, exhausted and spent.  Everybody who came to my grandparents’ house for dinner that Christmas Eve had left the living room, not wanting to witness my reaction when the Raiders lost.  But they started coming back once they heard what had happened.

But my brother stayed there the entire time with me.  He knew how much it meant it to me. He knew at that moment that it was more than a football game.  I needed something to go right in my life. I needed something to cheer for.

We laughed, hugged, regrouped, and got ready for overtime.  

On the first play of overtime, Carson Palmer (yes, our cat’s namesake) faked the handoff to the running back and dropped back to pass.  

I feel like I’ve seen this before.

Palmer launched the football, and the receiver dove for it.  

He caught it.  Just one long pass was all it took for the Raiders to be in position to win the game.  

I bolted up and cheered.  I grabbed my brother. We shook each other.  We just kept on telling each other, “Our boy, that was our boy” with our voices cracking and shaking.

It was our friend from Buffalo Wild Wings.  He had something else in store for us.

We both attributed it to him, but what we really meant was this: we knew that that magic still existed.  It was something that at that moment belonged to us. Only us. And nothing that was going on in our lives could take that away.

As Sebastian Janikowski set up for the field goal, I closed my eyes and envisioned success.  I imagined the football heading straight through the goalposts and us cheering. Just my brother and I cheering together.  We had been through so much in such a short amount of time. There was nobody else I wanted to share this moment with.

I opened my eyes again.

The kick was good.  The Raiders had won.

For one day, we were victorious.  The Raiders and I would live to fight another day.  Next week’s game against the Chargers – the game I was going to – was going to be for the division.  

And maybe we would win.                 

~

There were eleven minutes left to go in the game between the Raiders and Chargers.  

The Raiders had been putting up a listless performance.  They were down 24-13 at halftime, but the score felt much worse than that.  

When they realized their playoff hopes were fading away, however, the team started fighting back.  With eleven minutes left, they were down 31-19. But they needed to do more. Time was running out.  If they wanted to win this game and the division, it was now or never.

It was then that Carson Palmer dropped back to pass.  

I’ve definitely seen this before.

Palmer launched the football.

The receiver caught it.  Just one long pass was all it took for the Raiders to be in position to get back into the game.

Everyone – including my normally stoic friend who isn’t even a Raiders fan – was going wild.  We were jumping up and down, yelling. I was high fiving and hugging everyone next to us.

The Raiders were back in it.

Two plays later, Palmer dropped back to pass again.  

Palmer launched the football.

The receiver jumped up and caught the ball in between three defenders.  

But this time, as he is falling down, a Charger launches himself into the back of the receiver’s helmet.  

He is lying on the field, knocked out cold.  His teammates call for medical attention.

But he held onto the ball.

Touchdown Raiders.  

The noise inside the stadium was deafening.  Everyone was going wild. The coliseum was going to explode at the seams.  It had been ten years since the Raiders had been to the playoffs. And now they were one score away from taking the lead.   

The crowd didn’t even realize the receiver had been knocked out.  But once we did, the stadium suddenly went silent.

The medical team came over.  After what felt like an eternity, he stood up, walked off, and gave the crowd a thumbs up.  

If you thought the stadium was loud before, it got even louder now.  We celebrated the touchdown, but also the receivers’ toughness and ability to hang on to the ball despite the hit.  And that he was OK.

The referees had also announced that the hit incurred a penalty that would be enforced on the ensuing kickoff.  So with the score 31-26 and the Raiders set to kick off and pin the Chargers further back, the entire crowd of over 60,000 all knew one thing.

We had to give it all we had.    

As Sebastian Janikowski set up for the kickoff, I closed my eyes and envisioned success.  Whatever that might have looked like in this situation. 60,000 people cheering. My grandparents and brother cheering back home in New Jersey.  All of us cheering together.

On the kickoff, instead of kicking it deep, Janikowski kicked a low line drive.  The ball bounced around, and the returner had a hard time picking it up. When he did, he was met by a host of Raiders that tackled him near the goalline.  

