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Sunteti aici :: Povesti » New York Marathon 2009

New York Marathon 2009

Starting with December 2008, one of my New Year’s resolutions has been to run the New York marathon or at least to finish the Berlin Marathon 2009 in a time good enough to qualify directly to the New York marathon 2010. This is the story of the entire journey – from making the resolution for 2009, to crossing the finish line at the New York marathon on November 1st, 2009. I hope this will be a source of inspiration for 2010 resolutions or other objectives, sport related and not only.

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September 28th, 2008 was the day when I finished my first real race – the Berlin International marathon. That was the second marathon I was starting, after the Vienna one, from April 2008, where I collapsed at km 36 due to severe dehydration. In Vienna I ran all the distance (36 km) without drinking any liquids, water or isotonic drink, during training in was always cold and in the day of the race it was very hot, I had no clue how to drink from cups while running etc. After I returned home from the Berlin marathon, a close friend recommended me to write down the experience from Berlin – how was it before, during and after the race. I postponed writing this story from one day to the other, due to various reasons / excuses, until all the emotions, memories were not as intense and I couldn’t remember the details but just facts... too much time had already passed.

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After the New York marathon had finished, I didn’t want to repeat the same mistake again so I started to write, whenever I had time. Why do I call it a mistake? Because in life, the moments of success, the moments when I’ve set for myself an ambitious goal, bigger than my obvious limits, are not as many as I wish, which makes them even more valuable. Even scarcer are the times when after such an intense experience I took the time needed to „record”:

- how was it?
- how did I feel?
- what was the actual way from dream to reality like?
- what should I take along as a lesson learned for the future?
- what am I capable of doing to reach my objectives?

By doing so, whenever I would doubt myself, when the objectives or things that I have to do are so big that they are scaring me, I would be able to  „go back” and remember how I treated similar situations before.
 
I’m not writing this story only for myself but also for:
 
My family & friends who encouraged me throughout the preparation for the New York Marathon. Running is a sport that you do usually alone. I run most of the times alone – day by day, everyday. It was very helpful to receive every now and then a message, an email, a phone call asking me how is the training going, if it’s going as planned.. and sometimes, it really wasn’t.(4)1BFP7BUm_41237.jpg

All the ones that have started to run more often or that are considering getting back in shape or the ones that do not know how high they should aim when setting a goal regarding their fitness. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe that suddenly everyone should run marathons though I do believe that sport should be more often part of the everyday life of people, no matter if we’re talking about individual or team sports.
 
The ones that are curious of what does it mean to train and competitively run a marathon – and by competitive I don’t mean winning a marathon but improving your times from one race to the other and finishing in the first 5-10% from the total number of participants (at NY, according to the results published the second day after the race, I finished the 640th from 42.000 runners)
 
The story is divided in several chapters, I added some comments where I though it is necessary and I’ve detailed these comments in the chapter itself:

1. Why do I run? (similarities with other things I do, life principles applied in sport: integrity, no shortcuts, dream big, a lot of work)

2. My running experience until the New York marathon (other races, Vienna, Berlin, 5k,10k)

3. The New York Marathon (biggest and most famous in the world, one of the five World Marathon Majors)

4. „The journey” up to the marathon (training in Dubai, injuries, treadmill, doubt, fear, decisions)

5. Before the race (the week and morning before the race)

6. During the marathon (the crowd, the city seen through the eyes of a runner, last kilometres)

7. After crossing the finish line (what did I feel? What’s next?)

8. Conclusions


1.Why do I run?

Ever since I was a child, I ran. Like all the other kids of my age (from the „pre-computer games generation”) I was playing football and other children’s games etc. in front of the building where we were living – most, if not all of them, requiring us to run. I would lie if I would say I was ever „the fastest”. There were always people that ran faster than me so I never imagined that I’ll get at one point to do this as a sport in itself – running.
 
(1)IrI9PDb_23844.jpgAfter I moved to Vienna in 2007, I felt the need to get rid of some extra kilograms that I gained throughout the university period. Without the luxury of having different groups of friends to play weekly football or basketball with, I had to find myself a sport that I could do alone, whenever I wanted, with a minimum of investment. Therefore I bought myself a pair of Reebok running shoes on sales at Intersport in Vienna (20 Euro), not having even a trace of support for the foot (that would absorb the shocks during the run). I had no clue what a real running shoe looks and feels like.. but I started running anyway – in the end what I didn’t know, couldn’t have harmed me (in this case the difference between running shoes and importance of proper equipment for running).


Why did I continue to run after I got rid of the extra kilograms? Because I discovered in running the discipline I needed, a source of energy for the day-to-day activities, and, maybe even more important, I started doing correlations with some of my values and principles from everyday life:


Integrity – in every day life, whenever lying appears – either we lie or the ones around us do it, when what you say might not always reflect what you do, when you can hope that „maybe it will eventually work out”, „only this time, I hope I’ll manage it this time.. and done, after this I will never lie again”, „maybe the ones around me will not realize”... when it comes to running, no one sees you in any of the days that you train.


Of course you can answer, when asked: „how’s the training for the marathon going?” in any way you want „Aaaa.. excellent!”, „Great.. I’m right on track!” and even after a race, after the whole 42.198 km etc. when you were far off from your objective although nothing happened (no injury, no accident, the weather was perfect etc), you had a lousy run. You can call all sorts of reasons, credible actually, due to which you failed BUT the problem is that the most important person knows the real, naked truth – YOU. Self confidence is something that you build and cannot be cheated.(2)3pDlsIl_49454.jpg


As an amateur, depending on my level, I’ve trained for the marathons before 45-50 and 140 km / week. This meant between 4-8 training runs a week, which I did usually alone. I’ve trained for 3-4 months minimum for each race, which means that in total, for every race, I tied my shoes and pounded the concrete anywhere in between 96 and 128 times. Whenever I was training and I stopped because it was too hard, when I jumped over a training day because I was not in the mood to train, because it was too early etc. I knew that they will all count on the day of the race.


During the race I always had enough time, along the 42.198 km, to think and remember that maybe the fact that I run slower than I planned, that it hurts more than it should, that the old lady that just passed by me looked as twice as fit as me although she could have been my aunt, had other causes than wind, socks, sun etc. These are the excuses that your mind is providing you with, in no time. By the way, speaking about elderly runners, my training partner in Dubai is Antonio di Somma, age 55 and who was on the podium at 5 international marathons in 2009 (including winning his age category at the NY Marathon 2009 with 2:50:14, 5 minutes faster than me).
 
