Saturday, November 21, 2015

My First Marathon

I'd been training for this marathon since April. I'd filled in that grid day by day with orange highlighter, and eventually the whole thing was orange. The morning of November 15th had arrived.

Grace drove us into Brooklyn while I was taping my feet and not driving into Brooklyn. Thanks, Grace.

These next few shots give you a sense of what a beautiful morning it was: chilly, with brilliant sunlight radiating through the lovely autumn foliage.

I was lucky to have not only Grace, but also some of our Brooklyn friends, cheering me on.

After my warm-up jog, I knew I'd be too hot with my second layer, so I stripped down to my base layer, pinned my bib back on and took my place at the rear of the small crowd of runners

The starting signal sounded, and I took my time approaching the timing mat. No use cramming myself into the crowd at the beginning.

50 minutes into the race. I was averaging somewhere around 8:10, which felt good but was also worrisome. I wondered if I was setting myself up for an early burnout.

1 hour and 15 minutes into the race. At this point I'd maintained an average pace of around 8:15, and was feeling strong and hopeful. My training pace indicated that I should have been capable of running a marathon in under four hours, and I had every hope of doing so.

At 2 hours and 15 minutes into the race, I was still feeling strong. I'd finished the first half in about 1:50, and at this point I still hoped to complete the marathon in under four hours, though my pace had begun to drop.

At 2 hours and 50 minutes into the race, my pace was dropping more and more. I note with some chagrin that I didn't return Grace's enthusiasm. By this time I was deep in my head, focusing all my energy on the run. Thanks again for your support, Grace.

At 3 hours and 25 minutes into the race, I entered the final lap around Prospect Park. By this time I knew I wasn't going to finish in under four hours, but I didn't particularly care, because I was approaching the point where all my energy would be devoted to keeping running. From around the time I passed Grand Army Plaza, everything in me said "Stop. Just walk it." But I didn't. My pace wasn't great, but I kept running--with the exception of a few seconds of walking at the water stations.

Headed for the finish line! Oh man, I was hurtin'.

This shot comes from the video of me crossing the finish line, which you can see on the NYCRuns race results site.

I didn't finish in under four hours, but by golly, 4:06:03 is a solid time for a first marathon, as is finishing 33rd of 58 in my age group. I'm happy with my performance!

I hobbled over to the grass, laid down and attempted to stretch. My muscles took this as an opportunity to express their profound dissatisfaction with the current administration.

My muscles began spasming and trying to cramp, so I knew I had to get up... very carefully. Eventually I was able to complete that civil engineering project and lurch woozily back to the car.

I stopped to do a bit of stretching...

...which triggered more agonizing cramps...

...but I was able, slowly, to walk it off...

...and return home with some sweet swag!

After the race I was looking for ways to improve next time. I found an article on running a sub-four-hour marathon, which indicates that my pacing during the first half was spot on. So I'm wondering if the problem was related to the food I ate during the race. The article recommends eating at most 500 calories during the first twenty miles, but when I did the math I realized I took in around 800 calories! The article talks about runners who don't take in enough carbohydrates "hitting the wall", and the symptoms of lethargy it describes sure seem like what I experienced. But there's no way I at too little. And I suspect that, if I did eat too much, the symptoms would have been similar; digestive difficulties combined with high sugar levels were probably to blame.

Another problem I had (perhaps it stems from the tiredness I already mentioned, but let's assume for the sake of argument that it's a distinct problem) was psychological. The article talks about using positive imagery to psych yourself up, but boy, that's easier said than done. I tried to do fartlek, but I just couldn't. During those last few miles, it took everything I had not to stop running; that was absolutely the most I could do. I didn't feel particularly positive. I was just determined to finish without walking.

Speaking of psychology, the most fascinating thing about the whole experience was the altered state I felt. That run did not seem like four hours. It seems that, when the mind tells the body to do something unendurable, the body steps in and alters the brain chemistry so that it becomes endurable.

So... wow. I ran a marathon. I'm still telling myself what I told myself as I crossed the finish line: "I did it. It's no longer future tense. I did it. I ran a marathon."

Sunday, November 1, 2015

My Analog of Prayer

The foliage was glorious today. The temperature was around 59°. The sun shone occasionally from behind silvery clouds. I felt lucky to be alive, much less running fifteen miles. Naturally, my thoughts gravitated to a topic on which I ruminate frequently: gratitude and its relationship with spirituality.

