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  1. onthebusrunning

    The Race

    It started as more of a heavy mist than a rain. But there was no mistaking the wind. It came in gusts, battering at our resolve before we had even begun. Each gust came without warning, or rhyme or reason, which made the situation somehow more unpredictable, more grim, like no matter what we did, there was no escaping it. We walked -- or trudged -- the .75 miles to the start, this misbegotten horde of rejects who seemed for better or worse (mostly worse) to be on the outs with society. Trash bags snapped around us, Mylar sheets pulled snug, mismatched sweat suits and tech vests starting to absorb the rain. Even the best among us were likely asking the eternal question, "How the hell did I get here?" And what's more, "Why am I here?" I bit down on the edge of my poncho hood with the desperate hope it would stay in place and keep my head dry even though I would be saturated in minutes. The wind whisked the last remnants of our conversations away, our last words perhaps? I stepped between the barrier and into my corral. The clock read 9:55, and I decided to wait three more minutes to strip down. The announcer (executioner?) did his best to buoy our spirits. I watched the seconds tick down to the unavoidable. I peeled off my poncho, vest, sweatshirt, and long sleeve. The cold started in on me immediately, and I began to shiver and thought, This isn't good. But then crack! The gun. The night before, my friend and I went to our favorite philosopher, Jonathan Beverly, for his insight and perspective: "You have to respect a distance that can reduce you to survival four out of five times, despite the best laid plans and preparation." Addendum: the distance and Mother Nature. We chatted with our coach and modified our race plans as one might do with a forecast for 25mph headwinds. In short, I knew (as I had likely known for days) that my 2:35 would have to wait. We resolved to find an effort that made sense but ultimately agreed to run the race by feel. I channeled my inner Stan Beecham and vowed to get the best out of the day. I'd like to tell you that despite all odds the day came together, that there was a singular moment where I pulled myself together, righted the ship, and, you know, dug deep. But I can't. Because sometimes you put in the work and it's just not the right day for it. But like the badass woman who persevered on Monday said, you have to keep showing up. With that in mind, I can sum the race up fairly quickly. After my initial reaction just before the gun, I started in on myself. You haven't started running yet. Relax and get into the race. And I did. For my first seven miles, the rain remained a light mist, the wind hardly noticeable. So, I settled into sub-2:40 rhythm for as long as I could and felt the miles floating by, the pace and effort coming easily. At seven, the first downpour came and transported me back to my New England college days, when the cold rain seemed denser somehow and could penetrate down to your core and chill your spirit. My singlet clung to me and did nothing to abate the wind that blew right through me as if I was a ghost. I reigned back on the pace to keep from fighting the wind and burning any extra energy, and pulled the bill of my hat down to shield my face. The Wellesley girls managed to get a smile out of me, but only just. I didn't look at my watch again until half where I came through in 1:21. From 13.1-22, I entered into a constant battle of med tent and mile marker. The downpour would come and the wind would stand me up. My teeth chattered and my thoughts fogged. For large stretches, my view of the course was the narrow sliver of road that appeared under my hat brim. The road turned to river. I splashed through puddles, now unavoidable, and managed to spray more water up my calves and into my socks. And just as the med tent would come into view, the rains and wind would slacken and I could continue. I'm not sure why or what was pulling me on. The rains mingled with a few tears because I felt downright miserable and even a little sorry for myself. I remember ditching my gloves at 15 because they were soaked and seemed to be trapping the cold. I made a fist and wrung water out of them. And at 15.1 I regretted it as the wind ate at my now raw, red, and exposed fingers. What could I do but continue putting one soggy foot in front of the other. I soldiered on. Heartbreak (the hill), came and went. Hardly the formidable or momentous moment it usually becomes. At 22, I realized I had just four miles to go, and what was another four at this rate? Hey, you might actually finish this thing. The crowds thickened and spurred me on. Quintessential Boston. Even in the worst of conditions, the crowds still came. They carried me past the Citgo sign and eventually onto Boylston. That finish line never looked so sweet. It was the end of another chapter, another Boston, and also a reason to finally say for sure, it's ok to stop. I crossed in 2:53:59. Empty. I immediately began to shiver and wouldn't stop for another hour despite dry clothing. But after a very long, hot shower, after the cold had left me, and the texts and emails and calls had been answered, I returned to Beverly for one more passage: "I've learned that even when the marathon wins--perhaps especially when it does--we discover truths about ourselves. When all goals are abandoned, when it didn't matter if I walked, crawled, or curled up in the ditch, I found a core that I still cared. I found myself still pushing through the fog toward the finish as fast as my compromised body will allow." And in that I can find solace and peace with this race. It was one to be endured. One where I continued to push my compromised body as far as it would allow. One that deepened the shared camaraderie we already share as runners. One where we had to pry ourselves open to see what was deep inside us and how much our bodies and minds could withstand. As with Bostons past, it would seem quite a lot. And what of this race in particular? Just another waypoint along the journey. Another layer of callus and of opportunity to be put toward the next one. Until then, the number in my head is still 2:35.
  2. onthebusrunning

