Sunday, September 14, 2014

Blood, sweat, tears, and some other stuff


At last, I’ve mustered the courage to sit down and write this recap of last Sunday’s Ventura Marathon. It shouldn’t take long, because I honestly can’t remember very much of it. It’s a blur.

The Ventura Pier, which serves as
the race start and finish.
Training for this race began in mid-May, and I can definitively state that I was more committed than I have ever been, in 15 years of running marathons. I’m usually pretty relaxed about training. I skip workouts occasionally, and don’t always eat or drink the way that I should. It’s partly because I’ve never wanted marathoning to rule my life, but it’s also a way of insulating myself from the vulnerabilities of race day. If I don’t perform well, I can lay it on “poor training,” and tell myself that I’ll train better next time. And then I’ll race better next time.

For me, Ventura was “next time.” Early on, I decided that this time I was going to let marathoning rule my life, and see what I could do. I wanted to know when I lined up on race morning that I had given myself every chance of success. For 16 weeks, I didn’t miss a single workout. I struggled through many of them, but I got them done, and aside from some of the hotter days when I had to slow down, I was pretty much hitting my pace targets. I paid attention to what I ate. I limited my alcohol intake. I got plenty of sleep. I tapered properly. I even skipped dessert! (A few times.) I did everything right, and didn’t leave myself any opportunities for excuses. “If only I’d _____________,” then I would have had a better race.

So to have given training everything that I had, to have aimed high for a challenging but achievable goal (a 3:45 finish), and to have held myself so publicly accountable to it, and then utterly fall apart on race day? It brought me to my knees. It’s been a week, and I am still trying to shake it off.

Despite warm temperatures (a low 80s day, and a hot, sunny morning with none of Ventura’s signature marine layer), I had a great first half. I spotted my husband and friends who were out at mile 9 with signs and noisemakers, and was in good spirits. I was working hard, but had expected to. I had trained to! I was on pace as we made the half-marathon turnaround, and feeling well. A mile later, it all went to hell.

During mile 14, I developed a stomach ache. I know this happens to runners from time to time, and although it’s never happened to me and I didn’t know what to do about it, I wasn’t terribly concerned. Should I stop? Is it going to go away? Will more water or electrolytes help? Should I eat? I opened one of the fig newtons from my pack (which I train with, so my gut is used to them), but got a small bite down, and became horribly nauseous. I tried sipping a little fluid, to no effect. The only thing I could think to do was to slow down to control the “jostling” of my stomach, because the last thing I wanted to do was to throw up out there. The discomfort continued, and within a couple of miles I was feeling dizzy. I later figured out that I had unconsciously shallowed my breathing due to the stomach pain, which I think left me light-headed. I won’t get too detailed here, other than to report that after several more very slow and uncomfortable miles, shortly before mile 21 I did finally get sick. (I tried to be as inconspicuous as possible, but apologize to any runners who may have been an accidental witness! I’ve been there, and I know it’s awful to see another runner in that state.) And then it just got worse from there. I never felt that I was in an unsafe situation, although I look back at it now, and wonder. I was still sweating, and I didn’t feel overheated or dehydrated, but absolutely could not make the stomach pain or dizziness go away. All I could think to do was keep looking down the road, and keep on running, no matter how slow. Almost everything that happened after the mile mark 21 is a fog, with the exception of the finish. My crew was there, in full effect, and my pal Berkeley ran me in for the final stretch. I got across the mat, and a medic immediately approached me and asked if I was alright. In that moment, I thought I was okay and told her so, but again in looking back, I probably could have used some attention. I dizzily made my way to my husband and friends, and then hobbled over to the pier for some shade and rest. I was too light-headed to stand upright for more than a few seconds, but eventually was able to take in a little water, a bit of fresh fruit (the really good fresh fruit at the finish was awesome! Big points to Ventura for this perk!), and a few sips of beer. The carbonation and bitterness were a little bit of heaven, and seemed to settle my stomach a bit. It was probably a good half hour before I came around, an unusually slow and difficult post-race recovery for me.

I think this photo, taken just after I
crossed the finish line, says it all.

