Like many privileged people I have always been afforded the luxury of self-examination. A periodic, if not, constant reflection on who I am, who I want to be and how can I get where I’m going. Being middle class and having a family who both loved and cared for me I was not troubled with some of life’s more fundamental problems; where can I find my next meal and will my family survive another night. As such my thoughts were more or less free to roam. Back in 2007 I was in the midst of a particularly extended stint of self-examination. I won’t bore you with the details, but in summation I hated my job, I was sick of living in NYC and generally speaking I was unhappy. This was not a unique situation. But in March of 2007 a fire would forever and inexorably change my life for the better. I didn’t know it yet, but in 8 years I would be a professional triathlete.
I grew up in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. It is a working/middle class town on the outskirts of NYC. Located on the Narrows Bay and at the foot of the Verrazano Bridge it is isolated and hard to get to by public transportation. Something the natives wish to maintain. It is home to about 150,000 people many of whom work for the different city municipalities. I always joked that everyone’s dad was a cop or fireman and everyone’s mom was a teacher or nurse. Except it wasn’t really a joke. My dad’s a cop and my mom’s a teacher and the same is true for many of my friends. Working class environments, as with most environments, are wrought with an interesting array of good and bad qualities. I was raised with a finely tuned moral code and a sense of community…good. I was taught to work hard, be nice, respect my parents and tip more around the holidays …good. I was told education is important and that I should take school seriously…good. I was taught that alcohol is the finest invention on the planet and that you must celebrate, mourn, relax and enthuse with a drink your hand…BAD! Now, before I proceed I should mention that in 30 years on this earth I have never met anyone who drinks less than my parents. I mean it. I have never really seen either of them drink alcohol and certainly not to excess. I cannot, however, say the same for many of the adults around me. Taking in everything I saw, as children are wont to do, I learned at a young age that to be an adult is to be drunk. You are not having fun unless you are drinking. Drinking is the reason you get together and the last thing you do before you go home. You just got a new job? That’s great let’s go celebrate. Your grandfather just passed away? That’s terrible. Let’s go to the bar. You had a hard day at work? Let me buy you a drink. I had a baby…this round’s on me. As such, starting at a young age it never even occurred to me not to drink heavily. I first had alcohol poisoning at the age of 14. A fact that, until not long ago, I would tell with relish. Long story short, by the time I was 18 I had a drinking problem. It’s not that I drank everyday, but when I did it was WAY too much. We are talking dangerous levels. In college, in a school full of partying teenagers I stood out. Friday and Saturday were a frenzied blur of bad beer, cheap shots, funnels, shotguns and drinking games. The week following would inevitably be filled with apologies, regrets and a scramble to make up for all of the work I didn’t do. I would drink then repent over and over and over again. I never learned my lesson and I never saw the light. I got in trouble more than once and my grades were…just ok. This cycle of mediocrity would continue for years. Well beyond college and well passed the point of knowing better.
In early 2006 I received my first post collegiate job. A 9-5 data entry hell working for NYC’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg in the budget office. It was entry level and monotonous and I felt it was well below my standard. I deserved nothing, but I wanted it all and all the while I kept on drinking to excess. Except now my weekend habits began to bleed into the weekdays. It was during this time that I realized one of my life long dreams. I began working part time as a bartender. The aristocrat of the working man according to Doug Coughlin, I began my career as a publican at two NYC watering holes. One was on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and the other right in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.
It was in March of 2007, a mere 18 months after I began work with the mayor when I suffered a happy accident. It seemed the couple living in the apartment above my roommate and me were pack rats. They had a space heater that tipped over onto one of their many stacks of newspapers igniting a 3 alarm fire on the streets of Brooklyn. Only hours earlier I had cracked a joke about leaving it all behind and traveling the world and now was my chance. With most of my posessions lost I quit my job, I packed a bag and left. I spent time in Australia, followed by a few stints to Europe. I grew restless in Brooklyn and finally decided to head west to San Francisco. I drove across the country only to find that San Francisco posed many of the same frustrations as NYC. I packed again and wandered the United States in my 1998 Saturn. It was an experience I’ll never forget. So alone…so free. First Reno and Tahoe. Then Salt Lake City. Moab, Utah. Laromy, Wyoming. Then a friend from college called. It was late November and it was the last day to buy a season ski pass to the big mountains in Colorado. That was good enough for me. I raced down I25 to Boulder, Colorado straight to the nearest REI. I bought my season pass with just a few minutes to spare. It was official. I would spend the next year of my life living in Boulder bartending, partying and skiing. And, boy, did I have a good time! I was completely unaware that I was living in the triathlon Mecca of the world.
