I've asked myself, why the need to always go so far as to run a Marathon? How much do I actually need to prove (as if I needed to prove to myself), that I am a good man, who deserves the right amount of validation? Those of you who know me well, know I didn't have a great childhood. I love my father, but the mother situation didn't go as planned. The uneven and edgy childhood, made for perfect 'makings' of a person who always was looking ahead for something better, when success had already been hand-wrapped in gold strings and presented to him on a silver platter, several times. The empty feeling that all of us sometimes have when we feel that enough is never enough. Did it come from our childhood? Probably. So are running marathons, a way to prove our self-worth? Perhaps-Definitely. Could it also be a way of saying a very loud, "Fuck You", to all who wish anything other than success for us? Perhaps-Definitely...once again.
This year had been a bittersweet one. Without getting too "deep", suffice it to say my health has been a rocky road since busting the 300 race mark last year at this time.
Yes. Machines break down too.
Dealing with back issues for the first time in my life has been something of a civil war within me. My body was constantly telling me to lay off, while my mind would fight back, convincing myself that quitting was not an option (Which, perhaps, is what may have started this cycle in the first place). Yep. A lot of internal drama and all of that wonderfully psychotic jazz that comes with it.
My back is better now but it will probably never be the same, as I have never 100% recovered and possibly never will. However, this story has a happy ending so don't leave your seat just yet.
In addition to winning the "step-competition" at my company in August, I also braved the elements and completed my 4th Chicago Marathon on Columbus Day weekend. It was 70 degrees at the start, and 84 degrees at the finish.
Having regarded my Chicago Marathon as my "training" run for the NYC Marathon, I limited my runs to 2-3 per week max in those four weeks that separated the two.
Now you may ask,
"Alex...Two marathons in four weeks???"
Well, it's more common than you think. Sure, I'm no Meb Keflezighi. He like the other pros, need 4 to 6 months (sometimes even more), between marathons to compete. However, that's what you need, if you plan on winning the whole damn race!
I run for my own motives. And like the many in this world, I have and will continue to run as often as I like, until I no longer can. Simple as that. So yeah. Sure. I understand the consequences of that kind of mentality. One thing though...The body adapts quite well to even the most pressurized situations (especially fun ones!). So there's that, too.
Which brings us to recent times. I'll briefly start with one of my own. Kayla. She's my youngest. Her brother is one minute older. She got sick a couple of weeks ago. When you go to school, you are entering the second viral network ever created (after hospitals). She started feeling better, but then my wife came down with it whatever she had.
Neither ever actually got a fever, but to play it safe, I went and got a flu shot 10 days ago. Nowadays, flu shots are not so effective. A doctor recently told me that they ward off perhaps one in three strains.
But I didn't worry. Because I never get sick. Hey...I'm the "Machine"! :-)
Yeah, well....that chapter didn't exactly get written that way...
Last Thursday, after a training class had wrapped up at home, I left and hopped aboard the LIRR (Long Island Rail Road), headed to the Jacob Javitz Convention Hall in Manhattan. That's where the NYC marathon expo is staged, yearly.
I would've driven in, but my engine (yes you heard right, ENGINE) on my 2011 Hyundai Sonata, DIED, as my wife drove it to work that morning. It died right on Route 107. We had it towed to a service station, and then when the mechanic realized that the engine was at fault and that it was completely dead, we had it towed yet again to Hyundai in Hicksville. There was a recall on that engine we weren't aware of. Fortunately, it saved us a ton of money. In addition to being grateful that no one was hurt, of course.
Since we have a rule to never leave the kids in an area without a car available, I didn't take the SUV, so I 'trained' it instead, to get to the expo.
When I got home, I felt exhausted. Spent. This is usually how one feels when they finish up walking around at an expo, and then deal with the normal hordes on mass transit in NYC.
The next morning, I drove to work. While in the office, I couldn't get motivated. I had several cups of coffee, and could not seem to wake up. Then again, I didn't sleep too well the night before. 'No matter', I thought. I figured I would sleep a lot, as I always do, that night (the Friday before a Sunday Marathon).
I slept 12 hours.
Typically, I can't sleep more than 9-10 max. However, I woke up Saturday morning in a fog. My family asked if I wanted to go to the gym with them. Karen suggested a "shake-out" run before the Marathon. It seemed logical, so I obliged. Once at the gym, I walked a mile on the treadmill, and then, while the kids were at their swim class, I went outside and ran to the Glen Cove High School. There, I ran another 2 miles or so around the track, and ran back. The weather was cool, crisp and sunny.
