Sunday, May 26, 2013

I get "HI" with a little help from my friends

A friend recommended that 
I check in with the folks at 
who were super nice, and helpful.
We're now well into the Year of the Water Snake, and I wrote here previously on the subject of setting myself up with expectations for a year that would involve water, travel, and new experiences, and an environment for new career opportunities and friendships to thrive. So far, the universe has not disappointed. A week ago, I returned from an 8-day relaxation-fest on The Big Island of Hawaii with my husband and some favorite friends: hours upon hours of swimming and basking in the warm sun with books on the beach, as well as adventures on (and in) old volcanoes, snorkeling with giant manta rays, and cultivating a newfound love of the mai tai. It was a perfect mix of time alone to rest, time together with people I enjoy, and of course - time knocking out some monster training runs. How amazing, to be at the peak of marathon training while in Kona, the home of Ironman. But Hawaii is a hot, humid, and hilly place, so finding routes to do the 15- and 20-mile training runs that I was scheduled to do during our eight days on the island was no small feat. I learned early on in my first long run just how well-adapted I am to the cool, flat, desert conditions of San Diego. Running in Hawaii was as beautiful as any place I can imagine, and man did it teach me to dig deep. But more than anything, it reinforced for me the social benefits of running. 

Planning last Friday's 20-mile training run along the western edge of the island took a lot of work. Before I left, I had put out the call to a couple of groups on Facebook, and got some route suggestions. On the great advice of a local runner friend, I stopped into Kona's coolest little running shop, and got the staff's helpful feedback. And thanks to a lot of effort on the part of my enthusiastic traveling companions, we pulled it all together. This was a training run I definitely couldn't have executed by myself, and as much as I enjoyed the solitude of those several hours, I felt very deeply even in the hottest, most difficult of miles that I wasn't alone out there.

My crew and I headed out around 6:15 am, thinking that if I was running by 7:00, I'd beat the heat of the day. (We were, in fact, wrong about that. By 7:30, it was blazing.) They drove me to a spot that we'd mapped out and driven in advance, in order to identify good places to stash water bottles.

They dropped me off on the side of the highway, and I spent a few minutes getting myself psyched up (and peeing in that lava field) before pushing off.

The night before, I had frozen all of my water bottles, but by the time I arrived at my first one, stashed about six miles from the start (near the Kona airport) it was already thawed. Have I mentioned that The Big Island is hot?

The early miles of the run were mostly amazing, beautiful desolation.

It was hours before I saw another runner; not until I was in the village of Kona. I passed a few cyclists, but mostly this was my only company out there.

At my second water-bottle stop (about 10 miles in), I was feeling it. I had to sit in the shade of that palm tree for a few minutes and cool down, for fear of serious heat-related problems. I sent a text message to Marc to check in, and he replied noting that I still seemed to have some humor and lucidity, so this was encouraging.

The third water bottle stop turned out to be brilliant. We'd stashed it in a bush in front of the Kona Brewing Company, and as it happened, there was a sprinkler going in the landscaping at the time that I arrived. I put my stuff down, climbed up on a rock, and sat there letting the sprinkler drench me. I got lots of laughs from people driving by, and can only imagine how wrecked I must have looked by then. Looking back on this, I find it odd that any place on Hawaii needs sprinklers. Maybe I hallucinated this whole scene? At any rate, I was soaking wet, and actually cold by the time I took off. Whatever really happened out there, it did the trick, and got me back on the road.

A few miles later, I was at the official start of Ironman, a gorgeous spot in the village of Kona. Beautiful timing for some late-mile inspiration! A few waves crashed on that sea wall as I passed by, for some encouragement and a little cool-down.

Now, don't get me wrong: I love that the city of Kona is attentive to the safety of its roadside athletes. But pardon me: I DON'T SEE ANY JOGGERS OUT HERE. This is running.

The final miles were a long stretch of Ali'i Drive, which is just one beautiful little beach after another. My pace throughout this 20-miler was decent overall, and I mostly felt pretty good, but it required a lot of breaks to bring my constantly-climbing core temperature back down. Around mile 18, I needed one final short break, and had no trouble finding a nice spot to take it. I texted Marc one final time, who reminded me that I was "so close!" That final bit of encouragement helped me peel myself off that rock, grateful for all of the support that had made this gorgeous, challenging, and memorable run possible.

