The 2022 Philadelphia Marathon: #24

“There is simply no substitute for a complete lack of preparation.” – Brian Gatens.

Pre-Race, 6:50AM, November 20, 2022. Our faces froze as soon as we stepped out of the bus.

Since 1997, the Sunday before Thanksgiving has been its own holiday for me: It’s Marathon Day in Philadelphia. 2022 would bring me to the starting line for my 24th Philadelphia Marathon, lined up once again (for better or worse), with my wingman for the 15th time – Brian Gatens.

We have both had the kind of history at this race that would at first glance appear to be ripe for MarathonInvestigation.com; Brian’s best Philly is a 3:41, and my best is a 3:42. Most of our finishes are in the 3:50-4:20 range, but in 2021 due to a lack of training (a total of three weeks for me, compared to virtually no weeks for him), we finished in an all-time slowest 5:00:55.

I was determined not to repeat that kind of Death March, so I sketched out a proper 16-week training plan and stuck to it. I ran hills, I ran speedwork. I ran two 16-milers, two 20-milers, and started to almost feel ready. Brian often commented on my Strava posts with his usual encouragement: “Bah.” This was nothing new. That sort of casual and public disdain had roots in the days where were first met in triathlon around 2008, where Brian immediately and permanently took on the role of arch enemy to me (even though I didn’t know I needed one).

But those of you who know Brian via Facebook know that his “normal” sport is Multi-Day Adventure Racing; a short race for him is 24 hours. In July he raced the ITERA Expedition Race across Inverness, Scotland – a four-day event that saw his team cover 341.39 miles and 33,973 meters of vertical during their 114-hour, non-stop journey.

As he often reminds me, “Training? Bah. I’m in marathon-ready shape at all times.” Realistically, a marathon to him is just a fun-run before lunch.

The weather is always a hit-or-miss deal for this race, and while November 20 was going to be dry, this race was setting up to be the coldest, windiest day we’d had since March.

But at least it would be sunny.

This is fine. It’ll be fine. Everything is fine.

On race day we followed our proven plan of waiting until 5:55 to run out the door from the hotel, hopping on a well-placed shuttle bus, jetting through security, and bouncing into the corrals at 6:45. I’d bought us Mylar Space Blankets pre-race, and like two stealthy mashed potatoes we just kept moving up as far as we could, somehow ending up in the front-most corral behind the elites.

Best Wishes from Triathlete Emeritus John McGurk.

It was here as we stood in the pre-dawn light trying to stay warm, a group of West Point Cadets came flying into the corral from our right. For all we could tell they had fast-roped in; in a blink there were eight young men all bouncing off one-another in shorts and tank tops. Just one of them had a long-sleeve base layer, while all were doing their best to generate any kind of heat they could.

“SIR!” One of them asked me, “Do you know where the three-hour pace group is?”

First off, I wish we could all bottle and share the overt politeness of West Point Cadets. Second, all I could think in that moment was, “This guy thinks I look like a 3-hour marathon runner. It has to be the jacket.” I looked around and spotted a “3:15” sign held aloft, then pointed towards it. “It has to be up there, that’s 3:15. What year at West Point are you guys?”

They all turned around in unison and cheered, “First year, sir! Plebes! Thank you! Have a good race, sir!” As they ricocheted off into the distance, I realized that in the year they were born (2004 or so), I already had 7 Philly finishes.

“I can’t believe we’re doing this again…” I mused to Brian. But we were, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.

At a little after 7:05AM we finally got rolling and as is his custom, Brian took off like he’d been launched from an aircraft carrier. I ran about 100 meters with my Mylar blanket before tossing it. As I watched it to make sure it cleared a barricade and stayed clear of the road, out of the corner of my eye I saw the unmistakable shape of a body coming at me from the wrong way and ducking down low.

It was Brian. He’d dropped a glove while hauling the mail and waving to the crowd, and that’s how I found myself suddenly leaping over him thinking, “If we crash each other out this early, I’m quitting forever.”

We missed each other, he got his glove, and we settled in for the next 26.19 miles of whatever would be coming our way.

One thing about Brian when he races, he does not think about what’s to come. His nickname since I’ve known him is “Leeroy.” If you need to Google Leeroy Jenkins, please do so and come back – I’ll wait for you.

Quick Version: Brian does not think about the miles to come, Brian does not plan, Brian does not waste energy on what may happen. In Brian-world you run THIS mile, and that’s it. He is part nitroglycerin, part solid-rocket booster, part Wile E. Coyote. He basically Prefontaine’s his way through any race as fast as he can go in that moment, and when his body gives out, he just shrugs and keeps moving with whatever life support systems still happen to still have power.

I am the complete and absolute opposite of Brian, which makes our races together the beautiful disasters that keep my therapist happy.

I had a plan, a plan to be patient and keep it steady through 20. I remembered that I had a plan like this in 2021, 2019, 2018, 2017…all the other times I ran with Brian. And just like all those other times, here I was again like Ethan Hunt hanging on the outside of the aircraft wondering just how bad this was going to get.

Actual Photo of me at Mile 2 contemplating my choice to run with Gatens, yet again.

I knew I had to tell him to slow down one way or another, so I did what guys do – I went directly to movie quotes. When we rolled through the first 3 miles in a little over 27 minutes (which was way stupidly faster than the 10:00 I needed), I looked at him and hissed, “You arrogant ass. You’ve killed US.”

He got the reference right away, and said, “Okay, okay…”

(For the record, that’s one of the final lines in “Hunt for Red October,” delivered by an officer to his commander after he removed all the safeties from their weapons, a tactic that yielded their own torpedo coming right back at them: https://youtu.be/pzzyq5E8Gg4?t=445)

Leaning into the corner somewhere around Mile 5. Brian is the obscured yellow streak to my right.

But he didn’t really slow down for long. As I tried to find some kind of rhythm, every single time another faster group would come along Brian would wordlessly accelerate and settle with their tempo while I made really ugly faces and tried to stop from dreaming about putting his body into a woodchipper.

Eventually he’d look over his shoulder and go, “Oh, come ON…” as he’d ease up and bring it back. I told him, “You’re like the lead dog at Iditarod. As soon as someone passes you, ‘BARK BARK BARK BARK BARK BARK BARK…'”

Between the yo-yo-YO-yoooo tempo and the weather, I was not in a happy place. As we passed 6.2 miles, I still wasn’t sweating one bit. We made our way up towards University City, and the wind was right in our faces. Crossing the Schuylkill River near the US Post Office, we took a 30+mph gust that made me feel like we’d started to run in slow-motion. Brian cheered out, “YEAH…” I just grimaced and contemplated my choices. “Just what I wanted, love it…” he mused.

“This is what you wished for…” I countered. “So why is it you can’t wish for warm breezes, blue skies, perfect conditions?” He replied, “Bah. This is how you callous your soul. This is good for you.”

Soul Callousing 101. I’m in two layers, not sweating. Brian is in short sleeves. WHAT.

I’d been here before – dark patches in marathons are part of the game. It sucks when they arrive early in the race, but one rule you know once you’ve run a few of them: Good or bad, however you feel is not going to last forever. You learn to just take whatever is happening and keep moving. I sat back and watched Brian work the crowd, blowing kisses, zigging and zagging all over the place. He high-fived little kids reminding them, “Stay in school.” He harassed Eagles fans (“GO BIG BLUE”), he pulled up next to a couple dressed as Santa and Elf and delivered the line, “I know Santa, you’re not him…”

I found some energy and managed to add, “You sit upon a throne of lies.”

Climbing past the Philadelphia Zoo near Mile 9 in the World’s Worst Parade.

