Sunday, December 29, 2013

Finding my new normal

Loved my time in the
Arizona "Hi!" desert
Three weeks have passed since I ran the Tucson Marathon. Not one blessed with a sharp memory, the details of the race are fading quickly, but I'll do my best to tell some version of the tale. Because although it was my sixteenth marathon, and you have probably read dozens of race recaps (hundreds, maybe, depending upon your interest in running), the mystery of the marathon experience never fades for me.

Strictly speaking, I was properly trained, having put in the miles to be able to complete the distance. But I was not well-trained, having really struggled especially in the final few weeks of training. As I wrote on Thanksgiving Day, I made a conscious decision to give up on the frustration and to instead be grateful for what it was my body was willing to give me. A friend wrote a nice message on my Facebook page the day I left town, wishing me "smiles every mile," and my new goal was established: to run comfortably and feel well enough crack a smile at least once per mile.

Tucson was a novel marathoning experience for me, in that the point-to-point course is run primarily along a small desert highway that is not accessible to spectators. As we examined the course map the night before, I realized that I was going to be on my own out there for hours, until I reached the first place that my husband could meet me on the course, around mile 19. (Don't misunderstand: there are aid stations, relay exchanges, and some local spectators all along the way. It's a really nicely organized course, and there's nothing desolate about it! But if you need big crowds to keep your energy up during a marathon, Tucson is not the race for you.)

We were bussed out to the start, a remote point halfway up Mt. Lemmon, at nearly 5,000 feet of elevation. Tucson was experiencing unusually cold weather, and we had 33 degrees and light rain when the gun went off at 7:00 am. The rain stopped within the first few minutes, but it remained good and cold all morning. I brought a toss-away old scarf that I didn't ditch until about mile 15, and it was still in the low-50s by the time I finished.

I'd pledged not to concern myself with pace, and my watch helped keep me accountable by inexplicably crashing somewhere around Mile 3. I ran the rest of the way with no knowledge of my pace, running only by feel. My splits indicate that I kept an almost exactly even pace throughout the race, and most remarkably of all, I ran the entire race in a state of ease, never breaking down from pain or fatigue. My husband caught me at three points along the course, and noted that he'd never seen me look so comfortable. I'm now convinced that the body knows better than any chart or piece of technology where the lactate threshold really lies.

I finished in 4:19 which is, notably, the exact same finish time from my last marathon in June, but with none of the pain or exhaustion. (Okay, with some of the exhaustion.) It's a long way from the pace I want to be running (and a long way from my PR), but it's a happy new normal and I'm glad to be there for now.

My awesome friends met me at the finish with a cold can of a good local beer. I always crave beer, and while some races have it at the finish, it's rarely anything good. Now it may have been the marathon that I'd just run, but I'm pretty sure that what you see me drinking there was actually the best single beer that has ever been brewed.

This race provided me with everything I love about running. I love the solitude of a long run, and had many quiet miles wherein in order to make my "smile every mile" goal I had to think funny thoughts to myself, because there were no crowds smiling or waving at us. The course is nice and hilly - mostly downhill - with a net elevation drop of about 2,000 feet. I love desert landscape, and enjoyed the ever-present views of the mountains and saguaro cactus. And more than anything else, this race reminded me of why I not only love running marathons, but why I love running. In its pure and natural state, running feels good. It doesn't hurt. It isn't struggle. If you pay attention, you can actually feel your body taking in the fresh air and making use of the oxygen. You can enjoy the intricate mechanics of all of those muscles and joints working together to keep you moving forward. It's nothing short of a miracle, and I'm forever grateful for the opportunity to enjoy it.

Tucson Marathon (December 8, 2013)
Finish time: 4:19:34

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Slow holiday

It's the holidays. And even for a person who doesn't really "do" Christmas, it's frantic. The holidays are a particularly taxing time of year in my line of work, and several years ago I realized that in order to enjoy the season, I had to bow out of a lot of it. I participate in a few gift exchanges, but mostly don't give gifts anymore. I love receiving holiday cards and photos, but manage to send out my own maybe every two or three years. I muster the energy for a Christmas tree with about the same frequency. I love these activities in the years that I do them, because I have time to be present while writing the messages in my cards, and while placing my few treasured ornaments on the tree. And in the years when I'm particularly pressed for time and these tasks feel like mere items on a holiday to-do list, I scrap them. (No kids and a Jewish husband. The circumstances of my life make it possible to do so with only minimal guilt and hassle from other people. I get that.) This leaves me time for the "stuff" of the holidays that I really care about: visiting, eating, and drinking with friends and family. I do lots of this, every year, without having to sacrifice my presence at work, sleep, or the joy of running.

The only way I can tolerate shopping in a mall
anymore is in my running shoes.
As always, I'm a work in progress, and while theoretically I carve out enough time and space for what's important, in reality I frequently realize that the day is over and I got done only about half of what needed to get done. It dawned on me yesterday morning as I pored over my calendar and lists that it was really my only available day to get my holiday shopping finished. I didn't have a whole lot to buy (see above), but still the thought of giving up a day to battle the traffic and crowds at the mall filled me with dread. We had a gorgeous 70-degree, blue-sky day, and I'm one week out from my last marathon in Tucson, so really wanted to get in a nice recovery run. So, I mapped out my planned stops, packed up my backpack, laced up my running shoes, and went shopping.

I do a fair amount of what I like to call "errand running," in order to get some fresh air and exercise while ticking things off of my to-do list. Running to the bank, running to pick up a few items at the grocery store, and once even running to the dry cleaner (running home with the dry cleaning: not as easy as you might think!). Getting my holiday shopping done on foot was a much greater logistical challenge, but I got it done, and it was actually really fun. It took nearly four hours, and I covered almost ten miles on a gorgeous late-fall day. 

About three hours into this adventure, feeling smug at my resourcefulness as I passed a line slow-moving cars filled with exhausted and grumpy shoppers, it suddenly occurred to me: this is kind of a weird thing to be doing. I caught a glimpse of myself as someone in one of those cars would have seen me: frizzed out hair, sweaty running clothes, and dodging heavy urban traffic wearing a giant backpack. And what struck me the hardest: I hadn't even thought about how weird this all was, how gross I probably looked (and smelled) until I'd already made about seven stops, in busy and crowded shops all over town.

Have I become a weird person?

At my final stop, I got out my phone and checked in with my husband, since I'd been gone for several hours and thought he might begin worrying. I shared my revelation with him, and he provided me with the following helpful reality check:

Ah, well. Weird or not, the shopping got done, I got in a great run, and I got to enjoy a scenic and serene side of Mission Valley (the congested home of several of San Diego's biggest shopping malls) that a person rarely gets to experience:

Stopped to admire the sunset on the beautiful San Diego River.
(Nine out of ten San Diegans do not know that this river exists.)

However you're celebrating, and however you're "getting it all done," I wish every one of you a joyful holiday season!

