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The blessings of a canceled practice

What's worse than getting up at 5 a.m. to get to a 6:30 a.m. swim practice on Saturday?

Getting there and having no coaches or lifeguards show up.

I normally swim on Tuesdays and Thursdays but decided to add a Saturday practice this week to compensate for Thanksgiving. In my mind, any time I can get in the water is time well spent.

If practice was canceled at least 50 of us didn't get the message. We waited half an hour then gave up hope that we would indeed get in a master's swim workout this morning.

Actually, it was OK. It gave me a chance to catch up with my friend Amy N. who is recovering from a nasty spill on her bike last summer. I got to chat with Liz, who did not one but two half marathons this fall which impresses and inspires me. And as usual I got to chat with Mark, who for once decided not to concern himself with my slow swim times but instead continued his latest trend of talking up Bikram Yoga. This is the "hot yoga" -- which consists of 26 poses and two breathing exercises in a heated room. (Like a really heated room.) Mark swears by it. While I've done more traditional yoga (hatha and ashtanga) I've never tried Bikram.

I'm intrigued. I may drop into a class this weekend.

In the meantime, I went back home and hopped on the trainer for an hour endurance bike ride then did 30 minutes of functional strength training and core work.

And I have to say for the first time in a long time, I felt really focused. I was hitting my target heart rate zones. I could visualize the end of my major races. I could imagine what it will feel like to finish them.

Oh, I have always felt better after a workout.

But it's been awhile since I felt such enjoyment in the workout.

Maybe it was a good thing that swim practice never happened.

Perhaps catching up with friends this week -- from pre-race pasta parties to the Turkey Trot to the hallway at Alumni Arena -- helped me refocus and center myself.

Gratitude has a way of coming back to you.

Race report: Turkey Trot

I had heard the stories about the Turkey Trot, the oldest road race in North America. I had seen the stories and pictures in The Buffalo News and the highlights on the television news.

But nothing compares to being there in person.

It isn't a race.

It's a spectacle.

My dad, who drove to the Convention Center to watch me cross the finish line then have a post-race drink with my friends, said that pretty soon, organizers may be requiring everyone to wear costumes.

There was the guy in the green body stocking (how did he see where he was going?) and three guys who ran while holding a canoe. There were plenty of Thanksgiving-themed costumes (from simple turkey hats to stereotypical Native American garb) and several trains of people, who dress in costume then teether themselves together.

It's funny, entertaining, and a bit demoralizing when you realize you're getting passed by four guys pushing one of their friends in a shopping cart.

But as you run down Delaware Avenue you can't help but feel part of something bigger than yourself, bigger than your own race, your own goals, even your own Thanksgiving dinner.

There are two underpasses on the route -- a train bridge and the underpass on the S-curves. As you approach those sections it sounds as if thousands of fans are cheering you on. In reality, it's the echo of the runners ahead of you, yelling to create the audible illusion. And you carry on the tradition for the throng of runners behind you.

Delaware has a few inclines and a mercifully long downhill into downtown. On those crests, the view is spectacular and breathtaking -- thousands of runners shoulder to shoulder as far as the eye can see.

Pardon me if that sounds a bit dramatic. But trust me, it's no hyperbole.

The night before the race, I gathered with some of my triathlon friends for a pasta party. The question raised about the Turkey Trot was this: Are you racing it or running it?

Everyone decided they were running it.

I'm still way too much of a newbie to have "race" speed and "run" speed. When the gun goes off, I pretty much just run with very little strategy.

And in my inaugural Turkey Trot I had no strategy. My only instructions from coach were to have fun and to not wear a heart rate monitor.

Oh, I had fun.

And I decided to push myself a little bit.

I thought of all I was grateful for -- my friends, my family, my ability to run and train. I thought of my dear friend Tom who was somewhere watching me and telling me what a good job I was doing.

About halfway through the 8K (which is just shy of 5 miles) I backed off my pace a bit to catch my breath, take of my gloves and my neck warmer. Do I need to walk? No. Of course I ask myself if I need to walk pretty much every time I run. I never do, but knowing I have the option is comforting.

I saw the 3-mile banner and checked my watch for fun. I would hit the 3-mile mark somewhere in the 27-28 minute range. I was running my best 5K pace. I felt pretty darn good. So I picked the pace up ever-so-slightly and settled into it for the duration.

The final stretch of the race goes past City Hall, continues down Delaware, turns left on Church and left on Franklin. That part around City Hall is partly cruel, since the convention center (and the end of the race) is just a block up on your left. I didn't have a whole lot left for a kick at the end, but once the finish line was in sight I picked it up just a bit and crossed the line with a huge smile on my face.

That, in all honesty, was just plain fun.

My final time: 46 minutes, 9 seconds.

