Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Thankful for a Headlands Sunrise

Today: 20
Present: 754
Count: 105

I almost didn't get up this morning. It was dark, cold and I was starting to feel sick. But I knew the early morning wake up would be rewarded if I could just get there. So I braved the dark, hit the road and slipped north out of the city, the Golden Gate awash with dawn's early light.

I pulled into the Rodeo Beach parking lot around 6:45am, just 30 minutes from my front door. Precious few others joined me at that early hour, a couple park personnel and a few surfers looking for some morning waves.

The vegetation is sparse at the Headlands, and when I hopped out of the car, an invisible wind whipped in from the east, blowing offshore. It wasn't terribly cold,  but the wind bit and I opted for long sleeves, something I rarely do on a long run. I was glad I did and as I set off to the gun turret, the wind blew me straight back, making the normally arduous climb that much more of a wake-up call.

The 30k course at Rodeo Beach is nothing short of epic. Steep climbs, gradual downs with some technical sections and views pretty much the whole time of coast and the hills, ocean and bay. But what makes the biggest mark on me every time I run this figure eight is the expansiveness of the distance covered.

From the top of the first climb, I took a moment to scan the horizon, take in the expanses I was about to cover. Several ridges north, past valleys to the east then south almost to the bridge. In this early morning light, the light skewed the distance and it looked further than I had remembered.

The sun, a brilliant red orb, rose quietly over the San Francisco skyline.

I dove down into Tennessee Valley, taking it easy on the gradual descent. It would be a long day and I wasn't here to set any records. I wanted a long, comfortable run with no pain to remember the trails I know so well yet visit so infrequently.

From the trailhead, I charted a new course up the Miwok trail, mirroring the route my race here will take in a few weeks. Miwok wraps around the back of the ridge and meets up with Coyote Ridge Trail, my regular path up this second big climb of four.

I was taking it easy on purpose, but felt strong. I remembered back to my race at Mt Tam, how strong I ran at the end after going easy at the beginning. I think this is the right way to run trail races, but I'm not sure yet and have a sample size of exactly one.

Cruising down to Muir Beach, I glanced at my watch and saw that I wasn't even halfway done. Which wasn't a problem since the morning sun had heated up, the wind had died down and I had barely seen anyone all morning. I had the trails to myself.

I took a breather at Muir Beach and stood staring for a few moments out at the breakers. An empty beach, a quiet morning in Marin-style paradise.

The short climb out of Muir Beach is followed but one of the best stretches of coastal running in Northern California. A narrow, winding trail along the bluffs, on race day you can run this as fast as you want. Wooden bridges, smooth trails and fast fast fast downhills racing towards Pirate's Cove.

The rise out of Pirate's Cove isn't as long as the other three on this course, but I always count it as one of the big ones. Its steep, relentless, longer than you think and starts with a stretch of eternal stairs. And it happens to come right before Bonk Hill, the long grind up the back of the Headlands that's named for a reason.

Sailing down the fire road, I got myself mentally prepared for Bonk Hill. I refilled my water and grinded up the gradual incline up Tennessee Valley. At the parking lot, I mimicked the aid station, stuffed a couple shot blocks in my cheeks and started the climb.

Running Bonk Hill is simple: Run. It's not so steep you need to walk, and if you do, its going to be a long, long hike. Easier said than done though, as its almost a mile and a half up the winding, twisting fire road that never seems to end. It finally does, and the rolling respite leads into the almost final climb into the eucalyptus grove before you pop out to the best vistas of the run.

I've run here enough to have made the mistake of forgetting to eat during this break in the hill. Bonk Hill isn't named as such because you bonk there, per se, its named because it sucks what little energy you have left and sets you up to bonk later on.

And you want to be taking it in, not bonking, dancing along the narrow trail on a ridge plunging down to the Pacific on one side, the Golden Gate peaking over the Headland hills on the other. Another spot to run fast, albeit carefully, this is the time to gather yourself for the final descent down Slacker Ridge to the grueling flat section home, that in the summer will be dead into the wind.

I checked my legs coming down Slacker Ridge and they felt tight, but stable. Another great spot to run fast if your legs can handle it, but not so fast you forget about the flats.

I hit the flats and almost missed the turn, per usual, but made it across the bridge and into the Rodeo Valley wetlands, a wide trail that no matter how flat it actually is, always feels uphill. I even had the wind at my back today, but still struggled. And when I hit the road, with a little more than a half mile to go, I really started to struggle.

Three and a half hours, 20 miles and 4,200 feet of elevation is a real run, and I probably didn't eat as much as I should have. And as anyone who has run this course will tell you, that last stretch along the road is a killer. The tiny uphill barely registers, but it seems like forever.

I finally skidded in and couldn't have been happier about it. I was gassed. But I think what really sapped my strength on the final half mile wasn't the exhaustion, wasn't the soreness or the hills, but the knowledge that the run was almost over. That I'd have to leave the trails behind.