No shortcuts
– one of the things I probably grew up with in Romania (during the communist times and in the immediate period after the Revolution) is that you can succeed by being „clever”, that every time there is a shorter way to obtain what others are getting by walking on the longer path. I’m not yet 100% sure if it’s good or bad, although I strongly tend to believe that it’s very damaging on the long term. Changing the working environment, the society – from Bucharest to Vienna and later on Dubai (although in Dubai there are still situations of „shortcuts”), I realized that I cannot generalize, not everyone is doing it and that there are no shortcuts without compromising your own values.

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In the marathon there are no shortcuts. The race is ran by all the participants, from the youngest to the oldest, from the one that is running to win the race to the one that is running to get over his midlife crisis. The difference between having a lousy race and a great one is made by how well you have trained, not by how „clever” you are. Being „clever” or „cheating” leads to penalties or disqualification. If you „cheat” the spectators are not looking the other way... it’s a pity we don’t have this principle applied more often in everyday life.
 
Dream big – I was reading some weeks ago in an interview gave by a good friend, a statement she gave during a conference, which I think matches perfectly with what I believe about „dreaming big”. Someone, at the conference, suggested that everyone should have as an objective to do a small change, something that would be comfortably done by everyone, she said, as an answer, that in contrary, we should have big objectives, we should make changes and never be complacent in smaller objectives that are easy to do.
 
It’s the same story with sport and in my case running. Of course that it is easy to set yourself as a goal to „finish” a race – which for me means that at the smallest sign of discomfort you can even walk, because in the end you don’t care about the time, you care just about crossing the finish. If you are healthy and can train, for me at least, this cannot be an objective in itself. Why not setting an objective?.. finishing a 10 km race under an hour, a marathon under four hours, finishing a triathlon in a certain time, become the first Romanian that qualifies to the Hawaii Ironman (a triathlon where you swim 3.6km, bike 180 km and then at the end, run a full marathon)? They seem impossible? Probably yes.. but few words can describe the feeling you have when you go beyond your limits – mental and physical. What I often ask myself is: „If you don’t try, how will you know how far can you get?”(4)JQtSbxp_97441.jpg
 
In January 2008 I couldn’t run more than 3km. In less than 4 months I was running 35 kilometres in less than 3 hours.


Work hard - „if running a marathon would be easy, than everyone would run one”. I think this is valid for a lot of other things, not only running. We all agree, I believe, that people tend to do the things that are easy to do and very few decide to go for the things that require a large amount of effort, to be accomplished. It’s easier to get home after work and do nothing, become one with the couch, than, for example, take your backpack and go to the gym, swimming pool. Truth said, our jobs don’t offer always the luxury to always have a balanced life, in which we could do sports every single day... BUT we cannot use this as an excuse forever. What motivates me and what I find inspiring are people that I read about or whom I meet in my travels, that are real examples of success – in their careers, families and as individuals. One of them is Steven van Groeningen (General Manager Raiffeisen Bank Romania) who finished 5th the Ironman CEO in Austria in 2007. Another example, much more recent. In Dubai the temperature is anything but ideal for runners during summer so I always trained on a treadmill, so much that I started to believe I’m one of the only runners in Dubai. Then, in September, I went to a race organized in Dubai and at the starting line we were about 250 people... and looking around gave me a lot of motivation because I understood I was not the only one who was suffering due to the conditions in the Middle East and that every single runner at the starting line suffered most probably the same things that I suffered, so no reason to complain.
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(5)wGZeDmq_11237.jpgAnother thing that you can only understand after finishing a marathon is that the hardest thing about it is not to run the marathon itself. By the time you reach the starting line, the hardest part would have finished already and the race is just a matter of „reaping the benefits” – you start the race and suddenly you’re all enthusiastic and motivated. The hardest thing is to push yourself every single day, every single week.. to wake up in the morning when most of the people are sleeping, and do your training.. and still go to the office after and work just like everybody else, take care that you eat and drink properly, go to sleep early without affecting (too much) your social life but making sure you get enough rest and recovery to have another training session and start all over the next day.
 
Only the ones who cross the finish line of a marathon know what sacrifices they made to get there.
 
2) My running experience prior to the New York marathon (other races, Vienna, Berlin, 5k,10k)


From the moment I started training for my first marathon, in February 2008, until November 1st 2009, when the New York marathon took place, I ran around 3000 km (1200km before the Berlin marathon, 1400 km before the New York one, 400 km between October 2008 and March 2009).
 
Some of the notable races and personal best’s before New York:
5 km – Dubai – 2009 – 18min 10 sec
8 km – Vienna – 2008 - 27 min 50 sec
Half-marathon – Vienna – August 2008 – 1:24:00
Marathon – Berlin – September 2008 – 2:57:24

Every race in itself has a story but for the time being I’ll stick with the one about the New York marathon.

3) The ING New York Marathon:

There are many famous international marathons in the world, however only 5 of them are reunited in what is called the „World Marathon Majors” – Chicago, Boston, New York, London and Berlin. These 5 races gather the most elite athletes at the starting line (men and women). Based on a points ranking system, the winner of the highest number of points after the 5 races wins $1 million. Some of the famous people who ran one of these races include: Constantina Diţă who won the Chicago marathon in 2008, after she won the gold Olympic medal for the same race in Beijing, the world record (men) was made in Berlin 2008 by Haile Gebresilasie (2:03:59), the world record (women) was made in New York in 2007 by Paula Radcliffe (2:17:18).

The races gather, in addition to the high number of runners, a massive crowd of supporters who come and cheer for all the participants. Out of all the 5 races, New York is the most popular and biggest in the world (the biggest number of runners who start and finish the race 40.000+, over 2 million spectators).. and in 2009 it established new records.
 
An interesting fact about the New York marathon is that it was brought at the level it is today by Frank Lebow, an American citizen born in Romania. Because he was Jewish, he fled Romania during the Holocaust. Frank took a race that was taking place only in Central Park – 4 laps of the park amounted for a marathon – and managed to extend it in the whole city and boroughs: from Staten Island, Brooklyn, Queens, Long Island, Harlem, Bronx, Manhattan... establishing a solid base of what was about to become the most famous marathon in the world. To make an analogy, running the New York marathon is what for a football fan playing a football game on the San Siro or Camp Nou stadiums would mean, or for a tennis fan playing a match on the pitch at Roland Garros, for a basketball fan to play a game in Madison Square Garden.
 

