The Eternal Saturn Return Part 6: New York City 2018

Living in New Jersey, you are in the shadow of the New York skyline.  Growing up in the 1990s and 2000s and watching television shows like Friends and How I Met Your Mother only added to that mounting tension.  You are told that just across the river lies the pinnacle of success: the job you always dreamed of, the apartment you always dreamed of, the nightlife you always dreamed of, and the life you always dreamed of.  New York City became the barometer for our lives. If you lived in New York, you had made it.

This adversarial relationship perhaps adds to the chip on the shoulder of most Jerseyans.  On the other side of the river lies the people that have made it. We reason with ourselves that they pay more for their drinks and in their rent.  Yet we’re the ones stuck with the brual commute. The ones that were left behind – on the outside looking in. On the other side of the river lies the life you secretly wish you had – and weren’t good enough for.

When I moved to Jersey City, it made me confront these feelings of inadequacy head on.  The towering buildings barked at me like a Rottweiler on the other side of a fence. I was working seventy hours a week in a restaurant and living in a small apartment that resided in a neighborhood on the cusp of what can be considered “safe.”  This wasn’t the job, the apartment, or the life that I had set out for. And it certainly wasn’t what “they” would deem as successful.

Going out with my friends that live in the city only made it worse.  They balked at most opportunities to travel to this side of the Hudson.  When we would go to a bar or a restaurant in downtown Manhattan or the hipper areas in Brooklyn, shame would wash over me as my eyes darted to the prices on the menu.  I would tally how many overpriced, diluted cocktails I was ordering, making sure not to go over my allotted budget. I was living a fraudulent life – pretending to live like one of “them” while secretly knowing my place was in a Jersey diner off of Route 17 eating disco fries.

Maybe the reason I decided to run nine races to automatically qualify for the New York City Marathon was to cross a legendary race off of my bucket list.  Or maybe the reason was to prove to myself that even though I was living on the wrong side of the river – living a less than ideal life – I had still made it.  

Maybe not by “their” standards.  But I was a teacher now. I even had a pension.  I wasn’t drinking coffee at Central Perk everyday, but I was happy.  And that was good enough.

Whatever the reason, the nine races that I ran and the one that I volunteered in made me confront these feelings and sentiments and helped me master them.  This chapter is organized in eight short vignettes, briefly recapping each of the New York Road Runners’ races I participated in to earn a guaranteed entry into the 2019 New York City Marathon – which I will be running in next November.  

My girlfriend and I scheduled these races between the months of April and July.  The reason was that we weren’t even sure if we were going to be living in the area this fall – we were considering moving to upstate New York in the summer.  We obviously still live in Jersey City though, and in hindsight, spacing out all of these races might have been more beneficial to both my body and mind. But the short timeframe also probably exacerbated the significant change in my running and in my mindset that took place in the span of these races.  Maybe I never would have conquered the feeling of inadequacy I felt if we did move that summer.

At this point in the story, you might be asking yourself, “Why does this clown call himself Barefoot Boyfriend? And who calls himself that anyway?”  If chapters one through five were the equivalent to Bruce Wayne’s parents getting murdered, these next two chapters describe the process of me putting on the cowl.  You now understand the backstory. But now you need to understand the steps I took to run in zero drop sneakers, those weird toe shoes you might have seen, sandals, or *gasp* no shoes at all.  But more importantly, how the change in footwear affected the way that I run and the way that I see myself in the running community.  

Over the course of these months was when I realized I had to stop playing by “their” rules.  I had to stop caring what “they” would think.

I was never going to be one of “them.”  I just had to be me. And now that I had shed the years of repressed memories and traumas, it was time to find out who that person really was.   

