I have a moment to breathe finally – courtesy of a week off from work due to Spring Break (hooray teaching!). I know updates on my training have been scant, but that’s also probably what has made it so successful. With a little over a week until the Pittsburgh Marathon, it’s officially taper time. But that also means that time is running out as far as some of the topics I wanted to discuss on my blog before the big day.
Sure, there will be a big retrospective piece that will go into detail on all of the things that have weighed on my mind during training. And, in character, some of them are pretty heavy. But this post is something I wanted to get off my chest maybe since the day I signed up for this race. And certainly since my article that was featured on the ‘Burgh Blog, which you can read here .
As I sit in my apartment – with a clear head, having listened to Bruce Springsteen’s album “Springsteen on Broadway” for what feels like the thirtieth time in the last two months, and recovering and resting my sprained ankle – I figure there’s no better time than the present.
Yesterday, I went to go swim a few laps at the local pool after my four mile run in the morning. No surprise: it was closed. Seriously, the handful of times I set aside time to go to this damn pool, it’s closed. All I wanted was a few recovery laps, just to get off of my feet and alleviate my ankle. I should’ve just stuck with the gym.
I had to go food shopping which I had planned to do after the pool, but now had a more pressing matter at hand: I was getting hungry. I could go to the nearest supermarket, but I wanted a good breakfast sandwich. Now, a good breakfast sandwich is hard to come by in Hudson County. So I took the pool being closed as a sign that I had more time to work with, so I decided to make the short trek to the closest Bergen County breakfast spot I could think of and then go to the supermarket there. So I drove to my hometown of Little Ferry, New Jersey.
Like Springsteen laments on “Springsteen on Broadway”, everyone has a conflicted relationship with their hometown. Mine perhaps a little more conflicted than most if you remember back to one of my early posts. But the second I drove through the small roads, a wave of nostalgia crashed into me and I was transported to another world.
It felt claustrophobic now. The one square mile town. Running twenty miles feels like nothing to me now. As a kid, walking to the other side of town felt like an eternity. My old school. The quiet, empty suburban homes on a beautiful weekday when everyone is at work. The house I grew up in.
The trees in the backyard visible from the street, towering over the property. I remember helping my dad plant those trees years ago when they were barely taller than me. The Colorado blue spruce seemed unrecognizable to me, like an old friend you hadn’t seen in a very long time. I loved those trees. I spent my summers watering them while my dad was at work during the week and then watching and learning how he pruned them on the weekends. I got emotional almost immediately when I set my eyes on those trees. A part of me was thankful I made the quick detour, but a larger part of me was filled with regret.
I sat in the bagel shop and felt alien to the small town charm inside. I was like a visitor from a far off land. My beard, bushy and wild, but my head freshly shaved. My cargo shorts showing off my toned calves. A bright red shirt advertising that I had completed the 2018 Cape Cod Marathon in Falmouth, Massachusetts. Yet, I was comforted by the simplicity of it all. Away from the hustle and bustle. In the end, I’m just a small town boy from Bergen County.
There at that bagel shop, I thought of how far I’ve gone. How far I’ve gone and how high I’ve climbed. I have notebooks full of my training notes, ideas for my blog and for the future, things that I haven’t gotten around to just because I want to give them the time and space to properly breathe. Things that will eventually turn into the book I want to publish.
Being in Little Ferry yesterday, I knew I needed to write this though. Because I was reminded why I had actually signed up for the Pittsburgh Marathon. As much as I talk about living in the present, I am forever forged by my past. And if you can control it and harness its energy, it can propel you to heights you never thought imaginable. After all, that’s what this is all about anyway. The central idea, as I’ve taught my sixth graders.
My dad for his entire life has been a fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers. As I mentioned in my previous article, though he grew up in New Jersey in the 1970s, he idolized linebacker Jack Lambert and his toughness. I grew up in the 1990s and listened to his tall tales of that era of Steelers football. Lambert was a real-life Paul Bunyan figure in my life, but I also grew up watching some tough players during that time, too: Rod Woodson, Levon Kirkland, and later on, Hines Ward, among others.