We plowed through the hills near Memorial Hall, and then through the Reservoir Loop above Kelly Drive, a new, hilly feature from 2021 that was just as lousy and challenging in 2022. It was here at the highest point of the course that a particularly nasty wind gust attacked the Mile 14 water stop by picking up and peeling an ENTIRE TABLE of Gatorade cups into the air, cosmically flicking the work of the volunteers across two lanes of road and about 140 surprised runners.

But that wasn’t the only thing we were ducking: In a new twist, the maddening weather meant SIGNS were flying out of spectator’s hands and becoming head-seeking missiles. If you weren’t busy enough dodging leaves, sticks, flying cups, and errant, airborne smaller runners, the were glittered oaktag guillotines that always seemed to come right for the neck. I actually managed to catch one (“GO AMY!”) in an act of sheer self-defense, and handed it back to the woman who’d lost it. “Tell Amy she owes me one…” I smirked.

As the miles ticked by, Brian did start to settle into something resembling a steady trot. I still wasn’t feeling that great; I couldn’t figure it out: “I lifted weights. I did speedwork. I did hill repeats. My long runs got faster and faster, I felt better coming into this race than I have in seven years…and yet, today, I still suck. What gives?” Brian put it all in perspective, “But we’re still out here, for how many years is this? We are more than what the clock says at the end of the day.”

Word. I think the biggest hurdle for me was that I hadn’t been in cold weather since April. I’d spent the entire summer training for a regatta in Sarasota, running mid-day all summer to prepare for Florida in July. Throughout the Fall I’d never run in anything under 60°F, so now with temps in the 30s with wind-chills in the teens? My body was having none of it.

We passed through halfway in 2:14 and Brian motioned for a stop – he spotted his racing buddy Eric off to one side. We chatted for about two minutes, and Brian took a moment to consume 3 Advil. We turned away from the break and started on the downhill towards Kelly Drive – a steep, surprisingly torturous downhill for Mile 16. It was here that I felt something surprising – I felt better running the downhill. I’d worked on descending during all my Chester Springs days, because nothing trashes your legs more than running downhill late in a race. “Pretty cruel putting this thing at this point in the race…” Brian pondered.

We turned right onto Kelly Drive, and Brian got very quiet. We could see the faster runners headed towards their finish at Mile 24 on the other side of the road, and I mused, “Man, I hate those guys…”

Brian stayed quiet.

I knew what was going on – I’d come completely unstuck at this same point in 2021. The equivalent of a “Check Engine” light was on, and Brian knew he was entering the heavy chapter of the day. With 10 miles to go, the race was down to two parts: Get into Manayunk, then get out of Manayunk and get home.

in 2021 as my wheels came completely off, Brian stayed with me the whole way – there was no question I would do the same for him here. When we were both pushing for PRs in 2008-2015 there were times where you knew you had to take off and leave your buddy, or be the one left behind when the price of the pace was more than you could carry. In those moments no words were needed, no hard feelings. Sometimes it would just be a look, or a hand wave, and that was that – see you back at the hotel.

Tradition Dictated that the second man to the room would arrive and announce his presence by opening the door and yelling, “THIS RACE IS BULLSH*T.” Sometimes it was me, sometimes it was Brian.

Today was not that kind of day – this was a day to just do what you do when you find yourself trapped in another idiotic adventure, you stay with your wingman.

We cruised down Kelly Drive, past East Falls, and onto Ridge Avenue with the sun at our backs. We made our way down Main Street in Manayunk to the turnaround just beyond 20 miles. The crowd was out in force; the energy we were both seeking was everywhere. Music, balloons, signs, people 4-5 deep on both sides. I passed a spectator holding a huge bowl of leftover Halloween candy and thought, “Maybe? No, better not…”

Seconds later Brian disappeared off my right shoulder, and then re-appeared on the left with wrappers dangling from both corners of his mouth, and a handful of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, “FFMmmt Frmmms Omm?” He muttered.

“Nah, I’m good.” I grinned.

For the first time all day, I found the juice to high-five people, wave, and smile a bit. I thought about how angry I’d been with myself earlier and realized that the training I thought had let me down really had worked: I had more in the tank at 20 that I’d had in 7 years: I had legs left to get us home. It wasn’t fast, but the resolve and power was there.

Brian had told me that he was going to stop for an espresso at Mile 21 if he needed it, and as we made our way out of the party he made a beeline for Pilgrim Coffee Roasters. I watched as people parted like the Red Sea as Brian turned hard right off the course, walked right in the front door, and three minutes later came out with a full espresso.

I made small-talk with folks outside the shop, “So, how’s your Sunday? Enjoying the parade? Yeah, I’ve run this race a few times…always fun…”

Coffee. Is there anything it can’t do?

As Brian sipped he said to me, “In two miles we’re going to be flying. Let’s go.”

Brian turned and lit his engines once more, and we headed towards Kelly Drive for the final five miles.

Despite the caffeine and enough Motrin to sedate a small horse, Brian stayed quiet. I didn’t cheerlead or try and talk him up – that is not what you want to hear when you’re coming apart. What I did was break the race down into smaller pieces, namely, the bridges. “See that one, that’s Falls Bridge. After that it’s less than a mile to Strawberry Mansion. Then after that one it’s a mile to Columbia, and from there you’ll see Girard Avenue. Get there, and you’ll see the skyline…”

I talked about how sacred bridges are to a Dragon Boat racer in Philadelphia, and how no matter how hard a practice has been, no matter how shelled you and your crew might be, when you hear someone challenge you with, “TO THE BRIDGE!” You know you’ll turn yourself inside-out and paddle until the sky goes black to win that piece.

Brian just stayed steady and stared straight ahead, locked in on the last thought looping in his mind – the easiest thing to hang on when in the last miles:

“Finish.”

We knocked the bridges off one after the other. One step at a time, one mile at a time. We made conversation with an Army Medic from Maryland running his first marathon. When somebody near us would break stride and walk, we’d pat them on the back, “Everybody walks…keep it up, nearly there…”

In the last four miles, you are never alone no matter how bad you feel. The running tribe never leaves anyone behind.

When we passed the base of Fountain Green Drive – the scene of our descent at Mile 16 – there were still a few runners and walkers coming off the hill and starting their trek to Manayunk. They were on pace to finish close to 8 hours, and I said to Brian, “Just think – they look at us the same way we look at the sub-3 hour guys we saw here…” A humbling reminder that no matter what you do out there, on those days where the clock doesn’t give you what you hoped for, you shouldn’t be too hard on yourself – you’re always someone else’s “fast” even if you don’t believe it.

We rolled steadily through the last two miles, finally making the turn at Boathouse Row towards the last climb of the day to the Art Museum, the Ben Franklin Parkway, and the line.

I talked towards Brian, “Today was rough, I know. I was really in a dark place the first half, and you’re there know, but we’ve got this. After all the wind, the cold, the grinding…there really is nowhere else I’d rather be.”

The race had done what it always does: It took every human emotion that exists, mixes them up, and pours them over you beneath a bluebird sky in just a few hours. Even after 43 marathons, every single one has been a totally different journey through that emotional sea: The sunrise of relief and joy when you finally know you’re going to make it is everything.

It’s tasting immortality. It’s impossible, yet real. It seems to take forever to get there, and never lasts long enough.

We climbed up that damned rise to Mile 26, and I reached down to pat the rocket that Katie had given me the night before for good luck. I pulled it out of my pocket and held it in my hand as we made our way towards the clock.

Katie’s Rocket – 2022 Edition.

