Friday, January 30, 2009

The Bell Lap

Steve Prefontaine (known as “Pre”) is a long-distance runner from the 1970s who once held the American record in the five distance track events from 2,000 meters to 10,000 meters. He died tragically in a car accident at the age of 24 in the prime of his athleticism. Recently, the movie “Prefontaine” was on ESPN Classics. This movie about his life left me in a state of introspection I haven’t experienced since the last time I got caught up in a Sex in the City Marathon.

“Prefontaine” is not an Oscar-winning film by any means. It’s actually quite distracting to engage in the story of an iconic distance runner when you’re forced to watch him as portrayed by Jared Leto with stick-on sideburns and an unkempt mustache (although he’s not too bad on the eyes during the sweaty running scenes, but I digress). Tougher to take still, is watching Ed O’Neill as his assistant track coach. There’s something about watching Ed Bundy shepherd a young boy on his voyage to Olympic Gold that doesn’t sit right with me (insert image of hand-in-pants on couch here).

While the movie was aesthetically displeasing, its message is worth more than any Olympic or Oscar Gold. Steve Prefontaine’s running career reminded me of all the ways that running is a metaphor for life. In the final scenes of the movie we are at his funeral service as a hearse circles the track with his body inside. The score clock at Hayward Field counts down the time that he had aspired to run for the three-mile distance, as his former coach narrates the final moments of the would-have-been race. He speaks of Pre’s gift to the sport of track and field and how he ran every race like it was his last.

“This is his last race, this is the bell lap for Steve Prefontaine.”

In track, distance races last for multiple laps around the track. When the first runner makes it to the last lap, a bell is sounded to alert him that he has 400 yards to go. This is known as the bell lap. Pre’s life ended too soon, and some believe it was before he ever realized his full potential. His running career is a reminder of how we can all seek to better our lives before our own bell lap is sounding off.

Here, the lessons learned by walking (or running) in the shoes of Steve Prefontaine.

Sometimes success is found where you least expect it.
Pre wanted to be a miler in track and field, the same way most little boys dream of being a quarterback on the football team. At the time, dominating in the mile was one of the most celebrated successes in the sport. Little else was acknowledged or spoken about with regard to track. In the movie, when Pre begins working with coach Bill Bowerman, he expresses his interest in training to win in the mile despite his shortcomings in that distance. Bill Bowerman urges him to focus his efforts on the 5,000-meter race (roughly three miles) instead.

Pre’s response was, “Nobody cares about the 5,000.” His coach: “So make them.”

It’s easy to look at what others already do well and aspire to do it better, but sometimes the opportunities lurk in the less obvious places. Sometimes people get so caught up in having to matter in some kind of pre-defined list of “success stories” that they forget their own quirks and skill sets might be the true key to being successful. Forget about “The Mile” – when Steve Prefontaine was done with the 5,000 he not only highlighted other areas in track and field, but the idea of running as a whole. Along with his coach Bill Bowerman (eventual co-founder of Nike) he has been largely credited for the “jogging” phenomenon.

You don’t always have to fit the part to get the part.
Based on the movie, Pre actually wanted to take part in the usual team sports like baseball, basketball and football when he was younger, but since he was built smaller than other boys his age he never made the team. He turned to running and began his career as a freshman cross-country runner. Though he didn’t possess the ideal build for a distance runner either, he trained hard to improve. His first two years were nothing spectacular as he was finding his rhythm as a runner in different events and working through issues with injuries and competition that was stronger than him, but by his junior year he came into his own to set 19 national high school records in track. He continued his winning streak as he moved into college, training with Bill Bowerman at the University of Oregon where he would win three Division I NCAA Cross Country Championships and four straight three-mile/5000-meter titles in track and field. Ironically, among his only defeats in college were two races in the mile.

It has been said that Steve Prefontaine turned running into a blood sport – not bad for someone who was cut from the football team and doomed to participate in the “dork” sport of cross-country.

Life isn’t fair.
After college, Pre went on to compete in the 1972 Summer Games in Munich at only 21 years old (two years younger than anyone else in the 5,000-meter field). Taking the lead with a mile to go, and holding it until less than 600 meters remaining, he ultimately finished fourth (13:28.25) behind Lasse Viren of Finland (first, 13:26.42), Mohamed Gammoudi of Tunisia (second, 13:27.33) and Ian Stewart of Great Britain (third, 13:27.61). Stewart passed Prefontaine less than 10 meters from the finish line for the final medal.