    ...to Boston

    I still remember. It was 2010. With every footfall up Hereford Street, my quads protested. But then I made one of running’s most famous left turns. The hair on the back of my neck stood up. Boylston Street boiled over with noise. The sound compounded as the cheering reverberated off of the buildings. The pain remained but muted somewhat now by this sudden infusion of adrenaline. The finish arch materialized, and I knew it would not be much longer. In the throng of spectators lined four and five deep, I somehow managed to pick out my wife, dad, and father-in-law hanging over the barricade. I flashed a huge smile, the pain blotted out, and I said to myself, “You’re about to finish the Boston Marathon.” It’s been eight years, and I still remember. As this year’s race has drawn closer, I’ve spent the past week reliving this Boston training cycle as well as visiting with ghosts (good and bad) of my Bostons past. I also came across a long-ago editor’s note from former Running Times editor, Jonathan Beverly, titled “Once Each Spring,” that I thought summed up this annual tradition well: In my mind Boston exists only on race day, ‘a runner's Brigadoon appearing out of the Massachusetts woods.’ Having never lived there, my Boston is a magical place, unsullied by the mundane and the sorrows of real life. ‘It is always spring in my Boston,’ I wrote, describing a place where no one has to go to work on Monday, instead the people come out to run or celebrate runners. In this Boston, ‘Boylston Street is a single-lane stadium lined with overflowing stands, a half-mile of agony and bliss. The very name evokes images of great battles and the sweet feelings of accomplishment. Copley Square is always slightly out of focus, viewed through the happy haze of honorable exhaustion.’ Simply put, Boston is different. When you boil it down to its simplest form, it’s still 26.2 miles, the same as any marathon. Yet, it’s so much more. It’s a race that stays with you. It’s a vortex that can suck you in from the moment you set foot in Boston, caught up in the pageantry, the buzz, and the anticipation. To me, in no other city, for no other marathon (sorry, New York), does a city stop, open its collective arms for three straight days, pause, and celebrate this endeavor we call running. At every start line, but Boston in particular, I like to take a brief moment and look around, to take in the sea of runners of which I am just one more body, one more story. We came from different places and backgrounds to get here and we will run for different reasons to finish. It’s that start line that brings us together. It’s the finish line that unites us. In that way, every race, every Boston, belongs to each one of us as both a unique and collective experience. My Boston is brightly colored jackets with white unicorns stitched along the back. It is something that once seemed unattainable and now is not to be taken for granted. It’s the electricity that starts at the airport (and I don’t mean Logan) and continues until you return home. It is past heroes and history that weaves you into its fabric: Bill Rodgers, Amby Burfoot, Katherine Switzer, the Dual in the Sun, Lisa Rainsberger, and Meb. It is the kindness of strangers lining 26.2 miles of road carrying you along. It is small towns, scream tunnels, and random high fives. It is fickle weather. It is tears of joy and exhaustion. My Boston is tinged with sadness and fortified by hope, love, and resilience. It is a race that can humble and elate you. Whether it’s your first, fifth, or fiftieth, every Boston is special. No one, or no thing, can prepare you for your first trip from Hopkinton to Boylston Street. You can read the articles, watch the videos, and talk to those who have been there before, but all of it is insufficient. As I toss the final pieces of my kit in my bag and obsessively check the weather again (and again), I depart for my fifth Boston with Amby Burfoot in my mind, “It’s time to keep enjoying the best day in running history.” In less than three days, I’ll be on the bus aimed at Hopkinton, preparing to run back to Boston, seeking to get the best of myself, and enjoy the ride along the way.
  3. onthebusrunning