We made it up and over onto the sun-splashed canyon of people by the Parkway, and rolled into the final barricaded stretch. We would cross the line at 4:44 race time, I had it at 4:33 (with the stops). Regardless, even that 4:44 was nearly 20 minutes better than 2021.

We stopped for photos, and Brian stayed in character. He mused about how much he hated running, and wanted to burn his gear as soon as he got home. I reminded him that these races were shorter when we trained properly.

“Bah.” He replied.

We walked towards the exits and found our way towards the Shuttle Buses that were suddenly in the right place at the right time. Neither of us felt much like walking around the city to get back to the hotel (which normally is a good way to flush the legs, but since we’d been icing them for nearly 5 hours, to hell with that idea), so we took the easy way home.

We ate lunch at the same place we’ve been going to post-race for years; it was filled with runners, some still wearing their race kit. We all toasted one another, then ordered seconds. I had my one cheesesteak for the year, savoring every single bite.

Running is sometimes pretty stupid. Running a marathon is definitely stupid.

Running 43 of them, with 24 in the same city in the last 25 years, that’s astronomically stupid.

But as Brian bid his farewell for another year and left to head back to New Jersey, and all the other runners closed out their checks and left, I found myself sitting alone at Pete’s Famous Pizza. I couldn’t stop smiling, shaking my head at how ridiculous yet wonderful it all was.

I gave my little Liberty Bell medal a ding, and chuckled as my head did what it always does – what anyone who’s raced has to do when there’s nothing left to do but look ahead.

“So next year will be Philadelphia #25 for me. Maybe we can start training a little sooner…keep the run mileage going this winter, stay a little sharper. Maybe this time we can finally get Brian to follow a race plan?”

You never know. It’s worth a shot.

“I’m feeling better. I think I’ll go for a walk…”

You Are Ready

I wrote this in 2002 for a friend heading to Ironman Canada, and I love that it has taken on a lovely life of its own for the last 20 years. For those of you racing any Ironman this summer, with nothing left to do now but count down the hours and let your body be ready, know this.

You are ready.

To those of you heading to Ironman Canada this week, to the IM-Virgins, the veterans, and everyone in-between…

Right now you’ve all entered the taper. Perhaps you’ve been at this a few months, perhaps you’ve been at this a few years. For some of you this is your first IM, for others, a long-overdue welcome back to a race that few can match.

You’ve been following your schedule to the letter. You’ve been piling on the mileage, piling up the laundry, and getting a set of tan lines that will take until November to erase. Long rides were followed by long runs, which both were preceded by long swims, all of which were followed by recovery naps that were longer than you slept for any given night during college.

You ran in the snow.
You rode in the rain.
You ran in the heat.
You ran in the cold.

You went out when others stayed home.

You rode the trainer when others pulled the covers over their heads.

You have survived the Darwinian progression that is an Ironman summer, and now the hardest days are behind you. Like a climber in the Tour de France coming over the summit of the penultimate climb on an alpine stage, you’ve already covered so much ground…there’s just one more climb to go. You shift up, you take a drink, you zip up the jersey; the descent lays before you, and it will be a fast one.

Time that used to be filled with never-ending work will now be filling with silent muscles, taking their final, well-earned rest. While this taper is something your body desperately needs, Your mind, cast off to the background for so very long, will start to speak to you.

It won’t be pretty.

It will bring up thoughts of doubt, pain, hunger, thirst, failure, and loss.

It will give you reasons why you aren’t ready. It will try and make one last stand to stop you, because your brain doesn’t know what the body already does. Your body knows the truth:

You are ready.

Your brain won’t believe it. It will use the taper to convince you that this is foolish – that there is too much that can go wrong.

You are ready.

Finishing an Ironman is never an accident. It’s the result of dedication, focus, hard work, and belief that all the long runs in January, long rides in April, and long swims every damn weekend will be worth it. It comes from getting on the bike, day in, day out. It comes from long, solo runs. From that first long run where you wondered, “How will I ever be ready?” to the last long run where you smiled to yourself with one mile to go… knowing that you’d found the answer.

It is worth it. Now that you’re at the taper, you know it will be worth it.

The workload becomes less. The body winds up and prepares, and you just need to quiet your worried mind. Not easy, but you can do it.

You are ready.

You will walk into the lagoon on August 26th with 2000 other wide-open sets of eyes. You will look upon the sea of humanity, and know that you belong.  You’ll feel the chill of the water crawl into your wetsuit, and shiver like everyone else, but smile because the day you have waited for for so VERY long is finally here.

The bagpipers will walk across the beach. Steve King will ask you to sing along.

You will.

O Canada!
Our home and native land!
True patriot love in all thy sons command.

With glowing hearts we see thee rise,
The True North strong and free!

From far and wide,
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.

God keep our land glorious and free!
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.

You will tear up in your goggles. Everyone does.

The helicopters will roar overhead.
Maranatha will roar. The splashing will surround you.

You’ll stop thinking about Ironman, because you’re now racing one.

The swim will be long – it’s long for everyone, but you’ll make it. You’ll watch as the Penticton Lakeside Hotel grows and grows, and soon you’ll hear the end. You’ll come up the beach and head for the wetsuit strippers. Three people will get that sucker off before you know what’s happening, and then you’ll head for the bike.

1998 Ironman Canada Swim Start

In the shadows on Main Street you’ll spin out of town – the voices, the cowbells, and the curb-to-curb chalk giving you a hero’s sendoff. You won’t wipe the smile off your face for miles as you whisk along the lakeside, past fully stocked, silent aid stations for the run to come.

You’ll spin up McLean Creak Road. You’ll roll down towards Osoyoos, past the vineyards glowing in the morning sun. You’ll settle down to your race. The crowds will spread out on the road. You’ll soon be on your bike, eating your food on your schedule, controlling your Ironman.

Richter Pass will come. Everyone talks about it, but it’s really nothing.

You’ll know this halfway up, as you’re breathing easy and climbing smoothly.  Look to your right. Look how high you’re climbing. Look at all the bikes below, still making their way there. You’re ahead of them.  All of them.

You’ll climb over Richter, and descend to the valley below. You’ll ride the rollers, one at a time. You’ll start to feel that morning sun turn to afternoon sun. It’s warmer now. Maybe it’s hot. Maybe you’re not feeling so good now. You’ll keep riding. You’ll keep drinking. You’ll keep moving. After all, this is just a long training day with valet parking and catering, right?

Nearing the summit of Richter Pass, 2000 Ironman Canada

You’ll put the rollers behind you. You’ll head into the Cawston out and back. You’ll put on your game face, fighting the urge to feel down as you ride the wrong way for what seems like hours. 10 miles in, you reach special needs, fuel up, and head out.

By now it’ll be hot.  You’ll be tired.  
Doubts will fight for your focus.  
Everyone struggles here.

You’ve been on that bike for a few hours, and stopping would be nice, but you won’t – not here.  Not today.  You’ll ride on leaving Cawston behind you and head for the final showdown at Yellow Lake.

You’ll grind the false flats to the climb.  You’ll know you’re almost there.  You’ll fight for every inch of road.  You’ll make the turn towards the summit as the valley walls close in for the kill, and put your head down.  The crowd will come back to you here – the cars are always waiting to cross the summit, and you’ll soon be surrounded in the glorious noise that is the final climb of Ironman Canada.  Let their energy push you.  Let them see your eyes. 

Smile when they cheer for you – your body will get just that little bit lighter.

Grind.
Fight.
Suffer.
Persevere.
Summit.

