Thursday, July 29, 2010

The SF Marathon: No Shirt, No Shoes, No Problem...

I would never tell anyone to let the San Francisco Marathon be his or her first marathon. The primary reason is obvious—the course is quite challenging—read: hills, hills and more hills, but the others may not be. Many are drawn to this race because it involves running over the Golden Gate Bridge. In July, however the fog does more than creep in on little cat feet. A runner is lucky if they can even see the national park in a San Francisco “summer.” Third, this race is grossly under-publicized and under-supported. Considering that San Francisco is a city of only 49 square miles, and the marathon covers 26.2 of them, residents should be lining the course. Funny, crowds line the streets for “Bay to Breakers.” Yet all is not lost; there is one very attractive option—the half marathon. The “SF half” was a bit of a “sacred cow” for my favorite running partner—Mike “Eggroll” Caponigro and me. Together, we have run it 5 times. We have taken a cab to the start that picked us up at 4:45 a.m. Mike’s wife Katie has brought “more cow bell” to this race than anyone I know. And each year, I see something new, dramatic and different. Even though I was unable to run this year, the 2010 SF Marathon did not disappoint.

Last year, despite the 5:20 a.m. start time, Mike and I were able to see a lone runner waddling his way through Fisherman’s Wharf. It’s fair to say we heard this runner before we saw him. “Are those socks?” Mike asked. Upon further inspection, we realized they're actually thin rubber "shoes" with individual toe pockets. Called “FiveFingers,” they've been selling briskly to runners and athletes looking to strengthen their feet and sharpen their game. The New York Times bestseller “Born to Run” espouses the wonders of these shoes and their minimalist approach. 21,000 runners may take part of the San Francisco Marathon (it actually includes the full marathon, the option of running the first or second half of the marathon alone as well as a 5k) and these crazy shoes are quite the rage, but they are still a rare sight on the race course.

Because of my recent health heart/condition, I was unable to run this year. I was disappointed that I would miss out, until a friend told me I wouldn’t; he invited me to volunteer with him. I have no idea how many races I have run, but if I were to take a rough guesstimate, I would venture to say at least 10 a year for the last 15 years. It was high time I was at the other side of the water stop. I was curious about what I might see.

For over two hours, we handed out GU Energy packets. I loved greeting the runners as they came through. Their energy and determination was infectious; in fact it was symbiotic. I got energy from their enthusiasm, from seeing them fight through the pain and of course from reading their shirts and launching the appropriate cheer—“Go Blue!” to the man from Michigan, “Yeah Irish” to the fellow alum. I was, however, a bit surprised to see just how seriously so many people took themselves during the race. It did not matter if someone were running a sub 3-hour pace or 6-hour plus, if I wasn’t prepared to pass the GU in a timely fashion, most runners weren’t willing to make a pit stop. At other times, I felt as though I were running "the option." A few runners framed their hands in the way a football player cradles the pigskin. Thank you, Tony Rice for modeling such a good passing game! I saw all ages shapes and sizes. AND, I saw only one barefoot runner.

He ran alone, this barefoot runner. Based on the success of “Born to Run” and the increased number of “FiveFingers” I thought I would see other Zola Budds in the crowd. But, this trend may take some time, and calluses to build. It’s a dramatic shift. It is a risk. It is certainly counterculturual.

I can’t tell you how often I must remind my students and myself that Jesus’ message was countercultural. What Jesus called people to was against the grain--dying to self, loving you enemies, turning the other cheek. Even learning to abide by the spirit of the law and opposed to the letter of the law is challenging, difficult and unpopular. And, to a certain degree so is running. Running makes difficult demands—it’s mentally challenging. It means surrendering to pain, pushing yourself to a physical limit. Of note, it is largely apolitical. Runners do not complain about not getting enough “play time.” In fact we’re one of the few sports where less playing time is better!

Running is not a revenue generating, high profile sport but I know a lot of people run and thanks to organizations like “Team in Training” many people who never thought they could run a marathon have. Thus, it does not surprise me that as the sport grows in popularity, or at least participation, that its countercultural roots bear new fruit. The minimalist running shoes or the barefoot runner makes a statement against a billion dollar industry—sports apparel. Many people, including the author of this blog, subscribe to the Gospel according to Nike. To entertain the notion that their technology may be unnecessary is tremendously radical, its brazen, its bold. I love it.