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Where I live

Today's the big day. The one we set aside for sharing food with people we love, running "turkey trots" to raise funds for our hungry neighbors, and resting up in preparation for the holidays. And somewhere between the football games, the turkey naps, and the serving of the pumpkin pie, most of us take a few minutes to reflect and share with one another our thoughts of gratitude. Every year, Thanksgiving makes me feel like maybe - just maybe - humanity is not doomed after all.
How cute is this?
Turkey trotters are super cool.

It's not hard for me to tick off a list of things for which I'm thankful. This blog is really my version of a gratitude journal, an outlet for lots of yammering on about how wonderful life is, cloaked in stories about running. So as any good marathoner would, I decided to turn this year's gratitude exercise into something a little more challenging, and force myself to think thankful thoughts about something I'm feeling not-so-positively about.

My next marathon is now ten days away, and I've struggled all year with some really poor training. Nothing is physically wrong with me; my body simply does not feel good, and I'm sick of it. I'm not injured, but I ache. I'm sleeping well, but I fatigue quickly. And I'm doing my yoga and stretching, but I still can't touch my #@&%ing toes! So, looks like it's time to turn those warm, fuzzy feelings of gratitude toward this old, creaky runner's body, and show it some head-to-toe love. It may not be perfect, but it's where I live. And there's no place like home.

Thanks to my head. It's full of crazy thoughts, but also lots of good ideas. This year I got to see some beautiful sights running on the Big Island of Hawaii. I get to smell the fragrance of my neighbors' roses and trumpet flowers every day as I pass by. I get to hear the quiet sounds of my own breath on those long solo runs. I get to taste the delicious "run cookies" baked with love for me by a friend. And I get to feel the happy, sticky mess of a good sweat.

Thanks to my arms. I try to keep them strong, and they help me up those monster hills when I need it. This year they've also let me hug dear friends and family in celebration of new marriages, and of course they helped me hold on tight to my pack burro's lead up and down that Colorado mountain trail.

Thanks to my heart. Sometimes it hurts. I miss my family, mourn the loss of an old friendship, and it broke this spring for the city of Boston. But it's strong. It works hard for me for hours on end during those marathon runs, and it's frequently so full of love it renders me speechless.

Thanks to my liver. Beer is, hands down, my favorite recovery food, and I've spent many a happy afternoon with friends over some delicious brew. So thanks to my liver for all the hard work.

Thanks to my legs. They bear the brunt of my passion for running, and I love them for it. In February, I got to race again for the first time after a seven month layoff due to a freak swimming-related calf injury, from which these legs made a full recovery. They took me all over San Diego County during this year's 39-mile 39th birthday running, swimming, biking, and hiking adventure. And after a good run later today, these legs will carry me to the homes of friends and family to celebrate this day of thanks.
"Let us rise up and be thankful, for if we didn't learn a lot today, at least we learned a little, and if we didn't learn a little, at least we didn't get sick, and if we got sick, at least we didn't die; so let us be thankful." - from Leo Buscaglia's Born for Love

Friday, November 22, 2013

Fitness for duty

This being the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's assassination, I've spent the last week watching and reading a great deal about his personal and political life, as many of you probably have. Born over a decade after he was gone, he nonetheless had a profound impact upon my generation not only through his acts as president, but through his cultural influence upon my parents, who were teenagers when he was in office. Long before I understood why, I felt sadness and mystery when I heard the phrase "JFK."

President Kennedy is remembered mostly for his foreign policy, but he had some important domestic achievements during his short presidency. As a runner who started from elementary-school age, one of my favorite of those achievements was his development of the President's Council on Physical Fitness. It was created by Eisenhower in the late 1950s, but expanded in the 1960s by Kennedy, who understood that improving the physical fitness of our citizenry would be essential in winning the race to the moon.

Many of us can remember taking the council's "Presidential Fitness Challenge" (or some iteration of it) as grade school children, and today this important entity still exists, now known as the President's Council on Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition. Never a very athletic kid, I was always intimidated by these tests, and they certainly had their intended effect. I never had a problem with the mile run, but would have to "cram" in the weeks before I was going to be tested, so that I could at least make the minimum standards in the other categories: sit-ups, push-ups, and stretching on my bedroom floor at night, after my homework was finished. Mission accomplished, Mr. President.

As an adult, I now understand very clearly this connection between my physical activity and my ability to think creatively, and work productively. When planning out my week, I pay attention to the intersections of my training and work schedules, and make sure that the "big days" (those that will be long and intellectually or emotionally draining) always include a run, or some other type of a good sweat. 

Every day, I think we're seeing the effects of a citizenry that, on the whole, does not adequately tend to its own physical well-being. People are tired, and they don't feel well. And it shows in how we're performing, producing, and governing ourselves. The personal is political, as they say. I appreciate First Lady Michelle Obama's focus on the physical health of our children, and believe it to be a critical investment in our future as a nation.
"We choose to go to the moon in this decade and to do these other things not because they are easy, but because they are hard. Because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win." John F. Kennedy

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The art of slow

Three weeks from today I'll be running the Tucson Marathon: my sixteenth marathon, in the fourteenth state as I continue my journey of running the country. I'm not anticipating too much from this race, other than a fun long weekend in the Arizona desert. I'm hopeful for a PR, but at best will shave off a minute or two. There are no expectations about qualifying for Boston this time around, and I've made my peace with that. Maybe next year I'll be ready to tackle it again, but for now I've been enjoying the break from the pressures of pace goals. After my last marathon in June, I spent the summer running for the pure joy of it (see: pack burro race and birthday adventure), and when I decided to do this December marathon, I chose an abbreviated 12-week training plan. It's a very different program from the one I've been using for the past few years, and integrates a concept I've never tried before: the short, slow recovery run.

"What is the point?" I thought when I saw these weekly 3-5 mile runs on the training schedule. At first it just seemed like a means to tacking on extra mileage, and as a big believer in the value of rest, I questioned it. But I decided to trust the professionals who wrote the plan I had paid for, and give it a try. [Note: I am a professional geriatric care manager, so I understand this tendency. Families frequently pay me for my advice, and then completely ignore it.]

