sports

Spring Sting: A Runner’s Reflection on the Boston Marathon

Originally published April 23, 2013.

The irony of the Boston Marathon: America has stopped running! This epiphany came to me as I was participating in a 5k at my boys’ elementary school over the weekend. I have these moments of clarity when I run, and during the annual Spring Zing, I was preoccupied with thoughts of the bombing victims in Boston. Then it came to me: America has changed. This latest attack was different.

If you’ve been reading my blog, you have learned that I am a runner. I am as a shocked as everyone else who knows me that I am this athletic in my forties–much more than I ever was as a child. I have participated in close to fifty races in the past two decades. Fifty! And invariably when I run, there is usually a moment in the race when my eyes well up with tears. I am overcome with emotions–pride, joy, disbelief, humility. This is not the person I was slated to be in my youth. Not the overweight, unmotivated, smoker. Yet, here I am. And beyond the disbelief that I am an adult runner, is the pride I feel for being a part of something so palpable, so uplifting. I am forever grateful to have discovered running. For it is my love of running that has helped me explore the world around me and within me. Running has allowed me to process so many things I would have missed otherwise in my daily routine.

landscape-photo.net

Cherry Tree, by: Bruno Monginoux

The Spring Zing is a very sweet affair: A 3.1 mile race that winds through  the neighborhoods that surround our local school, and a 1 mile fun walk for the younger kids. These events are followed by an auction of gifts and crafts created by the various grades–paintings made out of thumb prints, mosaics and garden baskets constructed with tiny hands, etc. The money raised benefits our elementary school, and its partner school in Africa. One of the highlights of the school year, this event has become a reminder for me about the joys that springtime bestows on us. Sadly, this year’s fun was tarnished by an exhausting week of national sadness in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings.

Saturday’s race was especially bittersweet because it is the one race I do that involves many young children. Over one hundred young people, ranging from first to fifth grade, participate in the 5k. My sons have yet to do this race, but truthfully, many of the children who sign up for it are out of their element. They are not ready for this distance. But I don’t think that matters. The point is, they are developing an awareness for running distances–for setting a goal and doing their best to finish it. Many of them do end up walking some, most, or all of the course–but they all cross that finish line! Whenever my boys ask me if I won a race (NO), I always reply, “Anyone who finishes the race is a winner.” This might sound lame in our “I am number 1” culture, but I mean it. In running, as in life, the race is only against yourself.

As I watch so many children “running” with their parents, I am filled with excitement, looking ahead to the day when I might run side by side with my boys in a race. I have dreamed of such a day since they were born. This thought alone is enough to fill my eyes with tears. But on this day, my smiles toward these families are interrupted by images of other runners whose limbs were lost just days ago pursuing the same passion. I feel the power of my stride hitting the road, only to imagine my feet missing. Next, I envision the youngest victim, Martin Richard, running beside these innocent, naive children, and I shudder at his image that is now burned in my mind: holding up his P-E-A-C-E poster with the plea “No more hurting people.” Richard was my son Owen’s age.  Such stark thoughts of this heinous act try to sabotage my race.

Like most of America, I was riveted by the bizarre turn of events that began on Monday, April 15th and ended with cinematic flare five days later. I still cannot fully comprehend what transpired. Yet, I am proud of the reaction that so many have had in response to this latest act of terror. In numerous news accounts it has been noted how, rather than flee the horror caused by the bombs, many people ran into the fray, determined to help, refusing to kowtow to cowardice, adamant that these monsters would not continue to paralyze our national consciousness. Strangers held one another, clothed one another, administered first aid and comforted one another. They remained. This approach echoed throughout America in the days that followed. Rather than cancel races in the wake of such destruction, more races were organized. I witnessed this locally in Philadelphia, where thousands of men, women, and children ran through Center City just three days after the attack, in honor of the victims and all who ran the Boston Marathon. And many other races have been created in response to this act. 

Yes, the irony of the Boston Marathon is that America has stopped running! As a nation, we are tired of being fearful. The city of Boston has demonstrated the bravery and dignity that is required to stand up to evil. Sadly, we have seen this bravery too many times. But with every new attack, we just grow stronger, more determined. The American people will not live in terror. We will not let this defeat us. In the end, the bad guy will not win–good will continue to outweigh evil. This courage is inspirational, and indicative of what America is becoming, has become, post 9-11. 

