Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Snapshot Book Review: Nine Inches

Nine Inches: StoriesNine Inches: Stories by Tom Perrotta
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I love Tom Perrotta. I love the honesty and vulnerability of his writing, the way he writes about people you could know, or might know, or do know. His characters are always recognizable and relatable without relying on stereotypes or tropes.

This collection of short stories falls right in line with his other work, each story told from the perspective of characters who could easily live in the same town, eat at the same diners, send their children to the same schools as any of us. And the stories play off of one another. The high school student narrator "The Test Taker" serves as a perfect foil to the overweight and under-appreciated math teacher who narrates "Grade My Teacher." A disenfranchised Little League Umpire, a defeated pizza deliver boy, an injured football player, a divorced neighbor, a meddlesome old mother, a beginner guitar player, and a high school prom chaperone round out the list of narrators, each one just as frustrated with life as the next. And yet, each story concludes on a hopeful note; not necessarily with a "happy ending," but with the very human sense that something is still in store for these characters, that their story is not quite over. Just like life, really. Like you, and me, and all the people we know.

When one of our stories concludes, another is just beginning.

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Monday, November 4, 2013

NYC Marathon: (A Much Better) Part 2

As you may or may not have read in Part 1, I had a rough start to the NYC Marathon. A good bit of that was my fault, but knowing that didn't help very much when I was standing on the Verrazano Bridge, shivering and wondering what I had been thinking in choosing to run such a crowded, well-known race.

I'm used to running smaller, more obscure races that no one knows about unless I happen to mention them. Now, I had all these people at work and in my writing group and at my pool coming up to me and asking if I was excited, what my goal time was . . . all sorts of questions. While I certainly know that they're just trying to be supportive, it felt like more and more pressure! What if I didn't make my goal time or something terrible happened and I didn't even finish. I would have to tell all these people! Never mind my coach, who clearly had a goal time in mind, even if he hadn't told me what it was. Heck, I had a goal time in mind, and disappointing myself was the worst feeling of all. But I also tend to have high expectations, so disappointing myself was also a very likely possibility. (More great planning on my part, I know.)

To make what's already a long story . . . less long, I'll just say that the race started, and I ran. Here's an approximation of what I recall thinking along various miles of the course:

Miles 1-2: I cannot believe I'm going to have to do mental math at every mile. I passed mile 1 at 11:45, so minus the 3-ish minutes it too me to cross the start line. . . . The clock did say 11:45, right? And not 12:45? Guys are so lucky, being able to just pee off this bridge. Ew it's on the ground! I'm stepping in it! I think it splashed my calf! Oh my god, if I see another obviously uninjured person walking, I might punch them. Seriously, if you wanted to walk the race, you should have started in the last wave, not up here with all of us.

Miles 3-7: Geez there are a lot of Hispanic people in Brooklyn. And I thought this would be one of the emptier sections of the route. I should not have brought my iPod. Oh look, there's . . . what's her name? E__'s friend? Argh! "Hey green hat girl!" She didn't hear me. Oh well. Yikes! Sewer grate! Why do people insist on running in pairs? It's hard enough to dodge around all the single runners. This should be outlawed. Oh look it's Ju___ and Ma___! Hi guys!

Miles 7-8: Okay, somewhere in here I'm supposed to see R___ and my aunt. What was the name of the cross-street I gave them? Degraw? Delancey? I knew I should have memorized the directions I wrote them better. It was something with a D. . . . If my Garmin was working, I know it's at mile 7.8. Grrr. Okay, it's almost mile 8; I think I'm supposed to skip this water stop. Oh look there they are! Oh my gosh, my aunt has her camera out! Hi!

Miles 9-12: Am I running fast enough? I don't think I'm down to 7:30s yet. Was I even supposed to run 7:30s to make my the half marathon time J___ set for me? What's 1:38 divided by 13? I guess if you times it by 60 and add 38. . . . I can't do this. My half marathon PR was basically 1:30 and that was sub-7s, so my splits for this must be slower than 7:30 per mile, because 8 minutes divided by 13 is not 30 seconds a mile. Or something. Shoot the Gu! Well, guess I can just take it now. Where's the next water stop? Oh ew, this stuff is so disgusting. After this race I must find an alternative. Ugh, it's so slimy in my mouth. Swallow, swallow. . . .

Mile 13: Oh no. I think I'm getting my period. Yep, this is definitely happening. Well, at least I feel better about almost crying this morning.

Miles 14-15: That guy said "Mile 15" back at the water station, but I didn't see a mile marker or a clock. Did I just miss them? I wonder if E___ made it out here in time to see me. It would be a miracle if I can spot her among all these people. I don't remember this section being so crowded when I cheered before! Oh look, there's the 15 mile marker. I knew I didn't miss it. Lord this bridge is long. And cold. And windy. Is the sun really not going to come out for the rest of the race?

