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"

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Enough with the whining already

Here comes the fun part. Sixteen weeks of training have come and gone, and now it's time to pack up and make my way across the country to Duluth, where on Saturday I'll be running my fifteenth marathon, the famed Grandma's Marathon! When I started this journey, I had high hopes that this would be the race where I'd finally qualify for the Boston Marathon. It was a lofty goal, coming off of a long layoff after a couple of injuries last summer, I can admit that. But why set a goal, if you're not going to make it lofty? I gave it an honest effort: made my workouts, ate well, rested well, and stayed committed to my training during a busy spring that included a lot of travel. But somewhere along the way, it fell apart. Muscles have been tight, runs have been harder than they should be, and I came down with a terrible chest cold just as my taper began. Everything's just been a little bit off this time around. My head was in the game, but my body was having none of it.

I spent a few weeks feeling frustrated, developing several working theories about what might be going on, which ranged from work-related stress (I have a lot) to low iron (I am prone to anemia) to the psychological impact of being more focused than usual on paces and finish times in the pursuit of Boston qualification. I never quite proved or disproved any of these theories, basically because I ran out of time. I still don't understand exactly what went wrong, but my race is in three days, and now it's time to just suck it up. I'm healthy, I have put in the miles and I know that my body can handle the distance, and I know - to the extent that one can - what to expect out there on race day. In running, as in life, there comes a time that you just have to stop with excessive self-examination, quit with the paralyzing analysis of everything in your past that didn't go the way you wish it had, and give up the agonizing over all of the things that you would have done differently. At a certain point, it is time to just get out there and run the race.
I'm not going to lie to you: the
little lightning bolt on that infographic is
freaking me out.

Grandma's Marathon is one of my "bucket list" races, one I've dreamed of doing for years. It's a race that seasoned runners around the country rave about for its beauty and nice people, and we have some good friends in Minnesota with whom who we'll get to visit while we're there. I'll be ticking state #13 off on my personal quest to run the entire country. And Duluth is just a 90-minute drive from the hometown of my own Grandma Emerald, who hailed from Shell Lake, Wisconsin. So it will be a chance for my husband and I to pay a visit and soak up a little familial history, too. What could be better? I love the marathon, and everything about it. I'm ready to get out of my own way, get out there and run the race, and run it joyfully. The forecast is now calling for high temperatures, rain, and thunderstorms on race day. Oh, and apparently there are mosquitos. Mosquitos? Oh right ... I was going to quit the grumbling. Pack the bug spray. Let's do this.



This race is dedicated to my beautiful grandmother Roselle, and to the memories of my grandmothers Emerald and Phyllis. (But if I suck out there on Saturday, I hope they won't take it personally.) Come rain or wind or thunder claps and lightning bolts, they will be the wind beneath my wings.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

The pink velcro sneakers

I can tell you the precise moment that I became a runner. It was 1985, and I was 11 years old. It's Father's Day today, and this is a story of fatherhood at its finest.

I was a very small kid. While I've never reached great heights as an adult (I topped out somewhere just under 5'2"), I'm not what you would consider unusually short. But growing up, this was not the case. I got mean questions from other grade-school kids about whether one of my parents was a midget (it was the 80s ... people said things like that), and whether I was a victim of famine (again, it was the 80s, and the plight of starving Ethiopian children weighed heavily on me and my classmates). I was particularly uncoordinated, and terrible at the sports and outdoor games that I tried to play with other kids. I now understand that there wasn't anything wrong with me; I was just one of many short, slight, knobby-kneed kids and I eventually grew out of it. But as a child I really did believe I had some sort of physical deficiency. I didn't come from a family of athletes, so there were no expectations upon me in that regard. I was a good student and a nice kid, and that was plenty for my parents. But being skinny and clumsy was still difficult, and knowing myself as I do now, I can imagine that I beat myself up over it a lot.