Halfway through the race, I realize this. I am emboldened by the courage of all those people who were in Boston that day, and put others before themselves. I think of all the brave law officers, military, and medical personnel who worked tirelessly to save lives, capture these perpetrators, and restore order and safety to the streets. I decide to put my fears–my thoughts of blood and death–away. I look up at a beautiful sky, where the sun begins to emerge from a billowy cloud. I breathe in the crisp fresh air. I smile. As I backtrack the mile and a half left of the course, I see a collection of children on the other side of the yellow line in the road. They are running. We are running. We are all united in this race. We are all united in our freedom as a country. I raise my hand, and begin to high five anyone and everyone. Kids respond without thinking. Parents reflexively put their hands up to match mine. We connect. I spend the rest of the race connecting with all of the amazing people who have come into my view on this glorious day. Each of their smiles, every high five, is a testament of our will to continue. For make no mistake–the race is not over. 

cc by-nc-nd Bruno Monginoux www.photo-paysage.com & www.landscape-photo.net

Monginoux / Landscape-Photo.net (cc by-nc-nd)

Caution: Lifeguard on Duty Will Break Your Heart.

It is the summer of 1977. Our nation has finally recovered from all of the hullabaloo surrounding The Bicentennial. Disco Fever will soon take to the dance floor as everyone tries to imitate John Travolta‘s finger pointing. And WiFi 92 FM still can’t get enough of Paul McCartney and The Wings singing about “Silly Love Songs“: You’d think that people would have had enough of silly love songs…But I look around me and I see it isn’t so…

 I find this song rather fitting because, you see, I am in love. Yes, I am eight years old, and I have fallen in love. Her name is Lynn. She is sweet, pretty and kind. Her brown, shoulder-length curls are sun-kissed with streaks of blonde; her long limbs are the color of caramel; her smile, electric. Lynn is probably around twenty, but age does not matter. I love her, and that’s all there is to it.

swim-19918_640I met Lynn at our swim club, Sunny Willow. She is a lifeguard there. I watch her sit atop the chair, ready to risk her life to save another’s. Occasionally, I get up the nerve to smile at her when I walk by her as she switches from guarding the shallow end to the deep end. I may even say “Hi” to her when I am coming back from the snack bar with two fistfuls of Swedish Fish–a penny each, and I buy a dollars worth. Her smile back gives me hope–she looks like the kind of woman who would wait–if the right man boy comes along.

********************

“Michael, you have to take swim lessons this summer.” My mother announces this as we are driving to the pool in our purple station wagon.

“No way! I can swim.”

“Well, you need to get better.  I’m signing you up,” she insists.

I feel a nervous pang in the pit of my stomach. I still associate swim lessons with my horrible incident at the local high school–the one where I went to the bathroom in the pool. (Read about that here). I’ve all but put it out of my memory. I try to relax. After all, I am older and wiser–and in love. Then, I have an epiphany: maybe I will have Lynn as my instructor!

“Okay, sign me up!”

***************************

The list is posted on the bulletin board by the showers. The gods look upon me favorably–Poseidon…Neptune…they’ve felt the pangs of love that I now feel. They know what it’s like to be under a siren’s spell. I see my name on the list, and above it my instructor’s: L-Y-N-N.

For two weeks, I float on air. I jump from my trundle bed and eat my Alpha-Bits with my bathing suit on, anxiously awaiting to be driven to the pool. I spend every weekday morning with Lynn. For forty-five minutes she and I (okay, and about 6 other kids) swim together in the cool morning breeze.

Some people wanna fill the world with silly love songs.
And what’s wrong with that?
I’d like to know, ’cause here I go again

I hum the tune and repeat the lyrics in my mind, as I wait at the water’s edge for Lynn to take my arms and bring me out to examine my technique. I lay on my back in the water and feel Lynn’s hands supporting my head. “Kick,” she commands. And I obey. I kick with all my might. I look up at the blue sky, and feel as if I am already in heaven. I wish this moment could last forever. “Good job,” she says, releasing my head, and I swim back to the others, beaming with pride.