My stomach continued to hurt for the rest of the day – but not half as much as my ego did. What happened out there? A week later, I’m no closer to an answer. And I don’t know what I should have done differently. I’m big on turning negative experiences into learning opportunities, and my inability to put a positive spin on this has been, I think, the most difficult part of my recovery. I did everything right, and I still failed.

In my brighter moments, I tell myself that it was a fluke, that I will be able to build on all of these months of solid training, and come back even stronger, even better prepared for a good spring marathon. But in my darker moments – and there have been many – I wonder quietly if I am simply not capable of this. Is qualifying for the Boston Marathon something that is beyond my physical abilities? Am I silly to keep trying?

I’m still wrestling with that one, and in the meantime, time has continued to march forward. We happily celebrated my husband’s 40th birthday this week, and will celebrate mine next weekend. And there is so much to be celebrated. I have everything I need: an endlessly supportive group of friends and family, meaningful work, a beautiful place to live, and a healthy body to live in (all throwing up on the side of the Ventura Marathon aside). The dark thoughts and the nagging questions are still with me, but I’m hopeful that in these next few weeks, as life begins to fill in the spaces that training required, my heart will recover from this race as fully as my body will.

*****

Enough with the depressing stuff. 
Let's look at the PHOTOS!

My two favorite pre-race things:
PIZZA, and AWESOME PEOPLE.
It was so nice of Hershel to show up on race day too!
Mile 9. Note the noisemaker in the foreground!
My support crew was EPIC. Horns, great signs, and lots of love.
Another photo from the finish.
Somehow, one foot just kept ending up in
front of the other, for 26.2 miles.
It felt so good to smile again, once it was over.
Thanks to Marc, Steph, and Berkeley for
hanging in there with me.
Official finish time: 4:17:08




Friday, September 12, 2014

Interlude

I know it's been a while since I've posted here, so I'm writing to check in briefly and confirm: I am still alive. It was touch and go there for a while around mile 20, but I did survive the Ventura Marathon! My race went very poorly, and I'm still trying to make sense of it all, but I'll eventually get around to the recap. In the meantime, life continues its roil and boil, and I'm having a great time with my "40 days to 40" countdown, which started in August and will end on my 40th birthday later this month. My goal has been to try at least one new thing every day during these 40 days, and now already three-quarters of the way through it, I realize that my list of "new things" that I want to try could last a lifetime. (And I hope that it will.) And while I haven't been blogging much of late, I have been documenting all of the fun (and the occasional sorrow) on the "40 days" tab of this blog, and I invite you to join me: http://www.therunnershi.com/p/40-days.html.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

"Let's race!"

Training for the Ventura Marathon has been, in a word: fun. (And as I write this, I am sitting with my feet on ice, recovering from this morning's hot and very challenging 20-mile long run. So if even in this moment I think it's fun, you know I mean it.) I've got four more weeks to go, and am so grateful for the twelve weeks of good health and strong running that I've been granted thus far. Work and life circumstances have lined up the right way for me for the first time in a long time, making a proper 6 day per week training schedule somewhat manageable, and I'm sleeping as soundly these days as my lazy old dog. Sure, I still have mornings when I need to get up in the dark in order to fit in a workout, and days that I'm stiff and uncomfortable from the rigors of training. And my Friday nights these days usually consist of little more than dinner and putting myself to bed early. (Oh wait, sometimes I also do laundry, so that I'll have clean running clothes to wear on Saturday mornings.) But on the whole, feeling well has enabled me to get so much more out of training than just good paces and high hopes for my September race. I'm also having a lot of fun out there. I had the novel experience this week of looking at my schedule and seeing the prescribed pace for my Tuesday tempo run, and feeling excited to get out there and run hard, rather than the usual feelings of dread and inadequacy that tempo runs usually incite.

Mission Beach: a favorite local route.
I recently ran "doubles" for the first time in years. The way that my work and marathon training schedules piled up that week, the only way I was going to get in the mileage I needed (while also getting enough sleep) was to run four miles of hill repeats on that Wednesday morning, and then lace up again in the evening for another six miles after work. I didn't know how it was going to go, and wasn't feeling terribly confident about that second run, especially since it happened to be an unusually hot and humid monsoonal day in San Diego. So to maximize the chances that I would enjoy myself, I decided to drive out to one of my favorite local spots, the boardwalk on Mission Bay.