The 42.000 slots for the race are allocated as follows:
- between 500-1000 are allocated to elite athletes – representing countries, clubs etc.
- through a lottery (a small portion from the total number of the tickets is allocated through this method – there are around 100.000 applicants for just a couple of thousand of slots)
- some go to the members of the „New York Road Runners” club
- the biggest part goes to travel agencies that sell the slots as part of a larger package – with hotel accommodation, trips, tours etc. (the New York marathon generates a revenue of $250 millions)
- some tickets go to the ones that have ran a qualifying time for the marathon – for my age it was 2:55:00 (with 2 minutes and 24 seconds faster than my record from Berlin 2008)
- finally, some tickets go to people who raise money for charities (a minimum of $1500 which are donated to different organizations after the race)

My plan for 2009 was to go to Berlin and run a sub 2:55:00 marathon and qualify for the New York marathon edition in 2010. I was lucky to win a slot via the lottery and starting with May 2009, the New York marathon was already in sight 
 
4) „The journey” to the marathon:
 
In order to be able to run a marathon, you need to train depending on your objective. The speed of the daily run depends on the speed at which you want to run the race itself. As a general rule: the shorter runs (<10km) should be made with 20 seconds slower than the marathon pace, the longer runs (>10km) should be made with 40 seconds slower than the pace at which you plan to run the race. For example: if I would plan to run a marathon with 5 min / km then the respective training speeds would be 5:20 min / km and 5:40 min / km for longer distances. My schedule in the last months included 6-7 trainings a week, of different durations and intensities. The training itself was divided in modules: endurance (the objective was to accommodate my body with a large volume of kilometres), endurance and speed (keeping the volume aspect and added fast sections at the end of the training), speed (close to the marathon itself, I reduced the volume of the training and increased the intensity – less kilometres, much faster). A training week in the endurance + speed module looked like this:
- 10 km (with 1.5 km warm-up and the same distance „cool-down”) at 4:40 min / km (~13 km/hour)- Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, Thursday
- 2x4 km (with 2km warm-up and similar distance for „cool-down”) at 3:30 min / km (19 km / hour) and jogging 500 m in between the repetitions
- 32 km (with 2km warm-up and „cool-down”) with 4:40 min / km first 16 km and 4:20 min / km last 16 km.

When I was in Vienna I had „my spots” where I used to train: speed runs on the main street in the Prater Park (8km long), daily trainings on the Donau Kanal (which is passing right next tot he flat where I used to live), long runs on the Donau Island and Kahlenberg (a 20km long island and a hill nearby Vienna).
 
After I moved to Dubai, the options for running tracks became suddenly very limited, actually limited to only one: the treadmill. Because I was coming from a country where it was the middle of winter in January, I was not used to the temperatures in Dubai and I did my first mistake: instead of forcing myself to run outside and gradually get used with the humidity and heat, I started running on the treadmill in a gym with air conditioner. Kilometer after kilometer, I was running on the treadmill and every week I was looking for ways of getting rid of the boreness that came along with running 2 hours in the same place.
 
At first, I started by listening to audio books while running. It didn’t work as I had to pay attention to my breathing, pace, form. I went on to watch movies and I’ve seen movie after movie, episode after episode. In my long run days, I used to go to the gym on Friday mornings at 05:30 / 06:00 and was finishing at around 09:00. Neighbors were coming, training, leaving for breakfast and I was still there, up on the treadmill, running... still 14 kilometres to go.
 
There are numerous problems with running on a treadmill although there are some benefits as well, though not for long distance runners:
- the running mechanics is different because you do not „push” on the ground to move forward but rather „jump” from one step to the other
- there is no air friction, because obviously there is no wind which means that it is „easier” to run than it will be in reality (and I felt the „reality” on the bridges of New York where among the steep uphill part the wind was the main problem)
- the absence of wind brings along another issue – you’re not cooling down and your heart must pump more blood than usual to maintain a decent body temperature, which leads to a higher heart rate which is not caused by effort or speed but by heat and this doesn’t contribute at all to your marathon performance
- sweating – you sweat a lot. I sweat a lot even when I run outside, in winter.. not to imagine running in a gym. I used to stop at every 15 km and change running shoes, socks, T-shirt, otherwise it felt like I’m running in a pool

Now don’t get me wrong, running 5-6 even 8 kilometres on a treadmill raises no or little worries for an injury. But running 100 kilometres a week on a treadmill, does, no matter the quality of the treadmill... and at the end, you’re not going to run the marathon on a treadmill, right?

Running on a treadmill caused me two injuries – both shin splints. From the first one I recovered pretty hard though in the second one it was easier as I already had the experience of how to get healthy again. When there’s nothing serious, the RICE formula (Rest, Ice, Compress, Elevate) is more than enough to recover. The problem appears when you re-start running after a break that was longer than a week or so. Then you encounter fear and doubt: „maybe I stopped too much and can’t get back to training or to the shape I was in before”, „maybe I’m not fully recovered”, maybe..

I had a crucial moment in August, when I told myself that I can’t run on a treadmill anymore and that I have to get outside, otherwise I’ll fail in the marathon. So I went out one evening and set myself as an objective to run on the Dubai marathon path, a road that goes along the beach and passes by Burj Al Arab. After 7 km I had to stop. I felt how the sweat on my body was boiling. When you usually run (in Europe or in a temperate climate) when the sweat evaporates it cools down your body. However, when the temperature outside is high and the humidity is high as well, your sweat cannot evaporate anymore and just rolls off your body with no cooling down whatsoever.  It was the first time when I walked the second half of my training because I couldn’t run anymore. On the way back, 7 kilometres walking, it was the first time I seriously thought of quitting, of stopping all the running training for as long as I will be based in Dubai. However, by the time I reached home I told myself that I’ll do a break of 2-3 days, see how I feel and then decide what would I do next.

In the same period, I got to know about a gentleman in Dubai, Antonio di Somma, who ran already in 2009 some marathons in extraordinary times, 2h 48 min, 2h 50 minutes. What was even more impressive was that Antonio was usually in the top 3 or the actual winner of his age category – man 55 years. Therefore, one of the best / if not THE best runner in the world, at the 55 years old category, was in Dubai... I had to meet him. I tried for some weeks to get a hold of him but I couldn’t get through. For a moment I thought that he’s not answering because he lives in Europe, otherwise I couldn’t imagine how someone that fast can train in Dubai.
 
