As a kid, my family would spend summers in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York. It was the best time of the year for a city kid: fresh air, freedom and mosquitoes. Well, two out of three ain’t bad. One summer, I must have been fifteen, I worked as a Counselor In Training for five year-olds at a day camp. I was technically too young to be a CIT but my father was the accountant for the owners and I reaped the benefits.
On Sunday mornings, while my mother slept in, my father would drive my younger brother and me to Monticello to do the weekly shopping. My father was a coupon clipper and he would flip through his plastic red coupon box as we trolled the aisles of Shop Rite. Before heading home, we would make the obligatory stop at Katz’s kosher bakery for delicious gooey cakes and pastries freshly baked and packaged in Katz’s signature pink boxes. (A single bite of one of those chocolate custard donuts could have easily clogged an artery)
One Sunday morning, my brother and I saw a sign-up table for a 10k race the following Sunday (that’s 6.2 miles for the metrically challenged among us). The race was called “The Monster”. My brother and I decided that it would be cool to run the race and since the funds being raised were going to benefit children with Cerebral Palsy we’d get a good deed out of it as well. We signed up for the race and my father ponied up the registration fees. Unfortunately for him, they didn’t take coupons!
Now, a race doesn’t get called “The Monster” for nothing. The Monster was disproportionately uphill which gave rise to its notoriety as one of the most grueling races in the county. That fact made little impression on my brother and me. Heck, we were teenagers, the entire race could have been 90 degrees straight up Mt. Kilimanjaro and we wouldn’t have flinched. We didn’t think to train at all in the little time left before the race (unless you count the hours I spent running after my campers each day). We didn’t even think to buy a decent pair of running shoes. And so, before you know it, Sunday rolled around and we showed up on Main Street in Monticello in high-top New Balance basketball sneakers! We dutifully pinned our numbers on our shirts and headed to the starting line.
The race started out just fine as we proudly kept pace with the veteran runners at the front of the pack. All was still going well about a half mile in as we gratefully grabbed the sweating cups offered at the first water station. About a mile in, things began to change. For a race that was disproportionately uphill, things were going downhill fast. For some unexplained reason, my high-top basketball shoes, which had served me so well on the basketball court, began to fail me. They were becoming increasingly heavier, itchier and wetter. I might just as well have been running the race in snowshoes! For some other inexplicable reason the water stations were becoming spaced out at light year intervals. Hey, this is not so simple, I began to think. At some point, I began walking and shortly thereafter nearly half-crawling. Oh, if only I could wring out my socks for a few precious sips of water.
When it finally appeared that I was nearing the end of the race, there was a steep downhill incline that extended all the way to the finish line. After all of that up-hill climbing it was comforting to know that what goes up still must come down. As I reached the hill, I broke out into a full-fledged sprint laughingly leaving the other, more properly paced runners in my dust. Such is the foolish pride of youth that refuses to watch others actually do something better and smarter than oneself.
That evening, The Monster safely behind us, my brother and I sprawled out on the deck lounge chairs to watch the Perseid meteor shower. The Perseid meteor shower is the most prevalent meteor shower observable from the Northern hemisphere. On a clear, dark night you can see scores of “shooting stars” within an hour! And it was a crystal clear night with a waning moon and no sign of the bright lights we had left behind in the city since Memorial day. Truly awesome. We lay there, in our hooded race sweatshirts, for hours. Partially because we had never seen anything so beautiful in our lives but mostly because we couldn’t move our legs!
For the next two weeks, my muscles were so fatigued that I could barely walk. Each morning presented a new challenge to get out of bed and climb on to the bus for work. Every day I looked forward to arts & crafts when I was given a 45 minute break. I would lie down on the playground ride that the kids affectionately called the “vomit wheel” grateful for the opportunity to be off my feet.
Elul presents us with the opportunity to begin our preparations for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. Walking in to these holy days without preparation is not recommended. Squeezing teshuvah in to those few hours spent in shul on these days is simply not enough. You can’t run a 10K race without training and you can’t squeeze a year’s worth of teshuvah into three days. And so, we have been given a mandatory training period called Elul. An entire month set aside to allow us to begin our introspection and prepare and pace ourselves for the big days–Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. As with exercise, it’s important to start slow, warming up and steadily increasing both in intensity and duration so that by the time the Yomim Noraim arrive, we will be in proper shape for them.
Remember: Showing up in sneakers on Yom Kippur is a good move but trying to run a 10K race in high top basketball sneakers is bound to lead to failure.