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Marathon Motivation: Be the Brickie

The body is what it is — now it’s about prepping the mind

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The author posing for the prototype of an updated Boston Marathon statue.

This is the sixth in a series of stories about training for the 113th Boston Marathon. Click here to read previous installments.

I’ve tapered. I logged my last 20-miler three weeks ago and dialed back my mileage. My next run will be the Boston Marathon.

Since mid-December, I’ve put in more than 530 miles, including 100 on the course. I’ve spent almost 80 hours in running shoes, slipping onto deserted predawn streets at ungodly hours, not sure whether I was awake or running through a dream. I ran in eight-degree wind, on ice-covered sidewalks, in rain. I dodged rats, goose turds, and sleepy drivers. Two of my toenails turned black and fell off. I’ve done all I can do, physically at least.

Time to devote a little work to the mind game.

BU sports psychology coach Adam Naylor once told me the key to muscling through the tough stretches was to come up with a feeling, phrase, or image that “resonates with you and that will help you find both your stride and energy.” An 11-year-old athlete recently told Naylor that when he was struggling during a game, “he told himself to be the bunny. It gave him an image of the Energizer Bunny and got his feet moving. This is one of the best examples I’ve ever heard.”

So in these final days, I can’t just watch weather reports, eat pasta, and craft a killer marathon music mix. I have to juice my brain, feed it motivational cues, clamp my eyelids back like Alex from A Clockwork Orange, and absorb serious imagery. I need a bunny. Several bunnies, even.

Here’s what I’ve spooled onto the projector.

“Shoe-Polish Eyes” starring Sharon Lisnow

The starting line in Hopkinton is less than a half-mile from the Michael Carter Lisnow Respite Center, the charity I’m running for. The center gives families of developmentally disabled kids and adults a break, offering care during the day, after school, overnight, and on weekends, plus field trips and job training, too.

The place is named after cofounder Sharon Lisnow’s son Michael, who was born 16 weeks premature, with cerebral palsy, and weighed just over a pound. His arm could fit through a wedding ring. Doctors gave Michael a 10 percent chance to live. Lisnow refused to lose hope, even though Michael couldn’t talk or see. But he could laugh. He learned the sign for “I love you” and over the years collected a wide circle of friends. At age 10, however, Michael died during one of many stomach surgeries — on the 100th anniversary of the Boston Marathon.

Mary McQueeny (SED’83) (left) is the center’s other director and her son went to school with Michael.

“You just don’t know, unless you’ve been in it, how hard it is,” McQueeny says. “When I met Sharon (right), she looked like she had shoe polish under her eyes, like football players do. She didn’t sleep for 10 years. These mothers, that’s how they live. Plus, they’re living on the edge. Out of nowhere Michael would aspirate, get pneumonia, and be in the hospital for three months. Or these mothers walk in the bedroom and their child is dead.”

The image of a young mother with shoe-polish eyes, a wan father discovering his child breathless. Hell, 26.2 miles ain’t nothin’. I’ll save this one for the Newton Hills.

“Running with Tools” starring John Carlisle

My wife, Christine, and I often set out together, but run at different paces, meeting up back home. Cooling down after one run in January, I spied Chris near our street chatting with a carpenter working on an old house. He looked like he was trying to make her laugh. And succeeding. Those construction guys are all the same, I thought, and sped up. The guy stood about six feet tall, wore a sweatshirt and Carhartt jacket, an apron of tools tied around his waist. He looked rugged and in good shape, with a ruddy face and blast of white hair. Kinda old to be a player, I thought.

“John’s run the Boston Marathon nine times,” Chris told me excitedly. “He’s on the BAA committee.”

“Really?” I said, looking at the ground sheepishly.

From that day forward, most of my weekday river runs ended with a debriefing with John (right) and his Irish partner Brendan (left), who was usually up a ladder or hunched over the circular saw. John would ask how far I’d gone or about road conditions and usually capped things off with a story from one of his marathons: “One year, I saw some friends at a bar in Cleveland Circle so I stopped in for a drink. I didn’t care about my time. It’s just so much fun out there. Another time, there was guy running the race backwards. Some guys run it barefoot. You’ll have your own stories.”

John gave me bathroom advice and tips for avoiding bloody nipples. He suggested I wipe Vaseline above my brows to channel the sweat from my eyes. “And everyone talks about 26 miles, but don’t forget about that .2. It’s the longest .2 miles you’ll ever run.”