You can learn a lot from a turtle.
Time will tell whether this will have been an effective strategy for me, but what I know for sure is that I've learned to love those little recovery runs. I very quickly learned how much easier it is to get out of bed for an early morning run (a major weakness of mine) when all you're doing is a few slow miles, compared to an intimidating 10-mile tempo run or 18-mile long run. Just as important as accomplishing the major projects on your to-do list, there is great value in ticking off easy tasks you can get done in a few minutes. Initially, I found it impossible to maintain good form while running slowly. I caught my reflection in a building and saw my slumped shoulders and shallow shuffle; it looked like my form in the final miles of a long, hard race, although I was only a couple of miles into a very easy, relaxed run. I picked my head up and straightened out my stride, and involuntarily sped up. It took a fair amount of adjustment, but I eventually figured out that you can run relaxed without running poorly, and that the benefits of a slow but mindful run are legion: you can think even more clearly than you can when you're physically taxed, and you'll catch even more of what's going on around you as you pass by. A great lesson in moderation. I became more effective at work when I no longer allowed myself to put in 12-hour days. I learned to keep my home clean without giving up precious weekend days spent scrubbing on hands and knees, and am more inclined to keep up with it if I pace myself. (Okay, I'm still working on that one, but I know the potential exists. I am even worse at keeping a clean house than I am at waking up early.) Slowing myself down doesn't have to mean doing or being "less than." And in fact sometimes doing less makes it possible to do even more.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

O Brother, Tough Art Thou

In spring of this year, my brother-in-law Ian surprised and delighted me with the news that he wanted to train for his first marathon, the Dick's Sporting Goods Pittsburgh Marathon, next May. (I was super excited about this, and wrote all about it here.) Flash forward six months, and I am bursting at the seams with pride at all that he has already accomplished -- and the marathon is still six months away! My own running and training has been slow and frustrating of late, and his success and enthusiasm has been just the shot in the arm that I've needed to stay upbeat.

Turns out, I've really enjoyed being a coach. Of course, this is coaching in its most limited sense - from a distance, and with only one athlete. But given the demands of work, my own marathon training, and all of the miscellaneous challenges of everyday life, it’s just the right speed. I love being accessible and available to answer questions, celebrate successes, or even just provide a little cheerleading on a tough day.

We started with a slow and steady build-up of mileage, which frustrated him at first. When he was ready, I added in some speed work, hill repeats, and tempo runs in preparation for his first 10k (in September), and the complaints that I was going too easy on him disappeared. Ian not only completed that 10k – he killed it, finishing at an average pace that was nearly 30-seconds per mile faster than I’d predicted. And my favorite part: he enjoyed it! This was his first race ever, and he kept a great pace, felt strong, and recovered well. So, after a week of rest and easy running, we charged ahead with training for his first half-marathon.

Look at this awesome form, finishing today's half-marathon!
And today I’m happy to report: Ian is officially a half-marathoner! He finished this morning in an amazing 2:11:40, rocking a huge negative split, with every mile getting faster throughout the race. He’s filled with well-deserved pride at the accomplishment and (I think) feeling confident and physically ready to tackle the full 26.2. But for now: we celebrate. Right now I’m withholding the next phase of the training schedule – my only requirement is that he rest and revel in his accomplishment for a couple of days. After about two weeks of easy running, we’ll start slowly increasing his mileage again, and then once the holidays are over: it’s on, brother.

This has been such an exciting process to watch, and I find that it’s nearly as exciting to be a part of someone else’s athletic triumphs as it is to experience them yourself. I could get into this. Ian is getting faster and stronger, staying healthy and injury-free, and learning about all kinds of fun stuff along the way: running nutrition and hydration (what is Gü?), compression socks (free hospital-grade compression socks work, too!), how race packet pick-ups work, and the thrill of race day (read: port-a-johns). And most important of all: he’s learning how to balance the requirements of training with the joys of being an engaged and involved father of a very active young son. Every day, I am impressed, inspired, and excited to see what’s next. Thanks, Ian, and cheers!


Do you have any advice for Ian as he prepares to train for his first marathon? Please feel free to share!

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Running on empty

This afternoon, we attended the Good Food Community Fair, a great local event put on by Slow Food Urban San Diego, whose mission is "to reconnect urban San Diegans with each other, rediscover food traditions and cultural heritage, and educate our community about the plants, animals, fertile soils, and waters that produce our food." As a condo-dweller who doesn't grow food or raise animals, I make a point to know as much as I can about my food supply, and try hard to make sound choices about how I participate in the food economy. Within reason, of course. While I care very much about what I eat and where it came from, and am for the most part a very clean eater without really trying to be, I am delighted to eat anything that's been lovingly prepared in a friend's home. I've consumed with gusto some totally unrecognizable items from food stalls in southeast Asia. And for some reason, it is game on in the World Market prepared foods aisle. Hydrogenated oils and monosodium glutamate be damned.

Running fuel is an area where I really struggle when it comes to "real food" versus "manufactured food." Over the years, as I became entrenched in distance running and endurance sports culture, I let all kinds of un-food into my diet without really thinking about it: brightly-colored electrolyte drinks, carbohydrate gels, and bars chock-full of manufactured proteins. Every runner I know eats and drinks this stuff, and there's certainly all kinds of science behind it. (There was also science behind doctors' recommendations in the 1950s that we give babies Coca-Cola.) A few years ago, I began to feel pretty grossed out by all of these sports fuels, and one by one, they disappeared from my training. And again, it happened without my really thinking about it.

In an effort to understand what went wrong during training for my previous marathon, as I recovered I decided to read a couple of new books on marathoning, to see if there were any new "tweaks" I could incorporate into my training. I was startled to realize, while reading a chapter on some very basic principles of running nutrition and hydration, that at some point a couple of years ago I had stopped eating during my long runs altogether, and just hadn't noticed. As a person who borders on being obsessed with food and eating, I'm still shaking my head at this. Could it really be that my training has sucked because I'm hungry?

What is all this weird stuff?
I did some further research to figure out just how much I'm really supposed to be eating and drinking out there on those long runs, and was shocked at the recommendations. At my weight, gender, and level of training, I need approximately 150 calories and 16 oz of water or electrolyte drink per hour (on a cool day - more when it's warm). Although that sounded like a lot of eating and drinking to be doing while I'm trying to run, I decided I'd give it a try. But the thought of taking in 450+ calories in the form of fruit-flavored "Gu" was something I just couldn't abide. I did a lot of shopping around, and was able to find a lot of "natural" and "organic" options, most of which actually taste pretty good. But it still just grosses me out. I want real food in my real life, and why would that be any different when I'm running?

After a few weeks, I gave up and decided I'd just try running with food, and see what happens. Turns out: it's awesome! There are plenty of things you can buy in the regular old grocery store that are cheap, easy to digest, easy to chew, and have readily available carbohydrates: whole wheat fig newtons, dried fruit, and even some fresh fruit. And now that I'm used to it, I have no problem getting in enough calories while I run. The hitch is that real food is a lot less compact than scientifically manufactured food, and I'm still trying to figure out the logistics of carrying it all while I run. But as with the problem of running food, I'm sure than an appropriately simple solution is out there, and that I'll find it. Suggestions are welcome.

I just like food. Food's my favorite.


So what's your take on running nutrition? How do you get in enough calories and hydration while you run? What's your food of choice? Do carb gels gross anybody else out?

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Thirty-nine and feelin' ...

My "39-athon" route
Honestly? A little tired.

