A first-time marathoner tells story in the New York City Marathon

By Brian Lebensburger….

The author crossed the finish line in the New York City Marathon.

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Everyone who runs a marathon has a story. There has to be a story, a subtext, a cause to celebrate, or some other driving force that motivates a person to decide that running a 26.2 mile race is a good idea. Well, on Nov. 7, I ran my first marathon. And not just any marathon, the granddaddy of them all, the New York City Marathon; and this is my story.

First, I am not an athlete. I am so slow, and run so awkwardly that during high school basketball try-outs, our team’s coach actually pulled me aside to ask me if I ever had knee surgery, because I ran “funny.” Mortified by the question, I lied and said that both my knee caps were replaced over the summer. To this day, I think my response actually landed me a spot on the team (albeit, through a sympathy vote), because I think our coach felt guilty about kicking-off a kid who was trying to play basketball “without kneecaps.”

Okay, notwithstanding the fact that I am painfully slow, I love long-distance running. Running long distances is something that just appeals to me. For some strange reason, I love to wake up at early hours when everyone else is asleep, lace up my shoes, and hit the open road. I do my best thinking when I am running. It is so liberating and freeing for me. It seems as if all of life’s problems and dilemmas get solved and answered on a run. (By the way, I can attest to the potency of the legendary “runner’s high.” It is real, legal, and actually causes you to lose, rather than gain, weight).

But this background, still does not explain how and why I chose to line up at the starter’s line in New York to tackle the world famous 26.2 mile New York City Monster/Marathon.

My story actually began almost a year ago. I was sitting with my son, Jacob, at the Chabad Center of Kendall and Pinecrest listening to a Shabbat sermon given by Rabbi Yossi Harlig. Rabbi Harlig, who is very inspiring, was standing there passionately explaining to us that in life, a person needs to grow. He was explaining that in order to grow, you need to move out of your comfort zone. This was a very powerful and inspiring message for me. And I started to try to think of ways in which I could attempt to move out of my various comfort zones.

After the services, over large bowls of Chabad of Kendall and Pinecrest’s famous Shabbat cholent, I told Rabbi Harlig how inspiring his message of moving out of your comfort zone was for me. It was at that time that he told me that he wanted to be a living example of this message. He wanted to do something that was so out of his comfort zone that it would literally inspire people to move out of their own comfort zones.

Just a side note, you need to understand that my entire life I have been fascinated and fixated on running the New York City Marathon. I don’t even know why. Maybe it was all the trips to the Big Apple that my mother (who grew up in those parts) took my younger brother and me on, where we would spend enjoyable hours just walking the streets of Manhattan taking in the sights and the energy of the city.

Back to the cholent talk. When I sat there listening to Rabbi Harlig tell me that he wanted to do something big, something that people don’t normally associate with rabbis, the only thing that popped into my head was, “Why, not run the New York City Marathon!” Sheepishly, I suggested my great idea to him, not knowing what his reaction would be.

Now, you have to understand, Rabbi Harlig is a phenomenal rabbi. He went to all of the top rabbinical schools, he knows the Torah and its laws inside and out. If you need help or spiritual guidance, Rabbi Harlig is your man. If you just need someone to laugh or cry with, Rabbi Harlig’s door is always open. But a Chabad rabbi running a marathon? Talk about moving out of your comfort zone! And sure enough, Rabbi Harlig just stared back at me in silence when I suggested this idea to him. The silence was so long, that I got embarrassed for even bringing up the idea to him. That is, until, his entire face broke out into a huge grin.

“You are right, if I, as a rabbi, can go out of my comfort zone and actually run a marathon, then hopefully I will be able to inspire other people to go out of their comfort zones as well,” he said.

So over a bowl of Shabbat cholent, our plan was formed, we were both going to run the 2010 New York City Marathon!

The only problem with our great plan was that you actually have to get into the New York City Marathon in order to run it. Spaces are limited and unless you have a qualifying marathon time from a prior race, are running for a specified charity or meet the other ways to get in, your only real shot is to be one of the lucky ones who get picked in the lottery that they hold for the remaining spaces.

