I Quit

I don’t remember my first time, but by high school I was doing it pretty much daily. I was underage, I knew I could get in trouble, and sometimes I did. But I didn’t care. The risk and danger were part of the appeal. I was a teenage rebel without a clue, and I thought smoking was cool. The ignorance and arrogance of youth excused my behavior. I told myself I’d quit when I was older. It was no big deal because I wouldn’t do it forever.

James Dean made it look so cool.

James Dean made it look so cool.

Yet, here I am, a 45-year-old mother of two justifying inhaling toxins into my body and risking lung cancer by saying “I only do it on the weekends” or “I don’t smoke around my kids.” I know I’m deluding myself. I can’t rationalize shaving years off my life in the name of instant gratification and a nicotine buzz. I no longer have the years to waste.

It’s not that I haven’t tried to cut back or quit over the years. In fact, it was easy to stay smoke-free during both my pregnancies. The smell of smoke nauseated me, and I had my unborn children’s health to protect. But after my babies were born, and only my own health was in question, smoking became my secret vice, my mother’s little helper. I’d sneak a smoke while the kids were napping or slip outside after dinner while my husband was playing with them in the living room. It was my own unhealthy version of “me time,” a twisted yet comforting way of staying attached to my pre-mom self by indulging in an old, familiar vice.

When I started running five years ago, I shifted to more of a social smoker, lighting up only after a few cocktails when I was with friends who smoked. The intense training schedules of long distance races made puffing on a cig less desirable, but I never managed to pack away the ashtray for good.

During stressful times, smoking is like the bad boy I couldn’t stop dating in my twenties: I know it’s wrong for me, but I can’t seem to help myself. I’m addicted to the ritual: lighting the cigarette, inhaling the smoke, even stamping out the butt. Whenever I’m around someone who’s smoking, the urge and nostalgia envelop me. Before I can consider the consequences, I’m doing it again.

I hope things will be different this time, though. After a particularly bleak year, when I started buying packs of cigarettes and smoking more than socially, I think I’m finally ready to end this dysfunctional relationship. In a snap but sober decision on New Year’s Eve day, I signed up for the 2013 Chicago Half Marathon. After wimping out of what would have been my second Chicago Marathon last year, I thought I was done racing. But it’s a new year, and things seem a lot brighter. I think I have at least one more race in me, and I’m excited to get healthy and start training for a new personal best time.

I know I can quit smoking; I did it twice for nine months. But this time I’m doing it for me. Sometimes quitters do win.

Happy New Year, peeps! I missed you over the past two weeks but enjoyed a fun, relaxing holiday break with my family. I hope you did the same.

Shame on You, Mayor Bloomberg

I saw an ABC-TV news report the day after Hurricane Sandy swept across the East Coast indicating that two massive generators were on reserve for the New York City Marathon while millions of New Yorkers remained without power. I stood in my kitchen, stunned, thinking, how in the world does the mayor of New York City think $340 million in revenues is more important than his citizens’ welfare?

According to an editorial in the New York Post: “Those generators could power 400 homes on Staten Island or the Rockaways or any storm-racked neighborhood in the city certain to be suffering the after-affects [sic] of Hurricane Sandy on Sunday morning. Shouldn’t they come first? Shouldn’t the race just be canceled? Damned straight.”

Damned straight, is right.

Queens, New York, after Sandy (photo: Reuters)

Finally, and most certainly under extreme pressure, Mayor Bloomberg gave in and canceled the event, but why did it take him so long to do so?

I’m a runner; I know New York’s is the biggest marathon in the world. I understand what it’s like to train for months and dedicate your life to running on marathon day. But to put holding a race above helping people who have lost their loved ones, their homes, their businesses? That’s just downright ludicrous.

The runners get it. They put together a charity called Race2Recover NYC and are donating their hotel rooms to New Yorkers in need. They’re also volunteering their time to recovery efforts.

So why was Mayor Bloomberg so clueless? Maybe someone should have shown him this Facebook post:

“It would be greatly appreciated if everyone would remember that people have to jog this weekend so please don’t block any marathon routes while you wait for hours on a line for gas. Please be considerate and remove any debris that may have washed onto the road from your house. This includes wood with nails, boats or entire houses. There is no reason that joggers should have to navigate through your children’s toys and other personal belongings strewn along the streets. In regards to all the evacuated medical facilities because of power outages. Your hard work was not in vain because the huge generators set up for the marathon were all made possible by your sacrifices. No need to worry about our NYPD, EMS, FDNY, DOT and DOS. They were clearly not overworked at all this week and should be removed from other trivial tasks (ie: saving citizens, keeping order) so that the world can see people jog in New York. These services clearly are not needed anywhere else in the city. And lastly, please take time from your schedule to stand along the marathon route and hand out water, oranges and other nourishment to the joggers. Lord knows they need your support during their harrowing ordeal.”

More information about Race2Recover NYC is available here.

Meet You at the Finish Line

I wasn’t one of the 37,455 runners who crossed the finish line of the Chicago Marathon this year. I registered for it. I even started training. But I couldn’t do it. Not this time around.