During the 1972 Summer Games in Munich, a group of eight Palestinian terrorists belonging to the Black September organization broke into the Olympic Village and took eleven Israeli athletes hostage in their apartment, killing two of the hostages in the apartment after fighting back; the subsequent standoff in the Olympic Village lasted for almost 18 hours. This became known as the Munich Massacre.

“Prefontaine” the movie, shows how this event effected the athletes participating in the Olympics at the time, and how it may have stirred Pre up in ways that eventually cost him an Olympic medal in the 5,000. It doesn’t seem fair that his Olympic experience (and potential to win a medal) was marred by terrorism – and it seems even less fair that just three years later he would die in a terrible car accident before he could return to the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal to prove himself. Many believe that Pre had yet to peak as an all-star runner, but he would never get the chance to find out.

Passion, applied to anything, will make it stronger.
One of the things Pre was best known for was his aggressive front-running style. It isn’t usually advised to take the lead in a pack of runners, since doing so drains the leader while enabling the rest of the pack to draft behind. Pre’s philosophy on running was to get the race to a place where only pure heart and soul mattered. It didn’t matter to him who was bigger or smaller, stronger or lighter, or who knew how to put together a better race. He didn’t care about the logistics of the race – he cared about the desire. There are many quotes from Pre on what drives him, but the one below is one of my favorites because I think it perfectly sums up the idea that applying passion to something gives it that “X” factor. There’s an intangible quality to things that truly have a force in the world – something about them that can’t be grasped, recreated, or extracted for safekeeping. You can be aware of it, but you’ll struggle to define it because it can’t be captured – only experienced.

I'm going to work so that it's a pure guts race at the end, and if it is, I am the only one who can win it. – Steve Prefontaine.

You may read this and wonder what you could have in common with an iconic runner from the 1970s. Steve Prefontaine’s story isn’t just about a gifted athlete whose life was cut short. It’s the story of a man who played with the cards he was dealt to the best of his ability and along the way, showed the world a thing or two about passion, guts and perseverance. His spirit was what we should all hope to possess inside: the will to push harder, the desire to dig deeper, the courage to change something as we know it. They celebrated this spirit during Pre’s bell lap. What will people celebrate when it’s your turn?

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Simple Pleasures

I’ve been enjoying simple pleasures as of late, seeing as how the economy is terrible and I’m not a millionaire, I can no longer afford to “shop away” my bad moods or get my nails done when I’m feeling a little off (bargain deals at TJ Maxx followed by a French manicure at Miracle Nail makes for a revitalizing afternoon). And so I’ve been combining random activities to entertain myself on the cheap. For example, did you know how much fun it is to vacuum while enjoying a few cocktails? Consider it the woman’s version of mowing the lawn while enjoying a six-pack of beer on the zero-turn. Lawn mowed, spirits raised. Whoever said you shouldn’t mix business with pleasure has obviously not tapped into how exciting it is to operate a Bissell on a bottle and a half of Chardonnay. When is the last time your buzz yielded clean floors? Spectacular. Next on the list will be the Swiffer Wet Jet paired with Lemon Drops.

My simple pleasures often involve some kind of food. Lately I’ve had an insatiable need for Jelly Belly jelly beans. I’m not really a jelly bean fan, but I like that I can experience buttered popcorn, grape jelly, toasted marshmallow, orange sherbet and cotton candy at my leisure just by selecting something the size of a pebble from a tiny bag that fits in my palm. The novelty of such access to a myriad of flavor explosions is almost too much for me to handle. Almost.

I’ve been enhancing my Jelly Belly indulgence with the viewing of some really bad reality TV (think Rock of Love Bus with Bret Michaels) and have also added the swilling of beer to this cornucopia of simple pleasures. Last Saturday, I fully intended to get cozy on my couch and read the stack of Runner’s World and Triathlete magazines that have been piling up around my apartment, but a quick scan through the TV guide landed me smack in the middle of a Real Housewives of Atlanta marathon playing on Bravo. Like Pavlov’s dog, I scurried to the kitchen for a bag of Jelly Bellies and a Blue Moon, and proceeded to watch four hours of the series as if in a fever. I even watched the reunion show that aired after the series was over with. As if this wasn’t bad enough, I then tried to locate the premier of the new season to get it scheduled onto my DVR.

