Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Marathon #3 - Berlin, Germany

3) Berlin

   I ran my third marathon in Berlin on September 26, 2010. My finishing time was 3:43:17. When I crossed the Finish Line, I was a physical and emotional wreck.

  I got out of bed at 4:00 am on race day. The hotel was quiet and still when I left the room thirty minutes later. The race was scheduled to start at 9:00 am.

   I went down to the lobby to get some coffee, and eat breakfast. I sat down at a small table near the window that looked out on the cool rain that was washing the East Berlin street, and I wrote in my notebook:

   "I feel good about the race. I went for a run on Friday morning and my legs felt fresh and strong. And it felt great to run in the cool air. It's been a long, hot summer in Chicago. I've got the same picture of Kevin in my pocket that I carried in each of the first two marathons. I'll also have dad in my thoughts. He ran a 5k yesterday which included a free prostate screening among its goodie bag items. He (and of course we) is hoping that the cancer has receded and that he'll be able to avoid invasive surgery. Aside from how much I want to qualify for Boston today for myself, I'd also love for him to see me enjoy that level of success with my running. I know he'd get a lot from that."

   When the first trickle of runners spread into the lobby, I packed up my things and began making my way to the Start Line in Tiergarten Park. I remembered the crowds for the Chicago Marathon, and while I had the benefit of a seeded corral this time, I also had a language barrier to work through and I was in a city that was unfamiliar to me. So rather than risk the frustration of a last minute scramble to find my corral, I decided to get an early start.

   The rain had eased up when I left the hotel, so I walked for a bit. It was cold out that morning, and I found myself wishing that I'd brought some throw-away sweats from a thrift store. There were tall rectangular apartment buildings lining the streets. They were all still dark. The only noticeable sign of life was the occasional Saturday night bar patron, shuffling their way home before the daylight made Sunday morning official. I saw a train approaching, and I hopped on.

   I had done everything I'd set out to do in the months leading up to the race. Everything that I did in July, August, and September revolved around this marathon. I put my social life on hold. I organized my work schedule to fit my training schedule. I followed strict dietary rules. For three months, there wasn't a half an hour that went by without me thinking about Berlin.

   I felt good as I made my way through the park. The rain had picked back up though, and there wasn't any shelter to be had. So I told myself to just accept the fact that I'd be cold and wet, and to put it out of my mind and move on. Once the race got started, I'd be running hard, and I'd get warmed up, and everything would be fine.

   In the meantime, I waited. I stretched. I stood under trees. I watched other runners mill around. I waited. I tried not to think about the rain that had been falling off and on for the last 24 hours. I tried to ignore the standing water in the streets and in the lawns of the park. I tried to put my cold and wet body, and my wet and heavy clothes, out of my head.

   I tried all of that in vain. As 9:00 am approached, I was spending far too much time wishing that things were other than they were.

   And then the starting gun went off.

   We started off so fast. Seven minute miles right out of the gate. I'd never felt a starting pace like that in any race that was longer than a 10k. I was in a corral near the front and this was an all business crowd. I quickly shed my thoughts about the weather and all of the other factors that were out of my control, and I just ran. I had every intention of proving that this was were I belonged.

Me in the white shirt and dark shorts.
About Mile 6.
   But in the back of my mind, I was already worried. My legs were heavy. The strong and fresh feeling that I'd had just a couple of days before, wasn't there that morning. Early on, I told myself that I'd warm up after a couple of miles. But the first few miles of the race came and went, and nothing changed. By the 10k mark, I knew in my head that I couldn't hold the pace that I was at. I knew that if I didn't slow down, I was going to crash.

   I didn't slow down though. I'd put in too much work to get ready for that race. And I'd tied every bit of that preparation to the idea of qualifying for Boston. I told myself that I'd find a way to push through.

   I didn't push through though. By the half way point I was already unraveling. My legs were on fire and I was slowing down. I watched other runners pass me by. First by the dozens, then by the hundreds. By the time I hit the 25k mark, it was over. I had another 17k to go, I was in a lot of pain, and Boston was out of the question.

   I went through a wide range of emotions over that final ninety minutes. Initially, I was frustrated and angry, and I felt sorry for myself. And then I tried to shift my focus. I wasn't going to qualify for Boston, but I could still beat my Chicago time. I could still PR. And I reminded myself that I was still running the Berlin Marathon, and that I should be embracing that experience, because I probably wouldn't ever do it again.

   But as the race wore on, the pain became more severe, and I couldn't find a way to keep my focus positive.  I shuffled along, but I was desperate for it to be over.

   And then, finally, it was over. I turned the last corner and I saw the Finish Line from several blocks away. My legs were stiff, but I pushed them as hard as I could. I crossed the Finish Line more than thirty minutes past the time that I'd hoped for, and my eyes filled up with tears as I accepted the Finisher's Medal. I'd given everything that I had to that race, and somehow I'd actually gotten slower.

   I spent the better part of the next 24 hours feeling sorry for myself. I went through the post race motions. I ate delicious greasy food. I drank cold beer. I had ice cream for breakfast the next day. But I wasn't happy with the way things had gone. I did eventually snap out of it, and enjoy the rest of my trip. But I had a lot to reflect upon. I knew that I had a lot to take from the experience, and I knew that it was important that I do that.

   Some of the problems that I encountered were out of my control. And in hindsight, I don't think that there was any scenario in which I would have qualified for Boston that day. That is a longer and more difficult process than I had recognized. However, there were things that were within my control. There were things that I could have done differently, that would have made the experience a more enjoyable one.

   Most notably, I knew that I needed to change my mental approach. I can't limit my ideas of success and failure to the numbers on a clock. The clock can help me in my assessment of myself, but that's all it's there for. It's just a tool. It's not a goal in and of itself. And I knew that I needed to be more honest with myself about my ability. Even if I'd been warm and dry and had fresh legs, I wasn't physically ready to qualify for Boston. And I knew that I needed to make better decisions during the race. Had I slowed down early in the race, I would have lasted longer, finished faster, and had a more enjoyable overall experience.

