Monday, April 15, 2013

The Day That Changed The Finish Line Forever...

Of all the memories that will remain burned in my mind, two of them will be the first time I finished the Marine Corps Marathon in 2006, and the time I finished Ironman Arizona in 2011.  I remember them not only because of the accomplishment they each represented, but because my mom and other loved ones were there to cheer me on and welcome me across the finish line.

Mom and me at the start of the MCM in 2006...I had shirts made with my Grandpa's Marine Corps picture.
And although I don't remember every finish line I've crossed over the last 15 years, I remember many of them. Each time the finish line represented the culmination of months of training, hours of sacrifice, and buckets of sweat and tears.  Each time, no matter how small the race, there were spectators along the course, particularly at the finish.  Spectators, some of whom had loved ones in the race, but some of whom were just there to cheer on complete strangers.  And every time during a race when I needed a little inspiration, I'd see either a familiar face or a total stranger who was cheering me on.  Every time as I approached the finish line, it was the roar of the crowd, their applause, and their cheers, that gave me the extra wind to come across the finish with a little "umph."  Each time I crossed the finish line, there stood a stranger or volunteer to hand me a medal, a bottle of water, take off my timing chip, and congratulate me.

That finish line has now been forever changed...

Today at the Boston Marathon there were 28,000+ runners.  That means there were at least that many spectators, but probably more.  Even conservatively estimating that there's one spectator for every runner, that means there were 56,000 people running or watching the Boston Marathon today.  That doesn't even include the countless emergency personnel and volunteers who were helping with the race.

So let's just say there were 60,000 people out in force for the world's premier marathon today.  Do you understand how powerful that is?  Do you grasp how amazing it is that 60,000 people would be in one place, celebrating one goal, all cheering and bringing their positive energy to one event?

That's what race events do.  They bring people together to support the accomplishment of one goal - the mastery of a particular distance.  Races are different from sporting events where there are two teams, where the crowds can become hostile as they compete for the win.  Races are even different from other individual sports like tennis or golf, where the spectators are still cheering for a "victor" to beat the other opponent.  In those team or other individual events, there's always a slight air of negativity, even when there's a storybook finish.  Those events are always slightly tainted with at "let's beat 'em" mentality.

But you don't really see that in races.  Sure, there are the elite athletes who certainly want to "beat" the other elite athletes.  But that rivalry is nowhere near as contentious or negative as other sports rivalries.  Moreover, even if the crowd is rooting for a particular athlete to win, people still are happy and congratulatory when everyone else comes in after the first place finisher.  That doesn't mean races aren't competitive - they most certainly are, especially given that most people who run them are Type A personalities.  But, most of the time, the competition is within each person more than it is against another person.  That type of internal competition brings out the best - not the worst - in people.

In addition, triathlon and running races are one of the few events where regular 9-to-5 Joe's and Jane's get to compete on the same course as professionals.  That gives us amateur athletes a sense of how unique these events are.  You'll never get to play football with Drew Brees during an NFL game.  But you can certainly run in the same race as Craig Alexander (albeit a pretty far distance behind him, but still....)  Thus, endurance events are head and shoulders above other sporting events because they literally put amateurs and professionals on the same competitive field.       

And like no other sport, the spectators are right in the action. The race sidelines are closer than any football or baseball sideline.  The spectators truly can reach out and touch the competitors.

But more than all of that is the cohesiveness and comradery that permeates a race event.  The overwhelming majority of endurance athletes are giving and supportive people.  Sure, there are jerks just like in every sport.  But during races more than any other time in life, I see random acts of kindness and support.  I've seen heart warming gestures as one runner helps another across the finish line, or stops to help another runner who has fallen down or is throwing up along the sidelines.

All of these things have allowed athletic races to bore a special place in my heart.  Nowhere else do I feel such a sense of people united for one goal.  Nowhere else do I feel that kind of unsolicited support and affirmation.  Nowhere else do I feel such accomplishment as when I cross a finish line...

Yet now, the acts of a one or a few evil individuals have tainted the magical nature of the finish line forever....

At this point, we don't know who is responsible for the deadly bombings at the Boston Marathon today.  Nor do we know the motivation behind their heinous acts.  Whether knowing the "who" and the "why" will make a difference, I don't know.  What I do know, is that if ever there were a group of people who can take a tragedy like this and not only bounce back, but bounce back stronger, it's the community of endurance athletes and those who support them...