This time of year, the houses along the boardwalk are mostly occupied by vacationing families who've rented them out, and it's teeming with tourists. Since it was such a hot day, there were people everywhere, coming in and out of the water, even though the sun was almost down. And kids. Lots and lots of kids. Somewhere around four miles into my run, I was feeling better than I'd expected to, but was definitely tired, when a boy jumped out onto the boardwalk from the sand and yelled out "Let's race!" If I'd had time to give a reasoned response, the sensible and boring part of me might have thought "No, I have already worked out hard once today, this is supposed to be a relaxed run." But lucky for me, he didn't give me a chance to put that sensible and boring part of my brain to use - he just started running, and I automatically gave chase. Even though I caught up to the little guy quickly and could definitely have outrun him (and even though he was a total cheater, and wouldn't tell me where the finish line was going to be!), I stayed just a pace or two behind him, and pretended to struggle. Eventually he declared himself the winner, we slapped some high-fives, and I kept on running up the boardwalk while he returned back to his family. Definitely some of the most fun I've had at a race yet. I hope Ventura can compete.

Kids are a great reminder that running comes
naturally to we human-types. And that it's fun!

Sunday, July 20, 2014

A Day in the Life

I've been struggling with the meanies lately: those ugly thoughts that you don't want to think, but that sometimes sneak in anyway. Sometimes they're gloomy, sometimes they're scary. Sometimes they're rational, but often they're not. Mine spend most of their time loitering quietly in the corners, but every now and then they take the lead, and if I'm not careful they'll trample me. The meanies are a part of my daily life, but one that I mostly keep in check.

Popular culture leads me to believe that I'm not alone on this (and in fact provides the origin of the term). Holly Golightly from Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's did battle with "the mean reds," anxieties that came out of nowhere and made her fearful without knowing why. In the Beatles' 1968 animated film Yellow Submarine, the Blue Meanies were an army of music-hating creatures determined to turn the colorful, musical world of Pepperland into a dull and lifeless land of oppression and hardship. (Yellow Submarine is weird, you guys. It's weird.) And Matthew Inman, the genius cartoonist of The Oatmeal, has his Blerch.

The mean reds, the Blue Meanies, and of course, The Blerch.










We've all got these battles to fight, and if we're lucky we'll find the ammunition that works for us. Holly Golightly visited Tiffany's to soothe the mean reds. The Beatles drove out the Blue Meanies with music and love. And, like Matthew Inman, I can usually ward off my own meanies with a good long run. But there's a particularly cruel kind of meanie: the kind that wears running shoes, and is able to pace me out there, mile for mile. Running is usually an important tool for managing stress and anxiety, and when it becomes a source of it, it's time for me to slow down, let the mean thoughts catch up with me, and have it out.

I'm at the tail end of week 9 of training for the Ventura Marathon, where I plan to make an earnest attempt to qualify for Boston. It will be a stretch for me, requiring a 3:45 finish, and beating my personal record by 13 minutes. But so far training has gone well and I'm trying hard not to talk myself out of it, like I usually do. The 20-mile training runs get in my head though, and strangely, they intimidate me more than running actual marathons. I ran the first one (of four) three weeks ago, and it was difficult. I was uncomfortably warm, and had to stop toward the end to cool down more than I wanted to. But I didn't let it get me down (for too long), since there were three more 20-mile runs and ten more weeks of training to go. Yesterday I had perfect conditions for my second one, but still struggled through those 20 miles more than I expected to. I ultimately made my goal pace (15 seconds faster per mile than last time), but had to stop around mile 17 and give myself a pep talk at the water fountain, and was utterly drained by the time I finished. Another 6.2? Impossible. All afternoon the thoughts rattled around in my brain: You can barely make your training pace! How do you think you're going to be able to run 8:33 miles in Ventura? You need to put Boston out of your mind, and just accept who you are. I felt myself starting to give in to the meanies, letting them convince me again to give up on this long-time ambition.