    The Sword

    It’s Tuesday morning. Steely, gray clouds lord over the sky and mute the dawn. Rain spatters my sunglasses, an optimistic addition to my attire. But none of that matters. I pull my hands from my knees and inhale deeply to slow my heart rate. Sixty seconds left, I whisper audibly to no one in particular. Hands on hips now, I ease over to what had been the finish line of my ninth 800-meter repeat, and now marks the start line of my tenth and final. Eight hundred meters. A half mile. That’s all that separates me from my taper. Since the half marathon roughly five weeks ago, I circled five key days on my calendar: the Tuesday morning sessions and the Saturday morning long runs that remained before Boston. These represented the five opportunities I had to grab as much fitness as possible before stepping to the line in Hopkinton. I took each milestone one at a time, never looking farther than what lay just ahead. "Get the most out of each day. Survive," I told myself. I checked my watch again. Thirty seconds. The workout had been hard from go. Yet, charged with running 10x800 meters in 2:35-2:30 with 90 seconds between each, I had been no slower than 2:34 to this point. My legs still held some of the fatigue from my final 20-miler just three days ago, one where I laid down a 59:16 ten-miler in the middle. This morning, I had locked on to the pace despite the strain. I knew the effort. I knew it was going to hurt – again. But I also knew that there would come a moment, or perhaps several, in Boston where I would have to decide if I was going to concede to the pain or marshal the ferocity to push on in spite of it. I counted down the final five seconds, 5-4-3-2-1 and galloped off down the road. One more half mile. The metaphors are many. Hay in the barn. Smoldering embers. But for me, it’s one my uncle passed on in our early days working at that sub-20:00 5K. The sword. Those base, easy, and long runs forge the blade, while the tempo and interval sessions deliver the slippery, sharp edge. But in this buildup in particular, in this sword, there’s an essence, a spirit that exists behind those pounded out miles on the road and trail. The physical elements may form the sword’s hardness, but the true strength comes from those with whom you surround yourself. The friends who run alongside you and hold you up, meet you for breakfast, or simply shoot a text out of the blue (or daily) that says, “How’s the training going?” or “Killer run yesterday.” My coach, who buoys me up during the darker weeks and magnifies my confidence when things are rolling. My parents, who dutifully read this blog each week and urge me on. My wife, who supports and encourages me, indulges my early bedtimes and quirky routines, and who can floor me after a long run by simply saying, “I’m proud of you.” The sword, you see, is more than just the materials it’s made of, but the soul that resides in it. I pound down the slight decline, willing my legs to turnover, putting myself through it one last time. I’m aware of Margin Lane flashing by in my periphery marking 200 meters. My breathing is calm, but I know this is only temporary. On cue, the heaviness begins to seep into the tops of my quads, but I think of the quote from Franz Stampfl that’s carried me through this section nine previous times, “Sure it’ll be painful, but what’s pain?” I manage a weak smile. I spot Piller Way, i.e. 400 meters. Gun lap. The equivalent of one more trip around the track. Days began to fall like dominoes, time seemingly accelerating with each passing workout. I felt like every time I turned around, I was staring down another interval session. Yet, the sword got bigger, sharper – infused with fitness, strengthened with support. It reminded me of an old Jonathan Beverly article where he wrote, “I can sense tumblers falling into place, unlocking the ‘thing behind everything’ that makes all else seem second-rate, as John Updike described in Rabbit, Run. I’m riding the wave, hitting the sweet spot, in the zone, in flow. As I finish the workout, I feel invincible, fully alive, connected and powerful.” The road starts to pitch upward. The initial bump is enough to chop my stride, but I push on and reengage at the top and set about tackling the final 350 meters. My breathing is ragged now – raspy, throaty exhales that eschew errant fluffs of spit. My quads ache but I summon one last surge to combat what feels like a sudden slowing of pace. The stop sign, the finish line, the taper come into view and I lock onto it and let it guide me in like a tractor beam. The houses turn to buildings and I’m on Boylston, the clock edging toward my goal. My arms pump furiously, urging my legs to match the tempo. An errant step here, a wild elbow there. No time to dwell, just keep it together. I break the plane and immediately click the watch. My head tilts to the sky first to exhale one last ragged breath, then I steal a glance at my watch as my hands drop to my knees. 