Until next time.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Heading to Heron

Today: 6
Present: 734
Count: 104

There's nothing really wrong with running to AT&T, but there is something uninspiring about running along a giant parking lot. Not so running along the dump.

Oddly I enjoy this track with its putrid smells and piles of dirt and trash. There's potential in the fenced off roads and rundown buildings, mystery behind the gates.

Once to Heron, its 0.6 miles to the end of the runway, like being transported south to the Baylands, the running home of my youth. You leave the city momentarily here, miles away from SoMa and the Mission and the fiery debate over money transforming neighborhoods -- like it always has here.

Today's wasn't a particularly fast run. I didn't find any new routes or have any urban adventures. But six easy miles is a great way to launch the week.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Exploring the Parks of Hunters Point (and looking for the best place to dump a body in San Francisco)

Today: 9
Mileage: 728
Count: 103

The best part about not having a big race coming up, specifically a marathon with its constant push for training structure, is just going out for a run. No plan, no expectations, no course. Just running.

This morning I envisioned nothing more than a mellow jog out to Heron's Head and back. But when I got to the park, I opted for a right hand turn down a narrow trail leading to a bridge which I thought dead ended into a barbed wire fence. But there's only one way to find out and as I crossed the bridge, I saw the path extended out around the edge of the water.

So I just kept going. I found park after park, open space after open space, winding my way through housing projects and vacant lots, run down shacks, abandoned piers and one-off developments built way ahead of their time. All along this sunny stretch of San Francisco's forgotten shoreline.

Since my return to the Bay Area five years ago, my running and my work have had a strange relationship. Wherever I seem to run, I end up buying real estate, or wanting to buy real estate. And thus far my footloose premonitions have proven prescient.

Perhaps I've wanted to buy where I've been running because I manage to find the good in most places I go. And when I'm running, even more so. I see beauty in dereliction, potential in scrap. But running also gives me time to explore the nooks and crannies of neighborhoods, envision development, poke around where otherwise I'd never go.

Or maybe the market's just been hot, and I've been there too.

Hunter's Point is quiet in the morning. Especially this lonely stretch leading from the waterfront dump to where Lennar is breaking ground on their long-awaited, much maligned, development. Maybe it is a bad thing. Bad building for the neighborhood and the city.

But its happening, finally, after decades of waiting. Change is inevitable here, but the path is yet undrawn.

And that's why I am here. Looking for that invisible line, connecting here to the future. But its not that simple. Not that simple because that line runs through hills littered with projects, families who have been here for generations. And the political will to replace these projects, dispose these people, is harder to find than that invisible line.

Its proven nearly impossible to get rid of the more dangerous Potrero projects, or even the much more dangerous ones at Sunnydale. So the baseline assumption has to be that the ones here in Hunter's Point will stay. So what then for this waterfront?

I looped over the hill, through more projects with south side views of Candlestick. Its a perspective not often seen of that old, decaying stadium where Joe and Jerry and Steve made their NFL mark. But one that the new residents of Hunter's Point will soon be seeing far more of -- until of course they blow the old park up.

I wound back through the industrial underbelly of the Bayview, a smattering of wholesalers, lumber distributors and other businesses you don't hear a lot about in this glittering days of the San Francisco technology scene. The future here, like the coast, is anything but certain, as developers contemplate just how much conversions may be worth years, and decades out in time.

Back to the present, I eased up and walked the last block home. Sweating, a warm November morning greeting me after my Bayview adventure.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Dark and Stormy Night

Today: 8
Present: 719
Count: 102

First rain in months, perfect night for a run.

Up Vermont and down the north slope, a quiet suburban evening and I had the streets to myself. I passed another runner by Jackson Park and she smiled, as thrilled as I was to be out in the rain.

There is something magical about running in the rain, something innately contemplative, as if the drops carry memories of runs long since past. The air was warm, despite the showers, and when I hit Terry Francois and turned towards the ballpark, I marveled at the lights and music coming from AT&T.

As I neared, I saw crowds of umbrella-carrying hipsters pouring into the stadium. Some dedication I thought, and they must have been thinking the same thing about me as I cruised by, around the back and along the piers and out Embarcadero.

I pulled away and the crowds lessened, then disappeared. I didn't have a distance in mind this evening, and the idea of just running fleetingly ran through my mind. Could I make it all the way around? Four miles in, I'd only have 20 left. But not tonight.

I resolved to turn around only when I saw another soul out in the storm. The drops fell more quickly now, soaking the boardwalk. I ran on, half-hoping I wouldn't pass anyone so I wouldn't have to turn around. I passed a biker, equally drenched, riding casually by.

The wind now my foe when I flipped around and headed home, I tucked my chin into my chest and pushed back towards the ballpark, around the back again and past the rushing concert-goers. I glanced into the stadium from right field and saw the female singer belting out her lines. A few dedicated fans stood in front, probably the best seats they'd ever have thanks to the rain.

