Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Light--Bright and Sterile or Warm and Glowing

This is the thirteenth entry in my Beyond Boylston writing cycle (12 truly after Boylston and one about my bib number that was written before I had the opportunity to run down Boylston street but that has an important connection to my running the Boston Marathon and moving past the experience nonetheless.  Thus, it is half way.  Half way through a race I sometimes think of it as being able to see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.  Although I tend to use that metaphor mostly when the race is an out and back type of loop which the Boston Marathon definitely is not.

But light is also one of the key remaining elements in the tattoo that Emily created last year.  Specifically, the modern St. Sebastian is chained to a lamppost under a light at nine at night.  In almost all of the medieval and renaissance artwork depicting St. Sebastian he is tied to a tree in a loin cloth and full of arrows.  In my tattoo he has just two arrows and he is in the modern equivalent of being tied to a tree.

What does the light do?  On the one hand we could interpret the light as drawing attention to the one who has been shot with arrows.  If we think about punishment throughout the ages, sometimes the punishment is hidden so that no one knows exactly what is going on.  At other times the punishment is clear and out in the open--under the lights so to speak--to draw attention to what is going on.  To make an example of what is going on.  Jesus having to carry the cross to where he was crucified. The crucifixion being carried out in a place where so many could see.  St. Sebastian depicted as being shot by archers and left to die in a place where he would be noticed.  All of these are a negative use of something I usually think of in a positive way.

No matter what the true motivation of the two men who stand accused of the bombing at the Boston Marathon they chose the finish line on the beautiful sunshiny day to draw attention.  So, once again, I feel torn by the symbol that is represented in my tattoo and a symbol that I associate with the marathon experience.  People trying to draw attention to a very negative outcome.

However, the light in my tattoo was also helpful for Irene to find St. Sebastian to rescue him.  And while there may be negative interpretations of a light being shined to draw attention to a negative, the most association with light in my mind is with a positive.  Specifically, I think of light as a symbol of hope.  A symbol of goodness.  Perhaps there is an important distinction between a bright white sterile light that is only intended to show a harsh reality and the warm glow of a light intended to guide, to warm, and to provide hopefulness.

The Boston Marathon should be a sign of hopefulness.  It captures the human spirit trying to achieve a goal.  It is the end of a time of striving for so many.  Striving before the race to qualify and to get there and striving on the day of the race to go from Hopkinton to Boylston Street.

Beyond that it is amazing to think of how many people are involved.  Not just the 27,000 runners who are registered.  Not just the 20,000+ who actually started the race.  But also the 8,500 volunteers.  At least that is the number that I recall being quoted at some point either at the expo, at the runner's dinner on Sunday night, or at the start of the race.

Why do I associate volunteers with light? Well, we can go back to George H. W. Bush's comment about the thousand points of light.  He was referring to volunteers.  Now, he was probably referring to volunteers going overseas doing missionary work or working with inner city schools or cleaning up the waterways.  

I don't think that George H. W. Bush was referring to volunteers for the Boston Marathon.  Although perhaps he was.  The fact of the matter is that the experience would be something entirely different without that many volunteers.  That is a ratio of approximate one volunteer for every three runners.  In some ways that seems crazy.  But volunteers are needed throughout the entire process.  Setting up the expo.  Guiding runners at the expo.  Handing out bib numbers.  Handing out t-shirts.  Setting up the dinner for racers on Sunday.  Managing the line for the dinner on Sunday.  Handing out food at the dinner.  Dealing with waste disposal at the dinner.  Handing out goodie bags at the end of the dinner.  Cleaning up after dinner.  Making sure racers know where to get on the buses to Hopkinton on Monday.  Guiding racers once at Hopkinton.  Handing out goodies at Hopkinton.  Taking runners' bags and putting them on school buses.  Getting runners to the start.  Handing out water and nutrition along the race course.  Medics.  Greeting runners at the finish line.  Handing out water and blankets and medals and goodie bags.  Handing runners' checked bags back.

Not just one thousand points of light.  But over 8,000 points of light.  Maybe some of them have run it before.  Maybe some of them just like supporting others.  The key is that it is an incredibly demonstration of people helping others to achieve a dream.  To check an important item off the bucket list.  It is the best example of what a positive and warm light can mean with respect to the race.  It is a wonderful example of how positive the experience of the Boston Marathon can be for so many on a day when it is not marred by the ugliness of hate with all the media spotlight that it attracted.

Thus, as I finish the half-way entry, I notice a theme that comes up over and over again.  Almost everything can be used for good or for evil.  To help or to harm.  To guide or to destroy.  Light is no different--as depicted in the artwork of my tattoo that I carry with me forever or as in the reality of the situation in Boston.  It is for each of us to choose how to use each thing in life--for good or evil.  And when someone chooses to use something that is intended for good instead for evil to resist the temptation to wallow.  To struggle with figuring out why.  To struggle to move ahead.  And to answer with a resoundingly positive "yes, I can make it better and use it for good" rather than just letting it go.  

My City's Skyline

On Saturday morning when I ran approximately 14 miles, it included a lap around the lake in Druid Hill Park.  I don't always carry my cell phone with me--I certainly didn't when I ran the Boston Marathon--but, that day, I did.  I don't often stop while I am running--I didn't when I ran in the Boston Marathon--but, that day, I did.  And when I do stop it is not often to take pictures, but, the day, I did.  The pictures included the tower in Druid Hill Park and the city skyline in the background in at least one.