I love you, I love you,
I love you, I love you…and I do. I’m not sure what it all means, but I feel the fire in my stomach; I feel my heart beat faster when she is near. And as a result, I want so badly to impress her. To awe her. Maybe it’s foolish to think she can love a scrawny eight year-old, but perhaps she will fall in love with my form. So I swim with all the bravado that my chicken legs can muster, I splash my tiny arms with the might of ten Olympians. Lynn praises me–well, all of us. She smiles, and nods, and says how well we are all doing. And after lessons, I get to hang around the pool all day. I practice the movements as she explained them, and I do so in earnest, hoping she will notice me as she tends to her other life-gaurding duties.

I can’t explain the feeling’s plain to me, say can’t you see?
Ah, she gave me more, she gave it all to me
Now can’t you see,

The weeks go by too quickly, and before I know it, our last lesson has arrived. It is bittersweet. My time with Lynn will be less, but I feel I have greatly improved as a swimmer, and no one can take away this bond we have formed. As I enter the gate for our final class, I run immediately into her: my instructor, my muse.

“Hi, Michael!”

“Hi,” I say, sheepishly.

“I’m glad to see you. I wanted to talk to you about something before our last lesson.”

“Sure,” I say. An award, I think. I’m getting an award!  I have impressed Lynn so much that she wants to reward my efforts. This is the beginning of our future together. We will open a swimming school and spend our summers training kids–underprivileged kids– to be as skilled as we are.

“Why don’t we sit over here?” she asks.

We approach a picnic table and sit across from one another. Her eyes look especially green against the painted tabletop. Her white teeth dazzle me. An award! In my mind, I try to think of the title for my award: Most Improved…no…Fastest Swimmer…no… Most Likely to make the Olympics…I have a dazed smile on my face, but Lynn’s face does not mirror mine. She is not smiling. In fact, she seems to be frowning. I begin to tune in to her words: “I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to repeat the lessons. I cannot pass you this time. You’re just not ready.” I say nothing, just nod slowly. “Okay?” she says, tilting her head. “Um-hmm,” I lie. I am not okay. A minute ago I was captain of the swim team, standing on my diving block waiting to take the gold. Now, I am a dejected loser.

Lynn and I get up from the table and make our way to the pool. She puts her arm on my shoulder, but inside I recoil. It’s too late. I cannot bear her touch now. I am nothing but a disappointment to her. I spend our final class togetherswimming-97509_640 sulking. My movements are sluggish, slow. Every splash of water laughs at me mockingly. My heart is too heavy to swim, to float. The woman I love does not love me back–cannot love me back. She cannot even find it in her heart to pass me in swim class.

Love doesn’t come in a minute,
sometimes it doesn’t come at all
I only know that when I’m in it
It isn’t silly, no, it isn’t silly, 
love isn’t silly at all.

Be a good sport

Growing up, I hated sports. I wasn’t sure if I sucked because I hated them, or if I hated them because I sucked. All I know is that I was forced to play organized sports until high school.

My dad loved sports. Like many men of his era, it was the best way he could communicate with his kids. If I could throw a decent spiral or a curve ball (different balls-I know), he would have had a catch with me. I watched him do this with my other siblings. My three older brothers and sister were very good at sports—first string, captains, stand-outs.  My younger brother and sister were also good at sports—first string, captains, stand-outs. Me, not so much. Both girls in my family could throw a baseball better than I (although none of my siblings would know to use “I” in that last bit):)  No, I’m not jealous. Not at all, he lied.  Anyway, out of seven children, I was the least athletic. Last in line for athletic prowess. Seventh of seven.

My father tried to be patient with me, but I would have none of it.  My dad played full-equipment, contact football until he was thirty, in a men’s league in Northeast Philadelphia. He coached pee wee football, baseball and  basketball at the elementary level, and softball at the high school level. My father was an athletic director for a private elementary school in our area. He breathed sports. He tried to practice with me, to teach me the basics, but I rebelled. In hindsight, I realize what I was doing. It’s taken me thirty years to figure it out, but I know that part of it was the notion of being lumped in with the rest. I wanted to stand out, be treated as an individual, not just be included in the roster, part of the line-up. And if the others were going to be better at it, then that was no way to get my family’s attention.

