In 1984, at age 29, I signed up to run the first Long Island Half Marathon when organizers of the full 26.2-mile marathon came up with the idea for a shorter race. The abridged route was a relatively new distance at the time, but it turned out to be a prescient decision.
The half marathon is now one of the most popular in the sport of road running. The Long Island Half Marathon on May 4 marked the 30th anniversary for the 13.1-mile competition, and this year, I decided to see if I could beat my time from 1984.
Since that first race, I've completed 26 full marathons and dozens of half marathons all over the world. But like many runners, I still need a challenge, some motivation to keep up with the exercise we all need.
Also, while it may sound impressive to be running faster than I did three decades earlier, it's not such a big deal when you consider that back then, I had just started running with some consistency, and had no idea what I was getting myself into. Even a half marathon requires a full, concentrated effort and months of training to prepare. You can't just wake up one morning and decide to race.
Indeed, on the morning of that first half marathon, I barely made it out of bed. I overslept, I didn't eat breakfast; I nearly missed the starter's gun; I had no idea what pacing meant. But I had fresh, youthful legs and managed to run a time of 1 hour, 34 minutes, 45 seconds, based on my then state-of-the-art Casio watch. My official time was almost seven minutes slower: This included the time it took me to get from the very back of the pack -- where I ended up after arriving late -- to the start line. Trying to beat that official extended time this year was less of a challenge, so I decided to run against my watch time.
My official finish in 1984 was 775 out of a field of 3,912. In succeeding years, I'd whittled my times in the Long Island Half Marathon to a respectable 1:27, but that was then. Now, I am wiser but older -- and in endurance sports, the former helps, but cannot always compensate for the latter. That lingering cold I caught two weeks before this year's race? I probably would have shaken it off a lot quicker back in '84. The ever-tightening calf muscles that seemed one foot-strike away from a crippling cramp? I never felt anything like that in my first race.
The 1984 Long Island Half Marathon started in Eisenhower Park and finished on the Jones Beach boardwalk. The course wound through East Meadow and Bellmore, with runners turning left onto Sunrise Highway before racing south on Wantagh Parkway.
As I made the turn that day, my uncle George Schneider, who lived in Seaford, stepped out of a crowd of spectators. "Johnny!" he called out, waving.
Seeing a familiar face was a hugely uplifting moment for me. Reflecting on that shout-out during this year's race was bittersweet. My Uncle George is deceased, as is every other member of his generation in my family, including my parents. Nobody calls me Johnny anymore.
I recalled also the euphoria of spotting the Jones Beach Tower, looming in the distance. "We're almost there!" I remember thinking. My mistake. The 200-foot tower is visible from a long way off, and there were still miles to go.
This year, I spent little time looking at the scenery. But I took more time preparing, making sure I ate breakfast and arriving well before the start. I even remembered to apply sunscreen.
From the get-go of this year's half, I was fixated on my watch. I calculated the times I needed to reach certain mile marks to break that 1:34:45. To give myself a cushion, I went out aggressively. Maybe if I wasn't sniffling and coughing I could have maintained the faster pace, but age teaches us to be more accepting, and so after the halfway point (on Jericho Turnpike in Westbury) I yielded.
Young guys and gals (of which there are far more now in this race than there were in 1984) went sailing past me. Normally, that would have motivated me to pick it up. But now, the only guy I was worried about keeping ahead of was the younger me -- the 20-something whose favorite TV show was "Hill Street Blues," who drank a lot of Amstel Light beer, and who thought that Duran Duran were as good as The Beatles (just kidding on that last one).
My appearance has changed. I no longer sport an '80s guy perm, or wear now-unfashionable short shorts for running. But those are superficial differences. Since 1984, I've remarried; I'm a father; a homeowner; have a different job; new friends. Thinking about all of that as I clicked off the miles, I realized there's hardly anything that hasn't changed in my life! I'm still that guy but with a different hairdo, longer shorts and three additional decades of life experience.
As I turned off Carman Avenue and on to the road that winds through the Eisenhower Park golf course -- the last mile of the race -- I checked my watch. To beat my '84 time, I was going to have to hustle. As I made the final turn to the finish line, across from Parking Field 4, I broke into a flat-out sprint. I could hear race announcer Terry Bisogno, who knew about my goal, tell the crowd that I was trying to break my time from 30 years ago, and it appeared as if I was going to do it.
I crossed the line in 1 hour, 33 minutes, 59 seconds; about 45 seconds faster than in 1984.
Some might say that anyone trying to outrun his past must be deathly afraid of aging. I don't think I am. The idea of beating my own time wasn't based in fear, but I confess: What terrifies me is the thought of that perm.