Back up 20th Street and down the other side, I cruised home, not wanting the run to end. I coasted to a stop and saw the steam rise patiently off my shoulders and disappear into the misty air.

After showering and getting warm, I checked the weather: can't wait until the next rain.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Race Report: Inside Trails Mt Tam Half Marathon

Today: 13
Present: 711
Count: 101

My last two trail races have been anything but stellar, so I wanted to go into the Mt. Tam Half with Inside Trails with a totally different mindset.

Sure I had placed OK and run reasonably fast, but one triggered a months-long injury and the other almost put me out of the marathon. In each case, I went into the run with the decidedly wrong attitude. Its not that I was trying to win per se -- there's nothing wrong with that -- but I had completely forgotten why I got into trail running in the first place: its damn fun. In both races, I set off with nothing but my place, my time and my performance in mind.

In short, I was too focused on the destination and was neglecting the journey.

So this crisp morning as we took off from Stinson, up the Dipsea and into Muir Woods, I really, truly wanted nothing more than to have fun.

Mission accomplished.

As a bonus, I also figured out the best trail running race-day strategy to finish strong and run a great race: Expect a 1,000ft climb straight up three miles before the finish that never comes.

Having failed to run the whole course last weekend, I relied on the course elevations posted on the race website to plan my strategy. Over miles 4-8, the trail plunged down into the woods then rocketed straight up for two miles back to the final aid station before you picked up the Dipsea again for the final descent back to Stinson.

It seemed simple enough: save gas for that final push and hope the people in front of me struggled up while I breezed past them to glory.

KJ and I stuck together on the first climb up Steep Ravine, content to even be chicked in the pursuit of running smart. We hit the top and flew down. Literally flew.

The descent down Ben Johnson Trail into Muir Woods was one of my top three trail running segments of all time. Lush woods, damp fresh air as the salty sea mist mixed with the towering redwood forest. Steep but runnable, soft trails that were highly technical with roots and rocks leaping out at your feet. Keeping pace required intense concentration. I followed another runner down, weaving through hikers who were surprisingly understanding and there were no near-crashes.

This was the first time I had let loose downhill in my new trail shoes and they performed admirably. I was nimble, dancing down at speed.

I had extended a lead over KJ on the flats before the aid station, but expected him to pass me at any moment on the down. He is a better technical downhill runner than me, but he didn't catch me until the bottom. When he did, he yelled out "damn AJ, you're not supposed to run downhill so fast!"

But the descent could only last for so long, and I settled into what I expected to be a series of short ups and downs, a meander back to near sea level. The plunge never happened.

The crowds of tourists thinned out as we crossed over to a narrow single track that wound back uphill. Strange, I thought, I didn't remember this long a climb on the map. But I kept the throttle light, taking it easy, preserving energy. What was more likely, the elevation chart was wrong or I didn't remember the course perfectly?

But as the miles wore on and we kept climbing, I began to doubt myself. Was I on the wrong trail? Nope, I saw other runners and never left the orange ribbons. But I stuck to my race plan and took it easy.

At one point, one the lead runners charged past me, asking what race I was running. He had gotten lost and was now trying to make up time. He blew by me, effortless. Some people can really run.

Miles ticking by, I really started to wonder where that descent was. When we crossed 1,000 feet at mile 8, I gave up trying to figure out where I was and just ran. I settled into a comfortable pace, finally passing the runner in front of me who had kept a 100 yard or so lead on me for the last half an hour.

And almost out of nowhere, we popped off the single track. I momentarily thought I recognized the trail as what I had flown down earlier, and there was the final aid station.

What the what? At that point I convinced myself I had somehow run the wrong trail and had missed that final climb. I popped a salt pill, refilled my water and raced down the Dipsea, guiltily chasing runners I was sure had run longer, and suffered more than me.

The legendary Dipsea Trail is pretty much as advertised. Steep climbs, breathtaking views, tons of stairs and really easy to crash on. But that first mile or so along the ridge is unforgettable as you look up the coast at Stinson and beyond, sun shining on the golden hills. The trail is oddly tricky to run hard, with subtly uneven ground making for tough going. Really easy to turn and ankle and I was glad KJ and I had run this section in our recon.

I passed the guy I had flown downhill with, later finding out her had been saddled with cramps. I pushed on, down the long series of steps before the junction with Steep Ravine, up the final couple insulting climbs before emerging at the top of the Dipsea's first gradual climb away from the beach. Down below, perhaps a quarter mile ahead, I spotted my next target.

He was a ways out there and moving well, but I felt strong and fresh. I knew I had plenty of time to catch him, and that the only way I wouldn't is if I crashed. So I remained reserved and gradually reeled him in.

When I got close enough for him to hear me, I knew he knew it and he picked up the pace. But I held back, not wanting to risk either of our safety passing on the spaced out wooden steps that dot this section of trail. We hit a gap in the stairs, I advised him of the pass and flew by. I never looked back.

