What do you notice? What do you see?
I know what you’re thinking: really, another blog about running? I’ve sifted through countless blogs in the two years since I first started running. The amount of running literature out there is innumerable. And I’m not even counting all of the running books that I’ve read in that span (my top three favorites if you’re wondering: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, The Terrible and Wonderful Reasons Why I Run Long Distances, and – as you have probably guessed from the title of this blog – Born to Run). The blogs all come in different forms: some are focused on practical running advice, some are scrapbooks of magnificent running trails, and many are brimming with accomplishments – from Boston Marathon qualifying times, to jaw-dropping short distance personal records, to ultramarathons, and everything in between. What exactly is going to set my blog apart from the rest, other than the fact that I’m one of those peculiar toe-shoe-wearing, chia-seed-eating weirdos?
What do you notice? What do you see?
As I sit here in my tiny one bedroom apartment in Jersey City, New Jersey, I meditate on that question. It is a gloomy Saturday afternoon, or at least that’s what it seems like in my living room. The only windows in my unit face a courtyard of sorts. The courtyard is surrounded by buildings on each side, so it blocks out the sun unless it is directly overhead. My girlfriend is gone for the day to visit her family about a half hour away from where we live, so my only company for the evening is my two seven-year-old cats, Carson and Taj. We rescued them from the local shelter when I first moved to this apartment six years ago.
I am greeted by my reflection in the black screen of my television set as I sit on the futon. The T.V. is mostly for decoration these days ever since we got rid of cable, so the only time we turn it on is to play Nintendo 64. The walls are adorned with concert posters: five Phish posters, five Pearl Jam posters, one poster of Nine Inch Nails, and one more of The National.
Tucked away on one of the shelves of our bookcase is the pile of medals from races I’ve accumulated over the past two years. Since we live in a city and we aren’t particularly close to any amazing running trails, most of the running I do is on city sidewalks and asphalt, so the races I’ve run thus far mirror that. I consider myself a fairly average runner currently – posting two average marathon finishing times and three equally average half marathon finishing times. Though I’m proud of each and every one of those medals, the fact that they are the equivalent of a participation trophy you might have received from your tee-ball coach when you were five years old does not escape me.
What do you notice? What do you see? Maybe the answer to the question of what is going to set my blog apart from the rest lies somewhere in all that surrounds me.
I am the firstborn son of a Cuban American household. I’m not sure if this is a trait specific to this particular role or if everyone experiences this in their upbringing, but I was inculcated with the immigrant mentality of hard work and perseverance from my parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. At the same time, I was told I was a special, unique snowflake destined for greatness.
I think one part of the struggle in life is the moment you realize that none of us are special, and we have an equal chance at failure as we do at success. For many of us, hard work and determination more closely resembles Sisyphus pushing a boulder up a hill for all of eternity rather than a Hollywood movie. Coming to grips with this truth is perhaps what sent a portion of my life into a tailspin. Because despite what everyone in my family may think and say, I am not special. I am completely unspectacular and average in every way.
During my last race nearly two weeks ago, a memory flashed before me as they typically do during a long run when my glycogen stores begin to deplete. I’m not sure if these flashbacks are like this for other runners, but for all the non-runners out there: imagine if your life and your run were an episode of Lost. That moment when the story just stops and Jack or Charlie or Locke are completely engrossed in a flashback that pertains to what is actually going on in real-time. That’s what it’s like for me.
Anyway, I remembered back when I took kung fu as a kid. The kung fu school was headed by a professional kickboxer named Paul Vizzio, whose record is 47 wins with one loss. 36 of those wins came by knockout. Sparring was certainly part of the regimen at the school, but where I particularly excelled at was in forms (for those of you who don’t know, forms are basically just a continuous predetermined set of movements).
Every year, there would be a Christmas tournament composed of both sparring competitions and judges scoring students going through forms. I had mixed success at sparring. I only won one first place trophy over the years, and it was in the team competition. My two teammates and I earned that one together. But I had gotten used to taking home the first place trophy every year in the forms competition. This was in large part due to my dad helping me practice for hours to prepare for the tournament, while also coming up with an out of the ordinary sequence in order to stand out from the competition.