Saturday was my 39th birthday, and in celebration I organized an all-day 39-mile adventure: 17-mile run + 1-mile swim + 18-mile bike ride + 3-mile hike. It covered some of my favorite parts of San Diego, included some of my favorite people, and reminded me why we celebrate birthdays: because life is really, really good. I live in a strong and healthy body that can still do (most of) the things I ask of it, I have an adventurous husband, family, and friends who are willing to go along with my crazy ideas, and I live in an astoundingly beautiful place. I planned out a day that took me all over western San Diego County, and was granted an absolutely perfect last day of summer on which to do it. Two dozen of my friends/family jumped in at different points along my 16-hour day, keeping me smiling and laughing from start to finish. 

6:30 am: A girlfriend and I met at the Solana Beach train station, and caught the 6:49 one-way to Oceanside. We arrived shortly after 7:00 am, and were soon on our way, heading south on Highway 101 back to the station. We had a perfect low-60s morning, with nice cloud cover until the final few miles of the run. We saw friends along the way, and had coordinated a meet-up with another runner friend in Carlsbad, who joined us for six fun mid-run miles. We made it back to the station around 10:30, where my husband was waiting for us with fresh, hot cups of coffee (and my dog). We'd run an easy and comfortable 10:15 pace throughout the 16.5 miles, and felt great at the finish.

With my running buddies, at The Kook (Cardiff), and at the finish,
back at the Solana Beach train station.

11:45 am: Arrived in La Jolla, where I met another friend for a swim in the cove. We'd planned on a mile swim, but got started a little late, and so decided to just sort of head out and do whatever we had time for. (I already had a half-mile to make up for later in the day on the bike, since the run had only turned out to be 16.5, and figured what's one more?) The water was a cool but comfortable 68 degrees, and we had an awesome time flopping around in the warm sunshine out there with the seals and kayakers.

Swimming in La Jolla Cove:
one of my life's greatest pleasures.

1:30 pm: After an awkward and probably mildly illegal change out of suits on the shore (the bathrooms were closed for cleaning when we got out!), we drove a few blocks into the village of La Jolla for a lovely lunch in the sunshine with a few friends (and my husband) who met us there.

It took a lot of shoes, towels, and grubby athletic clothes
to pull this whole thing off.

3:30 pm: We met up with another friend on Coronado, and headed out for what we'd intended to be a leisurely 18-mile stroll south along the Silver Strand toward Imperial Beach. I had that 1.5 miles to make up, so we agreed to take on a little extra, but when we got to the 10.25 mile turnaround point, we found ourselves in the middle of the gorgeous Tijuana Estuary. I convinced them to go just a little further so that we could get all the way to Imperial Beach and see the salt mines there. So, it turned out to be a 22-mile ride -- with a gnarly headwind all the way back, that had us working hard. (We averaged 14-15 mph comfortably most of the way out, and struggled at 10-11 mph on the way back in.) They were great sports, though, and that stretch of San Diego, with its ocean dunes on one side, and bird-filled salty marsh on the other, is one of my absolute favorite places to spend an afternoon.

More than we bargained for on the beautiful Silver Strand!

6:30 pm: A group of friends met up with us at the bottom of Cowles Mountain - the highest peak within the city limits of San Diego (1,594 feet: mountainous, my city is not), and a popular place to night hike. We toasted with a quick glass of wine before heading up, and had a great time. We didn't quite make it to the top (we had an 8:30 dinner reservation, and got concerned about missing it), but in the dark, who can tell the difference? We were close. I think. So, we didn't make it the full 3 miles as planned, but since I'd already made up for it on the bike ride, was pleased to have easily covered my total 39 miles for the day. Mission accomplished! Now let's eat.

A few of my hiking pals.
(It got too dark to take photos without
blinding ourselves once the sun went down.)

8:30 pm: All of the hikers, and several other friends headed to a local Vietnamese/Japanese gem of a restaurant, and basically filled up the place. I should have been exhausted by the end of the day, but instead was energized by all of the eating and drinking with such marvelous, spirited friends. And I was delighted to find that, at the end of the night, when I pulled my chair away from the table, I was still able to stand up. And walk!

Fortunately, just the one candle.
I don't think I'd have had the lung capacity for 39!

As I crawled into bed after a much-needed shower and a blissful Epsom salt soak, I was filled with pride at the physical accomplishment, and warmed all over by the love of so many. Well, warm everywhere except for my left knee. It needed a little ice.


Saturday, September 14, 2013

Leaning back out

For nearly ten years, I've been a partner in a small business that has seen a lot of growth. I've been a runner a lot longer than I've been a working professional, though, and it was important to me from the beginning that these two things not become mutually exclusive. A 24/7 labor of love for many years, we provide health and social services for medically frail elders, and so are necessarily on-call and available for support around-the-clock 365 days per year. I am frequently asked "How can you work the kind of hours that you do, and still run marathons?" And my answer is always the same: "I can't imagine working the kind of hours that I do without running marathons." The basic tenet of social work (my primary professional training) is to "start where your client is," and I have found that being physically well - rested, fed, and exercised - is essential to the presence and focus that's required at work. I don't always pull this off. There are days that I eat a handful of peanuts for lunch, get only a few hours of sleep in order to prepare for a presentation, or work straight through the time I'd allocated for a run. But I do my best.

Lean In:
Women, Work, and the Will to Lead
Even in the social services, where good self-care is something we constantly preach to the families and caregivers of our disabled clients, there are pressures to perform and produce results, often to the detriment of the worker. Expectations of long hours, extended work weeks, and limited vacations are still the reality of most corporate environments. There are widespread assumptions that workers in their 30s and 40s should sacrifice time, rest, and personal pursuits during these "high productivity years," because they can make up for lost time later. I had these assumptions and expectations of myself for a long time, and several years ago, decided to make a change. But these old notions of what it means to be a loyal, dedicated, hard-working employee run pretty deep, and my decision to focus my activities, limit my hours to a more regular schedule, and commit myself more deeply to my personal relationships and recreational pursuits (chief among them: running) were met with resistance. From others, but also from myself. It occurred to me, when reading Sheryl Sandberg's fantastic Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, that if I made the decision to put reasonable boundaries around my work life in the name of child-rearing, most around me would understand and respect this decision. But as a woman in my 30s with no children, the notion that I want to work less so that I can run more (I'm simplifying) is interpreted as self-indulgence and a lack of leadership. At first, I felt guilty and hung back, but with the support of some important partners, I moved myself forward.

I just came across a reprint of an old article from The Harvard Business Review, "Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time," (Schwartz & McCarthy, 2007), which validated my experience as a professional and a runner: "The core problem with working longer hours is that time is a finite resource. Energy is a different story." They continue:
Most large organizations invest in developing employees' skills, knowledge, and competence. Very few help build and sustain their capacity - their energy - which is typically taken for granted. In fact, greater capacity makes it possible to get more done in less time at a higher level of engagement and with more sustainability.
So run on, Corporate America. RUN ON!

