Sunday, March 16, 2014

Lesson Learned

I was eight miles in to what could have been an eight mile run or a long run last Sunday.  I was a half-mile from home and I had to decide whether to soldier on for another eight to nine miles, or call it a day.  My knee was tight and covered in KT tape.  My hamstring was covered in so much Tiger Balm I could smell it through my tights.  It was 21 degrees.  And as I stood there on the side of the road next to the Erie Canal in Newark, I reached a catharsis that would have been obvious to any impartial observer.  Not only was it time to call it a day.  It was time to stop training for the Boston Marathon.

The possibility had been in my head for weeks.  From January to February, I gradually got to a point where the idea of running and racing was still thrilling, but the actual act of running was dreadful.  Out of seven weekly runs totaling in the neighborhood of 80 miles, it was a good week if one of them felt good.  Most of them felt clunky.  Some of them felt downright terrible.  On the latter type of runs, I would come back and tell Lauren that if I had one more run like that, I was going to pull the plug on Boston.  The next day, I would feel just good enough to expunge that thought.  This happened no fewer than five times.

Now that I have had a week to reflect upon, regret and then reaffirm this decision, it's pretty clear that I never should have signed up for this race in the first place.  The first thing -- literally the first thing -- I said when I crossed the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon was "that's enough of that for a while."  I said it to myself, but I said it out loud. I was exhausted in a way I have never been exhausted before.  It was almost like an out-of-body experience. Two days later when President Obama gave a rousing speech in Boston as I listened outside the building, I did a complete 180, letting the emotions of what happened on April 16th cloud my common sense.

I had started to get sick and developed chronic insomnia before the 2013 race.  By race day, I was sleeping an average of three to four hours a night and was only scratching the surface of what might be wrong with my body.  The race just added extra stress to a system that was already at capacity.  I ran a half-way decent half marathon five weeks later for God-knows why.  Then, I ran a couple of sub-par five mile races in Central Park before spending the rest of 2013 running what I believed to be a reduced volume and intensity.  I put getting my body healthy and training myself to sleep without anxiety at the top of my priority list and actually started cracking the mystery in the early fall.  It was hard, costly, frustrating work.

By December, everything was back to normal and I was feeling strong and determined again.  I raced a couple of low key five milers, finishing second in one and winning the other and a 15K in the bitter wind and snow during which I raced my heart out with two local runners who are generally in my wheelhouse when I'm in good shape.   At that is where the pendulum starts to go back in the opposite direction.

In early January, my knee flared up randomly forcing me to take a week off.  I bounced back quickly and was running 80 miles a week and hitting the time goals of all my workouts.  But, if I am honest with myself, I rarely felt like I was firing on all cylinders.  Something about my stride and my effort wasn't right, but I can't quite pinpoint what it was. On top of that, this winter has been soul crushing.  I grew up with brutal winters, but I have never attempted to train through a winter as relentless as this one. After a 22 mile run on the course in Boston in early February, my left hamstring and left foot bothered me and that quickly caused my knee problems to return.  I took another three days off and was back at it again.  After that, the knee hurt 75% of the time.  It never returned to a point where running was impossible, but it sure did a good job of sucking all the joy out of it.  Worse than that, if I did a hard workout, I would spend the rest of the night unable to sit or keep my knee bent for long periods of time because it was unbelievably uncomfortable. 

Mendon Ponds County Park is where I did my first "long run" as a teenager. This winter, I slogged through a long run there for the first time in 12 years.  During my run, the Regional Snow Shoe Racing Championship was going on. 

In the end, I just decided I didn't want to do that for six more weeks.  Could I have toughed it out and raced Boston?  Most likely, yes.  But, it would only have been a memorable experience for how much it sucked.  I also started to think long term.  If I pushed my body to Boston when it clearly didn't want to go, how much more damage would I do?  I love running.  It is not my exercise.  It's my therapy.  It's my church.  To say it's a big part of who I am would be an understatement. Do I want to risk all that to settle some sort of emotional vendetta?   I want to be running and racing 20 years from now.  But, only smart runners get to be lifelong runners.  Runners who don't listen become triathletes.  (just kidding!  Making sure my tri friends are paying attention).  I went to great lengths to get healthy again and it was working, but after nearly a year of health issues, I don't think I gave my body enough time to recover to a point where it could handle such intensity.

I have great training partners in New York who are going to demolish Boston, hills be damned.  I have a coach that I believe is probably the best kept secret in marathon running.  Those are the people who indirectly made this decision way harder.  That's a good thing.  I didn't want to stop training with them and working under Terry's guidance.  They made it easy to forget about the pain because the camaraderie was so much fun. 

I can't not be in Boston on April 21st.  I will be there, but in what capacity I don't know yet.  I've thought of running it for fun and taking it all in if my knee is better after a prolonged rest.  I've thought of working.  I've thought of being at the finish line.  I have some time to make that decision.  What is going to be amazing about Boston this year is the show of force from everyone who comes out on race day.  From the runners to the spectators, we all play an important role in being Boston Strong.  I plan to play my part.