I think that countercultural thread speaks to the unique spirit of the sport that is both individual and communal, challenging and rewarding. So, to be consistent, I suppose my reasons for not recommending the SF Marathon amount to good reasons why a countercultural person should run it. A challenging course, freakish weather—one of the few US cities in July with temperatures in the low 50s, a disinterested fan base BUT a great GU stop. And, no shirt, no shoes = no problem.

Photo credits
SF Marathon Logo
Born to Run
Five Fingers
Golden Gate Bridge
The rose between two thorns: KT Caponigro

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Sound of Sports

The sound of sports is a curious, yet remarkable thing. The 2010 World Cup was characterized by bad officiating, yes, but even worse—the vuvuzela, that omnipresent plastic horn that is apparently indigenous to South African football (its name is believed to come from the Zulu tribe….makes me wonder if the Zulu parade at Mardi Gras will hand these out in addition to the coveted, bejeweled coconut). Sports Illustrated raised what I believe is a scary, yet fair question: Are vuvuzelas the new soundtrack of soccer? And should we dare ask, other sports as well? Apparently the Florida Marlins gave out 15,000 of them to their fans; I doubt that they are alone. As a mere television spectator, I never became quite used to the constant, nagging buzz. For those in the stands however, take note: Phonak a Swiss hearing aid company registered the horn’s sound at 127 decibels. This is 42 decibels louder than what’s considered safe over extended periods! I hope that the sound of sports would enhance the game, not hinder it.

The 2010 Masters brought more than its fair share of talk and media hype. Whereas many people wanted to discuss the choice language of Tiger Woods during the golf tournament, I wanted to know: Did CBS sports find a way to attach a microphone to the head of golf clubs? The sheer volume of the ball as it was hit off the tee reminded me of the sharp sound of the basketball hitting the rim, as heard during the NCAA basketball tourney. Why do we enhance sound in sports?

Sound can even affect the outcome of a game. In football, the home team has a viable advantage because the vocal participation of home fans can prevent the opposing team from hearing their signals. For example, Jimmy Clausen, former Notre Dame Quarterback had to take not one, not two, but four time outs in order to communicate the play with his offense; Michigan Stadium was that loud. When the Irish failed to execute for a first down, the sound of silence was nowhere to be found and the Wolverines celebrated their victory.

As with the vuvuzela, so much of the sound we hear at athletic events is just filler or noise. It can be distracting to the point that we may lose sight of what is taking shape. The challenge, however is to listen to determine and appreciate what is really unfolding.I recently attended a boys’ volleyball game at the high school where I teach with a friend whose nephew is a talented player on the rival team. It was a memorable evening for several reasons. What struck me most about that evening is not what I saw, but what I heard. The gym was flooded with the sound of the cheers and raw spirit of both teams until the bitter end. After every rally, every serve, even during plays, players communicated out loud with one another. They clapped, they pumped each other up, and their verbal support was active and authentic. You could not leave that gym unaffected by their spirit.

In a similar way, many people attend Adoration because prayer before the Blessed Sacrament has a profound effect on one’s spirit. When I learned that top Oakland A’s baseball prospect Grant Desme seeks this traditional devotion on a weekly basis, I asked why. Does it affect your spirit and if so how? His response wasn’t what I expected. He said “I go because it’s taught me to listen, to simply listen.”

This past Lent, I decided I would undergo a different type of practice. Rather than raising prayers of supplication—asking God for what I wanted, I set out to simply listen. I sought to hear what God might want to share with me. I committed to focusing my prayer in this way and found it takes patience, even courage to hear God’s word. We each yearn to hear God’s voice clearly and answer “Here I am Lord,” but in the bustle of daily life, many times, God’s voice is one that gets drowned out. I had to pay attention; it is one sound that I to train myself to hear. Once I was able to sort through the noise of my own distractions, it’s not as if I heard God call the audible. However, my time in prayer with the Lord reminded me of attending that volleyball game, I did not leave unaffected. What I heard, struck me. No wonder we say “Your words oh Lord, are spirit and life!”

I think it’s important to recognize the value in listening; it’s an art, a skill, a gift. In sports is an invaluable dimension of the game and in prayer its integral to building relationships with God. Elijah, a man zealous for the Lord, heard God’s voice not in the fire, or the earthquake but in the whisper of the wind (1 Kgs 19:18). We may find God’s word in unlikely places, at unlikely times. We just need to listen, and frankly the vuvuzela may make this difficult. However, if we do, I am convinced we can’t leave unaffected by God’s spirit.