Although this tragic memory will forever waft over endurance sports from this day forward, it does not have to quell the spirt of those running and watching the races, including the Boston Marathon.  Endurance races are popular and successful for one reason and one reason only:  endurance athletes have extraordinary spirits that will not let anything get in the way of their goal.  Bombs will not stop the endurance athlete any more than terrorists have stopped Americans from flying.  Sure, there will be some people so understandably traumatized by today's events that they may never enter or watch another race again, just like there are people who have never flown again since 9/11.  And that's ok.  But there will be countless more people who not only continue to enter endurance events, but who may decide for the first time in their lives to reach for the goal of entering an endurance event.

It saddens me beyond words to know that the memory of this tragedy will creep into my mind and the minds of other athletes every time we cross a finish line in the future.  It's the same as every day when I pass the Pentagon on the way to work:  the memory of 9/11 creeps in, even if but for a fleeting second.  It's inevitable.  It changes you forever.  But you can either make that change in a positive or negative direction...that's a choice everyone impacted directly or indirectly by this event will have to make.   

I hate that runners and spectators were deprived of their lives, limbs, and sense of security.  I hate that an 8-year-old child was killed.  I also hate that so many runners and spectators were deprived of the joy that I experienced when I finished my first marathon or Ironman.  I hate that any runner who was competing in the marathon for the umpteenth time did not get to experience the magical finish line that they'd experienced so many times before.  I hate that the acts of one or a few evil individuals have scarred tens of thousands of people forever.

But as an endurance athlete, I feel it is my responsibility not to let this keep me from toeing up at any start line ever again.  Believe me, within a few minutes of hearing of today's attack, I thought of the Marine Corps Marathon that I'm scheduled to run this October.  What if there's an attack during that race in the Nation's Capital?  I can't let that stop me, however.  I'm an endurance athlete because my soul craves the journey and the destination.  I'll be damned if I'll let the threat of evil deprive my soul of what it craves.

More importantly, I feel that if we let this evil deter us from ever crossing another finish line, we're doing a great disservice to those who were killed or injured today.  Those people were there either because their soul craved the same journey, or because they were supporting a loved one on that journey.  Either way, we owe it to them to continue that journey and continue to support others on that journey....

Yes, the finish line has changed forever.  But so too has the spirit of endurance athletes and those who support them, which should rage stronger now than ever before...

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Reactions to First 130 pages of A Life Without Limits

Hopefully those of you who have jumped on board with the LTE book club are enjoying our first book, A Life Without Limits by Chrissie Wellington.  By now if you've been reading about 9 pages a day, you should be up to around page 126, so let's just call it 130!

So here are my reactions so far.  What the book has made me think, things I can relate to, etc.  All page cites are to the hard copy book:

Page 47:  "It's all too easy to see a homeless person on the street almost as a non-person. It doesn't really occur to you that they have a life and a family and have often been in so-called 'normal' jobs.  But at some point, or points, along the way they have encountered adversity and have been unable to cope.  A lot of them were ex-Forces.  They had become institutionalized, and had left the system without any support."

I love that Wellington is always conscious of those in need around her and around the world.  For her, these social issues strike a deep chord within her.  I can relate to that.  How many of you try to talk to the homeless people you see on the way to work or as you're out getting your morning coffee?  There are two homeless men that I usually see and talk to on the way to work or when I'm out getting my afternoon cupcake!  Both of them sell Street Sense, the homeless newspaper, and both have fascinating stories.  One of them, Ivory Wilson, just published a book on Amazon called A Player's World: Wanna Be a Pimp?  It's about his life as a pimp and how it sent him on a downward spiral.  His hope is that it will encourage other young men not to take that same path. His life story is one of despair, drugs, and ultimately, redemption.

But those two men don't represent a fraction of the homeless people I encounter in this metropolitan area.  Yet, many of them, I don't speak or even see.  I'm a hypocrite, just like all of you...And yes, you are.  Unless you stop and talk to or give money to every single homeless person or person in need that you see, we're all hypocrites.  But that's ok.  The flip side of that is that even if you talk to one person in need or help that one person in some way, you've made the world a better place.  That's all we can ask.

Also, the next time you see a person in need, remember, as Wellington points out:  "Your own problems paled into insignificance."  Always keep perspective.

