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The (Jewish) New Year of Running Begins With a W

I’m sitting down to write this blog lower Faunce on September 21, 2017. Coincidentally, this blog comes at a point of personal and professional rebirth for me on an day that annually signifies religious and emotional rebirth to me, for today is Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

Now those of you who know me well are probably aware that, while I’m not an especially spiritual person, I hold value in the customs and traditions of Judaism: despite feeling largely indifferent towards the concept of a G-d, I still feel compelled to respect its name; despite finding the stories in the Old Testament largely ridiculous– more likely the conjectures of ancient sci-fi writers than the words and stories of a divine being– I still find value in the lessons they teach. More than anything else, though, I appreciate the space for personal reflection created in the synagogue during the High Holy Days. And because of the Jewish calendar’s incidental coincidence with my running calendar, which is probably the most important calendar to my life, the new year comes as a natural point of holistic reflection. After all, I’m starting a new part-time job, am no longer in school, and I am finally able to choose to make running the primary concern of my life.

Of course, my running year started out great. If you’re one of the people who actually readsy my blogs, I imagine you’ve seen the result from the Downtown 5k, where I took home the W over a solid field (and, of course, where I  finally got a win over a not-yet-fit Julian in the process). Putting up a result around 14:30 on the a twisty-turvy, uphill-finishing CVS course in a race in which I did some leading and, of course, some easing up to showboat at the end, has me brimming with optimism for the upcoming year. In previous years, I’ve come into CVS much further along in my training cycle after having plenty of time to whip myself into some semblance of shape after a season that ended in late May or early June. This year, however, I showed up after a season that ended in late July after only three workouts, the most recent of which included struggling through my slowest tempo since running for Ray (don’t worry Ray I still hit the pace).

But, my own accolades– that’s not really what the High Holy Days are about, is it? The beauty of what I find in the high holy days as a religious atheist lies in three places: beyond my obvious accordance with the sentiment that we should all strive to be better people, taking a few days to reflect on the ways we acted deplorably over the last year and how we can do better, I really appreciate the the whole, “we are insignificant’ thing, even though I don’t buy into the higher power we’re supposedly insignificant in relation to. My interpretation of this, echoed by sentiments from each Rabbi’s sermon over the day, revolves around the search for meaning, and instead of some abstract sovereign being, I choose to believe in the connections I make with people and the callings of my own identity

I’ve also found value in the struggle of being a black jew. Thanks to one of the super-friendly, super-jewish upperclassmen on the team year taking the time to introduce me to the Brown/RISD Hillel Executive Director my freshman year, as well as to having made a few appearances at Friday services over the last few years, Brown/RISD Hillel is a welcoming place to me: I can always joke with Marshall about everyone at Hillel getting younger (though, of course, my suddenly being older than the wide majority of attendees at services doesn’t exactly allay any sentiments of other-ness I might have… but I digress), and I can always recognize a few super-jews from the few Friday services I’ve attended, most of whom are incredibly friendly, welcoming, and all-around great people. Still, while I won’t detail them, you can bet I’ve had my share of “are you Jewish?” moments, and that results in my having my guard up a bit any time I enter the building, especially on days when some students actually bring their non-Jewish friends to experience a Jewish day of worship.

The value I find in the high holy days connects this theme with the first: I need to let down my guard to make myself more open to human connection, let down my guard in order to follow my own personal interests, dreams, whatever. Once I did that at services, I found my mind much clearer, my mood more positive, and the random conversations I made with random people much more fulfilling. That’s not to say I don’t feel entitled to a bit of cynicism about the experience of being one of the only black jews to attend services, but letting my guard down for some real human interaction– in this unique case–made my experience much more positive.