This is just one view of the city skyline.  There are others.  The view in the tattoo on my leg is a view looked west along Lexington Street in the mid-1930's.  It was adapted from a photograph in the book, Baltimore Then and Now that the tattoo artist with whom I worked, Emily Sloman, used to help to develop the tattoo image.

Why is this important?  Running the Boston Marathon gives the runner a chance to see many small towns leading up to Boston and to see some of the skyline in Boston in the final approach to the city. Once on Boylston Street, the runner is actually not there for terribly long and is surrounded by tall buildings approaching the finish line.

The images from April 15 that were on television that will be forever remembered are the images right at the finish line that really don't show any of the skyline at all.  And when people hear the names of businesses from which the security cameras took pictures, people can develop a mental image of the business and shopping area.

Since I have returned to Baltimore, I have run almost exclusively in the city with a few of my runs going into the part of Baltimore county that is closest to my home as I run in a large loop. The key here is that regardless of the choice of course (all in the city or partially in the county) they are all familiar.  And that familiarity gives me comfort.  It is a familiarity that lets me say, here is a course I know.  Here is a course I understand.  Here is a course on which I am intimately familiar with the risks.  And the biggest risk I have on most of the courses is twisting my ankle in a pothole and not any sort of terrorist event.  Running places that I know gives me a sense of security.

The security comes, at this point, from referring to Baltimore as "my city".  When we moved here back in 1996, I am not sure that I ever envisioned calling Baltimore my city.  I had spent all my years growing up just outside of Philadelphia thinking of Upper Darby as my home town.  I had watched the evolution of the city's skyline.  But when I went to get the tattoo and had my first conversation with Emily, she asked what I wanted for the background.  She asked where my parents were from--thinking perhaps that they may have been first generation immigrants and that we could end up with a European skyline.  I assured her that my parents were not first generation.  She asked where I was from and I thought about a Philadelphia skyline.  It certainly would have been interesting to think about Independence Hall or William Penn atop City Hall in Philadelphia.  But I focused on Baltimore as the city in which my spirituality (which led me to the tattoo in the first place) had matured.  It is "my city" more than any other city.

What I had not realized at the time but is so important to me now is that Baltimore is not only the city in which my spirituality matured, it is also the city in which my running matured.  It is the city with which I identify my running.  Yes, I have raced in Philadelphia and Sydney, Australia.  Yes, I have runs that I remember from workouts in Chicago and San Francisco.  But, ultimately, Baltimore is home.  And the skyline that Emily portrayed in sepia tones is a wonderful reminder of all that the city and my part in it has meant in my life for almost 17 years now.

While the lake in Druid Hill Park is not the only lake in the city (there is also Lake Montelbello which is also a beautiful silver grey just before sunrise), it is the lake that to me is the most interesting.  The shape of the land around the lake allows a runner to feel a sense of accomplishment from running uphill to reach the side of the lake near the tower.  This is totally different from Montebello where the circle around the lake is pretty flat.  Flat in terms of no rise in elevation although most of the course is titled so that the inside is lower than the outside when running around.

Reaching the top of the hill (albeit a small hill) near the tower, as I said, gives a sense of accomplishment.  Combine that with overlooking the downtown skyline and it is really powerful for me.  Obviously, I cannot see the entire city from there, but when I reach that point, I can say, "Here is where I live.  Here is where I am.  Here is the place I call home."  Taking that forward gives me hope and contentment.  Taking that forward makes me feel like life and running is under control.  Taking that forward points the way to feeling whole in a way that was robbed from me for some time after the Boston Marathon.  Despite finishing.  Despite no injuries to myself.  Despite the fact that I know there were over 200 injuries, 3 deaths, and a town locked down for a day at the end of the week of the marathon and those involved were all worse off than I was, I still felt robbed of all the contentment, security, comfort, and hope that I now have regained for the most part.  And part of regaining it is visiting the same places that I have visited before.  Over and over again.  Noticing the little things.  And feeling the sense of healing that the bring.  

Monday, April 29, 2013

More Strong Women--My Training Partners

This is the fourth day on which I will discuss my tattoo with respect to my experience in and around the Boston Marathon.  Yesterday I spoke about the most important strong woman in my life--my wife.  There are many other strong women in my life--personal and professional. However, when it comes to running, one of the most important groups of strong women is the group of women with whom I train.

It is funny that I never really thought of running as a place to meet a lot of women when I was in high school.  But, the simple fact of the matter is that in my circle of running friends (and at least on  Facebook running friends account for one of every six people on my list), women are a majority.  And among the people I run with most often, women are the dominant majority.

In Back on My Feet, Team Christopher's Place supports gentleman in a work training program.  But most of the non-resident runners who come from the community to run with the guys are women.  And while none of the women from Team CP is one of my most frequent training partners, it is definitely the case that much of the team leadership has been female and those women definitely have shared their energy and enthusiasm for running with the entire team to make running a better experience for all concerned.

But it is not only the women in Back on My Feet who have made a difference.  I can count five women in particular who represent important aspects of my training experience.  They represent how running is an egalitarian sport.  Everyone faces the same course.  Everyone faces the same rules.  Everyone faces the same objective--get to the finish line as quickly as possible given the condition you are in.