Photo Credits

Michigan Stadium

Boys VB


Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Back Nine: John Daly & Me

Originally, this posting was to serve as a book review of John Daly’s autobiography “My Life In and Out of the Rough: The Truth Behind All that Bull**** You Think You Know About Me” but, truly there are few redeeming qualities to this bestseller. It is the same read as Priscilla Presley’s “Elvis & Me.” I am no speed reader, but for some reason that book captivated my imagination for a fortnight—kidding—rather in just a few hours. I devoured it cover to cover; I enjoyed reading such an intimate portrait of “The King.” Elvis was larger than life—literally and figuratively, and somehow, someway, so is John Daly.

The book is more about his life “in the rough,” than out of it. The New York Times said “Daly’s book is a chart of celebration and self-destruction and selfishness…” He made claims to his assorted addictions—alcohol, gambling, chocolate and sex. (Do you know how much chocolate one has to eat to be addicted to it?) Thanks to Tiger’s recent” transgressions” we know the image of golf as a “gentleman’s game” is a façade.Yet, his tales about how he came to play in his first PGA tour event and winning the British Open in a play-off on the Old Course at St. Andrews hold their own weight. Minus the way most golf stories include one to two parts addiction, their entertainment value is high and the reader can’t help but understand why the crowd loves “Big John.”

Daly wrote this book in 2006, shortly after his 40th birthday. Today, his name reappears every so often on the tour and my guess is he is still battling the same demons. But, as he so candidly reports “I’m lucky: I was born with a special talent for hitting a little white ball and making people happy. I’m really and truly optimistic: I think I’m going to do even better on the back nine.”

The Back Nine...for John Daly I’m sure he is referring to his next 40 years. For others, the back nine is a analogous to a watershed moment and for me, it is my life before I was diagnosed with my heart condition, ARVD. I am coming to terms with the reality that my life is going to be much different. The type and amount of physical activity and exercise I can now do, is limited and needs to be monitored. However, I am grateful to be in the game; it could have been a nine-hole course. As I have been learning more about my health, I know there are courses that are much more challenging out there. Some have longer greens, others face more wind or adverse weather conditions. For example, I think of a young, beautiful Haitian professional dancer named Fabienne Jean. The TODAY show gave a report on July 12, six months after the earthquake in Haiti took lives and livelihoods of tens of thousands of people And, it took the soul of Fabienne when, she lost her leg. It was heart wrenching to see a once graceful fluid dancer, now an amputee just sitting day in and day out, on a plastic chair, along the roadside in her village. It looked as though she were waiting for someone or something, but considering the dire needs of so many people in her country, I could not imagine what. I thought about her “back nine” and could only see bunkers, bogeys…a whole lot of rough.

But “the Lord hears the cry of the poor. Blest be the Lord.” Fabienne reveals the truth in Psalm 34 as a company from the United States delivered and fit hundreds of men, women and children with prosthesis. It was and honor and a privilege to see this woman liberated with a prosthetic, to see her spirit come alive once again and to witness her total freedom as she expressed herself through dance. She may dance differently, but she dances again. I can’t wait to see what she does in the back nine.
As John struggled and battled on his front nine, I wished he had a strong faith in God to lead and guide him. He admits “I’m not a real religious person. My relationship with God is personal. But I think I was put here on earth for a purpose, and that purpose has to do with helping people. Everybody’s always asking me how come people love you so much? Is it because you hit a golf ball a long way? I don’t think so. Maybe at first, but shit, there are a lot of guys out there now who hit the ball just as far as I do. I think people love me because they know—they feel—that I love them. And I do."

As nonredeemable as John Daly’s story may be, it’s true. He loves people and the fans love him. I hope he will let these words guide his back nine. We’ll be there giving him high fives and chanting “Champions Come from the Heart.” At least I will….

Photo Credits
Cover Shot:
Classic British Open
Back Nine
Fabienne waits

Friday, July 9, 2010

Wimbledon & World Cup: Insights unto a new "alma"

When Rafael Nadal captured the 2010 Wimbledon men’s championship I was unsure if he was more excited about his victory or the fact that Spain was in the World Cup semifinals.