But eventually it occurred to me: this is training. That wasn't the race. No, I'm not yet ready to run that 3:45 marathon, but I'm in a process here. I'm not supposed to be able to do it yet. I've come a long way from where I was nine weeks ago, and I am on track. Get behind me, meanies! I've got work to do.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

"Why is that lady running?"

Yesterday I was running along a footpath in Coronado, past the city's beautiful recreation center gym and pool, both of which open right out onto the beach. (Fairly amazing.) As I approached a father and his young son, I could overhear the conversation:

As they passed the fitness center: "Dad, why are those people exercising?"
"Because they want to be healthy."

As they reached the lap pool: "Dad, why are those people swimming?"
"Because it's a hot day, and it's fun!"

As I ran past: "Dad, why is that lady running?"
"Now that, son, I really don't know."

He was being cheeky, making sure that he spoke loud enough that I'd hear, so I turned and gave them a laugh and a wave as I kept on. I like to think that the conversation kept going after I was out of earshot, that maybe Dad told his son something about the joy that many people feel when they run, or ticked off some of its many benefits.

It's a long shot, I know. In my experience, most people who don't run think that those of us who do are either masochists, or that we're all somehow "built for it" in some way that they are not. I've given up trying to argue either of these inaccuracies, and instead have made my peace with the fact that we all have a bliss that is ours to find. And I don't mind one bit if yours has nothing to do with running.

After a 20-mile run a couple of weeks ago, I arrived home tired, achey, chaffed, sunburned, and probably pretty pungent. My husband took a look at me on the yoga mat grimacing as I cautiously stretched out my sore hips, and said "that's quite a hobby you've got there." It made me laugh, of course, but it also made me step outside of myself for a moment and see my love of distance running from his perspective. As terminally boring and torturous as I find his sport of choice (golf), so he too finds the idea of running. It makes no sense to him. But what matters is that he knows that it makes perfect sense to me.

-----

And on the subject of my torturous pastime: I'm now officially halfway through my 16 weeks of training for the Ventura Marathon, coming up on September 7th! Click here if you're interested in the journey. Let me know if you're in training at the moment, and how it's going!

Friday, July 4, 2014

Liberty, and other pursuits

As I do every year, I kicked off the July 4th holiday today by reading the full text of the Declaration of Independence over my morning coffee. Like most of us, I probably don't think often enough about my good luck at having been born in a free country, never having had to fight for the personal liberties I enjoy. So spending these few minutes every Independence Day pondering the remarkable feat of building a democracy from the ground up is my small way of keeping myself in check. Our way of governing ourselves is imperfect and fraught with problems, as most things made by humans are, but I think most of us would agree that it's a pretty great way to live, and that we ought to keep tinkering at it.

This time last year, I had just run Grandma's Marathon a few weeks prior, and was reveling in the freedom I was feeling at the time - no training schedule to follow, no need to worry about pace or distance, no need to even wear a watch. A runner unchained. This July 4th, however, I find myself smack in the middle of training for an end-of-summer marathon. I'm nearing the end of week 7 (of a 16-week schedule), and these days every run is prescribed according to my training schedule. I know how far and how fast I need to do every workout, and am never without my trusty Garmin GPS to make sure I'm on track - or to make me feel bad when I'm not.

But I'm pursuing my happiness, and there's plenty of life and liberty to be found even amidst the rigors of marathon training. Because as any fan of Game of Thrones will tell you: people learn to love their chains. I've created this set of structures around myself, and have consented to be governed by the tyranny of the Garmin, at least for a few months. Our founding fathers wrote of a "long train of abuses" committed by their king. Last weekend, to ensure proper motivation for my first 20-mile training run of this marathon season, I bought a one-way Amtrak ticket to the next station north, and ran my way back. Talk about your long train of abuses.