I don't look back, ever. Or at least I try not to. Looking back shows weakness, and if I see someone ahead of me doing it, I know they're mine.

I didn't want to get repassed, so opened it up and sprinted the last section of trail, down onto the pavement, across the little bridge and to the finish line.

I ducked in just under two hours and felt like I had two more hours left in me. I chatted with some friends and others who had just run the race, discussing the course and the phantom climb. KJ came in a couple minutes later and confirmed that the elevation map had been wrong. We later figured out that it had been for last year's course, which evidently was a lot harder.

What followed was precisely why trail running is infinitely better than road running. KJ got a call from one of the race volunteers telling him that his wife Abra had accidentally run the pink not the orange course and would be completing the 30k rather than the half marathon. She had toyed with the idea of running the 10k all along, only opting for the half at the last minute so now would be running 3x her plan.

But she was in good spirits and was in plenty good shape to finish.

It turns out Maura's brother Luchi, who had joined us for the half, also got lost and ended up running 16 miles. His first trail race and the longest he had ever run. He had an amazing time. We all did.

KJ ran out to grab a case of beers and we lounged on the grass, chatting with other runners, cheering on finishers and waiting for Abra. She cruised in, a mere 4.5 hours after she started and about 3 hours longer than she had planned on running. But she was all smiles.

We crushed our last beers, wandered over to get brunch and enjoyed some well-earned greasy burgers and fries.

Quite a day. Reminders of why I run trails throughout, good times with good people in a beautiful setting. It makes getting up at 5am on a Saturday and not getting home until 4pm all worth it.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Morning Maintenance, Bernal Style

Today: 4
Present: 698
Count: 100

Its fitting that my 100th run since starting this blog was what passes for a mellow four miles up my favorite hill in San Francisco.

There wasn't a single thing notable about the run, save the brilliant blue sky and the most underviewed amazing view in the city. I jogged the whole way, even easing up Alabama and fighting the urge to try and pick up a CR that some day I'll get.

With a schmoozefest tonight and Gary Danko tomorrow, I figured this would be my last run before the race on Saturday. I took it easy and just enjoyed the ride.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Tempo Morning

Today: 5
Present: 694
Count: 99

Sometimes you wake up and want to run fast. This morning, I woke up and wanted to run fast.

I headed out my normal route up Vermont, taking it easy but slowly getting my heart rate up. I hit the crest and cruised down into the flats. I hit Mariposa and I opened it up.

De Haro past Mariposa is a gradual decline and I felt fast. Veering right past CCA I finally found the best route across 7th Street and into UCSF. I slowed momentarily crossing the street then zipped around the circle and into the new campus, skirting the wooden skeletons now scattered throughout Mission Bay.

Glancing at my watch, I picked up the pace, bit by bit. I learned in New York that I actually have the gear to run at 6-minute pace, but I'm not really sure how long I can hold it. In the marathon I backed it off every time I got there, so now that I have my running life back I can explore myself and see what's what.

Looping around to Terry Francois and The Ramp, I dug into the wind and pushed it even harder. My breathing was labored, but controlled. My legs felt strong. It easy early enough that traffic wasn't an issue and cars to dodge were few and far between.

Reviewing my pace on Strava, I actually ran much of the way sub six. I'd pop above six around the turns and periodically, but I spent as much time below as I did above. Pushing it up Illinois and the gradual incline through DogPatch, I started to tire. I could feel the pace wearing on me, so I wore back on it.

I hadn't set out to run each mile faster than the one before, but that's what I did. And with the final mile up Cesar Chavez with a healthy little hill and cars to dodge, I'm pretty happy with the way it shook out.

8:26, 6:22, 6:10, 6:06, 5:59. Not bad.

I shut it down at Kansas and walked back to my house, realizing that in all the months of marathon training, I had done maybe one or two actual training runs. I put in miles and fought through pain, but I hadn't really trained. Hadn't finished a lot of runs spent. It felt fantastic and I look forward to many future tempo runs, now with a 5-mile tempo loop and goal time to match.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Dipsea Recon, Mostly Lost

Today: 9
Present: 689
Count: 98

Of the many lessons I learned last month at Mt. Diablo, running a course for the first time in a race doesn't make the race any easier. Especially one with the word "mountain" in the name.

So with the Mt. Tam Trail Run next Saturday, KJ and I trekked to Stinson to scope out the trails.

With the marathon over, I'm really looking forward to getting back into trail running. Driving out to the trails is a bit more of a commitment than falling out my front door, but every time I make the effort I wonder why I don't do it more often. And having somehow managed to run trails in San Francisco for three years now without having set foot on the infamous Dipsea Trail, I figured what better way to spend the Sunday after the marathon than getting my trail legs back.