One particular year – I must have been eight or nine – I was midway through my routine and felt like I was once again cruising to another first place finish. I was in the middle of a sequence that involved drunken boxing elements (named appropriately because you move awkwardly as if you were drunk when engaging in this style) when I suddenly lost my footing and slipped. I landed with a big thud on the mat.
I wish I could tell you I had that moment like in Rocky V where Tommy Gunn knocks Rocky down and the ghost of Burgess Meredith is yelling at him to get up and Rocky does just that, sending Gunn flying against a parked SEPTA bus. But I didn’t. I don’t think about anything. My mind is blank. The colors from the audience in front of me just flash before my eyes as I fall to the ground. There’s no time to think, no time to have Burgess Meredith or my dad or anybody else yell at me to get up. Because I immediately just get up and continue my routine right where I left off. I don’t think about how I probably lost any chance of getting first place. I don’t think about how bad everyone in the crowd must feel for me. I don’t think about how I let my dad down. I just continue.
The gravity of the situation starts to slowly wash over me as I see my dad, who is probably not even five feet in front of me, flash me this face that conveyed, “Don’t worry, just relax and keep going” but also, “I’m really proud of you for just bouncing back up.” I finish the rest of my routine with a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes. I ended up getting second place in that competition, because the performance was flawless other than the fall.
I lost to the master’s daughter (who apparently now holds a world title in martial arts according to some half-assed Internet research), but that didn’t stop Vizzio from congratulating me when the tournament finished, telling me how proud he was that I got back up so quickly.
I recall this memory clearly two weeks ago on a beautiful autumn day during the Cape Cod Marathon, and I contemplate its significance both in the race and in my life.
I also played Pop Warner football as a kid, where I mostly was a tight end and defensive end, even though I was smaller than most of the other kids. I was a better defensive end than I was a tight end, mostly because I used what I learned in kung fu to get by blockers. I was solid, yet unspectacular. I frequently played up or down to the level of my opponent. I was the kind of player whose impact was not reflected on the stat sheet, since I was primarily proficient at the things that go unnoticed, like blocking and stopping the run. But I enjoyed the sport so much that I wanted to continue playing in high school.
I had been accepted into one of the most prestigious high schools in the country, Bergen County Academies, and I figured football could be my one extracurricular activity. Since BA (as it is colloquially known as) boasted a rigorous, college level curriculum, my parents had agreed to allow me to play during my sophomore year. This would give me a year to get used to the workload.
I look back on high school with such fondness, but also with such regret. This is where everything started to unravel. I battled severe depression and had no idea how to handle it. I felt inadequate. I was a big fish in a small pond in middle school and when I got to BA, I saw firsthand just how unspectacular I actually was. I became self-destructive. I got incredibly mediocre grades. I frequently cut class because of the overwhelming fear and anxiety I felt. I left the football team after only one game.
My outlook improved a little during my junior and senior year, mostly because of the close group of friends I had made. But my depression always lingered over me, like a dark cloud that I couldn’t quite shake. I think people around me had an idea of how bad it was, mostly because I documented it all on Xanga and then on MySpace – it became the only place I felt I could ACTUALLY be heard. But people around me also didn’t have an idea just how bad it actually was. I became good at grinning and bearing it. Tears of a clown and all that jazz.
The dark cloud followed me into college, where I switched my academic focus. At BA, I was an engineering major, but at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, I was a journalism major. I joined the student radio station, WRSU, where we broadcasted Rutgers football, men’s and women’s basketball, baseball, and soccer. Surely here I would be able to be myself, now that I was doing something I enjoyed. Hell, I was even good at analyzing sports, especially football. I was an encyclopedia of knowledge. Surely I found something I could excel at.
Once again, I was thrown into an ocean where I felt out of my league. Though I did get my first lesson in workplace politics at the radio station (which certainly had an impact on me), the fact remains I was my own worst enemy. I was extraordinarily average and my struggle with depression again weighed on me, especially when it came to my social and academic life.
