Alan Safdieh: I Ran My First Marathon at the Age of 40
By Alan Safdieh
On Nov. 4, I ran the TCS NYC Marathon (26.2 miles) and finished in 4 hours 8 minutes. Just to be clear, I am not a professional runner. I work in an office, mostly at a desk, and balance a demanding schedule like many others in our community. In fact, I only started running with any consistency in February of this year.
Many friends, family, and colleagues always ask me how and why I got into running? Truthfully, I ask myself the same question constantly. I don't remember exactly why I chose running. Perhaps it was just a matter of convenience as I already had a treadmill sitting in my basement collecting dust. Prior to 2018, I can probably count on two hands how many times I had actually used it. I think I bought it on a whim on some Black Friday sale almost 10 years ago but barely touched it.
The question still remains of why I started running. The simple answer was I realized that I am not getting any younger and I have been steadily gaining weight and feeling more sluggish over the years and was determined to make some lifestyle adjustments and focus more on my health and well being.
What many do not know is that I have also been dealing with Ulcerative Colitis for many years with rounds of inflammation and flare-ups that just never seem to go away for good. I've was being treated by the top GI doctors in NYC but always got the same answer, there is no cure for Chron's/UC. There are only medications to keep the inflammation under control. This is true and I have no doubts that the Doctors were correct, they are highly experienced, knowledgeable, and caring. I was also told that though best to avoid an unhealthy lifestyle there is no specific diet or exercise that would help. So for many years I advanced from one medication to the next and got no long-term reprieve, I made no lifestyle changes either. In the 2017 year I was advanced to the next level of medication, a TNF blocking biological medication administered via injection weekly. I was not happy about this but went forward. The medication actually did work well in keeping the symptoms at bay. Meanwhile, for a year all I could think about were the side effects and long-term unknowns, plus had to always be concerned with getting sick as the medication directly lowers immunity to illness. After a year I asked the doctor if I can stop using this medication, the answer I got was if it is working why stop? I switched doctors yet again and posed the same question. My new doctor was more comfortable with cutting back the frequency and monitoring the results. This was just about a year ago.
I decided that I no longer want to depend on a medication with a laundry list of scary side effects, I wanted to take control of my own health. I started doing some research and found that aerobic activity along with changes in diet can have a direct effect on Colon health. In December 2017 I began doing some 20-30 minute runs on the treadmill and started to feel energized. I also experimented with different foods eventually choosing to eliminate dairy from my diet. I reduced the medication frequency and by the beginning of the summer stopped completely. Over these months I started to lose some weight, my energy levels started to increase, and I just was feeling great both physically and mentally. (Disclaimer: Please don't take my experience as medical advice, consult with a medical professional as I did.)
How did I go from a casual treadmill runner to completing a marathon in less than a year? That is where OPR comes into play. I was in Israel over winter break last year, we rented an apartment so didn't have a gym, I figured we will be doing so much touring and walking it makes up for the treadmill runs I would be missing. One morning we were sitting in the lobby of the Citadel waiting for family and I see Elliot Simhon come in from a run. I just remember thinking, wow, that's impressive, running the streets of Jerusalem while on vacation. Who does that?
I returned from Israel and started talking to my friend David Sutton. I knew about his journey and how he overcame far more serious health issues, plus he was a runner. I ordered my first pair of running shoes in February (prior was using a 10+-year-old pair of sneakers), and downloaded a fitness tracking app. I set out on my first outdoor run on February 11th, 2.7 miles in 31 minutes, it was hard, I had no goal in mind, was just running. Knowing myself if I had no goal the motivation to run will not last so I spoke to David and asked him if I should sign up for a 5K in March. He agreed to do it with me and the training began. I started doing more outdoor runs, increasing distance and speed, then on March 4th my first run in Prospect Park, I just remember thinking how great it was seeing all the runners in the park! I ran my first 5K race on March 11th in under 26 minutes and felt great.
I asked David what's next? 10K? Half? Full? It was at that point that he introduced me to the OPR family. I joined the OPR group mid-March not knowing who was in the group or what it was all about, just figured it was a good way to find some fellow runners to pair up with. I quickly realized that the group was much more than just a running club, it is a family of people who truly care about each other and drive each other to reach their best potential. I was intimidated being an amateur runner who didn't even own a pair of running shoes until the week before. Members are talking about their runs, marathon's, PRs, BQs, 9+1s, salts, cadence, pace, tape, rollers, gels - all terms I have never heard before.
I quickly realized my Fitbit is not going to cut it and picked up a Garmin watch, the OPR tracker of choice. I clocked my first Garmin run on March 25th, was also my longest run ever at 6.7 miles, I did the run in 58 minutes. I remember David Sutton texting me all excited, "you just ran your longest run ever and did it at an 8:46 pace!" He was so happy with what I achieved I just thought to myself perhaps I can do more. I signed up for a Half Marathon on June 3rd, downloaded a 2-month training plan and started to train. I still had no clue what I was doing and counted on the sound advise of the OPR group if I had any questions along the way.