Rising from Stinson, the trail winds through the brush, immediately introducing you to the stairs for which these trails are so well known. After a mile or so you arrive at the ominously named Steep Ravine Trail. Its aptly named, but what struck me was the scenery more than the steep.

A crystal pond greets you as you dive into the ravine and you're enveloped in ferns and craggy trails, the path rippled with roots and rocks. Stairs hewed from rock, steep climbs are interspersed with rolling, runnable inclines. The iconic ladder hits you halfway through, forcing you to scramble a quick dozen steps up. Its freaking gorgeous in here, like running on Endor.

We took it easy, mixing in some hiking, knowing there was plenty of climbing left to go.

We popped out at Pantoll Campground looking for the Ben Johnson trail. We followed signs down a narrow, winding trail that became increasingly narrowing winding. Turning back seemed logical several times before we actually did. Getting lost isn't that big of a deal, but getting lost where you can actually run is a lot better than what was barely a deer trail. As it turns out (as it often does), if we had pushed on a few hundred yards further we would have popped out onto the right trail.

Back at the trail head, we forged another route in our attempt to find our way to the course. Another fail. This time at least we hit some nice trails, finding a fire road that would have taken us all the way to the Mt. Tam summit if we had been inclined. We weren't, and turned around.

We finally managed to find our way down to where the first aid station would be, realizing that we had turned too early in our search for Ben Johnson. We stopped to chat with a local runner who gave us some helpful tips for next weekend and regaled us with his weekend training schedule for the Quad Dipsea (Mill Valley to Stinson, back to Mill Valley, then do it all again. 28 miles and A LOT of up).

Not looking to spend all day on our feet, we abandoned our attempt to run the entire course and headed back down, noting the sketchy footing and surprise hills on the dipsea back to Stinson.

Its not hard to figure out why the Dipsea trail is so renowned. Epic Pacific views, challenging climbs, a variety of terrain, incredible scenery and I only saw a fraction of the trail.

The sun was out, the weather crisp but warm and all in all it was about as good as a mellow day out on the trails can get. My legs felt surprisingly good just seven days after the marathon and I'm pretty stoked for next weekend.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Post NYC Shakeout

Today: 5
Present: 680
Count: 97

Its remarkable, and a testament to just how much I dislike waking up in the morning, that morning runs are still a novelty for me. That the crisp morning air and the quiet streets still surprise me in their ability to refresh and get the day started right.

The marathon now in the past, I returned to the Heron Head Park, my last San Francisco run before the race. I went all the way this time, out to the end of the path where only the sounds of the dump could reach me. I turned, looking back at those hills I last saw bathed in pink light, the sun dropping out to sea. This time, all I could see was the nearby hillside, littered with projects.

San Francisco is in many ways the most hypocritical city I have ever experienced. All its claims of progressiveness and diversity are sharply juxtaposed against the stark lines drawn between neighborhoods, the utter lack of ethnic mixing. Our housing projects are the most glaring example, scattered bastions of poverty and crime, often sitting blocks from million dollar homes whose owners only concern for their neighbors is to make sure their expensive cars are safe from break ins.

I paused and ran forward in my mind, decades from now. To a time where this waterfront is developed, this pristine bay no longer blight but bling. I longed for the capital and freedom to place bets on what would in hindsight be a complete slam dunk.

On the way back, I marveled at my legs that actually felt OK. Coming back to the present, then the past, I replayed the marathon in my mind for what must have been the hundredth time. I am now able to suck the positive out of the race and identify areas for improvement. And marvel at the fact that I am at a point with my running that I can complain about a 2:58.

I hauled back up Cesar Chavez, trucks roaring by and exhaust filling my lungs. It didn't bother me -- I was just running.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Race Report: New York Marathon 2013

I remember the moment it happened. Like so many before me, I cracked in the Bronx.

Crossing the Willis Avenue Bridge at mile 20, the upwind four-mile slog on First Avenue was finally behind me. But I was suffering. My legs heavy, throat parched, I knew the phantom wall loomed. So I bore down.

The simplest marathon advice I've ever heard is to run the first 20 miles comfortably then race that last 10k. Great plan, hard to execute.

20 miles into a marathon is where most runners hit the wall. Glory fades, confidence gives way to misery and the wheels start to come off. You’re exhausted and your mind is in a precarious state. Your pace slackens and you start getting passed. It’s the getting passed that crushes your will. And your race is over. It’s all you can do to finish.

But what most runners don’t know is that the wall doesn't exist. What people experience as the wall is actually the mind’s inability to overcome the body’s urge to stop. You still have the energy to push through, to keep your pace, even to speed up. To race that last 10k. But at that point in the race your body wants nothing to do with it. 20 miles is far enough, thank you very much.

Hitting rock bottom in a marathon is the easy part – it’s kind of the point. Bouncing off is the hard part.

Seven hours earlier, pulling myself out of bed at three-something in the morning, that imaginary wall seemed worlds away.

