Sunday, October 19, 2014

Subpar for the course

No complaints. If I have to be on the road for
five days, the Loews Ventana Canyon is
not the worst place to be.
I've just returned from a work trip that took me to Tucson for several days, staying at a lovely resort hotel at the foot of the Santa Catalina Mountains. I've served on this Board of Directors for two years now, and I know that these annual meetings are long and intense. I don't get as much sleep as I need due to the meeting schedules, and my diet is much heavier than I'm used to, so after a couple of days I usually feel pretty run down. But this year I was determined to get some exercise every morning, even though it required being up at an ungodly hour, figuring I would not only feel better, but I'd have more brain power, too. I've been recovering from last month's marathon and triathlon, and am still not running heavy mileage, but in addition to wide and scenic desert roads to run on, I had access to a lap pool, miles of beautiful hiking trails, and a yoga studio, so each day I challenged myself to do something different.

One day I got up early and took myself out for a morning walk along the Parcourse. Raise your hand if you know what a Parcourse is!? Those of us of a certain age will remember that these outdoor "fitness trails" were all the rage a few decades ago. And those of you of certain other ages have surely seen them and wondered what they are (and who uses them). These dirt paths lined with "obstacle stations" were constructed in urban areas all over the U.S. in the 70s and 80s, and usually contain between 10-20 different pieces of wooden equipment for upper body, lower body, climbing, jumping, and balance exercises. Each station has signage to instruct the user on the apparatus, or just a cleared space if the activity doesn't require equipment (e.g., jumping jacks or toe touches). You walk or run between the stations, which are staged to provide a thorough workout, including stretching. The stretching stations are all at the beginning of the Parcourse, though, because that's how we rolled in the 80s. I saw the signs for the Parcourse outside of my hotel, and thought to myself smugly that it would make for a fun and easy workout, and also that it would be sort of hilarious to do all these old school exercises. I only wished I'd packed some Dolphin shorts. Raise your hand if you remember Dolphin shorts!?

The balance beam
The trail
The "touch toes" station

As it turns out, the Parcourse was no joke. I learned two things that morning: 1) this old exercise methodology is still very relevant, and 2) I am ridiculously unfit. Almost all of the obstacles were really hard - like the log hops, rings, and vault bars. And some of them I couldn't do at all, like the chin-ups. Even the ones that seemed easy - like sit-ups, jumping jacks, and the balance beam - were challenging in the context of the full 18-station course. I was seriously dying by the end, and am still sore, three days later. It was a great workout, and it was also really fun.

I naturally had to Google the history of the Parcourse, and wound up deep in a rabbit hole of early 20th century physical education theory. Parcourse was invented in Europe in the late 1960s, and was designed to promote physical fitness in the "Natural Method" of Georges Hebert, a French physical educator who designed sessions that were
... composed of exercises belonging to the ten fundamental groups: walking, running, jumping, quadrupedal movement, climbing, equilibrium, throwing, lifting, defending and swimming.
Nothing new under the sun. Today we have "functional fitness" taught to us in private gyms, and we compete in "gladiator" obstacle races. No doubt the field of exercise physiology and the fitness industry have made many important advancements, but I'm struck by how much good sense Hebert's theories still make. He believed in a method that promoted "organic resistance," developed one's internal energy and courage, and directed the "moral drive" in a "useful and beneficial way." And he was among the first to advocate for the benefits of exercise in women, believing it important that they develop self-confidence, athleticism, and will-power through physical pursuit.

My own self-confidence is still a little shaken by my humbling 45 minutes on the Parcourse, and it's abundantly clear to me now that I need to work on some basic strength and integrate some plyometrics into my routines. I'm getting soft in my middle age! And believe me, soft does not look good in Dolphin shorts.

All I wanted as a kid was Dolphin shorts.
My mom never relented. And for that I say:

Do you have any favorite "low tech" strength, balance, or plyometric exercises? Would love to hear your ideas! And if you've got any thoughts on improving my quadrupedal movement, I'm all ears ....

Monday, October 13, 2014

Remembering when ...

I've always loved this quote by the great women's distance running pioneer, Kathrine Switzer. Having spent countless hours of my life training for, competing in, and recovering from the beautiful beast that is the marathon, I've never not broken out into tears at a finish. It never fails to humble me, surprise me, make me laugh out loud, hurt me, nurture me, break my confidence, and then fill me with pride - all in the span of just a few hours. I look inward, of course, but I also look around in that finisher's area and see hundreds or thousands of others who were with me on that journey, and am overwhelmed by what we all just accomplished. Just because millions of people run marathons every year doesn't mean that it's not completely amazing.