The first of the women I will mention is the one with whom I formed a two-person marathon relay team.  She and I called our team "Who's the Mentor?"  The question in this case reflects the fact that I have served as a professional mentor, she has served as a running mentor, and together we have taken each of these issues into other parts of our lives.  In the weekend before the marathon we shared emails in which I credited her for her ability to share her enthusiasm and bring others to do things and she credited me with helping to motivate her and see her through her academic program and then challenged me to strive for greatness at Boston.  Not greatness in the sense of winning against all others but in the sense of being all that I could do.  I think I rose to that challenge on April 15.  Most days when we train together she runs ahead or at least sounds like she is not working as hard based on her steps and her breathing but there are days when I run ahead.  She is an excellent runner and clearly the better runner of the two of us but she is human.  And the strength with the humanity makes clear just how egalitarian running is.  On any given day either one of us might run ahead--although at the end of the day, she has the better personal best times.  She is a leader.  She has run Boston, but not this year.

The second woman who is a consistent training partner is a fellow employee at Johns Hopkins.  She has times that are just about as good as or better than mine at most distances but she points out that her times have been getting worse while mine have been getting better.  I am not entirely sure about that but it is an interesting juxtaposition.  I usually run ahead on the track.  She easily keeps on the occasional long run.  We have never run a race together.   We ponder whether running a race together might help each of us to get a better time.  She has run Boston, but not this year.  While she did not have all the same inspiring words as my relay partner, it was wonderful to speak with her in my second workout after the marathon.

The third woman who is a frequent training partner is someone with whom I have done many track workouts and with whom I have done some tempo workouts and a few long runs.  We have crossed paths in a couple of races.  I fairly consistently run ahead but she is always close enough to me to keep me going and some of her best race times are very close to mine.  I think she is still figuring out what her ultimate running capacity is.  Maybe she will find out in the next couple of years.  She will run Boston next year.  And I imagine we will have a long conversation about the race as she sorts it out afterwards.  Although I hope that her sorting out is all about the run and not about other events on the day as my sorting out has been this year.  

The fourth woman has not run Boston and may never run Boston.  She represents the other end of my running friends.  Not very slow but not someone I would run next to on most workouts.  I would run ahead.  Yet we are good friends and both runners and each respects where he other is.  Each recognizes how far the other has come since we first met.  Each recognizes how wonderful each running experience is and what the other gains.  Running is egalitarian.  Everyone is welcome.  The key is for each person to run the best he or she can and she always does.  Runners can be friends without even running together in some cases.

The fifth woman I will mention is the one I have run with most often.  In the first year of marathon training I thought I would never keep up.  She ran ahead in most every workout and outran my by 12 minutes and some in the actual marathon.  However, by the next year while she still seemed to have the capacity to run ahead we ended up running near similar times.  She and I have been consistent training partners since the summer of 2011.  That was the second year of participation in the Charm City Run training group.  We were well matched.  After that race, neither one of us has gone back to a formal training group, but we have run together.  At least on weekends when we are both in town, when we don't have another race, when we don't have more important kid activities, and when we are healthy.  This means we certainly don't run every weekend.  But we have shared many miles.  We both enjoy early runs--cooler in the summer, gives each of us the rest of the day for our kids.  And we have each achieved our personal bests while training at least some of the time with the other.  Perhaps one day in the future when we are both healthy and ready to race again, we will race together and push each other-not just for a good run through the streets of Towson, Timonium, Lutherville, and Baltimore or the trails by Loch Raven Reservoir or the NCR Trail--but for each of us to achieve the best we ever have in running.  And while she has run a Boston qualifying time, she puts her kids ahead of going to Boston.  Perhaps some day she will have the joy of a Boston experience as well.  Until then we just continue to support each other in our running endeavors.

Do my training partners have to be female?  Of course not.  The people with whom I run most often just happen to be. I could tell stories about five guys just as easily.  The focus on the women I run with is driven by the tattoo imagery.  And it is a matter of when schedules and needs line up.  It is a matter of who I have met in my running experience, who has needed a training partner, and who has been willing to act as a training partner.  Regardless, these five women are five examples of strong women who have had an influence on my running life.  Each hears about a sliver of my personal life and/or professional life as we converse while we run.  

Each was concerned about my safety on April 15--as were many other people.  And, as someone who made it through April 15 safely, I hope not only to grow my personal and professional relationships and activities to be stronger than ever, but I also hope to continue to strengthen all of my running friendships and to make it clear how much I value them.  Every relationship (personal, professional, and running) should be cherished every day--since I never can predict when they will be taken away or when I will be taken away.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Unexpected Similarity of Risks Faced by St Sebastian and Boston Marathon Runners

On the day before the marathon my beautiful wife of almost 21 years wrote a Facebook post that ended up being more of a premonition than we would ever have anticipated.  Here it is:
So . . . that crazy dude I married (Kevin Frick) is running the Boston Marathon tomorrow! He's crazy, but wish him luck! And he better get back here fast and in 1 piece!
She called me a crazy dude in this case. I suppose some may question the informality of "dude" between 43 year olds but that was not really the main thing that caught my attention. The crazy part caught my attention more.  When she met me at Penn State she knew I had been a high school runner but she didn't see me running all the time. The most running I did was during senior year when I regularly met a former roommate who had also been a high school runner and we prepared for a 5K. Even then she thought my running was crazy (or at least something that she would not do) as she called me after midnight the  morning of the only race I ran in four years to tell me that she was the Pente champion among her friends on her internship. 

Crazy in this case mostly means that I am doing something she would never do and does not quite understand why anyone would.  It is okay that we don't see eye to eye on running. I return the favor when it comes to skiing.  So we are even. 

But the part that caught most people's attention on the day after the Boston marathon was her comment to get back in one piece.  Runners pull muscles. Runners get strains. Runners fall. Runners even occasionally have a broken bone or torn ligament or other malady that involves something coming apart but we don't usually think of a person in such a situation as not being in one piece.  