The subway floor was all running shoes, a smattering of neon colors crammed together, their owners bundled up in expectation of the Staten Island wind. The worlds’ shoe brands were well-represented as the 5am 1-train rumbled downtown to South Ferry.

Nervous feet jostled a spent condom, crumpled and limp. Newcomers piled in and didn’t notice, all but the tip disappearing under a misplaced foot. The guy next to me chuckled, snapped a picture with his phone.

The logistics required to pull of the New York City Marathon are staggering. Just to get to the starting line I had to take a subway to a ferry to a bus and walk a half mile past what seemed like the entirety of the NYPD. I then had the privilege of waiting around for three hours until I could get into my starting corral where I would wait another hour.

But all that waiting builds the anticipation and when the cannon booms and the crowd surges forward onto the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, holy shit you’re actually running the New York City Marathon.

Riding outside on the ferry, I soaked in the views, began the slow absorption of the scene. I was hyper-aware all morning. After a night of fitful sleep, I was wired and bit delirious. Alone, no intention of talking to anyone, I paid attention to the details.

Two Coast Guard escorts, guns mounted, shadowed the ferry as it sliced through the black water. A drunk girl, one of a few non-runners aboard, hollered at our shadows. To her dismay, they either couldn’t hear her cries or chose not to respond. She kept yelling anyway, strikingly out of place given what the rest of us were there preparing to do.

A Russian runner asked a British guy to take his picture as we passed the Statue of Liberty. The British guy tried to zoom out, but couldn’t. The Russian guy didn’t seem to care that the picture was going to be too close. Communication was a struggle. Time was running out and the Russian kept looking nervously behind him as Lady Liberty slid slowly away into the black. Finally the Brit gave up and snapped the picture. The Russian thanked him and looked, displeased, at the result as he walked away.

It was one of those weird moments when you realize that runners travel halfway around the world for the chance to run this race, which is part world-class sporting event, part tourist attraction.

Doing my best to stay warm in my throw away sweats, I wandered around the starting village. At this early hour, the seemingly endless supply of port-a-potties was sufficient and there was no waiting – a race-day rarity.

I found a quiet place to lie on the ground and closed my eyes. I let my mind go blank, thinking about the race. It wandered, and I let it go. It started filing through the major milestones of my life since that Monday in August 2001 when I bought a one-way ticket from San Diego to New York that left on Friday.

That one decision that set my life on a path I never could have predicted. The jobs, the adventures. Meeting my wife. The nights I don’t quite remember. Pickup football at the East River Park in the middle of a blizzard. Sunday morning walks with the city all to myself.

I didn’t lie down with the intention of reliving my previous 12 years, but it seemed like a natural thing to do to pass the time. I hoped the memories of my New York experiences would push me through the race. I ended up thinking of none of these as I ran, but the exercise helped put me in a good place when the gun went off.

With 30 minutes before my corral opened, I started to warm up. Jogging, I wove through the throngs. My legs felt good. Everything felt good. I just wanted to start running.

A final trip to the bathroom and I found my starting corral, the second in a long line of orange bibs. For the first time all morning it started to feel like an actual race. The runners around me looked like real runners. Space at a premium, some were trying to stay warm while others listened to music and tried to relax.

At just before 9am the corral fence dropped and we were led towards the bridge. It felt like what I can only imagine it feels like to march off to battle, save the whole thing about impending death. Lined up just short of the bridge, the crowd started to hum.

The elite women go out 30 minutes before the rest of us, part chivalry part practicality. The race announcer said something I’ll never forget. It set the hair on the back of my neck on edge.

“Ladies, the streets of New York are yours!”

The streets of New York were really ours. For a single day runners had the right of way. It was only a sliver of the city, but it was ours.

Adrenaline pumping. I started a bounce, trying to warm back up. I had to pee again. Fortunately, there was a line forming to go up against the buses separating the starting groups. Even the women got into the act, with three or four forming a wall to protect the decency of the one squatting against the tires. Another of those little details that gives the New York experience a unique depth.

With five minutes to go, I shed my sweats. After all the logistics, all the waiting, I was ready.

Bloomberg blessed the race, the canon boomed and we were off.

We rose steadily up the bridge and the crowd started to thin out. Every article I had read about race strategy says everyone – everyone – goes out too fast. They sail down the bridge and into Brooklyn, feeding off the adrenaline built up from hours of waiting in the wind. 

I glanced to my left, recalling advice not to miss the view from the top of the bridge. A police helicopter hovered, suspended at bridge-level, the Manhattan skyline looking impossibly far away. I snapped a mental picture and burned it into my memory.

I flew down the bridge just like they said I would. I felt amazing. I love running gradual declines and can burn out fast miles with little effort. I passed a ton of runners and slid off the bridge, turning left into Brooklyn. And with that, the marathon was on. All that anticipation, all those logistics and condoms and ferries and crowds were gone. It was just me and the road.