         

Al Gordon 4 Miles – Volunteer

“I’ve met some people along the way

Some of them split some of them stay

Some of them walk some walk on by

I’ve got a few friends I’ll love till I die

From all of these people I try to learn

Some of them shine some of them burn

Some of them rise some of them fall

For good or bad I’ve known them all”

– “True Believers” The Bouncing Souls

I arrived at the volunteer area, and immediately got the impression that nobody wanted to be there.  Like me, they were all here for one thing: to get the volunteer requirement – the “plus one” part of the 9+1 program – over and done with.  You have to run nine races and volunteer in one. If you can’t run a marathon well under three hours, this is the easiest way to ensure yourself a spot in the NYC Marathon.  Unless you want to cross your fingers and hope to get chosen in the lottery, but there is no guarantee in that.

I had selected the role of “course marshall.”  The job description was simple: I had to stand on the course and cheer for the runners.  Of course, if something went wrong, I could step in and alert the proper people. But mostly I just had to cheer.  And since I enjoyed doing that in Montreal already, I figured this would be the perfect job.

Maybe it was because it was early on a Saturday morning and most of the other people were hungover, but no one even came close to matching my excitement.  Since running a marathon, I felt like I was a part of something now – part of a community – and it was weird seeing indifference around me. But I decided not to dwell on the negative; when I got to my post, I was ready to cheer on the runners with as much gusto as I could muster.

It was a four mile race, and I had only been a spectator at a half marathon before.  So I knew the runners at the front of the pack were going to be running faster. But I was not prepared just how much faster.

I felt the power immediately; it was like a herd of wildebeests.  It caught me off guard, and I tried to match the intensity by clapping and yelling fervently.  But I realized pretty quickly that I wasn’t going to be able to sustain that energy for the entire duration.  

But then I felt guilty.  I remembered my experience in Montreal.  How I enjoyed cheering for the back of the pack runners as much as the front.  They deserved just the same encouragement, if not more.

I felt like I was a part of something much bigger than me, and even though I wasn’t running that day, I had cultivated a reverence and respect for the sport.  And part of that was fostering a certain kinship with other runners.

Perhaps that’s why all of the other course marshalls I was with at the beginning bugged me.  They were just doing this to get it over with. To get what they wanted. But I saw this as an opportunity to be involved in something that I loved.  Sure, I wasn’t running. But other people were. And Montreal taught me not to take that for granted.

When I used to go to Bonnaroo – a music festival in Tennessee – they have a thing for high fives.  If you’ve ever gone, you would know what I mean. It’s one of the many ways they radiate positivity.  And I know at marathons and half marathons some people do offer high fives or hold up signs or whatever.  But I thought to myself: why not here? I know this was only four miles, but to some people, this is their marathon.  How many other people chose to just sleep in or grab brunch with their friends that morning?  

There’s a certain beauty in that – choosing self-improvement over indulgences.  And it must be celebrated.

The one rule they gave us as course marshalls was to not touch the runners.  The hell with that I thought. I can’t cheer like a maniac for a full hour, but I’m also not going to just stand there like all of these other zombies.  Let’s radiate some goddamn positivity up in here.

IMG_0176

On Instagram, I see so many runners that promote themselves, taking it all way too seriously.  Wrapped up in themselves. It’s all about them and their accomplishments. They set up software that helps them grow a following.  Like all of the volunteers who were there that day for only one thing – it’s all about them. This is not what running should be about.      

There is something to be said about these organic interactions.  This is what endures. This is the difference between a fancy meal at a New York City restaurant, where the perfectly constructed dish is the highlight, and a simple meal at a New Jersey diner, where the warmth between close friends is the centerpiece.  This is what running should be about.

Really, this is what life should be about.  Maybe “they” had it all wrong. Because underneath the skyscrapers and colorful billboards are entire subway cars filled with people barely acknowledging each other.  Wrapped up in themselves.

This was the only time I showed up on any of the photographs on the NYRR website for these ten races.  But I prefer it that way. It captures the overwhelming joy running gives me and the appreciation I have for others.  And I think it’s one of the things that sets me apart on the course.

