Up Next

Upcoming Races:

No races currently scheduled

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Past: Boston Marathon 2015

“You just beat Heartbreak Hill!”

The woman holding the sign was cheering like mad, a huge smile on her face despite the cold and the rain. My shoes squeaked with wet as I neared her and the slightly wilted posterboard. I was walking by then, and had been for a while, speeding up to a jog when I felt particularly inspired by the unending crowd. I couldn’t understand what she was saying from a distance, but I focused on the sign and realized that I was standing on top of one of the most famous hills in international racing.

And the sign started to get blurry.

As the year draws to a close, I begin to think about 2016 and all the incredible things I’m going to do during the next 12 months that are going to revolutionize my life and change the world. Though I once (on this blog, I believe) downplayed the idea of New Year’s resolutions in general, 2015 has been a metaphorical kick in the everything, and I’ve never sought the fresh start and “new me” ideals of the season more than right now. I’m excited. I’m motivated, and for once, I’m not starting from scratch.

For me, looking ahead necessitates looking back as well. You have to see where you’ve come from before you can decide where to go next. Otherwise, you make the same (bad) choices again and again. And while this year has had some very dark moments, there was light as well. I’ve hit some of my lowest lows, but also a couple of the highest highs, including the top of Heartbreak Hill.

It has been brought to my attention that I never wrote about Boston, so this seemed like the right time. Quick recap: in the early hours of February 1, I entered the hospital with a strangulated hernia. By Tuesday the 3rd, everything had gone sideways, and I had to have more extensive surgery that necessitated a full two weeks in the hospital and a long, slow recovery. At the time of my admission, I was nearing the end of the Austin Distance Challenge and was in moderately good running shape. Not great, by any means, but good enough to get across a finish line, with Boston on the horizon.

Naturally, my training took a hit. My next run was March 3, a whopping 1.42 miles. Then 1.83 on the 15th and 1.72 on the 30th. Not a single mile in February, and less than 5 in March. There may have been a treadmill run in there as well, but that spreadsheet is currently on a dead hard drive, so we’ll use the Map My Run stats I’ve got to work with.

I managed just three runs in April before the marathon on April 20, topping out at 5.36 miles and a training total of fewer than 20. Most running experts will tell you that it’s better to undertrain than overtrain, but I don’t think that’s what they mean. I had long since decided that I would be going to Boston. My incredible sister decided to make the trip as well and picked up the hotel and rental car costs, and the plane tickets were bought. The only question was whether I’d actually run. I told everyone that I’d wake up on race day and see how I felt, and make the call then. In truth, I was always going to run. I was always going to try.

The Expo was huge and amazing. The crowds were electric. I wanted to see and do everything, but I also knew that I had to be careful with every step, so everything went down to Monday morning. I woke up and sat up in bed without pain. The race was on.

Dressing, fueling, train, bus ride, all standard. Athletes must now get to Hopkinton incredibly early, which I suppose I don’t mind, except that it was cold and rainy. I forget the exact temperature, but I think it was low 40s with rain. I found a spot under a tent on a tarp and hunkered down, wrapping myself up in mylar. I dozed and tried my best to stay out of everyone else’s way, and eventually, they started calling us to the line. I was in the first starting corral, where I had no business being on that day. Still, I earned that spot, and I wanted to start there. The start line was rife with the usual joking and camaraderie that accompanies most social marathons. Honestly, it’s all a blur, and suddenly, 75 days after fairly major surgery, I was running.

The rain had stopped, mercifully, but the wind was still there, and it was in our face the whole way. If you don’t know Boston, you basically run East, so when the wind is blowing West, you’ve got a challenge on your hands. I had not adequately prepared for the weather, bringing my usual singlet and shorts, but I made some compression sleeves from a pair of socks and borrowed my sister’s new sweatshirt for the start. I would give it back to her at mile 5.