As this entire play was occurring, the crowd roared into life, reaching an apex when it looked like the Chargers had fumbled the ball.    

The Chargers had recovered the fumble.  But they had to start the drive at the one-yard line.  Any misstep and a safety would net the Raiders two points.  And more importantly, they would also get the ball.

The noise from the crowd at this point resembled a jet engine.  It was so loud I felt it in my chest.

The Raiders’ stadium is old-fashioned.  This is a nice way of saying that it’s a piece of crap.  There are no fancy noise makers and artificially pumped in noise over the stadium loudspeakers.  Just 60,000 passionate people giving it all they had.

In my twenty-five years of watching games, this is by far my favorite memory.  

With everyone on their feet and making as much noise as they could muster, the Raiders’ defense took the field.  

It was then that the theme music for “Requiem for a Dream” echoed through the coliseum.  Every hair on my body was standing on end as tears of joy streamed down my face.

I closed my eyes and took the moment in.  It was a moment I never wanted to forget. I had been through a nightmare, but in that moment I felt protected.  It was a sanctuary. And nobody could take that moment away from me.

It was much bigger than those ten years of missing the playoffs.  In that moment, only that moment existed. Nothing else.

On that very first play, with the crowd whipped into a frenzy, the Chargers quarterback dropped back to pass.  

Wait a minute, I’ve seen this before.

He launched the football.

The receiver caught it.  Just one long pass was all it took for the Chargers to dash the hopes of 60,000 people.

The crowd was stunned.  We were all deflated. We tried to make noise after that, but the team wasn’t responding.  

The Chargers quietly marched the ball the entire length of the field and scored a touchdown.  

The Raiders got the ball back and tried to get back into the game.  

But it was all for naught.  After Palmer threw an interception when his receiver ran the wrong route, the game was effectively over.

Chargers 38.  Raiders 26.

Maybe you think I freaked out and then sulked all the way to the BART station.  After all, I had pinned all of my hopes onto this football season, because I needed something to cheer for.  

But oddly enough, I felt fine.  I suddenly didn’t feel like I needed that outcome.  I wasn’t so desperate for that victory. I felt peace in knowing that I got to experience it.  

I’m not going to lie and say it wouldn’t have been nice to win.  But I felt an overwhelming appreciation for the entire journey. The entire story that I’m able to share about those two seasons and those particular games.  It mirrors all of the stuff I was going through at that time, but I think it also really highlights an important aspect that helps us keep our expectations and any subsequent disappointments in check.  

We don’t necessarily need our happiness to depend on an external event such as the outcome of a football game.  This may seem obvious to many people, but for many of us out there that don’t have much to cheer for as I did during this time in my life, oftentimes that hope is all we have.  

That is why the Raiders were so important to me, especially during this time period.  And maybe it’s why they aren’t as important to me now.

The thing that helps us navigate expectations and disappointments are the people around us.  In that moment, I was grateful to be able to share it with my friend. To share it with the 60,000 other people in the coliseum that day.  To share it with my grandpa and brother who were watching it at home; I couldn’t wait to talk to them about the game.

For the first time in my life the Raiders lost.  And I was OK with it.

~

I remember tapping into this series of memories during the longest run I had scheduled in my training for the marathon in Montreal.  

It was a twenty-three mile run through what felt like most of Jersey City.  I loved the marathon training plan I used for the Rutgers Half Marathon. But after reading comments on Reddit from more seasoned runners, one of its flaws is that there is not enough mileage during the week.  I didn’t necessarily feel this way, but since I had never run a marathon before, I heeded their warnings.

I tweaked the mileage on every run with a specific emphasis on the runs during the week.  On average, I was running ten miles more every week than the original plan called for. I kept wanting to push myself; if my body was able to handle the amount of miles I had put on it before, I wanted to keep increasing the total.  I wanted to push myself to be better.

Thus, I had to run 23 miles on this particular Saturday as my final tune up for the race.  This was the furthest distance I had ever run in my life.

I know what you’re probably thinking: the last time I used a similar training plan I had knee pain and had to take several weeks off from running.  And now I was increasing my weekly mileage? This definitely seems like a recipe for disaster.