So there’s some low hanging tie-in about running I could make here– something about doing this because I love it instead of for PRs, glory, because it pays the bills (which it definitely doesn’t)– and there’s something accurate about that for me– I do genuinely love the sport, and I’m lucky to be able to compete at a level where I can semi-justify working part-time to chase the dream for a bit–, but a better tie-in would probably revolve around the relationships I’ve made with people, the experiences I’ve been blessed (for lack of a better term) with, and the growth I’ve experienced over the course of the last year. And I wholeheartedly believe that bringing this mentality to races as I chase the dream and some fast times will result in my continued enjoyment of and success in the sport, no matter what it gives back to me on the track.

But honestly, I just wanted to write about this because I was feeling some type of way yesterday, and this is a decent outlet for that. Since then, I’ve resolved (and no, this is not as trite as a New Year’s resolution in America, where you go out and have a wild night and just decide that everything is different the next day; it came as a result of real, intrinsic reflection) to be more open and honest with people about myself. Which to be fair, I think I was pretty good at that before, but I’d like to do it wholly, without reservation.

Here’s a fun one: I went to an anime convention in August. Kind of had to get over myself, but it was lit. My friend and I felt lame not being in cosplay, so before the third day, I went to Goodwill to make a costume that looked like this guy. I really enjoyed it. Will do again.

This is also low-key running relevant because I’m headed to Japan in a week for the Izumo Ekiden. I don’t know how much free time I’ll have, but I certainly hope to find some time to get to Akihabara and take in some Otaku culture after the race.

Another one: I’ve gotten far less reserved about calling myself a professional runner. Admittedly, I do provide the disclaimer that the term is loosely defined– it’d be hard to say I have the same job as Evan Jager. But still, it’s cool. Hopefully I can bring the same openness and vulnerability I intend to bring to my life to my racing on the track. If I can do that I will undoubtedly continue to feel fulfilled in sport in this next year of running.

Until next time in Japan,

J

Year-in-Review: Call me a Pro (Insights)

Year-in-Review

Well, my first year of post-collegiate running is officially in the books. Full of electric highs and disappointing lows, of thrilling victory and crushing defeat, my first year as a professional runner proved nothing short of sensational. This series of blogs will detail the highs, lows, and the final takeaways of my first year as a professional runner.

Three key Takeaways from the Year

Plan

You’d think I hadn’t really learned this considering the number of near-mishaps Julian and I experienced in Europe, but my first takeaway from this year is the need to meticulously plan travel trips. As you may have read in my post about Tallahassee, exceptionally poor planning once cost me not only the chance to maximize my ability in a race, but also about half of my meager monthly paycheck as a graduate assistant at Providence.

From that point on, I resolved to plan my future trips as far in advance as possible, with the maximum level of flexibility I could afford, in order to give myself the greatest chance of success. Soon after Tallahassee, I booked Southwest flights for my California trip. Buying these tickets five months early both saved me money and allowed me the flexibility if something happened, like an injury or a change in my race schedule. Especially for an athlete who doesn’t have an individual salaried contract, who’s ballin on a budget in every sense of the phrase, clear planning and flexibility will help me successfully both make the most of my money and my running. While the trip to Europe certainly had a few near-disasters (though I honestly think that Aer Lingus or Google Flights both had to be somehow at fault for the 6 AM/PM flight mishap, and Europcar closing at 4 PM is clearly a cultural inconsistency, but I digress), our planning of the trip contributed instrumentally to our success, and we’ll be back to do even better next year!

Be Selfish

In the fall, when I’d taken on too many responsibilities in too many places, I spoke to Ray not long after I’d posted this blog. Looking back at the schedule, it really was something ridiculous, but my overconfidence at the time caused me to shrug off Ray’s warnings: if I could get to bed by 9:30 PM, it didn’t matter how impossibly busy I made myself during the day, right? Obviously, I was wrong, and while I should have taken greater heed of his words at the time, one piece of advice Ray gave me during that conversation stands out in retrospect as I contemplate how to further my success on the track— “you have to be selfish.”