 

Boomer’s Cystic Fibrosis Run to Breathe 4 Miles – 7:03 minutes/mile

“Cause where I’m going to now, no one can ever hurt me

Where the well of human hatred is shallow and dry

No, I never wanted to change the world, but I’m looking for a new New Jersey

Cause tramps like us, baby, we were born to die”

– “A More Perfect Union” Titus Andronicus

I had stopped running immediately after the marathon in Washington, D.C.  At first it was because I was physically unable to run (I was walking with a pretty gnarly limp), but then I decided to give my body a little bit of an extra break and try weightlifting.  I had never really incorporated a strength training routine to supplement running. I had lifted pretty seriously back in college, but it was mostly out of vanity. This was a new venture for me.

After a couple of weeks of going to the gym, my reentry into running was this four mile race in Central Park – the shortest race I had ever participated in.  

I knew the energy I had to give for a half marathon.  And now, I knew the energy I had to give for a full marathon.  I had no idea how to approach this four mile race. Mentally or physically.  Plus, I hadn’t been running at all for weeks since the marathon. I wasn’t even sure if I still had the same level of fitness or conditioning.  Sure, I was going to the gym, but I was squatting and benching and curling and lunging.

I was sleep deprived from staying up way past my bedtime to watch the UFC event the night prior.  So I chugged coffee beforehand to amp me up. I applied my new favorite weapon of choice all over my legs: Tiger Balm.  The familiar stinging sensation – combined with the caffeine from the coffee – revved me up and had me ready to go. Maybe watching mixed martial arts with my friends the night before also factored in to the equation.  But anyway, you get the idea: I was totally jacked up.

I figured that’s how I needed to attack these shorter races.  I had to make sure to not go out too fast in a half or full marathon.  I had to relax. But here, there was no time to relax. I had to just GO.        

Based on my predicted finishing time, I was slotted into the B corral.  For NYRR races, runners are grouped from AA – the elite runners – to L based on their best finishing pace.  This has some effect for the shorter races, but it makes more of an impact for the NYC Marathon, when there are so many people at the starting line.  I was happy with my B assignment and took pride in it, because it meant I would be closer to the front of the pack in the marathon and wouldn’t be stuck behind the crowd.

The race began, and I immediately felt the weight I had put on since D.C with my first steps.  Granted, some of it was muscle from lifting, but my body felt alien to me.

In spite of the break I took from running, my first mile to my surprise was under six and a half minutes.  But when I started constantly checking the distance on my running watch during mile two, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to last very long at that pace.  I was already sucking wind and getting anxious, and I still had a ways to go. I tried going as fast as I could for the subsequent miles, but each one was slower than the previous.  My last one was over seven and a half minutes per mile.

Regardless, I averaged approximately seven minutes per mile and finished the race in just over twenty-eight minutes.  I fared well in the overall standings and in my age group, but this was now stiffer competition than the Rock ‘n’ Roll races I had run and the one at Rutgers.  

This fact was further driven home when I checked the website later on that night and saw that I had dropped to the C corral for the upcoming race.  I knew that it was now going to be my mission to get back into the B corral. It was a stupid goal on the surface, but it’s what the corral represented:

I wanted to prove that I belonged.  In “their” eyes.

I knew I had a lot of work to do to get back into the B corral.  But I also knew I would eventually make my way back there. I was going to find a way.

   

Run as One 4 Miles – 7:44 minutes/mile

“Look at the damage,

The fortunes came for the richer men.

While we’re left with gallows,

Waiting for us liars to come down and hang.

And when it was over, I woke up alone.

– “American Slang” The Gaslight Anthem

I decided to change my approach for this race.  Instead of starting at my designated C corral, I decided to start with my girlfriend and her sister in their corrals closer to the back.  I had noticed that it was demoralizing having runners pass me in the previous race. It affected me psychologically as I was trying to hold on for that final stretch, and I unraveled and started going slower.  I felt like I couldn’t keep up – like I wasn’t good enough.