I’ll let my training log do the talking:

Screen Shot 2018-12-03 at 9.11.49 AM

Two things stood out about this particular run: When I finished that day, I felt like I had much more left in the tank.  But more importantly, I was 100% healthy.

And it wasn’t just on this run.  This was the case throughout most of the training.  

I started following the training plan about a month after the Rutgers Half Marathon.  In retrospect, more time off would’ve been better for my long term health. But for these next few months, it wasn’t an issue.

I hadn’t quite internalized the lesson about not going too fast in training yet.  My brain told me one thing, but my heart would tell me another. I was going through a lot of smaller personal issues – problems that I would need another twenty pages to properly explain.  So oftentimes I pushed myself, just looking to improve and get faster on every run. I didn’t realize that just running – and not worrying about my pace – would be enough.

In spite of this, I did not succumb to any overuse injuries; again, I just want to point out how dumb it is to run as fast you can in all of your training runs.  Once in awhile is fine, but do it too much and you run a risk.

My training started on the anniversary of the day my girlfriend and I started officially dating.  I ran five miles. And it was the shortest run of the entire training plan.

My first long run of the training was in St. Louis that weekend; my girlfriend and I had traveled there for one of my friend’s wedding that Memorial Day weekend.  I ran along the Mississippi River and under the Gateway Arch. After the run, I met up with my friends and girlfriend and we feasted on St. Louis-style barbecue.

Long runs became my favorite day of the week.  I would wake up and have a few hours to myself, doing the thing that I loved most.  I would then get back eat whatever I wanted with zero ramifications. And I always felt calmer and more at peace whenever I got back from my run.    

I was seldom running anything above an eight minutes per mile pace.  And quite frequently, my pace hovered around seven minutes flat. Sometimes dipping well below seven minutes.  The long runs would be slower. But not by much.

The one time I did slow down was when we went on vacation.  

My girlfriend, her sister, and I went on a road trip.  We flew to Denver where we rented a car – our only constant for the next ten days.  We spent some time there before driving through Utah – stopping at particular points of interest along the way.  We passed through the rolling hills of Oregon and made it to Seattle, where we stopped for a few days and explored the city.  We then ventured into the woods thirty minutes away from Bellingham – near Mt. Baker. Finally, we crossed the border and spent the remainder of our time in Vancouver before heading back.  

The trip didn’t stop me from running.  In fact, running was a big reason why I wanted to check out these locations.  But the trip did teach me to slow down.

During my long run in Denver, I slowed down because of necessity.  To anyone who has never run in altitude before: all the rumors are true.  I was running seven minutes per mile comfortably in New Jersey, but the fifteen miles I ran in Denver that Saturday was over nine minutes per mile.  And I spent a good portion of the last two miles walking.

This run made me really envious of anyone who lives in Colorado.  Not only because of the advantage in training due to the altitude, but because of the scenery.  

Here, I wasn’t running with the black steel of the Pulaski Skyway and the factories of Newark and Kearny as my backdrop.  The only thing I could compare the feeling of running on those trails for the first time to is the feeling I got when I played Fallout: New Vegas on Playstation 3 for the first time.  

There were animals roaming – not just the squirrels I had grown used to back home.  The world felt so open and immense, and there was no set path. I felt that this was the way nature should be enjoyed.  Sure, the altitude slowed me down physically, but just processing everything for the first time – that also made me stop and reflect.

For the rest of the vacation, I ran as an excuse to experience the new sights I was seeing.  When I went to the Bay Area all those years ago, I took in my surroundings, but this was different.  You really get to know a place when you go for a run there. You become one with it all.

My favorite thing about running during this vacation though was how friendly the other runners were.  Whereas in New Jersey I’m hard-pressed to find another runner who reciprocates my waves, I was beaten to the punch everywhere I went on this trip.  I wouldn’t even have time to raise my hand to wave before the runner coming my way smiled and said, “Good morning!”

Other than the run in the backwoods of Denver, the two other memorable runs of the trip are in Seattle and Vancouver.