But the difference between college and high school was that now, I had easy access to alcohol and drugs. This was a catalyst and provided an element of volatility that high school did not. I was somehow able to tread water and clawed my way to graduation. At no point was graduation a certainty, especially during the last few years. I had to move back home before my final year and commute anywhere between 45 minutes to an hour to get to class. I paid for the entire year’s tuition with the money I was making as a waiter.
After college, I struggled to get a job as a sports journalist because of my incredibly average resume. The only minor highlight was that I seemingly got to the last round of interviews for a job at ESPN’s stat department before I was rejected. I wrote for my own personal blog and for Bleacher Report as an unpaid contributor. This was also while working in the restaurant industry as a waiter, bartender, and later on as a manager.
My dream of becoming a sports personality went on an indefinite hiatus when a schism in my family sent me off completely on my own. I only kept in touch with my younger brother, who around this time was involved in a life-threatening car crash that landed him in a coma. Also during this period, I was forced to work anywhere between 60 and 75 hours a week at the chain restaurant I worked at just to survive.
My depression stalked me like one of those Warner Bros. cartoon characters. The proverbial devil on my shoulder. Alcohol continued to play a major role in my life. The family issues was the final missing ingredient to this unholy concoction.
Not only that, but after working long hours until the early morning, I often found myself at the fast food counter ordering $20 worth of food, because it was my only meal in the day. I would then drink whatever booze I had lying around to help me fall asleep, so I could get back up and do it all again the next day.
You don’t have to be a nutritionist to figure out that I gained a lot of weight over these next few years. If I didn’t have my girlfriend during this time, I really don’t know what would have become of me. This would be the moment in my narrative where you would insert that Morgan Freeman voiceover from The Shawshank Redemption where he says “those…years were the worst for him, and I also believe that if things had gone on that way, this place would have got the best of him.”
Of course, things didn’t go on that way. As I was set to help open a Cuban restaurant as the general manager, I abandoned the project right before the grand opening. It was time for a complete reboot. Control. Alt. Delete.
Quitting partly reminded me of leaving the football team after one game, and I’m sure it might seem like that on the surface. But I wanted to take back control of my life. I knew working in the restaurant industry was not a legitimate long-term solution. It was something I allowed myself to be forced into because of my life situation. Something was eventually going to be my undoing: either the stress, or the hours, or the alcohol, or maybe the jerk I was opening it with. I didn’t want to lose the only good thing I had going on in my life: my girlfriend.
After a period of unemployment and deep soul-searching, I came to the realization that this was basically going to be my last chance to set everything right. I began tutoring at Huntington Learning Center, which ignited a latent passion I had for teaching. So I began applying to graduate schools in order to pursue a career in education.
I was accepted into an alternative teaching certification program, which means you work as a brand new teacher while taking grad school classes at the same time. I began working towards a Masters in bilingual childhood education, while working as a sixth grade English teacher in the Bronx. Sometimes, my day would last from 6 in the morning until 11 at night after you factor in the commute. It was grueling, but I was happy for the first time in a long time, so I barely felt it.
Through running, meditation, the love of my girlfriend and my two cats, my students and the energy they give me, my friends and their support, I am proud to say the dark cloud has slowly dissipated and faded into nothingness. I am not crippled by my struggle with depression anymore, I am alcohol and drug free (save for an occasional glass of wine or bourbon if I’m out to dinner), and I am slowly mending the fractured relationships in my family. Fade to black. Cue the credits. “Muzzle” by The Smashing Pumpkins begins playing.
Now, this is not to say I’m an unquestioned protagonist. Like in Breaking Bad, all characters have their fair share of peccadilloes. The world isn’t just black or white. We operate in a world of grey. Nobody is just good or just bad.
I’ve done plenty of pretty crummy things in my past. I don’t consider myself a good person. I’m a subpar friend, brother, son, grandson, employee, son-in-law, and partner. I always think of myself first; life has taught me that you have to take care of yourself since no one else is going to. It is not a mentality that I’m particularly proud of, but I built up this way of coping over the years.
