Friday, August 25, 2017

FOMO no mo'

A few years ago when I was the editor of my running club’s newsletter, a friend sent me an article she’d written but wasn’t sure should be included. It was about her experiences running the Boston Marathon, and her concern was that other runners might think she was trashing the race. She’d had such high expectations going into it—it’s Boston, after all. Being disappointed there would be like Neil Armstrong scanning the lunar landscape and saying, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant boring ball of rocks and craters. Meh. Let’s go home, Buzz.” Yet she was disappointed; it simply wasn’t the amazing experience she’d thought it would be. I told her that was all the more reason for her to have written the article and for it to appear, which ultimately it did.

It wasn’t exactly the WaPo breaking Watergate; I just liked that she wrote something from a different perspective. Too much of the time it’s nearly impossible to experience something without thinking about how you should be experiencing it. And when reality fails to live up to hype and expectation, we may wonder if there’s something wrong with us. FOMO—fear of missing out—usually describes the feeling that everyone else is doing something fun without you, but it can also describe the uneasy feeling that even when you are included, you’re still not having any fun. Not everyone suffers from chronic FOMO, but if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit it does happen, perhaps more so now than ever before given how much of our self-esteem is contingent upon numbers of likes and follows.

FOMO is nearly a permanent state for dwellers in places like New York City, where even if you’re on the A list, you suck, because guess what, there’s an A+ list, and even the A+ people are wondering if there’s a party somewhere for people so awesome they’ve created a whole other alphabet for their benefit. There were times when I lived there that I felt no matter what I did, someone would make sure to let me know I’d done it wrong. I was not a runner back then and it came as a complete surprise to me to discover one day that the New York marathon ran right past my apartment. From my balcony I watched the elites glide through Mile 17 followed by ever-larger packs of runners. I never for a moment figured on being a marathoner myself one day and would have laughed had someone suggested it; I just enjoyed being part of the moment. It was unexpected, and it was exciting. Then later that week I heard a coworker bragging about how he had grandstand seats near the finish line where he got to see all the real drama unfold. “There’s no drama at, like, Mile 17. It’s all at the end, and we were right there!” He’d heard me talking about watching from my balcony, you see, and simply could not let me think I’d actually experienced anything remotely significant.

I’d be lying if I said these situations don’t bother me, yet increasingly in my life I’ve avoided letting FOMO become a chronic condition. Even back in my New York girl-about-town days, I found myself shrugging off people like grandstand guy. When one of my gal pals was desperate to get into the it-club of the moment and we stood in line for three hours (and we were only the second group in line, mind you, so everyone behind us waited even longer), I did not look longingly at those who had sashayed past the velvet ropes and were already no doubt having the time of their lives. I laughed. No noisy crowded room on earth is worth waiting three hours to enter, and our doing so could only be seen as comical. Indeed, when we finally reached the promise land, it was so terrible that we ended up leaving an hour later. As we exited, the people who had been behind us in line looked longingly our way.

I say all this as part of my reflections on the recent solar eclipse. Unlike many of my acquaintances, I did not make the trek downstate to be in the path of totality; I didn’t even get myself a pair of goofy eclipse-viewing glasses. I did make a pinhole contraption of sorts, but ultimately I abandoned it as the light began to dim and just sat on the front porch watching a pretty Monarch butterfly perched on a flower, slowly fanning its feathery wings. It was a nice moment, and an unexpected one. Later I’d see social media posts from friends about their experiences, many of which shared a common theme: totally worth the hype. One woman said she actually laughed out loud at the moment of totality, it was so surprisingly wonderful; another noted that her husband, possibly the most cynical human being who ever lived, admitted to her that he was glad they’d seen it. Still another wrote about the awesomeness, in the true sense of the word, of seeing two very ordinary things like the sun and the moon come together to create something quite magical. “Pictures cannot do it justice,” he asserted.

This could have been a Mile 17 FOMO moment for me, since the only view of the eclipse I got was through pictures, which are cool but obviously don’t come anywhere near the experience of being right there. But I don’t feel like I’m missing out. In fact, oddly enough, I’m quite enjoying hearing about it through others. There’s something to be said for any experience, glorious or disappointing, once-in-a-lifetime grand or quietly small. I don’t know if I’ll ever get a Boston Marathon experience at this point; I’ve still got a long way to get there, and who knows, I may ultimately be disappointed. One way or another, though, I’ll probably have to something to say about it.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Paradox in a pair of Brooks

I read a line in a runner’s memoir describing the Boston Marathon as only allowing a few types of runners: the fast, the old, and the famous. The author went on to explain that unlike most other marathons, runners must qualify for Boston by having run a prior marathon below a certain time (the fast) or else be a celebrity running for charity (the famous). As for “the old” part, she explained that the qualifying times were age-graded and got significantly slower as the runner’s age got higher. This is all factually accurate but irritating as hell to have to read. I’m not fast. I’m not famous. Guess what.