2:32. I let out a “whoop!” and start off on the three-mile cool down that officially marks the end of this training block, the beginning of my taper, the final mental preparations. The number in my head – the one that I started with 16 weeks ago and even farther back than that – is still 2:35. This winter has been fraught with challenges: schizophrenic weather, nagging injuries, and lingering illness. In the thick of it, the unsexy January and February months of simply putting one’s head down and consistently putting one foot in front of the other, I logged into my email to find my Runner’s World Daily Quote waiting for me. It was one that has stayed with me and become somewhat of a mantra for my friend and I as we thrash ourselves through long interval workouts on non-descript neighborhood streets, grind through long runs, or simply get out the door each morning. It read, “Fate whispered to the warrior, ‘You cannot withstand the storm.’ The warrior replied, ‘I am the storm.’” And this warrior has a big goddamn sword that’s ready to lay waste to 2:35.
  4. My lungs heaved. My shoulders strained. My breath came in ragged gasps. I was wrung out but I churned on. When I cleared the stop sign, my watch buzzed marking the seventh mile repeat. “6:09.” Fuck. Rather than the exclamation point I had hoped for with this workout, I left it with more of a question mark – the questions being what happened? What was that? Why? You see, I was supposed to run 7x1 mile starting at 5:40 and working down to 5:30 (reference 6:09 above). The workout had been a bear from the start. And though I recognized the pile of adversities stacked against me (lack of sleep, stress at work, still sick), a trickle of doubt began to seep in. I started a down trodden cool down back to my house when I then asked myself: “Why are you running today?” It’s a question I’ve asked myself every morning of this Boston buildup as a I dress for a run, pop my contacts in, or lace up. I don’t ask out of wonder, skepticism, or dread. Rather, I ask out of necessity. And the answer is always: “I expect to run 2:35 at Boston.” It has to be. Admittedly, when I first began this ritual some 10 weeks ago, I’m not sure I believed it, or at least not every day. But the shift has been subtle. In buildups past, I might say, “I want to run 2:35” or “I hope to run 2:35.” That simple one-word substitution has ignited a massive mindset shift in how I approach mental preparation for this marathon. I embraced the concept after my coach recommended that I read Dr. Stan Beecham’s, “Elite Minds” earlier this winter. Beecham is a sports psychologist that ZAP’s athletes have used in the past. Beecham says that the “future is primarily determined by what you tell yourself about the future; the beliefs one has about the future can actually dictate behavior in the present.” In other words, if you set yourself up to run poorly by believing that will be the outcome, why should you expect any alternative? Confidence, though, can be like glass. It can be impenetrable and bulletproof or it can be delicate and fragile. Harkening back to my days as an ice hockey goaltender, that area between my ears could be a scary place, full of demons of doubt, where I second-guessed and forced every movement and reaction (mostly pulling the puck out of the back of the net). While other times it was a place of peace, of synergy, of flow. There was no past, no future, only what was happening immediately in front of me, and all I had to do was react. In that flow, there’s no thinking, no worrying, no second-guessing. And I’m trying to find that place of stillness with my running. Because believing that I will run 2:35 gives me the permission to not obsess about running 2:35, and it frees my mind to focus on the here and now, to only execute my race plan, and find that quiet mind. On those particularly bad patches, in workouts, in races, in low moments, I repeat “be calm, be present, trust yourself” even though doubt is starting to eat around the edges of my confidence, the glass starting to spider. But practicing this, I’ve come to realize, is just as important as getting the miles in, hitting the splits, and dialing in the nutrition. When I went to running camp at ZAP many years ago, the shirt laid out on our bed read, “The Mind is the Athlete.” We can hone, sharpen, and temper the body, but the mind must be strong as well to propel the vessel forward. That dog-doo 7x1 mile workout was nearly a month ago now. I won’t lie that I let it linger in the back of my mind and that alone has caused me to force a few of the sessions that followed. But, I also know that “expectation dictates performance,” according to Beecham. “How you function on a bad day is the true test. How you function on a good day does not define your character.” So I focus on getting the best out of each day, whatever that means, and with whatever circumstances I’ve been dealt. Then I can work with what I have, rather than exerting force against what isn’t working. Tonight, I sit on the precipice overlooking tomorrow’s tune up race, the Rock and Roll DC Half Marathon. I know that I am the collection of every run and every workout that I’ve compiled over the last few weeks, months, and, hell, even years. I am not defined by one crappy workout and I will do my best tomorrow with what the day gives me. Why? Because I expect to run 2:35 at Boston.
  5. onthebusrunning