My goal was to run a 10-minute pace. I felt I could keep that up for a nice, long time. Unfortunately, I also felt that I belonged in the first starting corral, where everyone around me was running sub-7s. The first road out of Hopkinton is narrow and lined with spectators. (In fact, the whole course is lined with spectators!) This meant that all the thousands of people who were starting with me were flying past at top speed and I had nowhere to go. I stayed as slow as I could without getting trampled. At 5K, my time was 23:47, a pace of 7:40. Too fast.

The crowds flowed past me, but I didn’t care. It was all too incredible. I continued to slow as road opened up around me. I had a conversation with another runner who had also just been through surgery, though his was for a reconstructed knee. Even I thought that was crazy, but he turned to me and said, “I don’t know how this knee is going to heal. I may never be fast enough to qualify again, but I qualified for today, so I’m running.” I agreed. He went on ahead as we passed the 10K. 49:44, a pace of 8:01. Too fast.

I was uneducated on a lot of the traditions of the course, so the Wellesley women petitioning for kisses was a fun surprise. I was on the other side of the road and in no shape to dart across, but I enjoyed the spectacle and the sheer volume of sound (which I heard 4 minutes before I saw anyone). As the noise faded behind me, a far less welcome element lay ahead. The rain was starting again. I’d returned my sister’s sweater to her and now was running in a singlet and my sock-sleeves. The wind and rain worked together to bring a fairly miserable sense to my body, but I was still moving pretty well, and as long as I kept moving, I could stay warm. At the halfway point, I was at 1:53:15, a pace of 8:39. Still too fast.

And that’s right about when it hit me. Hard. My legs cramped, my stomach turned. Within a couple miles, the sleeves were soaked through and freezing, so I took them off and threw them in the general direction of a trash can. This would prove to be my biggest mistake of the day. Less than a minute later, my arms were burning from the cold and rain. I started walking, at first on a regular schedule (Galloway-style), but before long, I was running less than a quarter mile at a time. And I had ten miles to go.

I truly asked myself if there was any way I was going to quit, and I could not imagine doing so. Run, walk, crawl… I was going to cross that line.

The next four miles were a lesson in patience. Run as far as you can, then walk. The crowd was incredible. “That’s right, man! You can do this! Walk if you need to, but just keep moving. You start running again when you’re ready!” Occasionally, I’d nod and smile and start to run, always to huge ovations. There were many pleasant moments in an overwhelming sea of miserable pain. I was not ready for this race, and certainly not for this weather. But I was going to cross that line.

When I realized I was on Heartbreak Hill, I got very confused. I realized I had no idea what it looked like or how long it was. Was I really on it, or was there another hill about to come around the corner? It was terrifying and exhilarating to think that I was at the spot where history had so often been made. And then I saw that woman’s sign and started to cry.

From the darkest depths of fear and injury, I’d made it to the top of Heartbreak Hill. I honestly can’t even explain the feeling. So I cried.

And then I hid in a porta-john at mile 22. You guys, it was so cold. My hands barely worked anymore. I was soaked through. My legs were so cramped, I was afraid to even sit down. So I stood there for a minute or two, doing nothing besides being out of the cold and rain, hoping for a miracle to get me to the finish line. I got two.

The first was that, upon my exit, I found that the rain had stopped. The wind was still there, but with no rain to fill my eyes and sting my hands, the pain lessened significantly. The second happened somewhere around mile 24. We were alongside train tracks (for the T) and, on the other side of the tracks, maybe 50-75 feet away, was a group of young adults who together yelled “GO!” As loud as they could. I was walking at the time and took their cheer as an encouragement to run again. I yelled back, “You try it!!” And then ran the longest stretch I’d done in a while, to the cheers of the group. At around mile 25, we re-entered the city of Boston, and I would not walk again.

I learned later that the group was actually comprised of some college friends of mine, who recognized me from a distance and had, in fact, yelled “Joe!” at me. With blurry eyes, I could not see them, but, having not seen them in 9 years, they returned to my life at just the right moment.