My first marathon was the San Diego Marathon (today called the Carlsbad Marathon, since it's technically in the city of Carlsbad, and San Diego has since created its own much larger, much more famous, and much louder production). That was nearly 16 years ago, and to date there have been 17 finishes. Seventeen adventures in 17 different cities, with a great cast of characters keeping me company on the course, and on the sidelines. Over time, my recall of the early races has faded. (We didn't have running blogs in the late 90s, and I've never been a faithful running journaler.) I've got the photos, the bibs, and the official times. A few of the tshirts are still around. Each race has its memorable moments - a high or a low, a great meal, a funny anecdote - but on the whole, my catalog of experiences as "a marathoner" is beginning to blend together. I think deeply about running, and talk and write about it often, but in some ways it's become so much a part of who I am that the details are fading from my awareness.

This weekend, I was gifted the opportunity to experience the marathon for the first time, all over again. My brother-in-law Ian completed the Chicago Marathon on Sunday, his first time doing battle with 26.2. I'd helped him as best I knew how through his training (mostly remotely, as about 2,500 miles separate us), cheering him on as he reached new running milestones, and hassling him a little when he needed it. With great excitement, I flew out to Chicago to join him and our family for the weekend. You think I was going to miss this? We had fun at the pre-race expo, and I tried to answer his questions and quell his anxieties. I ran the Chicago Marathon in 2005, but realized as we pored over the course and spectator maps that I had almost no recollection of it, and little to offer in the way of any course-specific advice. I've always remembered it as one of my favorites, but I'd honestly forgotten why.

As I answered his questions about what to expect out there, and doled out advice on wide-ranging topics such as fanny packs, outerwear, and hydration strategy, I tried to remember how I felt the night before my first marathon. The memories have faded, but the one thing I am sure of now is that I most definitely had no idea what I was in for. As we talked, I found myself wanting to try to prepare him in some way that I had not been prepared. But I eventually realized that other than shaking him by the shoulders and yelling "It's going to be reeeally hard!" which didn't seem like it would be terribly helpful, I didn't have much more to offer.

So, we made our way through it together. We mapped out a spectator route that would have us (myself and his parents, a.k.a. my in-laws) perched at strategic points where I thought he'd benefit most. He got all of his gear organized the night before, and we swam through the early-morning sea of 45,000 runners, and got him to his corral. I gave him a hug and a high five, and he was on his own. We got to see him at four points along the course, and it was amazing to watch him going through all of the familiar physical and mental ups and downs, and yet hanging so incredibly tough throughout. In this era of ultra-high security at the Marathon Majors (of which Chicago is one), I couldn't get to the actual start or finish lines, but I had an opportunity to see him as he rounded his final turn, just after the 26-mile mark. He was in his home stretch, in a familiar-looking state of discomfort, but smiling ear-to-ear. Oh, that feeling! Suddenly I could remember finishing my first marathon, with crystal clarity. 

We met him at the runner meet-up area, where I saw the familiar tears of pride and fatigue, the zombie-like gait, and the dazed look of disbelief: did I really just do that? I watched his parents beam with pride, listened as they asked him to recount the details, and remembered how great it was to have my mom there at my own first finish line. We gave him ice and ibuprofen and high-protein snacks, and our permission to lay around and drink beer for the rest of the day if he wanted. I waited for his Facebook posts to appear (again, we didn't have social media "in my day," but you can bet sure I would have been posting from the finish line if I did!), and remembered fondly how much fun it had been to talk to everyone and anyone who asked about it. I was damn proud, and I hope that he is practically bursting at the seams.

Of course, I also remember how I couldn't walk down stairs the next day. I remember that bruised-up second toenail that was never the same. And the chafe. Oh, I remember the chafe! But for now, I'll just keep those memories to myself.

Big, huge, happy congratulations to my new favorite marathoning hero: Ian! And to anyone and everyone who's conquered their first marathon: thank you.



The Chicago Marathon Expo: like nothing I have ever seen.
This race means business, people.

The packet is picked up, and the countdown is on! Sixteen hours 'til go time.

Sunday 7:30 a.m. Perfect racing conditions, and all the
makings of an epic first marathon experience.

We ran for a bit together at mile 12, in the West Loop area. All smiles!

The energy in Chinatown was amazing!
(And so was lunch. Yum!)

My mother-in-law Karen and I did some serious hustling
to get ourselves to the spectator points. She was so proud
to watch her boy in this great endeavor!

Running south from Chinatown, around Mile 22.
Ian was feeling it pretty good right about now, but was tough as nails.