    The First

    “Do you want to do this again in the fall?” I remember asking myself. I was closing in on the 20-mile marker of the 2009 Vermont City Marathon. I was ahead of pace. I was hurting. I chose Vermont as my first crack at a Boston qualifier thanks to a recommendation from a friend who achieved her first BQ there. In many ways, I had no business making such a leap. I came in with a marathon PR of 4:07 from the 2006 Marine Corps Marathon. I failed to crack the four-hour barrier in the infamous 2007 Chicago Marathon that shut down because of the heat (I finished in 4:45). But I spent the next 20 months getting, as they say, serious about it. It all started during a trip down to Florida shortly after Chicago. I was out kayaking with my uncle who would turn the tide (so to speak). “We’re going to use that marathon base and get you under 20 minutes for the 5K,” he said. “Ok,” I agreed, somewhat skeptical. My uncle used to coach high school track, and that, coupled with my dad’s own running prowess at the University of Florida, made for a pretty damn good coaching staff in my corner. My uncle sent me workouts in the mail and I would turn lung-searing, quad-busting quarter after quarter on the track, oftentimes with my dad holding the stopwatch for me. That spring of 2008 I ran a 19:45, and you might say the trajectory of my running altered with that race. You see, with the adrenaline still pumping, I went to the running resource I had recently discovered: the McMillan Running Calculator. I plugged in my 19:45 and when I scrolled to the predicted marathon time, it had dialed up a BQ. The untenable now tenable. The impossible now possible. The once unimaginable now, well, you get the idea. At least in theory. I set about tackling this new challenge with fervor. There were the detractors who scoffed at taking nearly an hour off my PR. No matter – fuel for those particularly anguishing long runs or grueling tempos. I sometimes relive my final 20-miler before that race. The one I did in the rain. The one where I returned to the house waterlogged, stepped inside, and declared, “Ready.” So, why this sudden trip down memory lane? I’ll call it a fortuitous mis-click on a tab in my Google Sheet training log that brought me back to 2009 this week. I started scrolling through my marathon buildup for that BQ attempt, trying to conjure up some of those old feelings, particularly during this week where the running has been sparse and light as I fight off the last lingering elements of my cold. Memories still surface from that race in Vermont. Neighborhood houses passed in my periphery at that 19-21-mile stretch. Children offered oranges from their outstretched hands. I managed a weak smile, while inside a war raged between self-doubt and self-motivation. The heavy rain that started to fall five minutes before the start had finally started to abate. Turning onto the bike path at 22 and living water station to water station, knowing that the next mile marker would be just beyond it. Emerging from the woods. The sun. Lake Champlain deep blue and perfect on my right. The sound of the finish to my left. Spotting my wife and dad screaming for me just ahead of the 26-mile marker. Knowing at that moment that I had it. That despite the pain in my quads and hips, the voices from the doubters inside my head and out, the year, months, hours, and miles that went into this. Culmination. I had it. I crossed the finish in 3:08:41. Empty. Hollow. Commencing serious Frankenstein walking. Finding my wife and dad, hugging them tight, and beginning the now nearly ten-year tradition of crying after marathons. Letting it sink in slowly that I was Boston bound. That’s enough to get me through this week.
  6. The morning light filtered softly into our room last Saturday. Wakefulness came slowly and I tried to convince myself that I still had plenty of time to sleep before lacing up for my long run, despite evidence to the contrary. Before committing to opening my eyes – the final nail in the coffin – I noticed that something felt off. I swallowed and experienced that, ahem, ill-fated rough and tender feeling in the back of my throat. The one that prophesizes heavy heads, leaky faces, and – perhaps far worse – blank calendar squares in the training log. At this, my eyes flew open. I swallowed again, hoping the source was only a rare night of open-mouthed sleeping, some strange and unknown winter allergy, or god-willing anything other than being…I can’t even write it, for to acknowledge its existence is to give it hope, to give it possibility, to give it life! The feeling abated, but only slightly. Shit. I dutifully set out for my 15-mile long run, which became the capper to my down week. With temperatures dipping into the low-20s with a “feels like” of 12, I strapped on my Bane mask to prevent the cold air from further drying out my throat and irritating my chest. I followed my coach’s orders and ran by feel, never glimpsing at my watch once, and kept the pace light to moderate. No one was more surprised than me to see that I had averaged 6:31 pace – I guess the down time worked. Was it possible that I had literally outrun my impending…that thing? Not a chance. I woke Sunday with irrefutable proof that I was indeed…sick. And to add literal injury to insult, my hamstring started bothering me. Commence extreme cold + injury remediation plan. Fluids in the form of water, tea, apple cider vinegar, and chicken broth were consumed. Zinc tablets were ingested like candy. Raw garlic and honey were sent down the hatch. Sleep was slept. Heating pads were sat upon. Bridges on land and on stability ball were done. Biofreeze was slathered liberally. Passive voice was used excessively. These were indeed desperate times. Because in the ironic land known as “of course,” I would get sick at the tail end of 10 days of rest. What followed? The eternal sick / injured runner question: To run or not to run? What Quenton Cassidy called the old “injury fandango…would it ever end?” On Monday, I compromised. I slept 11 sweaty hours and pushed my run back to lunch. I completed six easy miles of a scheduled 11 to get something in and still be within my 86-80 mileage window for the week. After nine hours of sleep that night, feeling no worse for wear, I did a 13-mile fartlek Tuesday morning and doubled that afternoon for the fun of it. And it was pretty much business as usual from there, despite the lingering fatigue, clogged sinuses, and a moody hamstring. Above the neck and you can run, right? Right!? That brings us to today. Where I come to you from the couch, hood pulled up, Nalgene half full, empty square *gasp* on the training calendar, heeding my coach’s words. “Let’s back off,” he said, after hearing the congestion in my voice. “Get back to 95-100% for Monday so we can get into the upper 90s next week.” These are the times when rest feels harder than running. When just over nine weeks from now, this will hopefully be a forgotten bump in the long road to Boston. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a date with a heating pad and a zinc lozenge.
  7. onthebusrunning

