"Joe, how do YOU keep focus during a long run?"
The question came naturally out of a conversation two runners across from me were having. We were sitting on the Coney Island boardwalk eating pizza after finishing the Brooklyn Half Marathon. The question didn't catch me off guard as much as the fact that I had no idea how to answer it. I felt myself starting to do that thing where I will diagram the question to myself, in my head, without actually speaking, even though the question is essentially an invitation to speak. I'm hyper aware of this tendency for a few reasons, so I finally said the thing that seemed most appropriate, the sentence I'd been thinking over and over as I ran down the long, flat stretch of Ocean Parkway: "There is no tomorrow".
He kind of scoffed, and I thought that was fair. It is technically untrue, and not really a sustainable philosophy. Also, It didn't really answer the question. It was the thing I happened to have been hanging on to during the last stretch of the race. I'd given him no context for it. And it wasn't necessarily the right truth. How DID I keep focus? What does keeping focus look like? "There is no tomorrow" is just this thing I was repeating over and over.
It felt nice to say it out loud, though.
What did "There is no tomorrow" mean to me? Well, there is no tomorrow race. The race is what I am there to do. I think similar things at track when doing painful speed workouts. "I'm literally here to run fast, so I guess I'm going to run fast." When you're training, you are working towards, working for something. That something is now - the race.
But really what I wanted to do was talk about what he meant by losing/keeping focus. What would that even look like, besides stopping, or maybe slowing down so much that it feels like stopping? If your body tells you it HAS to shut down, is that really losing focus?
The mechanics of focusing DURING a race is something I never thought about. In a lot of ways, the outcome of every single race I've run was decided before I ever got to the start line.
One thing about getting older is that I have less and less of a problem waking up for shit. I still sleep like the dead, but I can always get awake pretty quickly. Five years ago I would have been terrified at the prospect of having to wake up at five in the morning for something important but now I know it's a matter of physically placing myself in bed and relaxing and the rest will take care of itself. Things like this have become less of a problem as I've grown older. Stay in the night before? NO PROBLEM.
I actually woke up at four, but quickly rolled over and forced myself to get another hour of what turned out to be very light REM sleep. When it came time to actually get up I did without incident, slipped into my gear which I'd laid out the night before, ate a Clif Bar and left my place at around 5:20. The subway station (Times Square downtown 1/2/3 platform was crowded with runners. In my car, one dude read of the Game of Thrones books. Two girls talked about Florida (one girl had just visited). A big dude with a low bib # sat behind sunglasses and slowly bobbed his head to whatever music was playing in his headphones. I leaned against the door and tried to move as little as possible. My legs, from not having run in three days, were twitchy but I deliberately calmed them. My knee...
I don't want to go too far into this but this race is in many ways the story of the Knee so here it is.
At the time of the race I'd been having issues with my knee for the last seven weeks or so. A week before the Scotland Run 10K - so late March - I'd pulled up lame at the end of a 5.5 mile run with a pain that had only been discomfort the previous two weeks or so. I'd been out on the Hudson River at around 72nd street when it began to hurt badly. By the time I'd made it back to around 8th avenue near my apartment I was limping and had actually lost some feeling in my half my left hand which was sort of unsettling. I took the week off, didn't run at all. The Knee and hand felt better so I ran (and inexplicably PR'd) the 10K, which was hellish in different ways (I was fighting through unrelated problems), but the Knee was never more than sore. After the race I took another four days off.
As the month went on I took it pretty easy (3/4 miles at a pop - no back to backs, one longer run of 5/6 per week) until May started looming and I figured I needed to bump my mileage up. I did a 10 mile run one Saturday, and the next day I decided to run an "easy" three the next day to make my mileage for the week an even 30. This did not work out as I pulled up lame at around mile 2. I stopped, gave the Knee some love, retied my shoes, and tried again. It was worse. I limped out of the park, extremely discouraged, thinking I was probably not going to be able to run Brooklyn.