The streets of New York were mine.

Everything I read said take it easy in Brooklyn. Don’t blow yourself out in Brooklyn. Slow down through Brooklyn. Let them go, you’ll catch ‘em in the park.

I ignored it all. I didn't care. I felt too good.

I kept looking at my watch and audibly laughing. I’d feel like I was running too fast and consciously slow down, then look down and see my pace at something like 6:05, 6:12. Hilariously too fast. I knew it and I didn’t care. I was just running.

I’ve never run that fast for longer than a 10k. My pace after five miles was 6:26, just off my half marathon PR pace. Way too fast. You’re supposed to run the first eight miles of a marathon 10 seconds behind your goal pace. I was 10 seconds faster. Way. Too. Fast.

But I really didn’t care. I was here to run. I was lucky just to be here, healthy. I figured why not go out and see what I've got. See if I can hang.

I heard a great anecdote recently about a world class ice climber and his reaction to setting the world record for a particular ascent. He wasn’t satisfied or necessarily proud. He acknowledged that while he had in fact pushed human limits, he hadn’t pushed his own. Already having the world record, he spent the next year training to go back and better his own mark.

You don’t have to be a world class athlete to have that attitude. 

The amazing thing about running is that save for a very few elite athletes, none of us are going out there to win the race. We’re racing against ourselves. We're pushing ourselves as far as we can reasonably go, both physically and mentally.

What's unique about New York, at least my take having now completed the race and heard the stories of others who did, is what a different mindset you need to have to run a great race. Those first 10 miles are just too fast – the only way you can hope to start slow enough to give yourself a chance to finish strong is by running for something more than yourself. (Or to be like Maura and have a well of self-discipline few are lucky enough to possess.)

The vast majority of people who go out there with a goal time melt down. The wheels come off in the Bronx and even though they trained their body, their mind isn’t strong enough on race day to contain the excitement, to keep the adrenaline at bay. They can’t let the foolish pass them in Brooklyn, silently wishing them luck and whispering, “see you in the park, bitch.”

So most people who go to New York with a goal time come up short. There are exceptions, of course, like my wife who PR’d and had an incredible, cathartic experience, bursting into tears of joy at the finish line. But she was also running for much more than just a number.

The runners who have the best New York experience are the ones out there without a watch.

Like my friend who didn’t train at all in the months leading up to the race. He didn’t have the time. He has a wife and kids and his own business and a mother dying of cancer. He would have loved to train, but he had to keep flying to Arizona to meet with attorneys, doctors and morticians.

He showed up in New York, put on his shoes and ran.

For the first half the race, he kept passing then getting passed by a woman wearing an orange shirt from Fred’s Team, a charity whose race donations support the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. On the back of her shirt, the woman had written “I miss my mom.”

My friend’s mom had passed away one month earlier, to the day. He grew up in New York.

Whenever he passed the woman and saw her shirt, he burst into tears. He’d pull it together, walk a bit, she’d pass him, he’d pass her, tears again. The cycle continued until the base of the Queensborough Bridge, 15 miles into the race. He came upon the woman standing on the side of the course, hands on her knees. She wanted to quit.

He stopped, put his hand on her shoulder and said, “Hey, you want to run with me a little?”


He told her his story. How he had been crying the entire race, the tears set off whenever he saw her shirt. About his mom who had just passed away. He missed his mom too.

They finished the race together. They exchanged no contact information. They will never see each other again. He knows her first name and that she’s from Maine. That’s it.

It’s those small experiences that make long distance races what they are. It’s what keeps us coming back. It’s that for the rest of us, those that won’t end up on the podium, no matter how fast or slow we run, we’re all out there suffering together. Physical, emotional pain, it doesn’t matter. I can run an entire race, hours on my feet, and when asked how it was, the first story I tell is about the random guy I ran with for 15 feet, about how we encouraged each other just enough to get through a hard time.

It’s that ultimate paradox of running, how it can be so personal, so private, yet in a matter of seconds you form an illogically deep bond with a  total stranger and can be forever changed. You never see that person again, and you don’t want to. It would almost ruin the moment.

I started to crack as soon as I hit the Bronx and I knew it. I’ve cracked before and I know what it feels like. I bore down. I went to that place where the world fades away and my vision blurs. The edges get hazy and disappear. Purely present.

For a moment, I felt good again. I remembered back to San Francisco this year, when I hit bottom coming out of the park but pulled it together and raced the last 10k. My heart rose and I was racing. 

And then I made a fateful mistake: I looked at my watch. My pace read 7:30. A full minute slower than I wanted to be at that time.

And I cracked.

In hindsight it was probably just a blip in the GPS, the unreliable current pace I know is usually wrong. But at the time it was a killer. Your mind is so fragile that it doesn’t take a lot to break. And at that moment, knowing I had just found my groove, only to be told that my groove wasn’t nearly fast enough, and that I still had six miles left, I couldn’t recover.

