Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Why We Do What We Do

Our On This Day today features the story of Roberto Clemente (click here). He had a Baseball Hall of Fame career for the Pittsburgh Pirates, highlighted by his remarkable MVP-earning heroics in the first World Series ever played at night in 1971. And he was just as solid on the social front, being active in so many causes in his native Puerto Rico, his adopted home city of Pittsburgh, and elsewhere in the world. So it was no surprise that Clemente chose to celebrate New Year's Eve in 1972 by collecting relief supplies for victims of an earthquake in Nicaragua and flying on the plane that was delivering them. Tragically, this gesture resulted in this noble figure being taken from us way too early, as the plane crashed on takeoff. My young son wears a t-shirt with Clemente's name and number on it; grown men stop him in the street with tears in their eyes as they speak admiringly of Clemente. I sent the story around to a slew of friends today; a few wrote back to say they remembered exactly where they were when they heard the news. And yet several wrote back "great article, funny, I had never heard of him." With most current articles about our top athletes decidedly negative, we need to keep alive the memory of athletes such as Roberto Clemente, who had a mission in life that did not end when he crossed home plate.

In the vein of keeping stories alive, FindingDulcinea also presents today the Ten Stories that Defined 2008.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Michael Phelps: Where's the encore ?

To the surprise of no one, Michael Phelps was named the 2008 Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year. Sports Illustrated has taken varied approaches to its selections. Sometimes the award is more of a "lifetime achievement award" - it goes to someone who surely was considered multiple times and wins it as a crowning achievement; Brett Favre, Cal Ripken, John Wooden and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar are in this category. And then there are those who are chosen more for their impact off the playing field; 1987's "Athletes Who Care," Arthur Ashe and Billie Jean King come to mind. And often, as this year, the award goes to a young athlete who does something truly extraordinary in a single year; Phelps, Dwayne Wade, Steve Cauthen, and the first winner, Roger Bannister are in this category. What is impressive is how many of the winners go on to lead impactful lives after their playing days are over. So this week, while we dutifully published yet another bio piece about Michael Phelps, we also presented articles about four former winners whose post-athletic achievements were at least as amazing as their athletic feats. Rafer Johnson was the world's greatest athlete, winning the Olympic Decathlon in Rome in 1960, but, as our article reports, he has trumped that with many decades of involvement in global youth groups. Peter Ueberroth once said "If you made a list of the ten top role models for young men in America, I don’t know who the other nine would be, but Rafer would be one of them." Then there is our article on Arthur Ashe, who helped end apartheid in South Africa; he spoke of his own life in these words: “True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost.” We also wrote about running legend Kip Keino, whose foundation has created the Kenyan long distance running dynasty but also supports a school and orphanage; and we wrote about Roger Bannister, who, not content to merely be the first human to break a four minute mile, went on to become a highly regarded neurologist. For now, Michael Phelps is known for swimming faster than any man ever has, and a 13,000 calorie a day diet. Let's hope he follows in the footsteps of these remarkable men to one day be known for so much more.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Finding Renewable Energy at Mile 13

I have written about how contagious running marathons can be, and how I improved dramatically in my fourth try by incorporating cardio boxing into my training. Now let me tell you about how an inexplicable, overwhelming surge of energy at the halfway point propelled me to my goal.

My goal was 4:24, a PR by 30 minutes. In my first three marathons, I ran the first half in about 2:17, but the 2nd half took 20-35 minutes longer, as my legs cramped badly and lost much of their function. In running parlance, I am a “Clydesdale,” a person blessed and cursed with a large frame, a head the size of Neptune and thick, dense legs. The legs would be great for pulling a hay wagon, but quizzically ask, “are you kidding me ?” when I implore them into a 21st mile.

For this race, I was very confident I could easily run the first half in under 2:04, and hoped that 2:20 would somehow be attainable for the second. It would all depend on how long into the second half I could maintain a decent pace, and how badly I would slow once my legs started to fail me.

My running partner and I ran the first three miles at a 9:17 pace, right on track. She then struggled through a race day injury. We slowed to a 9:50 pace for the next 3 miles to see if she could shrug it off, but she stopped to stretch and urged me to go ahead. I tried to revert to the faster pace, but struggled to do so, and mile after mile, another 9:50 had elapsed. My legs grew heavy, and my energy began to fade, much earlier than I had expected. As I struggled up a hill in mile 9, I began to ponder what had gone wrong, and to re-adjust my expectations. Where I hoped to glide the first half in 2:04, 2:07 had become likely, and I was much more tired than I expected. 4:30 became my Maginot line, and a tenuous one at that.

