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I’m running like my life depends on it. I’m not running fast, like I’m running away from something, but controlled, like I’m running toward something that’s far away.

My pace slows as I run up and then…OVER the Queensboro Bridge, leaving Queens, where I was born, and entering Manhattan, where I now reside. I allow myself a quick and barely audible YESSS!–three boroughs down, two to go–and then it’s back to work. At the foot of the bridge I’m greeted by throngs of spectators who make me feel like they showed up just to cheer me on. I turn onto 1st Avenue and head uptown towards the Bronx. “Bobby! You can do it!!!” someone yells from the crowd, a family member, maybe a friend, or perhaps just someone who’s reading the brightly colored duct tape that spells my name on my shirt. I smile and wave in the direction of the voice. But there’s no time to scan the crowd to find the speaker–I still have another ten miles to go. I think to myself, I’m really doing this.

I played that scene in my head dozens of times in the summer of 2012, like a high school mixtape in the days before iPods. It was part of my mental training to go along with the grueling physical training I endured as I prepped for the 2012 New York City Marathon. Only that marathon never took place.

The Decision

As Hurricane Sandy swept through the New York area in late October, leaving much of Staten Island, the Rockaways, and New Jersey devastated, the marathon was eventually canceled. I say eventually because New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s first reaction was that the show must go on. The public disagreed, loudly and angrily, embodied in the comments section of a Nov. 1 New York Times article, “Officials Defend Decision Not to Cancel Marathon.” The comments included:

“I think it’s wrong. There are still fatalities in the wreckage. There are still senior citizens sitting in dark, cold, flooded homes. Two young boys, ripped from their mother’s arms, have just been found in Staten Island.”

“Take the money that would be spent on the marathon and put it in a fund to help the affected. Running is such an individual sport. It’s a time to put the needs of the group ahead of those of the individual.”

“I am ashamed and disgusted that the mayor is allowing this marathon. So many homeless people, without water, food, or electricity. We need volunteers and the police should be helping those hurt by Sandy, not cheering runners.”

And, few and far between, a handful of supporters for the decision, including:

“The marathon is the most positive and uplifting event in NYC and the one where everyone joins together to support and cheer each other on. This is EXACTLY what we need right now! Good work Bloombito!”

Just two days before the marathon was scheduled to take place, Bloomberg released another statement, that “a shadow would be cast over the event,” and that it would be canceled after all. Contrary to the oft-quoted maxim, sometimes you can fight City Hall.

Meanwhile in Virginia, my fiancée’s family sprung into action just moments after the announcement, looking for a Plan B for us. They contacted us shortly after the news of the cancellation to tell us that, if we were interested, a marathon down in Richmond, Virginia, was accepting late entries from New York City Marathoners who still wanted to run. After a few minutes of deliberation, we looked at each other as if to say, “Let’s do it,” and pulled out our credit cards. As poker players say, we were pot committed–we’d already invested so much in the hand that even if it’s a bad decision to keep playing, it would be a worse decision to fold now.

Richmond

Six days after I was slated to run 26.2 miles around the five boroughs of New York, and twelve days after Hurricane Sandy had come and gone, I was lined up in the streets of Richmond, Virginia–“RVA” to the locals–to finish what I started.

I can’t say enough about the Anthem Richmond Marathon, which more than lived up to its billing as “America’s Friendliest Marathon.”

DSC_0890_edited-1

I told ya, it’s America’s Friendliest Marathon!

As the crowd of runners started to moved forward over the start line and onto the course, I took a quick inventory of my body’s trouble areas–my sometimes stiff right IT band felt good; my creaky left ankle and Achilles was pain-free. But I didn’t account for one body part, my eyes, and the fact that I might start crying.