And on the day of the race other than some muscles that were exceptionally sore during the race I avoided all the injuries one would normally anticipate. 

But little did she know when she wrote it that there would truly be a risk of not coming back in one piece. 

How does this relate to the tattoo and the St Sebastian story?  Well, he was shot by archers.  Piercing wounds.  And the tattoo on my leg depicts Irene coming to his aide.  Irene would have been the one to remove the arrows and attend to his wounds.  I was lucky enough not to be one of the runners or spectators who needed to have wounds like that tended.

And there were not just piercing wounds from the shrapnel of the pressure cooker bomb with impaling items inside.  There were also wounds that were serious enough to lead to amputations  I believe the count was ten people who required some amputation.  Those unfortunate individuals truly did not come back in one piece.  And of course the three fatalities.  Not only did those three individuals not come back in one piece, they did not come back alive at all.  

We never would have guessed in advance that that would have been a risk about which to be concerned.  But now I will forever associate my wife's posting in which she wished me good luck in the biggest race I ever ran with people not coming home in one piece.  I am thankful that I did, but the reminder that some of the others who were there to share the joyful Patriot's Day in Boston in 2013 did not will always be there.  I will forever associate the tattoo and the piercing wounds of St. Sebastian with a risk that I was able to avoid but that other runners and spectators were not.  I carry the message online forever (at least according to the popular expression that points out that once something is on the internet it will always exist).  I carry the tattoo which will always be on my leg.  And I will carry at least a bit of associated sorrow in my heart, in my soul, and in my mind forever.  It is inescapable.  I don't think it will slow me down on a daily basis, but when I am alone (and sometimes that is when I am running) and I let myself be affected by the deepest parts of my psyche that I otherwise try to keep buried, it will be there and it will affect me.  

Still, Sherry's wish may also have helped to protect me in some way.  And, if I had been unfortunate despite her wish I am sure that she would have been the strong woman I know she is to help me and to help my boys through the experience.  

I chose a scene with St. Sebastian and his rescuer (Irene) because Irene represents the many strong women I have had the opportunity to know in my life.  Sherry is one--and the most important one.  The one with whom I have committed to spend my life.  The one with whom I have three amazing boys whom I am glad were not in harm's way.  The one with whom I don't always see eye to eye on what is important and what is crazy but with whom I have a joint tolerance of and appreciation for the things each of us loves.

Some of the other strong women are those who have been training partners sine I started running again and particularly since I qualified for Boston.  And they will be the subject of my next entry.   

A Prayer to St. Sebastian--Protect Me in My Athletic Efforts

This morning I went out for a 14.1 mile run at 5:40 returning at 7:30.  I ran to the zoo and back with a lap around the Druid Hill reservoir.   I have included a picture I took this morning-sights like this make it worth running early in the morning, even if alone.

For a run from 5:40-7:30 in the morning (even at this time of year and on into the summer) I don't tend to use a lot of sunscreen.  But similarly to morning of the Boston Marathon, I did use sunscreen in one place before I went for my run this morning.  I carefully sunscreened the tattoo to preserve the image as carefully as possible.

The five second description of the image is a modern reinterpretation of artwork depicting Saint Sebastian being rescued after being shot by archers--using 1930's Baltimore to guide the skyline and the clothing.  St. Sebastian is the patron saint of athletes in the Catholic church.  When I decided to get a tattoo, this was not my original idea, but as I went through a process of discernment, I was drawn to the symbolism inherent in a patron saint.

I have said prayers asking for intercession from St. Sebastian to God on my behalf (that is the standard approach to invoking a saint in a prayer in the Catholic church as we only pray to honor God but we may pray to particular saints to ask for their intercession on our behalf).  And, much like the several races before the Boston it was a simple prayer.  Asking that I would be blessed to give as much effort in my experience as St. Sebastian had put forth in his experiences and that my experience would  show to glory of God.  I also through in a comment about protecting my health.

Why did I make a comment about protecting my health? There is a risk of death when running a marathon.  It is not high (0.75 per 100,000 runners according to an article at http://articles.baltimoresun.com/2012-05-15/health/bal-marathon-low-deaths_1_marathon-health-benefits-mortality-and-disability).  But it is there and a couple years ago when there was a cluster of marathon related deaths (which we have not seen again since that time) my extended family had been quite worried.

I never imagined the risk to my health that actually did occur that day.  In fact, no on in my running circle had.  I doubt anyone in my family had.  My prayer was a naive one.

When the day was over, I realized just how blessed I was.  Was I protected by my prayer to St. Sebastian?  I will never know.  I ran a good race.  The attackers chose their time to attack for whatever reason they did.  My finish and the time of their attack did not coincide.  Could just have easily been dumb luck or good fortune as anything having to do with a prayer.

But the next time I pray to St. Sebastian before a race I will pray with a different set of risks in my mind.  Will I always pray to St. Sebastian before a race? Probably.  It is difficult to forget the prayer when I have St. Sebastian drawn permanently on my leg.  What risks will I pray for protection from?  Unfortunately, they will always include the risks of a terror attack looking ahead.  And even if it is just all imagination, it is psychologically helpful to think that there is something out there bigger than me--some being, some purpose, some cause--that for whatever reason has protected and continues to protect me in my athletic efforts and efforts in life in general.  