Mile 16: Holy crap that is a lot of people. Please, please don't let blood drip down my leg. Please.

Mile 17-18: So this is when I'm supposed to hit the wall, right? I feel pretty okay. Shoot that was a mile marker, wasn't it. Guess I'll just do my minute of "pickup" now. I wonder if J___ knows how hard it is to estimate a minute without a watch. There's that lady in the long-sleeved purple shirt again! Am I just going to keep passing her every time I do this pickup minute? Whatever, I'll get her in the end. Re___'s supposed to be somewhere along here . . . there she is! I cannot believe she made me a sign! Oh my gosh and there's Mi___! I totally forgot she lives in NYC. Somehow I associated her with DC, but that's just because she ran the Marine Corps Marathon. Oh wow and there's Ma___! That guy must be her boyfriend. How cool that they came all the way down from CT for this!

Mile 19: R___ and Aunt B___ will be at 117th. 117th . . . 117th . . . 117th . . . just get to 117th. . . . There they are! They made it!  Oops, I'm supposed to get water here. Or was it Gatorade? Whatever, I'm already past that. Oh, oh, oh! I got it in my eye! Is my contact still there? I'm blind! Okay, no I'm not. Blink it back. There you go. God it's cold.

Mile 20: The Bronx isn't so empty. There are people up here. GCR is supposed to be up here, I think. I hope I didn't pass them. Why didn't I read that email more closely?

Mile 21: Another bridge. G*!$@&^it. Why am I doing this? Whose idea was this, anyway? What a terrible idea. Hey look, it's T__! I can't believe he's here! Come on, try to smile. He knows you're tired.

Mile 22: There are R___ and Aunt B___! Sheesh, she's still go her camera. You have to smile. Now. You're supposed to be having fun. That's what R___ told you last night: have fun. Fun, fun, fun.

Mile 23-25: Oh my God my legs hurt. I swear they did not hurt like this last time. Are they even moving very fast? Why are people passing me? This is supposed to be my glory time! I'm supposed to be passing other people! What is wrong with me? Don't walk. Walking is not allowed. If you walk, you'll never start running again. It's almost over. Just a few more miles. You can do this. You could run 4 miles in your sleep. Just 4 more. Come on.

Mile 25-26: Okay, you can pick it up for one mile. One. Single. Mile. Look at all these people cheering. This is supposed to be motivating. I don't even care. I'm not smiling for them. It hurts so bad. Why can't I go any faster? Where are my legs? Why does this hurt so much?

Mile .2: Is that the finish line? No, that can't be it. There'll be an arch and stuff. But I thought it was at the top of this hill! Why are we still running? Oh my god, that girl just flew by you. You suck. You aren't even moving your legs. There it is. Right there. You're almost there. 3:21-something. God you're the worst. Not even close to 3:15. Whatever, it'll be a PR as long as you don't stop. Just get there.

Nothing like self pep talks, huh? I swear, those last 6 miles are nothing but mental. The sidelines could have been completely empty, and I wouldn't even have cared. It was just me, the road, and the pain. But I made it.

As it turns out, I don't care much about crowds. Seeing people I know is important; knowing that R___ and my aunt would be at specific miles looking for me was really helpful, because it gave me something to look forward to, to "run toward." And seeing other people along the way was a real boost, too. But big generic crowds? By the end I barely noticed them.

And no, I didn't make my "secret" goal of a 3:15 marathon, but I did get a personal best, beating my 2009 marathon time by about 2 minutes. Apparently I also fell into the 60-second window of time my coach J___ predicted for me, so I can't really be ashamed of my race . . .  at all.

I'll just have to put in more work before the next race.

For whoever is interested, here are the race results:

Winning Times
Male Overall: 2:08:24
Female Overall: 2:25:07
Female 25-29 (my age group: 2:44:19

My Results

Race Length
Finishing Time
Average Pace
Overall Place
Gender Place
Age Group Place
26.2 miles
2,537/ TBD
240/ TBD

Here are my splits (which I have to admit are amazingly consistent):


NYC Marathon: (A Miserable) Part 1

I did not have the greatest start to the NYC marathon--most of which was my own fault.

The day before the marathon, I picked up my aunt from the Port Authority bus station around noon (she was coming in to cheer me on!), and we walked around New York City for, oh . . . the next three or four hours. She wanted to see the High Line, which seemed like a very reasonable request, except that I didn't remember it being quite so long. Midway along the walk, she kindly offered to stop, but we had to walk to the end because I needed to return a library book to a library I had scouted out that was located down by 9th street. Of course, the library I had so brilliantly chosen wasn't at 9th street and 11th Ave; it was at 9th street and 6th Ave, so we had to walk almost an entire mile in addition to having just walked about 3 miles. Then, I thought we could easily stop by and see R___, who was eating lunch in the area, but it turned out that he was much farther east than I had anticipated, so we ended up walking all the way over to 2nd Ave--another mile--on top of everything. By the time we got home, no thanks to my poor planning, we had probably walked about 6 miles. After which I stood at the stove for an hour-and-a-half, cooking dinner.