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Coming up short

Ever get the feeling that the universe is not only sending you a message, it's hurling it at you? Like, multiple copies of that message, each tied to a brick?

I recently finished reading a book in which I've been absorbed for a couple of weeks (I'm a tediously slow reader, and I'm usually reading two or three books at once): Daring Greatly, an exploration by a social work researcher of what it means to be vulnerable. I didn't choose this book; it was a selection for a business book club of which I'm a member, so it was chosen for me. In it, author Brene Brown dispels the myth that vulnerability is weakness, and instead describes it as a measure of courage, and the place where connection, joy, innovation, and creativity begin. A lot of the book made me physically wince as I read it, especially the section on feedback - how treacherously difficult it is for most of us to give it and receive it in an honest and open fashion. The author challenges the reader to seek out feedback in areas where we need it, to graciously receive it, and most importantly, to apply it as necessary. This is a particularly weak muscle of mine. I get a cramp just thinking about it.

The day after I finished the book, we witnessed the triumph of distance swimmer Diana Nyad, who fulfilled her decades-long dream of swimming from Cuba to Florida in her fifth grueling attempt. I've read and watched stories of her previous attempts through the years, with (I will admit) only a glimmer of interest. It's always struck me as sort of a silly goal, a strange outlet for a lot of energy and resources. But her repeated attempts have always intrigued me. What is with that lady? I was all eyes and ears on Monday, though, when she stepped ashore, confounded by the physical enormity of the endeavor and her courageous perseverance, but mostly by her willingness to fail. To fail repeatedly. And to fail publicly. I get a cramp just thinking about it.

Diana Nyad is a brilliant example of a lot of human characteristics that I admire, but the part of her story that resonates for me at the moment is her capacity to innovate. She was the embodiment of vulnerability out there, in both the literal and figurative senses. Jellyfish, sharks, and the threat of a fifth failure. Along with a lot of salt water, she swallowed a lot of pride. With each effort, she learned something new that she applied to the next, recruiting new experts, and experimenting with new technologies. She acknowledged things she had done wrong, and then learned how to do them better.

I want to be better at this. I'm at a point in my career that I need to be better at this. And, as in most things, running has something to teach me about this. No one likes being wrong, or doing things wrong, of course, but some of us handle it more poorly than others. While certainly no perfectionist, the idea of failing altogether at something is gut-wrenching. I don't want to have to pick myself back up after a failure, so I usually just don't do things at which I'm likely to fail. I've had several "failures" as a distance runner, though, and you know what? I've survived them all. Training and racing are constant sources of feedback, with which I make adjustments in my training, my diet, and my lifestyle. And sometimes those failures are pretty public. I've still not qualified for Boston, after a couple of serious attempts. I've put my goals right out there for everyone to see, and not accomplished them. Racing is a great exercise in vulnerability, and I hereby challenge myself to develop those muscles in other areas of my life, too. From coming out on the wrong side of an argument with my husband, to challenging myself to grow professionally, I want to learn how to be wrong, how to make mistakes. How to "bonk," and still be willing to sign up for the next race.
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly ...
From the speech "Citizenship in a Republic"
Theodore Roosevelt
April 23, 1910

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Next stop: Sundance

The Runner's Hi is pleased to present Racing Tonto, the complete donkey-umentary of my first experience at the kick-in-the-pants Colorado heritage sport: pack burro racing. I dare you to try to not fall in love with him! Hope you'll enjoy this musical journey and share in the adventures of training, my education in donkey-handling, and of course, all of the excitement of race day. Giddy up!

If you want the back-story on this, here are a couple of old posts that you might have missed:

Coda: I've now officially signed up, paid my dues, and am a member of the Western Pack Burro Ass-Ociation. I am hooked on this crazy sport, and very hopeful that I can get back out to Colorado for another race next season. Stay tuned.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Rusty old clunker

Yesterday during my morning five miles on my favorite trails in Balboa Park, I encountered a high school girls' cross-country team out on a group run. Immediately I was thinking back fondly to my own experiences running cross-country. I was no star, but I loved absolutely everything about it: the trails, the dirt, the meets, and the great group of kids that I ran with.

Kids. As I watched this pack of teenaged girls run by, I couldn't help but notice their hair. So shiny! Their faces so unwrinkled. Their limbs, so lacking in jiggle and spider veins. And I'll bet not one of them would creak and groan if they stood up after sitting in a chair for an hour. They all seemed to float so effortlessly, compared to what has become my own heavy-footed lumber.

This week, I watched ESPN-W's latest Nine for IX documentary, Runner about the girl running phenom of the 70s (and 80s), Mary Decker Slaney. I was so struck by the early footage of her, gliding along the track in her pigtails and knee socks, with her signature perfect running form. I wondered what 12-year old me would have looked like out there. I was certainly no Little Mary Decker, but boy did running feel different as a kid than it does now.

Back then I needed a warm-up mile before I would feel ready to run hard; today I need about five. In high school I would run on my own in the morning, go to school all day, and then run practice with my team in the evening, without thinking twice about it. Today if I run two days in a row, my hips hurt. In college, I would go to classes all morning, work all evening, and then go for a run before going out dancing on weekend nights. (Well into my 20s, I consistently took myself out for pre-nightclub runs, in order to burn off energy, or else I was never ready leave when the clubs closed at 2:00 am.) Today after work I went to a spin class, and am utterly wiped. I'm going to see a favorite local band play tonight at 9:00 pm (an hour from now), sitting here wondering if the post-dinner cup of coffee required to muster the post-workout energy is going to keep me up all night. Not quite the well-oiled machine I used to be.

My 39th birthday is a few weeks away, and because I am a big proponent of celebrating all birthdays to the absolute greatest extent possible, I've been busy making plans - and in the process giving my own aging a lot of thought. I don't feel "old," exactly, but it certainly occurs to me that I am no longer "young." And while I'm most definitely not someone who is going to fight growing older, I do find myself rising in a bit of opposition to the challenges posed by my aging body. So for my birthday, I've planned an elaborate, all-day endurance event: 39 miles of running (17 miles on the coast highway), swimming (1 mile in La Jolla Cove), cycling (18 miles on the Silver Strand in Coronado), and hiking (3 miles up and down the highest peak in our city, Cowles Mountain). I'm so looking forward to pushing this old girl to her limits in a fun new way, with a tour of some of my favorite parts of San Diego County, with friends and loved ones hopping in to join me for some different parts of the day. No one has yet signed up to do the whole thing with me ... but I'm still holding out hope! Ah, the naivety of youth.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Lessons from a longears

Last weekend's adventure in central Colorado at the Idaho Springs pack burro race was - hands down - the most fun I've had yet in a quarter century of distance running that was already pretty chock full of great runs. Although I had done a little reading about donkeys and seen some video of pack burro racing, I really had no idea what to expect out there - from myself, from my equine running partner, or from the race itself. Never could I have imagined just how much fun, or what a life-changing experience it was going to be. Since first learning of this sport last year, I've read about the dedicated passion of those quirky folks who self-identify as "donkey people," (in contrast to "horse people"), and the efforts of the pack burro racing community to promote this local heritage sport, all of which now makes complete and total sense to me.
Rock Ridge Ranch (Loveland, Colorado)

