It was embarrassing . . . everyone kept passing me—the guy with the head phones and ratty sneakers, the two girls with muffin tops chatting to one another, even the woman with legs half as long as mine. I was sorely tempted to step on the metal and zoom past them, but I needed to be humble. This was my first run in over a year and I didn’t want to regret it the next day, or the next week for that matter. Because I had a plan. . . .
Just over a decade ago I had another plan. Some friends and I walked over a few blocks from my home in Brooklyn to watch the New York City Marathon. My friends were fit from biking in Colorado and I had been putting in more miles around Prospect Park. Let’s run it, we all agreed. But one year later, I was the only one of us standing in Staten Island, jamming energy gels in my shorts and waiting in line for the Porta Potty.
The ensuing 26.2 miles were undoubtedly amongst the best of my life. I had woken up to a bright blue, nippy November day. I was feeling great. I was running through one of the greatest cities in the world and being cheered on by thousands of fellow New Yorkers. I breezed through Brooklyn, stopping only to hug my father two blocks from my home in Park Slope, and another porta pee somewhere in Queens. I trotted over the Queensboro Bridge and into the roar of spectators greeting us on Manhattan’s east side. In Harlem—or perhaps the Bronx—my running partner slowed down and graciously waved me ahead. My legs still felt strong, so I surged down Fifth Avenue and into Central Park, barely registering the rolling hills (training on much bigger ones had helped). I even had enough for a kick at the end, pushing my elbows back one after the other in a steady rhythm and propelling myself up the last long incline to the finish. I felt great as I leapt over the line . . . and then I felt horrible. Like I’d been slammed by a wave of wet cement. I wasn’t winded, but I’d finally ‘hit the wall’ as they say, albeit after the race. Somehow I stumbled through it and by the time I reached friends and family on Central Park West, I was feeling much better.
Running the NYC marathon for the first time was a ‘high’ that I will never have in the same way again. I’d determined a goal—a sizeable one, prepared for it, and accomplished it. Doing that was empowering. I wasn’t drifting along, letting life choose what it wanted to do with me; I had made a choice and made it happen. The feeling of accomplishment was a heady one and I wanted that feeling again. I’d keep training. I’d make the cut-off time to run Boston, my hometown race. I’d be in amazing shape and . . . then I tore my Achilles tendon while playing squash. Zip. Done. No more competition for me . . . at least not for a long time.
But I couldn’t stay away from it forever. An athletic goal has always held immense appeal for me—not always for any chance of winning (although doing well is nice), but more for the process of attaining it. There’s something about pushing one’s body, doing what it takes to be better, feeling your lungs and muscles grow, seeing your arms and legs change shape, that satisfies some primal desire. Well, in me at least.
And clearly in other athletes I know. A friend just recently completed his third Ironman triathlon. I am truly in awe of this, especially given that I know what it takes to run just one leg of this event. And those 26.2 miles come after a 2.4 mile swim and a 112 mile bike. It took me about half an hour to get around a lap of the park. The Ironman took him about 29 times that. No wonder that he got a medal that says ‘finisher.’
There should also be medals for people who achieve a psychologically difficult physical goal. I’m thinking of people who set out to learn something new, something they’ve always wanted to do, but were intimidated by. I’m thinking of my friend who decided—at the age of 50—to learn to swim. This woman grew up on Long Island—virtually surrounded by water—but for a variety of reasons decided that sports were not her thing, and swimming fell by the wayside. Until she realized that she’d always be poolside—watching her nieces and nephews from afar—if she didn’t take the leap into the deep end and learn how to swim. So she signed up for Beginner’s Swimming at a local YMCA, took all eight classes, swam the width of the pool by the last class, and immediately signed up for more. Maybe this achievement wasn’t as physically impressive as an Ironman, but psychologically it was huge. Sticking your head in a place you can’t breathe takes a trust that comes naturally to most kids. Sticking it in as an adult just seems nuts. Medal worthy? Definitely.
These friends both get credit for inspiring me to try my latest goal—a sprint triathlon. If someone I knew could race for fourteen hours (!), if another could learn something completely, scarily new, then I should be able to do something I know how to do for a smidgen of that time. So last week I signed up for the Frost Valley Sprint Triathlon. A year ago, I almost did one on the spur of the moment (or perhaps under the influence of a few Dark and Stormy’s) after a squash tournament in Bermuda. It would’ve made for a good tale to tell, but it also might’ve scared me off from trying another and part of the pleasure (and pain) of a race is preparing for it. I would’ve missed all my early morning swims this summer, shedding the stifling heat by slipping into the Tony Dapolito pool. And my country road runs that always start out stiffly, gradually loosen, and end with a wild, wonderful sprint by a field full of cows. And pumping, pumping, pumping the pedals of my bike up the long circuitous hills of the Catskills (not far from where my tri will take place) and then flying down the other side. Sometimes I forget that training can be fun.
And maybe this is why I keep setting new goals. Not only for the sense of achievement, but the experiences that come with it. Last week, I read with absolute awe and fascination about the long distance swimmer Diana Nyad’s decision to swim 103 miles from Cuba to the Florida Keys and I was particularly interested in her reason for doing it. “I’m immersed in the everyday, full tilt,” she explained. “It’s so energizing.” And that, in short, is why a physical, athletic goal is such a wonderful life-enriching thing and why I will keep seeking them out until the day I cannot.
A medal might be nice though . . .