When I got back to the gym, I was still cold, as if I had never entered the building. Something was up, My mind was now beginning to place the pieces together. These pieces which belonged to the "When-did-Alex-get-sick-and-why-was-I-in-denial?" puzzle.
I wanted to go home and take my temperature, but we had to get a loaner car, so as the 2nd adult, I had no choice but to drive us to the car dealer first. On the way to the dealer, my head felt a little warm. I asked Karen if she could touch it. She did but told me that I seemed okay. But I was not okay. Something was up.
"I can't believe this, but if this is not nerves for my race tomorrow, then I think I'm getting sick",
Karen immediately started expressing regret to my statement, blaming herself for getting me sick, as we drove to the dealership. At that point, I retracted what I said by telling her that it was probably nerves. In other words, I lied.
We get home and it's almost five in the afternoon. I didn't feel like cooking, so Karen does the honors and goes back out to pick up dinner for us at Amalfi's on Forest Avenue. After she left, I immediately rush to the bathroom to take my temperature. I could not believe it when I saw, "100.6".
"Holy shit! No please! Not now!!!"
Nothing comes easy. That should be my tagline to describe this year. The story of my year, as it relates to my running.
"Bad word, Daddy!!"
I heard Kayla yelling from the living room, because yes, I did say, 'Holy Shit'.
Fast forward to dinner. It's 6pm. I was a shell of myself at the dining room table. Typically loquacious (YAY! I got my $50 dollar word of the day in! lol, sorry), I was panicking over the possibility that I was getting sicker, with my 15th and paramount Marathon the next morning. It was such, that I started to silently tear. Yes, you read right again. Tear. Not as in rip, but as in cry.
From the corner of my eye, I knew Karen was looking at me. But, she didn't say anything. I didn't want her to ask either.
"Sorry if I'm tearing. It's just that, well you know, tomorrow is my 15th NYC Marathon. I'm going to be a lifer. It's a little overwhelming, you know?"
"Of course, I can only imagine, Alex."
Oh, but how she could truly NOT ONLY imagine. Once again, here I am... The unwilling participant that's been shoved inside of a Gladiators' costume and kicked into another shit Colosseum, to do battle with yet another seemingly insurmountable situation. Along with having the flu, I was mentally breaking down, 21 hours now before the start of my race.
'Must remedy this now!' I thought. To take or not take Naproxen? It's very bad 24 hours or less before a race to take NSAIDs, no matter how well they may work. So instead, I popped 3 extra-strength Tylenol, and half a Melatonin pill, to help me relax and fall asleep. It was 9pm.
The next morning, my Amazon Alexa, both our iPhones and my iPod touch, were all going off at different times around 4am. The night before, I told Karen that I thought it would be a good idea if she slept downstairs in the spare bedroom. She agreed, figuring that I didn't want to catch whatever she had. What she didn't realize was that I was doing it ..... to prevent HER from catching what I had.
I get out of bed, feeling like a zombie. Something most people will feel when they have to wake up at 4am (even though it was like 5am-we had turned the clocks back the night before). The first thing I did in the bathroom, was to take my temperature....
Now sorry for the needless use of language...but are you FUCKING kidding me?
My hot mind was racing.
'What's my strategy now, smartass? Do I tell her? No. Don't tell her. If you do, she will be upset, tell you that you're selfish to risk your life and to not run. Well, how does that help my fever? It doesn't. You're fucked. Well... maybe I should defer to next year. Oh really? And what happens if they change the rules again regarding the 15+ club? Remember how then NYRR president, Mary W. had grandfathered the club clause back in 2011? The time is now! You have to do this? But what if I don't make it? Well, then you're fucked again. Either way. YOU. ARE. FUCKED!!!'
Asked again in the car how I was feeling, I lied again. I drove us all the way to the Staten Island Ferry on Whitehall Street, near Battery Park. Looking back, it was like a blur. I followed the motions like I had from the last few years that I took the ferry. All the while, I just fooled myself into thinking I was okay, despite how tired and lethargic I was feeling, and I hadn't even stepped foot to meet the BEAST yet.
This year the staging areas had something new, "Therapy Dogs". Feeling the way I was, I figured I would try almost anything to lift my spirits.