Just like that, you’ll be descending.  12 miles to go, and no climbing left.   You’ll plunge down the road, swooping from corner to corner, chaining together the turns, tucking on the straights, letting your legs recover for the run to come – soon!  You’ll roll back into town – you’ll see people running out. You’ll think to yourself, “Wasn’t I just here?”

 The noise will grow. The chalk dust will hang in the air – you’re back in Penticton, with only 26.2 miles to go.

You’ll relax a little bit, knowing that even if you get a flat tire or something breaks here, you can run the damn bike into T2.

You’ll roll into transition. 100 volunteers will fight for your bike. You’ll give it up and not look back. You’ll have your bag handed to you, and into the tent you’ll go. You’ll change. You’ll load up your pockets, and open the door to the last long run of your Ironman summer – the one that counts.

You’ll take that first step of a thousand…and you’ll smile.

You’ll know that the bike won’t let you down now – the race is down to your own two feet.  The same crowd that cheered for you in the shadows of the morning will cheer for you in the brilliant sunshine of a Penticton summer Sunday.  High-five people on the way out.  Smile.  Enjoy it.  This is what you’ve worked for all year long.

That first mile will feel great. So will the second.

By mile 3, you probably won’t feel so good.

That’s okay. You knew it couldn’t all be that easy. You’ll settle down just like you did on the bike, and get down to your pace. You’ll see the leaders coming back the other way. Some will look great – some won’t.  You might feel great, you might not.  No matter how you feel, don’t panic – this is the part of the day where whatever you’re feeling, you can be sure it won’t last.

You’ll keep moving.  You’ll keep drinking.   You’ll keep eating.

Maybe you’ll be right on plan – maybe you won’t.  If you’re ahead of schedule, don’t worry – believe.  If you’re behind, don’t panic – roll with it.  Everyone comes up with a brilliant race plan for Ironman, and then everyone has to deal with the reality that planning for something like Ironman is like trying to land a man on the moon.  

By remote control.  Blindfolded.

How you react to the changes in your plan will dictate your day.  Don’t waste energy worrying about things – just do what you have to when you have to, and keep moving. Keep eating.  Keep drinking.  Just don’t sit down – don’t EVER sit down.

2000 Ironman Canada, somewhere around Mile 9

You’ll make it to halfway at OK Falls.

You’ll load up on special needs.  Some of what you packed will look good, some won’t. Eat what looks good, toss the rest.

Keep moving.  Start looking for people you know.  Cheer for people you don’t.  You’re headed in – they’re not.   They want to be where you are, just like you wanted to be when you saw all those fast people headed into town.  Share some energy – you’ll get it right back.

Run if you can.
Walk if you have to.
Just keep moving.

The miles will drag on. The brilliant Penticton sunshine will yawn, and head for the mountains behind the bike course… behind that last downhill you flew down all those hours ago. You’ll be coming up to those aid stations you passed when you started the bike, now fully alive with people, music, and chicken soup.

TAKE THE SOUP.  Keep moving.

You’ll soon only have a few miles to go.  You’ll start to believe that you’re going to make it. You’ll start to imagine how good it’s going to feel when you get there. Let those feelings drive you on. When your legs just don’t want to move anymore, think about what it’s going to be like when someone catches you, and puts a medal over your head…

…all you have to do is get there.

You’ll start to hear town.  People you can’t see in the twilight will cheer for you.  They’ll call out your name.  Smile and thank them.  They were there when you left on the bike, they were there when you came back, they were there when you left on the run, and now they’re there for you when you’ve come back for the final time.

You’ll enter town.  You’ll start to realize that the day is almost over.

You’ll be exhausted, wiped out, maybe barely able to run a 10-minute mile (if you’re lucky), but you’ll ask yourself, “Where did the whole day go?”  You’ll be standing on the edge of two feelings – the desire to finally stop, and the desire to take these last moments and make them last as long as possible.

You’ll hit mile 25.  You’ll turn onto Lakeside Drive.

Your Ironman Canada will have 1.2 miles – just 2KM left in it.

You’ll run.  You’ll find your legs.  You’ll fly.  You won’t know how, but you will run.  You’ll make the turn in front of the Sicamous in the dark, and head for home. The lights will grow brighter, brighter, and brighter. Soon you’ll be able to hear the music again.

This time, it’ll be for keeps.

You’ll listen for Steve King, or Mike Reilly, or Whit Raymond. Soon they’ll see you. Soon, everyone will see you.

You’ll run towards the lights, between the fences, and into the nightsun made just for you.

They’ll say your name.
You’ll keep running.
Nothing will hurt.

The moment will be yours – for one moment, the entire world will be looking at you and only you.

You’ll break the tape. The flash will go off.

You’ll stop.  You’ll finally stop.  Your legs will wobble their last, and suddenly be capable of nothing more.

Someone will catch you.
You’ll lean into them.

It will suddenly hit you.

You will be an Ironman.

You are ready.

You. Are. Ready.

2000 Ironman Canada Finish Line. I nearly took out the clock, but I didn’t care.

The 2021 Philadelphia Marathon: This is Fine. Everything is fine.

Things usually happen for a reason. Sometimes that reason is that you forget that hoping is the opposite of training. Sometimes that reason is because you made poor choices early in the race. And yet, on some special days, sometimes you accomplish ALL of these things at once.

Sunday, November 21, 2021 – 6:45AM, Benjamin Franklin Parkway

Every third Sunday in November since 1997, I have run the Philadelphia Marathon, with one exception: I missed the 2007 race due to injury. After the cancellation of the 2020 race due to COVID, I was looking forward to resuming my annual Rite of Holiday Passage on the Sunday before Thanksgiving in 2021, back once again for the 26.2-mile romp around my fair city.

This marathon would be my 23rd in Philadelphia and 42nd Marathon, going back to 1996. Now, while those numbers would suggest that I am somehow an expert at the distance allow me to assure you that, much like any investment firm disclaimer about the latest and greatest fund: Past Experience Is Not an Indicator of Future Success.

The race is too big, too long, too tough to assume you can ever mail it in. I know this – I know that halfway is 20 miles, regardless of what the math suggests. I know that it takes a minimum of 16 weeks of focused training to be ready to finish; 24 weeks is more like it if you really want to run it properly.

Thanks to a long paddling season that stretched well into October, a regrettable eye infection that snicked away another full week of October, and then a raging cold that wiped out the first week of November, I would roll into the 2021 Philadelphia Marathon with a total of (adds up single half-page diary), three weeks of training.

A total of fifteen runs, with long days of 12, 14, 16, and 20 miles.

But with that barely-stronger-than-a-wet-paper-bag-basis of mileage also came 24 years of experience: I knew this HAD to be an economy run. Start slow, back off, and walk every time I had a cup in my hand. It would have to feel easy and controlled through 20 to have any chance to stretch what little I had in my legs through 26 miles, 385 yards.

Once again, Brian Gatens would be my wingman for this trip – our 13th time together for Philadelphia. He would be coming in with years and years of Multi-Day Adventure Racing in his legs; 4-5 day rough-terrain events featuring Mountain Biking, Trail Running, Orienteering, Mountaineering, Sleep Deprivation, and Snacks. His run volume for 2021 was reported as 0.0 miles, but that meant nothing. The man could stay awake and in motion for 96+ hours at a time, so a 4-5 hour run? This whole thing would be a pre-breakfast workout for him, really.

Brian was well aware of my limits coming into this race. He knew what 2020-2021 had been like with work; his journey had been fully as rough. He’s a School District Superintendent in New Jersey, while I’m on the IT Architecture / Infrastructure Team at Christiana Care Hospital in Delaware. COVID had pushed us both beyond breaking points time and time again, but running this race – getting into the corrals and getting back to a ritual we’d missed – grasping for something familiar that felt like the days before this madness, how could we not?