The following week was when Antonio answered my mail and asked me if I want to pass by his office. Antonio is the chief veterinarian at the Dubai Falcon Hospital. Falcons are the favorite „pets” for the locals (Emiratis) and generally of Gulf families. I was about to find out that morning that Antonio is one of the best falcon veterinarians and his clinic is the most famous in the Gulf. In the meeting room, on the table, he had an entire catalogue of endorsements for his work from all sorts of sheikhs, country presidents – including the founder of Dubai as we know it today, Sheikh Zayed.
 
The meeting was short – Antonio, a gentleman from Napoli, asked me what races did I run, what races I’m planning to do in the near future. We realized that both of us will run the New York Marathon. Another thing that I found out then was that Antonio didn’t run at all before he was 50 years old. When he turned 50 (in 2004) he told his wife, while looking in a brochure about Dubai (he came to Dubai in 1998) that maybe he’ll start running as well, as he saw that there are 2 running clubs in Dubai. His wife laughed and told him that he will never manage to run, not even 5 km. What happened? In 5 years he is one of the best 3 runners in his age category in the world and only in 2009 he had the following achievements:

Antonio di Somma - Marathon Record 2009
Date Venue Time Position in age group
16th January 2009 Dubai 02:52:44 1st
26th April 2009 London 02:49:47 1st
24th May 2009 Copenhagen 02:48:39 1st
8th August 2009 Helsinki World Masters Championships 02:54:59 3rd
20th September 2009 Berlin 02:55:06 2nd
1st November 2009 New York 02:50:42 1st

What happened with the wife? She became his ex-wife.

The next meeting? Next Friday morning, at 05:15 am... and so I was back on track with my training. I was going to find out, after the New York Marathon, that he was also thinking of quitting, as he had no motivation to run anymore but that he restarted his training with me. We ran together every Friday morning for two months, between 30 and 35 kilometres: together the first 25 kilometres, afterwards he was increasing the pace a bit and I couldn’t run next to him anymore, while remaining behind I was breathing so hard that I was thinking I was 55 and he was 26 years old.
 
And so I’ve started to run outside. I was waking up early morning, between 05:30 and 06:00 in usual days and 04:30 when I was running more than 20 kilometres. In addition to the training I was used to from the times I was in Vienna, in Dubai I was using a lot of sunscreen and much more liquids. Because I was finishing my runs after sun rise, I had to protect my skin somehow, so I was using sunscreen with factor 60, so I was thinking sometimes that not only I will not get any tan but I will become even whiter.

In the months leading to the marathon, I gathered all sorts of information from movies, books, articles – all related to training. I also read 3 books from which I didn’t take necessarily training methods but something even more important – inspiration. „It’s not about the bike” by Lance Armstrong, „No limits – The will to succeed” by Michael Phelps and „My journey so far” by Paula Radcliffe. Although Paula’s story is interesting, going from the times she was running as a junior in cross-country races up to the marathons she’s running today, the first two books, belonging to Armstrong and Phelps had the biggest impact on me and were real and strong inspiration sources during the training months. From Lance Armstrong’s book – in which he tells the story of his journey from having cancer and undergoing the respective surgery's to winning the 7 consecutive „Tour de France” races – I’ve learned to ask myself „why do I run?”, „what is the higher purpose, higher than finishing the race?”. From Phelps’s book – in which he tells the story of his journey to the races at the Beijing Olympics, where he was the first man to ever win 8 gold medals in the same Olympic games and in addition, breaking quite some world records – I’ve learned that there is nothing wrong in having big dreams, which may look impossible at the first glance, as long as you are willing to use your imagination and work hard to achieve your goals.

 

5.Before the race (the week and morning before the race)

A marathon training can be „failed” if in the week leading to the race you’re not paying attention to details. The last two weeks represent a period of time in which the priority is to decrease the volume of training (so that you allow your body enough time to recover and rest), maintain the speed trainings and prepare yourself mentally – how does the race looks like, the track, what will you eat, where will you stay, what will you dress yourself with before, during and after the race, where will you eat after the race, what will you do in case an accident happens.
 
(2)KEjxITA_83731.jpgIt’s hard to make a story from everything that I did before the start of the race, though I’ve enlisted below, as I’ve remembered them, the main things:

-  the time difference between New York and Dubai – to get over it I went to New York with a week before the actual race, arriving in US on Sunday, October 24th; I estimated that a week would have been enough to accommodate myself with the temperature and time difference

- the marathon course – for me it was very important to know the course and to establish in advance some visual elements that would help me during the race in case I would have some difficult times. Such intermediary goals can be reaching building X, the Y park, the Z bridge, and from there I will know exactly how many kilometres I’ve done already and how many I have to go. To do this, I looked at a movie on Youtube, which was following exactly the race course, I ran the last days on the last 6 kilometres of the race and I went on an organized tour on the first 21 kilometres.

- Another important thing for me was to visualize, to see myself finishing the race, how I will run the last 100 meters, how I will fight to give everything I’ve got. The worst that can happen would have been if I would finished and then asked myself „what if...?”. I told some friends, before going to New York, that I want to give all that I’ve got during the race, it’s going to be either me or the race, either I finish in my goal time or I will collapse... and I wasn’t very happy of the thought that I might collapse.

- Nutrition – the golden rule of the last days prior to a race is not to try anything new in terms of food. It should be what you usually ate during your training, most of the times carbohydrate rich food (pasta, bread, vegetables for example). The most important meal is the lunch before the race day, because your body needs on average 12-15 hours to assimilate all the carbohydrates. In addition I drank mainly Gatorade Endurance Formula Lime – the same drink which the organizers were going to provide during the marathon itself, with a double amount of sodium to compensate the salt that the runners will lose through sweat during the race. The reason behind this was to get used to the taste and figure out as well if my stomach can tolerate the drink. In Dubai for example, during training, although most of my isotonic drink was Isostar, I drank once in a while Gatorade, Lucozade, Powerade, as in different races, depending on the sponsors, you have different brands of drinks. In addition, when it’s cold outside, the risk of dehydration is even higher because you don’t realize when you lose liquids, therefore you don’t drink enough to compensate. Food wise, I quickly identified 2-3 good restaurants where I figured out I can get some good pasta and where I also trusted that there will be no chance for food poisoning... I would have hated having to quit because of a bad stomach after all the training

- Where I slept – I had the luck to know Birte, a friend from AIESEC Germany that is working for a year as part of the national team of AIESEC US; they offered me a place to stay in the week before the race. This was important for me as I had the chance in the evenings to relax, have a chat, go out (though not that much as I would have wanted since I also wanted to get some rest – I was there to race not to party). Their flat was very close to the subway line which lead directly to the place where I took the ferry to the starting line, on Staten Island.