In Seattle, I had planned a route the night prior with my friend whose apartment we were staying at.  I wanted to experience the more popular running trails in Seattle, while also getting the chance to get close enough to see the Fremont Troll – a giant sculpture of a troll under a bridge.  The troll was a little more out of the way from all the other things we had planned on seeing, so the run was my excuse to check it out.

I thoroughly enjoyed the scenery, the green lushness that Seattle had to offer.  But more than that, the air I was breathing felt so clean and pure. I have a deviated septum, so it is hard to breathe out of my nose.  But not here. With each breathe, my lungs filled with oxygen. I felt lighter and had more energy. It was an absolute joy running through Seattle.

And hey, I even took a picture with the troll!

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In Vancouver, I had to run 21 miles the Saturday we were there.  I wanted to run in Stanley Park, so I could run along the water. Since I had to go for twenty-one miles, I was able to enjoy the sights of downtown Vancouver.  But I made sure to run the bulk of it inside the park. And I was thankful that I did.

I wasn’t concerned about my pace on this run.  I’ve certainly run a lot faster. But it was more how I felt.  I listened to my body. It was one of those surreal moments where everything clicks.  Every step felt effortless.

I knew the marathon that I was going to run in a month would be no trouble.

It is still probably my favorite run to this day.  The clear, emerald water of the bay. The mountains off into the distance.  The seals hanging around near the seawall. It didn’t feel real. I was listening to one of Phish’s thirteen concerts at Madison Square Garden during this run (listening to Phish shows became a staple in my running), but even I had to turn off the music and just enjoy the moment during the last few miles.

I met up with my girlfriend – who was also going for a run in the park.  We took a quick picture next to the massive totem poles in the park, and then headed back to enjoy a night on the town.

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The run had a similar effect to the moment at the Raiders game all of those years ago but with a slight difference.  At the game, it was the noise that brought me into that headspace; during the run, it was the tranquility that did the trick.

In that moment, only that moment existed.  Nothing else.

My running personality also started to take shape during this time.  

I was the pensive runner.  The runner who listened to Phish shows during long runs.  The runner who grew a training beard (it was at over five months, the longest it had ever been in my life).  The runner gave up beef, pork, and chicken after being raised on it. The runner who instead of living for football Sundays was now living for long run Saturdays.  

Physically, I was there.  Mentally, I was there. Now, it was just time to run this damn thing.  It was time to run my first marathon.

~

On the Wednesday before the race, I met up with a friend.  We were taking classes at City College and were supposed to have class that day, but both of our classes were cancelled.  And since I also had off from work the next two days as well, I met up with her for dinner and drinks.

We were sitting at a table outside of the restaurant, when she excused herself to go to the bathroom.  Because I like giving the person I’m with my full attention, I usually don’t like glancing at my cell phone.  So I took this as an opportunity to check to see if I had any messages or emails.

One notification particularly caught my eye.  It was an email from the race organizers. Figuring it was some last minute announcement on the eve of the race, I opened it up to read what it said.

I lost all color in my face.  This can’t be happening.

The marathon was cancelled.  

Montreal was seeing some unseasonably warm temperatures at the time.  For the safety of the runners, they decided to cancel the full marathon.  Runners who had signed up for the marathon had the option of either running the half marathon or receiving a full refund.

A cocktail of emotions swelled up inside of me.  I was disappointed obviously. But I was angry. And hurt.  And frustrated. And sad. I was empty. The thing that was giving me meaning – giving me purpose – was taken from me.

Sure, I could’ve run the half marathon.  But I had already run two. I didn’t just want to run a faster half marathon.  I wanted to run the whole thing. I had trained for a full marathon. My first one.  And now everything I worked for was gone.

This was supposed to be my moment.  I wanted something to go right in my life.  Something that I had control over. I wanted to feel accomplished.  That I accomplished something.

I wasn’t at a point where the Chiefs kicking a game winning field goal to knock my team out of the playoffs would’ve ruined me anymore.  But this felt more personal.