My only other 8K race was the Shamrock Run in March where I ran a 49:45.

So then, this was faster.

And what I'm learning is that what's most important is how I feel. If I feel good, if I'm having fun, if I have a smile on my face (even if it's a grimace at some points) then the results seem to follow.

But Thursday wasn't all about results.

It was about being a part of something larger than yourself.

It was about being thankful, grateful and happy with 10,000 of your closest friends.

The possibilities in the story of Ken Mink

Deciding that I needed to mix up my time on the bike trainer, I downloaded the podcast of Only a Game -- the sports radio show on NPR. It was my background while I peddled through an hour of endurance on my stationary road bike.

Aside from offering a nice change of pace, it introduced me to the story of Ken Mink. Mink is a 73-year old player on a junior college men's basketball team in Tennessee.

You might be choking back a "gimmick" right now, but Mink isn't. Oh, he is 73 years old and while in good shape not someone who has defied the aging process. But he can play. He can shoot. And he can contribute to the team.

During the story, his teammates, all 19 and 20-year olds, said that Mink was an inspiration. After all, if he can drive to school, take a full load of classes and still give his all at practice, why the heck can't they?

Mink also gives voice the idea that nothing is truly impossible if you try hard and believe in yourself. Doesn't matter if you're 13, 33 or 73.

It's all about your mind. It's all about your attitude.

And so I think of what attitude I want to bring to the Turkey Trot tomorrow. It will be my first appearance in the oldest road race in the country. What should I be striving for?

On this race, of all races, the goal for me is to forget things like time and pace. It will be about having fun. About running with gratitude.

And knowing that nothing is really impossible.

Believing in consistency

It's been a difficult week.

We all have them. Times when the universe seems to dump more on you than you can possibly handle.

And at times like these, training for a marathon in May and a half Ironman in September seems, well, almost silly.

To be accurate, I'm in my third week of base training. This is where I up my general fitness level and work on skill improvement. It's important, of course. The time put in during the offseason can help you achieve your goals. But one workout won't make or break your season.

This is not an all-or-nothing endeavor.

Life is not an all-or-nothing endeavor.

There are a million shades of gray.

So last night when I went out for my hour-long run and my heart rate monitor wasn't working, I didn't really care. I still went out, did my run -- without an iPod and without an electronic device to track my workout. Just a watch to tell me how long I had been running.

My workout called for an easy-paced run and I felt that's what I did. The run cleared my mind, though it didn't clear my heart. But trust me, a quiet mind is a treasure in my world.

As life takes some swings at me, I find that my workouts do offer solace. More importantly, I think that the consistency is most important. As long as I get out there and run, get in the pool and swim, hop on my bike trainer and spin, I'm getting better. I'm getting stronger. I notice when I lose focus and what happens when I lose focus.

I'm not trying to tackle that particular flaw in either my workouts or in my life. Right now I'm just noticing it.

A wise person once told me: Don't resist what is.

Simple but difficult.

But worth it in the end.

In memory of Tom

The first time I met Tom Borrelli, I was completely scared of him.

Tom seemed to define the word "curmudgeon," loved to play practical jokes (of which I was never very good at) and at times enjoyed prolonging arguments about whether or not there should be a space in ESPNU.

Yeah, as a new reporter at The Buffalo News, I was intimidated by Tom.

But that quickly melted away.

I work with great people, but of those whom I knew without hesitation would have my back, Tom was to of the list.

Tom died Thursday after complications from a fall at All High Stadium. The news stung me deeply. I'm still a bit in a haze, not quite sure what I'm thinking or feeling at the moment.

So on Thursday I did the only thing I could think of -- I swam my workout. Well, part of my workout. I couldn't quite finish it. I was too upset. (To which, I can hear Tom, saying "What the hell for?")

Then I went to the grocery store to buy banana chips and Tofurky.

Those things make me think of Tom.

See, Tom was my fellow vegetarian in the sports department and this time of year, when everyone talks about turkey and gravy, Tom and I would get teased about our meat-substitute diet. Tom would defend me, and gladly take the brunt of the teasing so I didn't have to endure it.

He then turned me on to banana chips -- a snack his trainer at the Buffalo Athletic Club recommended to him. It became a staple of mine, particularly during the college basketball and hockey season when my diet became less about meals and more about grazing. Of course, every holiday he would give me a box of premium chocolate with the caveat that I would "burn it off in no time" with all the exercise I was doing.

Tom wasn't the fitness freak I've turned into, but we did talk about it often. Tom walked, sometimes as much as seven miles a day, for his health. We'd talk about the plus and minuses of local health clubs and jogging paths and he was always very supportive of my crazy fitness endeavors.

