Monday, December 17, 2012

My Chai Lifetime Marathon – and New PR!

My Chai Lifetime Marathon – and New PR!
Martin Bodek

I had never been hurt for so long, never been so close to quitting, and never been prouder of a finishing time than I was at the 2012 Brooklyn Marathon – the 18th marathon of my running career.

What started in perfection and middled in pain, concluded in triumph.

Here’s what went down on the most beautiful day for marathon-running that one could imagine:

After putting in more training miles than ever before (300 more miles at that point in the season than in the same point of any previous training), enduring the frustration of having only one chance at a marathon PR (due to the NYC Marathon cancellation), and getting some serious inspiration from a fellow marathoner I acquainted myself with at random (this was to be her 20th marathon for the year, 182 marathons in total), I stood at the start line, ready as ever.

Confidence was my middle name that day, most especially because I had run my first ultra just one month before. I considered it a 31.25 mile training run. Most people worry about having put in a long enough longest-run-of-the-season before their marathon. I had exceeded that. I felt strong, powerful, healthy and poised to go sub-4 for the first time in my career. Today was that day. It had come. Running the race was only a formality to attain that which I had sweated for.

Man proposes and God disposes, as they say.

What they say is right.

The announcements were made, the stock of those with 2012 NYC Marathon t-shirts was taken, the songbird rendition of the National Anthem was botched lyrically, my JRunners colleagues had all wished each other well, and we were off for multiple loops around Prospect Park.

Mile 1: Everyone took off, smartly and slowly. I ran at this point with a friend by my side, who is faster than me by infinite degrees, but we were all taking it easy. 26.15 miles would be enough for speedwork. Just .2 miles into the race, we came upon a BQ(Boston Qualifier)-caliber friend of ours, and we proceeded to heckle him. Why? Because he’d e-mailed the group of fellas the week before advising he’d be ignoring the rest of us to focus on running. We let him have it, in good nature. He took it well, but the surrounding runners were clearly puzzled by our actions. I cleared the mile in well under sub-7:30 and was feeling great. It was going to be a good day.

Mile 2: We didn’t slow down at all. I had the leg strength to keep this up. It was yet early, but the ease with which I was putting down the miles was an excellent harbinger for success. I slowed down to a sub-7:45 mile. Oh yeah, real slow. My buddy at my side was primed now, warmed up and ready to take off, so I bid him adieu and best of luck on a potential BQ time.

Mile 3: I spent the mile coasting on a flat portion of the park, really feeling it, really grooving. I thought it would be quite the coup if I could catch up with my friend, tap him on the shoulder and surprise him with my field position. I laid down another mile, just under 7:40.

Mile 4: Guess what I did towards the end of the mile? Caught up with my buddy like it wasn’t no thang. He was quite surprised to see me keeping up and asked me how I was feeling. I said, “Dude, I’m doing 7:43 per mile, and I’ve never felt better.” Ironically, just a minute or so later, I’d never feel worse. I would encounter…


I lost focus for a moment, admiring the construction occurring for the “Lakeside” upgrade project for the park. While my head was in the clouds, my right foot hit paydirt in a small pothole. A single wedge-shaped portion of asphalt remained – much in the shape of the open space of Pac Man’s mouth. My right middle toe slammed into the divot, and I was airborne and tumbling all over the expanse. I mashed that toe, stripping skin off the top of it, twisted my left ankle, abraded and bloodied both knees, and bashed my right forearm into the ground – hard.

I was an instant mess.

One second I was sailing towards PR glory, the next second I didn’t know if I was going to finish the race.

I got to my knees, and the pain washed over me immediately. It didn’t even wait, it just set right in. I wouldn’t have minded shock for a few seconds. That may have been better. Instead, I felt pain, all over, as soon as I wobbled myself upright.

Five or six runners immediately surrounded me, a biker came over too. They all asked me if I was okay. I said, “I don’t know, I don’t know.” Then the biker asked me if I was going to finish the race. Instinctively, I said “Yes.” I was so happy to hear that tumbling out of my mouth.

I decided to run ten feet, see how I’m doing. If I make it that far, we’ll go for one hundred more. If I’m in too much pain, however, I’m going to have to call this. I so did not want to do that. This was the 169th race of my career, and I have never quit, and I never, ever, ever want to ever quit. Ever.

I also decided not to look down at my knees. I knew they were badly skinned. I didn’t want to see the extent of it. I was scared to. I thought that if it looked quite bad, it would demoralize me and I’d be finished for the day.