As is tradition, we found ourselves running for the start at 6:58 AM. After getting through Security, jumping a few barriers, and “Pardon Me”-ing our way to something that felt like a good space in the middle, we set off just after 7:05 AM with our wave. The weather was promising; cool temps, no chance of rain (unlike 2019, which had been a hypothermic nightmare for all 26 miles), and light winds.

When we passed through the first mile in 9:21, I turned to Brian and went, “That was quick.” Brian didn’t even turn his head as he replied, “It’s fine. This is fine. We’re fine.”

Mile 1. This is fine.

I did not feel fine. But it was early, and there was plenty of time to get things right.

In all the marathons I’ve run, I’ve never really felt strong in the first few miles. Usually it’s nerves, adrenaline, and trying to somehow convince my worried mind somehow that the body will be fine, even if it doesn’t feel good right in this particular moment. As Brian and I trundled down through Old City, I just settled into whatever it was we were doing and kept to myself.

Meanwhile, Brian was on the opposite end of the physical universe. Running with Brian – hell, doing ANYTHING with Brian – is like bodysurfing a tsunami. The man is a font of physical energy, six feet of raw, unbridled positivity, and all you can do is find a place on his wake and hold on.

I sat back towards the middle of the road as Brian moved to the right, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that he proceeded to go about greeting every single spectator he saw between miles 2 and 7 with a constant lilt:

“Good morning! Good morning! Hi! Hello! Good Morning! Stay in school. Looking Good. Great sign – MY name is Brian!”

As an Italian, I talk a lot. I also tend to talk during races. In 1993, I was recognized in France while riding my road bike in the Pyrenees as I passed another cyclist. “Do you race in New York City?” he asked out of the clear blue. “I, yes, I do!” I chirped. “I KNEW IT!” he boomed. “I recognize your voice. How the HELL can you talk in those races?”

Today was not one of those days, though. With some really early feelings of dread and heavy legs, I was more than happy to flip my “Emergency Introvert” switch and let Brian work the crowd, with the hopes that somewhere in the next 3 hours, things might swing my way.

Brian was especially fond of finding Eagles fans dressed in gear in the crowd. “Hey, Eagles!” He’d yell, and they’d invariably cheer back. This, of course, was simply the setting of the hook that Brian immediately yanked, “Giants fan. Go Big Blue.”

Some would laugh, some would go stone-faced, and others would just get an expression of unrepentant betrayal that wordlessly said, “This guy is dead to me.” It’s all part of the game of running with Brian.

In 2010 when we were 4 miles from the finish line (and he was towing me to a PR), this stunt spectacularly backfired. As we were running past Mile 22, Brian spotted a guy in an Eagles jersey on the other side of the road, head-down, approaching Mile 16. I remember thinking, “Uh, no, no… don’t…”

But of course, he did. “Hey! Eagles!”

The gents head rose, slowly…seeking some hope, some kindness, some energy.

“Go Big Blue. Giants Rule.” And like that, all of the above was denied.

At that moment, the man’s final fuse blew. We don’t know what his race had been like to that point, but being smack-talked from a guy more than an hour ahead on the road was clearly the last straw, and I watched in a mixture of horror and fascination as he TURNED AROUND AND CAME AFTER US.

“Get back here you @ssholes! Say that to my face!”

Brian and I were already running as fast as we could go, so there wasn’t much we could do about it. I remember saying to Brian, “If he catches us, we probably deserve it.” He did not, thankfully.

Back to 2021, we carried on through University City. Up the hills into Fairmount Park past Drexel, the Philadelphia Zoo, Memorial Hall, and around the Mann Music Center. In prior years this would end the hills for the race, but due to some construction on MLK Drive, we would be entering a new portion of the course – we’d be crossing the river on the Girard Avenue Bridge and doing the Boxer’s Loop.

I knew that second set of rolling hills would be tough, and I was unfortunately very much right. We ground our way down, down, down, and then up, up, up, and around the loop. We passed the halfway mark in 2:13-something, but I was running out of juice. I could feel legs that felt like I would have expected at Mile 20, but not this soon. I mentioned to Brian that the pace might have been too fast (relatively speaking), so the second half might get really ugly for me.

I tried to reason with Brian,”Remember that line from ‘Hunt for Red October’ where they’re running the canyon, and the navigator is freaked out because they’re not doing it at the speed that matches his math? ‘Too fast, it’s too fast Vasily?’ That’s us.”

In typical Gatens fashion, he met this prediction with the usual calm assessment: “This is fine. You’re fine. We’re fine. Everything is fine. We’ll see Jimmy and Max up here, get some Advil, you’ll be great.”

Approaching Mile 15. I look better than I feel. Brian continues his goodwill tour of Philadelphia

Sure enough, just before Mile 15, we rolled past Jimmy and Max, adventure racers with Brian that had come up to work the race (they’d been up since 2:00 AM having set the course). As we came into view, Brian simply asked, “What have you got?”

He never specified what he was asking for, but James and Max each rifled their pockets and produced an array of Tylenol, Advil, salt tablets, and one Pamprin (I didn’t ask where or why that was present). Brian grabbed a handful of 4-6 Tylenol and just disappeared them. “Want a few?” he asked. “I’ve never done that in training, I don’t think I should start now…” I reasoned.

“Bah.” Brian replied. “It’s fine. You sure?” I deferred. Brian shrugged.

“That’s okay. We’ll get you an espresso at Mile 20, you’ll perk right back up, no worries.”

We plunged down the steep descent to Kelly Drive, and then headed towards Manayunk.

There was a good crowd waiting on Kelly Drive, and once again Brian spotted an Eagles fan – a fellow with a group of friends in what can only be described as an Eagles Christmas Sweater, fully knit. We’d seen him on Market Street earlier in the day; Brian bellowed, “Hey, Go Eagles!” Instantly, the guy remembered him.

“YOU, no, I’m not talking to you.” Brian just smiled and chuckled, “Excellent.”

Kelly Drive is where the Philadelphia Marathon gets real. It’s an out-and-back, and you know exactly where you are at all times. You see the really, really fast runners headed in as they’re miles ahead of you, knowing that you’ll get there eventually. That said, it’s hard not to let it break you if things aren’t feeling good.

The drive has no ‘real’ hills to speak of, just has these little rises and falls of no more than a few feet. Depending on your day, they can be invisible or unrelenting and massive. As we passed through East Falls and turned into Manayunk, each little rise peeled away whatever I had left, bit by bit.

Beneath the azure sky of what had turned into a brilliant, perfect, crisp autumn day, my legs began to sunset themselves and fall completely apart.

I grabbed a beer on the way into Manayunk from the Hash House Harriers; just a bathroom Dixie Cup size, but it tasted GREAT. Still surfing on his anti-inflammatory cloud, Brian continued to work the crowd, alternating between running ahead and high-fiving kids while reminding them, “Stay in school,” then coming back to me to check if things were improving.

I just stayed really quiet. Which, if you know me, is a very big deal.

The crowds in Manayunk were incredible and out in force. For the first time in two years they had a marathon to cheer for. In September Hurricane Ida had put Main Street under 8′ of water, nuking many of the businesses into months of repair work. Despite that natural disaster, there was no way the town was going to stay away: 2021 be damned.

I did what I could to make eye contact, smile, and give thanks, but there wasn’t a lot I could spare – I let Brian do it. As we approached the turn at Mile 20, Brian turned back and said, “I’m getting an espresso. You want an espresso? It’ll help. You just need some real food and you’ll be as good as new.”