John hooked my wife up with a pass to the finish area and offered to drive her down. I love runners. And carpenters, too, for that matter. I’ve embedded John’s raspy, booming voice in my ear. If the marathon could speak, I think it would sound something like him.

“Boynton Hill” starring Boynton Hill

After I quit drinking and smoking in my late 20s, I took up exercise again, a move fraught with missteps. Note to future athletes: playing tennis in work boots hurts your ankles. Running in cutoffs chafes big-time. I still remember the day I swam a whopping 12 laps in the town pool. I staggered out like a shipwrecked sailor, knees buckling, and wandered home blurry-eyed and confused. I lay down for 45 minutes and for the first time thought about a living will. I was an athlete once, but I’d held myself ransom for 15 years, crouched in a dank corner. When I finally paid up, it was like learning to walk again.

Jump cut to Boynton Hill in Andover, Vt., near my parents’ place. Like Godzilla’s, the mere name sparks fear in bipeds. It’s a winding half-mile stretch that looks at first glance like you’d need crampons and ropes to walk it. Driving down, you’re sure your back end will flip over and cartwheel you to the bottom in a fiery ball of steel and rubber. In winter, forget about it — it’s terrifying. It’s not uncommon to see cars off the road, flipped on their sides like beetles. For a long time it was my turnaround point when I visited my folks every few months. I didn’t dare think the unthinkable. Until one day I did.

Running down, I felt like an R. Crumb drawing, shoes five feet in front of me, torso leaned back almost parallel to the ground. Each slapping step was a heart-swooning reminder that what goes down must come back up. On my first few stabs, I had to walk, tendons stretched like medieval torture. Then I ran a quarter of the way before the burn in my lung threatened to start a forest fire. A few months later, I made it halfway. After a year-and-a-half, I finally crested the top, shuffling, heaving, and gasping for air. But never stopping. And on one of my last runs there, I went crazy, turned around, and did it all over again.

Heartbreak schmartbreak.

“The Brickie” starring Bill Kennedy

When I spoke recently with Amby Burfoot, winner of the 1968 Boston Marathon, he referred to past winners as fantasy figures: John Kelley the Elder (Hon.’97), who gave Heartbreak Hill its name, seven-time wreath-wearer Clarence DeMar, even John Kelley the Younger (SED’56). They are the gods and the ghosts of the 113-year-old race. But for me, ever since I first heard his name a few weeks ago, the throne has been warmed by ol’ “Bricklayer” Bill Kennedy (below, right).

In 1917, depending on who’s doing the telling, the guy either hitchhiked or hopped a freight train from New York and slept on a pool table in the South End the night before the race. Then he won the freakin’ thing in 2:28:56. He was 35 years old, 4 years younger than me. I’m sure he wasn’t wearing a Gatorade fuel belt, with packets of energy goo safety-pinned to his shirt and motion-control Brooks Beasts on his feet. Bricklayer Bill was beyond old-school — he laid the bricks that built the school.

To me, Kennedy symbolizes the freedom, democracy, and love of running. All you need is a pair of shoes (and for some crazies, not even that) and you’re good to go, anytime, anywhere. He ran Boston 22 times, into the 1940s. He claimed that he logged 1,000 miles a year for 25 years.

“Sometimes they ask me why I don’t give up marathoning,” he wrote to a friend. “I always tell ’em I’d rather give up bricklaying. Honest, I get more tired laying bricks than I do running these things.”

At the end of his historic 1917 run, sprinting down Beacon Street toward Kenmore Square, a bunch of “brickies” were working on a building. When they spotted their brother Bill, they pounded bricks together, making an earsplitting racket. I love that image. In that final, exhausting stretch, I will tell myself:

Be the Brickie.

Caleb Daniloff can be reached at cdanilof@bu.edu.

Readers can click here to sponsor Caleb’s run and benefit the Michael Carter Lisnow Respite Center. You can also catch up on Caleb’s training progress (and setbacks) at his marathon blog, where he charts his runs and muses about life in running shoes. Last-minute tips, advice, derision all welcome.

2 Comments

2 Comments on Marathon Motivation: Be the Brickie

  • Anonymous on 04.17.2009 at 9:07 am

    Go, Caleb, Go!

    we will all be rooting for you on Monday!

  • PK on 04.17.2009 at 9:46 am

    Awesome!

    Good luck, Caleb!

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