We arrived in Colorado on Thursday, and then spent most of Friday and Saturday at the beautiful Rock Ridge Ranch so that my partner Tonto and I could get comfortable with each other, and work out the important race-day logistics such as a 15' lead, and a properly stocked pack saddle. (The races are an homage to 19th century Colorado miners, and the burros are required to carry 33 lbs of equipment, including a mining pan, pick, and shovel.) We practiced running on rocky, mountainous terrain together, and Tonto and I turned out to be a great pair. We quickly learned to trust one another, and even as one who is fearful of large animals, I found his charms irresistible. I can't say enough about the training provided to me by Patty and Margi at the ranch, who put us both at ease, and had him following my newly-learned commands in a matter of hours. Neither of them had ever trained a pack burro for racing, but you would never have known it. Their knowledge about and love for these amazing critters more than made up for any inexperience in the sport, and they handled this ignorant city-girl runner with equal skill and patience.

The start of the 2013 Idaho Springs Tommyknocker
Mining Days & Pack Burro Race
Sunday morning, family, friends, husband, and donkeys packed up and headed for the hills of Idaho Springs, and after a morning that is now a blur of nervous last-minute preparations, suddenly it was noon and there I was. Standing in the middle of an old mining town 1,200 miles from home, in a packed crowd of sixty strange burros (and their runners), holding nervously onto Tonto's lead and waiting for the starting gun. Wait what? But before panic could set in, there was the gunshot, and off we went. Me, Tonto, and a big crowd of donkeys, heading out of town and up a steep mountain grade. We ran (and walked) up and down dirt road, some single-track rocky trail, and then back down through the streets of town for the finish. It was pretty slow going up the hills (I am not accustomed to high elevations, and I think Tonto could tell ...), but we were absolute magic on the flatter, faster parts of the course. I'd spent a few weeks trying to strengthen my ankles, which aren't accustomed to dirt and rocks, and other than one stumble that had me getting pulled briefly through a bit of soft dirt, I was able to keep up pretty well with my amazing donkey. He navigated the trails with ease, jumped over fallen trees when I asked him to, and even tolerated the occasional passing car with a grace and calm that I would never have expected from a donkey.

Our Saturday training hike, wherein Tonto taught me some
good lessons in "donkey persuasion." Here he is, refusing
to step on a pile of rocks. We worked it out.
This was the five-mile version of what are usually much longer, more grueling races, and it was a perfect introduction to a sport that I suspect is now hopelessly under my skin. I am an urbanite Southern Californian to my core, but as it turns out, I may also be "donkey people." These animals have profound senses of their own selves, and what we call their "stubbornness" feels very familiar to me. I don't have a problem with authority, and I don't mind being told what to do - as long as I trust (and like) the person doing the telling, understand what's expected of me, and have been given a compelling reason to do it. My impression during the race was that those burros who knew their human runners well and understood what was being asked of them out there were, on the whole, pretty cooperative. (There are exceptions, of course, and many stories of experienced burro racers whose animal on a given day simply decided that they were not participating. And there's not a whole lot the human can do about that.) Tonto and I had to pause for a couple of heart-to-heart discussions out there on that trail, and it was so beautiful when I felt it "click," and knew that he understood what I was asking for - and decided that he was going to oblige. And it was a humbling experience when I could tell that I knew he understood what I was asking for, but decided he was going to do his own thing anyway.

The demands of burro racing are fascinating. It's physically exhausting to be sure (running while attempting to keep a several hundred pound animal under one's control is a whole new ball game), but it's also emotionally exasperating. There never seemed to be more than a few minutes where I was thinking "Okay, I've got this under control." We would hit a great running stride (trotting, for him) on some manageable terrain, and I'd think we were set to cruise for a while, and then we'd turn a corner and be heading straight uphill on a bunch of rocks. Oof. Or Tonto would, for some unknown (to me) reason, simply decide to start walking. "Tonto, up! Up, Tonto! Yah! Tonto, let's go! Okay, Tonto ..."

My great family hauled their asses - literally and figuratively -
all over Colorado to support me in this crazy race!
In many ways, I relished my lack of control over the outcome, as a runner usually focused on paces and finish times. And the thrill of turning that final corner and seeing my family leap into the air when they spotted me is something I'll never forget. None of us had any sense of how I would do - I could have come in last place, and no one would have been surprised. I could have finished bruised and bloodied, not finished at all, or shocked everyone and come in first place (okay, that last one was unlikely ... but it technically could have happened ...). They couldn't spectate along the route, and so just had to hang out in town wondering what on earth was going on up there. When I came into view, their excitement over my strong finish (and my lack of bodily injuries) was overwhelming. Inside they were probably breathing huge sighs of relief, but all I could see on the outside was their energy and excitement. After Tonto and I crossed the finish, my sweet sister came up to me and said: "That was amazing. You can do absolutely anything you set out to do!" Who would have ever guessed that this important life lesson would come in the form of a donkey?


For more information about this Colorado heritage sport, check out the Western Pack Burro Ass-Ociation's website at And if you're game for giving it a try yourself, let me know! I can hardly wait to get back out there again.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Haulin' ass

No bucket could contain me.
I've never been big on the "bucket list" concept. I throw the phrase around from time to time, but I don't actually maintain any such thing. There are places I want to visit and things I want to experience before I die. But if you'd asked me to rattle off a few of them five years ago, and then asked me to do so again right now, you'd probably get two totally different sets of responses. I guess what I have is something more like an "old burlap sack list." Things can move around in there, sometimes they fall out, and there's all kinds of holes in the bottom. I'm easily overwhelmed by the number of incredible places that I may never see, amazing people I may never meet, delicious food I may never try, great books I may never read, and profound experiences I may never have. There could be no bucket large enough to contain all of the things that I would love to do. So I always need to maintain a little space to shove something else in there, to let an old fantasy or goal slip away to make room for a new one.

But boy do I love reaching in there and finding something I can grab! I have a minor issue with impulse control, but nothing that has ever gotten me into too much trouble. I'm just one of those people that gets excited - really excited - easily. I'll raise my hand and agree to almost anything I've never tried before, especially when meets any of my most important criteria: a) it will require me to travel to a place I've never been, b) it will connect me to friends or family that I love, and c) it's not likely to result in bodily harm and/or death. And if there's some weird food involved, so much the better.