I declined. I knew what the acid would do in my stomach, and bursting into flames somewhere around Boathouse Row would be an environmental disaster that I couldn’t really afford. “You go ahead, I’m going to just keep going…” Brian took off, “I’ll catch up. You’re fine. This is fine.”

After the turnaround, there’s always some relief. Even though it’s just the simple fact that you’re headed HOME, a little change like that can be everything. Halfway in the marathon is Mile 20. Once you’ve run one, you’ll understand this – the race has been defined by how you’ve controlled yourself to this point, or how much it has gone to pieces.

I thought about the few times I had made this turn and felt invincible: 2015, 2014, 2012, 2010, 2008, 2002, 1998. All years I had put in the work, run a patient race, and then turned to face the final 10KM with legs ready to go and a mind that believed it.

Entering 10KM to go in a marathon with confidence and strength is to feel immortal. Months of work suddenly become worth it. Track sessions under the cruel gaze of a stopwatch and your own doubts suddenly pay dividends. The pain steps back; to know what it is to be on the edge of collapse, the edge of exhaustion, but to have control and power to not yield: You feel it once, and you’ll spend the rest of your running days trying to feel that way again.

Today was not going to be one of those days, and I knew it. I had done no speedwork. I had run 15 workouts. The race plan I’d brought to the table was nothing more than Paper Mache, experience, and hope. I knew it wouldn’t last, and I knew exactly what I needed to do in order to somehow stitch a steady race together: Start slow, back off, walk every water stop, and in the words of dear friend John McGurk, “Don’t Race Like a Dipshit.”

My race execution had been perfectly imperfect: None of those things were done.

I held on to a pace that burned through the matches I had far too quickly, and now another line from “Hunt for Red October” immediately sprang to mind, when the Lieutenant realizes that the torpedo his Captain fired with no safeties has turned around and will most definitely be blowing up their own sub: “You arrogant ass. You’ve killed US.”

At Mile 22 Brian caught back up to me, espresso-fueled and in an even better mood. The sky was perfect. The temperatures were perfect. The roads were dry, and we were headed home.

We turned onto Kelly Drive, and with a sound that was half-sigh, half-groan, I dropped my head, and what was left of my stride broke down completely. It is said that training is the opposite of hoping: You simply cannot substitute one for the other.

I didn’t say anything. Brian looked back and knew he didn’t need to: There are no words that can possibly help you when the hammer hits.

I remember being angry when I saw the phone come up over his shoulder to snag the photos. But as he took them he quipped, “You’ll want these. You will.” He was right, of course. It’s all part of the story -all of our stories can’t have Disney endings.

The races that make the good ones GOOD are the ones that tear you down and leave you shattered. The failures are what set the stage for the next try.

I still hated it, though.

We had four miles to go, and I was reduced to a 12-minute pace. The clock was already over four hours and counting, a far cry from my best of 3:42:08. There was nothing left to do but just keep it moving. I turned to Brian and said, “I’m so f*cking embarrassed.” He replied, “Why? It’s a gorgeous day. We’re outside. We’re running, well, walking. It’s fine. This is fine.”

Mile 23: Not even Ted Lasso could save me.

He made me stop and take the Ted Lasso shot. We were passed by a runner with a speaker on her waist pack, playing “All Too Well.” I asked her, “Is that the 10-minute version?” She said, “IT IS!” I replied, “Great! Three more Taylor’s, and you’re home!”

Brian stayed with me the entire way, never trying to cheerlead or blow flowers up my hindquarters. I was just so mad with myself; I was working my hamstrings by kicking my own ass all the way up Kelly Drive. “How did I think this was going to go? How could I have possibly thought I could have run a solid race on no mileage? What the hell was I thinking?”

I was plummeting backwards and checking my watch (not like it mattered, but I’m a racer – the clock ALWAYS matters). 4:30 was long gone, so was 4:40; 4:50 was burned to a crisp, and now it looked like I might not even break 5 hours, a time I hadn’t run since my second-ever marathon in 1997. Yet no matter how angry I was or how much I simmered, it didn’t matter: My legs were dead, and they weren’t coming back. That was the cold hard truth.

I was going so slowly at this point, I stopped sweating. I had taken my arm-warmers off by East Falls, but now I was untying them from my SpiBelt and working to untangle them from each other.

Brian looked back and saw me holding them stretched out in front of me and asked, “Are you getting ready to strangle me?” I smirked and said, “No, I’m too tired and there are too many witnesses here.”

The trudge went on, one foot in front of the other, slow mile after slow mile, until Boathouse Row came into view along with the final rise to the Finish Line.

I just wanted to get the race finished, so of course as I was there simmering and continuing to kick my own tail, I caught eyes with a spectator. We both had a moment where our brains went, “Wait – I know that person…” Which is how I found myself face-to-face with Erin McGarrigle, my daughter’s teacher from 5th grade in 2017.

“HEY!” She yelled out, and we hugged. Or I might have hugged her and realized that I probably smelled like I’d run a marathon and immediately recoiled five feet because randomly hugging someone, even if you know them, late in a marathon, is not really polite. “You look great!” she lied. “I’m so sorry…” I replied, because if Eeyore ever ran a marathon, that’s what he’d say. “Having a rough patch, sorry you have to see me this slow.”

I waved and started trundling back up the hill, still embarrassed to be having the worst day I’d had in 24 years of running, and now, with witnesses.

I could see Brian just up the road – he had stopped and was leaning against the fencing near a group of spectators the way Joe Cool leans on a pole. As I stumbled closer and closer, I could see him go, “Here he comes…”

The next thing I hear is this group of 10-12 people going, “Let’s go Bob! Let’s go Bob! Let’s go Bob!” It turned out to be Eagles Sweater Guy and his crew, still waiting for their runner. Brian had them pose for selfies and then looked to me going, “Look who I found!”

How can you not love that? How can you not love a moment like that. Even though I felt terrible, I could measure my pace using a sundial, and there was nearly nobody left around me, Brian found a way to make me smile, laugh, and just savor the last 500 Meters. He’d done it just by being who he is: Heckling a random group he met by playfully busting on them, which in Philadelphia, is an essential ice-breaking technique.

I caught up to him and Brian said, “Let’s go, Buddy. Finish is right up there.”

We finished the last of the Art Museum Hill and felt gravity finally let her grip go as we started on the downside of Eakins Oval towards the line. I could see the towers, the clocks, and the timing mats.

I also saw they’d already flipped to 5:00:02, so that was pretty much that.

We crossed the line in 5:00:47. However, Strava tells me I actually ran a 4:50 in “moving time,” but that doesn’t count the time spent standing still (getting Tylenol, waiting for Brian to chat up a volunteer, posing with Ted Lasso, awkwardly trying not to asphyxiate your kid’s former teacher).

5:00:47 it is, my slowest Philadelphia Marathon, and my 3rd slowest all-time, behind my first-ever (5:15 in 1996, Marine Corps on an 80F day), and my second-ever (5:08 in 1997, Marine Corps, on a 50F, rainy day). Still, Philadelphia #23 and marathon #42 went into the books.

Brian and I walked through the chutes, got our medals, got some Chicken Broth (NECTAR OF THE GODS), and started making our way towards the exit. He went back for a few more water bottles, so I found a sunny patch and waited.

As I did, a woman came walking out of the tent clutching a water bottle, a banana, and her medal, all while trying to hold her Mylar blanket closed. Her face was a sea of confused emotions, her eyes wide and seeming to stare off to infinity, like she was trying to find the horizon on an endless sea. It looked like she might laugh, cry, or scream, and wasn’t really sure which way to go.