The very picture of marathoning awesomeness!
Recovering in the runner meet-up area.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

With both feet

Last year I wrote with great excitement about my brother-in-law's decision to train for his first marathon. He reached out to me for some virtual "coaching" and support, and it was deeply inspiring to watch him getting stronger and faster, and learning to appreciate what running added to his life. Unfortunately he was derailed by both a particularly harsh winter, and then an injury, and had to back out of the Pittsburgh Marathon. He'd been so excited to race in his hometown, and for his son to watch him cross that finish line. Making the decision to run a marathon was just one of many big changes he had made in his life, and (since I'm prone to this kind of heady thinking) represented to me the beginning of a whole new way of living. 

Encouraging him to stop training was a very difficult thing for me to do, for fear he wouldn't be willing to pick it back up, that old ways of living would seep back in. I know how easily it happens. And selfishly, I was worried about losing a running buddy, since I no longer have any other runners in the family. (My brother used to run, but stopped several years ago. He's since become quite a yogini, though, and continues to inspire me.) Having someone to talk running talk with during family gatherings, and to get up early to run with on the rare occasion that we find ourselves in the same city, had been a lot of fun. I was concerned - for both of us - that his injury would feel like a betrayal of sorts, that he'd say to himself that "running just isn't for me," and turn his back on this sport that I care so much about.

As usual, I was overthinking it.

He took my advice and stopped training, let himself get healed, and got some new shoes. He signed up for the Chicago Marathon, and before I knew it, he was back! All of that worrying I did for him? As usual, a waste of my energy.

Training hasn't gone smoothly for him. He's wrestled with the challenge of fitting long workouts and adequate rest into an already-full life. At the peak of training, he developed a respiratory infection. All the normal stuff of life that conspires to make marathoning harder than it already is. But he stuck with it, and even though he didn't get in all of the mileage that we'd hoped for, he never once lost his way. As we adjusted his goals and expectations, he remained excited about the experience, and confident about race day. He continues to appreciate everything that running has done for him, physically and mentally, and although training for another marathon is probably not in his very near future, he's already signed up for some half-marathons in 2015. He doesn't line up at that start until tomorrow morning, but as far as I'm concerned, he has already completely and totally nailed this thing.

I had so much to learn this past year about perseverance, and maintaining confidence in the face of disappointment. Being a part of my brother-in-law's process was a huge part of that journey. I learned the value of getting out of my own head, and just getting into my running shoes. Thanks for an important lesson in being fearless, and jumping back in with both feet. You don't really know yet just what you're in for out there on the streets of Chicago tomorrow, but I do. And it's going to be awesome. Because you're going to make it awesome.

"You can't be that kid standing at the top of the waterslide, overthinking it. You have to go down the chute."
-Tina Fey

Got my spectator guide, and I've touched down in Chicago. Ready to spectate! Go Ian GO!

Sunday, October 5, 2014

On the rebound

After I had finished my first marathon, I would cringe when I was referred to as a "marathoner." Sure, I had done one marathon, but I couldn't relate to those "real" athletes who I understood to be marathoners. Eventually I settled into that identity, though, after I'd run a few more and realized that marathoners come in all shapes, abilities, and avocations. Today however, I feel a lot differently about wearing these badges of honor, and encourage everyone to put them on early, and wear them proudly. If you run, you're a runner. If you've run a marathon, well then you're a marathoner. And guess what? I've now completed a triathlon, so here it is: I'm a triathlete.

And you can bet I'm going to wear this one proudly. Last month I raced my first triathlon, TriRock San Diego, which I'd entered without any real preparation, and with no idea how to race it. Just two weeks out from a marathon that had gone very badly, I was not yet mentally or physically recovered, and while I knew I had the basic fitness for the individual activities, had zero triathlon training under my belt. (Actually I didn't even have a belt; I only learned the day before about tri belts!) But once I was lined up in that holding area waiting for the start, none of that mattered. I'd already jumped in, and I was going to figure out how to get myself through it. With a little help from my friends:

Julie, me, and Krista, moments before the swim start.
It took a lot of neoprene, latex, lycra, and good old
fashioned emotional support to hold it all together.

It was a brutally early morning (a 6:30 a.m. start, which required a 5:15 a.m. arrival at the Embarcadero Park downtown), but the atmosphere in the transition area was thrilling. And intimidating. At road races, you look around and see all shapes and sizes lining up to compete. But at a triathlon, you look around and you pretty much see a bunch of bad asses. I found a volunteer to get me marked up, and when she asked my age (so she could write it on my calf), I hesitated for a moment before I said it out loud: "forty." Oh, right! It's my birthday! In all of the excitement, I'd momentarily forgotten.

Brand new age group!