But as my faithful readers would know, I have been a fan of the Raiders since as far back as I can remember. They were then the Los Angeles Raiders, but later became the Oakland Raiders…again (and now next year, apparently are moving to Las Vegas. Seriously.) I’m sure it broke my dad’s heart to see me gravitate to one of the Steelers’ biggest rivals, but who was he to deny his son of following his heart? I had found my own idol: a quiet, humble, yet electrifying receiver Tim Brown. But more importantly, it was their logo. I loved pirates as a kid, and it was between the Raiders or the Buccaneers. And if you are well-versed in your NFL history, you would know this is no contest. I mean, come on:
Raiders it is.
The first time the Raiders and Steelers played against each other, my dad took me to a sports bar. I was so excited, because I was six years old and it felt like I was breaking some rules. And I was excited to see our teams play each other for the first time.
But I wasn’t prepared for the other Steelers fans at the bar. I was the only Raiders fan. My dad to his credit tried to play it neutral, but the cheers from the other fans would get to me every time something would go the Steelers’ way. And it often did go their way. I mean, it was 1994. The Steelers were a perennial contender. And the Raiders were, well, not.
The Raiders lost, and I cried. My grandpa took me to the bathroom, because I tried to play it off like I was sick, but come on. Everyone knew why. But they were perplexed as to why. It wasn’t like my dad was being a huge dick about it. In fact, he was really nice. I remember that clear as day.
The next year, we opted out of the trip to the sports bar, but the result produced more of the same. A Raiders loss…and more crying. Again, with my dad confused as to what to do. He would plead with my mom and swear that he did nothing. I couldn’t even come to his defense through my sobs. I’m telling you, it wasn’t a pretty sight.
The next time they played each other was during the 2000 season where the roles were now reversed. The Raiders were the playoff team, while the Steelers were the ones who were struggling.
I was twelve years old; thus, I was more mature. There was no crying during this game. But when the end result was once again a Steelers victory, as the Raiders could not get to the line of scrimmage in time to stop the clock during what could’ve been their game winning drive, I got up in a huff and angrily turned our television set off. Again, my dad was confused as to what to do.
We never talked about it. As was par for the course with my family, a lot was left unsaid and buried. Besides, I wouldn’t have been able to explain why it would upset me every time my team lost to his team. Not well anyway. And certainly not as well as I can now.
The next few games went off without a hitch. The Raiders even won a few of their matchups. But the next matchup of note was during the 2012 season. My dad might not remember it, but I remember it like it was yesterday. I remember, because at the time of that game, we hadn’t spoken to each other in over a year.
My friends and I went to a local Bergen County sports bar to watch the game. As this was the only large sports bar in the area at the time, it was beyond crowded. And as a call back to that 1994 matchup, there were plenty of Steelers fan making their presence felt. And yet again, I was the only Raiders fan.
It was a back and forth affair that was punctuated by a vicious hit on Raiders’ receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey. While DHB lay on the turf motionless, the group of Steelers fans cheered. They were drunk and obnoxious. And I was sober and filled with pent up rage. At my dad. At everything.
So when Heyward-Bey gave the crowd at the Oakland Coliseum a thumbs up, the first time he moved any of his limbs, I lost it. It was time to kick their ass. The fans at the bar. The Steelers. My dad. This was the moment.
I can give you the whole rundown when Sebastian Janikowski set up to kick the game winning field goal. “I closed my eyes and envisioned success. I imagined the football heading straight through the goalposts and us cheering” yada, yada, yada (the post I am referring to is here ). But I’ll skip to the relevant part.
The Raiders came back and won the game. My friends had left the bar, because they were scared of the reaction – win or loss – knowing what I was going through at the time and how much the game meant to me. I felt like I had won a battle. I hadn’t consumed a sip of alcohol, yet I felt drunk. The bouncers were concerned and on edge. I called my girlfriend to pick me up and drive me home, because I was out of my mind.
I had won.
