Monday, April 27, 2009

Why Heads Must Roll Over Monday's "Photo Op" Over Lower Manhattan

On Monday morning, residents and office workers in lower Manhattan and Jersey City got quite a shock. What appeared to be a large commercial jet was flying very low over the Statute of Liberty, and then circling close over the Goldman Sachs Tower in Jersey City. Close in pursuit was a military jet. Millions watched in horror, anticipating the third terrorist attack on lower Manhattan in 16 years.

Fortunately, it was merely a "photo opportunity" - Air Force One flying over the Statue of Liberty to create mementos for President Obama to give to guests.

While some authorities in NY and NJ were given advance notice of this photo op, they were also told to keep it close to the vest, as the mission was "classified." Only local authorities with a "need to know" were to be told. Apparently Mayor Bloomberg did not make the cut.

Why was this mission "classified" ? The mission was not military in nature; it was a purely political stunt. And therein lies the answer. What was the sensitive information that needed to be kept from public scrutiny ? The fact that the Obama administration had authorized a mission at great expense to taxpayers and the environment for a "photo op."

Just last week President Obama ceremoniously demanded that his cabinet cut $100 million per year in expense, and of course has generated a lot of goodwill with his environmental policies. Now it is headline news that his administration sent out a 747 and a fighter jet from Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland to circle around New York City to make gift cards. And I bet they didn't even purchase carbon offsets. The "Top Secret" classification is suddenly quite understandable.

And of course the colossal waste of taxpayer money and the harm to environment pale in comparison to the great damage done to the psyches of those who witnessed it. How did anyone imagine they might react ?

The New York Daily News reported the reactions of two people in lower Manhattan that explains it better than I ever could:

"I was crying and praying to God to forgive me my sins because I thought I was going to get killed," said Kathleen Filandro, who fled from 1 New York Plaza when she spotted the planes.

"It's like someone coming up to you, sticking a gun to your head for 15 seconds, walking away and hearing 20 minutes later it was an undercover cop posing for a photo," said Wall Street worker Bill Privett.

For many, it was like having a gun to your head for 30 minutes, 8 years after you had another gun to your head for several hours, while you watched 3,000 people get shot in the head.

The entire incident shows a stunning lack of judgment that cannot be dismissed. Has no one in the White House been introduced to the concept of writing a list of pros and cons and weighing them before approving an action? Or, as one wry commenter put it, haven't these guys heard of photoshop?

Last year, I wrote a post about missteps by Facebook (which continue to this day), where I quoted an essay by Judge Joseph McLaughlin, of the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals and former Dean of Fordham Law School. He wrote that he long ago learned that "the world pays off on judgment - not brilliance, knowledge, and not experience or compassion either, though a fair portion of all of these is essential to the exercise of good judgment."

In a single, precise word, Judge McLaughlin had captured why many brilliant people fail; they have bad judgment. I vowed to use this word to focus my thinking in all future critical situations. This vow was cemented a few days later when I read a WSJ article about the sacking of a CEO of Coca Cola; a board member discussed a situation that the CEO handled very poorly, and said that the Board help a CEO overcome a deficiency in skills, but what the CEO did showed bad judgment.

The decision to go ahead with today's photo op, and to limit advance disclosure of it, evinces a stunning display of poor judgment, and a reckless disregard for the people of New York and New Jersey. Anyone who participated in, and approved this decision, is beyond salvage and should be removed from the administration.

Fortunately, some good did come out of this incident. In light of the reaction to two planes buzzing New York yesterday, a planned mission to have two plans buzz Washington DC in two weeks has been canceled. Maybe there is some hope after all.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Running the Boston Marathon: Days Like These Are a Great Gift

For someone who began running in the 1970s, the Boston Marathon is the pinnacle of sport. It has been run since 1897, and was the only marathon of consequence until the NYC Marathon came of age in the late 1970s. And so every runner dreams of running the Boston Marathon once. But the qualifying standards are high, and for most runners it remains but a dream. However, when the race began to offer spots for runners who raise money for designated charities, I jumped at the chance, joining the Habitat for Humanity team.

The weather was ideal, in the 40s and cloudy. As my brother Matt drove me to the start in Hopkinton, I was more full of anticipation than I have ever been for a race. I met up with my Habitat teammates, who are as fine a group of people as you will ever meet, and shared mutual encouragement and then went to the starting line.

I ran with Brett Holey, director of NBC Nightly News. He is a veteran marathoner who has run some remarkable times, but his training was slowed by injuries. He was thrilled to have recovered enough to run, and was merely looking to finish. We ran a 21 mile practice run together 3 weeks earlier, and I mentioned my hope of running under 4 hours, which would be 18 minutes better than my previous record and nearly an hour faster than my best NYC Marathon 18 months ago. At dinner the night before the race, Brett offered to be my "rabbit," keeping me on pace to break 4:00, regardless of the effect it would have on his race. You don't meet many people like Brett.