Rabbi Yossi Harlig

Now, I don’t know how many people applied for these lottery spots, but let’s just say that my entry number was 543,276. The other kicker is that Rabbi Harlig and I applied for the spots in November, but we would not learn of the lottery results until April. This literally means that you are training for a race which you might not get into. Whenever I would bring up these facts to Rabbi Harlig, he would always smile and tell me not to worry, that we would both be there at the starting line, and that we should train confidently knowing that both of us would be in the race.

As to be expected, training for a marathon requires dedication, commitment, and an unbelievable strength to be able to withstanding the temptation of hitting a snooze button on an alarm clock. However, training for a marathon is also a lot of fun, in a crazy way. You set a training program for yourself with an ever-increasing mile goal built into your training each week. Each week you have a different and longer goal, and every Sunday you go on a long run. The longest run I went on during my training was a run of 22 miles, and for the last three miles my pace could be best described as a shuffle, rather than as a run.

As part of our training, both Rabbi Harlig and I decided to enter into some organized races, just so that we could get the feel for running in an actual race. So we ran the ING Miami Half-Marathon and the Fort Lauderdale A1A Half-Marathon. These races were great because I got to see runners of every shape, size, gender and age zoom past me.

We also had the benefit of having great support.

Apart from our respective families, one of our biggest supporters was our mutual friend, Michael Miller of Community Newspapers. Michael, who is a three-timeveteran runner of the New York Marathon, was instrumental in providing us with training tips, advice about the course and gave both Rabbi Harlig and I great encouragement during our training. Michael also showed up at the Miami Half-Marathon with his wife, Susan, to cheer us on.

Soon enough, April was upon us, which meant the big day for the lottery drawing was fast approaching. The day finally arrived, and I saw an email in my mailbox from the New York Road Runners. With great fear and trepidation, I opened the email which would tell me whether I had spent the last six months training for a race that I would never run. I read the first line of the email, and I started pumping my fist in the air as I read, “We’d like to congratulate you and welcome you to the ING New York City Marathon Class of 2010!” I was so excited. Then, I picked up the phone and called Rabbi Harlig. Just from his “hello,” however, I immediately knew that he had not made it. But, in true Rabbi Harlig form, he was still 100 percent confident that both of us were going to be at the starting line. He wasn’t sure how it was going to happen, but he trusted that it would happen.

However, I was dejected. How could I run the marathon without him? Logically, I did not see how he was going to get in. At lunch time that same day, for reasons which I still can’t explain, I got the idea in my head to go get new running shoes at my favorite running store, The Runner’s High, in the Suniland shopping center. I didn’t necessarily need new running shoes, but there I was driving to the store. When I got in the store, I was greeted by Rabbi Harlig’s physical therapist, Bruce Wilk. Bruce had done an amazing job training Rabbi Harlig for the marathon and tending to his aches and pains at his office. Bruce was eagerly anticipating hearing whether his client, Rabbi Harlig, had gotten selected in the lottery. When I told Bruce that Rabbi Harlig had not got in, he told me that it was unbelievable that I had come to the store because just that morning he had been given an extra entry slot for the marathon because of his associations and professional involvements. He told me that it would be his honor to give the slot to Rabbi Harlig. So, just like that, Rabbi Harlig went from being out to being in.

Fast forward to the 2010 ING New York City Marathon. As I made my way to the starting line, I was so excited and pumped up. I was about to accomplish something that I wanted to do for my entire life, and something for which I had worked so hard at over the past year. To finally be there, standing at the starting line, was truly a dream come true.

The cannon thundered and we were off. The first challenge of the course is to run up the famous Verrazano-Narrows Bridge which is a beautiful suspension bridge that connects Staten Island and Brooklyn. As I set off, I could not believe that I was actual-ly running the New York City Marathon. To top it off, the day was beautiful, the air was crisp, the sun was shining and I was living my dream.

When we came off the bridge, I was greeted by something I never expected and something I will never forget. On each side of the road were thousands of people packed six or seven rows deep of all different types of backgrounds, genders and ethnicities, cheering for me and my fellow runners. The energy of the crowd was amazing, and the only thing I wanted to do was to personally thank each one of them for coming out and cheering.