Let me preface this by saying it's not my intent to disparage agnostics and atheists. Agnostics and atheists are my people. I'm neither an apologist for the religious, nor a detractor of the areligious. I'm just musing on relative strengths and weaknesses, is all.

The greatest mistake agnostics and atheists make is to disparage notions such as prayer. To many folks, prayer is the most risible, easiest target in the world, and that strikes me as not merely mean-spirited, but myopic. In its purest form, prayer is an expression of gratitude. And boy, do we need that. We are animals who absolutely must have checks and balances for our innate sense of self-righteousness. We need periodically to see ourselves as we relate to our universe so that we understand that we are not the center of it. We need to see the gifts the universe bequeaths. We need to count our blessings.

To see what I mean, consider one common political disagreement. Conservatives tend to think that poor people choose to be poor: that anyone can claw their way up from the worst circumstances, so social cushions merely coddle and encourage laziness. Liberals tend to take the opposing view: that luck and circumstance play such a large part in success or failure that our public policy should reflect this.

And then atheists and agnostics--who are, oddly, much more likely to identify as liberal--turn around and do the exact thing they criticize conservatives for. They sneer and titter at the notion of prayer, not just dismissing the possibility that it has any value, but proudly proclaiming their own Randian superman self-sufficiency. "I'm not going to thank any forces outside myself," they say. "I got where I am through hard work, and I'll be damned if I'll give up any of the credit!" Doesn't that sound bafflingly familiar?

I'm not religious. Not only don't I believe in God in any conventional sense, I see no reason to suspect that the universe has any intent. Of course I think I'm right. We all think we're right. I'm utterly uninterested in conversations of rightness. I'm interested in conversations of efficacy. I need what they need. Whatever forces compel religious people to pray are also present in me, and whatever benefits they derive from prayer would likewise benefit me. So why in hell shouldn't I pray? Yeah, sure, I have no face in the clouds to pray to, and that's the whole damn problem. Prayer is orders of magnitude harder for me and for my people. We don't have a focal point for the prayer. But damn it, even if we don't pray in any conventional sense, we need an analog for prayer!

Don't buy it? All right. Do you buy this?

Sex is pleasurable because environmental factors during our evolution selected for a strong sex drive. Now that we are exceeding the carrying capacity of every biome on earth, that strong sex drive is obsolete: the behavioral equivalent of a vestigial organ. As rational, civilized beings, we should recognize that non-procreative sex is not only a silly remnant of primitive cultures, but actively harmful. Sex leads to abuse, violence and overpopulation. We should discourage sex. Sex is bad. Every scientist should be a militant asexual.

I'll bet you wouldn't get behind that. Yet I know folks who get behind this.

Religion comforts people because environmental factors during our evolution selected for social cohesion. Now that we have science, religion is obsolete: the cultural equivalent of a vestigial organ. As rational, civilized beings, we should recognize that religion is not only a silly remnant of primitive cultures, but actively harmful. Religion leads to abuse, violence and genocide. We should discourage religion. Religion is bad. Every scientist should be a militant atheist.

Now I agree with some of that, just like I agree with some of the paragraph about sex. But I ain't willing to throw out the baby with the bathwater in either case. I will make no apologies about continuing to enjoy sex, because I'm a member of a species which evolved to draw nourishment from sex. And I will make no apologies for seeking an analog for prayer, because I'm a member of a species which evolved to draw nourishment from questing after the numinous.

Again, I'm not an apologist for the religious. I'm a devout agnostic. I have no use for religion. I ain't never gonna do what they do. Don't mean I don't need what they need.

So here is my prayer for today.

Thank you, sun. Thank you, sky and clouds and lambent foliage. Thank you, universe, for the gift of my mere existence. Thank you for bones and muscles and blood and nerves, and for my capacity to appreciate them. Thank you for the circumstances that led me to develop a healthy relationship with my body, and then sneak past my own defenses so that I slowly came to believe I could run a marathon. Thank you for the opportunity to follow through on the necessary training.  Thank you for this day, when that training led me to run fifteen glorious miles. I see no reason to think I deserve any of these blessings any more than billions of others who aren't afforded them, and I'm grateful.