We started at the rear, and it was extremely crowded for 3 miles. We hoped to run 8:20 for these downhill miles, but ran closer to 9:20. Brett's "zen like state" calmed me, where if I were alone I may have fought the situation, burning a lot of energy for little gain. The road finally opened up, and we picked up the pace. As congestion eased further and our legs loosened, I felt like a bird who had escaped the cage, and we accelerated from miles 6 to 11. I was running faster than I imagined I would, but the miles went by easy, so much so that I missed some of the mile markers.

After mile 12, we began to hear the thunderous roar of the Wellesley College "scream tunnel." It reminded me of approaching Niagara Falls; it was stunning to hear how loud it was from so far away. We hit the half on target, at 1:54, and I began to think a 3:55 finish was assured. Brett said I should feel no obligation to stay with him, and at mile 16 I told him I was going to take the downhill hard, and he fell a little behind me (happily, I later learned he finished very well). I sailed past Mile 17 and up the 2nd biggest hill on the course. I got to the top in good shape, and my confidence soared. But as I hit the next two smaller hills, they took far more out of me than I had expected. I realized that in fifth marathon, I had begun to take it for granted and had not carefully thought through my food and fluid intake. Adding in my zeal to overcome the slow start, I had not hydrated enough, had eaten nothing, and had very suddenly become weak, nauseous, dizzy and was cramping badly in my left leg. And this was at the bottom of Heartbreak Hill ! I had hit The Wall before, but never so suddenly, where in a half mile stretch I went from thinking a 3:55 finish was assured to wondering if I could even finish the last 6.2 miles.

Realizing I had no other means of transport, I walked quickly up the hill, inhaling every orange slice, pretzel, gummy bear and cup of water offered by the angels of mercy in the crowd. This strengthened me some, and the task ahead seemed easier at the top of the hill than it had at the bottom. I realized I could still break 4:00 if I could maintain a 9:35 pace, and this seemed achievable, given that I had run faster than 9:00 for 18 miles in a row. I gave it all I had for the next mile, but ran it in 10:00; I pressed even harder to mile 23, but again hit the marker in 10:00. I realized the cramping in my left leg and the resultant lack of fluidity was slowing me measurably. I realized that even if I could maintain the 10:00 pace, I would finish in 4:02, which would cause me to spend months analyzing how I could have gone 2 minutes faster. So I went into "safe mode," running moderately from mile marker to mile marker and walking through the water stations. Around the 24.5 mile mark, I suddenly felt compelled to stop. I walked a few yards trying to figure out what was wrong and finally concluded, like Forrest Gump eventually did, that I simply didn't want to run any more. But I had 1.7 miles to go, and put one foot in front of the other and repeated, and staggered to the finish line. My time was 4:04:58, disappointing considering how great I felt at Mile 19. And yet it was 13 minutes faster than prior best last November, and a lot better than I feared as I stood weak, dizzy and nauseous at Mile 20.

And then they hung around my neck a blue and gold medal that signified I had completed the Boston Marathon, which I had been dreaming about for 30 years. I realized that days like these are a great gift that should be cherished, with no energy squandered on rethinking what went wrong and slowed you for a few minutes.

And a smile came across my face that hasn't left since.

Well, except for when I walk down stairs.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Twenty, twenty, twenty four hours to go to the Boston Marathon

And yes, I wanna be sedated, before I go loco. The last weeks before a marathon are maddening. After 4 months in heavy training; you downshift, rest 2x a week and cut workouts back in intensity and duration. This is my 5th marathon, so I understand why, and yet I fret that the inactivity will haunt me in the race, even though my experience says it won't. Part of the anxiety stems from the fact that heavy training puts you in a steady zen state, and as you cut back, you come down off a high. And I want to start the race NOW, prove to myself I'm still fit enough, and get back that high. I feel good about my training and am hopeful for a good race, perhaps breaking four hours. This won't put me on any "top 100 finishers" list but would be a feat for me. As I wrote earlier this year, I ran around 5 hours in my first three marathons between 2004-07, and then decided to get more serious about my training. I added a boxing class to my routine, lost a lot of weight, and improved 35 minutes in the Philadelphia Marathon last November. I have continued to lose weight, add muscle, and run faster during my training runs, and any meaningful further improvement will be enough for me. Surprisingly, after training for two marathons 5 months apart, I am not broken down at all - physically I feel great, and mentally I'm even better - I'm actually thinking as much about future races as tomorrow's, and I know I can continue to improve a lot from here. I've benefited from participating on a charity fundraising team for Habitat for Humanity, one of my favorite causes, for which we are raising funds to buy foreclosed homes, rehabilitate them, and sell them on an affordable basis to first time buyers, thereby turning around entire neighborhoods. Though most of my teammates are from the Boston area, we've been emailing each other for four months and I met about half of them during a 21-mile practice run on the course last month, and we've supported each other quite a bit. Having a support network like this is crucial to the success of any ambitious training program.