At times it seems so easy. Just keep doing what I’ve been doing for almost 30 years. At other times is seems so hard. Just getting out the door. It’s an old refrain, nothing new. But, it is so unfamiliar it seems completely new.
This is the best thing and the very most hard.
I’ve heard it all before, the reasons, the excuses, the rationalizations. My mind can play wonderfully complex and intricate games. Time becomes amorphous. It stretches and shrinks to my will. At times there’s too much time. At other times there’s too little time. But, in the end it’s never about time. Time is the excuse. Time is the false facade.
Is it my motivation? Is it my desire? Aren’t motivation and desire just two sides of the same coin? Or is it my ability? Is it my strength? I’ve been thinking it’s really about the pain. Or more precisely, my lack of motivation to re-visit the pain. My lack of desire to embrace the pain.
When I started sports, back on the lower eastside of Manhattan, it was common knowledge that success was achieved by passing through the pain. Pain and success were partners. It seems, looking back over all these years, that the only way to achieve success, in anything, was to pass through the pain.
School was hard. The challenges were blunt. The information was put in front of me. I was expected to learn. There was no extra help, support groups, study aids. Here’s the information, learn it by next week. Oh, you’ll be tested on it.
Life was hard. Social groups were exclusionary. Contrasts were stark and never explained. Friends stuck together, through everything. If you weren’t in a group, you found another group or you were on your own.
Sports were harder. You made the cut or you were told to leave the gym or the field. Period. No second chances. No we’ll find someone to help you make the team. I couldn’t put the ball in the hoop. Coach told me to leave. My mind struggled with the failure. My dad played b-ball. He was good when he was in school. He was good when I was in school. That skill never got passed on to me.
I went to the wrestling room. Things were simpler there. I could control the results. I wrestled for 8 years. My parents never saw me wrestle. I played football for 4 years too. The only game my parents saw me play was the day I got kicked in the head an suffered a concussion and was taken to the hospital.
Walking down suicide alley … Standing in line by the exodus sign, suicide alley is waiting
Years later I took up running. Outwardly to loose weight. Inwardly to confront time. I lost a lot of weight. I used up even more time. It was all about time in the beginning. I had read the few books that existed on running then, and followed what they recommended. At the time I didn’t realize none of the books were written for beginners.
So, after a few months I enter my first race. I ran 5 and half mile race. It was small, maybe 50 people. I finished in 40 minutes (7:18 pace). I was both elated and deeply depressed. I was happy I finish. I was disappointed I didn’t win. The next day I ran my second race. This was a lot larger, 200 people. I was much further ahead of the last finisher, but I was slower – 37 minutes (7:24 pace). So, it went. I set very challenging goals, oblivious to the challenge they presented. Two weeks later I ran my third race, another 5 miler. I don’t remember much about that race, except it was hard. I remember feeling pains that I never imagined before! Everything hurt, and I hadn’t even reached the finish line! I finished that race in just under 35 minutes.
Living on the inside of our happiness
The next dozen races were all the same. Until February, when I ran a 20 miler in Central Park. I remember the last loop of that race very clearly. I passed Nina Kuscsik, who had won the 1972, 1973 and the Boston Marathon in 1972. As I ran past Nina, whom I had met after some of the NYRRC races, I knew that the marathon I was going to run that May would be fast. But, I was only running 20 miles that day, 21.5 miles a couple of weeks later.
Years later I struggle again. Will I, can I? It comes back to the same struggle I battle with in the beginning. But, in 1978 things were simpler. I was younger. My vision was narrower. The things that brought satisfaction to my life were fewer and simpler.
Wish I’d never met you …
For the past 30 years, running and endurance sports have shaped my life. The race has defined me as much as any other thing in my life. The miles I’ve covered have revealed who I really am, what I’m all about. As I walk out the door, from the first day to today, I change. My mind starts a loop film. A clip that I’ve seen and heard countless times over these years. It’s not very long, but it never ends. And the answer is never the same, never different. It always ends with a question. Always ends with the same question. Was that the best you could do? Was that everything you have?
Whether I’m jogging to the park to coach a run workout, spinning through the streets with Sweet Julie to do some miles on the bike, getting in the pool and following that black line on the bottom, it doesn’t’ matter. Whether I’m going easy or going hard. Whether I’m training or coaching or racing. The loop that plays has different scenes, different sounds, but the questions always are the same. No matter how many times I answer that question, it still remains.
Will it ever finally be answered?
Lay down your burden of your heart …It’s a fine, fine line between love and hate …
I wonder these days. I wonder if I’ll find the answer. I wonder if I’ll find the desire, or more to the point will I be able to hold on to the desire?
Will I find the path back to the pain. That place I’ve visited so often. It’s like a moving you can’t pull yourself away from. It doesn’t bring you pleasure or enjoyment. You cringe when the light on the screen begins to flicker and the speakers crackle. You know each scene and each line in the script. You may not be able to recite the script without prompting. But as the script begins it becomes all too familiar. You know what’s in store, you know the outcome. There are very few surprises.
I’ve been there often. My chest tightens. My heart begins to race. My breathing gets rapid. Sounds from the world around me disappear. My vision narrows, I’m only able to see what is absolutely necessary to see, in order to get through this scene and on to the next scene.
We’re all in the same boat, ready to float on the edge of the world … Life is a carnival … take another look
It hurts. It hurts a lot. I can only question if I want to go there, before it begins. Once it starts, once I’ve taken that first step there’s no turning back, there are no questions that need to be answered. I’m on the road. There’s no turning back. I’ve entered that room full of pain.
The only question is when it’s over. After I’ve completed what I set out to do – workout, race, coaching – then the question comes. Always that same question.