You see, what I couldn’t explain to my dad all those years ago, through all that crying, was this: I was just a little boy who wanted to make his dad proud. To show him that I, vis-à-vis my favorite football team, was good enough to be on the same field as him. And he loved football so much, loved the Steelers so much, I saw no other way to do it.
You see, ever since I was a little kid, I knew I was different. Maybe that’s really why I chose the Raiders over any other team. They were the rebels, the misfits. My dad was a Steelers fan. Traditional. Strong. My brother ended up being a Steelers fan just like him. I identified with that damn football team more than anything, because it represented the internal struggle I faced.
After going to one of the most prestigious high schools in the nation to study engineering – like my dad – I instead decided to follow my heart and pursue a degree in journalism in college, much to my father’s chagrin. Once he came to grips with that decision after seeing the work I was going at the student radio station, I disappointed him once again when that all came tumbling down and I was left scrambling.
For a week after that Raiders’ victory over the Steelers, I was riding a high. But when it wore off, I was still working ungodly hours at my crappy restaurant job. Sure, I had just secured my own apartment after living in a basement for months, but he was living in the house I grew up in. My house. With that Colorado blue spruce. So really, who had won?
For many years, I would lay awake at night in my apartment. Some days, it would be my salvation. A physical manisfestation of everything I had earned through my own hard work. No hand outs. And other days, it would be my own personal tormentor. A prison cell for my own head.
One night, I made a pact with myself. That no matter how long it took, I was going to make something of myself. That when I eventually move out of this apartment, it wasn’t going to be with my tail between my legs in shame like when I left Little Ferry. It was going to be a moment of triumph. The beginning of a new chapter while still honoring and respecting the previous one. I wanted to make my dad proud, even if we weren’t speaking. Let’s face it, that’s what every boy wants. And if they try to convince you otherwise, they’re lying. They want to make their dad proud. It is in our DNA. This wasn’t about football anymore. This was real life and the stakes were higher.
As you might recall from a previous post (which you can read here – hey, take a hint already: read all my early posts – seriously, start with the first chapter here), I don’t identify with the Raiders as much as I used to. A football game is rather meaningless in the grand scheme of things. But I’m still big on symbolism. And a marathon in Pittsburgh might be exactly the kind of demon from my past that I need to slay.
I’m not an engineer. I didn’t end up as a journalist. I’m not a doctor or a lawyer. Hell, I might not even be a teacher for much longer. But I have always been myself. I have always been unique. And maybe I don’t need to prove it to my dad or to the city of Pittsburgh. Because every time I look in the mirror now, I’m happy with what I see. With the person that I have become.
I am myself. And that is enough.
As I write the end of this post, I am sitting on the toilet in the bathroom of that same apartment. I am soaking my ankle in warm water and Epsom salt in the only receptacle I have that’s suitable for such a task: the wastebasket in my bathroom. Even though I sprained my ankle after rolling it awkwardly on a patch of weeds along my usual running trail, I was still able to get six miles in today at a comfortable pace of eight and a half minutes per mile. In spite of the minor injury, after logging three long runs of twenty miles each and three weeks of fifty total miles, I feel the most prepared I have ever felt for a marathon. Whether that earns me a PR is irrelevant (especially considering I have my first trail marathon a month after Pittsburgh). I know what the larger goal is, and I have my sights set on that.
One day, I will tell my story of this training. And all the twists and turns I’ve been through. But today is not that day. I just wanted to check in since it’s been awhile. And remind myself once again of why I am doing this.
Maybe I didn’t need to swim yesterday. Or go to the gym. Maybe that quick drive over to Little Ferry was exactly what I needed.
The past can act as a compass to let us know where we are. Who we are. And where we are going.
Next stop: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
And they’ll be carving you up alright
They say you gotta stay hungry
Hey baby I’m just about starving tonight
I’m dying for some action
I’m sick of sitting ’round here trying to write this book
I need a love reaction
Come on now baby gimme just one look
This gun’s for hire
Even if we’re just dancing in the dark
You can’t start a fire worrying about your little world falling apart
This gun’s for hire
Even if we’re just dancing in the dark”