All in all, probably not the best-thought-out plan for the day before a marathon.

The race day itself started out as expected. I had laid out all of my clothing and gear the night before, so I had no problem downing my breakfast; greasing up my legs, chest, and armpits; donning my outfit (plus all of my keep-warm throwaway clothing for the start); collecting my packed bag (complete with freshly charged watch and iPod); and heading out the door right on time. The PATH train also came on time--thank goodness--and before I knew it, I was at the Staten Island Ferry terminal, ready to board the 6:45AM ferry.

That's when I went to turn on my watch.

For those who have not read my blog in the past, I purchased my first GPS Garmin watch a few short months ago. Since then, I have yet to run a race where it has not malfunctioned in some way. At the Bronx 10-miler, it died completely midway through the race. At the Staten Island Half, it lost satellite reception about 8 miles into the race and never recovered. So really, I should have known better than to wear this fickle contraption for a race as important as the NYC Marathon. But it just worked so well during the weeks when I run regular workouts, that I keep thinking, "Nah, it'll be fine. Those two other times were just flukes." Not so.

I am 100% positive that when I unhooked my watch from its charger that morning, the display showed the battery as being fully charged (i.e. a solid, unblinking 4 bars in that little rectangular battery shape). In an effort to preserve the battery as much as possible, I turned the watch off completely, intending to turn it back on when I had finished being underground (so that it wound't drain itself during that part of the trip, looking for satellite reception). Therefore, imagine my surprise when, standing in the ferry terminal, I went to push the "on" button and nothing happened. Not a beep, not a flicker--nothing.

I'm embarrassed to say that my first instinct was to cry. Seriously? On the most important day when I needed this thing to work, it wasn't even going to turn on? Now, not only would I not know my pace per mile, I wouldn't be able to clock my own running time or even know what time of day it was! (That last part was not entirely true: I had my iPod with me, so I could check the time on that device. But doing so involved pushing a button to get the display to turn on, whereas glancing down at my wrist would have been so much easier. That was the point of having a watch in the first place!)

On top of the watch malfunction, I was feeling weird hungry/nervous flutters in my stomach. I hadn't eaten a ton at dinner, because I usually snack well into the night. However, since I also didn't stay up as late as I usually do, I didn't have as much time to snack . . . so now I was feeling a little empty. I got out the almonds I had brought with me and tried to eat some, but they tasted like cardboard and I wasn't sure my stomach actually wanted those, anyway. I unwrapped a Cliff Bar and took a few bites, trying to talk myself down from full-blown panic, when something finally went my way. I heard my name.


Emerging from the sea of people was H___, another GCR runner whom I hadn't seen in weeks. I had heard that she was injured and wasn't even sure if she'd be running the marathon at all, but there she was, smiling up at me from under her a brown-and-white beanie.

H___ was my saving grace for the rest of the morning. Without her, no matter how many times I told myself, "You still have your legs. You don't need a watch to run a good race. It's not raining. You're going to be fine," I am certain I would have been fixated on my stupid watch failure and remained miserable right up until the moment the race started. However, despite her plan to run this race on a stress fracture, H___ was in great spirits and we chatted all the way up until we found the rest of our group at the waiting area on Staten Island.

That's when my next problem arose: I couldn't poop.

To any non-runners reading this, I don't think there is any feeling--apart from cramping--that is worse than running a long distance while having to poop. I had this problem during my first marathon, and I somehow miraculously held it in from mile 16 all the way to the finish. To this day, I'm still not sure how I accomplished that feat, and I was fairly certain that if I encountered the same issue during the NYC marathon, I wasn't going to make it; I would have had to stop. And for me, stopping is one of the worst possible things to do during a long-distance race. Not only is it demoralizing, because I know I'm losing a ton of time, but my legs also lock up and make getting started running again next to impossible.

In any case, my plan was to go to the bathroom in the waiting area and then take an Imodium to feel safe for the rest of the race (which is a trick I learned from H___, ironically enough!). However, as gross as this sounds, I simply could not poop. Finally I just took the Imodium and hoped for the best.

Spoiler alert: I didn't have to poop on the race route. I did, however, really need to pee--starting at about 9:20, which is before we even crossed the starting line. I had already peed twice in the previous hour, so how I could possibly needed to go again is beyond my comprehension. Nerves? Too much water the night before? Who knows. In any event, this also worked itself out, because by mile 20, all I could feel was the pain in my legs; there were no thoughts of my bladder. Unfortunately, that did not lessen my panic at the starting line, where I was shivering and worrying in equal measure. Was I going to have to clench my bladder for the entire 3+ hours? And I was going to be drinking even more liquid, too!

More on the actual race, in Part 2. . . .