    The Base

    The floor felt good. I took a moment to just breathe. To feel each breath crash and recede like the tide upon the shore. To feel the warmth still in my muscles. To let my eyes go out of focus and wait for constellations to emerge from the stipple on our ceilings. To absorb the effort. To pause. You see, I’ve been at it for nine-and-a-half weeks now. I started slow, just a few easy miles every other day to get the feeling back. But once it started, the bus – as it were – hadn’t stopped. My coach piled on more miles each week, methodically and purposefully. He added in various hill repeats once a week, which I dutifully strode up (and back down). My long run peaked at 19 miles last weekend, capping off a 90-mile week (my highest of the buildup). And last Wednesday, I officially brought the base phase to a close, and might I add, with an exclamation point. The session that brought me to the floor called for four miles easy, plus 4x(4x400m) starting at 81-80 seconds and moving down to 74-75 seconds, with 45 seconds between each rep and 2 minutes between sets, plus 8x200m slightly faster than 400 pace, with a 200m jog between each rep, plus an easy cool down. In all, I logged 13 miles total. Given the paces and the short rest, runDanrun called it a 5K workout for a marathoner. My coach simply called it “economy.” My body sounded alarm bells during that opening 400, but experience taught me to switch them off and just keep pushing. I quickly found myself in rhythm. I clicked off 80s for that first set, locking into the feel and striding confidently, machine-like, a human metronome, up and down the strip of neighborhood street, quietly edging back the margins. Forty-five seconds came and went with barely enough time to circle back to the sign pole marking the quarter mile. Yet my breath went from labored, to easy, to normal just in time to tackle the next one. Fatigue began to seep into the tops of my quads on set 3 rep 4, but the watch showed a 75. During those luxurious 2 minutes before the final set, I ran through my cues: turnover, efficient, power. I thought about how I labored over an aggravated back on Monday, threatening to undo all of this work. The tight glute that had plagued me since Christmas. Yet here I was. One measly mile away from a scheduled 10-day down period. Along the way, I collected pastel sunrises, crunched through snow, followed the triangle of light from my headlamp past dark houses, felt the icy sting of sleet on my cheeks, and the mild wind of a 60-degree day on the back of my neck. I had ducked my head into the pit and gotten swallowed by the darkness. I lined up next to the stop sign, took one inhale, and clicked my watch. I thundered down the street wearing a mask of calm, but feeling the effort like fire spreading slowly through my legs. Just as it peaked, I was done: 74. The even number reps retrace the same street in reverse, with one caveat: they are slightly uphill. “Seventy-five,” I told myself, and thundered off again. My arms pumped hard but smooth to 300m before the fire raged and my breath became an audible rasp. Beep! 75. After another 74, I stared down the final rep. The stop sign was a fuzzy red dot at the end of the street. “Seventy-five,” I repeated. I drove hard off the line and came into my cadence. Turnover, efficient, power, turnover, efficient, power…. The effort pulled tight across my face, and a grimace involuntarily broke out. Form, I reminded myself and composed my face once again. My legs grew heavy, weighed down with the fifteen-and-a-half reps prior, the nine-weeks-and-two-days before them. My breath heavy and ragged. I flashed by the stop sign, Beep! 75. Fist pump. Exclamation point. If pushed to pinpoint a mantra for these nine-and-a-half weeks, it’s simply: building. I’ve tried to be unemotional about every run, neither too up or down about any one because the goal has simply been to run miles, and establish the foundation upon which we’ll build the barn. Or forge the sword that we’ll hone to a slippery sharp edge, if you like. I closed the book on those nine-and-a-half weeks and let my mind wander briefly to ten days from now. When the mileage will creep toward and hit triple digits. When I’ll long for that 400m/200m workout again. When anything below a 20-mile long run will seem short. When I’ll visit the pit every week…. But for the moment, the floor felt good.
  8. onthebusrunning

    The Pit

    It’s Thursday night, somewhere around 9:00. I jerk awake when my Kindle thumps against my chest. The words on the screen have long since blurred together, and, in fact, the device has shut itself off. How long ago, I’m not sure…five minutes? Five days? My eyes are half open, my mouth wide open. I feel like I’ve just resurfaced from the depths of some dark sea. I roll over onto my side and try to blink the room into view. Ah, yes…the living room. I’m on the couch. And my bed… my bed is so, so far away. The dog lifts her head, and eyes me if to say, “Get it together, man.” I pitifully look at my wife who I register is on the opposite end of the couch, and I summon the words, “I think I’m going to go up,” consciously using the word “think” rather than the more definite “am” because this is going to take some doing. When posed with the simple question of “How’s it going?” bleak may be the only suitable answer, although we would also accept grim. Such is the life of this runner when he’s in the pit. I am well acquainted with the pit. My coach dropped me into it about five years ago when we started training for Boston 2013. It snuck up on me, like a creeping, low-lying fog that, before I understood, had wrapped its tendrils around my legs before completely enveloping me. I couldn’t pinpoint one run that sent me there. Rather, it was the accumulating fatigue that brought on the darkness. I typically visit the pit on high mileage weeks that range from 85-100 total miles. It’s particularly cruel the first trip back after a few months away, as this week has been. But funnily enough, it’s a place you come to miss if you haven’t been there in some time. The schedule calls for doubles Monday-Wednesday with a daily total mileage of 13-18 miles. The week starts ok, brimming with optimism, but it’s the Tuesday morning workout where things start to dim. I normally finish the mile or 1-2K repeats, tempo runs, or whatever goodies my coach has on the calendar in high spirits. But Tuesday night’s easy 5-6 feels slightly off. Wednesday morning, I eye the alarm clock suspiciously as if it has betrayed me, and I pull running clothes on while on auto-pilot and trot into a darkness both literal and metaphorical. During those first few strides, I question how I will possibly be able to eke out another 5-6 that night, but those are questions (and challenges) for future Brad to confront. Wednesday night arrives and we curse morning Brad for being done with his run already. Sleep comes easy and deep and heavy, but never long enough. I am well beyond riding waves of tiredness and fully drowning in an ocean of exhaustion. Between runs, I merely exist, emotionally blunt to the world. There is the constant pang of hunger. My stomach is a roaring furnace that continuously needs stoking. Good news is met with a weak smile, bad news a look of melancholy (not hard to pull off). Nerves are frayed. Patience is razor thin. Colleagues look worried. I’m prone to empty stares and temporary breaks from reality. I wake up in the middle of the night drenched in sweat as though I’ve intruded on my body frantically stitching itself back together. I do my best impression of a human, but the bus, as it were, is most assuredly running on fumes. Thursday morning, I stare down 12-god-dammit-just-get-them-in-no-matter-how-slow-miles. I’m brushing my teeth and the eyes looking back at me in the mirror are vacant and haunting. Last week, I addressed “the why,” and being in the pit certainly conjures up that heaviest of all questions. John L. Parker, Jr. wrote, that “The question that plagues the runner [in the pit] is ‘Why am I living like this? The question eventually becomes, ‘Is this living?’” The answer is of course, “yes” because, though Thursday morning may be the darkest of runs, the night, as they say, is darkest before dawn. My good friend runDanrun knows this better than anyone, because he has accompanied me in the pit for the last year since we started sharing the same coach. When I put this post to him, he said, “We may question the why, but we also know deep down that we answered that question long ago, so it doesn’t need revisiting. Just lace up.” The first time I told my coach of these feelings, he merely said, “You sound like you’re training for a marathon.” What I had taken to calling the pit, he reframed as “good tired.” Friday morning dawns and something is different. It’s been 24 hours since my last run. The light has returned to my eyes, the fog lifted. Somehow having that extra 12 hours of rest has returned the bounce to my step. My feet don’t hit the ground with a dense thud – nay, they spring from the blacktop! My stride comes easy and dare I admit, I feel good. The long run on Saturday is even better and I half wonder if those two days of darkness were even real as I rip off long run miles on seemingly fresh legs. When I started writing this last week, I kept thinking of “the pit” in The Dark Knight Rises and descended into my own Batman wormhole, finally coming across the “Lazarus Pit.” Apparently, the Lazarus Pit is a natural phenomenon that possesses restorative properties that can instantly heal injuries and even grant immortality. It got me thinking that maybe the pit – given the weekend rejuvenation – isn’t such a bad place after all. A chorus of savage chants echo off the walls of the pit. “What does that mean?” Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne asks in the final installment of Batman as he’s about to attempt to make the climb out. “Rise,” his fellow prisoner utters. Indeed.
  9. onthebusrunning