My bean binge has likely had an effect on the sales numbers at Jelly Belly Candy Company, as I’ve been regularly purchasing a few bags of them the way most people pick up a carton of eggs and a gallon of milk. It’s becoming a staple. However, I’m starting to wonder if the consequences of chewing on 40 pounds of sugar every day will start to take its toll on my teeth. I have excellent oral hygiene, but still, this must be challenging my mouth’s ability to stave off cavities. I actually started to think about this because the other day one of my co-workers shared some of his beans with me when I was desperate for an at-work fix, and he told me that another Jelly Junkie had recently filled three cavities. He credited the Jelly Bellies for this. I laughed it off while my brain suddenly played a filmstrip of all the recent times I’d polished off whole bags of these things by myself. Something definitely needed to change.

The next day I was grocery shopping, and happened upon the Jelly Belly section of the candy aisle. The beans strained against their bright plastic packaging, willing me to grab them – daring me to walk away. The pina colada bean (my favorite one), was prominently placed in the middle of the clear plastic window, whispering sweet nothings to me.

“Lisa, porqué tu no me quieres más?”

I compromised and reached to the left of them, grabbing the sugar-free Jelly Bellies instead. Surely they would taste the same, wouldn’t they?

No, they sure don’t. The flavor and overall consistency of the beans were compromised by eliminating the sugar; sabotaged by a string of words I can’t pronounce in the ingredients. These were not the beans I knew and loved. Furthermore, I began gaping at the bag upon reading this:

Warning: Consumption may cause stomach discomfort and/or laxative effect. Individual tolerance will vary; we suggest starting with eight beans or less.

So much is wrong with this – starting with the recommendation that one should eat eight beans or less. Were they kidding? Who eats eight jelly beans and then stops? And if they’re supposed to be less bad for you, you can kiss the eight-beans serving good-bye. It goes without saying that things like Oreos and Jelly Bellies don’t operate in terms of serving size, anyway. Ridiculous.
And what is this about stomach discomfort and laxative effects? If I wanted that kind of outcome, I would develop a Taco Bell fixation – not a Jelly Belly craving. I know they’re jelly beans – but they aren’t real beans, people!

Needless to say, Jelly Belly is becoming less of a simple pleasure and more of a complicated pain in my ass – quite literally, as it were.

It figures that something that looks so good – too good to be true – could actually end up hurting you and making you miserable. I wonder if Jelly Belly has a flavor called “ex-boyfriend.” They could just rename the licorice one to that – nobody likes that flavor anyway.

Oh well. I suppose I should move on to discover other simple pleasures – preferably ones that could aid in my pants size going down. I have been getting back to the gym with a vengeance and am excited to start training for triathlon again, but I still need to lose all of my “racing season is over, yahoo!” weight. When my serious training starts in March, I’ll have less time for bad television and empty calories – replacing these simple pleasures with more complex ones, like shaving 20 minutes from my finish time in the half Ironman race this July and qualifying for the Boston Marathon in September. Jelly Belly can’t make a flavor that tastes as good as the sweat that you capture from your lips when you cross the finish line after a hard race.

Monday, January 5, 2009

No Pain, No Gain.

2009. Like a new piece of white paper, wide open and ready for anything. Sometimes I get to the end of a year, and feel as though I’ve doodled and sketched through all the spaces on my piece of paper. Eraser marks have worn holes in areas I’ve tried desperately to get rid of. Sometimes you can’t erase your mistakes, so you just draw around them to make them less unsightly – as if a series of tiny spirals and shaded cubes might somehow make you less aware of the hole in the paper. But on the first day of a new year, you get to flip the page over and doodle anew. And the older you are, the more tools you have at your disposal to create something meaningful on your piece of paper (ah, life experience. The gorgeous hues of YOU). Approaching 30, I feel well equipped to evolve from the anxious doodling of my 20s. I’m thinking of larger brush strokes, more colors. More texture. Thirty years have taken me through a spectrum of emotions and physical sensations. Some painful, some remarkable, some unexpected. Together they form a palette of color that that leaves me no shortage for expressing who I am and what I’d like out of life. I like to think of myself as the big box of Crayola Crayons...96 colors with the sharpener built in.