When I decided to do the 65-mile bike ride as part Ride for Roswell, he was one of my donors. But in the office one night, he sent me a message, saying he wanted to give me more money. See, he had just won some money in one of his fantasy leagues and thought it would be best spent donating extra to the cause. He then sent me a nice congratulatory email after the completion of my quest.

Tom's generosity was matched only by the humbleness of his spirit. He gave willingly and easily to the people in his life -- only in a very low-key way. It was just part of who he was and it's a life ideal I can only aspire to emulate.

He would hate all this attention, all this semi-mushiness going around about him.

But he was a lovable guy with so much to give and we all feel a void in our lives now.

He probably wouldn't want me to put on a show by saying that I plan to run the Buffalo Marathon in his honor, but suffice it to say, his memory and spirit will be with me on that day, through the nerves, the easy miles and the pain and doubt.

Tom was as supportive as they come, not with cheers and encouragement but with unwavering faith and admiration.

I treasure the moments when I was a recipient of that faith, admiration and generosity.

Going home

OLEAN --I don't wear my alma mater on my sleeve, but as most people who enjoyed their four-year undergraduate college career, going back to campus is a bit like coming home.

Homecomings have different meanings at different times in you life. During the current track of my marathon/triathlon training, this particular return to St. Bonaventure brings about fitness memories.

My track to good health, after all, started here.

Actually, my track to bad health started here, too. As in the freshman 15. Or the freshman 50. Or was it the freshman 500? I don't know, but suffice it to say I fell into the trap of ubiquitous food and unhealthy calories and late night studying and socializing like pretty much every other 18-year-old on the planet.

By my junior year in college, I was heavy, unhealthy and unhappy.

That's when one of the athletic trainers at school helped me gain some perspective. She encouraged me to eat healthy and educated me on good food choices to make. She would power walk with me. I found other girls in my dorm who wanted to go to the fitness (which in those olden days was off campus) and we would dutifully go every Monday-Wednesday-Friday morning at 6 a.m. or so to get in some time on the stationary bike or stepper.

Gradually I started getting healthier. I dropped weight. I started feeling better about myself. I wanted to learn more and more about healthy eating and working out. It was a trend I continued even as I got my first full-time job in Olean -- power walking the River Walk trail, eating healthy foods and gradually cutting out things like red meat and junk food.

I had setbacks at times. I gained some weight back.

But my time in Olean helped me rediscover how much I loved physical activity. In many ways, it was my reawakening to the fact that I could, indeed, be an athlete if I redefined what being an athlete meant. It was the time that set me on the path to where I could be today -- a triathlete and aspiring marathoner.

Sometimes, it's good to go home again, to see how far you've come and to remind you of the spark that started it all.

Time to focus

Back in my college days, Wednesday night was the night at the student newspaper. That was production night, when we would stay up until the wee hours of the morning, writing, editing and designing the weekly paper. (This is the dark ages, before we all had school-issued email addresses and there was actually such a thing as "paste up.")

Inevitably, my friend Michael and I would stay up all night working on the edition then wander over to the dinning hall when breakfast opened. The only people there at that ungodly hour were the newspaper staffers and the varsity swimmers. (Yes, an odd combination we made.) The swimmers, however, presumably had the benefit of sleeping before they had practice. It took everything for Michael and I not to fall asleep over our hot tea and cereal.

"MORITZ!" he would shout at me across the table. "FOCUS! BREAKFAST!"

And I would shake the cobwebs from my head and, in all seriousness, focus on eating my breakfast.

This came to mind as I was endlessly swimming individual medley laps at master's swim practice this morning.

The individual medley consists of four strokes: butterfly, back, breast and free. I don't know how to do the butterfly and frankly it looks too exhausting, so I substitute freestyle when it comes up in the rotation.

But the final grouping of IM drills we did in my lane were tough. I couldn't keep up with the time interval and basically just swam IM for 300 yards instead of the four sets of 75.

I was tired. For a moment I thought about bagging some of the final freestyle sets.

Focus, Moritz.

Swim.

It's human nature, when we get tired, we lack focus. In anything -- work, relationships, athletics. Heck, even watching TV can be difficult when you're tired (seriously, did you ever zone out and forget what you were watching?).

My goal today is to focus. When I do that, I instantly know what I need. Perhaps I do need a rest, or a nap, but perhaps what I really need is to push myself. Maybe I need to make that phone call to my friend/family member or maybe I need to wait a bit until I'm in a better frame of mind.

For the record, I finished all 2,900 yards of my swim workout this morning. I have an hour endurance bike ride to go.

If I focus, I'll get through it all with time to take a nap before covering the UB-Canisius men's basketball game tonight.

Race report: Daemen 5K

It was cold and windy but the mixed bag of precipitation had stopped for the 5K at Daemen on Sunday.