New Yorkers are amazing. Families were standing together with cow bells and signs, cheering all of us on. And the crowds never died out. It was the closest thing that I will ever have in my life to feeling what a rockstar or a professional athlete feels like. I really got into the energy of the crowd. I would run along the edge of the crowd giving highfives to everyone. Around corners, I would give a fist pump in the air to the crowd, and the crowd would actually roar back with applause. At times I would just run down the middle of the road, and put up my hands in victory like Rocky Balboa, and the crowds would go nuts.

Truth be told, for the first 13 miles or so I did not even pay attention to the distance, I just wanted to savor this experience with the crowds. Before the race, my Uncle Scott, a veteran of the event, gave me the best piece of advice.

“Just let the crowds carry you,” he said.

And carry me they did. Whenever I felt my energy draining, all I would need to do is look at the faces cheering for me in the crowd and I would get right back in the race.

Around mile 20 there is the famous “Marathon Wall” that your body slams into on the course. The glycogen reserves in your body are essentially depleted. Glycogen is the substance in your body which provides it with fuel for athletic activities and at mile 20 you don’t have any fuel left in the tank. It is at that moment when a marathoner earns his or her “stripes.” It is at that moment, when you have to find the inner will (and energy) to run an additional 6.2 miles on an empty tank. The New York City Marathon Wall is particularly brutal because the course starts to go uphill around mile 22.

One of the many mini-goals that I had set for myself during the race was to ignore the wall. At mile 20 until the finish line, I wanted to thrive. One of the things that I am most proud of, and one of the most important lesson that I took from the race, is that I have tremendous inner strength and will power, because I never hit a wall. From mile 20 until the finish line, I cruised. There I was, the kid who was always picked last on sporting teams, passing runners who were bigger and stronger than me. Each time I passed someone, I felt a sense of accomplishment. All of these months of training had paid off. I was strong. I had what it took to go the distance. I had tested myself and found that I had that “extra gear” which I could draw upon when times were tough.

The last four miles or so had us running down Fifth Avenue to Central Park. As I was running down the famous avenue with crowds cheering for me on all sides, I was smiling and thinking to myself, “When does a regular person get to run down Fifth Avenue and have crowds cheering for him?” Once again, I felt like a rock star.

My cousin Sally Meisner was waiting for me at mile 23. She had been standing there for hours, waiting for the chance to cheer me on. As I approached her, she had a big sign that said “Go Brian Lebensburger!” Seeing her out there and seeing that sign gave me the boost I needed to continue to speed my way towards the finish line.

To get to the finish line, the course took us through Central Park, which was also packed to the brim with people cheering us on. Thankfully, it was mostly downhill running at that point and I enjoyed every step. As the finish line approached, a feeling of accomplishment and pride started to well up inside of me. As I got closer and closer to the end, I realized that soon I would be one of the few people who could say that they ran the New York City Marathon. I knew that after I crossed the finish line I would have accomplished something that no one could ever take away from me, something that one day I would speak about to my grandchildren.

A year earlier, I set out to accomplish an impossible goal. I trained hard and suffered setbacks along the way, but always believed that I would have the will power to reach the end. And there it was. As I crossed the finish line, my emotions could no longer be contained in my body and they started flowing out of my eyes. As the officials put my medal around my neck, I felt as if I was on top of the world. The feeling was priceless. I had run the New York City Marathon. I had gone the distance. A kid who once was suspected of having knee surgery because he ran so awkwardly could now call himself an athlete, a marathoner.

As for Rabbi Harlig, he finished right along side of me. He inspired me every step of the way. He had suffered a tremendous injury early in our training, but he kept on, refusing to give up. He inspired the community as well. People literally have changed their lives for the better after hearing his story. After all, if a Chabad Rabbi who never played a day of organized sports in his life could go out of his comfort zone to run a marathon, what could you do to go out of your comfort zones?

Brian Lebensburger is an estate planning and probate lawyer with Muller & Lebensburger. He may be contacted by calling 305-670-6770.
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