I made an appointment with an orthopedist and sulked for a week. Rest, ice, sleep, ice, advil, repeat. I did this for four days. That Friday I ran one mile on the treadmill without pain so I decided I would try to run for real the next day. Our group was running the first seven miles of the BK Half as a training run, to get a feel for the course. Around mile three, the Knee started to bark, but by mile 5 it had faded. It was sore again on the long walk back to the subway, but I gave it another two days and was running without pain again. At the appointment with my orthopedist, he said he wanted to do an MRI to make sure there was no meniscus damage. My health insurance thankfully covered it so I went ahead and did it. It came back clear and my doctor diagnosed IT Band, set me up for physical therapy, and said I was OK to run, as long as there wasn't pain.
The battle of the Knee is a whole Sartre play in itself, but suffice it to say that the story is either that the self-doubt and anxiety over the Knee was hugely disappointing and I made it needlessly complicated by tying the Knee (and its performance at the Half) metaphorically into my self-worth and my reasons for running at all, or, a story of remaining level-headed, being proactive and smart about a potential injury, and being rewarded for that diligence by the knee being ready and by all accounts 100% on race day. On my last two long runs before the Half I hadn't felt it at all. I was feeling strong and confident. Everything was coming together.
My plan for the race was to go out with the 1:40 pace team, hang with them for the first half of the race, and then if I was feeling OK, make a move, pull away, and go for a PR. My previous PR (from the Fred Lebow Manhattan Half - 2 loops around Central Park) was 1:37:40 and I'd been feeling very confident about besting it at Brooklyn before my knee issues started. But now that the knee had calmed down I was thinking about going after it again. I thought that going out with the pace team would lend itself to a calm, measured approach to the race. It would stop me from going out too fast, from pushing too early- and it may have, had the plan not fallen apart before the race even started.
I arrived at the corrals at around 6:15 and the Wave 1 crowd was already pretty huge. Security screening was fast and painless (though I heard Wave 2 had significant issues). I made my way down to corral 7 and found the pacers I was looking for, got on line for the porta-potties and snapped some photos. The length of the line was worrisome but I had over a half hour. Surely it wouldn't take that long.
Mike Tyson said famously "Everyone's got a plan until they get punched in the face". The running version of that is "Everyone's got a plan until the lines for the porta-potties turn into an absolute shitshow of people cutting ahead, forming their own lines, yelling at each other, etc., and take so long that the corrals collapse when you're still at least ten minutes from getting in there and the pace team you want to go out with ends up 100 yards ahead of you and 5000 runners from the back corrals you're going to have to pass within the first mile".
The start line is just around the corner. As I cross the timing strip I start my watch and take off. The first section is Washington Ave, on the East side of the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. It's a long straightaway and it's very crowded. I see the 1:40 pace team a little ahead of me so they're my first target. When I catch up I hang with them for a minute before I realize it's not going to work. I keep having to dodge people. I veer over to the right hand side of the road and make up some ground. There's a guy in a backwards Phillies hat that's going at a good clip so I tail him for a while. Mile 1 checks in at 7:02. Feeling good...
Mile 2 is up Flatbush towards Grand Army Plaza. You loop around and then go back down towards where Empire Blvd becomes Ocean Ave. This is a nice calm stretch with a lot of people cheering. The race thins out a little up here. I'm running fine, easy, no pain, no struggle, no song stuck in my head. I'm still behind Phillies guy. People are starting to take off their layers. I've already seen two shirts on the ground. It's definitely warm - I realize as we turn onto Parkside Ave that the gray long sleeve shirt I have on underneath my BK Half tech shirt is not going to last the whole race. It's only a matter of when.
Second mile checks in at 7:28 which is fine, it's a hill, and it's close enough to my PR pace that I'm OK with it. It's still early. At mile 2.3 I see my running group's cheering section, grab some easy hi-fives, and give a little push as we head towards the park. There's a right turn up here, and it's naturally going to bottleneck a bit so I want to get up there quick. I hit the park strong - my third mile is 7:00. I relax a bit.
The stretch to the hill is where I gather myself. Here I move to the side and take my shirt off, remove my grey undershirt, and put my bib shirt back on. It's an easy move but I have to be careful. There's no margin for error. If my bib comes off or I elbow someone in the face - that's a problem. But now I'm holding my sweaty shirt as I push on towards the hill. I look for a garbage can but can't find any. I finally decide just to leave it on one of the traffic divider sticks on the right hand side of the road. I didn't want to throw it on the ground so I just hung it there. And that was the last I saw of it. I'm assuming it got thrown in the trash during post-race cleanup. RIP gray shirt.