So now, I wanted to turn this idea on its head.  I wanted to start near the back. I wanted to use each runner that I passed as motivation and fuel.  With each runner I would pass, I would go a little bit faster until I reached my top speed.

The problem with this strategy was that it didn’t account for just how many people signed up for these races.  It was nearly the same number of runners in the D.C. Marathon. But this was only a four mile race. And we were all crammed into half of the narrow bike path around Central Park.  

At the start of the race, we were packed like sardines.  I couldn’t find an opening to get past runners. For a solid tenth of a mile, I was practically slowed to a walk.  I felt anxiety bubble up. I was losing my chance at getting back into the B corral.

A wave of frustration hit me, and I threw all caution to the wind.  I momentarily veered off course and sprinted as fast as I could past the crowd of people in front of me, until I noticed a pocket that was spacious enough that I could rejoin the crowd with enough space to zig and zag in between runners.  I felt like it was working – I was passing people and gaining confidence until I looked down and glanced at my running watch.

Eight and a half minutes.  

If I wanted to make the B corral, I would have to run the final three miles faster than I’ve ever run three consecutive miles at any point in my two years of running.  It just wasn’t going to happen.

So I dialed it back.  I decided to just sit back, put it on cruise control, and not even look at my running watch the rest of the way.  I still had seven races to go to make it back to my original corral.

I turned my watch off partly out of irritation, but mostly because I didn’t want it weighing on me.  I just wanted to enjoy the run. I wanted to enjoy just being out there.

I crossed the finish line full of energy and barely panting.  I went to the bag check area and found a spot on the grass to sit and stretch and wait for my girlfriend and her sister.

When I took my phone off of airplane mode and checked the unofficial time, I was shocked to see the results.  I thought I was going much slower than I was. It felt like I was going nine – maybe ten – minutes per mile. In reality, I had actually averaged a faster pace than my first mile.

Maybe I had it all wrong.  Maybe the trick was to not care.  I was coming into these races high on adrenaline, my legs glistening in Tiger Balm.  Maybe I needed to approach it the same way I did for the longer races. Maybe I just needed to relax.  Maybe I just needed to be myself.

Around the time of these races, my girlfriend – for the first time ever – was being consistent with her training.  Maybe all she needed was a little boost to get her over the hump. She was working so hard, and I wanted her to feel the same satisfaction I felt when I ran.    

I decided to run the next two races with her and help pace her in order to reach her goals.  If I wasn’t ready to jump one corral, maybe I could help her do it.

And love had helped make me a better runner before.  Maybe it would help again.

 

UAE Healthy Kidney 10K – 12:16 minutes/mile and Japan Run 4 Miles – 11:41 minutes/mile

“Sail with me into the setting sun

The battle has been won, but war has just begun”

– “Rum Is for Drinking, Not for Burning” Senses Fail

I don’t want to tell her tales of triumph on these days, because I don’t want to rob her of the satisfaction of sharing it.  But during both of these races through Central Park, she gave it her all. There was no quit in her, and that showed me everything.  Any limitations she had were self-imposed. She had greatness inside of her.

I would have my running watch on and would glance at it, but I didn’t want to let her know just how fast we were going.  I wanted her mind as far away from time or distance as possible. That helps me sometimes, and I knew that would help my girlfriend.  

I would strike up conversation to distract her.  And sometimes I would give her encouragement and motivation when she was really struggling.  And she even taught me a few tricks that she uses like tossing water on yourself at aid stations to perk you up.

But what I remember most about these races was that it reminded me why I love running.  It was weird at first going much slower than I was used to, but it helped me appreciate my surroundings.  New York City had come to represent so many negative elements for me, but once I removed myself from that proverbial rat race, a certain beauty emerged.