I lowered my gaze into hers and asked, “First marathon?”

She froze, starting nodding, and then started sobbing squeaking out the words:

“I did it!”

“Yes, you did!” I echoed, and high-fived her as she walked past, now sobbing that happy sob most of us have done after that first finish.

“Thank you…” she replied, letting her emotions finally have their way. I felt lucky to see it – your first marathon is SUCH a moment, so pure, so real, so raw. That second you finally allow yourself to realize you did something you didn’t think you could do, that you beat all those doubts and finished, that first time magic only happens once.

Yet that memory never dies. “I did it.”

As Brian and I made our way up the Parkway knowing there was no way we would make our 12:30PM checkout time, we talked about how it’s easy to lose perspective as the years and the finishes stack up. Brian echoed a key lesson, “How many people do these things? Maybe 1-2% of the US population? Maybe? It doesn’t matter what the clock says, we finished. I haven’t run since, hell, I can’t remember. You barely trained, and here we are. Finishers, again.”

“We are lucky, lucky men to have these pursuits. We can’t forget that.”

He’s told me that before, but it’s always good to be reminded. After 2020-2021, after so many have lost so much, being able to run – no matter what the clock says – is more than enough. I’ll take it, I’ll recover, and Lord willing, we’ll be back.

Although seriously, for 2022, I am going to train. I mean it.

(I hope).

Spin Cycle

The first thing I noticed as they came in was that most of the class was women. Actually, I was the only guy. I was also the only one wearing Lycra shorts and a sleeveless jersey. I was definitely the only one with loud yellow shoes, Look cleats, and no clue how to ride a spin bike.

Originally published in November 2002, my story of how with enough effort, bravado, and kinetic energy, you can accomplish something completely unexpected…

Last month after 8 weeks of paperwork, faxes, contracts, waivers, clearances, and a note from my doctor, I was able to complete the final bureaucratic hurdle between myself and something I’ve been after since May of 2001:  I was finally able to join my company gym.  There’d be no more cutting out to the YMCA mid-day, no more birdbaths post-run in the men’s room:  I could run downstairs during lunch, lift weights, run, shower, and get back to my desk with a mountainous salad and a few million endorphins running hot laps through the empty canyons of my mind.

Before I could lift a single weight, I had to go through a “Fitness Assessment” to be allowed to workout.  I was told that all members must go through this orientation workout so that Wyeth will know that said employee is actually (1) Alive, (2) Intending to stay that way, and (3) Capable of breathing in a safe manner.

I made th eappointment, certain that this would be a mere formality.  After all, my doctor had mentioned in his 8-page application and waiver that, “The applicant is an Ironman Triathlete™ and is in VERY GOOD SHAPE.”  He underlined it three times, which I thought was very nice of him.  What could the staff throw at me? 

Granted, when I’d taken my company physical before signing the contract, the company doctor pinched my stomach and simply said, “You’re fat.  Lose that gut.”  No measure of weight, no nothing – just a quick pinch and out the door he went.  I said to him, “I’m running a marathon on Saturday!” and he replied (without turning around), “Well, that’s a good start then!”

How much worse could it get then that?

(Aside: I talked to the nurse, most of my co-workers, and the HR department.  Every single employee in the history of this location is fat according to this doctor.  The score is 1,291 to 0 – so I don’t think I have to worry about his rapid-fire appraisal…even though I entertained myself with 24 witty replies on the way back to my desk).

The assessment started with the hardest test of all:  “Bob, could you step on that scale?”  Author Leo Buscaglia once said that no day is truly complete until you laugh and cry before going to bed.  I’ve found it’s best to get the crying over with early, so I take care of that by weighing in right out of bed.  Since I’d already reached for the Kleenex once, this was unexpected bonus despair. 

“196.5 pounds.  Hmm. You don’t look that heavy!”  The trainer was a real charmer.  Next, she reached for the body-comp calipers and started pinching. “You know what I’m doing now, right?”  I sure did.   She was getting ready to give me the worst news I’d heard since my first girlfriend had dumped me in High School for someone else by telling me, “I’m sorry, but he’s got a better car.”  

The trainer pinched, folded, measured, and re-did the same. Halfway through the second lap she asked, “So why aren’t you breathing?  You’ll be okay – really.”  I couldn’t help it.  Bad news was coming – I knew it.

“I’ll have the numbers run tomorrow, and we’ll go over them before your first workout.”  Great.  24 hours of unabated brooding over the sheer volume of my fat cells.  Bastards.  I’ll get you all, just you wait…

Next she had me get onto an old school, non-spin-class exercise bike.  “I want you to ride at 50 RPM for the next two minutes to warm up.”  50?  Warm-up? Oh, my.  What we have here is a situation.  I started to spin as slowly as I could, and the trainer raised an eyebrow at me.  “That’s about 75.  Slower, please.”  I couldn’t do it.  I simply couldn’t pedal that slowly.  My legs refused to answer the command, and we settled on 65 RPM as the middle ground.

After m ynon-warm-up-warm-up, she turned the tension knob up and watched me pedal while taking a blood pressure reading.  I continued to spin slow circles.  A minute passed, another turn.  I could feel tension in my legs and didn’t have to pretend I was actually pedaling, but it was hard for me not to look bored.

A minute would pass: Another reading, another turn. After 5 turns, I took my first real breath.  I wasn’t trying to be a problem, but I could tell that the bike was going to run out of tension before I ran out of leg.  Another turn, this one with both hands.  I could smell the brake pads starting to get warm.   Another blood pressure reading and I asked, “How is it?”  She corrected me, “It’s fine.  Concentrate.”  She grabbed the knob with both hands again, and exerted the kind of force usually reserved for Mason jars that have been sealed since last winter.   I was still trying not to smile.

The battle was at a crossroads – I was almost (but not quite) pedaling in squares, and I’d actually started to sweat.  However, the bike could give no more.  “Cool-down.”  She chirped, taking 7 full turns out of the tension.  It was a small victory, but that momentum wouldn’t last long.

“Sit here onthe floor, and put your feet against this box. When I tell you to go, I want you to stretch as far forward as you can with your legs flat on the floor.”

“Oh, am I screwed…” I thought  I don’t have hamstrings – I have bowstrings.  I mean, my hammies could be used to suspend roadbed over a river. They’re about as flexible as steel, my parents about curfew, and Spencer Smith’s belief that pink is not a measure of a man’s character.

I reached, and moved the measuring slide about ½”.  My fat cells giggled.  “Try again…” she said.  I did, and this time I moved it almost one full inch.  “One more!”  I reared back and charged forward from the waist up.  The slide moved almost TWO inches, but my stomach flab pushed back so hard when I maxed out that I nearly flew backwards from the recoil at the same time my butt came off the floor.  The net effect looks like I’ve farted with enough force to produce liftoff, but the slide tells the tale.

“Pushups!”  The trainer charged; “On the floor– give me as many as you can without stopping or pausing.  Ready? Go!”  I start slowly, knowing that if I rush it in the first few I’d never recover.  After 10 I didn’t feel so bad.  After 15, I did feel so bad.  After 18, I wasn’t sure 19 would be happening.  After 21, I paused at the top for a half-beat, and fell flat on my chest.  Would there be a moment to recover?  No way.

“Sit-ups!  You have 60 seconds.  These aren’t crunches; these are full-on sit-ups, so bring your hands over your knees with each one.  Ready, GO!”  As the first few ticked off, I remembered doing this test in High School.  I remember being so sore afterwards; I couldn’t move my torso away from the direction of my legs for three days.  I walked around like a cross between Batman, Frankenstein, and Fat Albert.  Because I was still reeling from the push-ups, I knew there would be be another week of looking around corners by bending at the ankles in my near-future.