   So I tried to take those lessons with me, while setting everything else down and moving on. Berlin was finished, and I had more races on the horizon.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Marathon #3 Postponed - Minneapolis, Minnesota

2.5) Minneapolis

   Going into 2010, my plan was to run two marathons. The first was slated for June 6, 2010 in Minneapolis. I made it to the race in Minneapolis. And I enjoyed the experience on the whole. But I did not run the full marathon. I ran the half-marathon, and my time was 1:41:05.

    The year started off well. I had taken it pretty easy over the holidays, but by January I was back in training mode. I was building up my weekly mile totals, and I was doing more cross training. Running still dominated my training schedule, but weights and swimming became staples as well.

   I was excited about Minneapolis. It wasn't the race that I saw myself qualifying for Boston with. I was going to shoot for that later in the year. But I knew that I'd be stronger and faster than I was in Chicago, and I was looking forward to using Minneapolis to assess my progress.

   I was also excited because both of my sisters were coming up from Denver, and they were going to run too.  I have one sister that is a couple of years older than me, and another that is thirteen years younger. Both are runners, though neither had run into double digit miles before. So they were both looking at the half-marathon.

   But before any of us made it to Minneapolis, I had a detour to take. I went on a month long vacation to Southeast Asia in March. I knew that I would lose some of the cross training while I was gone. But I figured that as long as I stayed somewhat disciplined with the running, I'd be fine. I'd get back to the gym in April, with a full two months left before the race. And in the meantime, I'd use those training runs in Asia, to see places that I would've never seen otherwise.

   My first stop was Hanoi. I landed at night, and I fell asleep immediately after I arrived at the hotel. But I didn't sleep long, and when I found myself wide awake well before dawn, I decided to go for my first run of the trip. It ended up being my longest run of the trip too.

   I was lost within minutes.

   I was initially okay with being lost. I'm pretty confident in my sense of direction, and I'd written the name and address of the hotel on a piece of paper and brought that with me, and I figured that I'd make my way back there eventually. I knew that directions might be a little tough to follow since I don't speak Vietnamese, but people can look at an address and point in a general direction, and eventually that would get me where I needed to go. In the meantime though, I was too excited to see the city to really give a damn that I didn't know where I was.

   But as time went on, I became less and less confident that I was heading in the right direction. When I'd left the hotel, the city had still been sleeping. But thirty minutes later, the sun was up and so was the city. Shops opened their doors and pulled their wares onto the sidewalk, traffic erupted and filled the streets, and people were everywhere. Any landmarks that I'd noted as I left the hotel were useless at that point. And after an hour or so of running, I had to accept that I could be miles from the hotel or just a few blocks. I had no way of knowing, and with the language barrier, distance can be tougher to convey than general direction.

   So I ran. I walked a little too. And I kept asking for directions, just to be sure that I wasn't running away from the hotel. I did, of course, find it eventually. And I felt quite relieved when it happened. I'd probably been out for two hours by then, so I won't pretend that I never got worried or frustrated. But even with those drawbacks, that was still one of my favorite runs ever.

   That was my first, and as of now my only, trip to Asia. And for me, it was a wonderful introduction. I got pretty far off of the beaten path that morning. I ran through neighborhoods that looked nothing like the area that my hotel was in. I got out were people lived and worked. Where kids went to school. Where families interact and people lay their head at night. That's not always an easy thing to find while traveling, but the likelihood increases significantly with running.

   I squeezed in a few more of those runs before leaving northern Vietnam. And after that first morning I managed to do it without getting lost.

   After that I made my way over to Laos. My first stop in Laos was in Luang Prabang. It's much smaller and more peaceful than Hanoi, and my first run there was beautiful.

Luang Prabang
   I once again went for a run on my first morning in my new surroundings . But I studied the map more closely this time, and I didn't take off until after the sun had come up. And even when I got out of town, it was easy to find my way. I ran on dirt roads and across wooden bridges. I ran along the rivers and I wound through the hills. I'm glad that I got the experience of that rural run in when I did, because it wasn't long after that that I got sick, and had to shelf the running for what I thought would be just a few days.

   When I looked at the basket full of dried cuttlefish, I knew that I probably shouldn't eat any. And to be honest, they didn't even look appealing. It wasn't like staring at a basket of cupcakes and thinking that I should pass. It was dried cuttlefish. But I was traveling. And one of my favorite ways to tour a new place is through my taste buds. So I bought a stick of three and I took a bite. It was terrible, but I took a second bite to be sure. Then, confident that each bite would be as bad as the last, and that this would be one taste that I probably would not acquire, I tossed the rest away.

   But the damage was done. There were bacteria working their way through me that my body was unfamiliar with, and therefor was poorly equipped to fight. Before the night was out, I was completely incapacitated. My body started to flush everything out, and there was little for me to do but lay in bed and wait it out.

   I was able to function again within 24 hours, but I remained weak for several days, and I never let myself get too far from a restroom. On the sixth day, I decided to go for an easy run. I was in Siem Reap, Cambodia by then. I was extremely sluggish, but I couldn't be sure that that was a result of my having been sick. I was moving steadily south by then, and I had also come down in elevation, so the heat was a much bigger factor than it was before the cuttlefish. But I had managed to get in about five miles, and I'd done it without needing to find any facilities. So I definitely took that as a positive.

   For the remaining two weeks of that trip, I didn't do a lot of running. I felt more or less capable, but I just didn't do it. I had gotten out of rhythm. I let the heat deter me. And then I just gave up. I told myself that I'd be fine. I'd just chalk it up as a minor setback, and get back to work as soon as I got home.