Friday, April 26, 2013

Blisters from the Sun

A fun riff to play on my electric bass is the riff from the 1983 Violent Femmes song, Blister in the Sun.  On April 15, 2013, when I was running the Boston marathon I was not thinking about that song.  At first glance, the only link between the 1983 song and the Boston Marathon in 2013 was that when I ran track and particularly cross country in high school, a bunch of guys loved to play that song on their boom boxes and sing that song.  And that was the first stage of my life at which I had running goals to speak of.

However, I think of blister in the sun now because in the Boston Marathon I got some pretty serious blisters from the sun.  Just a change in preposition.  I should have known to apply sunscreen.  All winter long I had not worn a running singlet very often.  When I did wear a running singlet it was usually for a pre-dawn track workout when it was early enough.  So, my shoulders were not getting any sun for months.  And, needless to say, three hours in the sun starting at 10 o'clock (rather than a more traditional race start time like 8 AM) led to a lot of sun exposure.  

First thing on Tuesday morning when my family saw me at home, my whole family noticed how red my shoulders, upper arms, neck, and head were.  It didn't hurt much on Tuesday but by Wednesday it was blistering and peeling like crazy.  The peeling and itch lasted almost a week.  That was incredibly frustrating.  Even today--11 days later--there is still a bit of itching.  

The frustration actually came from two different aspects of the experience.  One aspect was that I should know better.  After all, my mother worked at a dermatologist's office for many years as I grew up.  I have had major burns before.  And at some level, I realized that I would not be in the shade much given the time of day of the race.  So, it was a foolish mistake.

The other frustration was that it was a constant reminder of the day.  As I was trying to move on, the reminder was pretty constant. 

Here is what I thought about.  I had let my skin get burned and it was blistering.  I was uncomfortable.  But every aspect of that was because of a choice I made—or more literally an action I failed to take.  I don’t think of it as having “chosen” not to put sunscreen on.  Instead, I think of it as simply failing to do something that I know I should have done.  I suppose that at some level it is just a matter of semantics.  In either case, I did not act in a way that I should have known to act.

Every time I scratched where it itched from the blistering.  Every time I put aloe lotion on.  Every time I saw skin peeling off in the shower.  When these things happened, I thought not only of my own skin issues but the injuries that those who were too near to the explosions at the Boston Marathon had experienced. 

I realized that I had a choice.  Those affected by the explosions did not.

I realized that I should have anticipated the consequences of my choice.  There was no way for those who were affected by the explosions on April 15 to anticipate what would happen.

My skin was burned.  The injuries of those who were affected by the explosions were much greater than that.

My discomfort would eventually go away.  Many of those who were affected by the explosions on April 15 would have to live with their injuries forever.  They would never be able to forget that day.  They would never be able to leave it behind.

All I needed to do was to put a little aloe lotion on.  That I could do completely for myself with supplies that were readily available.  Those injured by the explosions on April 15 needed many other individuals to help them and depended incredibly on the kindness of strangers.

It was very difficulty for me to deal with. 

The ironic thing was that I did have sunscreen with me.  Did I think to apply it to my face?  No.  Did I think to apply it to my arms and shoulders?  No.  I did apply it one place.  I applied a lot of sunscreen to my right calf.  That is not a place where I have traditionally gotten a lot of sunburn—except for days of standing or sitting outside for long periods of time, such as when we are at the beach and I forget to apply sunscreen.  However, I put the sunscreen on my right calf to protect my tattoo.  It was very well protected. 

The tattoo artist I worked with had told me that it would not take more than two or three bad burns to really make the work she had done and I had sat through look like mush.  I wanted to protect the tattoo.  So, I was careful.

Looking ahead I will continue to work and protect the tattoo.  And the next entry in this series of blog entries will be about the tattoo.  I know that I have written about the tattoo in former blog entries quite extensively.  The process of getting it lasted from last March until this January.  But after the Boston Marathon I have a whole new appreciation and whole new interpretation for the meaning of the tattoo.  

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Even After Boston There Are Non-Running Mornings

To use yesterday's terminology, even as I was running toward Boston there were non-running mornings.  Ever since my first marathon training experience, I had been told time again by a variety of sources that one needs rest or cross-training.  There was a list of reasons not to run every single day.  And that was fine.

Today is only the third non-running day since the Boston marathon for me.  The first was the day after.  Believe it or not, I have sometimes run on the day after.  I don't recall why I didn't run last Friday.  And today I may still go out for 3-4 miles if I have a chance, but I do not feel compelled.

Is it needing to rest?  In fact, no.  I met several friends of friends at the expo at the old Boston convention center and at the athlete's village in Hopkinton who actually talked about running every day (even if just a little) for a long period of time.  That is not necessarily my aspiration but it points to how little the body actually needs substantial rest.  At least for some people.

No, instead, I am looking at a long list of unanswered emails.  I am looking at some things that need to be done to straighten up the house.  I am looking at all the other things in life that simply require my full attention for a little while.

If there is one thing that marathon running teaches you, it is that when you need to give your full attention to something it really does require giving your full attention.  It is difficulty--although probably not impossible--to get ready to run a marathon without a full-fledged plan.  The plan takes attention and gets done.  When I am running, sometimes it is possible to go on autopilot.  But not always.  And especially for the more intense workouts (tempo and track), I find that I need to give them my attention.  

And, of course, running a point to point marathon like Boston (where the caravan of yellow school buses taking people out to the start at Hopkinton is quite an amazing site) teaches you that things have to be faced head on.  When you are taken by bus 26 miles from the finish line (and approximately 26 miles from an opportunity to get back to your car) you really have only one choice--take the situation head on, run to the finish line, and get on with life.  

