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.

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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.

Monday, June 9, 2014

I spy with my little "I"

The neighborhood of University Heights
went all out, with some great signs
posted along the half-marathon route.
We're now a week out from the Rock 'n' Roll San Diego Marathon, held last Sunday here in my hometown. This was the 17th running of the original Rock 'n' Roll marathon, and although I've never raced it myself, I'm always out there on the course. I still consider it my "home race" since (with the exception of the parts that are run on the freeway) I've run every block of both the half and full marathon courses, and much of it runs through my own neighborhood. This year I printed the course map and did the half-marathon course in its entirety on Saturday as a training run, which was a fun way to preview the event, and see how the different parts of town were getting ready.

Having run marathons through many other U.S. cities, neighborhood streets lined with families bundled up at the ends of their driveways in the early morning clutching coffee cups and cheering for strangers, I don't think that San Diegans turn out on race morning to support the event the way they should. Running and road racing are so much a part of the culture here that maybe Rock 'n' Roll Sunday just no longer feels like a big deal to anyone anymore. Most people simply hole up to avoid the traffic delays, and wait for it to be over. But I enjoy being out there, seeing the runners taking in the scenery and experiencing our neighborhoods. I hope that me and my signs and my trusty cowbell have made at least a few people smile and pick up their pace a little through the years. And what I enjoy even more is being around town in the hours and days that follow, seeing all of the too-red faces and too-slow gaits, the telltale signs of tired but (hopefully) triumphant marathon warriors. It's fun to watch people strain to get up from their chairs at dinner, to see their knees wobble as they struggle to make it down stairs and step off of the curbs. I know this delicious agony, and it gets me excited to feel it again for myself.

I really loved the race t-shirt design
this year. Sort of wish I had one.
The participant t-shirts this year were especially cool. I loved the design, and am officially jealous of everyone who has one. And since they're bright red, they're easy to spot. This weekend, it seemed that all those race t-shirts must have made it through the laundry cycle, because they were everywhere.

One of the unsung joys of running is spotting someone in a t-shirt from a race that you ran, too. (The further away and longer ago it was, the better. There's nothing more cool than having another runner sidle up with a "Hey, I ran Chicago in '05, too!") I know there are plenty of distance runners who don't care to race, but I think there's power and beauty in seeing oneself in others, and that the experience of racing together is just another way that runners connect. With the other participants, with the cities where they run, and with the experience of being a runner. There are hundreds or thousands (or tens of thousands) of people out there who huddled in trash bags during that cold and rainy start with you, who conquered that same monster hill, who celebrated in that same beer garden. You might not have known them, but they were with you. Ups and downs, highs and lows: we're all in this together.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Climb every mountain

This week, we said goodbye to my husband's beloved grandmother Roselle, a loss that we'll no doubt feel deeply for years to come. Grammy was a remarkable woman who warmly welcomed me into the fold of her family and treated me as her own from the day we met, 17 years ago now. (I'll admit there was the tiniest bit of pressure to convert to Judaism once she knew her grandson and I were engaged. But once it was clear that it wasn't happening, she let it go. And if she was disappointed that I didn't give her any Jewish great-grandbabies, she never let on.) We were fortunate to have celebrated Grammy's 95th birthday with her just two months ago, which was a time not only of celebration but of reflection on a life that had been very well-lived, physically and otherwise. In the past couple of years, she had become frail after nine full decades of hale and health, and after struggling with that transition, she seemed to have reached a place of peace.

A geriatric social worker since my mid-20s, I've spent my entire adult life in the awed presence of the "oldest old," as they are known in the medical community. Theoretically, I know what it is to grow old, and I don't fear it the way many do. I think a lot about becoming - and eventually being - old, and consciously make decisions about how I live my life with the "end" in mind. If the day comes that I've lost much of my ability to function independently, I very much want to know that I got everything out of this body that I could have. I want to have eaten every delicious thing, visited every beautiful place, hugged every dear person, run every interesting place, and crossed every finish line that I reasonably could have. I am, meanwhile, mindful of the role that moderation plays in the living of a long and healthy life. So I don't actually eat every delicious thing. (Okay I usually do. But I don't go back for seconds. Usually.) My impulse is to travel constantly, but I know the importance of planning financially for old age, and so have learned to avoid the temptations of the New York Times travel section, and try to keep our annual vacation budget in check. There are dozens of races I would love to run every year, but out of respect for the limits of my ankles, knees, and hips, I give them lots of love and recovery time, and restrain myself. 

I see no reason to hold back when it comes to the hugs, though. Grammy certainly didn't. As she grew older, the logistics of the hugs changed, as we had to lean down to reach her in her chair to get them. But they remained big and plentiful until the end of her long life.

Bill Thomas, MD wrote a wonderful book called What Are Old People For? that is still well worth your time, even though I'm about to give you the answer: 

Young people are for doing. Old people are for being.

I couldn't agree more. Certainly there are exceptional old people who earn college degrees in their 80s, run marathons in their 90s, or work until they're 100. But most of us will be met with physical or cognitive limitations that make this kind of "doing" impossible. A good old age is, in my mind, one wherein we've successfully adapted to the functional limits of our bodies or brains, and recognized that while the ability to "do" may be waning, what the world really needs from us now is the unique "being" that only we can "be." By old age, we have become the holders of histories, the vehicles of values we hold dear, a connective glue binding family together. We know the stories and the secrets, and (I can't wait for this part) we have life pretty well figured out. Even in the presence of one who has lost the ability to remember or communicate verbally, if you pay attention there is an unmistakable sense of all that they know, and of who they are. Being.

Chances are good there will be a day that I can no longer experience the physical joy of a run. Perhaps I'll still be able to read and write about it. Perhaps I'll have younger or healthier friends through whom I'll continue to experience that joy. Maybe I'll lose that, too? Someday I'll probably seem like little more than a wrinkly old lady to someone who's not paying attention. But I'll still be that runner, who ran all over the world, saw life through that lens, and cared deeply about it. And I'll probably still have something to say on the subject. I hope someone will ask.

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For all of the important things Grammy Roselle did in her younger life, for all of the important things she came to be in her older life, for all of the things she shared and taught until the day she died, I will be forever grateful.