The finish line of any marathon is a welcome sight, but that last turn onto Boylston was one of the most emotional moments of my life. I was over 90 minutes off the time that got me there, but nothing mattered. I saw my sister on the sidelines to my left and pointed to her as the tears started again, grateful to have someone to share the moment with. I my worst marathon was ended with the single ugliest finisher picture I’ve ever seen. Ugly cry for real.

I’ll be back. For sure, this will not be the only memory of Boston that I will have, but honestly, I’m not disappointed. I did what I did not think could be done, and as this year has dealt each successive gut punch to me, some part of that woman’s sign has floated before my eyes. Two and a half months after near disaster, “You just beat Heartbreak Hill.”

Hell yeah, I did.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Old Friends

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had an ever-present and occasionally passionate fascination with astronomy.

Somewhere in my boxes of things that I’ll likely never look at again, I still have the report I wrote in 7th grade about constellations. At that time, I was fascinated with pretty much everything, but in particular, I loved reading about mythology. Greek, Roman, Egyptian; it didn’t matter, as long as there were gods and heroes and monsters to explain the ways of the world. My favorite tales ended with characters being immortalized in the stars. I’d learn their names and their stories, and then head outside to see them for myself.

Being a child and working off my sister’s star chart, of course, I’m sure I misidentified nearly every constellation I thought I saw, though there were always a few I could pinpoint. Cassiopeia. The Pleiades. Dippers of all sizes.

And my favorite, Orion.

The three stars of Orion’s belt are just about the easiest formation to identify in the night sky, and while the constellation is only visible in the night sky for 3-4 months out of the year, I felt like he was there whenever I needed him. Plus, the star in his right shoulder is Betelgeuse, which I also enjoy.

When we moved to Texas, everything was new. I didn’t know anyone down here outside of my in-laws, and I was more than a little unsure about the future. Within a few months, though, we had an apartment, I had found a foothold in theatre, and I decided that I wanted to be a runner again. So, in the early hours of a cold Texas morning, I headed out before sunrise to get in a run, and there was Orion, my old friend. Of course, all I could think was, “Huh. They really are big and bright.”

That was about five years ago. A lot and very little has changed since then, and once again, I find myself in December trying to get back into running. In fact, looking back at the last couple years, December has been among the most prolific months for my running. It’s probably more chance than anything else, but I imagine it has something to do with the month’s position between my birthday and the New Year, both times of reflection and goal-setting.

Whatever the reason, the last couple weeks have been very successful for me from an activity standpoint. I’ve gotten up early enough to get a run when needed. I’ve done my cross training and (a little bit of) yoga. I’ve taken my rest when I needed it and haven’t pushed my pace, but instead let my body dictate my ability. And in just the first 8 days of December, I’ve covered 27.5 miles, making this already my 4th-most miles in a month this year. On Friday, I’ll surpass November; my Saturday miles will take me over April; and by Tuesday, the 15th, this will be my most prolific month of the year.

I want to note that this is not due to overworking. I’ve kept my runs (relatively) short and easy. I remind myself to slow down and focus on form throughout the entire run. Most importantly, I’m not rapidly jumping my performance. Instead, I’m taking small, incremental steps to be stronger. I finish workouts thinking, “I could do one more.” Then, instead of doing one more, I stop.

For the first time in a long time, I’m not seeing running as an adversary to be conquered. I don’t need to hit a certain pace or however many miles per week. I’m greeting running as an old friend. I’m just happy to be up on time and out the door. Happy to be moving my feet, reveling in the familiar feelings of strength and freedom that come from hearing the echo of my steps in the pre-dawn stillness. No distractions. No reports. No monsters.

Just me, my run, and Orion.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Car Three

If you've never experienced the joy of commuting, I salute you.

It really was not that bad when we lived in Chicago. I'd walk to the train, pick up the commuter paper, do the puzzles (maybe read the news) and suddenly, I'm there. On the ride home, maybe read a novel or baffle the kid across from me by pulling out my original Game Boy. (20 years, and still going strong.)