Lucky for me, I had a stepfather who saw this evolving. Joe, who had been a part of my life since I was three years old, was not himself an athlete - although he was pretty killer on a slalom waterski. He had never encouraged me or my siblings one way or the other when it came to participation in sports. Joe was a hard-working guy (he and my mother ran a business together), and recreation wasn't a big part of his own day-to-day life. But that year, one of his clients was putting on a local "fun run" to raise money for some charitable cause, and Joe signed me up for the kids mile. He didn't ask if I wanted to participate, he just came home one day with a pair of pink velcro sneakers, and told me that I was running a mile the following weekend. I can't really remember how I felt about that. But what I remember clearly is how much I enjoyed the morning: putting on those shoes, getting into the car together, and driving to that race. Joe putting off chores and projects around the house on a weekend morning to spend it with me - just me - to watch me run this little race? I didn't know why he was doing it, but it felt important, so I gave it my all. I don't remember how the race went, but I assure you it was nothing spectacular. (I came to my lifelong mediocrity as a runner from a young age.) But I remember listening as Joe described my participation in the event to my mom and brother at the dinner table that night, and feeling like I was the queen of the world. He was proud of me in a way I'd never experienced. I knew the joy of getting an "A" on a spelling test or getting my exhibit into the science fair, but never before had I felt that sense of accomplishment over a physical pursuit. And that, as they say, was that. The next year, I joined the 7th grade track team. I have been running ever since.
Joe, with his beloved granddaughters.
He had a tough exterior, but loved and understood
children in ways that still mystify me. 

This now strikes me as one of the dearest, sweetest things that Joe ever did for me. He contributed many important things to my life, and I'm sure that if you could ask him about the important values and lessons that he imparted to his children, the self-confidence and love of a daunting challenge that comes from athletic pursuit would certainly not be one of them. I lost Joe many years ago, before I had ever run my first marathon, or thanked him for this tremendous gift that he gave me. I often wish I could share with him the daily joys and defeats both of running a business, and running marathons, but I know he would have been proud of my persistence with both. I reflect with a heart full of gratitude today for all of the ways, big and small, that fathers shape and support their children.

My run this morning (my last run of any significance before next weekend's marathon) is dedicated with love to all of the fathers in my life. Don, Chuck, and Everett: you all continue to shape and support me in ways you may not even realize, and I am deeply grateful.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

A fine mess

If ever there were a week that I'm really glad to be a runner, this has been it. I won't bore you with the details, and will let it simply suffice to report that one of my oldest, dearest friends is moving away today (clear across the country), one of my favorite employees is working her last week with us (because she is moving, clear across the country), and I have had an epically difficult week of work, leading me to some profound self-doubt. Oh, and I have been sick. Really sick. So sick that I was unable to run for 11 days, just as I was beginning the taper in preparation for my next marathon, which is on Saturday June 22nd. So it's been a week of goodbyes. Goodbye to a friend who has been an integral part of my day-to-day life for 17 years, goodbye to a wonderfully talented and spirited colleague, and - after a very difficult training season topped off by nearly two weeks with minimal running - goodbye to my hope that I would be ready to qualify for the 2014 Boston Marathon next week. I went to bed last night with a heavy heart, and woke up tearful and feeling fairly unglued. Fortunately, however, I also woke up today finally free of the chest congestion, ready to head outside and get in a few slow miles, and work it out.

I'm lucky to have one of the most beautiful places in the U.S. (according to me) right outside my door, and within a few minutes found myself - literally and figuratively - in the heart of Balboa Park. Although I was fatigued, it felt marvelous to move like a runner again, breathe deeply, and reflect on the sadness of the week. I didn't try to shake it off, but let myself feel the sadness, and by the end of my first mile, the tears were flowing. After several minutes of this physical and emotional release, my pace and my thoughts slowed down, and I began to giggle to myself as I imagined what a mess I must have looked like. And in that very moment, the ground beneath my feet spoke up:

I'm grateful for the timing of the universe today, reminding me in the nick of time through today's run that a blubbering physical wreck, a sad sack who is bad with goodbyes, and a lost soul stumbling on a rocky career path is just sort of who I need to be right now. I'm wonderful just the way I am. And however you're feeling today: so are you.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Put me in, coach

One morning last month, I woke up to a text message from my brother-in-law that made me smile from ear to ear:

Never really one to "proselytize" (this blog notwithstanding), it's just never been my style to lean heavily on people to change their unhealthy habits, or to cultivate healthy ones. As a young kid, I tried to get my mother to quit smoking. I tried hard. I hurled facts at her, staged strikes of various kinds, and laid all kinds of guilt on her, and with each failed attempt, my heart broke more deeply. As a teenager, I learned to let this go, and how to separate her issues from my issues - having learned these hard lessons in other more significant areas of my life - and eventually I backed off. Sure enough, my mom eventually came to the decision to stop smoking on her own. I never really talked to her about it, although she always knew she had my full support. I think it took a few tries and several years, but she was successful, and (as far as I know) has been smoke-free for years now. That important decision, and the hard work and struggle that I now understand must have come with it, was never going to happen just because I loved her, was worried about her, and wanted her to be healthy. Those big changes come from within. Once we decide that it's time to make that change, we can enlist those closest to us for reinforcements, hire coaches, eliminate the distractions and triggers that might tempt us toward failure, and surround ourselves with the right supports - but none of this is will be successful if that big corner hasn't already been turned on the inside.