I’m not much of a crier, and at first I wasn’t sure what had prompted that visceral response. I wanted to believe some of those tears were about for the circumstances–namely Hurricane Sandy and its victims–which rerouted my marathon plans from New York to Virginia. But they also felt like tears of joy, for having finally reached my goal of running (or at least starting) a marathon. Wiping my tears surreptitiously, as if I was wiping a bead of sweat in 40-degree weather, I glanced over to my fiancée, who met my glance. We’re really doing it.

I was so lost in my own thoughts that when we reached Mile 2, I turned to her and said, “We’ve gone two miles already?” She nodded. I looked at the time: we’d been running for 21 minutes. I’d been coasting, which made my first two miles feel like just a few minutes. I gather this is how the world’s top runners feel all the time, though for them, it actually does only take a few minutes per mile.

How do all these people know my name???

How do all these people know my name???

The first six miles were almost easy; even by the halfway point, my only concern was taking a bathroom break, which I took just after the Mile 13 marker at a porto-potty with a short line. Relieved–in all senses of the word–I felt renewed and my energy carried me to Mile 16 where I thought, dangerously, This isn’t bad at all. I feel great!

At Mile 18, I knew I was entering uncharted territory; the farthest I’d run in my training was 18.65 miles, and that had hurt. I knew anything after 18 was going to be a challenge. By Mile 20, what I’ve heard serious runners refer to as “The Wall,” I was in pain. And while I didn’t feel like I’d crashed into a tangible Wall, my knees were pounding. Mile 21 felt worse, but by then I was willing to injure myself permanently rather than stop just a few miles short of the finish line. (I also thought it might be fun when I’m 70 to say, “Yeah, that’s my bad knee…injured it running my first marathon back in ’12. You know what they say, the first marathon is the hardest!”)

The last mile was almost all downhill–which counter-intuitively sounds like a good thing, but is actually brutal on already-sore knees. As I ambled across the finish line, I was near tears again. The staff ushered me away from the finish line and towards the post-race festivities. I tried to plead my case to stay. “I’m just waiting for my fiancée!”, who was just a few minutes behind me. I felt like Rocky at the end of his first fight with Apollo Creed (3:16 mark), wanting no part of any interview questions, only concerned with finding Adrian in the crowd through puffy, bloodied eyes. (Yes, I realize how that sounds, but I swear, that’s how it felt.)

Weeeeee...are the chaaaaampions...my frieeeeends...

Weeeeee…are the chaaaaampions…my frieeeeends…

The Resolution

After that, we didn’t hear much from New York Road Runners, the organization that puts on the marathon, except to say, “We’re still figuring things out.” I misanthropically took this to mean, “We’re still figuring out how to keep your entry fees.”

NYRR finally announced its resolution on its website on December 20:

2012 Marathoners may choose one of the following options:

  • Option #1 – Refund. While NYRR has always had a no-refund policy for the Marathon, given these extraordinary circumstances, we are offering runners who were entered in the 2012 Marathon, and were unable to run due to the cancellation, the opportunity to obtain a full refund of their 2012 Marathon entry fee (excluding the $11 processing fee);  OR
  • Option #2 – Guaranteed entry to the ING New York City Marathon for 2013, 2014, or 2015. Entrants in the 2012 Marathon who choose this option will be granted guaranteed entry to the Marathon for the year they choose. Runners will be required to pay all processing and entry fees at the time of application (in the given year), with fees maintained at the same rate as those paid in 2012; OR
  • Option #3 – Guaranteed entry to the NYC Half 2013. Entrants in the 2012 Marathon who choose this option will be granted guaranteed entry to the NYC Half 2013, to be run on March 17, 2013. Runners will be required to pay all processing and entry fees at the time of application. Availability will be limited.

Upon first reading, I was happy with this resolution. They did the right thing for people who wanted simply to get their money back and move on. I was also happy that, if I wanted to, I could re-train and run it at some point in the next three years. I even tweeted this:

But as I read through my options a second time, I realized that I’d have to pay another entry fee if I wanted to run the race in 2013, 2014 or 2015, with my original payment going towards “guaranteed entry.” My spot was, in essence, being held hostage unless I was willing to pay twice (that’s $237 x 2) for one marathon.