   But shortly after I returned home, I was sick again. It didn't feel like the same sickness, and when I eventually went to see a doctor, he said that it didn't sound related to what I'd experienced in Asia, and that the timing was probably coincidental. But regardless of the cause, it was frustrating.

   Throughout the entire month of April, I struggled. I couldn't keep food down, and I was getting weaker by the day. On one particularly rough day, I walked into work and watched as my boss' eyes widened at the sight of me. He quickly looked me up and down, took a cautionary step back, and told me that I should go home.

   My lowest point came near the end of April. I tried to go for a five mile run, and I couldn't finish. For the first time since the summer of 2008, when I was just starting out, I had to run/walk a simple five mile route. I was beyond frustrated. I was filled with self-pity and despair. I was a month away from Minneapolis, and I clearly wasn't in any shape to run 26.2 miles. Most of the work that I'd been putting in for nearly two years was gone, and I was back at the start.

   That was when I finally went to see the doctor. (I can be a little stubborn with that. I prefer to let my body do its own healing when possible.) We talked about my symptoms, he gave me some pills, and gradually I was able to keep my meals down. I'd lost a lot of muscle. And I was still frustrated. But I was finally able to start moving forward again, and that was an enormous relief.

   But I still had to decide what to do with Minneapolis. I hadn't registered for anything yet. I never thought that I would skip the race all together, but I couldn't let go of the possibility that I could get myself through the full marathon. However, after some soul searching and a realistic assessment of my physical condition, I came to terms with the fact that even if I did finish the full marathon, I'd be miserable throughout the experience. And I run because I love to run, not to make myself miserable. So I signed up for the half-marathon, and I hit the pavement.

   In the meantime, my younger sister had gotten bogged down with school work, and had decided to skip the trip. She was also going to be taking summer classes, so she would have had to fly home just hours after finishing, in order to be in class on Monday. But my older sister had been training hard to prepare herself, and I was looking forward to sharing the experience of race day with her. (I was also looking forward to sharing the experience of post-race greasy food, cold beer, concerts, and baseball games with her. And we did manage to squeeze all of that in before leaving Minnesota.)

   The race itself was fun. Minneapolis is a beautiful city to run in. The course was challenging. It was reasonably flat at first (Though few courses seem truly flat when you're used to running in Chicago.), but it became quite hilly once we started running along the Mississippi River. But mostly I was just grateful to be running again.

   And I was elated to have the chance to see my sister cross the Finish Line at her first half-marathon. She ran it in 2:46:39, earning every ounce of the food and beer that we put down later that afternoon. Since then, she's found other ways to embrace the spirit of the sport. This past winter, she completed a five race winter running series in Colorado. (My little sister did four of those with her.) And this coming October she'll be running another half-marathon, this time at home in Denver.

   When I got back to Chicago, I had to acknowledge that I was a long way from attempting a Boston Qualifying run. The base that I'd built up was gone. And I had less than four months to change that. But I had already signed up for my next full marathon. And this one was going to be on a course that has been called the fastest course in the world. So I sat down with a pen and paper, and I made a list of all of my regular habits that have an effect on my health. And I made decisions about what would make me stronger, and what would only slow me done. If it fell in the latter category, it was gone. It it fell in the former category, I was going to do a lot of it. Clean and simple. Four months of pushing myself hard. I knew I couldn't guarantee that I'd qualify, but I felt that I could guarantee that by the time I landed in Berlin, I'd be in the best shape of my life, and ready to give it everything that I had in me.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Marathon #2 - Chicago, Illinois

2) Chicago

   I ran my second marathon in Chicago on October 11, 2009. My finishing time was 3:41:27. It's hard to see how this one could have gone much better.

   Having completed my first marathon earlier in the year, I started training for Chicago with the clear goal of getting faster. I had found something that I loved, and that I felt I was good at, and I wanted to see how far I could push it.

   I had several reasons to believe that I'd finish this race much faster than the first. I had already been training for months for the first race, so I'd be building on top of a much stronger base this time around. I would also be running a flat course, as opposed to fighting the hills in Austin. And I had the advantage of being at home. Having the chance to get a good night's sleep in my own bed, after having cooked exactly what I wanted to eat, was a big comfort. I had been developing a routine for the nights before my long training runs, and I loved the idea of not having to alter that before the actual race.

   I piled up the miles all summer. And as fall approached, I was was boiling over with confidence and excitement. I felt physically strong for the first time in my life, and I was anxious to get out there and give the new wheels a spin.

   Race day weather was fantastic. I think it may have been around forty degrees when I walked to the el train before dawn. The course runs two blocks from my house, and it was exciting to walk down the street and watch all of the volunteers setting up the water stations in my neighborhood. That home turf feel was easy to feed off of.

   Seven of my friends/coworkers were running that morning as well. I met up with most of them for a brief moment, but we soon parted ways. The crowd was massive, and I wanted to get to gear-check, and then work my way up as far as I could.

   The sea of runners was something that I didn't fully appreciate until I was in it. This was only my sixth race of any distance, and the previous five totaled together wouldn't add up to a quarter of the number of people that stood on Columbus Ave that morning. All of them waiting to run.

   Once the starting gun was fired, it took nearly twenty minutes for me to reach the starting line. And even when I did finally cross, the pace only picked up a little bit. We shuffled through that first couple of miles shoulder to shoulder, zigzagging through the eastern edges of downtown. It wasn't until we finally turned onto LaSalle, that I was able to find some daylight to run through.

   But from there on, I didn't run into too many outright bottlenecks. I was still running with a lot of people that were moving at a slower pace than I was, and it did get tight in some spots, but I could usually find a hole to squeeze through.

   By the time I reached the half way mark, the crowd had started to thin out. I'd been trying to take back the minutes that I'd lost in the early going, but my success was limited. The crowd just wasn't conducive to the fast, straight-line running that I needed in order to recapture the spent time.