Are there emails I'd prefer not to have to answer?  Of course.  Are there chores at home I would prefer not to do?  Yep!  But when all is said and done they need to be done.  And modeling my approach to the rest of my life the same way that I take on the challenges of a marathon will help me to stay on track, get things done, achieve, and lead a fulfilling life at home, with family, and at work in the same way that I do when I run.  

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

What Am I Running Toward--or From?

I got back into running in 2006.  It was part of a return to exercise to get back into shape in general in the beginning.  Then, over beer at a local Irish restaurant one night after a worship band practice, someone challenged me to run to train for a half marathon.  It was a distance I knew I could do in high school and that seemed feasible to return to.  Until I reached that distance Labor Day weekend 2007 that is what I ran toward.  I had wanted to participate in the Baltimore Running Festival in 2009 but decided to register too late. I had not realized the popularity of the event

After a hiatus to take care of professional matters, I returned to running again in 2009 and ran toward the Baltimore Running Festival--this time understanding how early I would have to register.  And meeting that goal (although with a time that left me dissatisfied), in January 2010 having seen one colleague and one student run the marathon, I decided to set my sights on the next goal to run toward.  At the time, qualifying for Boston was not high on my list.  I was just trying to see if I could go the marathon distance and the idea of running a 3:20:59 (what I would have needed to qualify at that time) seemed unattainable.

I ran that first marathon in 3:39:48.  It seemed a long distance away from the qualifying time.  But I had also gotten into fundraising through running and so the next big race to run toward was the Maryland Half Marathon in 2011.  I had heard great things about it although that year it moved from its original location in Timonium to southern Howard County.  Beyond that I was raising funds for a new organization--the University of Maryland Cancer Center.  That race went well, although not perfectly.  After that I aimed for the Baltimore Marathon once more.

I ran toward that with everything I had and achieved a 3:22:05.  I had reached the end of my fund-racing for a while (to borrow a term from Back on My Feet), but could see that the 3:15:00 (which was the new qualifying time) was within my grasp.  Suddenly the Boston Marathon became what I would run toward.  From mid-October 2011 until April 15, 2013, that was one of my main purposes in running--and exactly what I was running toward.  I ran two more marathons to qualify--each time aiming for the 3:15:00 I needed and finally meeting that in March 2012.

From then on, I committed not to run another marathon until Boston (which I stuck to) but I did keep training and doing as well as I possibly could at Boston was always at the top of my mind.  Every tempo run--towards Boston.  Every track workout--toward Boston.  Every Saturday long run--toward Boston.  And every in between race--toward Boston just getting ready.

Then I registered.  Getting ready for six months from registration.  The drive up.  Everything was about getting ready and moving toward the race.  Then on race day the ride to Hopkinton and the wait at Hopkinton was about moving toward the race.  Then once I started the race it was all about moving toward the finish.  All very clear.

After the end of the race--even before the explosions--things were less clear.  Why?  It was sort of like when I got promoted to full professor back at the School of Public Health and my next question was "now what?"  For racing, the question is also "now what?"  Eventually I found the next step in my career--my new job in the Carey Business School.

Whether I will find a next step in my running other than just "continuing to run for fitness" remains to be seen.  I have promised my family no more marathons for a while--more than a year at least.

And since the explosions last Monday I feel like I have been running from things rather than running toward anything.  I have run seven of the last nine days.  That is more days than I usually run.  Some of those runs have been high quality runs and others I have had to push through.  But those push throughs have taken my mind off last Monday.  Even just running--oddly enough--takes my mind off last Monday.  In fact, I think it takes me to a time in my mind before last Monday.  It is escapism.   Especially when I run alone.

Over time, I think less frequently about the events of last Monday and it becomes easier to let go.  And the runs become less about escaping.  But for the time being they are helpful as a way to run from the things that I don't want to relive every day.  Remember yes.  Relive those first uncertain moments and the devastation of hearing about three deaths no.

Just some more processing.  

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Race Clock at the Finish Line Said 4:09

When my friends and I saw the footage of the explosions while we were still in Boston last week after the race we saw the time on the clock at the finish line: 4:09:something.  I read one report online that said it was 4:09:43.  However, I will not necessarily remember how many seconds were on the clock years from now.  I will remember the 4:09 for the rest of my life.  I know that we were trying to sort out why the clock said 4:09 from the start.  The explosions happened at 2:49.  The time since the start of the race had been 4:49.  We were confused as to why it appeared that the clock had been restarted at the start of the third wave.  Perhaps everyone from Wave 1 and Wave 2 had finished.  But I had never seen a race that reset its race clock at the finish line.

I have been trying to make sense of why the time was chosen.  Perhaps I will continue to grapple with the 2:49 a bit more.  But for now, I will focus on the 4:09.  There were some initial reports that the average time for a marathon in 4:10 so this would have been expected to affect the most people.  However, the time was 4:09 from the start of the third wave.  And the average time does not mean the most likely time.  If the attackers were really interested in the most people, they should have sought the modal time rather than the mean time.  In addition, if you look at how races proceed, they should have struck when the leaders came through.

But I don't really want to know the reason for choosing 4:09:something.  What I really want to know is whether the time can help me to find strength in a bible verse. So, I began at the beginning and Genesis 4:9 (leaving out the zero in this case).  According to the USCCB the verse reads:
Then the LORD asked Cain, Where is your brother Abel? He answered, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?"
Just about everyone has heard the story of Cain and Abel.  Everyone knows that this verse comes after Cain killed Abel.  But I am not focusing on the death so much as Cain's basic question--"Am I my brother's keeper?"  There are so many ways to interpret this relative to the events of last Monday.