Training provides me with a much-needed bit of structure and routine. I now have to think about how much I'm sleeping, what I'm eating and drinking, and how much I'm working. It forces me to look realistically at my usually over-scheduled life and make a conscious decision about which activities can stay, and which need to go. When I'm training I can't make every meeting, and have to turn down some opportunities to spend time with friends that I'd like to see. But I'm in charge of those choices, in the name of chasing down my own favorite kind of glory. I still get to revel in the freedom of my rest days, and I can decide on any given cross-training day whether that means a Pilates class or a swim in the ocean. I've learned to appreciate my freedoms where I find them, and I've also learned to love the chains.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Bonfire of my vanities

Out for my long run on the Silver Strand yesterday, I was sharing the bikeway with the TriClub of San Diego, who was hosting a beginner triathlon. I'm thinking about registering for my first triathlon later this summer (stay tuned: "I'm thinking about" pretty much always means "I'm going to," in my universe), so I was paying close attention. Naturally, I enjoyed watching the athletes challenge themselves physically and mentally, fumbling around with their equipment, and celebrating as they crossed the finish line. But one woman in particular really stood out. She passed me on her bike, outfitted in helmet, cycling shoes, and - unlike most everyone else out there in tri-suits that provide at least a modicum of coverage - a bathing suit.

My first thought: "I wouldn't be caught dead." No, it wasn't a skimpy beach bikini. It was clearly an athletic suit, and I assume she was going to hop off of that bike and run the final leg of the triathlon in it, too. But it was a bathing suit, and her whole body was right out there on view while engaged in strenuous athletic endeavor. My second thought was a pang of jealousy at her comfort level with this. Now I don't know this person or anything about her or the accuracy of my perception of her comfort level. Maybe she's recently dropped a lot of weight, and feels amazing in her blue bathing suit. Maybe she struggles with body issues, and felt self-conscious and uncomfortable, but was challenging herself to overcome. Maybe her tri-suit was just in the laundry pile? Whatever the reason, she was rocking it, and I was impressed.

Like many, I've struggled most of my life with self-image. (I don't refer here to such serious conditions as an eating or body dysmorphic disorder. Just general feelings of shame and inadequacy for being a flawed and imperfect human. You know, the usual stuff.) Now almost forty, I do feel more comfortable in my own skin these days, and for this I give distance running a lot of credit. Not because it's transformed my body in any significant way. I can run marathons and swim in the open ocean, but I can't get rid of my cellulite. At my most fit and fast, parts of me have always jiggled, and I'm now certain that they always will. And then there's the permanent runner's tan. It's the worst. But because being an endurance athlete has, for me, required the letting go of a lot of vanity.

I'm not one of those cute runners in fashionable ensembles that smooth out the lumps and wick away the sweat. With enough discretionary income, I would definitely indulge in them; but for now I prefer to stick with the old grubby stuff and spend my limited "running money" on the related food, travel, and entry fees. So by the end of a run, my cheap cotton tank tops and I usually look something like this:


I have terrible runner hair. I like to keep my hair short, so it can't be pulled back into a neat and clean ponytail. But it's not so short that it just behaves during a run, either. No headband or army of bobby pins can contain it, and I always end up with a bit of a bird's nest up there:


Sometimes I do get that lovely runner's glisten ... but usually it's just my sunblock. And while in still life my arms are reasonably presentable, in real life, there is a lot of uncontrolled wiggle and waggle:


And then there's the issue of my legs and the short shorts. But if you think I'm posting a photo of that, then you've got another thing coming. That situation lies somewhere along the continuum from "athletic-looking woman in a running magazine" to "avert your eyes in horror." That's all you need to know.

As a professional, I'm pretty attentive to my clothes and grooming. But when it comes to running, I'm all about function over form. Although I'd be far more presentable in them, running capris make me hot and uncomfortable. Sometimes I've got salt rings on my t-shirt and frizzed out running hair, but I need to make a stop on my way home. Sorry everyone at Trader Joe's, because this is what's happening. Anyone who's ever seen me cross a finish line knows: it's not a pretty picture. But in that moment, there's no embarrassment. Because I just ran a marathon. Running has helped me to let go of a lot of hang-ups, to throw into the flames the things that don't serve me. Will I be riding a bike or running in a bathing suit any time soon? Probably not. But if I do, I hope that we can all see the beauty of the thunder in those thighs.