I looked down at the face of my late brother, James, on my t-shirt, and muttered “I’ll need you in the second half,” and then prepared to dodge ice on the road at the next water stop.

When I was struggling through long runs for my first marathon in 2004, I called James to encourage him through the difficult physical therapy he was enduring to learn to walk again after a stroke, caused by a staph infection. “I know it hurts,” I said, “but when it hurts the most is when it’s most important that you push on.” As I hung up the phone, I asked myself, “were you talking to him, or you ?” A few months later, I finished the marathon, and the most treasured memory of it is when James called to tell me how proud he was of me. After he passed away, I got three other brothers into running marathons, and it is a family tradition to wear James’ face on the front of our t-shirt.

I then began to push hard in Mile 10 to avoid slipping even further behind my first half goal. As I approached the halfway mark, I was thankful the split would at least be under 2:07, but I looked ruefully towards the second half.

I’ve been running for 32 years, covering an estimated 25,000 miles. Many times, a run that started badly got much better as my legs loosened up, I found a reserve I didn’t know I had, or I just got “locked in” mentally. Innumerable times I’ve experienced “runner’s high,” which is an all-encompassing, serene feeling in which you hardly feel your feet touching the ground, all pain disappears for awhile, and you feel you can fly.

But what I felt as I crossed the halfway mark was so much more than that.

It was a dramatic surge of energy, consequent confidence and other emotions, and focus. You know when the Grinch decides to return the toys to the Whos down in Whoville, instead of tossing them off a cliff ? He gains the strength of ten Grinches – plus two. It was that transformative. Or when the five o’clock Calvin asked the six o’clock Calvin to do his homework for him, so it would be done for him when it became seven o’clock ? Yes, it was as though I had handed a baton to a fresh teammate to run the second half, and all I had to do was show up at the finish to celebrate. I was startled to feel tears streaming down my face. I posited that I was exhausted from a 4 a.m. wake-up call, cold, wet, and hungry, and my emotions were on edge after a difficult few weeks. But that didn’t quite answer it. Because these were tears of joy. I suddenly knew, with ironclad certainty, that I would continue to run 9:50 miles far longer than I had ever dreamed possible, and certainly a lot longer than seemed realistic as I trudged up that hill a few miles back.

A half-mile up the road, I saw my family. My wife, who was being emailed my splits, excitedly told me how well I was doing. Even though there were 12 miles left, I declared confidently in response, “I’m going to make it, I’m going to shatter my goal.” At mile 15, my legs began to cramp, and I thought, “this is where you slow down, try to stay under 10:30.” But 15 seconds later, a voice on my other shoulder said “no, this is where you reach down, and run just as fast, even though it hurts more.” And the next three miles were my fastest of the day, other than the start of the race. As I approached mile 19, I wondered how long this burst would last. And then I realized the energy was renewable, and understood the tears.

You see, the energy emanated from the seven words I muttered to James in mile 9.

On four previous occasions, I have felt an unmistakable other-wordly intervention in my life. All four related to a loved one who faced grave physical peril. I prayed to deceased love ones, and received an overwhelming feeling of assurance that the crisis would pass, and in each case it did. Because of this, I reserve my prayers for serious situations, and never pray for personal success or material gain, and had not done so on this day. I merely advised my brother that a little company on the back 13 would be appreciated. And it had been delivered in spades.

Where the year before I was running a 12 minute pace at this stage, I glided through mile 19 in 9:45; mile 20 went in 9:55; mile 21 in 9:40. I began to feel twitches throughout my legs, and, well ahead of my goal, purposely slowed and ran the next three miles in 10:30 each. I sped back up for a triumphant final mile, finishing the race in 4:18, an improvement of 35 minutes over my all-time best, and about 12 minutes faster than I hoped to run while struggling through mile 9. As Leonardo Da Vinci once said, "Oh Lord, thou giveth us everything, at the price of an effort."

So how do I follow up a race like that ? I'm planning to run the Boston Marathon in April. And gunning for yet another 35-minute improvement.

But this time, I’ll talk to James before the start.