Let us begin with the basics.  Two brothers involved in committing the attacks.  If the two brothers were really acting as each other's keepers perhaps they would have told each other--not such a good idea.  As if this was not a bad enough example of not acting as each other's keepers, the act that the younger one who has survived and is now being questioned apparently ran over the older one at some point in trying to escape.  Definitely not acting as each other's keepers.

Second, we can see another obvious point.  The two brothers had no sense of being the keeper of any of their brothers or sisters.  They indiscriminately injured and murdered.

But if we ask did the runners, the supporters, and the first responders act like they were each others' keepers, the answer is yes.  Even on the course, runners were helpful to each other.  Runners encouraged each others.  Out on the course runners helped each other after the explosions.  Bystanders helped athletes.  Bystanders helped each other.  Runners even went and donated blood afterwards on a day that most would have normally spent taking a risk.

So the question is one that many of us grapple with many times in life.  What we are left to consider is how people take this or don't take this seriously.  The more people who take this seriously (and we saw some truly courageous people who didn't even pause to think through it) the better the world will be.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Visceral Hatred and Redemption

Last week when I wrote my first post-marathon entry, I wrote about how the death of an eight year old I did not know had inspired me renew my efforts to live every day of my life to its fullest.  I thought afterwards that it was easy for me to write that since I did not know the eight year old.  So, his death was just a concept for me.  But one thing that has bugged me ever since last week is that it did not necessarily have to be an eight year old I did not know.  While my family was not there and had never expected to come to Boston to watch me, they could have.  And while the explosions occurred 90 minutes after I crossed the finish line, there is (as yet) no logical reason for the explosions having occurred at 2:50 rather than at 1:20.  So, I have spent some time dwelling on the what ifs that leads to.

On one of my overseas work trips I read a book by Frank Herbert (author of Dune) called The White Plague.  The gist of it is that a US bioengineer was in Ireland at the time during which the IRA was exploding bombs relatively frequently.  He lost his wife and son in a bombing caused by the IRA.  That pushed him over the edge enough to create a bioterrorism virus that nearly destroyed the world.  I read the book with an interest in the description of the search for the person, government's reactions to the bioterrorism, and the struggles the main character had after he launched the bioterrorism event.  I did not take seriously the premise that the death of a wife and child could push someone that far over the edge.

After last Monday, however, I could imagine it much more easily.  My eight year old was safely 400 miles away.  My wife has never been to Boston.  And yet the fact that someone could attack something so dear to me in a way that could even possibly put my family at risk brought up a hatred in me that I don't recall ever feeling before.  This even exceeds any emotion I recall feeling after September 11, 2001.  I felt desperation back in 2001 but not this level of hatred.  For me, September 11, 2001, was a horrible incident but it was also "conceptual".  In contrast, the issues here felt so much closer to me.  And I feared what I felt.  But writing that I felt it at all helps me to let it go.

I am not suggesting that I would have reacted as the character in the novel.  But, I am saying that I could have imagined snapping out in a way I had never imagined before.

But at Boston Marathon plus six days, i.e., Sunday April 20, I think I had a bit of redemption.  The day was certainly part of my rebuilding process.  And others may or may not see this as a part of redemption.  But I had to confront some of the issues from last Monday head on and brought my faith out in doing so.

I teach Sunday school at the St. Pius X catholic church as I have for a decade.  My class this year is third graders.  I thought long and hard about what I was going to say to the students before class yesterday.  I had decided not to bring up the Boston Marathon events unless the students brought them up.

And so we began class with the Lord's Prayer and then I asked what students wanted to pray for.  One student had heard about the Boston Marathon events at the 8 AM mass.  (I should probably say been reminded of as I am sure all the students heard about it during the week.)  Another student remembered that I had told them I would miss class the previous week because I was going to run the Boston Marathon.  (It had seemed like a harmless thing to tell them in advance.)  Then, we spent 15 minutes or so talking about the events.

I reassured the children that I was not in direct danger.  The students seemed to be having difficult coming to grips with why anyone would do this.  The best I could tell them was that I did not know.  So far, no one knows.  Then, I reminded them that each of us makes bad decisions sometimes.  I challenged them to think of bad decisions they had made and to try to think of why they did it.  They agreed that sometimes they had trouble figuring out their own poor decisions.  So, it was not unreasonable to think that they would not understand others' bad decisions.  I also told them about all the good things of Monday.  The 8,500 volunteers who helped runners all weekend and on the day of the race before 2:50.  I also pointed out all the good decisions and good people who helped others after 2:50.  And I pointed out the bad decisions the two men had made.  I challenged them to think about the Ten Commandments and eight Beatitudes.  And to remember that these are what we believe should guide us.

Finally, I pointed out that in our justice system, the surviving brother has not yet been proven guilty.  And I uttered the word forgiveness. I didn't make a really big deal of this.  I did mention how hard it would be to forgive.  And I don't expect anyone to forget.  But forgiveness (when a person is truly sorry) is a fundamental part of my faith.

Redemption?  Maybe.  Maybe it is just in my own mind.  But I have stated and let go of the hatred I felt and I have stated the word forgiveness--a part of moving forward and completely coming to grips with the experiences of the last seven days.  I cannot guarantee I would be talking about forgiveness if the dead or injured had been my relatives.  But I find that uttering the word forgiveness after thinking sharply hateful thoughts is part of my process of moving on.  

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Marathon Time and Bible Verses

Time has put enough distance between the events on Monday and me for me to really start processing what happened on Monday. This is more than a gut reaction.  This is more than first feelings.  This is now trying to sort things out.