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- Clothing / Equipment – because it was cold in the morning, in addition to my racing equipment I bought some clothes from NY which I was going to throw away right before the start; the organizers were going to gather the clothes and donate them to homeless shelters. The racing equipment has a story in itself. First of all the shirt – I got it from the Romanian Federation of Athletics, the same shirt used by the professional athletes in Romania. Most runners write their name on the t-shirt so that they receive some „direct” encouragement during the race. I chose to run with a t-shirt with Romania written with big letters on the front so that in case someone wanted to cheer for me, the way to do it was by saying „Go Romania!”.

The racing pants where marathon specific (they oppose no or little resistance during running and have a special pocket where I kept my Power Gels). The socks were Falke for racing (the same model I used at the Berlin Marathon). The running shoes were Asics DS Trainer (the lightest shoes which someone of my weight can wear and not get injured). The watch and GPS from Suunto were my way to keep constant measurement of the distance, pace and average speed at which I was running. At my running shoes I had a small bracelet which I received from a friend a year before and to whom I promised that I will wear it anytime I race. Last but not least, with the help of a triathlete friend, I made a bracelet that was indicating the splits I needed each mile and each 5 kilometres, so that I was able to track my evolution, which proved to be very important during the race.
 
I took with myself also clothes for the „after the finish line” part – compression pants, warm fleece, gloves, hat. During the race the immunitary system decreases and you risk to catch a cold after the race if you expose yourself to cold too much.

- After the race – usually you establish in advance with the people that will cheer for you, where will you meet them (during the race and after the finish line), where will you go and eat after the race etc. The risk that you face when you establish meeting points is that there are chances not to see that friend / friends due to many reasons – big crowd at the meeting spot, you get there earlier than you expected etc. If you expect and count too much on this, you might get very disappointed and disappointment is the last thing you want to have in your mind when you run 42 kilometres. The best thing to do is to establish a meeting point and have in mind that there is a chance not to meet that friend. In my case, Birte and Tiffany, told me they will wait for me at kilometer 36, Bianca (the friend of a friend) was coming at the finish line, the same place where I agreed to meet Antonio.

- What happens in case of an accident – a lesson from the marathon I ran in Vienna was to write my details on the back of the race number: name, any particular medical history, contact person in case of an accident, native language etc. At Vienna I thought I’m a „super-hero” and that nothing will ever happen to me, „that stuff” is only for the weak ones and I don’t need to fill any information on the back of my number. In reality, I collapsed and because I had no information on my number and I didn’t know any phone number by hard from my friends in Vienna, I couldn’t call anyone for help. I had to wait 3 hours until I was able to walk again and be taken by ambulance to the finish line where all my friends were waiting for me, worried. At NY, this was one of the first things I did after I got my race pack.
 
- The „before-the-race” ritual. The „before-the-race” ritual for me starts the evening before. Then, I arrange everything for the next day and I mentally go through the whole process from the moment I wake up, to the moment I reach the starting line. Later on, in the second phase of this process, I think about the marathon course and I imagine how it will be like, what will I feel, to what should I pay attention to.

(1)LuCxyh_69419.jpgI arranged as well all the clothes, equipment, running shoes, watch. The night before I knew exactly what I will eat and drink. I placed my iPod next to the bed so that immediately after showering in the morning I would start my usual ritual, listening to music before heading out for my run. As for what I eat & drink before running, the ritual has been the same for the past 2 years. I wake up 3 hours before the race and I immediately drink two liters of isotonic drink (e.g. Gatorade, Isostar) – I usually eliminate this liquid prior to the race start but I remain with the minerals and sodium that they contain. Food wise I eat a banana and a Power Bar. Then I start getting dressed, use special powder in the areas where I know that my skin has most chances to get irritated during the run (feet, underarm, inside part of my legs), so that I assure myself that my shoe laces are not too tight since during the race my feet might swollen a bit and I will not have the time to stop and untie & tie them back again.

I reach the starting line usually with one hour and a half before the actual start – I eliminate all the stress factors and it’s better to wait there than being stuck in traffic somewhere. Before the start, similar to many times during training, my mind went on to bring up different thoughts – my family, friends back home or in different parts of the world, that will be „next” to me from their own homes, tracking my progress in real time with the help of the technical possibilities provided by the official website. For a second I thought about the option in which I would not finish.. I accepted the fact that there are many things that might happen and I cannot plan, that would lead me to decide to quit the race. I parked them „away” from my active thoughts. I was there to finish the race not to find excuses for failing. Every single time I doubted myself, during the travel to the marathon starting line or during warm-up, I was repeating to myself: „I will run as best as I can and I will give it everything.. either I finish or I collapse, mediocrity is no option”.

In that morning I took the ferry from Manhattan to Staten Island. On purpose, in the week before the race I avoided that area because I wanted to have a „special” moment that morning before the start. What exactly? The moment in which the ferry would pass by the Statue of Liberty. The main thought in my mind, as the ferry was passing by the statue, was that I came a long way in my life and that there’s still a long way to go ahead of me. In 2004 I was travelling for the first time outside of Romania, going to a conference in Poland (in Katowice) with a train ride that took 24 hours.. in just 5 years, I was on a ferry, in New York, passing by the Statue of Liberty. Thought again „no limits” and I went back inside where it was warmer – no need to lose energy now, I had to save it for later.
 
With an hour before the start I do my warm-up: easy 2 km run, 500 m at marathon pace, easy stretching. With 30 minutes before the start I head towards my starting block. Because there are 42,000 runners, we are all separated into different „starting waves”, based on their estimated finish time. Then in every wave there are 3 different categories, again depending on estimated finish time. In my wave, for example, the first were the elite runners – Group A, then professionals (group B) and then us, the competitive amateur runners (group C). There are 4 starting waves, 12 categories in total. You must provide the estimated finish time upon registration and it is based on your previous races, results etc. The better your finishing time, the smaller the number of runners. I crossed the starting line 1 minute after the first runners, so before me there were, for example, 700-800 runners (the elite runners had a separate start).
 