   The crowd was helpful in its own way though. Running among so many is quite a rush. And while I don't ever root against other runners (My battle is with myself.), it was empowering to find myself passing so many people, mile after mile. And when fatigue and pain did eventually creep up on me, I felt like I could draw on the energy of everything that was happening around me.

   A big part of that energy came from the spectators. Austin had had spectators, but not like this. Locals lined the streets nine and ten deep at some points, friends and families of runners carried signs and noisemakers, and music blasted from the apartment buildings that we passed. It wasn't exactly the Super Bowl, but it was a major sporting event, and participating, rather than watching, was awesome.  

   When we ran south of Chinatown and started into Bridgeport, I could feel the first undeniable signs that I was breaking down. But this was the 20 mile mark. Quite a bit further along than the last time. And again, I think the location helped a lot at this point. The neighborhoods that we ran through for miles 18 through 26, were the neighborhoods that I ran through every day. That familiarity was comforting. I could look back on the runs through those streets just fifteen months earlier, when I was heaving and panting and struggling to get through a five mile run. I drew strength from the understanding that I'd come so far already. And it helped to know exactly where I was. I had no need for mile markers out here. I knew the course. I knew where the Finish Line was. And I knew what I'd need to get there.

   When we turned onto Michigan Ave., I finally found the uncrowded straightaway that I'd been looking for. But there were only a couple of miles to go, and the idea of speeding up to pick up some minutes was long gone. The only thing left at that point is to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

   I managed that all the way to Roosevelt, which is where we turned to run along the southern edge of Grant Park, and where we were faced with the only hill on the course. It's one block long, and it's followed by the flat two blocks that lead to Finish Line. In my mind, I envisioned a strong finishing kick, similar to the one that I'd found at the end of the Austin Marathon. But that hill wasn't having it. I was able to run through it without slowing my pace, but I'd have to be content with that. There just wasn't anything left for a kick.

   Once again, I finished the race to find myself in a state of elation, peace, exhaustion, and pain. I had some muscle spasms just past the finish line that were more excruciating than any other running pains that I've felt before or since. But those did pass. And within a couple of hours, I was on my feet again.

   I had knocked more than a mile per minute off of my time, and I felt invincible. The idea of qualifying for the Boston Marathon, which had been growing in my mind for some time, shot straight to the forefront of my thoughts. 2009 was coming to a close, and I had fully felt the empowering impact of running marathons. It was all beginning to feel easy. But 2010 was on the way. And I would be reminded time and again throughout that year, that nothing worth having is easy. I was about to discover the humbling impact that running marathons has to offer as well.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Marathon #1 - Austin, Texas

1) Austin

    I ran my first marathon in Austin on February 15, 2009. My finishing time was 4:09:12. I had hoped to finish in under 4 hours, but there was not a trace of disappointment as I crossed that Finish Line.

   I was 34 years old, and I'd just started running about eight and a half months earlier. Prior to that I'd been about thirty pounds overweight. And I'd spent most of my adolescence and adult years as a heavy drinker, smoker, and consumer of fast food. I'd been working to change my habits and improve my health for several years, but I didn't really turn that corner until I started running.

   I trained in Chicago, and a lot of that training took place in the winter. I mixed in outdoor running (when the footing seemed reliable and the temperature was tolerable) with treadmill running. I joined a gym for the first time in my life, and I started doing a little bit of lifting. But for the most part I just ran.

   Every mile that I ran in preparation for that race seemed to put more distance in between me and a life that I had been trying to shed for years, while bringing me closer to the life that I wanted to live. More specifically, the running and the training were helping me to become the person that I wanted to be. As I made improvements in my physical health, I could also see improvements in my mental and emotional health. The confidence and the clarity of thought that I found while running began to carry over into other aspects of my life.

   There was something simple and straight forward about running and about training for that marathon. The responsibility was all mine. Friends and family could be supportive, but nobody could run for me. Either I did it or I didn't. The formula was simple as well. The more I ran, the more effort I put in, the stronger I got. And the goal was clearly defined. Marathons have a Starting Line and a Finish Line, and no shortcuts are available.

   When the morning of the race finally arrived, I was reasonably confident. My friend dropped me off downtown in the predawn darkness, and I walked among the thousands of other runners. The energy and the anticipation built up as the start time got closer, until finally the gun sounded and we were off.

   I was grinning like the village idiot as I took those first steps. The sheer joy of what I was doing was nearly overwhelming at that point. But as we climbed the first of what would be many hills, the giddy feeling burned off and the calming rhythm and flow of the run took over.

   Within a few miles, I found a 3:50 pace group and I settled in near them. I spent most of the morning running just behind or ahead of that group. Occasionally I'd run alongside of them and pick up on some pieces of their conversation. But for the most part I ran alone.

   As we ran through the Austin neighborhood of Westlake, the hills began to extract their toll. By the time I reached the halfway mark, I knew that my legs were more sore than they should be at that point. I'd used the incline feature on the treadmill as I trained, but I now know in hindsight that I had not prepared properly for such a hilly course. But I was out there, and there was nothing to be done but to keep running.

   Which I did until about the 18 mile mark. That was a lonely stretch of road in a residential section of north Austin. Most of the hills were behind me at that point, but they had done their damage. As I slowed with soreness and fatigue, I watched that pace group disappear ahead of me. And as I looked around, I saw that there were no other runners or spectators within 50 yards of me. I had eight miles to go, and for the first time I started to feel pangs of anxiety and doubt.

   When I came to a water station, I let myself walk long enough to drink a couple of cups. Shortly after that, we turned south and started to make our way toward the finish. I think that that was the first time I recognized a tall woman that had been part of the pace group that I'd been trailing earlier in the race. I took a little solace in the knowledge that I wasn't the only one struggling and falling behind, and between that and the fact that we were now running directly toward the finish line, I was able to gather a small charge and get some fluidity back to my movement.