His dramatic collapse to the ground, followed by a somersault on Centre Court, in addition to his now trademark “take a bite” of the trophy confirmed this victory had a special significance. The definitive straight set win clearly indicated that this tennis great was back where his 24-year old self wanted and ought to be. Furthermore, it verified that all he endured in 2009—the end of his 31-match winning streak, missing Wimbledon, playing for eight months without a title, losing the No. 1 ranking, and, hardest of all, dealing with his parents' separation did not kill him—it only made him stronger (thanks Nietzsche).

Still, his gratitude and deep satisfaction in that moment paled in comparison to the near explosion of joy and alegría that overtook his posture, smiling eyes, and limited English when the BBC announcer asked him about Spain’s pursuit of “La Copa Mundial.” Make no mistake, for most of the year, Spain is a country divided between Real Madrid or Barcelona. But World Cup soccer bridges the divide. Come Sunday, should Spain win, all of España wins. And Rafael Nadal would prefer that his win at Wimbledon be viewed the same way.

Tennis is obviously an individual sport and yet, I’m not sure Nadal sees it that way. He said “a win here was always my dream, and I did it two years ago, today and for the Spanish players for the last 40 years it was very difficult to play here. We are doing better now and we are very satisfied with that.” In 2008 after completing what was then the longest match in men’s final history, Nadal ran to the stands where he acquired the Spanish flag which he draped over his shoulders to wear as his victory cloak. In what was already an emotional interview, Rafa pleaded with the announcer to give a special message to his family and fans in his native tongue. He was immediately free to express his deeper emotions; his entire body was at ease and the same sentiment colored his face—joy and alegría.

This was a privileged moment, not only for Rafa, but for me to witness. As someone who has relentlessly pursued proficiency in Spanish I often look upon native speakers in awe and humble admiration. As the game of soccer has its beauty in the footwork and timing, so too does the Spanish language have its beauty in its rhythm and flow. I seek fluency because I agree with the old proverb when you learn a new language, you "gain a new soul."

The soul is the spiritual part of human beings that together with the body forms one human nature. As far as I knew, we only have one soul, and yet I somehow I recognize the truth in this proverb. In learning a new language, I have learned more about my own native tongue that I ever expected. I view culture and people through broader lens. Yet, I am more aware of the strength and its limitation of words, of language. For example, to me, the Spanish words for soul-- “alma”--captures in sound and print more effectively what the soul really is. Unfortunately, we also know not everyone is open to hearing another’s language or learning more about it. Regardless, I believe that with language comes an open invitation to understand others more deeply…and with that their love for their home and their passions.

Because of all that I know Nadal’s first language may be tennis, but like so many from his homeland, they are proficient in soccer….or shall we say futbol?

Photo Credits:
Trophy bite

Friday, July 2, 2010

Injuries are part of the game...and yet Champions come from the heart

I grew up on Wimbledon Road. Although I am no “Anglophile,” Wimbledon has always captured my attention and imagination. Perhaps it is because it occurs during the very heart of summer, but to me, this tourney is a cut above and the 2009 men’s championship match proves just that. When Roger Federer defeated Andy Roddick, not only did he complete the longest final in Wimbledon history, he became the most successful male tennis player in the history of the game. Before an audience of tennis greats—Bjorn Borg, Rod Laver and Pete Sampras, Roger Federer won his 15th Grand Slam title.

I watched in total awe as this tremendous athlete accepted his award with simple joy, total class and curiously enough, not in total exhaustion. The match itself was memorable and yet, so was one of his insights. When asked “How does it feel to return to the number one ranking in the world as a result of this victory?” Federer replied “It’s nice to have that back. I’m aware that Rafa didn’t play. Injuries are part of the game, unfortunately.”

In this colossal moment, Federer revealed a humble truth, albeit one he benefited from (as his greatest competitor Rafael Nadal did not even enter Wimbledon due to tendinitis in both quadriceps). Injuries are part of the game. It is unfortunate and the reality of them raises many questions. Why are some athletes beleaguered by them? How do others seem to escape them? Some athletes recover from their injuries and tragically, some never do. Federer’s words stayed with me and in some small, odd way, prepared me for a new chapter in my life.