45 seconds later, only my torso was getting off the ground. There was so much lactic acid in my abdominals; I swear I heard it filling my ears.  By 50 seconds, I was only lifting my head off the floor…and soon even my neck muscles crapped out.  I performed the last two sit-ups by succeeding in moving only my earlobes and thinking, “Holy cow – I never knew I could move my earlobes.”

“Great job.  See you tomorrow for the results.”  She said.  I was whipped. I was beaten.  Ironman, shmironman.  I couldn’t get off the damn floor.  If the building were to catch on fire, I’d have to be rolled out the door to safety. 

It was then that I learned that I would have a long way to go.

The next morning, reckoning came at 10:00am.  I watched the clock minute by minute like a defendant waiting for the jury to return.  At 9:59 I was in the office of the trainer, waiting for my report card.  She started off nicely:  “You’re VO2 Max is in the 99th percentile for your age – you measured at 55.7, very good!”  Good news!  Lisa Bentley happy dance for Bob!

“However…” she carried on.  Oh, how I HATE ‘however.’  That always means there’s irony afoot.  The happy dance in my head stopped.

“…You scored in the 50th percentile in flexibility, and your sit-up and push-up scores were in the middle as well.”  Well, that’s okay.  I can work on that, right?

“Your body fat…” she carried on, dropping her tone.  I stopped breathing.  My mind starts making guesses: 11%?  No shot.  30%?  Maybe.  What was I at 240 pounds –36%, right?  So now I must be what 15?  20? 25?  I can’t take the pressure!

“..is at 19%.”  The happy dancer in my head reached for a well-placed box of Kleenex, thereby completing her day.  

“You’re heavy, but you knew that.  All in all you’re in good shape for your age, and there’s a lot you can do here now, right?”  The trainer made the words, and I nod to them from my knees as much as I can, anyway.  My neck muscles were still functioning like swollen rubber bands from the fading sit-up test, and all I coiuld see was that number – 19%.  I was nearly 1/5th flubber. 

I was fat.  This made it official.  However (this is a good however, however), the end result of all this was that I now had full access to the gym:  Weights, treadmills, showers, all sorts of goodies – even classes!  As I went to leave for the day I noticed a sign-up sheet at the front desk: “SPIN CLASS – 30 Minutes, Wednesday.”  

My moping stopped.  I’d never done a spin class.  There were bikes available.  Why not start with something known?  I scribbled my name into a slot, and my mood improved immediately.

I asked a staff member, “Can I bring my own pedals?” He seemed surprised: “Sure!  You’d be the first to do that, but that’s allowed.” Excellent.  I unscrewed the pedals from Phoenicia that night, and packed a bag like a kid going to camp for the first time.  This was going to be great – better then riding alone, good music, and it’ll break up the day nicely.  Great!

The next day I was the big dork that showed up for class first.  I had my bike set up, and in true tri-geek form, I also had a measuring tape to get the saddle, bars, and pedal-seat lineup close to my road bike (scoring an 11 out of 10 on the Stableford Fredness Chart).  I filled my bottle, got on the saddle, and waited for everyone else to show up.

The first thing I noticed as they came in was that most of the class was women.  Actually, I was the only guy.  I was also the only one wearing Lycra shorts and a sleeveless jersey.  I was definitely the only one with loud yellow shoes, Look cleats, and no clue how to ride a spin bike.   For those of you that don’t know, a spin-bike is a special stationary bike with a 45-pound (~20 kilo) flywheel and a resistance knob.  You can turn the tension up or down to simulate climbing, sprinting, and anything else.  The classes are usually led by aerobics-type instructors with enough energy to tell you what to do, ride out what they’re telling you, AND yell at you all at the same time.

As our resident instructor told us, “Okay, lets get going…” I clipped in.  Her eyes spun my way and looked really closely at my feet.  “First class?”  She asked me. I nodded.  “Great!  Enjoy it!” After 30 seconds of easy spinning, she nailed us:  “Ready guys – SPRINT! GO! GO! GO!”

BOOM!  Just like a crit from my roadie days, we were off like a cow nailed on the @ss by a bottle rocket.  I had no resistance on my wheel yet, so I sat and spun like Marty Nothstein would (okay, about 40 RPM slower).  I was listening to her tell us to go, trying to catch up with the music, and wondering just how hard these next 30 minutes were going to be…

“STOP!  Good sprint – we’re off!”  She said. Like a good roadie finishing a sprint, I set the cranks to 3 and 9 and mock-threw the bike to end the interval…

…which was a remarkably stupid thing to do with a 45-pound flywheel hurtling around at 29 miles per hour.  

My left foot snapped out first as the pedal simply whipped out from the cleat, leaving my foot dangling in space like Wile E. Coyote when he’s missed the turn. 

My right foot was driven upwards, and without anything holding back from the left, I began the usual slow-motion thought process that only comes out for the very big crashes.  My body slammed forward and downward onto the handlebars, causing the bike to lift its rear-end about 10” off the floor.  Did I mention that on the front of these bikes there are little rollers to help you move them into place before class?

For the first time in recorded history, these rollers now took an active part DURING a class as I performed an unrehearsed, one-legged-nose-wheelie forwards, thinking to myself, “So help me God, I’m really going to crash a stationary bike.”

“And I don’t have a helmet!”

In a blink the back of the bike slammed downward, and the skidding stopped.  I’d only moved about a foot forward, but I was sitting there still pedaling with my right leg while my left leg was just stuck out into space.  The instructors eyes were wide open, and she’d spun her head so fast towards my personal train wreck that she’d wrapped her headset 2 ½ times around her neck.  The woman directly across from me opened her eyes a few seconds later, thankful that she wouldn’t have to explain a head-on collision that involved two non-moving bicycles to her insurance company.

I clipped back in, pedaled up to speed, and made a mental note about the important safety tip: N-E-V-E-R stop while at speed on one of these things.  I thought to myself, “What would Lance Armstrong do if he’d screwed up like this?  I know – he’d take a drink and act cool.”

I reached for my bottle.  Pity that the launch and landing had popped the top about halfway off. As I went to open the nozzle with my teeth I proceeded to dumped most of my water down my face, which then cascaded down my torso, and then all over my bike.  I created an instant lake on the floor, but at least instead of looking cool?  I WAS cool.

I waved at everyone still staring and said, “Hi. How are ya?  I used to race bikes, you know.”  The water dripping down and warping the hardwood floor quietly underscored my coolness. The class was three minutes old and I’d already had a near wreck, created a flood, and blasted through my AT.  Not too bad, really.   I’d gotten all the mistakes over and done with in the first class.

Following the dramatics of my debut, things did get better.  After my second class, I’d learned to rid ethe bike without being a danger to myself or others.  By the third the instructors started to let me go in early (and stay late) to get in more mileage.  I’ve even become known as, “That triathlon guy” because I’ve started to sign up for back-to-back classes when they have them so I can get in 90 minutes.  They think that’s insane.  They don’t know me yet.

Speaking of insane, there’s a new Pilates class next week I’m thinking about trying. Yes, I’ve heard that it’s like a cross between Yoga and Medieval Torture, but at least there aren’t any moving parts involved to start with, right?  Even I can’t crash a Yoga mat…I think.

The battle is on.  I’m at 199 pounds at the moment, but I’ve got lots of new weapons here. Assuming I survive the next few wintry months, my fat cells won’t know what hit them. 

Charge!