Driving, though, that's another beast entirely.You can't just tune the world out. You have to engage with it, and very often on Austin roads, engagement is not the most enjoyable activity. I've learned that listening to NPR takes the fight out of me and reduces the severity of my swearing by at least 60%. Plus, you know, I find out what's happening in the world, depressing as it may be. I get by.

Today's commute was almost more adventurous than normal. School is back in session, which means that traffic is back in full force. This means I have to be on the highway by time X or my time spent on the road begins an exponential climb. Yesterday, I was on the road at X-10 minutes. Smooth sailing.

Today, it was X+10, and disaster was narrowly avoided.

Not one mile down the highway, stopping and starting through the normal crush of that time of day, I was just starting to move again when I heard a rather nasty crunch to my right, followed by another crunch of lesser severity. Car three was clearly not paying attention and pummeled the back of truck two, which rolled into car one. I caught the most fleeting of glances before turning around the bend and heading down the road. If I'd been at X+15, my drive would have been 30 minutes longer, though likely not as long as that poor, distracted driver of car three.

I mean, sure, it was their fault, but I do understand, on some level, how it happens. And it didn't look like anyone was hurt, so I'm inclined to have a little sympathy. Not one of those three cars saw it coming, and their day was almost certainly a little rougher as a result.

A strained comparison, perhaps, but as the cars finally began to thin out, I thought about my morning, and how I don't remember hearing my alarm go off at all. Clearly it went off, because it was still set for the time that I needed, and clearly I shut it off because it was no longer making noise. But I have no recollection of this transaction, and as a result I was not able to get in a run this morning like I'd originally hoped. I didn't make the choice not to get up (that I recall), I just didn't. And my day was a little rougher as a result.

Somewhere deep down, we have our defaults. A friend of mine likes the saying that, "We don't rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training." (-Archilochus) I've managed to train myself to listen to NPR and (often, not always) let the insanity of Austin traffic fade away. I had to, for the sake of my sanity and blood pressure. My new default is calm. However, I have not yet figured out how to change my default when that alarm goes off. I've tried moving the alarm, and using different songs and tones. I experimented with those alarms that make you do math, but mostly, I figure it would just annoy my wife who is still trying to sleep. 

In some way, I have to make a conscious choice (in my semi-conscious state) to get out of bed. Train myself to be aware from the moment that alarm goes off. Remind myself how good I'll feel if I get that run in. Remember that the extra 20 minutes of sleep isn't going to help all that much. And if that doesn't do it, at least I should remember this:

Car three gets to the highway at X+10.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Go to Eleven

I'm at best a pseudo-believer in the old adage, "Fake it 'til you make it."

Personally, I'd rather figure it out, learn it, master it and do it with all sincerity to the best of my ability. Unfortunately, the world doesn't quite move slow enough for me to learn all the steps ahead of time. Sometimes, sure, you just pretend and figure out the rest as you go along.

I've always preferred my parents' way of saying it: "Act like you know." How do you wander into the Horseshoe at Ohio State after hours? Just walk in and don't ask any questions, apparently. Act like you belong somewhere and don't do anything obnoxious, and you'll probably be okay, provided you don't overstay your welcome. I've ended up in all sorts of odd places outside my normal boundaries simply as a result of acting like I know. 

The most recent was a Tesla.

I love this car. It's the longest-lasting, fastest, fanciest electric car out there. And for the low, low price of only $70,000, you can never pay for gas again. Until cars start flying. Then there will be jet fuel. Or Mr. Fusion Home Energy Reactors. But for now, you can just plug in your car. Or, you know, buy half a house with the money you didn't spend on a Tesla.

Feasibility of this dream aside, I've been on the mailing list for a while, just to keep track. For the future. When I'm rich and all that.

I got an email a couple weeks ago that they were doing a Tesla test-driving event. For those who may not know, Texas has laws that prevent car manufacturers from selling directly to consumers. Instead, they must retail through dealerships. This is not part of the Tesla business model, so you cannot currently sell a Tesla in the state of Texas. You can, however, attend test drive events, order one online and have it shipped to one of their service centers. Makes total sense right?