And here's the hill. I hit it, not too hard, but definitely with a little umph. At the top of the hill, there's a lot of people cheering, some positioned right at the crest saying variations of "It's all downhill now". I catch one guy to my left saying "Ok, now turn it on". I do. I speed down the hill. I grab a little Gatorade and move along the back end of the loop at a nice clip. I hit a 6:55 mile. Some sun breaks out. I'm feeling good, good.
That's a big chunk of this race report. Just feeling good. Feeling strong. Running fast, running hard, but handling it. The grueling stretch is yet to come, I know this. But I'm OK. People on the side of the road are yelling "Halfway there!"... I'm not following anybody. Phillies hat guy pulled away from me a while ago. There's no sign of the 1:40 or 1:35 pace teams. I check my watch as I leave the park and it's just under an hour - which is exactly where I need to be. A PR is going to be close.
The coolest scene of the whole day was seeing thousands of runners running down the ramp on to Ocean Parkway. This is when the scope of the whole thing becomes a little clearer to me. I say out loud, "holy shit". It's an impressive sight. A woman nearby says "I always forget about this little upswing here" and she's right. There's a small hill but over the crest it's just flat and straight. For five and a half miles. People were warning me not to get into counting down the alphabet (this stretch of Ocean Parkway goes from Ave C to Ave Z), but I don't even notice it until much later. I hit a 7:20 mile. Ok, I think to myself, if I can just keep this pace, I'll PR. My head can't really handle the math but I'm thinking in terms of two miles being under 15 minutes. But even simplifying the math doesn't make it easier. But I know 7:20 miles are good. Under pace. So just hang on.
How to talk about running, especially a flat, straight stretch of five miles? You can't describe the terrain. You can't talk about what you're specifically doing... at least I can't. I try to keep good form. If I notice myself slacking I fix my posture. If I catch myself looking at the ground I'd make a concerted effort to bring my head up and look forward. I'm holding my arms up, not swinging too much, let the arms move naturally. How's my kick? No idea. I'm just running. Everything is cliché: I'm not racing all these other people (and there are a LOT of them - everywhere), I'm racing against everything telling me to stop. Mile 9 marker. Just keep going. Run fast. Take chances.
Mile 10 marker. I'm talking to myself, in my head: You're obviously not going to stop. So stop thinking about it. How the fuck am I doing this? Doesn't matter. What song is in my head? Oh, it's IF I CAN'T HAVE YOU. I'm hearing a woman sing it, but I'm almost positive it was written by the Bee Gees for some reason (I find out after the race that it was a hit for Yvonne Elliman but it was indeed written by the Gibbs brothers). It hits me... Ocean Parkway is a treadmill. Flat, straight, boring. Mechanical. Constant. Nothing to distract you. But I've put in those treadmill miles. I can flip that switch. At this pace, at this point in the race, it's going to suck. But that's what I'm here to do. To make it suck.
Mile 11 marker. Pretty much every second I'm trying to run as fast as I can for the distance remaining, adjusting on the fly pretty much every 10-15 seconds or so, pressing enough on and off the gas pedal in order to arrive at 13.1 with zero left in the tank. Because, and here is where I come up with it, There is no tomorrow. Meaning there is no tomorrow's run. This is what you were practicing for. To be able to do this, right now. Thoughts come and bark at you like OH GOD THE HERE AND NOW HURTS PRETTY BAD but they leave just as quickly. It's not even thinking. It's basically just hearing the thought and then hearing the silence after.
But it's exhausting. It's pain. It sucks. The people cheering on the side of the road do help. There's the side of you absolutely overwhelmed by all the exertion. And there's the side of you screaming that you're an amazing badass so keep going. The people cheering on the side of the road help tip that in the favor of the positive. Not that you need it. But you do, sort of, need it. Mile 12 marker. Rain. Oh God. Here it comes.
The whole lead up to the race was, will it rain? What to do if it rains? I would say, I hope it doesn't rain, people would say the rain would feel nice. I would start getting used to the idea of rain, and I'd come across people who thought I was crazy. Ultimately Wave 1 pretty much missed the rain until the end of the race. Wave 2 had a tougher time with it.