Part of the new year for me always involves getting back into my training routines for triathlon in the spring and summer months. Money that could be going toward car repairs and groceries, is instead spent on no less than five race registrations. Every year I do a long-course triathlon (half to full Ironman distance), a couple of shorter course triathlons, three or four 10K to half-marathon road races, a full marathon, and any other race that might come up on the radar and pique my interest. I like to know that I’m committed to these things well before they pop up on my BlackBerry as “one week away” reminders. I don’t think about how much all of this costs, because to me the experience of training and racing is invaluable.

For the first time since moving in August, I’ve started running from my new apartment on the east side of Syracuse, NY. I live on a steep incline and relish the fact that every run starts with a five minute trudge uphill (and since it’s winter right now, it’s also accompanied by a bitter lung-freezing chill). I like this sensation the same way I imagine Rocky Balboa loving that first punch to his face. Over the crest of that hill are many more miles that will be so deeply satisfying, I’m willing to withstand some frosty lungs and screaming quads to get to them. No pain, no gain.

So far in the new year I’ve run three times, for an hour each time. The pace has been slow, but those familiar soul-searching strides cause the adrenaline to flow through me as if it broke a levee somewhere deep inside and I’m suddenly free from all stress, anxiety and apprehension. Training makes me feel like I’m on top of the world.

Jeans fit better. My thoughts have rhythm. Lip gloss accents a more authentic smile. My ability to “go with the flow” comes back to me like a long lost friend who can pick up the conversation with me no matter how long the hiatus between us has been.

Sometimes, when I haven’t been working out for a long stretch of time, I find myself fixated on material things. I want more stuff. I see a nice car and wonder why I can’t have the same thing? I notice a woman’s jewelry and develop a craving for diamond studs. I go through all the ways life isn’t fair, and especially how it hasn’t been fair to me. I self-loathe. Any notes of jealousy or angst that I attempt to bury beneath my “Mary Sunshine” demeanor immediately surface like a U-Boat coming up on the attack.

But training changes all of that. As my body gets back into shape, I melt into a state of self-actualization that no material thing could ever recreate for me. I slip into a pair of sleek and defined hamstrings the way Sarah Jessica Parker slips into the latest piece of haute couture. Diamond studs? Like I care. A sculpted set of deltoids is a far better accessory.

I suppose it’s good for me to take a break from racing and training as fall approaches, so that I have unlimited time through the holiday season to focus on family and friends. Sadly, however, this time of the year also emphasizes material things. The getting and giving of gifts. The holidays are the black ice of society’s superficial side. Buy, spend, brag. I got, I want, I need. How much, how little, how big, how small. I knew a girl in the city that actually broke down in tears because her parents didn’t spend as much money on her as they did on her sister. Her sister, it turns out, was a soldier in Iraq. I’m not sure how one is able to summon liquid from the tear ducts in an effort to display sadness that they are not getting as many presents as someone that is literally risking their life for this country’s freedom.

And so it comes and goes – another year, another batch of holiday madness, another tattered and worn paper at capacity with its doodles, stains and rips. Some years I find myself rolling the ol’ page back gently, allowing it to quietly fall in line with the past. Other years I tear it from the book in a fury, already impatient to see where the first lines of the new year will fall.

This year, I’ve decided to be very unceremonious about the whole thing and simply move from a completed page to a blank page. 2008 was like a backhanded compliment. On one hand it’s a good thing that I realized I shouldn’t be getting married and I broke my engagement. On the other hand, it’s really hard to morph from bride-to-be to ex-fiance.

On one hand, completing an Ironman is a great accomplishment. On the other hand, doing it under monsoon conditions that rob you of the ability to do things the way you trained to do them sort of diminishes the whole experience and almost makes you feel like it didn’t really happen.

So I look at it like this: I will be in another relationship again and I will know that if it’s right and meant to be forever, I won’t have the kind of doubts I experienced last time. And I will do another Ironman in 2010, and I will know that no matter what the conditions are I will find my way to the finish line because I’ve done it already in what were considered the all-time worst conditions the race has ever seen.

These aren’t the kinds of things I want to forget as I move into a new year, let alone a new decade of my life. The clean slate of 2009. I inhale its fresh, manila scent. I behold its promise of “all things are possible.” I smile at its bland and sturdy surface, but I keep the smudges and rips of 2008 close to my heart. If there’s one thing a spinster triathlete like myself needs to carry into the new year, it’s that she can weather the storm. Punches to the face and all.