   I was now stopping to walk at every water station, but I kept moving forward and the small doubts about finishing that had started to creep in up north had disappeared. The only question was time. I knew that 4:00 was slipping away, and I knew that I could live with that. But I still wanted to finish with best time that I could muster.

   Around the 23 mile mark, I saw the tall woman again. She was walking in a bit of a daze, and receiving pats on the back and words of encouragement from a group of girls that had come over to her from the water station that they were volunteering at. She didn't look good, but this was uncharted territory for me, so I really didn't know what to make of the situation. And then, perhaps a mile later, I watched her run right by me at a pretty healthy gait.

   I knew that the race finished just south of the capitol building, and so when I turned onto Guadalupe and found myself staring at the north side of that building, the reality of finishing the race began to seep in. But my initial excitement at that sight was tempered for a moment. As I got closer to the massive building that I needed to run around, I saw the tall woman for the last time. She was on the ground and she had two paramedics tending to her. She was conscious, and they were helping her stretch rather than taking her off of the course, so I was still hopeful that she might get up and finish. I'd never exchanged a single word with her, but I felt like we'd run that race together and I wanted her to make it. We had less than a half mile to go, and the idea that she would get so close and come up short was heartbreaking. I jogged by her, and I never saw her again. I hope that she was able to get up and find that Finish Line.

   My thoughts quickly came back to my own race as I rounded the capitol. And when I made my final turn onto Congress Ave., and I saw that Finish Line, every bit of pain and fatigue that I'd been feeling for the previous two hours disappeared. I broke into an all out sprint on that final stretch. And as soon as I crossed that line I nearly collapsed.

   I was totally spent. I remember somebody putting a medal on me, and I think somebody else handed me a banana and a bottle of Gatorade. And then I just walked slowly and painfully forward. It must have taken 15 minutes for me to walk the few blocks to the meeting point that I'd arranged with my friend.

   When I got there, I sprawled out on the sidewalk and closed my eyes. I'd never known the beautiful emptiness that comes from that level of exhaustion. I could feel every muscle in my body, and every breath that filled my lungs. I had no more effort to give, and nothing to give it to. I'd never felt more free in my life.

   I recovered surprisingly fast. Within an hour or so, I was able to walk at a respectable pace. I showered and changed. And then I went out to celebrate with some friends. We sat on the patio of a Mexican restaurant that I'd gone to often when I lived in Austin. I devoured the biggest plate of Tex-Mex that I could find and I washed it down with several margaritas. I was feeling wonderful, and I was in no hurry for that to end.

   I spent a couple more days in Austin, and then I flew home to Chicago. I couldn't have been happier with the experience that I'd just had. But before the week was out, I was starting to look forward. I knew that I could build on top of what I'd just done. I knew that I could still do better. That I could still choose to climb a lot higher. The Chicago Marathon was just over seven months away, and I was ready to get back to work.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Night After Puzzle Night

   I went for a night run earlier this evening. I don't do that often. I usually run early in the afternoon. But today was a hot and muggy day, and I just didn't feel like going out. But then the sun went down, and a small storm came through and cooled things off a bit.

   I took off a little after 9:00. It had just rained. It was a brief  but heavy summer rain, complete with thunder and lightning and strong winds and tornado warnings. But the heart of the storm had moved on by the time I left my apartment. All that was left was an occasional sprinkling of warm rain and a few straggling gusts of wind.

   I turned north when I left my place, and I was soon out of my neighborhood (Pilsen), and running through the UIC campus. I passed a couple of other runners on the campus. But other than that the streets were relatively free of pedestrians, which is a welcome contrast to the congestion of my mid-day runs.

   As I ran through Greektown, I glanced into a bar that I sometimes stop in late at night when I don't have sense enough to go home. There is a good spot for gyros next door, and they'll bring your food over to the bar for you. That late night gyro, the cheap beer, and the animated conversation that inevitably takes place with George the bartender is sometimes just too strong of a pull for me to resist. But tonight I just glanced through the window as I ran by. George was in there. Leaning back against the shelves of booze. Arms folded  on top of his big belly.

   I turned east on Adams and headed toward the Loop. As I passed over the expressway, I looked down to see every lane jam packed with cars sitting at a dead standstill. I have to admit that I took a smug satisfaction at their immobility and I picked up my pace, happy for the freedom of movement that I was enjoying.

   I zigzagged through the streets underneath the darkened office buildings. There is very little residential property in that section of downtown, and even fewer late night businesses, so these streets were mostly empty and quiet as well. I did pass one woman. She was walking alone, and had I given that any thought, I would have been careful to make my presence known, with a cough or a few loud steps perhaps, before running past her. But I didn't think of it until I was right behind her, and as I ran by, she jumped and clutched her arms to her chest. I felt a little bad for scaring her like that. I knew that I'd just broken a form of runner's etiquette, but as a daytime runner it was just something that I didn't think of.

   Once I crossed the south branch of the Chicago River, I turned north again. I passed through the theater district and crossed Wacker Drive so that I could run along the wide sidewalks that line the main branch (Would it be called the trunk?) of the river. I followed that down to Michigan Ave. The streets and sidewalks were a bit more crowded in that area, as the skies cleared and the tourists came out of their hotels.

   I reached Millennium Park and decided to cut through there and make my way to the lake. As I entered the park, I once again saw a woman walking alone. This time I realized right away that I should give her a sign that I was there well before I passed her. But due to some inexplicable impulse, I didn't go with the standard cough or the loud steps. I just started whistling a tune. It worked, in the sense that she heard me and she turned to look at me well before I reached her. But the sight of a lone runner coming fast and whistling must have seemed odd. And so instead of startling her, I think I caused her to be genuinely afraid. She just stopped in her tracks and stared at me as I ran by her.