    The Why

    Two weeks ago, I walked outside with one of my colleagues after lunch, and we simultaneously hunched our shoulders to our ears to brace against the cutting wind. “You’re not actually running in this are you?” she asked, cinching her hood tight. At the time, the entirety of the East Coast was more or less frozen solid, and here in D.C., single and negative digits had become the norm. I thought about replying with a phrase one of my running buddies used to say, “The only weather is whether or not you ran.” Instead of sounding like a complete douche to her (though I love the quote), I gave a simple and resigned “yes.” She raised her eyebrows. I like to think that in that look, there is reverence, awe, and admiration – but I know better. What’s behind those looks are skepticism and borderline boredom. I’ve tried to hone my running conversation skills over the years, doling out details in small bits and tuning in for that moment where I’ve crossed into tedium. I can see the glaze form over their eyes, usually about the time I start talking tactics. To be fair, she is genuinely interested, and not one of those, “I only run when I’m being chased, har har har,” people. This time, though, she asked the heaviest and possibly most difficult questions to answer: why? I could have tried to give her a glimpse of the mental and physical toll those frigid ten miles had taken on me that morning, how much I despise the treadmill, or simply say, “Because it was on the schedule”; however, we were cold, and at that moment, I couldn’t articulate just why in god’s name I was out there, so I shrugged, perplexed. That kind of pondering is for long runs. So… It was with this in mind that weekend, when the temps dipped to a “feels like” of -8, that I set out for a 15-miler that Outside columnist Alex Hutchinson would call a “three sock run” – I’ll let you figure out what I pulled the third sock over. When the sun finally rose over the houses, bringing warmth back to my fingers and life back to my spirit, I took a detour in my head away from the task at hand and began to try and answer that weightiest of questions. How to put into words something that to the uninitiated sounded – well – crazy, stupid, worthless? Something that would elicit the narrowing stares that read, “You’ve lost it, man,” or worse, “Who cares?” I first thought of a quote I keep in my phone from author Leslie Jamison, who wrote an excellent piece on the Barkley Marathons that attempts to get at this, “The sheer ferocity of the effort implies that the effort is somehow worth it…The persistence of ‘why’ is the point: the elusive horizon of an unanswerable question.” The why, it came to me, is in the process. The why is finding the limit, your limit. Plumbing the depths of who you are to know just how far and how fast you can go, weather be damned. Heeding the call the way the holy are called to a higher power and sailors are called to the sea. I know there won’t be Olympic medals or sponsorship money. Sure, it’s something to collect your age group trophy and smile at the small crowd lingering for the free swag. Then real life resumes. Work and deadlines come crashing in. But you’ll return to the road, or trail, or track the next day, slipping into the darkness while the rest of the world sleeps because there’s more work to be done. If she, or they, or whomever, could understand all that, intrigued maybe, or incredulous, I would tell them the exact moment that cemented this for me. I was getting ready for Boston 2014 in one of those winters that’s not all that different from this one. My friend and I were 13 miles into what my coach calls a “no champagne, no medal” long run. The kind you grind out – gritty and unglamorous – because it’s what the plan says. It was an out and back 22 miler with an easy 11 upfront and pickups on the back half. There had been nothing “easy” about those first 11, the kind of run that seems against you from the start. The wind battered us and the cold sapped our energy. I tucked in behind my running partner. The trail, a paved bike path, unspooled into eternity and those stretches I swore were uphills on the way out somehow seemed to be tipped skyward again as we came back. A passerby wouldn’t have looked twice because we looked composed (or our faces froze that way). But if they looked behind my sunglasses, they would have seen everything they needed to: the struggle…and also the determination. I steeled myself for the next pick up and eased in. As subtly as the wind shifted directions, my stride opened up, and the chains that bound me before, slackened and dropped to the pavement altogether. The power returned to my legs, pistons churning me forward. I felt invincible. Why was this momentous? I was a different person when I returned to the car after that run than when I left it. I’d had the opportunity to know that I’d been through it and came out whole and stronger on the other side by gritting through the bad to get to the good. I could see the adaptations of my body as it absorbed the strain over the weeks, months, and years, and returned to the proving ground even stronger. You toast the PR but don’t stay happy for too long because, god-willing, there is always more. Spurred by a comment that a fellow runner left me last week, we can revisit the many incarnations of our running selves and in those evolutions, we can pull on that hope to know that we have it in us to continue ascending or pursuing that elusive horizon, wherever and whatever it may be. As I thawed out inside our foyer after my three sock run, unzipping my jacket to see frozen sweat fall to the floor, I thought about one of my favorite George Sheehan quotes, “Out on the roads there is fitness and self-discovery and the persons we were meant to be.” Finding out who that person is is as good a why as I can find right now.
  10. onthebusrunning