There was no sensation of running blood, none of that gooey, icky feeling. So I took that as a good sign. I ran ten feet, then a hundred, and I was running again.

Mile 5: My ankle and toe and knees were throbbing something fierce. Somehow though, I wasn’t running terribly slowly. I had a healthy and strong cadence going. However, I did not think it could last. I was in too much agony. I decided to have a look at my knees at the end of the next mile, just before the six assaults on The Hill would begin. Six assaults?, I thought to myself. If I don’t make it over one, I might be done for. That first hill would be my crucible.

Mile 6: At the end of the mile, I pulled over to the side of the road for some knee inspection. Hmm, it didn’t look so bad. I brushed off some of the gravel and found that yes, I was bloodied, but my knees weren’t gushing or oozing or anything like that. The abrasions were mostly surface. Good. Very good.  They kept stinging and pulsing horribly though, and my ankle and toe were still a complete mess. I could feel the missing skin on top of my toe. I did not want to know what that looked like, and I wasn’t taking off my shoes today to find out. I’d need every boost I could get to finish the race. But my gosh, I still had 20 miles to go.

Mile 7: As I approached The Hill, I was bolstered by the most energetic cheerleader I had ever heard or seen. This woman was screaming herself silly for the runners, clanging her cowbell and probably swigging the fifth of her thirty-four Red Bulls for the day. I wondered if she’d be hoarse the next time I’d see her. The Hill arrived, and up I went, and it hurt, very bad. My knees and ankle couldn’t take it. I started daydreaming about beer. I missed the beer stop last year at the top of The Hill. If it was available again, I wouldn’t want to miss it. I finished The Hill and assessed the damage. My knees and ankle were pulsing furiously, and I started thinking about whether or not I had sustained some damage that was serious. I banished those demonic thoughts to the side, but one thing was certain: I could not finish the race without painkillers. Another thing was certain: I was still moving along rather quickly, heading towards a sub-1:50 half marathon time. I was in pain, but, to my pleasant surprise, moving.

Mile 8: Painkillers. That’s all I could think about. Dull the pain. Must stop hurting. Can’t carry on like this. Mmm, ibuprofen. Caveat though: I knew that research showed problems – kidney problems specifically – with ibuprofen ingestion during distance running or other long-term athletic activity. I was hydrating properly, and I couldn’t compromise that. The painkillers would have to wait. I’d just have to deal with it until I decided it was wise to ingest some.

Mile 9: Ow.

Mile 10: Ow ow.

Mile 11: Ow ow ow.

Mile 12: Ow ow ow ow.

Mile 13. At least I can laugh about all this now, but it wasn’t funny at the time.

Mile 13.1: The truth is, I spent this 5.1-mile slot of time teetering from the pain, grumbling and mumbling to myself, getting passed by my JRunners friends and telling them my tale of woe, thinking about painkillers and beer, wondering how much more I could take of this, thinking I was going to quit, wishing the pain away, running The Hill twice, and devolving into misery. However, all the way through, I did not abandon my training. I hydrated properly, took my salt packet and gels at the assigned times, never stopped moving forward. At the halfway point, things began to change. I hit the mark at 1:49, the fastest I had ever run the first half of a marathon. I was in miserable, gritting agony, but I was faster than ever before. I did know, though, that I couldn’t keep this up. This was just mentally and physically fatiguing, and I felt I was asking too much of myself to ignore the pain for this long. I needed an external and internal boost to get me going. I wanted to hit mile 14 in under two hours. Let’s see if I could do that. Let’s see what change I can bring about in my attitude. Let’s go for it.

Mile 14: Two great things happened here. First, I hit the mark at two hours and a few seconds. I could now “run” twelve more miles at a ten-minute clip, and I could break four hours. It was possible, but not possible, feasible, but not feasible. There was a lot of push and pull within me. I was fighting hard, but I was drained. Hitting my time uplifted me just a bit. Now the real uplift came when I saw my family cheering me on from the sidelines. My Mom, Aba, sister, niece, daughter and youngest son came out to greet me (my middle son was at a birthday party, taken there by my wife; he has his priorities) fully three miles/35 minutes earlier than I thought I’d see them. I relayed to them my story, got words of encouragement, pinched my children’s cheeks (that’s my thing), took great pictures, and I headed back to the course, buoyed. At that moment, my attitude changed, I stopped feeling sorry for myself, I took the pain as a matter of fact, and I kept on keeping on. Now when my friends passed me, I’d respond with more upbeat proclamations, like “I took a spill! But I’m on my feet! I’m doing this! I’m finishing!” Hoo-ha!