Though I stopped correlating my successes and failures with an external force such as the outcome of a football game, I still was consolidating all of my hopes, dreams, and expectations into one singular event.  When it was taken from me, I was caught off guard and didn’t know how to react.

I wasn’t prepared for that eventuality.  But I’m also not sure if anyone even considers this possibility when they are training for their first marathon.  It’s the last thing on anyone’s mind.

But it happened to me.  And it sucked. It felt like the victory parade that had been planned for me was indefinitely postponed, and we were all told to just go home.

I had to figure out how to deal with the hurt and disappointment.

On that night though, I did what everyone else might do in a similar situation: I got drunk and tried to forget about it.  

We had a good time that night though, and barely lingered over the bombshell I had received.  She even brought up the program she was going to participate in the following year in order to be ensured entry into the New York City Marathon for the year after that.  

She convinced me to do the same.  All I would have to do was run nine races and volunteer in another.  It seemed easy enough, and I hadn’t run any races shorter than a half marathon before.  Who knows, maybe I was better at the shorter distances.

So even though I had already signed up for another marathon in Washington, D.C. six months after the Montreal Marathon at the same time I registered for that one, I figured what better way to heal than to also start planning another slate of races for the upcoming year.

Once I got home though, I was inconsolable.  My girlfriend tried calming me down, but I couldn’t speak because of the frustration.  I had spent four months training and even more time just thinking about it.

Nobody would understand.  She didn’t know how much it meant it to me.  She didn’t know it was more than a race. I wanted something to go right in my life.  

But she did know.  Just as my brother knew all those years ago.  And she helped me pick up the pieces.

I might be able to run longer and faster than she can.  But I know deep down that she’s tougher. Her ability to love unconditionally gives her that power and has helped support me for years.  Love makes us better runners.

I could’ve run the half marathon instead. And I probably would’ve beaten my finishing time from the race at Rutgers.  But I knew the better move was to sit this one out.

I would go to Montreal with my girlfriend and two friends.  It was still a weekend away from New Jersey, and I loved to travel.  Besides, I loved the whole atmosphere of race day. And I wanted to protest the race for cancelling my opportunity.    

That’s what I told myself and everyone else.  But deep down I knew the real reason.

Maybe it was time that I supported others.  Maybe I could learn to cheer when their team won.  When they won. Maybe this was the final piece I needed to become a better runner.  A better person.

I had something to cheer for.  Because for the first time, all was right in my life.     

~

I drove my girlfriend and my two friends to the starting line, and then made my way over to the finish line.  I wanted to get there early to get a good spot and to make sure I was there before the elite runners reached the end.

I spent some time talking to the few spectators around me.  A short while later, I noticed the first runner rounding the corner.  

I saw the look of determination on his face.  The months of training. Maybe he was planning on running the full marathon.  Or maybe he had intended to run the half all along.

It didn’t matter in that instance.  He was only focused on one thing.

I was overcome with a sense of overwhelming pride being a part of this community now.  I certainly felt a kinship to those 60,000 other fans at the Oakland Coliseum that day, but this was different.  This was personal. I was humbled to be among other dedicated and passionate humans who sacrificed so much just for this moment.  

For the first time, I didn’t feel sorry for myself, because I wasn’t able to run the race.  I felt pure joy for others.

I clapped and cheered as loudly as I could as he passed me.  And with every runner that passed me, my claps and cheers grew louder.  Once I started finding my own voice and coming up with more creative things to say other than the generic, “Good job!”, I noticed runners would smile when they passed me.  All of that energy and love I had cultivated during the four months of training, I wanted to send it towards those that were running now. They had worked just as hard as I had.  

After some time, my friend – the one who had run in Brooklyn and Rutgers – emerged from the crowd.  

I was filled with emotions. I had lingering guilt over running as fast as I could during our last half marathon and not running together as we did for the race before that.  I wanted to be there to cheer for him especially.

I saw him and urged him towards to finish line. I began running alongside him, off the course but in the same direction.  Even though I wouldn’t experience the thrill of crossing the finish line, I wanted him to know that I was in his corner and would be with him every step of the way.