I've known my husband's older brother for sixteen years now, and love the guy. For most of those years he has teased me relentlessly - as all big brothers should - for a number of things, but mostly for my healthy lifestyle. And his decision to take up running a year or so ago had nothing to do with me - directly, anyway. He has made a lot of positive changes in his life of late, and running is one small piece of that transformation. From the time he headed out for that first mile, he's known that he has my enthusiastic support, but that I've never had any expectations. I've watched with great happiness as he's evolved into a bona fide runner, coming to love all of its many physical and emotional benefits. Watching anyone you care about make a positive transformation of any kind is a wonderful experience. And so much the better when they're becoming a runner along the way!

So he's off and running, and I am making my first foray into the world of coaching. Nothing official, of course. I've warned him that I really have no idea what I'm doing, and that he's basically going to get what he's paid for. We live across the country from one another, but of course in this day and age that means almost nothing at all. Through the beauty of Excel spreadsheets, email, text messaging, Facebook, and the Nike Running app, I can be all up in his business, all the time. I've put together a plan for him for the next couple of months, to build his mileage base up slowly and steadily over the summer. At the moment, he's a little frustrated with me because I am making him start so slowly - but he is a good grasshopper, and is sticking with me. In a couple of months, he'll begin training for his first half-marathon (in the fall), and then after the holidays, we'll jump head-on into training for a spring marathon. I'm eventually going to figure out how to get a guest-blogger column going here for him, so that you all can follow along. I know that I'm going to learn just as much through this process as he is, and am excited to start the journey.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

A truth about inconvenience

Tomorrow the Rock 'n' Roll Marathon will be taking over my town, the sixteenth running of the annual event. San Diego was the birthplace of the Rock 'n' Roll racing series, and it attracts not only tens of thousands of us recreational athlete types, but some of the finest professional marathoners in the world. It is run smack in the middle of the city, which is also where I happen to live, and so for me has become something of a holiday. I can't go anywhere (without a big hassle), so I do my long run on Saturday, stock up on food and other essentials, and hunker down on "Rock 'n' Roll Sunday." I've never run it, but because I know most of the course so intimately well, it starts less than a mile from my house, and I always have friends running, it nonetheless feels very much like my "home race." I get up at dawn, pack my coffee and my brightly-colored signs, and run myself all over town in order to catch the runners at strategic points. That lone dork camped out in the median, waving at strangers, and ringing a cowbell. I never get tired of it.

Every year, in about mid-March, Competitor Group and the City of San Diego start warning residents and businesses about what is going to happen in early June. Those of us who are in the "impact zone" receive mailings and door hangers with maps of the course, road closures (with times of closures and re-openings provided), and alternate routes for getting in/out of every affected neighborhood that day. And yet, every year, there is a roar from angry residents around the city who are going to be inconvenienced. I'm reading with great interest the incendiary comments on the Facebook page of my city council representative, who has been posting on an almost-daily basis for two weeks now about the race, providing district residents with all of the information they could possibly need to mitigate the inconvenience. People are mad!

Don't get me wrong: I know that it sucks. I realize that for the majority who are not distance runners, it seems like a colossal waste of everyone's time and resources. I understand that many people work nights and weekends, and that their commutes and sleep are affected that night and morning. And let's face it: a Rock 'n' Roll Marathon, with live bands playing at every mile marker, is a particularly obnoxious affair. But all net positive fiscal impact on the city aside, I think people should just get over it on general principle.

Yes, those runners are causing a profound inconvenience that day for many, in their pursuit of this huge personal and physical challenge which may or may not make a lick of sense to you. But life is inconvenient. We're social creatures with complex systems and infrastructures that frequently get screwed up by we very people who depend upon them. On the whole, we make life easier for one another through our co-existence and interdependence, but if there were a way to map it (and man I wish there was, because how interesting would this be?), I'd venture to guess that every one of those people who is so pissed off at the hassle of Rock 'n' Roll Sunday necessarily inconveniences their fellow human beings in equal numbers on a regular basis. How many colds have I caught from someone who coughed or sneezed in a public place? How many have I spread myself? How many nights have I laid awake bothered by a noisy party next door? How many times have I woken up my neighbor by singing in the shower? Each of us is driving one of those cars in the traffic jam of life at which we find ourselves shaking a fist. Yes, those runners are a pain in the @$$. But you know what? So are you. So am I. So are we all.