Running Without Joy

About a month ago I ran the Berlin Marathon just for the simple joy of running it. I’ve never been one to artificially manufacture joy, and there simply was none going into the New York City Marathon shortly after losing our dog. Doing something we love can not only be a conduit for joy, though, but also a weapon against pain and stress. So maybe the title of this should actually be “Running For Joy.” If we only do what makes us happy when we’re happy, well… chicken or egg? (speaking of which, half of this post ended up being about NYC food rather than the race 🤷‍♂️)

Sure, I shifted my goals a bit after a couple of weeks of poor training, sleeping, and eating, but sometimes we learn more and get greater meaning and satisfaction from a good result in poor conditions than from a great result in good conditions. My original plan for the race was to go for sub 2:30, the threshold that I’ve long considered a lifetime goal. Going into the race I adjusted that plan to sub 2:40. Coming away with a 2:35 was not only immensely satisfying but told me that when the timing is better I can definitely get that sub 2:30.

Let’s make things worse

One thing that’s easy to do in poor circumstances is to let them get worse. The plan is already ruined, things are already bad, so why does it matter? Might as well go all in. So the day before the race I spent a solid 6 hours on my feet, walking about a half marathon around the city.

I had never really gotten to enjoy a casual stroll around NYC. I had almost always been rushing from meeting to meeting.

I didn’t bother looking into the pre-race logistics details either, so after 2 hours to get to the start and another 1.5 hours sitting around, I had to turn in my checked bag with my clothes and did not have any extra clothes that I could wear for the remaining 1.5 hours before the start. I stood around freezing in my shorts and singlet, drinking coffee and then plain hot water just for the warmth (I hate coffee) and staking out the donation bins to quickly “un-donate” any clothes tossed in there so I could re-donate them at the start.

I did happen to run into Cole Crosby in the starting area, though, a great guy who I met at my first “normal” ultra where he beat me out for 2nd place. He had around the same goal time, so we lined up together. We apparently did so way too far back, as we spent the first two miles weaving through people and going a solid minute and a half per mile slower than our goal pace.

Then, I instantly lost any 4% advantage from my older model Vaporflys I still had from my triathlon days when they both came untied and then knotted themselves. I had to stop to get the knots out and re-tie them, letting Cole go in the process. Despite triple knotting them I would have to stop 2 more times later to re-tighten them. I’m used to my trail shoes, that if double knotted just about require a knife to get off.

Not all losses compound

So, things were off to stellar start. I laid down a much too fast couple of miles to try to catch back up to Cole before settling back in to a decent pace. The pace was still faster than planned, but at that point I was committed. I came through the half in about 1:18, a PR for me. My plan was to hang on as best I could, but I didn’t think I could fully maintain that speed and still felt things could end in disaster at any moment. The wind was also picking up and somehow seemed to be a headwind in all directions.

I originally thought about calling this post “Running With Pain.” Then I decided that sounded too dramatic. But, I’ll let you be the judge from this picture entering the homestretch.

My glutes and hamstrings had started hurting at about mile 6, but they never got any worse than an annoyance. At around mile 18 is where I felt like I was starting to have to work and my breathing became heavy. Around mile 23 things really started to hurt. But somehow I kept the pace. I finally caught Cole a bit over a mile from the finish after we had entered Central Park and came in with a 2:35, good for 121st. I’m still a bit baffled that I finished with a negative split (two half marathon PRs back to back).

NYC Marathon – John Kelly’s 26.3 mi run

John K. ran 26.3 mi on Nov 3, 2019.

A relative success

I’ve long believed that nearly any outcome is best evaluated in relative terms rather than absolute, essentially how far someone has come instead of where they are. Goals are still usually set in absolute terms and nothing has changed in my desire to one day go sub 2:30, but life is unpredictable, and looking back at this one outcome I can’t be anything but happy about it.

It’s also important to remember that the outcome in sports is far from pre-destined. That’s largely why we do them and why they’re exciting. I’ve had races where I’ve done absolutely everything right beforehand and it ended poorly, and races (like this one) where I did everything wrong beforehand and did pretty well. That’s not to say pre-race prep doesn’t matter, of course it does. But it’s like counting cards in blackjack – you can shift the odds one way or the other and those odds will play out over the long term, but on any given hand they’re still far from a sure thing.

Faster than a speeding bullet… to the cookie shops!
A big advantage of finishing faster? I basically had a whole section of Central Park to myself to relax after the race.

A success by any measure

This was also the first time I had been to New York in a while that wasn’t a quick in and out business trip. I had the chance to re-connect with some old friends and I was finally able to venture to some of the farther out bakeries and restaurants I had long wanted to try. The day of the marathon my watch told me I actually travelled by foot 45 miles between the race and my circuit of bakeries afterwards. I’ve now explored sufficiently to be able to give my favorite NYC spots for most of my favorite NYC things. Of course there might be better out there, but in the explore vs. exploit paradigm I’m ready to shift more towards the latter. Also of course, my old go-to Chopt is all over the city and I got to enjoy it for the first time in about 9 months.

