The Time of My Life: Staten Island Native Mike Cassidy Shares His Experience Finishing The NYC Marathon Hand-In-Hand With His Hero Meb Keflezighi

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by: Mike Cassidy
November 7, 2013

About 10 miles into Sunday’s ING New York City Marathon, I considered dropping out.

It was comically windy. The pack of four I had been running with from the start had dropped me two miles ago—at a pace that was 10 seconds per mile slower than my goal. My legs felt like crap. I was alone.

But I’ve run enough marathons to know it’s a long race. Sometimes, things turn around. New York is a tough course on a nice day. With a steady 15 mile-per-hour headwind, pace is not a reliable indicator of anything.

Besides, I had trained too well to give up this easily. Workout after workout indicated I was in better shape than when I ran 2:18 two years prior. In the last few months, I’d PR’d in every distance from four miles through half-marathon. But recent PR’s are little consolation when your 11th mile is 5:35 and you’re out of breath.

I couldn’t help but feel it was all slipping away. “Today is not your day,” I thought.

I began to rationalize my unexpected disappointment. It’s been a good season. Be content with that. You still have a couple of years to qualify for the Trials.

Once the negative thoughts begin to creep in, they’re hard to stop. But I had made one commitment to myself before the race, and that was this: stay optimistic. Too many times I have given up on my goals mid-race, only to realize afterwards they were well within my reach, had I maintained my faith.

I thought of my family, my friends, the outpouring of support I had received from the Staten Island running community and my friends throughout New York City.

They were counting on me. Many of them had spent the morning standing in the windy cold, eagerly awaiting my arrival. I owed it to them to keep running. If I was going to drop out, I had to at least make it to the crowds of First Avenue. Until then, no more thinking.

So I settled into a comfortable rhythm. For the first time in my running career, I stopped looking at my watch. One mile at a time.

Little did I know, about a mile up the road, America’s best marathoner, Meb Keflezighi, was going through the same struggles. He had suffered a series of unfortunate injuries in the weeks before the race, first a partial calf tear, then a deep cut on his knee. His training was compromised, and after mixing it up with the leaders in the race’s early going, the lack of preparation began to exact its vicious toll.

But the race leaders were far from my thoughts. As I crossed the halfway mark, I was swallowed by a pack of runners, my race reaching a figurative low point at the Pulaski Bridge’s literal highpoint.

Normally, this would be a terrible thing, more evidence of my floundering goals and more fuel for the negative mental fire.

Then, in an instant, things changed. After 5 miles alone, I had company. The competition rejuvenated my spirit. They also broke the wind. The pace quickened. For the first time all day, I felt like I was racing.

Soon the pack was down to three—Ryan Johns, Toby Spencer, and myself. In the calm of the Queensboro Bridge, I found peace. Before I knew it, we were flying up First Avenue. But I remained cautious, wary my struggles would return. I tucked in. I waited.

Around 19 miles, I went. Easing away from my mid-race saviors, I pushed into the Bronx, one by one picking off the runners who had so effortlessly dropped me back in Brooklyn.

As I made my way over the Madison Avenue Bridge and through Harlem, I found myself in a weird place. After nearly quitting, I was back in a respectable position. My legs had some pop, but I remained unconvinced it would last. I maintained willful ignorance of my pace. And somehow, even though I was headed south, the northerly wind seemed still in my face.

Had a bad race turned good? Would it stay good? On a day like today, what did good even mean?

Mike Cassidy

Meb Keflezighi finishes NYC with Mike Cassidy (the Staten Island LRCer who wrote last year that the marathon shouldn’t have been cancelled). Click on photo for NYC photo gallery.

As I began the long ascent into Central Park along Fifth Avenue, a lone runner entered my sights. Another target, a tangible intermediate objective.

The gap closed quickly. As I neared within a few blocks, I could see his number was a single digit. His stature was compact, his stride familiar.

My mind began to race. “Is it? Could it—no, it can’t be—can it?”

Moments later, my brother John, who had positioned himself at the 23 mile mark, confirmed my speculative disbelief.

“Go get Meb!” he shouted.

This is the type of moment you only dream about. The scene had played out in my mind countless times before: me, having the race of my life, gracefully passing Meb in Central Park en route to a stunning victory. It’s one of those wild fantasies that get you through the solitary 7 am 10 milers.

As I eased up on his shoulder, I looked over and said, “Let’s go Meb.”

He responded, promptly picking up his pace and we entered Central Park at 90th Street, shoulder to shoulder. The next three miles were the most surreal I have ever experienced.  “Let’s finish this together,” he said.

As many times as I had imagined this scene, I never anticipated how it played out on this day. Meb was far from the top of his game—and to be honest, so was I.

My time had been irrelevant for miles. But now, something even stranger happened: I stopped caring about competing. It’s not that I had given up, or anything close to it; rather, winning and losing somehow ceased to hold meaning.

I had no desire to beat Meb, only to run with him. Maybe it was fatigue, maybe it was the shock of the situation. The outcome was no longer my driving motivation. I stopped thinking ahead and kept thinking about now. I had no idea what pace we were running, and I didn’t care.

As we ran along the familiar stretch behind the Met and down Cat Hill—a route over which I’d run innumerable workouts under the watchful eye of Coach Bob Glover—I couldn’t help but feel giddy at the absurdity of it all. I was running with Meb Keflezighi. New York City Champion. Olympic Silver Medalist. Arguably the greatest American marathoner ever. MEB. And I was doing it in the last three miles of the New York City Marathon, with the whole world watching.

It was like getting to play basketball with Michael Jordan. Only it was Game 7 of the NBA Finals and he had just passed me the ball.