Most of my siblings played sports in high school – two brothers received football scholarships to a prestigious private high school, both played in college and one has coached at the college level ever since he graduated. Luckily, I was next in line from the household’s best athlete—right behind the all-star, the golden boy, the coaches’ favorite player. Me, I was third string. A bench warmer. A virtual non-participant. From my earliest athletic experiences, I was an embarrassment. I was the oldest kid on the t-ball team (I actually got demoted after my first year of Little League) This was the era of The Bad News Bears movies—a team of misfits I would have been perfectly suited for. In fifth grade, I was on St. John of the Cross’ JV football team. They called me “The Professor”—I think I was the only kid with glasses under my helmet. In seventh grade, while “playing” varsity football, I was lumped in with a crowd of overweight slow pokes. We loafed around the field and waddled our laps around the school. The coaches nicknamed us “The Country Clubbers” since we behaved like a bunch of middle-aged men out there (which reminds me:  my 8th grade teacher, Sister Albert, announced to my class as I rounded the bases during a game of kick ball one day that I had the body of a 40-year-old man. How charitable of you, Sister.)

Thankfully, by eighth grade I was a full-time smoker. This gave me a reason to join the track team. My friends and I signed up to run in the long distance events. We would practice at the local high school. By practice, I mean we would disappear into the woods, then hide behind a wall and smoke a couple cigarettes. We watched the other runners do one mile laps around the school property. On their last lap (we always asked) we would come in for the end of practice after splashing water on our heads to look sweaty, and pretend to be winded. We lost every meet we ran in.

High school and college were athletics-free. A couple stints of intramurals, but nothing to brag about, believe me. Then, in my twenties, I was looking for a reason to quit smoking. I was a guilty smoker—always was—and it started to wear on me. I kept imagining myself pulling an oxygen tank to my future kid’s school play or pee wee football game (ha). My brother Joe suggested I start running. Do it gradually and build up. I took his advice. I ran a few times a week at a local trail. I signed up for a 5k when I was 25 (which I completed still drunk from a night out in Philly). But slowly, I began to change. I started to run more and smoke less. I would see the cross country teams from the school where I taught running on the same trails in the late afternoon. Jim, the girls’ coach, asked me about coaching the boys’ squad. “Jim, I’m not a runner, really.” “I see you here every time we practice.” “Yeah, but I’m not a coach.” “They need a running coach and you run—you’re qualified.” And so, I coached cross country for about six years. I learned about speed drills and pacing, and I gave them all I could. They were more than grateful. During that time, I even managed to kick the smoking habit for good!

When I switched schools, I no longer coached cross country. Ironically, I found it helped me get in better shape. Since I was not coaching, I had more time to actually run.  Now, I was signing up for more races: 10 milers, half marathons. Eventually, I didn’t feel foolish when I labeled myself as a runner, or talked about an upcoming race. Today, I am still running. I discovered trail running a few years ago, and now I can do ten mile races in the mountains. I do not say this to brag. I say this to remind myself, and you, that we do not have to let our past define our future. We can become whomever we want if we put our minds to it.

In the past few years, I have begun the athletic journey with my own sons. I was even a coach for both of their t-ball teams (brought back some of my glory days). I was able to mask my lack of skills enough to assist coaching their Little League teams (I was the line-up guy), but I can’t see that lasting into the next phase of their baseball careers. I still worry that I won’t be able to be the guy they have a catch with on the front lawn.  But someday, sooner than later I hope, I will take them to the trails that hug the river into Philadelphia, a serene place called Valley Green, and I will teach them the art of running. I will run along side them, I will let them beat me in the beginning, and I will share everything I know about how to be a runner. And if they decide they do not want to run, or they find their passions elsewhere, so be it. But they will know where to find me if they ever want to explore that world.

Recently, my mom was remarking about all of the races I run these days. “You know, out of all my kids, who would have thought you’d end up being the most athletic adult?” Thanks, mom (I think). But she did get me thinking. I am the most active today of my seven siblings. I do not mean to sound boastful, but it’s true. And if I had a choice of either playing sports through high school or college or being active for life, I think I’d choose the latter. I love where I am today. I feel fit. I feel alive. I get to participate in many exciting races and see many amazing landscapes. Now, if someone could just teach me how to throw a damn ball!

Painting by Veronika Nagy

Photographs of Valley Green by Ellie Seif

Click on pictures to visit these artists’ sites.