I wasn’t focused on any personal goals.  It wasn’t about me. It was about supporting others and making each other stronger.  Whenever I came across a runner in an earlier corral with the same look of intensity I had during the previous two races, I knew I didn’t regret my decision running with her.  Maybe this wouldn’t get me back into the B corral in the short term. But perhaps it would help me in the long term.

Things in my life would start clicking for me the moment I stopped caring about what “they” thought.  When I focused on just bettering myself without caring how it looked like. In order to become a teacher, I was so focused on the necessary steps that I didn’t worry about how the part-time jobs that I took to help get me there would be perceived by others.  I had to bottle that.

I knew these finishing times would always follow me.  And for the first time, I didn’t care. I didn’t care about my pace or about my corral.  Because I knew the story behind it. I knew the significance.

I had to stop comparing myself to “them.”  I was never going to be one of “them.” I just had to be me.

I now knew how I was going to get back into the B corral.

 

Italy Run 5 Miles – 6:46 minutes/mile

“Baby this town rips the bones from your back

It’s a death trap, it’s a suicide rap

We gotta get out while we’re young

`Cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run”

– “Born to Run” Bruce Springsteen

We had been making a habit of getting to Central Park particularly early for these last few races.  Before the first two, we arrived to the area fairly late and felt rushed getting to the starting line.  The anxiety of the traffic going into the city, finding parking, and not having time to stretch and get loose – we definitely felt that it affected our running.  So we made sure to drive in early for this one as well, way before the masses began flocking to the starting area.

We had discovered a secluded space near a fountain and by one of the lakes in the park.  There was plenty of room here to stretch, and there were even restrooms we can use beforehand.  The lines at the porta potties closer to the starting line were always long, so it was clutch to have such easy access to restrooms.  

More than anything, that area allowed us to get away from all the noise and distractions.  For the short amount of time we would spend there, it was easy to forget that we were in New York City.

When it was time to take our places in our corrals, I headed to the C corral.  It had been awhile since I started in the corral I was supposed to. And now, I felt removed from the action.

I realized why it was that I liked stretching by that fountain, away from all of the people.  Near the starting area, more often that not I would see people’s judgmental eyes quickly glancing down at my bib – to see which corral I was in.  The more competitive runners were all sizing each other up. And I would play along in these games.

But I was different now.  I had to stop playing by “their” rules.  I had to stop caring what “they” would think.  I was never going to be one of “them.” I just had to be me.

So when I got into the C corral, I closed my eyes and took a few deep breaths in.  By focusing on the present – focusing on the now – and blocking out all of that noise, I could focus on the task at hand.  I didn’t want to think about people or corrals or my time or anything. I just wanted to do my best. To leave it all on that course.  

I dropped into a yogi squat and felt the eyes of those around me dart in my direction.  But I didn’t care. If I was going to do this, I was going to do it my way. Play by my rules.  

When it was time to start moving, I stood up from my squat and casually started moving forward.  I picked it up to a quick jog before we crossed the starting line, and once I did cross, it was like a switch went off.  I felt like a lion that was lying around all day, and then sprung up. Ready for the hunt.

But I wasn’t tense.  I wasn’t thinking about my time.  Oddly enough, the only thing that came to my mind during this run were my students and how much I care about all of them.  They lived on this side of the Hudson River but saw the same Manhattan I did. A life they would never know. They really were the ones that were left behind, on the outside looking in.  This was going to be for them.

That was all that I thought about for five miles.

I only allowed myself to check my pace after each mile.  I was encouraged to see that I wasn’t fading – my pace remained consistent.  I didn’t want to go much faster at the risk of running out of energy by the end.  And I felt good. All I could do was just hold on tight and ride it out and give it all I had.

When I crossed the finish line, I was spent but knew I had a little more to give.  I looked down at my watch one final time.

Well under thirty-five minutes.  

I wanted to wait before the official results came in, but I knew what that meant:

I was back in the B corral.       