With this blog and its corresponding Instagram and Twitter feeds, this also marks my first appearance on social media in about four years. Thus, I’m reconnecting with people I haven’t talked to in a while. I don’t expect or want them to be there cheering for me at both actual or metaphorical finish lines, because I don’t deserve it. The only constant has been my girlfriend, and I am at peace with that. However, I would like them all to know just how much each and every one of them has meant to me along my path.
Maybe all of this is the start of my attempt at answering the question of why this running blog will be unique. It is not only because of my journey and struggles; it is how cognizant I am of the road signs and lessons along the way, both on the running trails and in life. It fuels me and works together symbiotically, hand-in-hand. It makes me a better runner and a better person. I’ve never been the best at anything, but if there is one thing I am very good at is that I overanalyze things. I look for symbols and meaning in everything.
This will not simply just be a diary of my training and my races. I want you to understand what I’m thinking, why I do things. Because maybe it will give you meaning and will ignite you to do the same in your life.
When I read What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, I couldn’t help but feel it was a little too robotic at parts and devoid of feeling. Part of that I’m sure is due to the fact that the book was translated from Haruki Murakami’s native Japanese; alas, it made me want to set out and shoot to do something better. Something with feeling, something that bled. Back in high school, the only thing people knew me for (other than my group of friends and our zany antics) was how open I was in my online journals. In this way, my blog will stand out, because I will meld my real life with my running life. That way you can truly understand what it means to me to be a runner. Or maybe this will just be a crappier version of Murakami’s masterpiece that I unfairly picked apart (though I did already mention it was one of my favorite running books – we can still be friends!).
I’ve read that human beings’ signature adaptive trait is the ability to endure. I know the list of things I have overcome. I go through the list in my head during difficult runs or when I’m feeling depressed or unmotivated, like Arya Stark going through her kill list before bed. And I have glossed over the details here just to give you a broader scope (this is a foreword after all, I can’t reveal my entire hand).
But while I have spent years taking the easy way out and shrinking whenever there is pressure or when I slip up, I am constantly trying to get myself back to that Christmas kung fu tournament where getting up was automatic for me. If miles 20 through 26.2 of the two hilly marathons I have run so far are any indication, I am well on my way.
Regardless, I do think it is important that there is so much running literature out there, and I am thrilled to add to the throngs. Which brings me to reason number two of why my blog is different.
I don’t pretend to be the be-all and end-all. In fact, it is so momentous for us as humans to have so many different records and different perspectives about running. Whenever there is something so special, so divine, so past our own insufficient comprehension as mere mortals, it is absolutely imperative to get as many distinct voices out into the public sphere. It is awe-inspiring that something so innate and natural – yet so simple – can teach us so much about what it means to be human.
In fact, I think not enough writing about running exists. I find myself not craving tutorials or how to guides, but rather individual journeys that I can learn from. When something goes so beyond the scope of human existence, such as god, death, myths, legends, or even the meaning of life itself, different cultures remedy that by reporting their own interpretations. Running should be treated with the same reverence. We need different perspectives to fully capture the magic of running.
I am truly sensitive to that. All I can offer is my voice, and I pray it resonates with you. The way I see it, the plethora of problems, stresses, and issues in life cause all of us to lose sight of who we are as individuals and as humans. I was always that kid. The one who pulled himself up off of the mat – without thinking, without feeling. Running helps remove the clutter and dust off the cobwebs from the shelves and allows us to see ourselves for who we really are. For better or worse. As a runner, as a writer, as a human, it is my duty to report my observations. I refuse to take this task lightly. It is not in my nature.