As I headed towards the starting line with 30 minutes before the start of the race, I realized that I was a bit too optimistic about the time needed to actually reach my category, because I had to start a slalom through thousands of runners to go from the group of athletes that wanted to finish the marathon in 4 hours to the group I was allocated to. Many people don’t want to say out loud in how much time they expect to finish the marathon, out of superstition or something else. I didn’t care, I had to get to a group of runners from my category. When I finally reached Wave 1, group C, I started asking people about their objective: „Excuse me, what is your expected finish time?”.. and I was seeing some of the people who were being asked being taken by surprise and not knowing whether to say out loud what their objective was because maybe they will finally have to set an objective or maybe friends would know. I went on asking.. „3 hours 30 min”, „3h 15”, „3h 22”, „3 h”.. and so on until I got more and more answers of „2h 55”, „2h 57”. I kept on asking until a guy answered „2 hours 40 min.. or better”, I looked at him, smiled and said: „Aha, I see, all right, good luck.. I’ll stay right here in the back, don’t wanna be in your way!” When I raised my eyes and looked ahead I saw that there were just a couple of hundreds of runners ahead of me until the actual starting line... that was it, I was in my spot.

After hearing the USA national anthem and a short speech of the mayor of New York City (Mike Bloomberg), next was the start. Right before the start, the last thing I had to do, as part of my „ritual” was to take a Power Gel (which was going to give me a boost of carbohydrates for the first 10 km) and drink 500 ml of isotonic drink...

10..9..8..7...6...5..4...

6.During the race (the crowd, the city through the eyes of a runner, last kilometres)

3...2...1....START!

The race begins on the Verrazano Narrows Bridge that connects Staten Island with Brooklyn, Long Island etc. Immediately after the start, in the background Frank Sinatra’s song „New York, New York” starts. Just try to imagine hearing „Start spreading the news/I’m leaving today..” and in the horizon you can see Manhattan with it’s skyscrapers, the place where the finish line was. It was the first time in a race when I was able to see, more or less, where was the finish, right from the beginning... also for the first time I was shivering, not because of being cold but because I was nervous.


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The start of a race is very important – if you’re not careful and you end up in a group that has a too fast pace, you might start too fast and find yourself tired after just a couple of kilometres; if you get caught in a much slower group, you will lose a lot of energy trying to pass through and move ahead at your target pace, which might lead to exhaustion or even an injury. The bridge was separated in two: the right side was for all the elite and professional runners, the left side for us, all the others.

Another important thing is to always keep in mind that you’re running YOUR race. Although there are thousands of other runners you must run as you initially planned. Obviously there will be faster or slower runners than you, but this really don’t matter. If you are hyper competitive – as I am – running a marathon is a good cure for that because whether you like it or not, there really are a lot of people that are faster than you or that started ahead of you and there’s nothing you can do about it but pay attention to what you are doing, how you’re running not at what are the others around you doing.

What was going through my mind in the first kilometre? „It’s cold outside, much colder than in Dubai. In Dubai I was drinking 0.5 litres of isotonic drink each 5 kilometres but this time the course is measured in miles, each mile has 1.6 kilometres and each 5 kilometres.. Mathematics”. I was thinking at what water stations should I drink at and which ones should I skip? In the end I decided to drink by feeling. I thought about all these things by the time I reached kilometre 1 and then I realized that my right hand was heavier than the left – after a quick look I realized that I didn’t 100% followed my „before-the-start” ritual: I took the Power Gel but forgot to drink all the 0.5 isotonic drink. Another problem, damn, I could drink but I couldn’t throw the bottle anywhere on the bridge as another runner could have stepped on it and injured himself. So I drank half of it and placed it carefully (as careful as you can be while running) in the area that was separating us from the elite runners and made sure to mark in my mind  a „+1 glass at the next drinks station” to compensate for the liquid which was missing.
 
(3)s33YP4_30708.jpgOne of the things that I „experimented” in New York for the first time was to run some sections of the race for someone – in this case, the hilly parts. Once I was going to reach the bottom of one of the hills I was going to think about one person and what it means for me, why I’m grateful to that person etc. The first hill I ran for my mom, the second for my dad, third for my sister, fourth for my grandparents and last, right before the finish line, for a fellow AIESEC alumnus, Razvan Zainescu, that is currently „running his own marathon”, recovering from a severe brain damage.
 
I was checking my watch quite often while running, to assure myself that I keep the right pace (not too fast or too slow). The problem with the watch was that I didn’t calibrate it as I should have, as there are different factors that matter: type of terrain (plain, hilly), speed. Because of this in order to run in „reality” with 4:11 min / km I had to run with 4:00 min / km (speed on the watch). From various reasons you always have to run a bit faster than planned: there are some hilly parts where you will slow down, the distance is calculated on the shortest possible way but in reality you cannot always run on it – sometimes you’re on the outside of a turn, you must do a couple of steps to the side to avoid some fellow runner, sometimes you’re on the opposite side of the road when you pass by the drinks station. Or, sometimes you see a small kid that reaches out with his hand for a „high 5” (or low 5 in this case) and you have to cross the street to do it, because you must, he came there to see you and the other runners and in this way he’s going to have some happy memories from the race as well.

It took about 10 kilometres until I’ve heard the first „Go Romania!”, also because in the first part the crowd is not that numerous. From that point on, I kept on hearing along the way „Way to go Romania!”, „Go get’em Romania!”, „Looking good there Romania!”.

The first 15 kilometres pass immediately. You just enter the race, have some time to warm-up, see a bit of the city, as some would say „you settle in”. Thousands of people cheer for you and you see people that deserve your applause, especially the ones in wheel chairs which make their way slowly towards the finish line.. and on the same course you will run, with all the hilly parts... no shortcuts.

At the „kilometre 15” mark I was on track. According to my estimates splits I was doing well – although I started a bit slower than supposed to, I managed to recover the time. My objective was to run the first half of the marathon slower (average 4 min 13 sec / kilometre) and then, in the second half, to give it all that I have. My estimation was that the fastest speed would have been 4 min / kilometre or 15 kilometres / hour. This technique is called „running a negative split” and is pretty common among runners. The downside of this technique is that with a too optimistic planning you might end up without any energy to run long before reaching the finish line. However, with proper training and a „negative split” run, on the last 10 kilometres you will get a lot of motivation from the fact that you will be running hard and pass by a lot of people who kept running at a constant pace.
 