   Leaving her behind, I crossed through the park, made my way across Lake Shore Drive, and turned south onto the lakefront path. The harbor there is about ten or twelve blocks long, and at this time of year it is full of boats. But with a few exceptions, the boats were mostly vacant at that hour. The only signs of life, were a few solitary lights and one radio that was tuned to a baseball game. I wondered what might be happening on those few boats. Was somebody sitting on the water by themselves, maybe having a cold beer and listening to the game? And were the more quiet boats home to couples that might be enjoying a romantic evening? Or was somebody just doing some needed maintenance at an odd hour?

   When I reached the middle of the harbor, my thoughts about the boats, and the possible nature of the people on them, vanished. At that midway point, the boats give way to the wide mouth of the man-made inlet, which opens into the vast black void of Lake Michigan. I caught myself slowing down as I looked out into that dark space. It's a strange thing to stumble upon while running through such a large city. Of course I already knew that the lake was there. It had been my conscious destination for the last couple of miles. But somehow it was still a bit of a surprise.

   I kept running, and soon the boats reappeared, and my view of the lake was once again obstructed. But now I could smell the lake, and not just the sea scented air that is always present near the water. The storm had stirred up the smells from the bottom. Smells of damp earth and even waste, that managed to be not unpleasant.

   With that smell in my head, I reached the museum campus and turned west. I know that I ran up Roosevelt and back through UIC, but my mind had drifted away from my immediate surroundings at that point and I honestly can't remember much of what I passed. My thoughts wandered through the past and into the future. Through my life as well as the lives of others.

   And then I was almost home. I passed under the 16th street viaduct that separates UIC from Pilsen, and as is often the case, I snapped back into the present at that location. My mind often wanders when I run, but the moment that I pass under those tracks, I always seem to be jarred awake.

  I stopped to walk the last block home. About 40 yards ahead of me, a drunken man turned at the sound of my footsteps and aimed one of his two beer cans at me and fired an imaginary shot. He squinted at me afterward, as if surprised that I hadn't fallen. And then he turned back around and stumbled into the park, as I reached the steps to my building, opened the door, and climbed the stairs.

   Tomorrow I'll go back to work.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Puzzle Night

   I spent most of last night sitting at my kitchen table with my girlfriend. We got started on a 1,026 piece jigsaw puzzle that looks as if it will require a few more evenings to complete. The image on the box, and hopefully on the puzzle itself eventually, is of a butterfly. And that butterfly is made up of perhaps a few thousand smaller images of flowers, birds, mountains, sunsets, balloon filled skies, waterfalls, buffaloes, beaches and so on.

   Once we settled in, she went to work on the border. She found the pieces that had a flat side, identified them as a top or bottom, left or right side, and positioned them on the table accordingly. Each step bringing us closer to constructing the framework within which we would continue to work. And I began looking at the poster that came with the puzzle, and the images on the individual pieces. I was hoping to find some images from the interior that stood out. Small groups of pieces that I could locate in the pile, and hopefully use to establish our presence in that region of the puzzle. (She had far more success than I did, as I am easily distracted by pretty pictures.)

   It was a quiet night. My cat slept on the chair in between us. We left the windows open, turned on the fan, and let the slow deep warmth on the June night seep into us. We listened to old episodes of This American Life. We paused occasionally to exchange thoughts about the puzzle or the radio show. But mostly we just focused on the puzzle in silence. Intent on working through the task, but doing so without any sense of urgency. And just like that, without any spectacular event or special occasion, I enjoyed one of the more pleasant evenings in recent memory.

   I'm sitting at that same kitchen table right now, thinking back on last night, and other memories that feel similar. Going for a late night swim with a few good friends. Making snow angels with an old girlfriend nearly twenty years ago. Sorting through expired canned goods with my little sister, and discovering good full belly laughs hidden in our mischievous project. A long solitary run on a rainy day. A picnic with my mom when I was nine years old.

   And as I think of these things, I am amazed at how easy it seems right at this moment. It seems like something that I should be able to discover every day. But I won't discover it every day. I'll wander off. I'll trip and fall. I'll have bad days. And I may even stumble through a few more bad years before my race has been run. But I'm going to try to remember. I'm going to try to remember the beauty that I find in all of these tiny little puzzle pieces. I'm going to try to focus on all of the incredible worlds that I find at my fingertips, and that come together to create the big world that surrounds me.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

David Allen Coe Burst My Bubble

  Every now and then, I'm reminded of the bubble that I live in. I usually feel like I live my life among a diverse group of people. I live in Chicago. A city that people from all over the world call home, and that millions more come to visit each year. The thousands of people that I happen to cross paths with in any given week, provide me with a broad sampling of backgrounds and worldviews, as well as a complex and colorful assortment of ways in which they choose to communicate and express themselves. So I find that I'm rarely surprised by what I see of people on the surface. (Thankfully people are still full of surprises once I get to know them.) But sometimes I stumble upon something that I just didn't expect to see. And that happened a couple of weeks ago when I walked into a room with a few hundred people expressing overt feelings of racism.

  The location was a sports bar/live music venue just north of downtown. The event was a David Allen Coe concert. When I first saw that name among some concert listings last March, I immediately thought of one song. Its a catchy, beer-drinking, sing-along country song that I've heard in a number of bars and at parties over the years, and it was with that song in mind that I decided the concert might be fun. So, without giving it much thought, I decided to get a couple of tickets and invite a friend.

  In hindsight, I probably shouldn't have been so surprised by what I found at the concert. I was talking to a friend a few days before the show, and he reminded me that Coe was the author of a few blatantly racist songs. I knew about those songs in the back of my mind, but I forgot that they were written by Coe. And even after he reminded me of the fact, I decided that I'd go to the show anyway. I figured that those songs were just ancient relics of an old songwriter, and that he probably hadn't played them in years. And I rationalized that I'd gone to see hip-hop artists that had misogynist lyrics, and metal bands that glorify all sorts of violence, and that I'd have to cut music out of my life all together if I only wanted to listen to artists that shared my views on everything.