This pithy description also leaves out one important detail, which is the very reason the qualifying times are age-graded: as a runner gets older, running gets tougher. “The old” aren’t being let into Boston out of pity. They’re there because despite the fact that “the fast” might consider a 5-hour marathon laughable, when a 70-year-old woman does it, it’s damned impressive. 

Still, I will fully admit that I decided to wait until my qualifying time went down to 4 hours before I launched myself into full-on BQ-training this year. Since realistically I’d need to be at least 3 minutes under 4 hours (since not everyone who qualifies actually gets to run Boston), my pace would need to be about 9 minutes per mile. No problem, except that in the dozen or so marathons I’ve done, I’ve never come close to that. The pace by itself as a general concept doesn’t scare me; I can run a mile in under 9 minutes—can do it while having a conversation, in fact, if I were ever inclined to talk while running. The marathon distance doesn’t scare me either; I’ve done races nearly twice that. Terrible, miserable races, granted, but still, done. What has me concerned is that this is one of the many paradoxes of running that continue to stymie me even after all this time.

Paradox 1: You’re getting older. You’re trying to run faster.

You know the famous game from Sesame Street, “Which one of these things is not like the other?” I think of that whenever I’m with my Sunday running group. All of them have run sub-4 marathons, some of them sub-3s. Most of them have already gone to Boston. All but one of them is younger than me, some of them a lot younger. There has never been a Sunday run where I haven’t wondered what the hell I was doing there. The honest truth is one of the main reasons I joined this group was because they start their runs at 9am, which is unthinkably late for most distance runners but works splendidly for a non-morning person with bad insomnia. Sure, I want to get faster, and running with fast runners will do that, but I also want to do it without hating everyone around me because the alarm woke me just as I finally reached REM.

The Sunday runners have a set 7-mile route, which we try to complete in under an hour. Seven miles per hour is roughly an 8:30 pace, which is around my half-marathon pace. It is not even on the same planet as many of the other runners’ half-marathon paces. This is an easy, relaxed-pace run for them; for me, it’s a tempo run, meaning I have to push it a bit.

The first time I ran with this group, I decided to kick for the last half mile and push my pace hard, just to see if I could do it. I’ve come to regret this decision, because I’ve felt the need to continue the tradition of the final half-mile kick ever since.

Paradox 2: You’re getting tired. You push even harder.

This last Sunday, the weather was pretty decent but several of the runners had raced the day before and were feeling it. “So, 9:40 pace?” one of them joked.

The joker was one of the sub-3 guys. “Are you even capable of running a 9:40 pace?” I retorted.

I’ll never know the answer, because we did not go anywhere near 9:40. Good weather in August beats hard racing the day before, because other than the first easing-into-things mile, all our other miles were below target pace. “Plenty of time in the bank!” I called after an 8:08. “We can slow down any time!” I pleaded after mile 5 left me nearly asphyxiating. “F*** this s***!” I screamed with one mile to go.

The other runners laughed. They’ve started to measure the number of swear words I use per mile as an indicator of my effort.

Right before my half-mile-left kick usually starts, there’s an intersection with a stoplight. I am not someone who prays, but this intersection tends to be where I make an exception. Please. Please let us get the red. I need to stop. I cannot keep running like this. If I don’t get to stop there’s no way I’m kicking. Please.


I did not get my red light. We crossed, turned left, and faced the long straightaway to the parking lot.

So I pushed.

The group pushed with me.

A little faster.


Faster still.

For just a moment I was able to forget that my lungs were full of flaming napalm. The cement weights on my legs had magically fallen off back at the crosswalk. For a few minutes, it felt good.

And then I looked at my watch and realized I still had 0.15 to go.

F***ety f***.

Finally, we finished, and once I could breathe a little more normally and walk without staggering, I looked around at the others. Something rather nice had happened: we’d done a solid run together with a good, strong finish. I think we were all feeling it. It was with that swell of emotion that I turned to the others and said,

“I hate all of you very much.”

They grinned, high-5’d each other and me. They knew what I meant, because this was another familiar running paradox: You say you hate it. You keep coming back.