 

Queens 10K – 8:22 minutes/mile

“I ain’t gonna be just a face in the crowd

You’re gonna hear my voice

When I shout it out loud”

– “It’s My Life” Bon Jovi

Now that I knew that being relaxed was the way to go for these shorter races, I felt a lot more confident going into this 10K.

Still, I made sure to bring my Tiger Balm this time.  Not because I wanted the psychological edge of feeling like my legs were on fire.  But because I was developing a nasty case of plantar fasciitis. It was altering my gait to the extent that I was walking more on the outside of my sole.  Every time my heel landed flush with the ground, a pain would surge through me. I would feel every step reverberate through my body. This feeling is all too familiar for many runners – like a stinging snake bite.

I could hardly walk some days.  I was running forty to fifty miles every week and was running at my top speed during some of these races.  And they were just a few weeks apart from each other. I did well on the Italy Run, but my heel paid the price afterwards.

But I was now in the B corral again and knew that I only needed to go slightly faster to make it into the A corral.  

My plan was to see how I felt during the first two miles of the 10K and then either go for broke or abandon the mission depending on my pace.  I would run at the necessary speed for the first two miles and then make a decision. I was relaxed, because there was zero pressure. I knew I would have three more chances to make it into the A corral.

I ran the first two miles slightly slower than the pace I needed to go.  The weather was perfect, I felt great, but it just wasn’t happening. And I was totally fine with that.  

So I started easing my way into a more comfortable jog when suddenly I felt a sharp pain in my right foot.

That didn’t feel right.

At the pace I was going, I hadn’t noticed how I was contorting my foot in order to compensate for the pain in my heel.  It was placing extra pressure on the metatarsals, and now I felt an unbearable amount of pain on the top of my foot.

I kept running through it, but it kept getting worse.  My foot was swelling, as my shoes were getting tighter and tighter.  I started hobbling and a few other runners asked me if I was alright.  I waved them off and kept trying, but I knew something was seriously wrong.  I had run through minor injuries in the past – including plantar fasciitis – but this was something else entirely.  I wasn’t even sure if I was going to finish the race.

As my foot started swelling, I suddenly got an idea.  I remembered back in D.C. I had come across a runner on the course who didn’t have shoes on.  It struck me as strange, but it was so late in the race that I wasn’t thinking clearly, so I didn’t even remember it until now.

Maybe it would feel better if I just took my shoes off.

I hadn’t yet heard about “Born to Run” or the minimalist craze from years back – I wasn’t a runner when the book came out.  Here, I was just a runner whose foot had ballooned two sizes, and I couldn’t fit in my shoes. I was a runner desperate to just finish the race.  I only had three races left to qualify for THE New York City Marathon. I couldn’t stop now.

I had run 26.2 miles before.  I proved to myself I could do it.  A 10K was nothing.

I stepped off to the side and took off my shoes and socks.  I took a deep breath and took my first step.

The rocky asphalt of the park definitely irritated my feet.  But the sharp pain in my foot was gone. I was able to start jogging.  And before long, I was running again.

I had to alter my gait because of the rocks.  It reminded me back to when I was a kid; my family would go on vacation to Miami Beach.  When we would go to the pool, the pavement around the pool was so hot that we had to take short quick steps to get around.

And on this day in Queens, I had to do the same thing.

I was going slower, but not by much.  The pit stop cost me a handful of minutes, but I was getting faster each mile after that.  Adrenaline coursed through my body.

“Who does this?” I thought as I chuckled to myself.  “Who gets injured and then does whatever necessary to finish the race – including taking off their own shoes?”

I don’t know what came over me in that instance, but it was as if natural instinct took over.  There was no quit in me. I had greatness inside of me.

I crossed the finish line feeling just as accomplished as when I finished the marathon.  I had gutted it out for well over three miles. And my average pace was just under eight and a half minutes per mile.  I took a spot on the soft grass to soak it all in and relax until my girlfriend and her sister finished.