If I ever run a marathon again (I am sure I will), I’m going to turn my watch off at mile 20. All that matters is whether you are passing people or getting passed. All that matters is your state of mind. Getting passed will crush your will and your last 10k will be miserable. Passing people will give you wings. You’ll find energy reserves you never knew you had.

The course winds through the Bronx and I struggled. I was lost. I had abandoned my water and food plan and was just stumbling through aid stations, throwing water at my face. Illogically, I shunned bananas I knew would give me fuel. I’d surge for a few seconds, then lapse again into misery.

I hit the 5th Avenue incline at mile 24 in a bad place. I was getting passed regularly. My pen-written initials had washed off my shirt. No one was cheering for me. I was alone, struggling up what felt like a mountain, watching my average pace tick up, second by second.

I finally hit the park and tried to pull it together. I ran easily for a few minutes, collecting myself. Just a couple miles to go.

I walked through the next aid station and passed a guy with his hands on his knees. I tapped him on the shoulder, “come on man, let’s do this.”

“I’ll be right there.”

I hit the next incline and there he was, running on my left shoulder. “Let’s go.”

We pushed that hill together, wordlessly sharing our pain. I snapped out of my funk. I felt strong again – or as strong as I could hope to feel at that point.

We hit the crest of the hill and I let my legs tumble down the other side. I looked to my left and he was gone. I turned briefly around but couldn't find him. I never saw him again, but that tiny interaction, that modicum of camaraderie was all I needed to finish the race.

I started to look around, appreciate autumn in the greatest city on earth. The leaves seemed to fall from the trees in slow motion all around me. The crowds got louder as I rolled through the park. I stopped looking at my watch. It didn’t matter anymore.

Popping out of the park briefly, you’re met with one last insulting incline up Central Park South. I finally started passing people, even though my legs felt like lumps of clay.

Back into the park and you pass under the mile 26 marker. From there, signs count down the meters to the finish. 400, 300, 200, 100. And it was over.

Steps across the finish line, my legs basically stopped working. Walking was nearly impossible. I chatted with a fellow finisher, he in better spirits than me. We had both PR’d, but he’d obviously run a smarter race – I remember seeing him pass me in the park.

A volunteer tossed a medal over my neck, I tried to smile for the camera, picked up a bag of post-race supplies and followed the crowds through the park. I couldn’t believe how far they make you walk. It just kept going. I really wanted to stop walking.

I finally made it out of the park but they make you keep walking down Central Park West. I picked up my orange finishing parka and hobbled to the side of the road to soak in the last rays of sun before it disappeared and shadows descended on the crowds. Dazed, I had an hour and a half to wait for Maura.

I sat down on the sidewalk and just watched the people go by. Runners, fans, tourists wandered past. Everyone once in a while, I’d catch the eye of another runner. An almost imperceptible nod of the head and in that look of half misery half pride, we’d have a moment. Congratulations, a silent acknowledgement of suffering shared.

I finally found Maura and she was all smiles. She had crushed her PR and had an amazing race. Someone gave her an Ecuadorian flag in the park and she finished in tears.

It took me a few days to digest the race. When you crack like that you literally run out of emotion and it takes a while to recharge. At first I felt disappointed, even ashamed that I couldn't pull it together and finish strong.

But as time passed I thought back to the fact that a month before, I could barely walk. And that somehow my body had cooperated and when that cannon went off, I was ready to race. And I did. I pushed it, I left it all out there on the course.

I ran through New York as well as I could have that day. The first half marathon through Brooklyn was sheer bliss. I ran strong and felt amazing. I gave the crowd high fives, I clapped and thanked them for coming out. I ran smoother and faster than I've ever run and learned that I do in fact have a gear I never thought I did.

I didn't go out there with a goal time, I went out there to challenge myself. And that's the point.

Friday, November 1, 2013

RI Loop

Today: 4
Present: 649
Count: 95

I am yet to find the words to accurately describe the way I feel about Roosevelt Island. So close to the city, yet worlds away. Gray, ominous, even a sunny day on the Island feels like prison. Manhattan, just out of reach.

Its quiet and save, good for kids, in a way. I'd never take a child here, for fear it may burn something dark and awful into their mind.

The upshot is a four-mile loop, mostly away from cars with a new park at the southern tip. My last run before the race, I took it truly easy, doing my best not to dip below eight-minute miles. 48 hours to race day, I'd be taking tomorrow off.

Conscious thoughts dripped out of my mind, my imagination drifting to what it would be like. Running through Brooklyn, the crowds, up 1st Avenue and into the Park. All these places I had been, but never like this. And plenty of new territory -- I'd be running lost, winding through the city where I transitioned into adulthood.

Given the road I took to get here, limping around the Mission, the ice and rest, I was thankful just to be running. To be running without pain, strong legs and a strong mind. I was ready -- as ready as I could be.