By Robert Caraballo.
Overcoming Family Problems To Succeed.
On November 1, 2015, Allin Nowenstein completed his first TCS New York City Marathon. Like many New Yorkers and inexperienced runners alike, he jumped in headfirst with the sole expectation of completing 26.2 miles–ignited by chance, heartache, weight gain, and above all, the loss of his father.
Today, Allin agreed to share his 2015 TCS New York City Marathon story with me, bringing a brutal honesty and intrigue to what he felt was a huge leap in transforming his life. We toasted to friendship and honesty and headed over to his apartment to revisit the past.
Prior to making a decision to run the 2015 New York City Marathon, did you find it intimidating?
I didn’t think it was something I could do because I was out of shape. A few years ago, I went to see a friend of mine (who was part of the “elite”) run the marathon, and he finished at about two hours and 48 minutes. I believe it was at mile 16 at the Triborough Bridge where I saw tons of people. The way they cheered for the runners was so amazing to me. I moved on to Central Park where this beautiful energy continued. It was so beautiful to see the city alive. I thought, I want some of that, but I’m not capable.
But you had an interest in running at the time?
I was always running, but maybe a mile or two. It wasn’t necessarily a routine. I enjoyed casual running, something I probably took up through my mom.
So when did you decide you actually wanted to run the marathon?
Two years ago, I was talking to some friends about running a half marathon. They said, “You know what, if you’re going to prepare for this half marathon, you might as well prepare for the full marathon and do the curriculum to qualify for the New York Road Runners, which is nine races plus a volunteer race. I never signed up for these races, but they did, and I regretted it. THEN, a few things happened to me.
I was demoted at work and given a difficult overnight shift. Then, my girlfriend broke up with me. Lastly, my stepfather was diagnosed with cancer. Everything happened in the time span of about a month. I felt tired of being helpless. I believe if there is a problem, and I’m the common denominator, I gotta do something to change that. I wanted to change that. The only thing in my head was the marathon. I thought, I’ll join a charity to enter the marathon. My stepfather was diagnosed with cancer, and my birth father died of cancer five years ago. That reminder pushed me to the extreme.
Can you elaborate on the relationship with your father? How did that push you?
Let’s just put it this way, when I was younger, he was the best father one could have. He took me everywhere and made me feel like his teammate. When I was older, he kind of fell off with drugs. Maybe as an adult, it became clearer to me about his addiction. I knew he had a drug history, but I wasn’t aware to what extent. I started regretting him. I began to be verbally abusive to him. We lived together for years, and we fought all the time. I fought a lot because I didn’t know how to say “Dad, I love you. Stop using.” I didn’t know how to control my emotions and would just yell. We would yell back and forth. I remember one day a friend came over, and while in another room my father asked him, “How’s Allin? Just tell him I love him.” That’s the kind of relationship we had.
When I found out my dad was terminal, it was my birthday. He didn’t call, and he always called me at 12 noon. I tried not to think much of it. A week later, I got a call from a weird number. It was from the hospital, and the nurse said, “Your father has been here for a week. He just wanted to see how you were doing.” I went to check on him, and I found out that he only had five months to live. It was a shock, and I regretted everything instantly. I dedicated myself to making amends.
There was no game plan. It was go time. I just wanted to take care of him until his time was done. I remember small moments where he would say something like “Hey, I wish I would have chosen the same group of friends you did. Maybe I wouldn’t be here (the hospital).” Moments like this made me feel like I was doing the right thing, but when he passed, I still felt a lot of pain and regret that I thought I could never fix. I went to bereavement counseling for a year and learned I had to take my negative energy and turn it into something positive, and I’m still doing that.
Did you have any expectations going into your decision to run?
I had no expectations other than to finish. It was the first thing I was going to give my all to. I had a kind of Buddhist mentality. Whatever I put in was whatever I’d be putting out.
Do you consider yourself an athlete?
NO, but everyone on my running team would have killed me for that statement. So I’d have to say yes.
What did you do to train?
First, I did very little running and focused on diet. Then, I added some cross training and routinely went on three-mile runs twice a week. Five months later, I lost about 25 pounds and joined my running group, Fred’s Team, a charity organization for Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Our training regime was twice a week drills running on flat ground to hills, followed by a long run on the weekend. After these runs, roughly 14 miles, I was drained, couldn’t walk, and yeah, my feet were atrocious. They looked similar to [the] feet in The Hobbit.
What was the worst and best thing during preparation?
The worst thing was hearing what people thought about me. When you tell someone you’re doing a marathon, you can be laughed at. I recall being told I wasn’t in optimal shape, or that I wasn’t gonna finish, and these were my friends telling me this! Maybe even worse was feeling like s— on Mondays, not being able to walk. The best thing was being able to use running as an excuse to eat whatever I wanted! The runs were really hard and tested who you were, and so in a way the best and worst things were the runs themselves. They always put me in the worst position to bring the best out of myself.
Take me into your world once the race began. After that trigger released, what happened next?
You feel like a rock star as people shout your name and support you. You feel like the king of the world but remind yourself to relax. Don’t go too fast. Keep calm. For the first few miles, people are giving you small snacks and liquid. Music is playing. It’s amazing. The whole city is rooting for you. Why can’t the city be like this every day? Why can’t we love each other every day? Deeper into the race, I unexpectedly bumped into my best friend who waited on the spectator line to support me with his family, and I freaked out in excitement. I felt his energy, and it felt like a win. I went up to him, gave him, his wife, and kids a hug, and I went off again.
