The Running MCF

(...or “Chariots of MCF”; your choice.)

Three years ago I participated in a 3.5 mile race, surprising myself by not passing out and finishing in 32.49 minutes. It wasn't a great time, but it wasn't bad either. The following year, I had to play for the St. Ann's Festival in Hoboken, which always falls on July 26th. The race is usually the last Tuesday in July. In 2004 the feast took place a day prior, but I figured I'd be too tired to run after a six hour procession in the hot sun, and that I'd be working late to catch up after a vacation day. In 2005 they fell on the same day, so I had no other recourse but to miss the race. This year the race took place the day before the feast, and in truth I signed on for it before I realized I was booked to play the next day. Nevertheless, I decided to be a man and tough it out, and proceeded to diet and exercise, and train for the 2006 Workplace Challenge. ”Was I Prepared?” is the question I posed yesterday. I was prepared indeed, but was it enough?

On the way to work Tuesday morning, it struck me how many songs I was hearing sequentially with the word “run” in them. U2's “Where the Streets Have No Name.” Jackson Browne's “Running on Empty”. Van Halen's “Runnin' with the Devil.” I got to work and didn't think too much about the race. My morning vanished between a meeting and a photoshoot, and suddenly it was lunch. I was told that runners should have carbs, so I took a quick break with a few friends to head for a pizzeria. I had an amazing stuffed chicken slice. My afternoon was far more productive than my morning, though I was constantly aware of my diminishing time. I think part of the reason I work late so often is because that's become my safety net. I know I'll get everything done because I can just work late if I have to. I forgot how much pressure there is when I only have until 5:00. I finished everything I could for one project, and took a good bite out of a second project, but I wasn't able to finish both. I was able to listen to Superman II, which I had playing in the background on my machine and, with the John Williams theme music firmly in my head, it was time to go. Followed by my friend and arch-nemesis The Greek, I proceeded downstairs to the locker room. For some terrifying reason he chose to document my journey on his camera phone, though thankfully didn't follow me into the locker room. It was then that the first trademark bit of MCF luck struck, when I found I couldn't get out of a bathroom stall. “This is SO me...” I thought with more resigned acceptance than surprise. Panic grew as I jiggled the handle and contemplated the horror of crawling under the door to get out. I prayed to God and the latch finally slid free.

I quickly donned my company's shirt and other sportswear, and put all of my valuables into my bag save for my wallet and keys. I was feeling nervous, and tried to think of all the pseudo inspirational phrases in my lexicon like “put one foot in front of the other” and “shut off your mind and just go” and “they'd stop picking on him if he'd hit back just once, Mr. and Mrs. [MCF].” It's funny the things that pop into one's head at odd times, or at least into my screwed-up brain. Breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth, I focused on the drive ahead of me and the inevitable traffic on the Meadowbrook Parkway. Surprisingly, after a delayed merge, things opened up. Both the air and my head got clearer as I got closer and closer to the beach. I noted a sign that said Jones Beach stops collecting parking fees after 4 PM. We were told it would be waived if we said we were there for the race, but I was glad to see I wouldn't even have to stop at a toll booth to explain that after all. Time was short and the race would begin in an hour. ”Nothing's gonna stand in my way!” I thought with the same inexplicable confidence that usually precedes spectacular improbability. It was amazing how I had about six lanes to myself, and all the traffic was in the left two lanes. Then I saw the toll booths, blocked off by traffic cones. I was flying at a speed I won't post online, and very nearly crashed in to the booths as I swerved in front of the traffic. Heart pounding, I began focusing on the signs to find Field 5.

Of course the field required a U-turn to reach, and of course park officials closed off the nearest turning point. Some people ahead of me cheated and drove into the wrong lane to get to the other side, but one of the officials yelled at me, her arms flailing, and so I had to continue on for another mile before I could change direction. As I finally approached the entrance to the field, I noted The Proclaimers' “I'm Gonna Be” lyrics and wondered, not for the first time in my life, what the heck the word ”haver” meant. In context of the song, I guess “chatter” is the most likely definition. I'm glad that's settled.