Who cares? I signed up. We got in the fancy one, because if you're going to do it, do it right. The car I drove through rush-hour traffic runs about $125,000. We got to set it to "Insane" acceleration mode once. And it was. Like, plane-starting sensation in the stomach. Apparently they'll soon be coming out with a "ludicrous speed" setting as a nice little nod to Spaceballs. And their new Model X has De Lorean doors. It will also have knobs with settings that go to eleven, a nod to Spinal Tap (not Spaceballs, as our test-drive associate thought, silly man). In understatement-of-the-month news, it was a nice car. 

Now, of course, a Tesla is outside my means, I have no delusions about that. But every once in a while, it's fun to live outside what makes sense. To pretend that you can do anything and imagine what the world around you would be like if that were true. To go to eleven, as it were.

The trick is to know when to come back to reality. Maybe some day I'll find myself in the enviable position of owning a Tesla. And maybe some day (sooner than that) I'll be back in 3-hour marathon form. Or I'll be able to complete the P90X workouts. Or even just be able to do dozens of push-ups, sit-ups, squats and dips without worrying too much about it. But for now, I'll take my incremental steps. Yesterday I did ten of each.

Today I went to eleven.

Monday, August 24, 2015


An object in motion tends to remain in motion unless acted on by an outside force. An object at rest tends to remain at rest.

Guess which one I've been.

It turns out that I've written one whole blog post this entire year. One. In what has been one of the most formative, difficult, peak-and-valley type years of my life, I've only found the need to share part of my life in long form once. And the reason is as simple as you might imagine. I haven't been running. This blog started as a way for me to track and share my running, and I just haven't been doing any of that this year.

I mean, of course, outside of the city of Boston. Yes, that race recap is coming soon. That's part of why I'm back at the keyboard in the first place.

But the main reason I've returned is that I have become an object at rest, and I have always been a creature of inertia. When I was training for the St. George Marathon, I gave up a lot of the things I enjoyed for the betterment of my performance. I wanted Boston more than I wanted any of those things, and every day made the next day easier. After a while, it had been so long, I couldn't imagine going back to the way things were. I kept moving.

And then I stopped. I slowed down and I stopped. I gave up a lot of the momentum I'd built for the enjoyment of an easier life, and I never quite got it back. It happened long before my stint in the hospital, and I was just getting back to where I'd been when everything went haywire. I've barely run a step since April.

Yes, I've been injured. Yes, I've been busy. Yes, it's been a crazy tough year for an alarming number of people who are very close to me. But the fact remains that I feel better when I'm an object in motion. And there are 130 days left in this ridiculous year, so I'm going to use them.

Today, I did push-ups, sit-ups, squats and dips. Ten of each. I know, dream big.

But the point is to start small. I always start too big. I tell myself that I'm a creature of inertia, and it takes a great force to overcome inertia, so I always make myself go out hard, starting with 30-mile weeks and P90X day 1. I cannot pretend that my body will always be able to do this any more, and I'm finally taking my cue from the fact that this behavior has always left me injured.

So today, I did ten. And tomorrow eleven. Depending on whether I get up on time, maybe even a (very) light run.

Because Newton's "outside force" is just for objects. For someone like me, the only way to get started is from within. To make one choice, and let that choice dictate the others. Whether that first choice is good or bad, you're setting yourself up one way or another. Today I did ten.


Thursday, March 5, 2015


It happened with terrifying speed.

We'd finished a performance of our show and settled in for a low-key evening of wine and guitar sing-alongs. Then my stomach started hurting. That kind of cramping you get when you've eaten a lot of crap. I told everyone I had to go home and got into the car to drive home.

Halfway there, I pulled over. The pain had intensified so much that I threw up. I tried to continue on my way, but three miles from home, I couldn't work the clutch anymore. I called my wife, gave her my best approximation of my location, and waited for her to give me a ride to the emergency room. I had realized that it wasn't my stomach that was the problem.