Mile 15: In The Dark Knight Rises, just before Bane breaks Batman in two, the villain taunts the caped crusader by saying, “I was wondering what would break first! Your spirit…or your body?” My spirit wouldn’t break today. I had established that with all I’d run through so far, but as a certain young bearded Hebrew once said, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” My body broke. I’d go into all sorts of metaphors about how my very being unraveled, but I’ll allow a certain wisest-of-all-men to speak for me: the silver cord was loosed, the golden bowl was broken, the pitcher was shattered at the fountain, the wheel broken at the cistern. Okay, I’ll try one: I felt like a flat tire, at the point where the driver slows the car down and the tire does that flitflitflit sound. I pulled off to the side and started walking. I was miserable. After about a quarter-mile of shoulder-stooped shuffling, I looked for anything positive to get me going. I found a silver lining: yes, I had several body parts that were bashed up, but my muscles, my supporting structure, my actual source of strength, was in perfect, pinging, lit-up order. It was working. There were no pulls or strains or tears that I could feel. That system was working well. Many other things weren’t, but my muscles were. I went with that. Like the backup power for the T-800 model, I blinked, then fritzed, then roared back to life, and I was running again. Hisna’ari mei’afar kumi. I shook off the dust, and I arose.

Mile 16: More positivity was to come my way. That crazy cheering woman was just around the bend and the medical table was at the end of the mile. I began making plans for the painkillers. Since ibuprofen compromises kidney function and causes tummyaches, I grabbed a double-dose of water at the table just past the medical table and decided I’d get my dose when I come back around. I’d also have a few more gels. Okay, I had a plan. I was feeling better.

Mile 17: More up-and-at-‘em circumstances: I ran with fellow JRunner Michael Wilhelm for just a bit, came around to my family again (and endured some gentle ribbing from fellow passing JRunners for doing so), got to a large downhill portion at just the right time…

Mile 18: …grabbed more double-doses of water, began picking up steam, went from 11 minute shuffle miles, to 10 minute one-foot-in-front-of-the-other miles, to spirited 9-minute miles…

Mile 19: …to a steady, strong gait, and finally…

Mile 20: …back to the medical tent at mile 19.5. My conversation with the attendant was very fast, and went something like this:

Me:        “Hi!”
EMT:      “Hi! How are you?”
Me:        “Been better, took a spill at mile 4, injured knees, ankle, toe, wrist. Do you have any anti-inflammatories?”
EMT:      “Yes, how’s your stomach?”
Me:        “Good, been drinking and eating.”
EMT:      “Good, it’s probably safe to have 500 milligrams.”
Me:        “Okay, know what? I’ll have 250 now. If I’m threatening my PR by the next time around, I’ll have 250 more and take that to the finish.”
EMT:      “Sounds perfect, okay, here you go. Keep drinking water.”
Me:        “Doing it, see you soon, thank you.”
EMT:      “You bet, good luck.

And I was off. I looked at my watch. Indeed, despite everything, I was still threatening my PR. I couldn’t believe it. I also couldn’t believe how instantly good I felt after taking the ibuprofen. I also knew that I started feeling better shortly before grabbing the dosage. The mind is a funny place.

Mile 21: I met my family again, took more pictures, got more ribbing and was off, beelining towards the portapotty, where I went like I was going for some kind of Guinness record. I bolted out of there lighter than air. After being stung like a bee, I was floating like a butterfly.  I was now cranking out 8-minute miles. Ridiculous.

Mile 22: I kept staring at my watch, utterly disbelieving that if I kept this up, I’d secure a PR. After a while I stopped sneaking glances and just kept up the pace.

Mile 23: Midway through the mile, I came across my good man, Joe Herman, who was recovering from some alarming surgery. He was testing out his sea legs a bit. It was a joy to run with him, both of us thrilled with our current state of affairs, considering very recent circumstances. I told him about my spill, but how amazing it was to be staring a PR in the face despite it all. We took leave of each other and I ran for the medical table. The conversation was even faster:

Me:        “Hi!”
EMT:      “Hi! Back for more?”
Me:        “Yes! PR coming up!”
EMT:      “Great! Here you go, good luck.”
Me:        “Thank you!”