The rain is not too heavy yet and does feel nice. I'm really moving now. Everything hurts, sure, but it wasn't so bad it was causing me not to keep up with that I was asking it to do. I kept thinking, 4 more loops around the track! 3 more loops around the track! This is also about the time I realized I was going to PR for sure. My mood significantly improved - my thoughts became less consumed by the existential dread that comes with the back end of a really long difficult run: being unable to focus on anything except the bottomless now for every single moment. This sounds nice but it's difficult to endure in the same way the way meditating for really long stretches is difficult, or trying not to blink is difficult, except, of course, you're also running, and have been, for over an hour. The dread of why, even, am I doing this?
All gone. I can taste it. Now all I'm thinking is FUCK YEAH and GO and COMEON and UNNNNGHHHH and ALMOST THERE FOR REAL.
The turn on to Surf Ave is pretty exhilarating. There's an 800m sign, which is awesome. I can do two loops on the track like this. The pack turns left at the Cyclone and then up the ramp and then right on to the Boardwalk. I see the finish line right away. I see a line through the crowd and gun it, catching several, and crossed the finish line in full stride.
And then you stop. WOOSH.
But you can't really stop. The volunteers keep the line moving. Water and Gatorade. Apples and... Pretzels? No bagels... pretty shocked by this. (Come on NYRR. A huge Brooklyn race, without bagels?) The sky has pretty much opened without anyone realizing it. Everyone's breathing heavy and sort of dazed. Marathon Photo is going around taking everyone's picture. The crowd continues to be moved in the direction of the baseball stadium, where there's bathrooms, bites and beer awaiting (according to the signage). The crowd hobbles, drenched, exhausted, towards the heat capes. I try and eat a pretzel but my mouth is too dry to chew it. I grab a cape and plod forward.
Baggage is in the parking lot and this is where most wind up, checking their phones, standing around. Just as quickly as the rain came on, it passed - at least on the Boardwalk - I heard later it was still raining on the route. I finally sat down by the entrance to the park, flooded with endorphins, and tried to relax. I sent some texts and took some pictures. I went through the race stats on my GPS watch. But mostly I just sat there, letting everything settle back to normal, feeling really emotional.
The emotional component to running, especially for a race like this, always catches me off guard. It makes complete sense, of course. I understand why I wouldn't have thought that going in but still I'm sort of blown away by it. As I sat around the parking lot watching people wander around, Though I was happy, I wanted to scream. Though I was jacked on endorphins and adrenaline, I wanted to sit calmly and breathe. Though I wanted to see all my friends and hear about their races, I wanted to lose myself in this crowd and be alone.
I gave myself a bit of respite in the stadium. I got a hot dog and a beer and sat down on the outfield grass, which was neat. Soon I received a text from a friend who'd finished (and PR'd) and told me where everyone was meeting, so I gathered myself up and headed over. Pizza was imminent.
On Ocean Parkway, it's like complete zen and complete overstimulation at the same time... a state of being where you can flip between channels but these are the only two channels. Complete yes or complete no. There's nothing else to do but focus. As long as you hang on, you're focused. But if you slow down, that doesn't necessarily mean you're not focused. It could be one of a million things, wet socks, a bad night of sleep, shitty training. Could be you just ran out of gas.
I'm not sure what focus looks like. Does it look like me doing what I'm doing now? Self-doubt tells me that maybe it's the difference between a 1:35 half and a 1:25 half. Maybe the difference is: Think about your breathing right now. Think about your posture. Think about how you're carrying your arm, how you're landing on your feet. Focus on keeping everything the same - yet at the same time push. You're in more pain because you're going faster, yet you have to create and go down the checklist.
But wasn't I doing that? It felt like I was doing that.
I don't know how to write about running. It seems even stupid at times. JUST RUN. I RAN. IT WAS GREAT. How did it feel? GREAT. Honestly I don't even know if I know how to write about anything anymore. But running makes me want to write about it. Where the desire to run came from, why it clicked, why it stuck, what it makes me feel like I am capable of, What it's like to be under incredible stress, in complete pain, yet choosing to endure it, and not being able to remember the pain, after... only the good parts of it. And why I can't do this with other seemingly everything else in my life.
On the boardwalk, four slices deep, all the “what-if”s and “how-am-I-gonna”s are over before I even had a chance to answer them. How do I keep focus? Maybe the most accurate answer is "I don't know." Or maybe even, "I don't".