I often think that running is a lot like writing: It appears simple, but to excel at it you need lots of practice, patient, determination and willpower. Yes, some people are born star athletes or Shakespeares, but for the rest of us running and writing are skills that need to be honed. Earlier today I achieved a PR (personal record) in the 2011 Philadelphia Broad Street run. For those unfamiliar with the race, it's a 10 mile run through the city of Philadelphia, going down Broad Street. You start up at the Olney stop of the subway and race through the city, passing City Hall and heading past the sports stadiums to end up at the Navy Yard.
Last year, my first year running the race and my first long distance race, it was 92 degrees by the end of the race. Let's just say that I'm just happy I finished as it was so hot and humid. Runners were passed out by the side of the road, getting sick or just spent from the heat. Just like writing, I find that it's essential to pace myself. I have neither the time nor the ability to sit down all at once and whip out a 90,000 novel. Writing a book takes me a long time, working, little by little in the early morning hours before work.
What I thought I would share with this blog post are some thoughts about how my run went and how they mirror pretty damn close to how I have been approaching my writing in the last year and a half. First, some logistics: This year the Broad Street run sold out in 4 days (in early January). More than 25,100 people finished the race (with near 30,000 signing up). The race is extremely crowded and if you've never run in an event like this before it's pretty mind boggling: The sheer number of people cramming the streets of Philadelphia is just amazing. The above picture was taken by me while I was running. It's difficult to make out, but if you look at the top of the picture you'll see lots of little dots--yep, that's all the people in front of me. Behind me were thousands more.
Once the race started and I fell into my groove, there's a pattern that needs to be set up: I've learned that good posture, breathing and mindset are critical in a race. Trying to train your body to run 10 miles takes time and patience. But today, all that training paid off. I breathed normally, focused on relaxing and just ran. I'm one of those runners who chooses not to run with music as I prefer to take in the sights and sounds around me. And on this race course, there were many college bands, people playing drums and spectators cheering us along the way. I had plenty to keep me busy.
But what did I think about during the 1 hour and 41 minutes and 2 seconds that it took me to finish the race? My friend Carla said before the race, "Just think about all the hours of training that went into everyone coming to be here." The sheer numbers are amazing. Yet when I'm running, I like to look around at the sky, the people around me, the murals on the walls and anything that catches my eye.
I forget what mile it was, but while running down Broad, I did step over one of the Toynbee tiles that is an inspiration for my short story collection The Jovian Gate Chronicles. I did chuckle over that one. And I would be untruthful if I did not say that I was, umm, how do I say this, very thankful to God for all the beautiful women running around me. We'll just leave it at that. Yet I experienced some wonderful moments while running and a frightful one. The pure joy of running past people cheering you on or playing music for you is extremely uplifting. Yet I also saw some wonderful artwork in Philadelphia. There's a mural on Broad Street that said (I wish I could find a picture of it): When I am at peace... and then there were great words of inspiration on the wall (determination, etc.).
As I took in all the sights and sounds, I came up on City Hall and this feeling washed over me--clear, strong and true: This was my moment. The spectators were cheering all of us runners on. I breathed right, felt good, had good speed and the day was wonderful. I looked up at the blue sky and smiled as I knew that this is where I belonged and that to own this moment in time would be a memory that I would like to remember. All the hard work, the getting up early, the running in the rain, heat or trying not to fall on the ice back in February led up to today's race.
After I passed City Hall, thousands of people filled the streets by the old Academy of Music on Broad and it is here that I allowed myself to stop and think. In a recent article in Runner's World, one of the visual techniques that the writer uses is to imagine that as he's running a strong cord made of light is attached to his belly and on the other end is his home. He imagines being pulled home by those who love him. I tried that today and in my mind I imagined my wife and kids waiting for me at the end of the race and that they were pulling me home to victory, rest and their love. I kept a strong pace throughout the run and at mile 9 I sped up increasing my speed. I had hoped to make 1:40 but the field was so packed with people that I couldn't weave through all the runners at the end. I should have sped up further back in the race, but I was concerned of blowing out my energy too soon. Still, I have a PR and enjoyed the run.
Yet there was a moment of fear that passed through me as I neared the finish line, running hard and strong and turning to my left to see a man lying on the ground being treated by EMTs. He had heart defibrillator pads on his chest. When you're running strong and it's the last .25 miles of a 10 mile race, you're tired, you're going fast and as in slow motion you see things taking place but it's difficult to process as you're using your willpower to keep running. There I was running strong and so close to the finish and I saw a man who could be dying. I had no power to help him, could barely think more than to say a prayer for him yet seeing him made me realize that I could be gone tomorrow. People think I joke about Carpe Diem and wonder why I push myself so hard in running or writing or the work that I do.
I did not just wake up today and say, "Hey, I think I'll run a 10 mile race!" Or, "I think I'll just write a novel." I can't speak for others, but it's impossible for me to do that. I can't do either of those things just by wishing that I could do them. It takes damn hard work. I don't know how long I'll be around, but I want to try my best to take care of myself and share love with my friends and family. It's that simple. So, when I'm running and I hit that moment of feeling all's right with the world, that same feeling comes to me when I'm writing, I like to be thankful for that. Running is hard for me and so is writing. I see them very linked as they are often solitary activities, but today I was able to share my running with all my fellow runners and all the spectators just as I'm able to share my writing with those who choose to read or listen to my books.
If I plant a seed, it'll grow if it's watered and has sun. I've learned that the same is true with my writing abilities--I need to water and give them sun. Part of that process is exercise as running clears my mind and enables me to toss away what people say I cannot do. All my life people have told me: "You can't make money being a writer." Or: "Why spend all that time doing that? Nobody's going to care about what you write."
I will say this: After meeting my wife and kids and hugging them at the gathering area past the finish line, we headed back to the car and saw the remaining runners headed toward the finish line. Tired and sore, I held my son's hand as my wife pushed our daughter in a stroller. Then we saw a man, looking to be in his mid-30s, on crutches, trying to finish the race. I stopped, applauded and cheered along with those around me. How he was able to propel himself 10 miles on crutches is beyond me, but he did it. And that, in a nutshell, is what I love about running. People work hard to achieve their goals. No matter if it's the man I saw on crutches or a blind runner I met two years ago. People do not give up. They have faith, work hard and achieve their goals.
So, I ask you: What about you? What do you want to do? Dream, believe and do it. Even if you fail, at least you tried. And if you succeed, wouldn't that be wonderful?
I'm very thankful for the race I ran today and I want to send my love out to my wife and kids who have been so supportive with my running and writing. And of course, to my friends--thank you all for your support and love.