I found a great parking spot, and went to turn in my slip for a free t-shirt and other nifty swag. I decided to put that in my trunk before finding my company's tent, even though I now only had about 10 minutes until our gathering time and 40 minutes until the start of the event. I walked to the end of the aisle, and thought how improbable it was that someone should steal my car of all the thousands of newer ones to choose from. Logically, the configuration of the lot had merely changed as more cars pulled in, and I was merely disoriented. I eventually found my car two aisles down, and now had to jog back to the picnic area. There was a nice breeze, but I began to feel the heat as I ran. Things were looking grim until I spotted my friend Harry, who also hadn't located the company tent. We soon found more people from our job, and eventually all reached the tent which was in a different location that it normally is. There I found extra safety pins for my racing number, as the two originally supplied weren't cutting it and the wind kept blowing the sheet up. My friend John arrived, and jovially warned Harry, “Watch this guy; he's faster than he looks.” I laughed too, before that fully sunk in. Still, my plan was a simple one. Harry usually gets the best time in our company, so I could gauge myself by where I was in relation to him. I began to crave first place, and the honor of a company-wide e-mail that would make me the object of every girl's desire. I've learned countless times in the past that real life doesn't work that way, but it's always in my subconscious I suppose.

When it came time to line up, an enthusiastic aerobics instructor took the stage alongside the starting line and barked out warm-up exercises. Running in place was easy enough, but when she began doing lunges most of the people in the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd stood puzzled, heads askew, or ignored her entirely. There was no room for aerobics. A rising breeze cleared some of my mounting claustrophobia, as local boy, American Idol finalist, and young Curt Happy lookalike Kevin Covais belted out our national anthem. The announcer said there were three minutes remaining, then two, then one. Suddenly, a horn sounded as a mass of people pushed forth. U2's “Desire” blared on the nearby speakers, and I erroneously thought about the symmetry of hearing another song with a running reference, from U2 no less. The opening line is “Lover, I'm on the street”, but for some reason I'd always heard “Runners! Out on the street!” Meanwhile, my “follow Harry” plan went out the window almost immediately as he cut to one side to pass people, then to the other, then was a speck on the horizon. He's lost weight to the point where he looks like he's trying out for a sequel to The Machinist, and I'd later learn he runs about twelve marathons a year, some in the Winter and some as long as 7 miles. Yeah. I was going to outrun that guy.

For the most part, the course is on level ground, but there's a bad hill in the beginning getting out of the parking lot. Not far in, I was sure I was done for. What was I thinking? I looked at all the people passing me, all the serious runners, and knew I had no business being among them. I stayed to the right, following the shoulder of the road so I didn't hold anyone up. Every once in a while a really fit girl might pass by and motivate me to keep pace with her, before my legs and my lungs told me otherwise and she'd leave me in the dust. Tell me that's not a metaphor for my dating experience. I was jogging through molasses, and I was an arrogant fool for even attempting to compete. It was then that I saw the sign for the one mile marker. Each mile has a table with cups of water, as well as a clock. I couldn't believe my eyes. 8 minutes and 11 seconds? In the gym I've never done better than a 9 minute mile, on a treadmill with a fixed incline. Apparently, I was doing more than jogging and only the relative appearance of my speed against the rest of the crowd made it seem like I was trudging along. My spirit was renewed as I did the math in my head. At 8 minutes per mile, I could potentially cover 3.5 miles in 28 minutes! My brain shut out the voices telling me my legs hurt or that I was breathing heavily. All I heard was the wind, a honking horn as we ran over the Wantagh parkway, and finally the John Williams Superman theme. My legs moved in time to the imaginary music, my speed increasing with every trumpet fanfare. I reached the turnaround point and knew I was halfway there. I began to see my competition. Some were muscular guys. Some were lithe, ridiculously hot women. Some were young kids, children of various runners, and others were mothers with babies strapped to them or pushing three-wheeled running strollers. I began to pass all of them, but reached the two-mile mark at just over 17 minutes. I was slowing down gradually, and hit three miles at just over 28 minutes. I wasn't going to reach my estimate, but if I could run half a mile in less than four minutes I would at least beat my time from three years ago. I took a quick gulp of water and tossed the cup aside at the last table, and screamed “Move, MOVE, you fat B@ST@RD!” inside my head.