Because the marathon course goes through all the neighbourhoods in New York, you enjoy a lot of cultural diversity that you seldom can get in other races: from the Polish neighbourhood where a „ „polska bialo czerwoni” (all the friendships with Polish colleagues during the AIESEC times helped) assure you immediately a strong cheer from the Polish crowd: „Go Romania!”. In Harlem, the crowds are organized in front of churches and support you the most classical way (for them) – singing gospel music. In Brooklyn, the area with a lot of artists looking for a breakthrough, there are tens of small bands playing on the streets for the runners, maybe a producer will hear one of their songs and give them a shot. My favourites, same as in Berlin, are the Spanish supporters – any time I saw a bigger crowd of Spanish people I just started shouting „eeee viiiiva espaaaagnaaa”.. which was enough to start a fiesta.

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A powerful moment for me is connected to the Queens Borough Bridge that connects Long Island to Manhattan, somewhere at kilometre 25. One of the steepest hills on the course, exposed to wind and with no crowds whatsoever. Right before the bridge, while running, someone shouted „Go Romania!” and as usual I shouted back „Thank you!”. Two seconds later, a guy on the right side of the road shouted „Fuck you, Romania!”.. in a split of a second I weighted my options. Mugur from high-school probably would have stopped to have a little chat with the guy... however, the high-school times are long gone so while continuing to run, I shouted „Fuck you too man! People like you make me stronger” and I looked ahead as I was entering the Queensborough bridge, which I was running for my father. And I ran, intrigued by what just happened but in the same time stronger and more eager to climb hard on this bridge.. next was one of the moments I will not forget very soon. As I was coming off the bridge, the course was taking a sharp turn to the left, a place where all the runners had to slow down quite a lot as the curve was going back under the bridge. That exact spot was indicated on the marathon course map as a „cheering place” , a place where the organizers were suggesting that the crowd should gather together... and there were indeed some 800-1000 people. When I went off the bridge and I was heading towards the turn, I was alone – on the bridge I went fast enough to pass by most of the ones that were ahead of me. I saw the crowd; they saw me coming off the bridge, breathing hard after the hill... I raised my hand in the air as if I would have just conquered something and their answer came immediately... cheering, shouting.. it felt like I was the friend they were supporting.. like I was Marius Lacatus and I just scored a goal for Steaua Bucharest, on the Ghencea stadium in a match against dinamo Bucharest.
 
After entering First Avenue I was able to feel the city, New York, skyscrapers, the grid-like aspect of the streets, thousands of people on the streets.. what a feeling. Between kilometre 26 and 33 there was nothing, it’s similar to the silence before the storm – your legs hurt but not too much, nevertheless you know that now the marathon itself starts. For me, the critical moment is kilometre 35. In Vienna I was collapsing somewhere between kilometre 35 and 36. In Berlin, at kilometre 35 I started crying without knowing it, because my mind realized that no matter how many „messages” it would try to give to me and make me stop I was going to finish and in the last 2 kilometres I ran with 30 seconds faster than expected. In New York I didn’t know what to expect. I just knew that kilometre 33 and 34 were in Bronx, kilometre 35 was next to a park in the north part of Manhattan and kilometre 36 was on 110th street where the girls (Birte and Tiffany) told me that they’ll try to meet me.
 
At Berlin, at kilometre 36, although I felt strong on my legs and that I have enough pulmonary and heart capacity to be able to run, the upper part of my body was very instable, and it felt as if it would break apart at any point of time. In the training for the New York Marathon I added strength training (core and upper body training) and swimming sessions. At kilometre 36 I felt that my legs hurt, which was expected, but the upper part of my body felt much stronger and more stable.
 
Any runner that says it doesn’t matter if someone comes to cheer for him or not, either never ran a race in his life or he’s lying. I told the girls that it would be great to see them there but it’s not imperative that they come...nevertheless they came. Mentally, it’s very helpful to look forward to something which is before the finish line, to know that somewhere on the course there’s something like a milestone. The down side of it is that if you expect to see your friends, you might get disappointed if you don’t meet them. There are many valid reasons this could happen: a too big of a crowd and you cannot see them, the meeting place is not the best as there are many other people there waiting to meet their friends, they are stuck in traffic somewhere or you’re running on one side of the street and they are on the other one etc.
 
(1)j5SnEFUC_44396.jpgFortunately, at kilometre 36, right before the last hill on the course, I saw the girls. Now, putting all the pieces of the puzzle together from the previous paragraphs: feeling very strong, having trained in the gym for 4 months, being enthusiastic about my progress in the race, running with 15.5 km / h.. imagine me and Tiffany giving each other a „high 5”. After the race she told me that immediately afterwards she was almost in tears with all her palm red.
 
From kilometre 36 to kilometre 40 I started running on known terrain, the same path where I ran the week before the race. These are the kilometres where some hit „the wall”, others have cramps and all of us suffer from something.. pain in the leg muscles (hamstrings, calves etc). However, no matter the pain, there was always someone to cheer for a fellow runner who just stopped because of a cramp or decreased the speed considerably: „Come on man, pain is temporary.. the glory of finishing will stay with you forever!” and you could see the runner picking up his pace and starting again. I was running.. running a „negative split”, outrunning other runners and breathing hard – according to the plan, I had to give it all.

The quotes or different messages that the crowd prepared for the marathon were everywhere: banners, flags, T-shirts go straight to the heart of every runner. At Berlin I saw for the first time „pain is temporary, glory is forever” (adapted after the phrase that Lance Armstrong’s mother was telling him before races). At New York, the phrase I will not forget was written on a banner a guy was holding up, somewhere at kilometre 37 – „No surrender” or how I interpreted it then, while running, „Never surrender” (to pain, thoughts of quitting etc). I shouted „Thanks!” and went on.. 2 more kilometres to go.
 
