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!