    On the bus...

    2:35. That’s the number in my head. Not long ago, it was 2:40. It used to be 2:50 and 3-flat, and 3:10, and even 4-flat at one point. But right now, it’s 2:35. I find myself square in the middle of that strange runner no man’s land. Somewhere in between the attainable Boston Qualifier and the unattainable (sadly) Olympic Marathon Trials Qualifier. What I have is the relentless pursuit of racing against two things: the unforgiving clock and myself. Racking up miles and wearing down shoes – and at times nerves – to shave off seconds per mile, while being trapped in a never-ending, mostly ascending spiral of train, race, repeat. I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s with this mindset that I let out from the house again. It’s the first really cold day. I have to swap shorts for tights, and the grass crunches with frost underfoot. The air feels deep and cold as it fills my lungs. I keep the pace light, still feeling out where my body is with the ghosts of my recent marathon still haunting my joints. But even still, it’s good to be back. The wind is sharp against my cheeks. My legs turn over and with them my thoughts from past results to future finish lines. Because as John L. Parker wrote, there will most certainly be “more trials and more miles.” My running friend and I like to talk about races as way points. They are stops along a journey – to where, neither of us are sure. Self-discovery? Self-destruction? Self-awareness? But so far, neither of us have allowed ourselves to be defined by one race as “the ultimate,” the period (or exclamation point) at the end of our running sentence. Instead, we’re stringing those sentences together into a novel where neither one of us knows the ending. So we run. We race. We evolve. We repeat. I spend the first half of the run retreading my last race, a 2:39 finish at the 2017 Richmond marathon. I piece together the shards (the below-average temperature, a 12-mile stitch, a back injury seven weeks out) that led me to fall short of the number in my head – 2:35 – knowing that sub-2:40 would have been fist- pump-worthy just a year ago (and unfathomable a decade ago) and now seems somehow…disappointing? The sky begins to lighten, pushing back the few lingering stars. The pace comes easy now and I’ve ironed out all the cricks. I break through the plume of breath that clouds in front of me on the exhale. I float up hills with the ease that comes without the burden of expectations. I flash past Margin Lane on the strip of neighborhood street where I usually run mile repeats. I reflexively think of my mental cue “edging back the margins” that normally comes at this sign, but my breath is hardly a whisper and the adrenaline doesn’t drop in, not this time. For now, I’m just running. I drift away for a moment to Parker again. This time it’s Again to Carthageand soon-to-be marathoner Quenton Cassidy and coach Bruce Denton are lying face down on the beach, enjoying the contrast between hot sand and cold, quivering muscles speckled with ocean water. After a moment of silence, Cassidy utters the line that is the namesake for this blog, “Whatever happens, I’m just happy to be on the bus running again.” The dawn breaks now and the clouds glow like campfire coals. I smile because it’s almost a little too poetic, this new beginning. I return to the house flushed from a good effort, another run in the books, another race behind me, another cycle begun. It’s officially on to the next way point, another chance to edge back the margins of whatever it is we’re after. In this case, for right now, the number in my head is 2:35. And in a little less than 15 weeks, I’ll be sitting on a big yellow school bus aimed toward Hopkinton and the mother of all start (and finish) lines. But there’s still plenty of time for all that. For now, I’m just happy to be on this bus again. I hope you’ll come with me.
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