  So I went to this show, knowing that I might encounter some racist sentiments. And that, in and of itself, wouldn't be too surprising in most settings. Racism certainly exists in Chicago, just as it does anywhere else. I see prejudice, in many different forms, on a near daily basis. But here in the city, I don't often see it expressed as clearly and openly, and by so many people, as it was there.

  My friend and I walked in right as the music was starting. The first thing that I noticed was Coe himself. He's 71 years old and severely overweight, and he was sitting in a chair that he would remain seated in for the duration of the performance. There were a few other musicians on stage, but other than that the stage was bare.

  Most of the people in the crowd would have seemed out of place in any other bar on that block. The beer guts that bulged through t-shirts with Harley Davidson slogans and images of the confederate flag (One guy had an actual flag. Not just a t-shirt with the image of a flag.), crew cuts and mullets, and leather jackets with biker gang logos, were things that you'd easily find in the small mid-western towns and rural areas that surround Chicago. However, in the middle of the city, they're mostly limited to the occasional weekend tourist. But that night, they had carved a little niche for themselves at that bar.

  All in all, it looked like a lot of the crowds that I've seen at other country music shows, though just a little more rough around the edges than most. But with the help of Coe, they soon began to distinguish themselves. Coe spat out the vulgar lyrics and the tales of rowdy nights past, that he is known for. And as the words that he spoke/sang became more crass, the crowd responded with raucous cheers and acknowledgments. And then he finally threw out the well worn racial epithet that, by then, I probably knew was coming. And that was received with a roar of approval by a large number of the people in the audience.

  Well before that point, just a few songs into the set, the experience had shifted for me. It was no longer the concert that I had come to see. The music was just a vehicle for the hyperbolic stories and the cheap sixth-grade thrill of saying a bad word. But there were definitely other aspects of the show that I found fascinating. I watched the employees of the bar with a mixture of curiosity and sympathy. Wondering what their thoughts were, and noticing, in some cases, clear discomfort with the people they were serving and the sentiments being expressed. And the guitar player, that turned out to be Coe's oldest son, was an enigma that I couldn't keep myself from watching. Throughout the show, he stood at one far end of the stage, and his expression never changed. He seemed at once completely detached and yet filled with something that was boiling just below the surface. The exact nature of what was brimming underneath that face was difficult to discern. It could have been deep sorrow, overwhelming rage, or perhaps even guilt or fear. Whatever he was feeling and thinking, he seemed far removed from any sense of peace or contentment with himself and his surroundings.

  But regardless of what I was getting out of the concert, I had begun to feel dirty and guilty by association. And when the loud cheers of approval were given to Coe's racist words, I decided to remove myself from the room. My friend and I walked into the sports bar section of the venue. From there, the music and the crowd were barely audible. So we sat down and ordered a couple of beers and talked about what we were witnessing in the other room.

  We seemed to be more or less on the same page. My friend, who is an actor, shares my proclivity for people watching. We talked about the son/guitarist and the uncomfortable looking young woman that was selling beer from a cooler just a few feet away from where we had stood. We talked about Coe himself, and his boastful rants about his self-proclaimed greatness. And about those in the crowd that had responded so jubilantly to Coe's words. Taken together, it was a pretty sad display.

  That room was full of insecurity, ignorance, fear, self-loathing, and malice. Yet for all of that, the question of whether to go back in still remained. As disgusted as I was, I was also drawn to the carnival. I wanted to watch the freak show. And truth be told, I still wanted to hear the one damn song that had prompted me to buy the tickets in the first place.

  We did go back in. And he never played that song. (Which is okay. I think the simple joy that I found in singing along to that song with friends and strangers will probably be soiled now anyway.) But I couldn't just settle in and watch. By being there, I was making myself a part of it, whether I liked it or not. So after a quick trip to the restroom (Where I witnessed some more ignorance and cowardice.), I leaned over to my friend and told him that I was ready to go. And at that moment, the show came to an abrupt end. He'd been on stage for less than an hour, and he was done. This pathetic and decrepit old bastard wasn't even going to give me the pleasure of marking my protest with an early exit. Instead, I stood with my friend and watched the lights shine on the crowd for the first time since we'd arrived. And they shone on me too.

  Among the many thoughts and feelings that I was sorting through at that moment, was a sense of foolishness and naivety. I know that racism exist, and I know that it is one aspect of country music culture. But for me, its far from the defining aspect of that culture. But I see now, that with David Allen Coe, it is a defining aspect of his music and his following. And the signs of that were all around me, long before I went to that show. But I looked right passed them and saw what I wanted to see, until the truth became so bright that I couldn't do anything but stare at it head on.

  And that lead me to the question that was the central lesson that I want to take from that night. What else do I choose to ignore? Am I really as astute an observer as I like to believe? Do I view myself and others in an objective manner? Or do I carry a pre-constructed paradigm around with me, and then mold my experiences to fit that structure?

  I think the honest answer lies more in the direction of fitting things into my paradigm than I want to believe. The question that remains though, is whether I'm willing to make an effort to move myself in the other direction. I don't want to just think of myself as a free-thinking intelligent man. I want to actually be a free-thinking intelligent man. But that takes a constant effort, that quite frankly I'm not always interested in giving. And it takes a sense of humility that I sometimes find hard to hold.

  But as difficult as that process may be, the alternative is just too unsettling to stomach. The alternative is to insulate myself from thoughts and people that are unfamiliar to me. To dismiss, overlook, and even attack the unknown, or the "other", in order to protect the viewpoints by which I define myself. And that sounds frighteningly similar to the display that I found so disturbing on the evening that I went to go see David Allen Coe.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

A Productive Day of Writing That Produced No Words

  Today, I spent no less than six hours writing, and I don't know that I've got a single word worth keeping. I've typed. I've highlighted and deleted. I've copied and pasted. I've worked with a fictional character, and I've worked through several non-fiction ideas as well. And if I've come away with anything concrete, it is simply this: I am uncertain of nearly everything.