One last loop to go. I spent it barreling through the park, finally in control of my pain instead of the other way around, and saying thank you to everyone who had been around here all this time and cheerled to exhaustion. First up was crazy Red-Bulled screaming woman just after the medical stop, next was two girls who wore signs that made them look like Thing1 and Thing2, next…

Mile 24: …was my family. As I approached them, while espying that I was motoring at a 7:45 clip, I yelled, “Can’t stop! Can’t stop! PR! PR!” I got a collective and unanimous, “Okay! See you at the finish!”

Mile 25: I was zipping along now, faster and faster, as if I hadn’t been in morbid agony for 15 miles. This PR was happening.

Mile 26: Another thank you administered to another sign-wielding lady with slightly less energy than Ms. Red Bull, and a final thank you to my favorite EMT.

Our conversation this time went like this:

Me:        “Hey, thank you! I’m PRing!”
EMT:      “Awright!”

Mile 26.1: I must have cleared this one-tenth of a mile at hyperspeed, but the distance between 26.1 and 26.2 seemed eternal. The world was a blur, the cheers a fuzzy muffled noise somewhat Doppler-effected by my forward motion, the finish line coming up in the distance calling my name (literally: everyone was screaming for Superman – the shirt I usually wear for marathons). Okay, arms up, here we go.

Mile 26.2: 4:08:36. 1:47 faster than my previous best. I went from the lowest of my lows to the highest of my highs.

Later that day: I removed my running sleeves. My right forearm was immediately ensconced in pain. It seems the compression the sleeves provided kept much of this pain at bay. Once removed, I felt the full force of it. I couldn’t grip or twist anything with my right hand.

A few days later: My forearm hurt me to such a degree that I went in for x-rays. Pshew, it wasn’t broken, it was a severe contusion of the right forearm. Anti-inflammatories, elevation, ice and rest should do the trick.

Two weeks later: I revisited Prospect Park to run the JRunners Race to Recover, a fundraiser for Sea Gate, overturned by Hurricane Sandy. I Hulk-smashed my Prospect Park loop PR, and waved my fist angrily, but triumphantly, at the pothole when I passed it.

There are three reasons I PRed at the Brooklyn Marathon:

1) My health and commitment: I have maintained a healthy, active, vigorous lifestyle and a disciplined diet since I was a teenager, which feels like 200 years ago. The details are boring, but suffice it to say that the invisible metrics that matter (blood pressure, heart rate, joint health, bone density) are mostly the same as when Vanilla Ice was king, and the visible metrics that don’t matter (receding hairline, missing neck) are some things I live with happily.

After failing to PR last year despite two attempts at the marathon, I decided to take this running thing very seriously. I set a goal to run 600 miles for the year. I blasted past that, so I reset the goal for 750. I zoomed past that. I’m at 800 now, fully 300 more than in any year ever before. I ran home from work. I ran to Brooklyn from work. I ran everywhere from work. I ran my first ultra. I ran my first 50 mile week. I ran my first four-run week. I ran my first everything and the mileage - and thereby my strength and health - piled up. I woke up at 4:00 AM often to make this happen. I overslept only once – missing 7 miles of training – and I’m still upset at myself for it. Now before you think I have OCD, I’ll have you know my health takes precedence over running. I took a 10-day break when my body was obviously fatigued. I was the better for it, and stronger and healthier. I made the right decision. I took care of my body and my body took care of me.

2) My wife: My down-home Minnesota girl has created an enormous space for me in which to enjoy this running lifestyle of mine. Annually we mutually agree upon a running calendar that’s agreeable to the family. This year she even came up with great suggestions for destination runs, where I’d run somewhere and she’d meet me with the kids. The best of them all was when I ran a circuitous route to our favorite gelato store. She drove in after I arrived, and we enjoyed our ices before heading home together.

3) My JRunners brothers: My beloved running club is not just comprised of individuals who enjoy running leisurely. We’re competitive, we drive each other, we make each other better. At the Brooklyn Marathon, there were fourteen of us in the field, and all but two PRed. We are all swept up on a wave of self-improvement, and I ride along with them.

And that is the point of my running lifestyle and the point of everything else that I am engaged in: to always be better than myself. The difference between my running and everything else is that I can PR only for another decade or so before I submit to my human frailty. But with everything else, I can always improve, from the trivial to the paramount. I want to be a better Scrabble player, chess player, Rubik’s Cube solver. I want to be a better writer. I want to be a better son. I want to be a better husband. I want to be a better father. Forever. Amen.