While approaching the Queensboro Bridge, everything becomes quiet. Everyone is struggling with a “let’s get past this hill” mentality. Then you hear what’s called a wall of sound. A rumbling sound. What it is ..is people. I remember BEING where this crowd was and rooting for my friends. It was like a whole circle of life thing. I get off the bridge and see this wall of people just chanting and cheering for me. About 16 miles in, it’s a straight shot with a slight incline on the East Side of Manhattan. I notice that my body is not cooperating with me, but I tell myself “I’m gonna push you.” By the time I head into the Bronx, it looks like a scene from the Walking Dead.
So many people are stretching and limping or walking in agony, and mentally it made me want to quit. I started to move slower, followed by a cramp. I looked to one of my teammates and asked, “Should I stop?” She said, “If you stop, you’re never gonna start again, and you’ll be walking the final six miles.” I managed to keep running. I wore a shirt that said “Feet Don’t Fail Me Now,” but I should have a worn one that says “Legs Don’t Fail Me Now.” I get off the Willis Avenue Bridge, and all of a sudden, I hear everyone, including you, shouting my name from a distance. “Allin! Allin!” One of you guys offered me a banana. Man, I grabbed and ate that banana like a monster, possibly with the peel on.
You looked pretty zone in when I saw you. It looked like there were no time for games. Do you even remember what you felt like?
It was the most focused I’ve ever been in my life. This is what you train for. This is just life throwing you a curveball, and because I started this at such a down moment, the worst part was just signing up for this and committing myself to it. I didn’t wanna let myself or anyone down. I didn’t wanna let my stepfather down.
I did think about my ex with a kind of “Look at me now” attitude. I didn’t wanna let my dad down. He always said that if you are going to do something, do it with pride, and do it right. So to me, that meant not walking and that I had to finish at my best. This mentality was something I did not have before I did the Marathon. I’m doing this! –Plus, Alicia Keys was in the race, so I told myself, “Let me look for that booty!” I wanted to use whatever I could as motivation.
What else happened?
Throughout this whole time, you’re talking to yourself. It’s the longest conversation you’re ever going to have in your life, and I already talk a lot. I was like “Damn, I’m annoying.” I told myself to block out the negative, but I freaked out and got very emotional during the last mile. I started to remember people who told me I was too fat, wasn’t gonna do anything. My dad was a musician and into funk. As I’m passing a section, I hear his favorite song being played, “Play That Funky Music.” This is so cliché, [I thought], but I felt like he was with me.
He always wanted to be my best friend and partner, so I have no doubt he helped me through the race. I started crying and remind myself “I’m also doing this for you, Dad.” Then someone next to me warned me that I can’t cry and breathe properly. “It’ll get you every time.” I started to ventilate and didn’t realize it. He tells me to get in control of my emotions, because I couldn’t breathe like that.
Each step was pain, and it felt like a hammer hitting my calves. I remember people looking at my shirt with the “Feet Don’t Fail Me” quote, but they shouted “ALLIN DON’T FAIL ME!” Really? I don’t need that added pressure! People who were tired started to walk, and I didn’t have any energy to move around and pass them, so I started to yell at them. “Move! I’m running!” I was an A-hole, but it was the last mile. I tried to pick up speed and couldn’t, but I could see the finish line.
It wasn’t like this magical moment where I didn’t remember what happened. I remember EXACTLY what happened. This was a culmination of eight months of training, dealing with my own BS, and then me turning it all into something positive. I wanted to finish strong even if it was five steps of good pace. I crossed the finish line, told my friends “I love you guys,” and then I pointed up to the sky for my father. I started crying like a girl on the chest of one of my male teammates. I thought, “Really? Why couldn’t a girl hold me right now? This is so not cool.” I thanked my team but internally said more like, “You got me here, and now I feel like a BOSS.”
How did your body feel once it ended?
It really hit at the finish line. I couldn’t feel my legs. Couldn’t walk. I wanted cake, ice cream, and pizza all in one with beer and some shots.
What was your finishing time?
4 hours and 42 minutes..
Is that good or bad?
I guess it was pretty good as a first time marathon runner–with a late cramp.
Now that you completed your first marathon, how has it changed your life, if at all?
It made me more focused and changed my perspective about life, whether it’s spiritual or other. Also, if you want things, you have to trust the process and enjoy the journey. Be patient, act when you’re supposed to act, and SHUT UP when you’re supposed to listen. You’ll get everything you need, and I never felt that before the marathon. I didn’t know I could be such a BOSS.
Any advice for someone deciding to run the marathon for the first time?
Think less. Run more. It’s gonna be daunting. It’s gonna be hard. Stick with a program. Get a buddy. Doing this alone is hard, but if you’re motivated enough, you will do this.
Why should anyone consider running a marathon?
It’s an amazing test of who you are, an amazing way to see the city and what it has to offer. As New Yorkers we can be a-holes, but on this day, it’s more love than any other day, including Christmas. It’s an explosion of humanity.
Do you plan to run again?
Yes. I’m doing it again and want to be able to continue contributing to a good cause and share my story to inspire others. To be honest, the thought in my mind after the pain was that I’d never do it again. But when I thought about the finish line once the storm passed, I couldn’t let go of that amazing feeling.
As I sat down with Allin, it wasn’t just the details of his story that grabbed my attention. His eyes were an honest mirror into his soul, fixated on a memory. His tone was reflective of reliving a humbling experience that personified transformation and hope.
It was eerily similar to my own journey of taking a shot in the dark and finding unexpected success, purpose, and happiness. I didn’t know the extent of my creative passion to write, yet here I am like Allin, discovering more about my myself, pushed by a moment that changed me and validated my questions about being an artist.
It is truly a wonder what a single act can do, even when it is rooted in unbearable pain. The reward is real, and we could all use a little Allin perspective infused in us–to control our destiny and feel like a BOSS.
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