Like a bridge over troubled waters, I will lay me down …
In the beginning I never thought about that question before I started. I assumed I knew the answer. Every time I went out the door. Every time I put on the running shoes, pinned on a number I new the answer to that enduring question.
At least I thought I knew the answer. Now, these days, I’m not so sure. No, I’m not questioning what I did or didn’t do in the past. I’m questioning what I’m able to, willing to, capable of doing right now. Today and tomorrow. Looking back I can’t find an instance and occasion where I turned away from the challenge or from the pain. I seemed to embrace the pain. Maybe it was an addiction. I can imagine that others saw me that way – addicted to the pain.
But now, I’m not sure.
Well, your picture has faded. It hangs up on the wall. You’ve been gone so long I can’t see your face at all.
I know that when Sweet Julie and I ride in the park I feel the sparks, the drive. Sure, it’s a lot harder to get to that place, the clip still plays in my head. It always ends with the same question. But, things don’t always get shut out as completely. I’ve been to the well too often? I know all too well what’s coming, what’s going to happen, how it’s going to feel and how it’s going to end.
So, Sweet Julie and I are riding around the park. We’ve covered 20 miles or so. I rode early in the morning coaching a woman. I’m tired. I’m not fully recovered from Sunday’s race. Sweet Julie’s fast, frighteningly fast. She says “one more loop?” I respond, only if we go easy. “Sure” she replies. I take the bait. And the hook. And the line!
The north hill – Harlem Hill is my nemesis, I hate it. It hurts more than any other section of the park. It lasts longer than any other hill in the park. It’s steeper than any other hill in the park.
A friend trained for the French Alps by riding Harlem Hill. He’d do 12 loops of that damn hill. He claims it’s the only reason he survived in France. As I struggle up Harlem Hill for the fifth time I think of him. I stand for the last 200 meters. Sweet Julie’s waiting at the top of Harlem Hill, as she always does. I gasp – “Okay” and we take off down the back of Harlem Hill. I open my mouth and the air rushes in – at 27 miles per hour!
I’m in my big chain ring and small cog. There’s a small hill after you reach the bottom of Harlem Hill on the Westside. I work at keeping my cadence up, then I stand and push up that next hill. Sweet Julie is alongside me.
Down we spin and up into the next hill. Not as steep, but longer than the last. A Parks Department truck pulls along side and I stand and push. Damn truck! Sweet Julie’s spinning along side me. The truck pulls onto the exit and we continue down a short hill.
Two cyclists are ahead, half way up the next hill. A stupid thought enters my mind. That clip is still playing. Exactly on cue I shift and stand and chase them down. Again, Sweet Julie is along side, seated and spinning.
The long down hill towards Strawberry Fields is a relief. Or is it? Again, I shift into B/12 and start to push. Sweet Julie swings to the right side of the road, I’m on the left. I get into the drops and we hit 30 mph. I don’t shift and climb the hill to Tavern on The Green. (hold on, we’re getting there!)
We spin around the south end of the park, past the Summer Stage and head into Cat Hill. I’m surprised when I don’t shift out of my big gears, stand and start up Cat Hill. Briefly I think – “What are you thinking?” then I push the thought out of my head and check the gap. Can I get to the top before Sweet Julie does? What’s it going to cost me? Will I fall over?
Those questions never got answered, I didn’t have time to wait for an answer. I had to get to the top.
When it’s over. All those books upon the shelf, did they teach you how to cure yourself?
Sweet Julie pulls alongside me and we both sigh. “I’m exhausted” I say. She agrees – she’s exhausted too.
If you didn’t pay close attention. I mean really close attention. You’d miss the very subtle acceleration that was occurring at that point. Neither of us shifted, but we were very subtly accelerating.
You see, there’s a line on the road. It’s left over from the CRCA cycle race that weekend. It’s directly behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There’s a very slight rise leading to the line, and beyond. It you miss time it, you’ll fade. You’ll fade badly.
I drift a little to the left, Sweet Julie’s on the right. CLICK! JUMP! Out of the corner of my eye I’m searching for her. I’m listening for a responsive CLICK. There it is, CLICK! I don’t even ask the question. If it’s not there, it doesn’t matter. If I ask the question, it will be too late. I push for 10 more rpm. I see a tire to my right. Just the leading edge. All of a sudden the 10 rpm comes. Then the line comes.
Then the laughter! And the gasps for air. And more laughter.
And a statement/question – “I thought you were beat!?”
An easy spin past the museum and down the straight away to the 90th Street exit from the park.
But, there it is again. That ever so subtle acceleration. Then, the give away “CLICK” she’s off. “CLICK” stand and pray. I’m along side, but can’t pull even. More rpm, but I’m not gaining. I’m not losing, but I’m not gaining. More rpm? Nope, that’s it. There is no more. Down to the drops and hold on.
We reach the exit, turn off the park drive and stop. Gasping, laughing. “You’re so fast!” Sweet Julie tells me. “I couldn’t catch you.” I reply. “You stayed with me.” Sweet Julie says. Forearms on our handle bars, heads dropped forward. It’s over.
That question come into my head. Was that all you had? Did you give everything you had?
I’m surprised at my answer – “nope, there’s a bit more there!” Now, I just have to find it!
Shawn Colvin, Steady On – Shotgun Down The Avalanche
Shawn Colvin, A Few Small Repairs – Suicide Alley
Michael Franks, Tiger in The Rain – Living on The Inside
The Rolling Stones, Rarities 1971-2003 – Wish I’d Never Met You
Mary Black, The Holy Ground 1993 – Lay Down Your Burden
The Band, The Last Waltz (Live) – Life is a Carnival
Paul Simon, Concert In The Park – Bridge Over Troubled Water
Geoff Muldaur, The Secret Handshake – I Can’t See Your Face