“Pain is temporary. It can last a minute, an hour, a day, a year, but in the end it will heal and maybe another one will take it’s place. Quitting, however, is forever” – Lance Armstrong

„I will do this!”.. that was what I had in my mind in the past 2 kilometres. I felt invincible. I was suffering and later on, in the pics of the race I could see this. Nevertheless, I knew that I have enough resources to finish the race and not just finish the race but giving it all that I had. On the last kilometres I stopped looking at the watch because I anyway didn’t have that much energy to increase the speed much more... nevertheless, I was keen to give it all that I had and go as fast as I could. The crowds saw that I’m fighting, that I wasn’t having an easy Sunday morning run with my dog but a fight between me and the marathon. A quote that I read at one point during my training and that I can say now I understand completely:

„Children have the ability to ignore statistics and percentages. Why don’t we learn from them? When we think about it, what choice do we have but to hope? We have two options, medical or emotional: to quit or fight ‘til the end.” – Lance Armstrong

The high point for me as a Romanian runner took place in the last 200 meters. During the race I kept listening to the cheering I got, to hear someone shouting „Let’s go Romania!” (in Romanian). Before the race I thought that I’ll meet many Romanians on the way... since there were 2 million people cheering across the city. With every kilometre that I ran, with every „Go Romania!” I’ve got, I was a bit sad because I didn’t hear anyone cheering for me in my own language. Towards the end, I got used with the thought that I will not meet a Romanian. As I was about to enter the last turn and go into Central Park and cross the finish line, I saw someone stepping out of the crowd. A gentleman, about 40 years old, was looking straight at me. I thought he’s one of those that had a bad experience with Romanians and similar to the guy from the Queens borough bridge will give me the „F__k you, Romania!”... as I was getting close to where he was, he smiled and shouted „Hai România!”.. and for a fraction of a second I could swear that time stopped... I clearly remember his face.. and there I went on the last 200m.. stronger than I ever expected I’ll be at this point.
 
After the Berlin marathon, when I looked at the pictures and the movie from the finish line, I couldn’t help myself bursting in laughter. I was a mess – at the finish line, the photographer asked me to raise my hands in sign of victory but I couldn’t. At New York I went mentally through the last 200 meters many times – imagining myself running this part, the crowd, the sky, the trees... but even more than this, myself – pushing hard and looking strong as I crossed the finish line.

I entered strong the last hilly part, right before the finish line. For a second I thought of Razvan Zainescu and his own „marathon” to get back to a normal life... I raised my hands and that was it, I just crossed the finish line... I conquered my fear, again. Later on that day, I found out from my sister that my mother saw me crossing the finish line because in those exact moments they were showing an interview from the finish line and there I was, in the background, finishing the marathon.

7. After crossing the finish line (what I felt, what’s next)
 
„I finished in 2:55:34!”.. I couldn’t believe it. I really did it. Once again I proved to myself that there are no limits. All the fears that I had: that I will fail, that I will quit and be disappointed, that I bought so much stuff with the New York marathon logo that will remember me of my failure.. all these were gone.

After every run, it’s important not to stop suddenly but to „cool down” by running easy or walking for 1-2 kilometres to allow blood to wash away the lactic acid from your muscles. At Berlin, one year before, immediately after getting my medal I went and sat down on the grass. Because I didn’t cool down, it took me a long time to recover. At NY, the organizers are very experienced and they arrange the finish line area in such a way that you have to walk 2 kilometres to get to the truck that has your stuff (that you dropped off before going to the starting line). All throughout the 2 kilometres there are nurses and doctors, ready to help you in case of emergency.. however I didn’t need a doctor but rather a microphone and a stage, since I was in a mood for making jokes.
 
As I was walking, the medical staff constantly came to me to ask me whether I’m ok. There came one, then the second one, the third.. I was starting to worry. When the forth one came, a lady doctor, I looked at her and asked: „Excuse me madam, why do you come only to me? Do I look that bad? Look at this guy for example (pointing to a man walking alongside me).. there’s no way I can look as bad as he does – sorry man, don’t take it personal” and the gentleman and the others around started laughing. After another 200 meters, I saw a small uphill part and many people from the medical staff on the side cheering and congratulating the finishers... so I gathered the last resources that I had and forced a sprint (in ended up being a struggled fast walking), „high 5”-ing with every one of them. Towards the end I started bargaining with the medics: „How much for your legs? I just need to rent them for 2 days and I’ll return them afterwards”... overall a good atmosphere.
 
I also met the guy who told me at the start that he wants to finish in 2h 40 minutes and he really did it.. and on top of that, he looked much better than me.
 
After finishing the Berlin marathon I wrote a message to a couple of my friends. This time I wrote only one, to my family.

Finally, I met Birte and Tiffany and thanked them for coming to see me. Then we’ve met Antonio and Bianca. After every marathon I have a craving for a certain type of food – at Berlin I wanted a stake, at New York a pizza. After eating all the Power Bars and protein rich drinks (meant to help your muscles recover faster) we went for a pizza. Without any doubt I can declare it the worst pizza I ever had (Barbecue Chicken Pizza)... bleah.. not everything can be perfect.
 
I found out the results the next day: 640th out of 42,000 runners, 118th at my age category, fastest Romanian man to ever run the NY Marathon, though I don’t really take this seriously, considering the fact that no elite runner from Romania ever ran the race – instead there were quite some elite runners women with very good times, under 2 hours 30 minutes.
 
Afterwards, the next week was the beginning of the recovery period, planned long before the race. In the recovery you don’t stop running but rather you add some other training sessions in the schedule – lower impact, low effort – such as swimming, cross-training, easy biking, to make the blood move through your legs and wash away the lactic acid. After two days of walking like a duck in New York, I restarted running so in a week I was back to my usual schedule. With lots of sleep and lots of food rich in proteins and carbohydrates, my body started to recover, slow and steady.

8. Conclusions

Everything that should have been said, has been said in the lines above. In the end, two ideas and a quote:

„The journey is the reward” – It was not the finisher’s medal that made me happy but the memory of the past months, the ups and downs that I encountered, the moments I thought about quitting and I didn’t... these are the things I will never forget and the ones that give me energy to keep going.
 
„Hello New York, Good Bye Old Mugurel” – the story of New York is another story that contributes to who I am, what matters for me, what I am capable of doing when I want to achieve my dream.

In the end, a quote from Michael Phelps, which I believe summarizes perfectly what I believe in terms of objectives, no matter if they are New Year’s Eve resolutions or things that we put on our „to do” list for today, tomorrow, next week or a couple of years from now:

„I wouldn’t say that nothing is impossible. However, I do believe that everything is possible if you put your mind into it, dedicate time and work hard to reach your objective.”

Good luck,
Mugur Florea

December 30th 2009


Text and pictures by Mugur Florea

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