Like I said, I tried everything I could to keep my spirits up. So another thing I was doing, was what came naturally. Following my journalistic tendencies, I had started to report everything from early that morning, via FaceBook. I was mentioning all that I was experiencing, MINUS the fever. Deep down inside, I went out of my way not to acknowledge that I was sick. I didn't need friends and family to tell me how crazy I am (well, that's already a given though, isn't it?). I needed to get this done. I needed this accomplishment. I needed this validation, that I am not a quitter, and that I can somehow overcome even this.
So, once the anthem was sung, the triangulation of low flying military choppers passed over us right on target. This was followed by the massive cannon going off, which shook the ground beneath my feet. I crossed the start mat at around 9:56am, Sunday, November 5, 2017. On board, I had 6 Power Gels, 10 S-Caps (sodium tabs to counter my excess sweating-cramping), 2 Tylenol, and a Zantac. I also had, a still nagging lower back, 15 extra pounds of weight, a lousy training regimen, and now a 101.6-degree fever to contend with along 26.2 miles of what many critics consider to be a beautiful, but pretty tough marathon (as compared to others).
And off to the races we go:
For the first 5k, my pace was at around 8:41. Not terribly fast for me, but admirable overall. I was wearing a Dunkin Donuts hat that they gave out at the campsite. I tossed it the moment I crossed the bridge. Now, I could feel the cool air on my head, which felt very nice.
On 4th Avenue, near the 6-mile mark, I start hearing some yelling from behind me. This was impressive, considering that I was listening to music fairly loud. Turns out it was Kevin Hart, the comedian. I knew this not only by having seen him in the movies but also because his running number, 10001, was attached to the side of his shorts. I moved to the side, to let him and his unnumbered entourage pass me.
I immediately had the wits to take my iTouch out of my pouch and snapped this photo of him,
Then I ran ahead, got in front, and from a safe distance attempted to take a selfie with him in the background. This was met with an incredible amount of aggressive behavior from one of his posse, I think it was the guy with the red hair. Seriously, folks, this is a PUBLIC race, and I wasn't being obscene.
Anyway, the LAST thing I needed was to contend with a combative, non-entrant. Didn't I already have enough to deal with?
Slowly, surely, I kept forging ahead, putting aside my malaise. The adrenaline of something I love to do so much had taken center stage, at least for the moment. Despite posting a 9:36 for mile 8, I reigned it back in, posting another sub 9 for miles 9 and 10. However, my heart rate was ridiculously high, mostly compensating for my brain. I was heart-beating at a consistent, 175 to 180 beats per minutes for several miles. This could not continue unless I slowed down. But the adrenaline kept the 'nay-sayers' in my system away.....
It wasn't long, and I had expected, for the adrenaline to decide to take a holiday.
"Hey, wait! Come back! Don't you want dessert at the finish line? Come b-a-a-a-a-a-a-c-k!!!!"
All kidding aside, the weight of my situation (all 175 pounds), was standing just outside the door, looking to be let in.
I had just completed 12 miles and suddenly found myself in Greenpoint, where streets narrowed and crowds grew louder. Looking at my watch, I was amazed to see that my heart rate was going down, but that I was.....on pace.....to break two hours if I kept the pace up to the halfway mark.
As I turned left onto McGuiness Boulevard, I came to a calm reality, that today was not going to be my day. No matter how much I was trying to fight off how sick I was, I knew I couldn't keep this pace. On a good day, the pace I had done would have been pretty slow, but that was perhaps at another time in my life. This is the body of a 52-year-old man, who is 175 when he should be 160. He's got back pain, and he's got a fever that makes him feel hot, flush, disconnected and very, very, very tired.
However, I saw the Pulaski Bridge ahead in the distance, and with that the big structures, left, right and overhead, indicating the half-way mark.
Besides finishing this ordeal, the only other goal I thought I had a chance for, was to break 2 hours before the half-way mark. Mile 11 was done in 9:47 and Mile 12 in 10 minutes flat. It was now or never.
NOW! DAMMIT! NOW!!
Finding inner-strength, I started revving up my legs again. It was working! Suddenly, I'm passing people that had been passing me just the previous mile. I was going for broke. ALL-IN!
