Hailing Amtrack Trains

The other weekend, I was in New York City for my badass/ninja social media job that sometimes takes me to cool places like The Armory in Washington Heights. I got done early on Sunday, around 4:35. I had a 7:30 p.m. Amtrak ticket back to Boston on train #132 to South Station. But I knew the next train left NYC at 5 p.m. OK, what the fuck. Wouldn’t be the first time I went off script. I hailed a cab and by 4:40, we were punching through Manhattan traffic, me sitting on the edge of my seat, tying my running shoes and thinking of the times growing up when we tied our shoes tight at parties when we thought the cops were for sure going to show up and the running would begin. I figured with the 15-20 minute cab ride to Penn Station and some beastly sprints, and a little luck, I’d be on my way to Beantown and my lovely pre-wife, before the sun started dropping. Plus it’d be nice to greet my tribe first thing Monday morning as the sun came up on more than three hours of sleep. But with a nagging heel injury that kept me from a month of Destination Decks & Summit Ave repeats, gear in both hands, and the clock ticking in my ears like I was wearing headphones, I knew it was a tall order. I didn’t exactly have a game plan. I just knew I’d been preparing for this moment for the past 20 years.

Penn Station

In speaking to November Project and non-NP folks around the continent, and inside the city I call home, a common answer to the question: “What are you training for?” is, simply, “Life.” This always makes me smile. I picture people running from their desks as if aliens are attacking earth or outsprinting hot lava rolling down the street. It makes me think of climbing stairs at the end of a long-ass day and not having the 7th-floor walk-up be the part that tips the scale toward a just-my-shitty-ass-luck feeling, but that instead tightens all the screws. Life. It’s what we make it.

But mostly, the “life” response takes me back to November, 2003. I was running the stadium alone in the dark with my backpack and headphones. The day of the week didn’t matter back then. I was as fit as I’ve ever been though unaffiliated with any team. Just me and the biggest mistake of my life weighing down on my sweat-covered shoulders like a regretful Silverback Gorilla. I was a 21-year-old smartass who’d just been thrown out of school, along with my scholarship, for letting competitive flare and heated nonsense escalate. Even though the only publication out there that people were reading (and would continue to read before every job interview and first date for the rest of my adult life) was a student piece that never had the follow up truth of the situation, it didn’t seem to matter. This was definitely a Fuck You World tour and I was chewing up sections and spitting them out with a weighted backpack in the dark. I was a silent primal scream in the form of searing lungs and burning muscle, laser focus, and the longest fuckin’ strides I could muster. For those who know the stadium tour well, I was doing a “double burger” working from section 37 to section 1 and then back to 37.

I thought I had the place to myself that night, but fifteens minutes in, Harry Parker, the legendary Harvard rowing coach, and his 60 elite Crimson oarsmen suddenly materialized around me like ghosts. Great. I immediately recognized their emblems and the Ivy-League swagger without a second glance. I kept stomping away to the sounds of my Rage Against The Machine playlist. Even in the pitch black they knew who I was. Everyone around the Sprints League loves to say “FUCK HARVARD,” almost as a greeting. I was no different, but as was my brash young style back then, I took it a couple notches further and earned my place as the most hated dude in the Crimson boathouse that year.

I just kept pounding those concrete stairs. This was my house. Coach Parker, all bundled up against the November cold watched his elite boys fly up and down each section (skipping the top and bottom steps for whatever reason – By doing this you actually skip a total of 74 full seats per tour = over two full sections shy of a legit FULL stadium tour). I blew by the storied coach in the dark. He didn’t see my headphones and said something. I saw his mouth moving with attempted eye contact, but ignored it. I kept on without stopping. Looking back, it was a shitty move. Harry, at that time was well into his sixties and had started winning boat races well before my parents had met. On my way back down that same section, he waved his arms at me. I removed one ear bud. “What are you training for?” asked the man who’s had multiple books written about him, with a wry smile possibly hoping I was a giant Harvard student he could pick up and toss into his 4th Varsity lineup further building his army, after all, I was at the Harvard Stadium. I could tell his rowers were curious about the answer, too. So in front of his entire team and straight into the legend’s face, right there in the dark of some New England night, I yelled back after considering the question for less than a fraction of second, “LIFE.” And kept on moving. I thought I was badass and brilliant. Years later, I know I was little of either but I was telling the truth. I was in the middle of the transition that carved me into a better person and a better man. I’ll never know if Harry thought this answer was profound or rude. I’d never get to know him or apologize to him or his team for my actions that set both teams at Harvard and Northeastern back in the Spring of 2003.

Fast forward to midtown Manhattan 2014. I’m no longer a competitive rower, but I’m something else, something more. And at the moment, someone trying catch an impossible train. Penn Station is a bunker of architectural nonsense. Well, it is to the late and panicked traveler, at least. Find someone who says its super smooth or that it has a great layout and you’re most likely talking to a conductor or an engineer. Penn Station, though it moves a lot of life and pushes a lot of stories, is NOT inspiring or easy to navigate. I hit the concourse with less than 2 minutes to make the wrong train.