I had a lot of emotions from the past week and was really looking forward to "racing them out." My coach had told me not worry about a personal best, just to run hard. This was a test run for us. I"m not sure what that means exactly, other than it was to give my coach a baseline of where my running is at heading into the 2008-09 season.

When the start finally went off (it seemed liked forever waiting for the starters siren in the cold pack of people) I felt good. I felt strong. I thought I was going at a pretty good clip. With the cold air, I knew I couldn't run too hard or risk side stitches which often come for me when breathing too hard in the cold, but I felt I had a solid, steady pace going.

Midway through the race my heart rate monitor strap started bothering me. Generally speaking, the strap doesn't even register in my consciousness when I'm training. But during the race, well, I could feel it, not so much constricting me, but moving with each huff and puff I took along the 3.1-mile course. This annoyed me to no end -- especially when the course had turned into a nice strong head wind.

At times on the route, I thought of my coworker Tom Borrelli, traumatically injured and in a hospital bed at ECMC. I thought how on Saturdays he would often walk seven miles to help keep his health under control and now he had no movement in his arms and legs. I sent little positive thoughts to him and knew how lucky I was to be able to run at all.

Unfortunately, that thought didn't do enough to temper my disappointment when I saw the clock as I approached the finish line.

I was 40 seconds off my PR.

I was bummed.

Why? I wondered that throughout the day. Probably in part because I felt so great running I wanted to be rewarded with a PR. Probably because I wanted all my emotion of the past week -- anger, sadness, fear, hope -- to be useful for something.

My coach wanted me to slap myself in her absence.

Sunday was not about racing, she reminded me. It was about testing. And the slight drop-off from the PR I set in September? Well, for my coach, that indicates that I indeed took enough rest in the off season and am ready to start building.

I went back and looked at my race times from early 2008.

My first 5K was the Bengal Run in March. By that count, I've only been racing eight months. From that place, I"m already starting 40 seconds faster than where I did in March.

We choose the way we look at things. I could look at Sunday's race as being 40 seconds slower than my PR or starting the season 40 seconds faster than I did last year.

It took a few hours and some intervention from a few friends, but eventually, I chose to see the day as the later.

With no where to go but up.

Out of the comfort zone

It's been a week of new things.

It started with Master's swimming at the University at Buffalo where the workout for my lane included the IM -- individual medley.

Seriously? I can barely freestyle correctly and you want me to do three other strokes?

I thought about doing mostly free the entire workout but decided to give it a try. (Except for the butterfly. I substituted freestyle for that.) My backstroke is very elementary, learned from watching the Olympians do it and trying to emulate it myself. My breaststroke is OK, but the kick is not effective, nor very fast.

The entire process tired me out and put me out of my comfort zone.

Which is good.

Generally speaking, you don't get better unless you get out of your comfort zone. Whatever it is -- fitness, sports, career, relationships -- you don't grow unless you try something new. Sometimes you fumble and stumble at the beginning. Sometimes you think it's just too hard. Sometimes the work seems way too demanding for what you can provide physically and emotionally.

But those who face those challenges, face those fears, not only find success but joy.

So I muddle through the hard, new stuff. It's not instantaneous, but after each session, I feel a little stronger, a little more confident.

And yes, even a little more joyful.

Shooting for the moon

If you weren't looking for it specifically, you probably wouldn't even notice.

The black wristbands don't scream for attention and after Lance Armstrong popularized the trend with his Livestrong yellow bands, it's not an unusual site.

But the black bands that the Canisius women's basketball team is wearing this year have a personal message just for them.

The bands read "03-08-09" -- the date of their conference championship game. It was the brainstorm of two seniors -- JJ Williams and Amanda Cavo -- as a reminder to them on bad days, tough days, what all the pain, anguish and sacrifice is for.

The concept inspired me.

So I searched the Internet and found a company that will make individual rubber bracelets. I ordered my own black band with "Marathon" and "Muskoka" imprinted on it along with my goal times for both events.

I'm not sharing my goal times right now. Both are a bit aggressive, I admit. And a friend whom I did tell about it balked slightly, afraid I was setting myself up for disappointment. His words came out of concern and the philosophy that if you keep your goals smaller, anything bigger you achieve will make you feel great.

True.

But why not shoot for the moon?

Why not set the bar high and see if you can make it? What's the saying ... shoot for the moon and if you miss you'll land in the stars?

With illness and accidents hitting close friends and family these days, I've thought about living small versus living big. There's a tendency to want to close down, keep it small, keep it comfortable. Living big is risky. It takes faith. It takes energy. It often means leaving things behind -- ideas, patterns, people -- which no longer reflect who you are as a person or where you are going.

That's scary and difficult.

But as the universe has reminded me of the fragility of life recently, I think it's the only way to truly honor life.

So, yeah, I have some aggressive goals this year.

Bring it on.

Because if I don't try, I'll never know exactly what I can achieve.

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