  • Cheesecake – Junior’s (Brooklyn, Midtown)
    This one has long been my established favorite. Sadly, they have permanently discontinued the black forest cheesecake, easily one of my top 5 favorite desserts ever. For the next best I’d have to go with devil’s food cheesecake – unbelievably delicious and rich, to the point that I’m impressed when someone can eat the whole piece in one go.
  • Bagels – Ess-a-bagel (Midtown East)
    This is another I first had long ago, but I had to explore more before being able to declare it a favorite. The bagels are that perfect New York consistency of hard on the outside and soft on the inside, with a great variety of both bagels and spreads.
  • Black and whites – William Greenberg Desserts (Upper East Side)
    I’ve gone all the way from the Columbia University area to Bay Ridge in south Brooklyn in search of the best black and whites. This spot had a good variety of them, from the classic version to the version with more of a cake frosting on it that many would consider a half moon, and a few different flavors for the cookie part itself too.
  • Cookies – Levain Bakery (Upper East Side)
    They only have a few varieties but they were absolutely incredible, just a little messy because they were so soft they fall apart in your hand. For a cookie outing, they’re conveniently only a few blocks from William Greenberg.
  • Pizza – Emily (Brooklyn, East Village, Hell’s Kitchen)
    I went pretty deep into Brooklyn trying pizza, and there were some good ones, but this came out on top. Emily and Di Fara were the closest to what I’ve had at recent races in Italy. And of course John’s Pizzeria in Times Square gets a nod for obvious reasons. I’ve gotta say, though, for all the hype around NYC pizza I haven’t found anywhere that tops good ole Big Ed’s in my hometown of Oak Ridge, TN.
  • Burger – Emily (Brooklyn, East Village, Hell’s Kitchen)
    For the most part Emily is a pizza place, but they have a burger and a chicken sandwich on the menu too. It’s just the one burger, and no modifications are allowed to it, but it is an absurdly good burger with a pretty unique taste and texture. If you just want a really good standard burger, it’s hard to go wrong with Shake Shack.

What’s prominently missing from this list are doughnuts and ice cream. There’s a lot of great places for both, but I’ve yet to find anything that stands out so much that I’m not perfectly content with Krispy Kreme or a concrete from Shake Shack. The one exception might be the cronut at Dominique Ansel Bakery, but really it’s too fancy and expensive to be in the same class as doughnuts (and don’t try to go there on the weekend unless you want to wait in line all day).

I also went to multiple locations to try the highly touted Popeye’s chicken sandwich, but they were all sold out. Again. I may already have a Bojangles’ and Chick-fil-a bias, but I’m sorry, if you’re a chicken restaurant and you can’t keep chicken in stock then it kind of makes me doubt the quality of your whole operations and product.

But to end on a good note, I got a sweet tea from McDonald’s just so I could use their bathroom. It actually wasn’t half bad. Not bad at all.

15 thoughts on “Running Without Joy

  • 2019-11-06 at 2:24 PM

    Congrats, John! And I especially appreciate the food write-up!!!

    • 2019-11-06 at 2:46 PM

      haha glad you enjoyed it… that turned into most of the post! And thank you

  • 2019-11-06 at 4:24 PM

    It’s crazy how sometimes you do all the prep and training and race day does not work out as planned, and other times you show up expecting nothing and magic happens. If you ran a 2:35 in NYC no question you will break 2:30, both due to the hills, the corrals, and the fact it always seems like everyone in your corral is running way slower than their predicted time (too much zigzagging around people). Boston has hills but at least you know your corral is actually running your pace 😉 Thanks for sharing.

    • 2019-11-06 at 7:45 PM

      Thanks very much. And yes it can be frustrating when plans go awry but it’s also a great lesson to never count ourselves out. One of my best ever races was a 50 miler the morning after being up most of the night with a stomach bug… it forced me to race smart!

    • 2020-07-20 at 9:17 AM

      I’ve found the same. A lot of my best runs have been unexpected and when I was feeling downright pessimistic. I think it’s that you are not putting any pressure on yourself when you expect the worst.

      • 2020-07-20 at 10:54 AM

        I think that’s probably a big part of it. I’ve also had some great runs when I was sick or otherwise unable to focus much on the race the day before.

  • 2019-11-07 at 11:25 AM

    Where would the McDonalds sweet tea rank versus the Bojangles and Hardees versions? I, for one, can actually tolerate the McDs one (I much prefer unsweet tea…it’s the Northern Virginian in me) but the Hardees and Bojangles versions make me want to call my dentist, cardiologist and get tested for diabetes after just one drink.

    • 2019-11-07 at 1:40 PM

      I’ve never had Hardee’s. Bojangles’ was my introduction to it because in undergrad that was the only drink option with the 4 piece supreme dinner. McDonald’s was definitely “acceptable,” but for me not Bojangles’ or Chick-fil-a quality. And if you want to see your doctor after those two, you should give Zaxby’s a go…

      • 2019-11-07 at 2:46 PM

        I’ll have to give Zaxby’s SMALL sweet tea a try next week when I am in southeastern Virginia on work travels! Come to think of it, I could probably make it a “Sweet Tea Sampler” of Hardees, Bojangles, Chick-fil-A and Zaxby’s since they are relatively close to each other where I’ll be. Challenge accepted!

        • 2019-11-08 at 8:18 AM

          Haha well if you’re going to go all out you could add Cook-out to the list. Or just stop there for a shake once you’re finished. 🙂

  • 2019-11-08 at 12:08 PM

    Thank you for your honesty here John. And I am sincerely sorry about the loss of Dixie. Dogs are family members and to go on with life whether it is work, running or keeping up the faith, it would be so difficult.

    I’m glad you had a great race in New York. I am sure behind the words in this well worded recap there were a lot of emotions which pushed you forward. Congratulations on such a great finish John! 🙂

  • 2021-03-21 at 2:00 AM

    Thanks for writing about experiences John. For the knotting of shoes, you might want to try “orienteer’s knot”. I have not yet found shoelaces with which that knot does not work. Opening of the knot is also easy, as it happens like the opening of a single knot. The following video (in Finnish) shows how to do the knot.


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