This is where my training comes in. I’m back at the stadium, back on the hills, back among my tribe, strong, purposeful, I’m better than the 21 year old in the dark and just as fit. Against the knife-like pain in my heel, against the clock, and against the ticket in my hand that reads train #132 instead of train #194, I was dashing toward what I prayed was Track 10E, lashing through the crowd like a maniac. BOOM, I see a sign for it: 10E. And I’m off, voice raised, duffle thrashing through the air like an awkward sidecar with loose wheels. I now have less than 1 minute, 60 single ticks on the clock. I see the empty escalator and can already picture my triumphant race down and onto the train. Someone should be filming this shit. Bojan would make this epic moment even more epic had he been in the rafters with his Nikon cheering me on while capturing a dozen gold frames per second. By the time they look at my ticket, we’ll be in motion leaving the station and it’ll be old news that I’ve jumped the early train. Beautiful. Until I realize the escalator is coming up at me, not going down. I’m running the wrong direction. This isn’t an entrance to 10E. It’s a fuckin exit. FUCK. No time to recalculate. Without changing my pace I race down the wrong-way stairs at top speed, my feet hardly touching.

At Harvard Stadium, there are probably 10 or 15 NP members who clock sub-25s for all 37 sections. Sometimes, our Wednesday Morning Classic inside the stadium can surge to 600 or more people when you add the 5:30AM and 6:30AM groups together (August 2013 we counted 655 total). Sub 25 is an elite crew of us. Our very first November Project recruit of all time remains our fastest female. Sara Wild, a former soccer stud from Williams College, was the first to join after Bojan and I Tweet’d at @MarathonSports, @NBRunning, and a few others. With a subtle smile and legs of steel, she has been known to take down a “full tour” in 23 minutes flat. The one thing that’s keeping Wild from catching the small group of dudes who are out in front of her? She doesn’t sprint recklessly DOWN the stone stadium seats (each about the height of 2.5 exit row stairs that the group files down after topping each section). When it comes to pacing and control she’s anything but wild. She leaves the downward slashing-and-dashing to the Gilroy, Morgan Brown, and Deniz types. Sure, I dash down the steps when I can. It makes a giant difference. “Going down the big ones,” means you are willing to trade rest for speed and that you’re OK with risking finishing with a few less teeth.

As I’m flying down the 10E exit escalator, I think of Gilroy and Nick Stamas and Sarah Wild and think, “LIFE: here I am. I’ve trained for your ass!” With my eyes focused on the stream of metal steps, I don’t notice the security guard at the bottom staring at me with his jaw dropped. If I’d looked up, I’d have seen him waving his arms to get my attention the way Harry Parker did a decade earlier during my 2 years and 31 days I was in and out of court, working odd jobs and logging 200+ hours of community service around town for my life altering mistake. His hand held up in a halting gesture, the word “STOP” forming on his lips, I blow by him with maybe 15 seconds until this train—you know, not my train—leaves for Boston. Turning the corner on a dime toward the platform the way we “TURN AND GO” at the stadium, I can now see the entire centipede of cars waiting, humming, clearing its throat to get going. I run alongside hoping to find a door that is open. But they’re sealed tight. The pain in my heel is screaming like a rotten toothache. Banging my hand against the passenger cars, then the dining cars, I’d take help from anyone at this point. And then the shot clock expires. I can almost hear the buzzer. The train begins to move. Like any Amtrak train, the first few inches and feet of movement from the station are so subtle that your eyes can’t even be sure what they were seeing. “Is the train really fucking leaving!?” I say to myself.

Now, we need to be clear about a few things. I miss planes. I miss trains. I get on buses a day early and a day late. I’m not bound to a ticket or an itinerary. I never have been. When I find a new path and have to hustle to make an idea work I do. When I lose a close race, I get over it and adjust. This wasn’t my first missed train. But it wasn’t over yet. Like the scene of Liar Liar at the end when Jim Carey is on the runway with the stairs moving at full speed yelling like a crazy person trying to stop the commercial flight that was moments from taking off, I was in the zone… like a crazy person. The train was picking up speed. All of a sudden, I hear a voice a few hundred feet away, “Is this your train!?” I see a small circle of a head in the very last car that was closing distance on my pace. “Is this your train!?” I hear. “Fuck yeah!!!,” I yell back, without wondering how far he’d look into how wrong my ticket was.

Amtrak staff are a serious and proud bunch. Do not fuck with them. They wear hats and shirts that are molded after the original gear that has been worn for fifty thousand years of on time trains. They shout that trains are leaving and that next stops are NEXT! Even the security guard I blew past at the bottom of the reverse escalator, who only just now do I see is chasing me as I chased the train, has a certain Amtrack dignity. I would loved to have been watching this ridiculous scene unfold.