I think it was about a hundred yards or so, up the bridge, I think, to get to the 13.1 mark. The half-way point is almost half-way up the Pulaski Bridge. I motored through. I was locked in the whole way. Yes. I could've slowed down, as I looked at my watch I noticed I was going to be under 2 hours by nearly a minute now. And, I should have. I should have. But, I was at war with myself. I wanted to send a message to everything that was trying to keep me from succeeding today. It briefly allowed me to reflect upon those years I had lived, as the low self-esteemed and unaccomplished victim that I was. The one who had accepted and had to put up with so much, for so long, in another life, a long time ago now.
Slightly determined, wouldn't you say?
It wasn't long after crossing the halfway mark, that all kinds of bad things started happening inside of me. Everyone, even machines have limits. And mine was right here (pictured below, encircled).
I've been known to stop on occasion to deal with a cramp, or to say 'Hello' to someone I know. But...to go and sit down?
I felt as if I was about to pass out. My head was boiling hot. I leaned against the divider on the Pulaski bridge, and just sat there for what seemed forever. All the while, runners would pass me, focusing on their strategy. Some were kind to give me words of encouragement, hoping I'd get back in the 'ring', so to speak.
Then, in my silent anguish, I forgot that I still had 2 Tylenol. Fumbling through my RooSport pouch, I found them and took them dry, without any liquid. Then, I held my head in my hands, thinking how in hell was I going to be able to finish this race with this flu?
This fever had really sucked the life out of me. I had run Marathons with partially torn calf muscles, and I even ran the Brooklyn Half Marathon back in 2005 with a complete fracture of my interior left tibia. But this was not just an ailment affecting one area. The malaise had spread everywhere in my body.
Incredible, how just minutes after I was raising my arm in triumph, at the half-way mark, I was now ready to throw in the towel. I tried. I really had tried to finish this Marathon. I wanted so bad to make the 15+ club. But this was too much. Now, I would have to wait yet another year, and who knows if this program survives another year too...
I needed a new strategy. The jury of my peers in my head started talking again....
'You need to review your goals again. Are you a moron? What are you trying to do? What exactly, are you trying to achieve? You can't run 8 or 9-minute miles anymore! Forget this nonsense of a sub-4 hour marathon! That ain't happening. Not today!! Walk if you have to. Walk the whole damn thing if you need to!! Just don't quit on me, Please. Don't quit.'
Of course, I don't remember exactly what I said to myself, but my little soliloquy above was very close to what I remembered thinking about as I sat on the divider at the end of the Pulaski Bridge.
To the sounds of random cheers and runners asking if I was okay, I got up slowly, looked ahead, and finally realized that there was only one goal left for this drizzly Sunday. FINISH!
I started walking, and then the walk became a slow jog. Before I knew it, I was staring at the Citicorp building. A massive structure of steel and glass in the heart of Queens' Long Island City, which also signaled that I may have already passed the Mile 14 marker, and was heading towards a major nemesis. Some call it the 59th street bridge. Millennials call it the Ed Kock bridge. My family still refers to it as the Queensboro bridge. But I knew what it was. A 100 plus year-old son-of-a-bitch that would be relentless to my calves, and other tender parts of my already fatigued body.
And then the cramps started. Despite the S-Caps, and the hydration, my internals were so out of whack, that I started cramping even BEFORE I got to the ramp of the bridge. Walk to a count of 50. Then run, until the next cramp, or until you're exhausted. Repeat as directed. That was my recipe. My software program routine until further notice.
About one-third of the way across the bridge, I felt as if something incredible had happened. My forehead was suddenly drenched in fresh sweat. It felt as if my fever was breaking. Either that or as if someone had just removed an overtight motorcycle helmet off my head. However, washed out I felt, I was grateful and found something I had lost somewhere in Long Island City. Hope.
I barely looked up as I didn't want to see the SOB for what it was. And then as we got to the steep downhill portion of the bridge, I started running. Adrenaline decided to come back to shit-show and brought a friend with her. Hope!
As I came off that bridge and made my way round to First Avenue in Manhattan, I had felt as if I had a new life. I was averaging 12-minute miles the last two miles. Mile 16? 9:29.
That would be the last mile where I would even break 10 minutes, but none of that mattered anymore to me. I was grateful that my goal felt as if it would be attainable.
At 102nd Street, I had expected to see Karen. She was not there. I was sad and a little annoyed. I did Mile 19 in 12:32. Real bad, lol.