One of the things I often hear from retired runners is that they didn’t appreciate their accomplishments enough when they were in their primes. Usually, I’m guilty of the same sin. In my anxiety over performance, I regularly fail to enjoy just how fortunate I am to be able set PR’s, to win races, or simply, to run.

Today was different. Although I didn’t fully appreciate it until later, letting go of all of the usual reasons why I run races allowed me to reach a place of contentment we so rarely experience as athletes. I’m an admirer of Buddhist teachings on mindfulness and I have to believe this is the closest I’ve ever come to living in the moment. All that mattered was the next step, the next stride.

It’s amazing what a three mile run can teach you.

Scarcely an hour before, I had nearly dropped out. Pushing through adversity never had a higher payoff. While I would never have guessed what I would have missed, I know all-too-well the crushing disappointment of a dropout. “Never give up” will never again be a cliché for me.

Meb could have easily done the same thing. Most professional athletes would have. Heck, a couple of big names did Sunday. You can’t blame them. This is their livelihood. If they’re not in the money, it is simple business sense to conserve resources for the next payday. We’d never criticize a trader for selling an unprofitable stock.

In pushing through a compromised calf, a banged up knee, and a very probably damaged quad, Meb may well have brought himself weeks of rehabilitation. Perhaps it will cost him a spring marathon or other lucrative race opportunities.

In a world where sponsors drop athletes at the first sign of struggle, where corporate race organizers cut elite budgets, where the reigning two-time top American at Boston can’t get a shoe contract, Meb’s character and class brought into stark contrast how callous and shortsighted the running industry can sometimes be.

It would be a lesson in being a good professional—if it wasn’t such a lesson in being a good person. Meb understood the power of the day and what he represents to so many people. He sacrificed his body for his fans; he put the good of others before his own.

In so doing, Meb personified the power of running to reach beyond the race course.

Like all runners, I tend to relate to the sport in semi-selfish terms. My race. My time. My place. My PR. Part of this is necessary. If your idea of a rest day involves two runs and double digit miles, there needs to be some self-interest. And part of it is what makes running great. Success is self-defined.

But when we get too self-absorbed, we miss running’s deeper beauty: its magnetic power to bring us together. My closest friends are those I’ve run with; one need only attempt a solo interval workout to recognize the value of teammates. In a race, the other runners are not rivals; they are comrades in the war we each wage within ourselves, a leg up on our journeys to new levels of self-realization. Personal bests are rarely set in isolation. Ours is not an individual sport.

As Meb and I made our way through the park, the surreality of the situation was matched only by its profound normalcy. I was running stride for stride with my hero, yet I couldn’t help feeling as if we were somehow equals. Credit it to Meb’s humility: there was no hierarchy, no pretension, no pecking order. Just two guys helping each other get through a run.

We alternated the lead several times, sharing the work and pulling each other along. We exchanged words of encouragement. Repeatedly, he emphasized that we would work together to finish.

Meb has long been my favorite marathoner, but I had only met him for the first time that morning, when we were introduced in the elite tent before the race by a mutual friend, Andy Rosen, who heads up the marathon’s medical team for professional runners.

It was readily apparent that all the stories I’d heard about Meb’s remarkable attitude were true.

As we entered Central Park at Columbus Circle, I turned to Meb and told him as much. “It’s an honor to run with you,” I said.

His response is something I’ll never forget.

“No,” he said. “Today is not about us. It’s about representing New York. It’s about representing Boston. It’s about representing the USA and doing something positive for our sport. We will finish this race holding hands.”

I’m a believer that running brings out the best in people. Running inspires. Running unites. Running uplifts. By pushing us to our limits and across them, running takes us to places we never thought possible—or even real. A good run can turn a dark day bright and make a bright day shine brighter. Performed on the scale of a marathon, running can transform communities and change lives.

Last year, around this time, as I saw Staten Island, my hometown, ravaged by Hurricane Sandy, I defended the NYC Marathon as a force for good in our community.

But until this moment, as I strode the marathon’s final quarter mile with Meb, I don’t know if I ever fully appreciated just how real running’s reach is. Our goals, as personal and individualistic as they may have been, were less important than our purpose. Our motives were separable from our mission.

In striving to be our best, we could bring out the best in others. We could honor the victims of Sandy and Boston, embracing pain to lessen theirs. We could inspire others to do the same.

I’m not naive enough to believe running is a primarily a charitable endeavor. I run mostly for me. It’s not good or bad—it’s just how it is. But because of the gifts and opportunities I’ve been given, my running has a platform, a spotlight, a chance to affect other people. What it means to them, what they take from it, I cannot control. But what I can do is strive to reach my full potential, giving my best effort each and every run. That I will derive most of the benefits does not alter the fact that the most significant benefit may be the smile it brings to the face of a stranger.

Throughout my summer and fall training, my goals for November 3rd were sub-2:18 and top-15. I achieved neither. And yet, I was completely satisfied. Running the last three miles of the New York City Marathon with Meb was the highest honor of my career.

There will be other days for PR’s, other races to win, other chances to qualify for the Olympic Trials. But it’s only once you get to cross the finish line of your hometown race holding hands with your hero.

Thank you, Meb.

Mike Cassidy, an Olympic Trials qualifier, is a native of Staten Island with a marathon best of 2:18:52. He was 22nd overall and the sixth American at the 2010 ING NYC Marathon in 2:24:05. Last year he wrote a piece on why the 2012 NYC Marathon shouldn’t have been cancelled.

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*LRC Meb Keflezighi on Finishing: “I’m doing (it) for Boston and for what happened and I’m doing it for America.” Text/video.
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*Finish Line Picture With Mike Cassidy Cover Photo On Meb’s Facebook Page
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