I had originally qualified for the marathon by completing a series of nine races through NYRR in 2011 (at about $20 apiece, plus the $35 annual NYRR membership). The “9+1” program is actually really nice, especially if you live relatively close to Central Park (where most of the races take place on Saturday and Sunday mornings) but it’s a time and money commitment I’m just not willing to do again. I could also try to qualify by entering NYRR’s lottery program, but as its name suggests, it’s a longshot.

I realized then that, in all likelihood, I’ll never run the New York City Marathon. And that kind of bummed me out. It would have been an amazing feeling to come off the Queensboro Bridge, cheered by thousands of people, just as I’d fantasized about. But there are other marathons out there, and I could even see myself running Richmond again someday.

As I re-learn every day, things don’t typically work out the way you plan them but, if you’re willing to adapt, your Plan B might not be so bad. And after all, life is a marathon, not a sprint. (Oh come on, don’t roll your eyes at me. I had to!)

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I am a Tough Mudder.

That’s right. This past Saturday I completed the 2012 Tri-State Tough Mudder event at Raceway Park in Englishtown, New Jersey.

For those not familiar with Tough Mudder, I’ll let them tell you what they’re about (from their website):

Tough Mudder events are hardcore 10-12 mile obstacle courses designed by British Special Forces to test your all around strength, stamina, mental grit, and camaraderie. As the leading company in the booming obstacle course industry, Tough Mudder has already challenged half a million inspiring participants worldwide and raised more than $3 million dollars for the Wounded Warrior Project. But Tough Mudder is more than an event, it’s a way of thinking. By running a Tough Mudder challenge, you’ll unlock a true sense of accomplishment, have a great time, and discover a camaraderie with your fellow participants that’s experienced all too rarely these days.

I got the idea to run the event from my friend Mike, who was looking for a new physical challenge beyond his normal gym routine. He recruited me and eight others, and we had our squad.

I’m running the New York City Marathon in two weeks, so my first priority was surviving the course without a major injury that might jeopardize my marathon hopes. I’m happy to report that I completed the course relatively unscathed apart from a few knee scrapes.

Tough Mudder prides itself on its badassness. Its branding is all about being a counter-culture event, more exciting and physically demanding than distance running. In fact, here are Tough Mudder’s thoughts on marathons:

Marathon running is boring. And the only thing more boring than doing a marathon is watching a marathon. Road-running may give you a healthy set of lungs, but will leave you with as much upper body strength as Keira Knightley. At Tough Mudder, we want to test your all-around mettle, not just your ability to run in a straight line, on your own, for hours on end, getting bored out of your mind. Our obstacle courses are designed by British Special Forces to test you in every way and are meant only for truly exceptional all-around people, not for people who have enough time and money to train their knees to run 26 miles.

Well, having completed my first Tough Mudder, I can say that any of my longer training runs (13+ miles) have been physically tougher. (I can neither confirm nor deny whether I have a stronger upper body than Keira Knightley.) Still, if it takes that sort of in your face rhetoric to drum up business, I can’t fault them for it–besides, it seems to be working.

Rather than taking you step-by-step through the event, here are some of my thoughts from the day:

Smells like team spirit. Tough Mudder is incredibly rah-rah, meaning it’s a lot of pump-me-up, Jock Jams kind of stuff–which I’m not a big fan of. Before we could begin the event, our emcee did a 20-minute spiel that included many a “hoo-rah.” I just wanted to start the race.

Once I got past all the hootin’ and hollerin’ and hit the course running, I realized that the spirit of the event is genuine. Anyone who needed a push, whether it was over a wall, through a tunnel, or up a muddy hill, got one. And there always seemed to be someone standing on the other side with an outstretched hand to pull you through. It was very cool to see that sort of teamwork from people who didn’t know each other.