I moved back home to Brooklyn in the summer of 2008. I got my old job back at the bar in Bay Ridge and the party continued. Now, the line between my weekdays and weekends was nonexistent. I was a regular fixture at many of the local taverns. I knew this was unsustainable, but at the moment I was content. A friend of mine was running the famed NYC marathon in November of 2008 and asked if my brother and I would run with him. Having lived right by the 5k point in the marathon I had grown up watching the race and jumped at the opportunity to partake. At this point in my life I was a weekend warrior sort of athlete. The occasional run (I had participated in one 5k and a 10k in my life) or intramural softball or hockey league was the only consistent exercise I ever underwent. And so when Mike Weissman asked me to run with him in 2008 I said yes. We met him right at the 5k point I knew so well and I began my journey in more ways than one. I ran in a pair of tennis shorts and old shoes with a metrocard in my pocket. I anticipated not making it more than 6 or 7 miles. To my, and everyone’s, surprise I ended up crossing the hallowed finish line. On a relative whim I had successfully traversed 23 miles of the NYC Marathon (I wore an old race bib and was not caught running bandit). Now, with sore legs and not enough clothing I anticlimactically swiped my metro card and made my home…to the bar of course. But I vowed that day I would ACTUALLY run the marathon the following year and so I did. And the year after that. And the year after that. By the end of 2011 I had completed six marathons, including Boston. I showed a bit of talent and enjoyed putting in the hard painful miles. After running the Boston Marathon in April of 2011 and failing once again to crack the elusive 3 hour barrier, a major milestone for many runners, I grew despondent. While my drinking habits had been curtailed somewhat by my new found passion they were far from gone. In the weeks leading up the Boston Marathon I had a few really bad nights out. On one such night (it was a Monday) after a marathon session of binge drinking I stumbled home and laid in bed (One notable line from that evening was “she fell through a beer pong table...of course she’s embarrassed”). The room spun and I knew from experience what would happen next. I hovered over the toilet repeatedly retching and realizing, in that moment, the metaphor. My dreams, my hopes and my wishes were being flushed away because I could not reign in this aspect of my life. I could not stop once I got started. My life was more structured than it had been, but not nearly enough. I stood from the toilet and lost my balance. I fell backwards into my bathtub yanking my shower curtain off the wall. I sat there momentarily, with a shower curtain on my head. This was my rock bottom. “What am I doing? I have huge ambitions and this is how I spend my time”. The following day was one of my cataclysmic hangovers. I’ve had hundreds of them. Literally hundreds. I’ve done the math. In fact, I have spent nearly a year of my life hungover. A year! Think about that. Think about all of the things you’ve accomplished in a year. Think about all the measureable ways you’ve advanced your life in just one simple year. Well I spent one of my few years on this planet on the couch eating french fries and bacon egg and cheeses. This was my rock bottom. This realization along with an unremarkable result in the Boston Marathon led to one of the darker periods of my life. The night of the Boston Marathon I could be found smoking cigarettes and vomiting out of taxi cabs. I had come to a realization about my life and yet seemed powerless over it. That following Sunday I went on my first post marathon run. A six mile jaunt from my apartment in Bay Ridge to Coney Island and back. I did a lot of thinking on that run. I stood looking out over the Atlantic Ocean underneath the parachute drop in that historic amusement park watching the sun set on an overcast day. I thought long and hard about my abilities. What can and can I not do? What are my limits? Am I destined to be a bartender drinking his days away or am I supposed to do something more? As I stood, elbows on the railing watching the waves crash, the skies opened up and seemed to give me an answer. It rained like I’ve never seen it rain before. Huge drops came pouring down immediately soaking everything it touched. I was 3 miles away from home and I had to get moving. I began running on sore muscles. Then I began running faster. The rain beat down harder and harder and I replied in kind. The sun was now gone, but my spirit was never brighter. The pain set in, but I kept moving. Faster and faster. My shoes were puddles, but it didn’t matter. I raced underneath the Verrazano Bridge, a route I had run hundreds of times, but this time was different. I was different. I unlocked something inside myself. The more it hurt the more I fought. The more I fought the more I felt alive. My legs were at their limits but I pushed on. The lactic acid built and built, but I would not yield. Winston Churchill came to mind. “Never give up. Never surrender”. I looped off of the running path and onto the streets. I refused to break stride. I expertly darted in and out of traffic, a fete I perfected as a child growing up on Brooklyn. I avoided and ignored the traffic lights. I paid no attention to the horns or to the yells. Strangers watched me fly by them with curiosity. Today I wonder what I must have looked like sprinting down the water soaked streets. People must have thought I was being chased. Twenty-four hours earlier they might have been right. But that was the day I stopped running from something and began running toward something. And then it was over. It was April 24th, 2011. I stood under the canopy of my building watching the rain beat down. I had paid my final penance. A few weeks later I ran a challenging 27 miles of the Bethel Ragner Relay. The following weekend, still sore, I raced the Brooklyn Half Marathon and PR’d by five minutes. The following day I won a local 5k! I was on a roll. I realized pain was a myth. Or at least a story I could influence. I learned to embrace it and to ignore it, to love it and to hate it, to respect it and to fear it. Finally I learned to control it. And if I could control it on a run then why couldn’t I control it in other aspects of my life. And so whenever I got what I call the “thirst” I embraced it and ignored it. I respected it and I feared it. I controlled it.
That summer I participated in the Syracuse Half Ironman and I was introduced to the person who would continue me on my journey. Tara Rasch is an excellent QT2 Systems coach and a wonderful person. She understood me and saw in me my potential. That winter she became my coach and finally put me on a structured plan. I had always had people around me who would show me the ropes, but Tara managed to instill in me a work ethic that was always there, but was never cultivated. I was a type A person living in a type B world and Tara showed me how to be the person I needed to be. Tara was also tough. She told me when to go harder, but also when to take it easy. Once, at a triathlon camp in Lake Placid, Tara had scheduled me for a 60 mile ride. I ended up hammering the ride for 112 miles thus risking injury and making irrelevant all of the time and energy she had spent for my benefit. In no uncertain terms Tara explained that I need to “quit fucking around”. After that I was hers. I did everything she told me to do and something funny started happening. I started getting better. I started getting a lot better. Every race I had I was superceding expectations. I was building upon strong performances every time I raced. I had a great triathlon season in 2012, but it wasn’t until November of that year that I was first awed by my own abilities. I raced the Harrisburg Marathon after the NYC Marathon was canceled. I not only broke the 3:00 barrier, but I shattered it. I ran a 2:45 marathon. Good enough for 12th place. It was the first time in my life I truly felt satisfied with myself. I remember sitting there and taking it in. I remember the sights, the sounds and the people with whom I shared it. I remember the ache in my muscles and the sense of accomplishment. I remember being happy.