Of course, this doesn’t mean I need to start mistreating my friends or stealing my roommate’s ice cream or anything like that, but it does call for me to make decisions conducive to my success in running even when they conflict with social temptations or opportunities to devote my time to other people. Any time I’m not running, eating, or working at whichever job that allows me the financial flexibility to continue to pursue this dream on the track, I can be resting, and I should probably consider that anytime I find myself partaking in the frivolity of normal 24 year-old life.

Or, y’know, something like that. That last paragraph is probably a bit dramatic, to be honest, because if I didn’t have a social life or other interests and hobbies, I would probably get far too bored, too obsessive, and too swept up in the pressure of running to actually have success. Nonetheless, I need to construct my social life and the activities in it around my athletic schedule, and I can’t afford to donate too much of my time to anyone that can’t make it equally worthwhile for me. And of course, I can’t devote too much time to dating, either (See February or March). I’ll still have my fair share of fun, do my fair share of dancing, and eat my fair share of bananas foster waffles, especially in the fall, but when it comes down to it, my decisions will have to serve the best interests of my running before they serve anyone else. This whole thing would be a complete and total waste of my own, Ray’s, and the time of the people who support me otherwise.

Professional Runner

Over the course of the year, I haven’t really known how to refer to myself when explaining to people what I’m doing with my life. At first, I told people I was a postcollegiate runner, finishing off his graduate degree while chasing a few fast times. This probably made sense at the time, considering I was in the midst of a pretty crap fall season and running in an old saucony singlet that had “AC Don’t Test Me” and “Shoes Pls” scrawled in black sharpie on the front and back of my kit, respectively.

By the end of February, my identity had rightfully evolved. I’d demonstrated a bit more fitness, laying down another 7:58 in the 3k; I’d just flown, or rather, I’d been flown by the meet director, to an all-expenses paid race in Northern Ireland, where I’d finished in the top 10 of a relatively elite field, and Shane and I had self-designed team singlets that actually had our club name printed on our new team crest on the top left chest. After all that, Ben Sutherland told me, “the correct designation is probably semi-pro.” And like a probably underrated Will Ferrell movie, it stuck for the next few months: no, I can’t pay the bills through running, but I do get some pretty cool stuff from the whole endeavor.

Then, Letterkenny happened. And I’m like, semi-pro? Forget that. Yes, I still gotta work a part-time job to keep the lights on; yes, my club’s newly official partnership with New Balance basically consists of some shoes and gear I split with my teammates; yes, you will still see local events and crowdfunding from me when I get ready to try and fund another year of traveling around the world for races— but I am a professional runner. At Letterkenny, I looked down the list of dudes I’ve beaten this year and saw a bunch of guys with shoe companies funding their lives, dudes who have run sub 7:50 on the flat and dudes who have run 8:31. I looked around me at races and saw former All-Americans, Olympians, and world champions that I could never dream of beating. And then there’s this photo:

look back at it

That’s the last water jump in the prelim at USAs. While the top guys were far from all out, and while I did finish last out of everyone in the foreground of this photo, none of that really matters. Four years ago, it would have felt like a fantasy for Donn Cabral, already an olympian, to give me me a concerned look back 150m from the finish in the prelim at USAs. This year, it happened, was documented, and I came out wanting more. For 15 minutes, I had a better-than-50 percent chance of making the USATF Steeplechase final, and next year, I’m out there to make the final and perform well in it.

It doesn’t take a genius to look at my current PRs and progression over the last few years and predict my ambitious goals for the next few seasons. I’ve never been one to set unreasonable goals for myself, so I expect to pursue them wholeheartedly and make an honest step towards the next level of track.

While I still stand by my claim that all of this is a bit arbitrary anyway: I love track and have enjoyed my success, but it doesn’t define me— there’s nothing especially more noble about competing at my level than there is being a kid who works incredibly hard in an attempt to make the varsity team at his high school. But still, it is kind of cool to wake up and think, I’m a professional runner. I’m out here doing it. And I can’t wait for more.