Page 52-53:  When Wellington first joined the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs as a "civil servant," I could relate to her enthusiasm. That's how I felt when I first joined the Government as an environmental attorney.  I too, was "bapti[zed] by fire; I was flying by the seat of my pants."  It was exhilarating and rewarding.  Then, later on she explains:  "Something else had been growing inside me in 2003, and that was the sense that my work at [the Department] was not making the difference to the world that I had hoped it might.  I was becoming disillusioned with all the bureaucracy and red tape."  (page 62).  Again, I can relate, and find myself in that exact same position now....

Chapter 6 - Nepal:  This whole chapter made me want to quit my job and go ride around Nepal!  The "sixteen-day bike ride from Lhasa" that she describes (pg 74)  is the exact type of endurance activity that I think calls to so many of us.  It's brutal, physically and mentally demoralizing, yet so unconscionably rewarding.  This chapter shows how Wellington truly started to find herself.  What it leaves me struggling with, however, is how can those of us who can't afford to take off and bike around Nepal, start to find ourselves?  I posed the same question to myself when I recently watched the movie The Way, with Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez.  It's about hiking the El Caminio (the way) through Spain. Thousands of people do it every year and it takes at least a month (depending on your pace and how long you stay in towns along the way).  People do it because they're in search of that elusive "something."  My heart longs to buy a plane ticket, pack a bag, and set off to walk the El Camino on my own.  But again, responsibilities here preclude that.  So what can we do instead?  I have yet to figure that out...

Page 93: Wellington talks about her diagnosed "weakness in [her] core, [her] glutes and hamstrings[.]"  You're preaching to the choir sister!  I have the same issue and it's something I need to be much more diligent about working on.  This is also one of the other reasons I find Wellington so relatable.  Not only is she so open about her eating disorder, but she's honest about the fact that her body needed work to get to the level she wanted.  All athletes think that. All athletes think their core is weak.  But Wellington's weaknesses were much more similar to what most of us women face.  Even more than that, however, is the fact that she turned all of her weaknesses into strengths.  She wasn't resigned to having a weak core, and neither are we!

Page 101:  Wellington talks about the swimming weaknesses that Brett Sutton pointed out.  Again, preachin' to the choir!  It almost made me want to go out and hire Sutton and break out my paddles and pull buoy!  Again, she shows her weaknesses...and then in the end, shows how they became a strength.

Page 123:  I love the email that Wellington quotes from Sutton.  My favorite part:  "I hope you are receiving the point i am making here.  it's time you forgot about, 'woe is me, all these coincidences,' and got some self-discipiine in your head.  the training you got a handle on, the walking around in nerd lad you have not.  you get over that the same was as improving an athletic weakness.  BY KNOWING AND BY TRAINING IT OUT.  life is nothing but a habit.  get to work."

One of the other important ways in which I relate to Wellington is her "nerdiness" - her own self-proclamation as a "muppet."  I too am clumsy.  I too get wrapped up in all the details.  I too flail around like a muppet.

I bust may ass with training, but what do I do to mentally train my mind and my spirit?  Mental focus is such an integral, yet often looked-over, part of training.  Not only does having a strong mind and spirit keep you going, but it keeps you upright.  If you're not in the moment and totally focused on what you're doing, you'll likely end up on your ass.  It's so easy when you're out on a long run to just zone out, letting your mind wander.  Maybe you're thinking about the problems in your life, maybe it's happy memories, maybe it's what you'll make for dinner.  Whatever "it" is, it's depriving you of the moment.  It's also making you more susceptible to stepping on a rock and twisting your ankle.  Or getting hit by a car.  This is where road running, I think, is a disadvantage over trail running.  It's so easy to zone out when you're running on the road.  You do that running on the trail and you'll be on your ass in a flash.  Running on the trail forces you to focus on every step, every rock, every tree root...every moment.  When you get to the point where your mind can be that focused, you're actually free.  You hit a meditative state where you are completely within yourself and your surroundings.  Not anywhere else.

It's possible to reach that meditative state off the trail too, and not just running on the road, but in every day life.  Do I work on that though?  Nope.  Instead, I (like Wellington) seem to focus on what's happening to me.  I focus on all the obstacles that have fallen in front of me and think "woe is me."  If you come across a fallen tree on a trail run, do you think "that tree fell just to be in my way!"  No, you think "well, let's just go around or over it."

After being reactive for so long, my mind has just developed that habit.  But, like any muscle, I can retrain it to do something different.  To not look at something that is being acted upon, but as the object that is doing the acting.  To be proactive instead of reactive.    To take control.  To be in the moment.  To really see myself in my surroundings.  Only then will my mind be as strong as my body...

I hope you're enjoying the book...

What are your reactions so far?