I crossed the Willis Avenue bridge, and into the Bronx. The mist had turned into a rain, which felt good. However, the energy 'tank' in my body was on 'E'. There was no PowerGel, or Pickle Juice, or B6 vitamin, that could possibly re-energize me at this point. With everything that I'd been through, all I kept thinking about, was going to bed.
I knew I was going slow, and seeing the long and upward grade on 5th Avenue was brutal. It's brutal when one feels well, and definitely more so today for me.
The only bright spot, I was anticipating was that Karen had said that she would also cheer me on at 5th Avenue, and 102nd street. But once again, she was not there. I was a little more upset and more annoyed.
I did Miles 22, 23 and 24 were 13:12, 13:38 and 14:10 (a record low). I didn't care. I just wanted this race to end already.
As I saw the big jumbotron on 5th and 89th, I finally knew I would be entering Central Park and be in the home stretch. And then out of nowhere,
"ALEX !! ALEX !!!"
Karen finally showed up!
She had a sign which lol, even now, I can barely make out the letters...
However, it was great to see her, and with the way I had felt, she could have been holding the scoreboard at CitiField, and I'd still feel non-plus, as I was at Mile 24. Even funnier than that imagery was what she did after she came to me. Karen literally ran onto the roadway, and began to run alongside me (if 'running' is what one would even call what I was doing by then). She then got a little zealous, because she told me that she was going to run with me as we entered Central Park. Police presence, due to the terrorist attack last week with the Home Depot truck in Chelsea, was very large and in charge. They quickly whisked her away....but not before she gave me a can of Red Bull (diet too!).
I improved on Mile 25 by going from a 14:10 to a 12:32, and further improved that time, at Mile 26, to an 11:14. And all of this, despite the massive cramping in my calves. They were super strong.
I re-entered the park from Columbus Circle, and the gravity of what I was about to do started hitting me hard. It was only some 21 hours before, where I had lied at the dinner table. I had told my wife that the magnitude of becoming a lifer for the NYC Marathon was overwhelming. Well now, I would no longer be lying. The tears that started strolling down my face as the '400 meters to go' and '200 meters to go' signs flashed by me, were truly about just that. I couldn't have done this any other way. Nothing is ever easy for me, is it. And still, the harder it is to achieve something, the sweeter it is when you finally do.
I could see the finish line ahead. And now, whereas I didn't want my friends, Adrenaline & Hope to leave, I'm actually trying to hold them both back now. Adrenaline and Hope. They wanted so badly to see their mutual friend, Completion. Ahhh, yes. That's the friend that shows up at every finish line. So cruel, that I would want to keep them from all re-uniting right? And who am I prevent that from happening?
Ehhh, what the hell....Let them unite.
In the end, was it all worth it?
Ummm... What do you think?
The next day, I stood in line at the Marathon Pavilion just outside of Tavern on the Green. I waited nearly 2 hours to get my medal engraved. When I finally did get in, I made sure to tell them that I wanted another "character" to be recognized. One that stood by me for at least 16 miles. An unconditional and unwelcomed "house" pest. And no, it wasn't Adrenaline, or Hope or Completion. It was Fever, aka (101.6).
In the end, what was a curse on November 5, 2017, will now and forever be a badge of both defiance and honor for me.
So again, I ask myself...Why do I continue to do this? When is enough enough? Rhetorical, since to me I already know the answers. I love this sport, you see. It makes me feel alive. Even yesterday. One cannot possibly pretend to realize what it is to live life to the fullest, until you are placed in situations that are or near life-threatening. Now, in the case of myself, did I actually do that? Did I push myself too hard?
Many could intelligently argue, that what I did was totally irresponsible. That it was selfish, and without thinking of my family, friends, even co-workers. That my decision to forge ahead, when perhaps I should have stayed in bed, was dumb. But I would never have been right, had I played it safe. I would have spent the entire year, totally disappointed, and resentful. It's like wishing you hadn't asked for permission, to get told 'No', then to ask for forgiveness for telling yourself ' Yes'.
Perhaps using conventional wisdom by playing it safe, was absent on Sunday, but then you need to ask yourself this question,
"How much have you ever achieved in life, by just playing it safe?"
To risk is to live. To live is to feel alive.
I live to feel alive every second I exist. It's something that I fight for my whole life.
Well....Onto the next adventure... Love you all!