The final – and probably most important – reason about what will set me apart. When the band Tool’s last album came out (it actually seems like 10,000 days ago at this point), I remember reading an article that contained a dialogue between the band and a member of the band who was opening for them on tour, Isis. At one point, they were discussing bands whose only aspiration is to “make it big”, and that those kind of bands are usually the least successful at it. But the bands that do it for the love of music, if they persevere, more often than not are the ones that find success in some form. It is the bands that play to a small crowd at a bar with the passion and fire as if they were in front of a crowd at a sold out arena. Those are the ones that make it. They never forget the love they have for the music. They never forget their purpose, their intention, their passion.
I don’t have anything to lose. I’m not doing this for Facebook likes, or Instagram follows. I’m not doing this for money or fame. This is me. This is my purpose. What comes from this will happen organically. There is no plan. I am playing to that small audience at a bar, because this is just for three people.
This is for me. This is for my girlfriend, who I will eventually marry. And this is for our future child who only exists right now in the abstract, in our imaginations. I want there to be a written record of the person I am, who I was, and what I am becoming. This is for them. This is ALL for them.
A lot of times when people read about impressive marathon times and ultramarathons that defy human capabilities, it seems so beyond what we can accomplish. It creates a divide in your mind, one that lets you know in no uncertain terms, “I can’t do that, because that person is special. They’re faster than me, they’re tougher than me.”
I hate this way of thinking.
I said it earlier: nobody is special. Nothing makes you inherently more likely to succeed. I have run two marathons so far, but I know my journey is only beginning. I’m not sure what, but I know that I’m on the brink of something.
I don’t want you to read this after I’ve run a fifty mile race, or a hundred mile race. Or I’ve run the New York City Marathon next year. Or I’ve qualified for the Boston Marathon. Or I’ve started my own marathon or ultramarathon somewhere. Or any other accomplishment or goal I may or may not achieve.
No. I want you to read this during the journey. Because I know the person I was when I started running, and I know the person that I am now. I want you to read this while I’m going through it, because I want you to derive meaning from it, however small it may be. I want you to feel like you CAN. Because we’ve already established that I’m not special. And THAT is what will make this whole thing special.
What do you notice? What do you see?
I see a fighter. I’ve always been a fighter. I see a person who has endured. Maybe not thrived, but I’ve endured. I’ve weathered the storm. And oftentimes, both in running and in life, that’s all you need.
I don’t want to win races, because I know I never will. I just want to be the person who never walks, who never quits. Distance is just a number.
I want to be the person who falls down and gets right back up without thinking. I want to be the person who, while running past fatigued runners in the final miles of a marathon or an ultramarathon, is giving them words of encouragement. I want to be the person who after finishing a race will stay and cheer for everyone else and celebrate all of our accomplishments together, rain or shine.
None of us are special. And THAT is what makes the things we do special.
A few months ago, I was at the gym while I was rehabbing a running injury, slowly working my way back into running shape. I was listening to The Joe Rogan Experience, the episode where he had David Goggins on. It’s funny how in life things find you sometimes right when you need it.
Goggins was talking about how he was influenced by the scene that takes place during round 14 of the first Rocky movie, a movie I first watched with my family as a kid.
I’m not going to quote the interview, because I can’t do it justice. I want you to listen to it. At the gym, I began weeping like a toddler in between sets, in front of everyone. I was a blubbering mess.
And I didn’t care. I suddenly knew my purpose.
That moment Rocky gets back up after Apollo knocks him down in round 14. Apollo was punching Rocky with everything he had. Mickey is telling him to stay down. Adrian closes her eyes. Apollo throws his hands up, thinking he won the fight. Rocky gets up. Apollo is stunned. He can’t believe it.
Getting up isn’t an option for Rocky. I’d like to imagine he wasn’t thinking about getting up. That he automatically got up off of the mat.
Sometimes you don’t need the ghost of Burgess Meredith yelling at you. Or your dad. Or running down the list of the obstacles you’ve overcome in your life. Or hearing about the struggles of your sixth grade students, stories that make you feel like a petulant child. Or thinking about how you need to be the rock for your girlfriend, your two cats, and any future children. You just get up.
I want to be that. I want to keep fighting. I want to go the distance.
“Seek to make your life long and its purpose in the service of your people. Love your life, perfect your life, beautify all things in your life.”