The year since my husband and I ran the 2011 marathon has been challenging for our family. We lost my aunt, the woman who raised me and was a grandmother to my children, and then I wound up out of a job. After two pivotal life changes within seven months, running another marathon moved to the bottom of my priority list.

My husband, meanwhile, stuck with it and ran the Chicago Marathon a second time. Even if I didn’t have the desire or motivation to run myself, I wouldn’t have missed being there to support him. I even dragged both our puffy-eyed, half-conscious children out of bed at 5:30 a.m. so the four of us could make the 45-minute journey from the South Suburbs to the city together.

I was excited for him as we piled into the car and he did his final gear check. But once we hit I-80, a lump of regret swelled in my throat. Why hadn’t I kept up with the training? Why had I given up so soon? Why had I let myself fail without even trying?

I had lots of excuses for dropping out of the race, some more valid than others. Before I lost my job, we planned two summer vacations, which meant I would miss a total of three weeks’ training and some of the longer, and most crucial, runs. But lots of marathon runners skimp a bit on training and still finish. A bigger problem was my foot, which started nagging me as the training schedule ramped up. After rupturing my plantar fascia 11 weeks into training the previous year, I worried the same or worse would happen again. What if I hurt my foot so badly that I couldn’t run anymore?

If I had truly wanted to run a second marathon, I would have ignored my aching foot with the help of a cortisone shot as I had done the previous year. My primary reason for quitting this time was that I no longer had the energy or the passion. When I lost my job six weeks into training, I knew it was over for me.

The morning of the race, dropping off my husband and watching him and thousands of other runners head toward the start line, was bittersweet. I wanted to be there to see him finish, set a new PR and feel the rush of personal victory. But I also itched to be out there with him, to experience the singular pride and joy of crossing that finish line one more time.

Before the 2011 race, my husband and I signed up for text alerts so we could track each other’s progress. I run much slower than he does normally, but because of my injury we weren’t sure if I would even finish. My longest training run had been the 16-miler when I hurt my foot.

We parted ways shortly after the race started, and I took it slowly and mile by mile. I didn’t have a time goal; I just wanted to finish. Right before mile 20, when I was exhausted and beyond doubting myself, I got a text that my husband had crossed the finish line. It was one of the best moments of the race for me; knowing he had made it carried me through my last six miles. When I crossed the finish line an hour after him, he was right there waiting for me.

This year I was determined to do the same for him.

I signed up for his text alerts so my kids and I could follow his path — or at least trace part of it. We met him with shouts of encouragement and a homemade sign near mile three and again just before the halfway mark. I wanted him to feel our support, but I also enjoyed reliving the thrills of the race.

About 20 minutes before his estimated finish time, we pushed our way through the crowd to the bleachers near the finish line. We needed just the right vantage point, and this was it: The kids could see over the adults in front of them, and my husband would be able to find us in the crowd.

When we spotted him after that final curve, my heart raced as we screamed his name. The look on his face when he saw us was pure joy, and it was as if I were experiencing those last 400 meters — the best part of the race, if you ask me — right by his side.

I wasn’t one of the 37,455 finishers at the Chicago Marathon this year. In fact, I don’t know if I’ll ever cross that or any other finish line again. Sometimes watching the person you love win and sharing in his happiness is enough. This year it was a victory for us both.

That guy in the blue shirt with his arms in the air is my marathon man husband, just before he crossed the finish line and set a new PR of 4:24:32.

Chasing the Dragon: A Runner’s Story

My husband and I after our first marathon, Chicago 2011

A wise and talented writer once told me, “I hate writing, but I love having written.” I think Dorothy Parker coined the actual phrase, but in any case there are definitely times when I would apply it to running. Some days I procrastinate for hours because I just can’t bear the thought of putting foot to pavement. And when I finally do drag myself out the door, every step is tortuous, every breath labored. Even the halfway point seems unreachable, and I basically cannot wait for it to be over. Sometimes, like today, running downright sucks.

But other times it is a life-affirming, incomparable experience. All your negative thoughts and energy drift away, and you become perfectly in tune with your physical self. I’ve actually cried during runs…and not from pain. There is singular joy in letting go; it’s the high that keeps runners coming back for more. Those perfect moments are the dragon we can’t stop chasing.

Last year, at age 43, I ran my first marathon. I had only been running for about three years, but I had a few races under my belt, including two half marathons. I am by no means a fast runner (my finish time was 5:32.34), but that wasn’t the point for me. After suffering a foot injury 11 weeks into training, I just wanted to cross that finish line.

I took it mile by mile because I honestly didn’t know if I could do it. My longest training run before I got hurt had been 16 miles, and 26.2 seemed unfathomable. At mile 13, I was thrilled to have reached the halfway point. At mile 20, I started to think I might make it. But it wasn’t till those last 400 yards — when I could actually see the finish line — that I knew I would finish. The elation of crossing that finish line ranks up there with giving birth. Seriously. (Don’t tell my kids I said that.)

As runners, the thrill of finishing the race is our reward for all the tedious hours we spend training. Sometimes we hate running, but we love having done it. So even though today’s huff-and-puff fest of a three-mile run felt like a complete waste of time, I know for a fact that I’ll be back on the trail tomorrow or the next day…or maybe both. I can’t help myself.