My husband has learned by now how to identify the tone.
"Blur is playing a reunion concert in Hyde Park this summer!!" = "She is going to find a way to get to London this summer."
"Did you know that that weird old restaurant down the street does silly mystery dinner theatre?!" = "We have a reservation for Saturday night."
"I just read the craziest article about this weird group of runners in central Colorado who trail race with pack burros every summer!!" =  "Oh, here we go."
Tonto! My racing partner for Sunday's pack burro race
in Idaho Springs, CO. I am already madly in love.
Courtesy of the Rock Ridge Ranch (Loveland, CO)
And so, tonight we head out to central Colorado. Friday and Saturday, I'll spend some time getting to know my burro Tonto and figuring out how to run with him. And then Sunday morning: it's on. A parade of runners and their donkeys in Idaho Springs, followed by a 4-6 mile pack burro race that starts at high noon. (Click here to find out more about this unique Colorado heritage sport!) I'll have Tonto on a 15-foot lead (runners run; no riding allowed!), and he'll be loaded up with 33 pounds of mining equipment. I have absolutely no idea what to expect from this, but my dad, sisters, brother, husband, and some friends are making the trip to come out and take in all of this nonsense, and that's good enough for me. Until I read that article a year ago about pack burro racing, would you have found something like this in my old burlap sack list? Absolutely not. But ask me again in a couple more years, and let's see what else I've managed to fit into that ratty old thing.

Do you have a bucket list? Or an old burlap sack list? What are you planning to tick off next?

Monday, July 8, 2013

Take a picture, it'll last longer

I'm not a collector of "stuff." I'm messy, sure. My desk is piled high with paper, and my car is littered with the evidence of recent runs and half-completed to-do lists. But despite these tendencies, I don't actually surround myself with clutter. My husband, dog, and I live in a small one-bedroom condo with limited storage space, and in no way do I yearn for more. It's certainly not a spartan existence - I have kitchen cupboards full of cookware, shelves of books, and pieces of art that I love. But I don't have enough space to accumulate too much more than I need, and I like it that way.

We share one small closet, and while I'll admit that I do encroach a bit onto his side, I'm no clothes horse. I love interesting, colorful clothes and am intrigued by fashion, but unfortunately (or fortunately, maybe) I really hate shopping, so there's not actually much of interest in there. With one exception: the disproportionate number of t-shirts. A runner for over a quarter of a century now, it's hard to even guess how many race t-shirts I've acquired in my lifetime. My normal routine is to wear them a few times on a run or to the gym, and then if I don't really love how they feel (and I usually don't), I donate them to my local thrift shop before they become too ragged or sweat-stained for someone else to be able to use them. Of course, there have been many special runs through the years, the t-shirts from which I've hung onto for sentimental reasons, and so a collection has inadvertently developed over time.

The running shirts that I was able to grab quickly from my closet, for demonstrative
purposes. There are probably actually twice as many packed away in there.

I've never given much thought to any of this. Like most runners, I dig eagerly into the bag to see what the t-shirt looks like when I pick up my race packet. But no matter how much I like it, I rarely feel compelled to hang onto it. I donate it to charity and assume that it moves on to serve some other purpose, not realizing that I'm actually contributing to a serious global problem.

I recently read an interesting article: The Afterlife of Cheap Clothes (2012). I recommend that you give it a read, but in case you don't, here's the bottom line: Our consumption of inexpensive clothing has created a glut of textile waste that overburdens our domestic charities, who cannot process and sell the volume of donated clothing they receive. Some of it gets recycled, and the rest is shipped and sold overseas to markets that no longer have a strong demand for our cheaply-made throwaways. Even the poorest of the poor don't want or need this stuff. So what if we just stopped making it?

There have been a few races I've entered where I've been given a choice to decline the t-shirt, and pay a lower entry fee (which I always do). I'd love to see more race directors providing us with this option, and more runners thinking twice about acquiring more things that they don't need. We have our finish times, our race memories and stories, and probably some photos. That seems like plenty. I'm not looking to start a revolution here, but I will start voicing this preference to the organizers of the events in which I participate. I will start trying to get the most out of the t-shirts that I do get stuck with, and buying fewer new running shirts. And most difficult of all, I will try my hardest to resist that $7 tank top that I don't really need (even though it's really cute) the next time I'm distracted by the women's clothing section at Target. Because I really only went in there for toothpaste anyway.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Runner unchained

Over coffee this morning, I sat down for my annual reading of the declaration of our independence, signed 237 years ago today. This is a favorite July 4th tradition, and every year some particular phrase jumps out at me, usually from the intriguing list of the king's "injuries and userpations." This morning I realized that the history books have missed an obvious fact: King George III was actually a tyrannic distance runner.

"He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures."

As with all good writing, I take something different away from it every time I read it, and this year I think the take-away is all about my own unshackling from the tyranny of GPS. It is my personal practice to declare a month of freedom after every marathon: four weeks without worrying about pace or mileage, no planning for the next marathon, no poring over training schedules. I refuse to let myself even look at race calendars during those four weeks, which I will admit gets pretty tough toward the end. (Although, you know, if you want to talk to me about any good races you happen to know about in December, who am I to stop you?) I think that this self-enforced break from the cycle of training is what has kept me madly in love with running marathons for fifteen years. While my body has certainly gone through periods of burn-out and fatigue, my head never has.

At the end of a very tough work day yesterday, I found myself driving along the coast, and pulled over to run a few head-clearing evening miles on the sand. A half hour of unplanned, unstructured, slow, comfortable bliss. This week, a fellow runner put out the call to our Facebook group, inviting anyone to join her for a 4-mile run in Balboa Park this morning. When I read it, my impulse was to think about how those four miles would fit into my schedule for the week: Will we be running too fast or slow? Will I need to tack on some additional mileage, or throw in some hills at the end? With great relief, it occurred to me: it doesn't matter. Four miles at any pace would be great. I'm in. It was a lovely warm morning, and I showed up with absolutely no concern for how or where we ran, and made a new friend. As I was putting on my running clothes this morning, I strapped on my Garmin out of habit, but then checked myself. No need! I took it off, laced up my shoes, and was out the door.

Check out that naked wrist! In the last two weeks,
I've even lost my ever-present watch tan.
For these next couple of weeks (and maybe more, if this particular course of human events dictates that it should be necessary), I am enjoying this opportunity to reconnect to the real reasons that I love to run, which have nothing to do with numbers or qualifying times. Ah, freedom.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Sisyphus in running shoes

I recently ran my fifteenth marathon, and with the experience came the now-familiar set of questions:

In the shuttle on my way to the start: Wait, now why did I sign up to do this, again?

In the middle miles, when pain and exhaustion are setting in: How could I forget what this feels like? What am I doing out here?

And after I’ve had a post-race beer, a warm shower, and a couple of Advil: Which one should I do next?

All good questions. With answers that I apparently keep forgetting. Which I think may kind of be the point.