Many runners I know have recently posted Psalm 26:2.  Obviously a reference to the marathon distance.  The verse (from the New American Bible Revised Edition) is:

   Examine me, Lord, and test me;
   search my heart and mind

Usually following this will be a phrase about how the marathon runner at the end of the race is not the same as the marathon runner at the start of the race.  I knew that was true all along.  At least one friend had commented before my first marathon about how she learned something each time she participated in a marathon.  I would have to say that this is more true for me this time than any other time.  There were things I learned about running a race that I will address later and things I  learned about my reaction to bad events (which I will also comment on later).  Although I suppose in the same way that as part of a three day retreat long ago that talked about how to live in the proverbial "fourth day" the reactions I have had are mostly about how to deal with the proverbial 27th mile.

But this Bible verse was not of my finding and was about the distance a marathon always is rather than about my number (which I wrote about back on 13-March using some verses that had to do with parables--how fitting since I use story telling to sort things out and one of the verses I found for my time is a short parable) or my time 3:15:56.  My time was very close to 3:16:00 which a friend had told me long ago would lead to the obvious John 3:16.  But since I came in 4 seconds under 3:16 and I value those 4 seconds, I tried to find something using my exact time to help me make sense of the events around me.

For that, I chose two things.  Verses of joy.  And verses of sorrow.  Together they will help me to initiate a healing process in my own mind, heart, and soul.  A process by which I will find the strength to face all things--running or otherwise--that challenge me and not run from or hide from the challenges and risks that I face in life.

First verses: Gospel #3 (given the typical order of Matthew, Mark, LUKE, and John), Chapter 15, verses 5 and 6.  

   And when he does find it, he sets it on his shoulders with 
     great joy
   and, upon his arrival home, he calls together his friends and 
     neighbors and says to them, ‘Rejoice with me because I
     have found my lost sheep.’

Anyone familiar with this verse knows that the Pharisees were accusing Jesus of choosing to spend time with sinners and tax collectors and that the "found after being lost" sheep was symbolic for a repentent sinner.  However, the verse can be taken out of context a little as we recognize the simple joy of finding something or someone that was lost or that was feared lost.  I cannot express the enormity of the gratitude I felt on Monday as people checked in on me or commented after I had checked in on FB (or by a text with my wife). I was the sheep that was thought to be lost or at least people were worried I might have been lost.  There was a joy for others in knowing of my safety.  And there was a joy for me in being able to share my safety.  Not that a sheep is sentient enough to have feelings and state in any way that it is happy to have found its shepherd, but certainly in the context of Jesus's short parable the repentent sinner takes great joy in finding comfort.  I took great joy in having already retrieved my stuff so that I could be in communication with those who were so worried about me.  And I feel the safety and camaraderie of the "flock" of runners I was with that day and the fact that runners share a bond that makes all feel like a community around the city, around the country, and around the world taking strength from being a group.

The verses of sorry: Psalm 31 Verses 5-11 (11 being 5+6):
Free me from the net they have set for me,
for you are my refuge
Into your hands I commend my spirit;
you will redeem me, LORD, God of truth.
You hate those who serve worthless idols,
but I trust in the LORD.
I will rejoice and be glad in your mercy,
once you have seen my misery,
[and] gotten to know the distress of my soul.
You will not abandon me into enemy hands,
but will set my feet in a free and open space.
Be gracious to me, LORD, for I am in distress;
affliction is wearing down my eyes,
my throat and my insides.
My life is worn out by sorrow,
and my years by sighing.
My strength fails in my affliction;
my bones are wearing down.
No one was setting a net specifically for me.  We still don't know whether the two accused of being the bombers (one being dead and the other being in a hospital as I write this) targeted any ONE specifically.  What we do know is that they set a trap for someone or some cause.  And throughout, my religion has been part of my refuge.  Even on Monday, I commended my spirit and sense of self to God.  I am not accusing Islam in general of serving worthless idols (although I know some do).  But anyone of any faith who indiscriminately kills and injures young and old and those who thought there were in a safe and joyful family environment is serving some idol that is not worth anything in my book.  It could be an ideology.  It could be a cause.  It could simply be for fame.  It is not the God I serve.  I have felt miserable this week many times.  I am glad to be alive.  This event was too close for comfort.  I will discuss later the many different ways in which I interpret close that could eiher have made me close or not to the events on Monday.  I feel the verse about not abandoning me into enemy hands but setting my feet into an open space sort of representing the fact that I was on the subway and released to the open area of Boston's city hall at the next subway stop.  It may have even more meaning if at least one of the two accused men was at the same subway station at the same time.  I cannot say the latter for sure, but there was a young man who made a comment that seemed awfully out of place at the time and who looked at least vaguely like pictures of the suspect in the hospital this morning.  Will return to that later as well.  When I first came upon the verses here earlier this week, I would not have claimed years of sighing and affliction, but I was definitely feeling in distress.  My eyes were being worn down from watching all the bad news.

But now that I can juxtapose the sorrowful verses and joyful verses that I relate to my time on Monday and I continue to think about what it all means, I think my psyche is on the road to recovery.  The memories of Monday will remain with me for a lifetime.  For example, where was I when the Boston marathon 2013 bombing occurred?  On the green line of the T headed toward Haymarket where we had intended to transfer to the orange line. But despite the memories being there and strong for the rest of my life, I will move onward.  Not leaving that day behind.  But making that day part of a life long learning process that makes me stronger.