I went back to my post and awaited my other friend.  After some time, he too emerged from the crowd.

He was my first friend in high school when I knew absolutely no one.  We had convinced him to sign up for the race and travel with us to Montreal.  I don’t see or talk to him as often as I would like to since he lives in Wisconsin, so I was really looking forward to spending these few days with him in particular.  

When I saw him, I started clapping and cheering again, and we exchanged an enthusiastic high five.  I was especially proud of him, because he had just gotten back into running. And I knew from experience that the first step was the hardest.  I wanted him to know that I would always be his cheerleader.

Finally, I waited for my girlfriend.  And after some time, I saw her emerge and I started tearing up.  

The cool thing about cheering at a race is that you see everybody’s faces.  All the effort, all the pain, and all the joy is all there.

And all the faces look the same.  

Everyone is giving it their all.  

It doesn’t matter if you are in the front of the pack or in the middle or towards the back.  Everyone is pushing themselves. Just because you may be going slower doesn’t mean you’re not giving it your all.  Everyone had worked just as hard as I had.

That’s what I noticed when I saw my girlfriend.  I had trained for a full marathon, and she only prepared for a half.  

But in that moment, she was giving it her all.  And I couldn’t be any prouder.

Yes, I was upset I didn’t have my moment that day.  But I had great pride in cheering for one of the toughest and most loving people I know: my girlfriend.  And as I had learned, being tough and being loving are two essential traits of any runner.

I began running alongside her, on the course this time.  I wanted her to know that I was in her corner and would be with her every step of the way.

But I cut away from the course before I crossed the finish line.  I wanted her to have her moment. Today was about her.

She gave me something to cheer for.  Because for the first time, all was right in my life.

~

Expectations and disappointments both shape how we experience the world around us.  I experienced disappointment in 2011 in my life – both on the football field and especially off of it.  I experienced it again in 2017 – both on the race course and especially off of it. And I’ve experienced disappointment since and will continue experiencing it I’m sure.

In fact, maybe disappointment is the reason why I started writing again.  

As I mentioned earlier, during this period in 2011 I didn’t have a job, but I was writing for my own personal blog as well as for Bleacher Report.  I wasn’t making any money, but I wanted to plant the seeds of what I wanted to do with my life.

When I was forced to move out of my house, my priorities had to change and I had to abandon my hopes and dreams.  I was in survival mode. Thus began my full-time restaurant career.

Maybe it’s also the reason that in these three chapters I have outlined three of the most traumatic events in my life.  

Because I understand that maybe the way to get over anything is by sharing it with the people you care about.  I saw what keeping trauma buried did to my family. Through more open communication, maybe it would have allowed all of us to heal.

Because in the end, the only way to keep disappointment in check is with the help of other people.  The connections we make in this world are the only things that truly matters.

The connection you make with a stranger at a Buffalo Wild Wings for the seventeen weeks in a football season.

The connection you make with 60,000 other people all cheering for the same team.

The connection you make with your friends who are willing to drive to your grandparents’ house to watch football with you.

The connection you make with all of the runners you wave to during training for your first marathon.    

The connection you make with all of the people you talk to over the course of the nine Phish concerts you attend that summer.

The connection you make with three of the people you care most about before they cross the finish line.  

The connection you make with your girlfriend’s sister before you go on a road trip when she hugs you while crying, telling you that you’re one of the best friends she’s ever had.

The connection you make with your brother when he recognizes you aren’t just crying because of a football game.  

The connection you make with your great-grandpa whenever you walked with him to the corner store to buy lottery tickets.

The connection you make with your dad when you invite him into your world – whether it is a bar in upstate New York or a rock concert.

I wasn’t going to conquer my next challenge just by giving it my all and relying on pure determination.  I needed all of these connections and more if I wanted to be cross the finish line in Washington D.C. in six months.    

I had learned the one most important lesson about running.  

Love makes us better runners.

Next week will be the story of those 26.2 miles.  From the starting line to the finishing line.

The next chapter is the story of the 2018 Rock ‘n’ Roll Washington DC Marathon.

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Running

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