When they met up with me and it was time to walk to our car, I tried to get up and immediately fell back down.  I couldn’t put any weight on my foot.

It had to take my first trip ever to the medical tent.  Now that the adrenaline from the race had worn off, I couldn’t even stand up – the medics had to drive me to the tent in a cart.  

But I finished that race.  And there was no point in comparing myself to anyone else anymore.  Forget about pace. Forget about corrals.

There was no “they” anymore.  It was just me. And I finished that race.

         

Front Runners New York LGBT Pride Run – 10:35 minutes/mile and Achilles Hope & Possibility – 12:12 minutes/mile

“I was dreaming in my dreaming

Of an aspect bright and fair

And my sleeping it was broken

But my dream it lingered near

In the form of shining valleys

Where the pure air recognized

And my senses newly opened

I awakened to the cry

That the people have the power

To redeem the work of fools

Upon the meek the graces shower

It’s decreed the people rule

The people have the power”

– “People Have the Power” Patti Smith

The official diagnosis was a sprained foot.  Overcompensating for the plantar fasciitis had put an excessive strain on the metatarsals and damaged the ligaments.  The x-ray also revealed the remnants of an older stress fracture that I had been running through. My foot was all sorts of messed up by that point.

The orthopedist instructed me to wear a walking boot.  I couldn’t drive. I couldn’t go to work. I certainly couldn’t run.  I couldn’t do much other than sit on my couch and stream World Cup matches on my laptop.

But I still had two more races I needed to run in a couple of weeks.

There was no way I was going to be able to train in the meantime.  But I was going to run in those races. Even if I had to walk. I wasn’t going to just give up now.  I didn’t want to have to sign up for two other races.

I was going to go to run in those races.

Of course, I couldn’t comfortably put a shoe on.  So I had no choice: I would have to walk them both barefoot.

And I fully intended on walking them both.  These two races were on back-to-back days – Saturday and Sunday – so I wanted to listen to my body more than anything.  Take it slow and just cross the finish line.

That was the plan.  Until I got to the starting line.

I remembered when I used to play football as a kid.  Anytime I got banged up, I was out of the game. Seldom did I battle through any sort of minor injury to stay in.  Especially when our team was losing. It was one of my characteristics on the football field that I came to loathe the most.

Yet, I just ran over three miles – with no shoes on and with a sprained foot – to finish a 10K.  Why was I going to let a few more miles get in my way now?

I couldn’t get around without the help of my walking boot or crutches, but on the race course I was like a fish in water.  I suddenly had purpose and a reason to move. I just wanted to get to the finish line.

I went much slower, but the experience humbled me.  I couldn’t focus on pace. Hell, crossing the finish line wasn’t even a given.  

I reasoned with myself that all runners have their own things that they must overcome.  And this was no different. I had made it back into the B corral. But now it was time to get tougher.  That was going to help me more in the long term than sitting out these races.

Near the back of the pack, it reminded me of the races I ran with my girlfriend.  Colors felt more vibrant. I was mindful of each and every step. My breath was slow and controlled.  I was fully in the moment.

And my bare feet grazing the asphalt with each step reminded me of that fact.  I felt grounded. Corrals, speed, pace – none of that mattered. It was an achievement just to get to the end.

Near the end of the second of these two races, with the finish line in sight, I pulled up along the side of the course.  Not because my foot hurt (though it definitely did in fact hurt). Not because I wanted to cheer for the other runners (though I definitely did in fact cheer).

It was my girlfriend’s final race of the nine.  This meant that by finishing this race, she was automatically guaranteed entry into the 2019 NYC Marathon – her first marathon.  And there was no way I was going to miss that moment.

I waited for her and we crossed the finish line together.  We had both worked so hard to get to there, and there was nobody else I wanted to share that moment with.  The 9+1 becomes a journey onto itself and is a precursor to an even bigger one. It gives you a taste of what’s to come in the next year.