I stopped writing about running in this blog months ago because I was afraid it was getting too negative.  Hindsight again being what it is, that feeling is something I probably should have addressed more carefully.  So, I hope this post doesn't come off negative.  I'm bummed about not racing next month, no doubt, but at this very moment, I am filled with optimism.  Even after a week of complete rest, I feel like a different person.  I can only imagine what I will feel like after at least two more weeks of complete rest.  It's something I haven't done in seven years.  The focus is on the summer and the fall and running fun, fast races.  But, I don't see any marathons in my near future.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Better Late than Never. The Annual Oscars Blog

The stars are already in their seats at the Dolby Theater in Hollywood.  The envelopes are stuffed and I am just finishing the last of the nine movies nominated for “Best Picture” at this year’s Academy Awards.  I’ve never put out my annual Oscar blog even remotely this close to the deadline.  Perhaps my tardiness stems from a lack of investment in this year’s ceremony.  Last year, I was on the red carpet, covering the awards.  This year, I will be watching on my couch. Both have their pluses. But, I think the bulk of my procrastination is because of how disappointing this year’s nominees are.  There were only two movies I really loved.  I liked/was truly entertained by a handful and I only hated one, but this year’s Oscars are really about some fantastic performances in mediocre movies. On that note, unlike year’s past, I am missing one “Best Actress” nomination.  I could not bring myself to watch “August: Osage County”.  I could be way off, but it just seems like a bunch of actors sitting around a table trying to out-act each other.  I don’t know if I could stomach two hours of a movie that’s entire goal was to generate Oscar nominations.  Meryl Streep is the greatest actress of our generation, blah blah blah. I get it.  I’m confident without seeing the movie that award belongs to someone else anyway.  But, I digress…

Movie(s) I loved:
Her – When I saw the preview for this movie, I was pretty sure it was going to be terrible.  Maybe low expectations are what propelled “Her” to the top of the list for me.  But, “Her” is not about a man falling in love with the operating system on his phone.  It’s about so much more than that.  It articulates the state of modern human relationships, between both friends and lovers in a way that’s undeniably true without being preachy.   “Her” is deep and thought provoking.  Lauren and I watched it on a train and despite the less-than-optimal viewing conditions I was completely drawn in.  I know it’s a tired comparison, but if like me, you think “Eternal Sunshine on the Spotless Mind” is one of the best movies of the past 10 years, you’ll appreciate this movie.

Wolf of Wall Street – I don’t know what it says about me that two years in a row I have loved the movie most people found too crass and offensive ("Djiango Unchained" last year).  It’s true, this movie was an hour too long, but it was funny in ways that it shouldn’t have been and it was packed with awesome performances.  Say what you will about Jonah Hill, but he can back up his newfound swagger with this role.  Other than Barkhad Abdi in “Captain Philips”, his was the most visible of the Best Supporting Actor nominees. What I loved most about this movie was that it changed between hilarious and despicable at the drop of a hat.  As I’ll detail below, there were a lot of “true stories” that strayed from the facts.  This one didn’t seem to go down that road.

Movies I liked:

Nebraska – If I had a category called “Movies I REALLY Liked”, “Nebraska” would be in it.  I can’t say I genuinely loved it, but I came close.  I thought the black and white thing was going to be gimmicky, but when you watch this movie it makes sense. It’s the characters that are colorful and complex.  Their backdrop is boring and bland.  Bruce Dern would win Best Actor almost any other year (more on that later) with his character of a drunk, absentee and borderline abusive husband and father that you for some reason feel bad for.  Will Forte who I hated on “Saturday Night Live”…hated…is excellent in the role of a son trying to solidify some sort of relationship with his father before it’s too late.  There is a lot of Jonathan Franzen-esque dysfunction in the family profiled in “Nebraska”, but unlike Franzen characters, I like and therefore, care about these people.

Philomena – When I finished watching “Philomena”, I put it in the “Movies I Loved” category with “Her”.  Then, I researched it.  I loved this movie because the story was so compelling.  There was a heartbreaking narrative that concluded with a satisfying redemption.  Unfortunately, a chunk of that satisfying redemption is dramatic license.  It didn’t really happen.  I think if you are going to make a true story, tell the real story.  Finding out that my favorite scene of this movie never really happened was disappointing.  Had the scene not been in the movie at all and the true story been told, “Philomena” likely would have been at the top of my list.

Captain Phillips – If I were just judging the last 15 minutes of a movie, “Captain Phillips”, it wins best picture.  It’s as intense as “Gravity” and “12 Years a Slave” for that final sequence.  What I loved about this movie is that it doesn’t get bogged down with backstory.  It provided me with just enough context to know that Captain Phillips character is a husband and the hijackers are desperate people doing the only thing they can do to make money and stay alive.  Then, it moved on to the action.  But, this movie lost points for the same reason as “Philomena”.  According to almost every other crewmember of the Maersk Alabama, the real Captain Phillips was much more responsible for steering the ship into pirate waters than this movie shows.  Would including that make the movie’s final scenes any less climactic?  I don’t think so.  I do however, think Tom Hanks was phenomenal in this role (full disclosure: I’m a big Tom Hanks fan, but this is one of his best performances) and deserved a nomination.