I remember David Balasiano (OPR Chief) reached out to me to make sure I was training right, not overdoing it, and being careful to avoid injury. Here is a guy that doesn't know me but truly cared about my well being, it was then I realized what OPR was really all about and I just felt that I want to be a part of this. OPR is a mix of old and young, veteran and beginner, tri-athletes, ironmen, swimmers, bikers, and elite level runners, all helping each other achieve their maximum potential. Everyone is truly happy in each other's successes.
Fast forward to June 3rd, I completed my virtual training program and ran my first Half Marathon in 1 hour 46 minutes, I was thrilled and the OPR group was so happy for my achievement. Of course, I asked David Sutton, what's next, a full? He told me to talk to a coach and not to rush into anything without thinking it through but also said I can achieve anything. I did just that, spoke to and hired a running coach and began training for the NYC Full Marathon. The summer as an OPR runner was like no summer I ever had before. I got to run and explore the Jersey Shore by foot, run with friends, compete in races achieving more PRs, participate in group track runs, and best of all participate in the SBH 5K as part of the Fast & Furious OPR group with my family watching! I then ran in the family race with my daughters, son, and niece which was better than any PR!
I followed a serious training program over the Summer and Fall, didn't matter if it was hot, humid, wet, windy, or cold. I was determined to not miss a beat and complete my first full marathon. My coach had me add in bike rides for cross training as well. Through this process I was feeling great, my health was in check, and found the energy that I thought I lost long ago, I had a new found lease on life. I turned 40 this past summer but I felt like I was 20 again! I thank Hashem every day that I was given this opportunity and that he continues to give me good health, everything is from Hashem and there would be no achievements, growth, or PRs if not for Hashem. This is well understood among the OPR group members which is why it is so simple for everyone in the group to just want to help others and to be so happy for each other success. The O in OPR should stand for Others, everyone in the group is about what they can do to help others achieve.
This past Sunday was Marathon Sunday in NYC. Prior to 2018 Marathon Sunday just meant the day that you can't drive anywhere, always thought how inconvenient the day was, these runners decide to close bridges and streets and cause so much traffic. Well, this year I was one of those runners. I got on a bus from Shaare Zion 6 a.m. with a group of fellow OPR runners participating in the marathon. Everyone set out to achieve their personal goals but not focused on their own results, rather how they can help and guide others in the group. I personally was so nervous the weeks prior not knowing what to expect, the expert members of the OPR group were there to answer any questions, calm nerves, and to remind me to just have fun!
Ralph Toussie posted a comment that carried me through the race, “As Mike Wardian said to me when I told him I was nervous about a race: 'Why? Your livelihood doesn’t depend on it.' If we are not doing it for fun then why are we doing it? I always told myself I’d stop running when it stops being fun. I don’t get paid to do this!”
I don’t think he realized how this simple statement resonated with me and all the nervousness dissipated.
I had my own goals in mind but once I started running the power of 50,000 runners and millions of spectators just took over. I was so overtaken with emotion running over the Verrazano bridge, just kept thanking Hashem as I took in the scene around me. I was overjoyed when I saw my family waiting for me at mile 7 (official OPR cheer zone!), I stopped to tell them about the experience and to thank them for coming out, the kids were so excited to see me, after a minute my dad reminded me I was in a race and to get going again!!
I ran at my goal pace for about 20 miles which was probably too aggressive for a first-time marathon, didn’t realize how tough this course really is. After about 20 miles I started to feel like I was on empty and if I continued to push hard I probably wouldn't finish. I decided this race for me is no longer about meeting specific goals, it is about having fun, I slowed down and enjoyed block after block of spectators yelling my name, I spoke to fellow runners, I engaged the crowds and volunteers, and just enjoyed what David B. called the best and longest block party in the world! It was truly an amazing experience. B'H I crossed the finish line and felt like I just conquered the world. I pulled out my phone and started checking on my fellow OPR runners and was so happy to see the major achievements accomplished that day by everyone. Only in OPR will you see regular community members in the ranks of elite professional athletes.
I finished the day surrounded by family who was just astonished at what I accomplished in such a short period of time. I always refer back to OPR, none of what I achieved would've been possible without the OPR group. I learned a major lesson this year - anything is possible with the support of friends!
It goes without saying that ZERO would be possible without the support of my wife Shelly. It isn’t easy being the spouse of an amateur runner, I actually suggested to someone that OPR start a spousal support group. For us, running became fun and exhilarating, but an outsider would look at us as insane and obsessed! Many hours a week go into training for a marathon and without support from my wife that would’ve been impossible. Keeping dinner warm so I can get in a run after work, scheduling our Sundays around long runs, or waiting up for me when I do something crazy like a 13 mile run at midnight! Of course, she was there for me at the finish line to scoop me up and drive me home. Really couldn’t have achieved this without her!
On Monday morning I asked David Sutton. What's next?