On Monday, June 28 I was officially diagnosed with Arrhythmogenic Right Ventricular Dysplasia (ARVD). It is a rare genetic, progressive heart condition that affects the muscle of the right ventricle of the heart. I now have a pacemaker/defibrillator and an on-going relationship with my electro cardiologist. You could say it is more than an injury and it is. It is a set back and a call to a new way of living. However, like an injury it was diagnosed, treated (for now!) and will be managed for the rest of my days. In the same way that “Fed” gained from an unfortunate part of the game, it is impossible for me not to talk about all I have gained in spite of what my diagnosis has brought.

The primary insight is that the hand of God is continually at work in my life. I say this because I believe it true not only for me but for everyone. I have replayed in my mind a hundred times how what happened to me while running in Golden Gate Park could have been different. Despite that fact I wish I had made different choices prior to running that day, I cannot help but see the larger picture and the importance of it. I have always believed “the Lord is the master architect.” Although I am not certain what God is building, I recognize forcefully in my heart that God is in the middle of all of this (thanks Mary & Marty!). God is lovingly leading and guiding me, even in this mess.

The second insight is the importance of being surrounded by a community of faith. For several days, I had difficulty praying, period. I just didn’t know what I should say to God; I wasn’t in a space where I was able to listen. Fortunately, my family, friends and the St. Ignatius community did the heavy lifting. I am still humbled by the generosity, in particular the spiritual generosity of so many. Honestly, the outpouring of love and prayers was overwhelming. Because of it, my fear was often assuaged.

Third is the saving power of grace. I came to terms with my condition on the same day that a brave young woman I coached, Jill Costello died. All year, I read messages from the SI community about her battle against Stage IV Lung Cancer and then swiftly yet softly, I learned of her surrender. Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, my entire will. I sat in the hospital and wondered how I could possibly pray for myself when a young woman had suffered so much more. I knew I was raising a natural question and yet I knew God was somehow with me, even then. Luckily, that night I was able to talk to a friend who has lived with a pacemaker for many years. The next day, I found out my surgery was to be postponed until Monday. Although I did not want to stay in the hospital over the weekend, in those days of waiting, God gave me the grace to accept what my future would bring. Give me only your love and your grace that is enough for me.

Such grace is a gift from God. It is given freely and it is transformative. Fortunately, we receive God’s grace every time we take part in the sacraments. Even on those days when I found it difficult to pray, I was hungry for the Eucharist. At St. Mary’s hospital, the chaplain and I were able to discuss the beauty of Catholicism resides in the sacramental life. Nothing was was more true as I received deeper nourishment; one I have always known to sustain me—that being Jesus in the Eucharist. During the week in the hospital, as I spoke several times with our principal, I recalled that unlike Alberto Salazar a champion runner I have interviewed and who I now share a common history with (he too had his heart reset with electricity via the defibrillator) I did not receive the “Last Rites.” Patrick reminded me that I could receive the "Sacrament of the Sick" freely and as many times as needed. It was overwhelming for me to receive this sacrament from Fr. Walsh. It was almost surreal—I think of myself as a healthy person. I almost pride myself about it. In this moment, I realized my true humanity, its limitations and its dependence on God. We are all prone to injury. They are indeed part of the game.

Federer put so much in perspective that day. He added that he wasn’t playing tennis just to break records and he hopes to play the game for many more years. I share his outlook. Nine years from now I will have a new pacemaker/defibrillator and I am sure it will only be smaller and more sophisticated. With ongoing treatment, I hope to keep the scar tissue in my lower right ventricle at bay and I need to make choices to sustain it. I have hundreds of people to thank for their pure presence in the hospital. There were some true MVPs of friendship and of love. My own mother, a retired nurse deserves her own royal box, at the very least a bow, for being and doing what she says she is supposed to do as a mother.

One of my favorite gifts amid the daily ice cream cones from McDonald’s, Sports Illustrated and contraband coffee/food rations was John Daly’s autobiography: My Life In and Out of the Rough. (It is so bad it is good). Daly has battled much, much more than a few injuries. However the motto of his story is one that is written above the door opening out onto the University of Arkansas football field. Similar to Notre Dame football players who hit a sign that reads “Play Like a Champion Today,” Razorbacks hit one that may trump that of my beloved Irish. “Champions come from the heart.” Injuries may be part of the game, but I know this is true, Champions come from the heart….Amen.

Oh, and if you have followed Wimbledon this year, you know that Rafael Nadal not only won the 2010 French Open, he is currently playing in the men’s semifinals.

Image Credits
King Fed
Four Greats
Ignatius of Loyola Suscipe
Others by Stricherz' iPhone