Dallas Buyers Club – Looking for a theme amongst this year’s nominees?  “Dallas Buyers Club” joins “Captain Phillips” and “Philomena” as true stories that aren’t really true.  Matthew McConaughey solidifies his acting credentials as a sickly-looking AIDS patient in what I think is his best role (other than “True Detective”) and the performance of the year.  But, his character’s transformation from homophobe to best friend of a transgender woman didn’t happen in real life.  Ron Woodruff was apparently bi-sexual.  Why wasn’t that the story?  Still, this is a very good movie with very strong performances.  I saw it months ago, so forgive my forgetfulness. 

American Hustle – I had a blast watching this movie.  The dialogue is witty.  It nails the cheesiness of the 70s.  It’s music is foot tapping.  The actors shine.  The problem with “American Hustle” is that it’s not memorable.  I could tell you very little about this movie today.  Christian Bale sports a so-bad-it’s-good comb over.  Jennifer Lawrence cleans the house and dances wildly as “Live and Let Die” blasts on the stereo.  Amy Adams sexes it up.  No spoilers there. Those are all things you can glean from this movie by watching the trailer.  As I said, this was a good movie.  But, it pales in comparison to David O. Russell’s last movie, “Silver Linings Playbook” and I am not really sure it’s deserving of the multitude of nominations it received.

Gravity – “Gravity” is the only nominee I saw twice.  It’s intensely beautiful on the big screen and would lose 90% of its awesomeness once you put it in a personal DVD player.  If you haven’t seen it and it’s not in a theater, don’t bother.   “Gravity” is a cinematic masterpiece.  With a nod to “Avatar”, it is THE cinematic masterpiece of the decade.  But, amazing screenplay it is not.  There are some very cheesy lines in this movie that are wholly unnecessary.  There’s an entire subplot involving Sandra Bullock’s character that I think was included to make me care more about her eventual fate.  But, I already care about her eventual fate.  She is a human being stuck in space without a way back to Earth.  It’s a race against the clock.  That is enough to make me care.  The dialogue is an attempt to tug on heartstrings that are already pretty taught. 

12 Years a Slave – It’s hard to say I loved this movie because it is so incredibly hard to watch.  This is not a film made to entertain.  In fact, I had a hard time setting aside an evening to watch this movie because I knew what I was in for was work.  There are some scenes in “12 Years a Slave” that are absolutely gut-wrenching.  The scene everyone talks about is the one in which the main character is nearly hanged.  Its notoriousness is not without warrant.  It goes on for way too long, which is undoubtedly Steve McQueen’s intent.  There is a man gasping for air with a noose around his neck and behind him everyone, black and white, are going about their daily lives as if he’s not even there.  “12 Years a Slave” is an important movie.  There’s a reason it’s going to end up on the curriculum of many schools’ history courses.  But sometimes it’s subtly is not subtle at all.  There are a lot of metaphors in this movie that slap you in the face.  Watch it.  Even if you don’t have a keen eye for that sort of thing, you’ll see it.

Movie(s) I hated:
Blue Jasmine – I’m going to say something I have been thinking for a long time now.  Last year, it would have been blasphemy.  This year, it’s almost cliché because of the whole Dylan Farrow controversy.  But, I don’t like Woody Allen.  I keep thinking maybe I just don’t get it, and maybe that’s the case. That’s enough reason for me not to like a filmmaker right?  I have tried really hard to enjoy Allen’s movies, but the last two years, his movies have been the ones I have found to be the biggest waste of my time.  Blue Jasmine is not funny.  It’s not entertaining.  It’s not important.  It’s not even sad.  It’s just a bunch of insufferable characters ruining each other’s lives.   Much like in “Midnight in Paris”, the only remotely likeable character in “Blue Jasmine” is too stupid for her own good making even her hard to root for.  My hatred of this movie aside, Cate Blanchett is awesome in it.  I hate her character and I don’t give a damn what happens to her, but she owns it. 

Best Supporting Actor:
Who Should Win: Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips)
Who Will Win: Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club).  It’s a good performance, but not a lot of screen time.  He’ll win because the Academy loves men playing women and visa versa.

Best Supporting Actress
Who Should Win: Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave)
Who Will Win: Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle)  For all its nominations, I think this will be the only award “American Hustle” will get

Best Actor
Who Should Win: Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club)
Who Will Win: Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club)  I’d say Leonardo DiCaprio could be a surprise, but he’s not a favorite with the voters.

Best Actress
Who Should Win: Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)
Who Will Win: Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)  The Woody Allen controversy has not hurt her chances.

Best Picture
What Should Win: Gravity
What Will Win: 12 Years a Slave.  I was torn, but if the category is “Best Picture”, “Gravity” wins.  It is simply on a whole different level of film making than its competitors.  But, I think the Academy will make a statement with “12 Years a Slave”.