Everyone needs opportunities to find out - or be reminded of - what they’re made of, and my recent marathon was one such opportunity. I’m blessed with what I consider to be a remarkably happy and healthy life, and believe that it’s this position of relative privilege that draws me – and many people like me – to the marathon. I have my share of your everyday struggles, but life is not hard for me in the ways that it is for so many. I don’t wonder where my next meal will come from. I don’t live in chronic pain. My family is safe. I believe that struggle is essential to the human experience, and that those of us who don’t need to struggle to survive necessarily create ways to test ourselves.

At times we do this in unconscious ways, inviting drama and chaos into areas of our lives where it need not be. At times we do this in unhealthy and unproductive ways, through self-sabotage at work, or the development of habits that we then need to learn how to break. And at times we do this in marvelous, inspiring ways. Scientists and engineers striving for the next great innovation. Diplomats reaching for peace. Athletes pushing the boundaries of what we think is humanly possible. Middle-aged schlubs pounding out the long miles every weekend, in pursuit of their next big personal achievement.

Am I counting recreational athletes like myself among the scientists, engineers, diplomats, and elite athletes that are out there changing the world? Sort of, yes. Do I think that my completion of a marathon compares to a scientist developing the cure for Alzheimer’s disease? Of course not. But I do think that what runners are out there doing every day matters, and that the ways that non-runners find to stretch and challenge themselves matter. I think this intrinsic need for struggle is why sport exists in every human society, why games and “play” are important. We’re all out there day after day, living our struggle in our own personal ways, inching closer toward self-realization with every little victory. Every time I make it through a difficult day of work, mend a broken relationship with someone I care about, or knock out a tempo run that I didn’t think I could do, I contribute something to the world, and I’m a better person for that struggle.

Monday, June 24, 2013

My Better Self

A few posts ago, I wrote on the subject of self-acceptance, even when the self I need to accept is a sad, whiny mess. Today as I reflect back on my performance at Saturday’s Grandma’s Marathon, I’m grateful to have developed this skill, because if ever there were a race when I needed to pull up stakes, let go, and “embrace the suck,” this was it.

Don’t fret. This isn’t going to be a gory account of a terrible race. While it was a terrible race, objectively speaking, and I ran one of my slowest finish times in years, it was nonetheless one of my best marathons to date. When I think, talk, and write about it now several days later, I feel only a deep fondness for the experience. I’ll start by showing you this image that my husband captured of me around Mile 9, when I was still smiling and my posture was upright.

That's me in the middle. All smiles.

Things got pretty ugly very shortly after that photo was taken, and I’d like to just pretend that this is how I would have looked in the late-mile photos, as well. Fortunately, Marc now has spectated enough of these things to know with one quick glance whether he should be taking my photo, or whether he needs to jump out onto the course and run along for a few hundred yards and give me a pep talk. So, blessedly, there are no late-mile photos this time around.

Grandma’s is a fantastic course that deserves of all of the accolades that it receives. Although a relatively small field (just over 7,000 were registered for the full marathon, another 7,500 for the half), it is a favorite among many, myself now included. First of all, the entire town of Duluth, Minnesota, gets utterly swept up in Grandma’s fever. The spirit of the staff at our hotel was like nothing I have ever seen, and at just about every shop, bar, or restaurant we entered the entire weekend, I was asked by friendly workers about whether I was running, or how my race went. The course just couldn’t be better, starting in the charming town of Two Harbors, and running along the shore of Lake Superior on paved trails and city roads through some beautiful neighborhoods filled with spirited neighbors out on their lawns, cheering the entire way. This is a city of about 90,000 people, and I’d swear that most of them were out there on Saturday morning. The route is very comfortable, with rolling hills and only one incline of any consequence: the famed Lemon Drop Hill at Mile 22, which was lined with screaming, hilarious spectators who made it a piece of cake.

Okay, “a piece of cake” may be a bit of a minimization, a memory now sweetened by the haze of my great overall experience of Grandma’s Marathon. Absolutely nothing about this race was a piece of cake for me. For reasons that I still don’t understand – and that I will now try to get figured out – I trained poorly. Although I knew that I had put in all of the miles I needed to be ready for the 26.2 distance, I also knew that I wasn’t strong enough to have a good race. I knew going in that this one wasn’t going to go well, but I had really underestimated just how not well.

I was only about six miles into the race when I began to feel the familiar exhaustion that had plagued me throughout my training. I hunkered down and tried to comfort myself by thinking about the difficult 20-mile training run I had done in Kona in May. I had struggled through and conquered that beast of a run under much more challenging conditions, and that was the distance I had to go. I can do this. Unfortunately, the optimism had faded by Mile 11, when my hip flexors began to seize up on me. My stride shortened and my pace slowed dramatically. I am not even to the halfway point. I’ve only run one other marathon that I thought I might not finish, several years ago in Estes Park, Colorado, where the effects of the 8,000+ feet of elevation were devastating. And on Saturday morning, for about an hour in the middle miles of the race, I was again engaged in fierce combat with myself, struggling to stay on the course. The pain in my hips was just at the edge of what I can bear – I knew I wasn’t injured, and that I wasn’t causing any harm by continuing, but it was nonetheless brutal. I was chafing in the moisture, and could feel blisters forming from my wet socks. (Right, right. I promised no gore. I’ll stop there.) I can’t do this. And then somewhere around the Mile 18 point, while deep in a thoughtful conversation with myself (Why am I doing this?), it hit me: this is exactly why I do this. There is a part of me that believes that the eight miles left to go are physically impossible, but there’s another part of me in there somewhere that’s going to dig deep and find it. That second part is going to win.

It was an unusually cold and wet day, with temperatures in the 40s throughout the race, dense fog, and light rain that kept us soaking wet. Under better circumstances, these temperatures would have been a godsend, but because I was running with so much pain, my pace was so slow that I just couldn’t warm up. By the time I finished, my jaws were clenched from the cold, I couldn’t speak, and I had almost no use of my hands from the numbness and shivering. When the race volunteer handed me my medal and congratulated me, I burst into tears of exhaustion, pain, and frustration, causing a medic to rush over to me and ask if I needed assistance. I assured him that I was okay, thanked him for his help as coherently as I could, and stumbled my way to the gear check so that I could get out of my wet clothes.

Poor Marc. Our reunion after the finish was unpleasant, to put it mildly. I was barely verbal, and inconsolable. Even after changing into my dry sweatshirt, I was shaking from the cold and in so much pain that I couldn’t bear to partake in any of the post-race festivities. (You know I’m feeling badly when I skip the free beer.) I stumbled like a zombie to the car, and after a few minutes of being off of my feet with the heater blasting on us (let’s not forget that Marc was out in that cold damp air for many hours, too, without the benefit of being warmed by the running), I slowly came back to life. Along with the feeling in my extremities, so too returned my perspective. It was probably my worst race ever, but a couple of hours later, it no longer mattered. I had done battle with my weaker self, and won.

My better self still knows
That meaning comes and goes
What is it made?
I do not know
But meaning comes and it goes
~Tennis, "My Better Self"