I don't know why I did it, why I let myself think. Before the home stretch, there was one more bad hill, up over a bridge then back down into the parking lot where we began. I saw other people walking, and some part of me, some devilish temptation said there would be no harm if I walked up the hill, and then sprinted. Thank God my legs had more sense than my brain. I slowed to a walk, and my legs wobbled awkwardly, fighting to move faster or collapse under me. That was their ultimatum: run or fall. I chose to run, and made it over the last bad rise to see the finish line. Just over 32 minutes were on the clock, and I ran as hard and as fast as I could, passing dozens of people and finally, miraculously, crossing the finish line at 33:15. I felt good, then wobbly, then nauseous. I fought it all and kept walking, grabbing a bag of ice from the rows of tables and holding it to my wrists to slow my pounding heart. Next I grabbed an iced tea, and finally made my way back to the company tent. There I would indulge in a turkey sandwich, and reward myself with a brownie and a chocolate chip cookie, my first snacks in over a month.

I learned that Harry finished in about 27 minutes, taking first place for our company. One of the girls did it in about 29 minutes and her husband, who now works for a different company, finished in an amazing 26 minutes. Gradually, more and more people showed up and compared times. I was about 5 minutes slower than the best people in our company, but there were a lot of people I did better than too. I was happy, but by the time I got home I wondered if I could have done better. What if I had paced myself? What if I maintained my speed up that last hill? Those few seconds I lost in that moment of weakness could have been the difference between beating my previous record and falling 26 seconds short. Of course, that was three years ago when I spent 7.5 hours in the gym a week and weighed at least ten pounds less than I do now. Currently, I run an average of 6 MPH on the treadmill. I can usually maintain 6.3 MPH for 17-20 minutes before I have to take it down to 4.5 or so. I had been running 35 minutes a day, and covering at best 3.3 miles in that time. My goal for the race was to run 3.5 miles in 35 minutes, a constant 6 MPH that I thought myself incapable of. Anything under 40 minutes I would have considered less than embarrassing. I decided then, all things considered, that while I might have been able to do better, I did better than I was expecting. More importantly, I proved I'm capable of more than I think I can do, so I'll have to push myself on the treadmill beyond my preconceived limitations, going forward. Maybe I'll even imagine a pretty girl or two to catch up to, since that's the real goal in staying fit. As for those snacks, despite the indulgence at the picnic table after the race, I hope I won't revert to type. The race may be over but my life isn't, and I now have a year to prepare for the next one. If I don't have any conflicting obligations, I'd definitely like to take it on a third time. When I consider the progress I made in just over a month of preparation, I wonder where I'd be after training for an entire year.

Even though I had to be up at 5:30 AM the next day, I was incredibly wound up after the race and subsequent socializing. I had a hard time falling asleep, and a harder time waking up. Since I'm about a day behind in chronicling the events of this week, the feast tales will have to wait until tomorrow. Right now, I think everything is finally catching up to me and I'm ready to crash. The moral of my racing tale is that while I often think that I can't win, and shouldn't try, the truth is I can win, at least minor personal victories, even when the road is riddled with improbably, occasionally humorous obstacles.


Blogger TheWriteJerry said...

Way to go, MCF! Just about 6 minutes of of the pace of Harry The Flash? I'd say that's total triumph for you.

Great work!

Now please, no more belly pictures.

7/27/2006 2:37 AM  
Blogger Lyndon said...

Congrats on running your race. The time was pretty close to your personal best, so I think you should very happy with yourself.

Strange with all the songs you mentioned in your post. I thought for sure I would see Eye of The Tiger and We are The Champions in there :-)

7/27/2006 7:25 AM  
Blogger Curt said...

Nothing you said registered with me after you said I look that like dorky AI kid. Did you win?

I don't look like that. I don't.

7/27/2006 11:04 AM  
Blogger Wendy said...

Congrats! And forget what Jerry says because the women want more belly pics ;)

7/27/2006 8:11 PM  
Blogger RC said...

how funny...i hate running so i can only imagine.

funny refrences to songs w/ run in the title....i'm sure now you'll even notice more.

--RC of strangeculture.blogspot.com

7/28/2006 5:16 PM  

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