I didn't know anything about setting up a transition area, but TriRock had provided an awesome athlete checklist, so I had packed everything I needed (except that belt) and just looked over at how Krista had set hers up, and did the same. My girlfriends and I had a few minutes to nervously fidget and ponder how it was we had gotten ourselves into this, and then it was time to head to the water. As we watched the first waves head out, I noted with a gulp how far those buoys looked, and turned to Krista and Julie and said "I really wish I'd done some swimming in preparation for this." We had ourselves a good laugh, and then we were off.

An experienced triathlete friend had encouraged me not to get mentally ahead of myself during the race, but to be present in each individual sport, which turned out to be incredibly helpful advice. In the water, I kept my mind on the swim, and didn't let myself think about the bike, the sport that gives me the greatest anxiety. I hadn't swum the distance (1500m) in a couple of months, and didn't have a good feel for how to pace myself. I knew I was strong enough for it, though, so decided not to worry about pace (I don't have a waterproof watch, anyway!), and instead just enjoyed it. The view of the sun rising over the Coronado bridge from my vantage point in that warm 74-degree water was remarkable, and as I relaxed into my stroke, I remembered how lucky I am that I get to do any of this.

Just out of the water, and headed toward T1!
(Now that I'm a triathlete, I totally say things like "T1.")
Once I was out of the water, I spotted my husband and mother-in-law waving and cheering, a perfect distraction as I nervously ran to the first transition area (T1) to get ready for the bike. Here was the moment I'd been dreading for months. But the fatigue and bliss of the swim had softened the edges of my anxiety, as had the hilarity of my wet, awkward bumbling with the cycling gear, and within a few minutes that went by in a blur, I had mounted my bike and I was off. I spent the first few minutes wondering what important thing I had forgotten to do, and getting comfortable on my bike (I hadn't been on it in a full month), but eventually I settled in for the 22-mile ride. I hadn't ridden more than 15 miles in about a year, and so really didn't know what to do with myself. But as the thoughts of worry about working too hard and not saving enough for the run came, I remembered that good advice, and instead just rode comfortably, and enjoyed the scenery. This course was fantastic, taking us onto Naval Base San Diego, past the big ships and some great city views. My favorite part was that it was a double-loop, so I was able to spot Julie and Krista out there a couple of times along the way, even though we were riding different speeds and distances.

Finishing the ride, and heading into T2,
behind the San Diego Convention Center.
My husband, mother-in-law, and friends were cheering on the sidelines shortly before we arrived back at the transition area, and a wave of relief washed over me as I passed them and pulled in to get off my bike. I hadn't wrecked, or caused a wreck (that I knew of, anyway), and was feeling strong. "Time to run, hooray! This part, I know how to do!" I thought to myself as I switched out my helmet for a visor, pinned on my bib, gulped down a few bits of food and water, and set out on the six mile run. Which quickly turned into "Wait a minute, what is this? This doesn't feel like running ..." The first mile was an absolute bear, and I felt like I had concrete blocks strapped to my shoes. I had done two very short bike-run brick workouts as I was tapering for my September marathon, so I did have some familiarity with this sensation. I was really unprepared, though, for just how trashed my legs were going to feel by this point. But again, the course saved me with lovely views, and a double-loop that provided plenty of opportunities to spot my friends along the way. While far more difficult than I'd anticipated, those six miles were among my favorite I've ever run.

My back and legs were in a world of hurt
by mile 5 of the run, but I was all smiles.
I genuinely loved every second of this race, and it provided a much needed mental reset after getting so thoroughly wrecked in the last marathon. My first triathlon was like that really great first date with an exciting new person, after having your heart broken in a long term relationship. I'm on the rebound, and the sport of triathlon caught me in a moment of vulnerability, when I was beginning to doubt myself as an athlete. I'm reminded about the part of me that loves being the "new kid" and not knowing what I'm doing. I'm kinder on myself when I'm trying new things, and let myself enjoy the adventure. In the hours and days that passed after crossing that finish line, I began to feel some forgiveness toward the marathon and toward myself. If this 40 year old body can finish an Olympic distance triathlon on that little training, then it can surely keep up the quest for a Boston qualification, and get it done.

I can't say I competed strongly in this event, but I will say that I competed well. I learned some things that I'll apply to future triathlons (oh, there will be future triathlons), and now that I have a sense of what it's like to string all of these events together, I know that I could have pushed harder on each of them individually. I don't enjoy cycling enough to become a serious triathlete; I just don't want to spend that much time on a bike! And while me and the marathon are going to get back together, and keep working on things, I think I'm going to keep this little love affair with the triathlon going on the side.

Friends for more than a quarter century,
and now, partners in TRI!