Friday, October 28, 2011

Paying it Forward

The other day I started mapping out my running plan for the next year. Culminating at the 2012 Chicago Marathon, I strategically placed other, shorter events on the calendar. Some are old friends dating back to when I was a real runner almost thirty years ago.

Cherry Blossom Ten Mile RunOne of those old friends is the Cherry Blossom 10-Miler, competed each April in Washington, DC. Framed by the budding trees at their peak, It’s a beautiful setting and one I conquered a few times back in the mid 80’s. Amazingly, I once finished in seventy minutes—a pace I can only dream of now.

To get in the race, you have to enter a December lottery for a coveted spot. On the web site I noticed that you can also get automatic entry if you are a “streaker,” which is defined by completing the course at least ten times in the last forty years and not by the absence of clothing… You might have to be as old as me to get why that’s funny.

Since I couldn’t remember how many times I had actually finished I sent an email to the race “information desk” requesting my times. Expecting to hear back in a few days (or not at all), I was pleasantly surprised by an immediate response from the race director himself. My three repeats didn’t get me an automatic entry, but in thanking him I gave him a little more information about myself.

For several 10-Miler iterations, also in the 80’s, I had volunteered on the pre-race set-up crew—with a bunch of guys I saw exactly once annually—in exchange for a guaranteed entry for the following year. Our job was to secure the start and finish areas so that they were safe for the runners. I probably can no longer lift the bales of storm fence that we carried and then pounded into place for the first and last miles of the course.

Usually, our work was done on Saturday (before the race on Sunday), but the last few times we had to get started in the early spring darkness on Sunday morning. Early—like just after midnight—Sunday morning. It was a tough, physical job, but also satisfying beyond the race entry reward. We felt like we were doing something good for others. Something that most would never realize or acknowledge. And we didn’t need or expect anything more.

About an hour after his first response, I got another email from the race director. He was involved in the race even back then and he did remember our hard work. “Let me know if you don’t get in through the lottery,” he said, “I’ll have a guaranteed entry waiting for you.”

Pretty cool. I guess sometimes, when you least expect it, you get paid back for your good work. Even if I don’t have to take advantage of the offer it was sure nice to get..

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Bright Morning Sky

The three months since my San Francisco Marathon have not been the best for my fitness. More calories are going in than are burning off. Maybe a lot more. The bed sheets seem to grip me more tightly as the morning temperatures begin their steady seasonal drop. My brain seems to find every easy excuse for not doing the day’s workout and my heart has gone along.

Instead of a steady diet of five runs per week, I’ve been reduced to 2-3. Seems like Monday kicks off just fine, but by Thursday I’m saying, “I’ll start again on Monday. Really. I will.”

So far this week I’ve actually done pretty well. Monday (slow 3 miles). Tuesday (start slow, go faster, 3 miles). Wednesday (3 miles on the track, every other lap hard). This is the beginning of a good pattern that will help me achieve my goals for 2012.

If I can just stick with it.

So when it came time to get up and run today my mind searched for an excuse. Ah, there it was. The weather guy said it was raining somewhere in the metro area, which meant that anyone trying to run three miles right then risked getting wet. “Don’t go outside this morning unless you’re planning to run less than three miles,” he forecasted, “Better to get in your car and go straight to work.”

Then the alarm went off and I actually turned the TV on…

So what makes me get up and run when it’s cold, dark, and lonely? Most of the time it’s a lofty goal in front of me or the quest to stay fit for life, but sometimes it’s more simple than that.

The first half of my favorite route is to the West and it stays dark throughout that fifteen minutes or so. But when I turn the midway corner everything changes.

Right then there is enough purple to orange light in the sky to help me see, yet the moon remains bright and the stars continue to shine. It’s peaceful and beautiful and serene. There aren’t many people seeing it that way so, just briefly, the world is simple and soft and mine to behold.

Makes me want to see it again. Tomorrow.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

In the Game

At the beginning of August the roster was just the right size. 17

Since you play soccer with eleven at a time, the difference of six gave us a nice, comfortable substitution margin. And, since my team has rarely had many injuries to worry about, I was optimistic about a really good run ahead.

Right before the season started one player unexpectedly quit. 16

In a casual, non-contact, inconsequential, informal, fun, summertime pick-up game one went down with a season-ending knee injury. 15

In our very first match, our keeper was lost with a season-ending knee injury. 14

But, still, fourteen is an okay number, right? Barring any further injuries or illness…

I shouldn’t have said that.

Two nights before our Columbus Day tournament I got a text message from a parent of one of the fourteen that began, “just wanted to give you a heads up…” I’m not sure in what context something good is coming next, but as a coach trying to get a team ready to play against really tough competition that start is usually a bad sign.

It’s an asthma episode. 13

Oh, and one player had already been sick all week. 12

So, I found two “guest” players from a younger team. 14

We played our first game (of three) and hung in there just fine. 14

We lost another girl to a knee injury at the very end of our second game. 13

And one of our strongest players was limping on a bruised thigh at Saturday dinner, but I didn’t even think about it much because she always, always, always bounces back way more quickly than any. other. athlete. I. know.

She didn’t. 12.

And one of our guest players had a previous commitment so she had to go back home before the third match. 11.

At the start of the last match, the referee says to me, “Coach, when you want to substitute a player just make sure you bring her up to the center line.” I humorously replied, “I would love to do that. Do you have any available?”

He said, “Sorry, I wasn’t trying to rub it in.”

We lost all of our games last weekend. We didn’t score any goals and we gave up too many. We used two players extensively who had never played with us before. We played with keepers who had little experience, but sacrificed their preferred positions to do what their team needed. We had other injuries, and headaches, and exhaustion that I didn’t even mention here.

I searched in vain for ways to defend or attack better, but there simply were no options to choose from.

And if you feel sorry for me or for my team I want you to know that I will never forget those two days because we were in every game. We didn’t have the best skills and we were smallish compared to the other teams, but we were in every game. We were dominated for the most part, but we only lost by one, by two, and by one again. We were in every game. The girls never bickered or complained about their plight, they just fought through it. We were in every game.

Except for maintaining a positive attitude, my coaching didn’t have much to do with our outcome. No, the fact that each of those last eleven could walk away from the match with her head held high comes from only one place. It comes from the heart. And if you could measure heart the championship trophy would belong to the girls in light blue.

We will win again soon and the character the team built in this gritty, determined effort will sustain us through this challenging season. We have six matches left. Some are going to be really hard and some we might have a good chance to win. No matter what, though…

We will be in the game.