“Is this your train?! Train 194?! IS. THIS. YOUR. TRAIN?” he demanded a third time the carriages picked up speed and now looked to be leaving me and my “I train for LIFE” ass behind. And how could I lie or possibly tell the truth, we’re at full speed, and I’m about to Indiana Jones the shit out of this train and be off to Boston like the Man! “Yes sir, fuck yeah, I mean yes!” I say holding out a ticket with something to show I’d at least given the company money for a trip over the exact section of track on the exact same day. Hoping he’d glance and let me pass, he did the opposite. He squared his shoulders off to block the moving doorway and give him a secure position to study. Shit. I was filled with that busted feeling. Sprinting in jeans, my denim wrapped balls were both guiding me to glory and overheating enough to make me want to stop. The caboose conductor was studying the ticket with calm breath. I was running at top speed with gear and desperation, my weatherproof duffle waving around in one hand like a yellow life raft and my other hand trying to reach out and grab on the grips that would secure my leap into the moving train. His eyes seemingly studying every single printed letter on the ticket as I watched on thinking this show was almost over, “OK, you’re good…” and I began to spring into the… “No, no, no,” he said, “We’ll stop the train.”

My brain screams: “You’ll stop the train?! What?! You’ll stop the moving train that is 85% of the way out of Penn Station that’s at sprinting speed? You’ll stop the train for the guy with the bum heel and the lame ticket? You’ll stop the fucking train?” And sure enough, Amtrak train 194 came to a complete stop leaving only one car left overlapping the Penn Station platform. Catching my breath and wiping sweat from my eyes, I stepped on and was greeted by roughly 11 cars of turning heads who wanted to see this exception, this racer, this faker, this… fucking badass! Yes, I’d raced injured against the clock, through the crowds, from Upper-Upper West Side to Midtown, down the up-escalator, past the defensive line, and into one end zone, only to find myself in another race with an unsympathetic industrial behemoth, then engaging sincerely with a human being who could see I was in need, and I won. I can’t tell you the name of the contest, but that day, I fuckin’ won. As I staggered through the cars, I was vibrating with victory. I sent Goldie a string of texts immediately and none of the words could really explain how I was feeling or the pace that life was racing at that second.

I write this to you from the café car of that same train that will get me into South Station in downtown Boston at 9-something tonight instead of 1 something, into my woman’s arms, and the next morning into the arms of my tribe. Did this race put a result online that people could LIKE or share? No. Did this race get me ready for my next round of NP workouts? No. But did it prove that I’m able to roll with the punches, work around obstacles, race the clock and beat the odds while winning with people? FUCK YEAH. Am I fit enough to pull odd stunts and be ready for most everything? No question. And I’ll continue to train even harder for even faster trains and even larger security guards and even steeper wrong-way escalators. Bring on the aliens and lava!

There are no seats on this train because it’s Sunday night. This pre-teen kid, maybe 12, is passed out on our shared table, but I guess he’s got to rest up to tackle the giant boxes of Krispy Kreme’s that are sticking out of his bag. Weird. He’s too young to train for life. He’s not even on the field yet. Oh, I wish I could give him some tips, just like I wish someone could have given the 21-year-old, angry, and misguided version of myself some advice ten years ago. But he’s going to have to learn from his own highest and lowest moments, he’ll have to create his own training plan. Because LIFE, as I’m reminded again and again, is always ready to thrown down. Always. So all you can do is train harder.

Kid On Train

If Malcolm Howard is reading this, know that I will carry my history for life and continue to fuel the good in this world like a speeding train. Like I said to you at Northeastern University the last time we met, I’m truly sorry.

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9 Replies to “Hailing Amtrack Trains”

  1. Brogan Graham you inspire me more everyday I know you… Fuck ya, just got off four full on summit…I train for life everyday and you have helped me push harder and farther than I ever knew I could…

  2. The tribe is so lucky to have such magnanimous leaders. You bring so much “good” in so many people’s lives with your movement. 

  3. Exactly how I felt when I woke up in the airport hotel in San Fran for my 8am Boston flight at 6:58am. Made it to the shuttle in two minutes flat and bed-to-gate in 27 minutes total including checking in/checking my bag, chugging my water in security, and sprinting barefoot to the gate because I was convinced putting on my shoes post TSA would take too long. Training for Life, indeed. Can we have that on the next GrassrootsGear+?

  4. It’s incredible how you put all of the right elements into one well-written document.  The philosophy on training for LIFE is compatible with each and every individual and it’s truly inspiring that you’ve been able to sum it up this way. I have goosebumps from reading this article, I can relate to the emotion behind it.  Thank you for the great post, thoroughly enjoyed reading and relating to it! 

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