During one of the mud hill climbs, a team of men wearing blue shirts with the Wounded Warrior logo formed a line and set up a pulley system with rope. It appeared that they were clearing space so that only they could use the rope. Several among us started to question them–it seemed against the spirit of the event that they brought a rope but were only allowing their own group to use it. However that notion quickly vanished when we realized that they were clearing space to haul a man in a wheelchair–an actual Wounded Warrior–up the hill. As we all started to realize what was happening and the crowd broke out into hearty applause.

One of many Tough Mudder walls that needed climbing. (Photo credit: Linda Germann)

Yeah, no…we get it…it’s very muddy. The majority of the obstacles involved athletics running through, being submerged in, or slipping in mud or muddy water. While I fully understand that the event is called Tough Mudder, the amount of mud on the course seemed borderline gimmicky. Nevertheless most of the obstacles were challenging. Here are my favorites:

  • Arctic Enema: The very first obstacle, it’s nothing more than a plunge into ice water. We got lucky with gorgeous weather so hypothermia wasn’t an issue, but this would have been much tougher on a cold day.
  • Funky Monkey: Monkey bars are set up over some muddy water. The bars are spaced far apart and slippery with mud. The first half of the bars inclined, and the second half declined. Despite my lack of height, I managed to get across.
  • Hangin’ Tough: Five hanging gymnastics rings are set up, you guessed it, over muddy water. I was happy to have completed this one without the entire contraption falling on me–as we waited in line for our group’s turn, we noticed repairmen fixing a few of the rings with duct tape.
  • Twinkle Toes: The goal here is to walk across a thin wooden beam, else you fall into muddy wa…you get the point. I nailed it, Gabby Douglas style.
  • Everest: The final hurdle before tasting sweet victory (and a free pint of Dos Equis), you must take a running start and run as far as you can up a half pipe, and either grab the top of the wall or catch a fellow Mudder’s outstretched hand to pull yourself over. My teammates were standing by and, with their help, I got up on the first try.

Who the hell would pay $100 to run in mud for four hours? Though most participants seemed reasonably fit, you need not be physically elite to complete the course. Tough Mudder hits you over the head about it being a teamwork event, not a race to the finish. Conquering all the course’s obstacles isn’t mandatory, but I didn’t see too many people who didn’t at least attempt an obstacle before deciding to skip it.

It was great to see so many women participating–I’d guess it was about 20% female–and all the ones I saw handled the course as well or better than their male counterparts. There was no, “Let me help you with that, sweetie” stuff either. On the Tough Mudder course, everyone is treated as an equal. (According to Tough Mudder’s site, 25% of registrants are female.)

Many people wore costumes while running the event. I don’t know if it had to do with Halloween or just because. I saw a couple of princesses, a guy in an ape mask, and four dudes wearing nothing but leopard print thongs. In hindsight, as I’m still figuring out how to de-muddify my own clothes from that day, the thong guys might have had the smartest outfit of all.

Did I mention it was muddy? (Photo credit: Linda Germann)

A few gripes. I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the few negatives of what was largely a really positive experience:

  • Wait times for baggage were very long and didn’t seem particularly organized.
  • The “showers” were literally garden hoses with no hot water and no water pressure. (In fairness, I didn’t think they’d even have showers, so I can’t complain that they at least had something to wash off the caked mud and allow me to be semi-comfortable on my way home.)
  • The parking lots were 40 minutes from the site of the event by shuttle bus, which is a long way after a four-hour race.
  • They nickel-and-dimed participants, charging $10 for parking if your car didn’t contain at least four people; and spectators were charged $20 to watch the event (or $40 if they hadn’t bought their tickets in advance).

I’ve participated in a lot of running events, many in Central Park through New York Road Runners, and save for the above points, I thought that overall, Tough Mudder, was pretty well run. Tip: If you decide to do the event, sign up as early as possible–it’s $95 for early entry and the price increases as you get closer to the event. I can’t say for sure whether I’ll do the event again, but I feel like I got my money’s worth.

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