If you know my history as a runner, you might remember that I had bilateral hernia surgery just before starting college. At the time, I was training for my first marathon (Columbus 2002), which I was going to do with my mother and brother. A physical for college showed the hernias (I didn't know what they were, and they didn't bother me), which meant that I needed surgery before I could go to college, which meant no marathon. I stopped training. Within a few days, I was moving into college, and a couple months later, I ran the marathon anyway. Who needs training, right?

(By the way, everyone needs training. My legs didn't work for two weeks after that race.)

My hernia was back. Only one this time, but it was different from anything I experienced the first time. It hurt. Something was severely wrong. My incredible wife came and picked me up (at 2 in the morning) and drove me into the emergency room. They confirmed everything I was thinking and immediately got me prepped for surgery. No problem, I thought. I've done this before. I'll recover.

Four hours later, I was in surgery, and a few hours after that, I was awake in the hospital room. Last time, I'd been sent home pretty much as soon as I woke up, but this time, they wanted to hold me for a bit. Some of my intestines had been gangrenous and needed to be removed, so they needed to keep me until it was clear that everything was working. My big concerns at the time were, in order, 1) they'd have to cancel industry night of our show, and we'd have to re-block the scenes where I jumped up on the table, 2) what pace would I have to do in order to complete the Austin Marathon in two weeks, and 3) I guess I'll have to watch the Super Bowl between my least favorite team in the NFL and the team coached by the Emperor from Star Wars.

The next day (or the day following, things get a little hazy for me here), I was feeling extremely bloated. They decided to do a CT scan (I think, they terminology escapes me), which meant drinking this contrast dye. I made it halfway through and everything went wrong. I'll spare you the details of what was happening to me, but when they got me down for the scan, they found out that the gangrene had been far more widespread than they realized, something had burst, and I was septic. Again, I think this is all accurate. I'm not a doctor and I was on painkillers.

The next five days or so are a blur. I went back into surgery and this time got a nice big scar right up the middle of my torso. I got a drain in my side. A line into my arm that fed me. A tube in my nose. I got moved to whatever the step below ICU is. And I spent night after night fighting bad dreams, pain and a complete inability to regulate my body temperature. All told, I was 9 hours short of spending two weeks in the hospital.

For the outside world, it meant that they had to recast my role in the show. It was too late for me to cancel my registration in the Austin Marathon, so my wife got my packet, but I missed the race. This also meant that I failed to complete the Austin Distance Challenge for which I had spent so much time and money over the previous four months. Boston is now at risk. Complete devastation.

So, what now?

I've been out of the hospital for about three weeks now, and things still don't work quite the way they're supposed to work. I get stronger every day, but I lost a lot of weight and muscle, and it doesn't seem to be in a hurry to return. I've got my (hopefully) final follow-up appointment with the surgeon this morning, and I hope to be released for everything. I have no idea if I'll be anywhere near physically ready to run Boston (but you can bet I'll be there).

The truth is, I have no idea what now. Some days I'm full of energy and positivity, and some days I don't want to get out of the bed. The immediate plan is to get stronger on days when I'm able and rest on days when I'm not. I've removed myself from most of my commitments to decrease stress, both physical and emotional. Any progress is good. Any setbacks are to be expected.

With everything that's happened, I feel like there's a lesson to be learned, and here's what I've come up with: I'm not a kid anymore, but I'm not anywhere near done yet. I've spent my life surrounding myself with incredible people, and they were there for me when I needed them most. I've married an incredible woman who has cared for me well above and beyond what could have been expected of her. All these years have added love and friendship to my life, but also wear and tear to my body. I need to move more carefully now, which gives me time to enjoy what's around me. I need to watch for warning signs and take them seriously, because I'm not invincible.

And most importantly, I cannot stop moving forward. If I wasn't as strong as I was, this could have been a lot worse. If my circle of family and friends weren't as incredible as they are, it could have been a lot worse. For all I've done wrong in life (I am human after all), there are innumerable great things in my life. I haven't been able to enjoy some of them for the last month.

So I think it's time to get strong again.