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
-John Donne

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Before and after

I recently joined an online group of runners who are all working toward qualifying for the Boston Marathon. It's a private Facebook group of ~150 runners sharing workouts, bragging about successes, and even commiserating on their failures in community with one another. Last weekend, we had our first member successfully "BQ" in her local marathon, and it was so much fun to watch members from around the country rally around her in celebration. At times the group is downright silly, and at times it's profound. It's another example of how social media can be used to create real connections between people, and I love being a part of it.

At some point yesterday, one of the members posted some "before and after" photos of herself, demonstrating how running has transformed her physically. Within a matter of minutes, she'd opened the floodgates, prompting others to open up and share their weight loss stories. The photos began pouring in, along with amazing tales of hard work producing profound physical changes. Naturally, it got me thinking about my own experiences of transformation.

If I posted a photo of myself here from ten years ago, alongside another that was taken today, you wouldn't say "Wow! Look at the difference!" Like anyone, I experience some fluctuations in my weight, but it's been mostly stable throughout most of my adult life. I'm in better shape than I've ever been, but you probably wouldn't know it looking at me. Nothing to see here, folks.

But that's not to say that I've not been radically transformed through running. I struggled with an anxiety disorder all of my life, and when I was around 30 years old finally recognized it for what it was, and decided to do something about it. I began psychotherapy, and when I hit a "wall" with it, my therapist encouraged me to see a psychiatrist to address the physical symptoms of anxiety that were standing in the way of my successful treatment. I don't know if it was intentional or not, but the physician she referred me to happened to be a distance runner, and cued right into this tool that was at my disposal. He prescribed some new medications, but he also prescribed a renewed focus on self-care. Running became more than a hobby. It became an essential feature of a three-pronged treatment strategy that got me through a fairly acute episode, and has helped me successfully manage my anxiety ever since: medication, cognitive behavioral therapy, and exercise. I no longer require medication on an ongoing basis, but I know how to recognize when my chemistry is changing and I'm in need of a little "tune-up." I learned a great deal through talk therapy, but it's easy to let those old thoughts and habits creep in, so I get a "refresher" from time to time. And of course, there's running.

If you looked at my "before" and "after" photos, you might not think that a whole lot has changed. But the new ways that I think, the way that I feel in my own skin, and the new ways that I experience the world around me would be unrecognizable, if they could be captured in images. I'm grateful for access to good medical care, and for a support system that has encouraged me through these changes. And for my mental health, and for so many other reasons, I will forever be grateful for running.

Monday, May 6, 2013

"But I'm not a serious marathoner."

It's all a matter of perspective. The objective fact is that, contrary to the opinions of most people who know me, and to what you might assume because of the fact that I write this blog: I'm not a very intense runner. Being "a runner" is a key feature of my current identity, and one of the lenses through which I see the world. Running - and other training that helps me run better - takes up a lot of my time, and while I take training for a marathon fairly seriously, I am not what most in the running community would consider a serious marathoner.

I don't have any natural, God-given talent for running, and so I do have to work pretty hard at it in order to finish the one or two marathons that I sign up for every year. And while I do work hard, I occasionally miss training runs, stay up later than I should, and don't always fuel myself properly. I'm a few pounds over my ideal running weight, which probably slows me down, but I just can't bring myself to skip dessert in the name of shaving those few minutes off my finish times. I'm currently pretty focused on qualifying to run the Boston Marathon, so I'm paying more attention to my training paces and race times than I ever did before, and honestly it doesn't sit well with me. It's not who I am, but I know that it's the only way I'm going to achieve that goal. Training for a "BQ" (a Boston-qualifying finish time) has made me a more serious runner than I've ever been, but truthfully I'm about as un-intense as a runner can be, and still technically be a marathoner.

But what I am beginning to appreciate is how little that matters. To people who don't run, the distinction between a serious marathoner and someone like me is meaningless. I caught myself saying to someone recently that yes I am currently training for my fifteenth marathon, "but I'm not a serious marathoner." As soon as I said it, I realized how silly it sounded. At a dinner party Saturday night, my husband told one of our hosts that I'd run twenty miles that morning, and her jaw dropped. "Today? You did that today?" My instinct was to explain that while yes, I had in fact run twenty miles that morning, "it was slow," or "I had to walk a little bit," or find some other way to communicate: "Don't be too impressed. I'm not a very good runner." But I stopped myself. She thought that sounded pretty awesome, and you know what? She is right. What distance runners do on a regular basis - whether we're "good" at it or not - is pretty amazing. We set lofty goals, work through the struggle, and eventually we finish. I'm hereby committing to stop trying to lower other people's expectations of me in this way, and instead to embrace the awesome.