But she had completed this part of her journey.  And I still had one more race to go.

 

The Final Race

Yes, there were times, I’m sure you knew

When I bit off more than I could chew

But through it all, when there was doubt

I ate it up and spit it out

I faced it all and I stood tall

And did it my way

– “My Way” Frank Sinatra

On the final drive back to Central Park, I thought back on all of the other races.  In less than four months, I had run three times as many races as I did the previous year and a half.  Sure, the distances were shorter, but running that many races in such a short amount of time will change a person.

I had completely rewritten who I was as a runner.  I no longer cared about my finishing times. It was about much more than that.  

But more importantly, I had completely rewritten who I was as a person.  I no longer compared myself to others. It was about much more than that.

In Central Park, I became my own person.  Because I was never going to be one of “them.”  I just had to be me.

In those races, unlike the previous half marathons and the one full marathon, I didn’t think about my past.  I was only in the present. Running barefoot and feeling the pavement under your feet definitely has a way of making sure of that.

While others were tuning out, buried in their headphones or running watches, I was completely tuned in.  And while others were in a rush, I listened to my body. In New York City, everyone is in a rush. Everyone has somewhere to be.  Our legs and feet lead us further than we intend on going. We overstep our reach. We land on our heels. We don’t think. Running with no shoes on helped me make sure that my feet were always beneath me.  That I wasn’t overstepping my reach.

But I wasn’t going to be able to run barefoot all the the time.  After the previous races, the soles of my feet would get carved up.  The skin would get so soft and tender that pebbles would stick to my clay-like skin, and I would have to pluck them out with my hands afterwards.  Sure, they would eventually callus, but I was only running these races. It would take time. And time was something that I didn’t have.

So for this race, I invested in my first pair of FiveFingers.  I wasn’t particularly thrilled with the aesthetic, but I didn’t care.  It wasn’t about looks or fashion. It was the only thing that closely resembled barefoot running, and that was the only way I was going to make it to the finish line.  It was time to break them in and run the last of my nine races.

So when I got into the corral, I closed my eyes and took a few deep breaths in.  By focusing on the present – focusing on the now – and blocking out all of that noise, I could focus on the task at hand.  I didn’t want to think about people or corrals or my time or anything. I just wanted to do my best. To leave it all on that course.  

I dropped into a yogi squat and felt the eyes of those around me dart in my direction.  But I didn’t care. If I was going to do this, I was going to do it my way. Play by my rules.

I knew these finishing times would always follow me.  And for the first time, I didn’t care. I didn’t care about my pace or about my corral.  Because I knew the story behind it. I knew the significance.

I had to stop comparing myself to “them.”  I was never going to be one of “them.” I just had to be me.

Living in New Jersey, you are in the shadow of the New York skyline.  And I take pride in that.

I take pride in our toughness.  I take pride in a three hour long conversation in a diner off the highway.  I take pride in having someone pump my gas for me. I take pride in driving around aimlessly with my friends from high school and hanging out in parking lots.  I take pride in Taylor Ham or pork roll – whatever you call it. I take pride in Springsteen and Bon Jovi and Sinatra. They did it their way. And I’ll do it mine.    

I take pride in not being able to afford twenty dollar cocktails.  I take pride in not always being in a rush. I take pride in not living the life of a character from a sitcom.  Because I’m not from New York City.

I’m from fucking Jersey.  And THAT is what helped me cross many of those finish lines.

When it was time to start moving, I stood up from my squat and casually started moving forward.  I picked it up to a quick jog before we crossed the starting line, and once I did cross, it was like a switch went off.  I felt like a lion that was lying around all day, and then sprung up. Ready for the hunt.

Because like a lion or The Boss or the Tarahumara, one thing became clear to me over the course of these nine races:

I was born to run.  

R-U-N 5K – 8:12 minutes/mile

IMG_0294 (1)

       

Running

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