  Which is okay. In fact, its probably better than okay. Its probably even good in a sense. I started the day with a mix of certainties and confident assumptions, and I had every intention of unfolding and displaying those thoughts in this space. But when I put them up to the light, they turned out to be full of holes. And that experience may be the single strongest argument that I can make for undertaking the process of writing in the first place.

  So now I am going to turn this computer off and slowly back away. I'm going to humbly set down all of the pieces of today, and wait to see what they look like in tomorrow's morning light.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The (very small) Downside to Being a Kid in a Candy Store

  I don't read as much as I used to, and sometimes that bothers me. I still read something everyday, but its different. I used to sit up at night with a book, usually a novel, and read for hours at a time. And I did that often. Now I pick up a book at night and I read a few pages before falling asleep. I read in the morning too. Usually some combination of news, op-eds, and essays will accompany my morning coffee. And I often find something there that gives me a new thought, or at least a new perspective on a familiar thought. But its not the same.

  Some of the books that I read when I was in my twenties had a profound impact on my life. The stories themselves were often riveting, but the perspective that I gained was what made the exchange so valuable and so desirable.Through literature, I discovered entirely new ways of thinking, and even being. I learned to take abstract ideas of ethics and morality, and apply them to my day to day life. Some of those books changed the way that I thought about myself and my relationship with the world around me. But its been years now since I've had such a passionate and intimate relationship with a book.

  And its not the fault of the books. If I had a hundred lives to work with, the supply of great literature would still be far too vast for me to exhaust it. In fact, I have books sitting unread on my shelves right now, and I'm confident that some are quite good, and possibly even great. I think the most significant difference now is time. As lame as it sounds, I just don't have enough of it. I still have as many hours in the day as I did ten years ago. And I probably work even fewer hours than I did when I was gobbling up novels. But the more the world opens up to me, the more I see new things that I want to experience. And therein lies the dilemma.

  When it comes to how I spend my time here on earth, I have a dizzying array of options, and many of them are quite inviting. But I do have a finite amount of time to work with, and the clock is always ticking. It is, as the saying goes, a good problem to have. But it seems important to consider it thoughtfully none the less. After all, I'd love to read thousands of novels. And I'd love to listen to thousands of bands. I want to travel to every country on the globe. I want to run a hundred marathons, swim in every sea, and climb a few choice mountains. I also want to enjoy a lot of long walks through quiet parks, just past dusk on cool autumn evenings. I want to meet interesting people, and take the time to get to know them on an intimate level. I want to go to baseball games and drink too much beer and shout obscenities at players and fans. I want to show a dozen schoolchildren how to find the Big Dipper. And I want to learn how to play at least one song on the violin. But no matter how I do the math, I just don't see how I can do all of these things.

  So I have important choices to make. Lots of them. Perhaps more choices than my mind is wired to handle. This multitude of options does, after all, provide a set of circumstances that is relatively new for us as human beings. So perhaps the first thing that I need to do is remember that I have choices to make, and to constantly remind myself that I want to be conscious of my decisions. Because I can easily settle into a routine that doesn't require much in the way of decisions. I can fill my hours/days/years with working/eating/watching TV and be done with it. Time will pass and so will I, and the world will be indifferent to my lack of participation.

  But that feels like a criminal act. I have opportunities that billions of others can only dream of. Through mostly dumb luck, I am the owner of a healthy body and a sound mind. And I was born into an environment in which abundant resources give me the chance to nourish that body and mind. From this launching pad, there are few destinations that are beyond my reach. So part of me does feel obligated to make the most of my life. But most of me just feels exhilarated by the prospect of diving into each new day.

  Which brings me back to the choices that I must make. How do I choose when to train for a marathon, and when to go to a concert and drink beer? When to stay home and read a book, and when to spend some time with a friend? When to work a little more to pay for a trip to a distant country, and when to take some time off to enjoy the city that I call home?

  On the surface, it seems like there isn't a wrong answer. Plentiful resources and options are a luxury to be thankful for. But at the risk of sounding ungrateful, I want to recognize that there are pitfalls as well. And those can be nearly as unappealing as the aforementioned soul deadening routine of TV, work, etc.

  For example, there is no limit to the goals that I can set for myself with running. I could run two or three times a day, and find a different race every week. I could give everything I have to that aspect of my life, and there is a part of me that would love it. I could also scale down to a 15 hour work week, make good use of my library card, and spend the rest of my years inside the pages of a book. And that has a certain appeal to it as well.

  But I want to spread myself around more than that. The world is full of wonders and marvels, and I want to discover those in all of their multitudes and diversities. And yet I don't want to simply breeze through those experiences. I don't want to take a snap shot of the Grand Canyon, check it off of the list, and move on. I want to be in the Grand Canyon. I want to hike through its trails, feel its rocks in between my toes, and cool off in its waters.

  And I can do that. And I will do that. I'll also read more books. And I'll run more marathons. And I'll experience things that I haven't even thought of yet. But the process of choosing what I will do and what I'll have to pass on, is bound to leave a tinge of regret and disappointment. Because no matter how glorious my days may be, I will have left behind thousands of other days that never will be.

  It is, again, a good problem to have. And for the most part, I just feel incredibly fortunate for the life that I'm living. But there is also a slight wistful sadness to it all, that I'll sometimes indulge for a moment. And in that moment I feel a bit like the kid trying to choose what treats he can have from the candy store. No matter how good the chocolate caramel cupcake turns out to be, he knows that the cookie with the raspberry lemon swirl frosting would have been amazing as well. And I know that I can't eat them all, but sometimes I just can't stop myself from wishing that I could.

(The thoughts in this post were spurred in part by a couple of conversations that I had recently, and also from a blog that I came across about a month ago. That blog is linked below. If you've got a moment, I think its well worth reading.)