Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Hope, Arkansas

There are a lot of great running blogs out there providing readers with solid advice from well-trained and experienced running coaches on how to properly train for and run marathons. And if it weren’t already abundantly clear, this post should settle it once and for all: this is not one of those blogs. My running last weekend of the 3 Bridges Marathon in Little Rock Arkansas was a spectacular, three-dimensional, technicolor explosion of bad judgment, a veritable how-not-to manual for the recreational runner. But after three days of beating myself up about it, I’ve turned that now-familiar corner and am ready to share the painful – and I mean painful – lessons learned.  

To properly set the scene, it’s important to note that I was in Arkansas: 2000 miles from home, and a surprisingly expensive and difficult place to get to from San Diego. I’d trained (minimally, but adequately) for four months for this race, which would be my 19th marathon, and the 16th state of my 50-state quest. I had no expectations of a PR, but was hoping for a comfortable race, and a nice visit to a part of the country I hadn’t yet visited. And I’d made this race into a fundraiser for my favorite non-profit organization, and had raised over $900 from my endlessly-supportive family and friends. So I had a lot invested, emotionally and financially, in getting across that finish line.

Four weeks prior, I’d raced in the USA Invitational Half Marathon, and had run decently well, but finished the last four miles with what I believed was a cramp in my right calf. It slowed me down a bit, but I was able to finish the race in only mild discomfort. After a couple of days of soreness, I’d forgotten all about it. On my next long run, however, it seized back up on me six miles in, in the same place but much more painfully. Uh oh. That wasn’t a muscle cramp last weekend, was it? I scrapped that run, deciding it was probably a muscle strain. “Well, I guess my taper is just starting a little early.” I spent those last three weeks managing it carefully, and giving it plenty of rest. I can’t say that I knew for sure when I flew out to Little Rock on Friday morning that my calf was ready for the full 26.2. I just hoped. I hoped that my body was familiar enough with the distance to get me through it, and I hoped that if it wasn’t, I’d have the good sense to know when to stop.

I arrived in Little Rock the evening before the race, and to add the figurative insult to the literal injury, had come down with a head cold as well. But I did all the right things: ate well, hydrated, got to bed early, and did some more hoping.

But hope, as they say, is not a strategy. And while yes, there are things like Ironmans and ultramarathons and other more difficult feats of which humans are technically capable, a marathon is still a significant distance, and it does, in fact, require some basic strategy for we mere mortal types. General health and the absence of a painful injury to a large leg muscle, I would suggest, should be part of any marathoner’s basic strategy.

Sunrise on the Arkansas River
This race is named for three beautiful bridges that cross the Arkansas River. They’re the only hills in the otherwise-flat course, which runs along the serene river trail, and the first one comes early, at mile 2. Heading up the slight hill of that first bridge, I knew I had a problem.

At mile 3, I was officially in pain. I had brought a scrap piece of jersey knit to wear as a makeshift scarf that I would toss once I warmed up, so I took it off and wrapped it around my sore calf muscle for compression. I look back at this decision point now with a sense of disbelief: I actually did that? By mile 6, the pain was affecting my gait, so I stopped and walked for a couple of miles, while I considered my options. Dozens of friendly runners slowed as they passed to ask if I was okay, and I gave each of them a confused smile and a nod, not really knowing the answer.

Somewhere around mile 9, I began experimenting with different gaits until I found a slow, short, clumsy one that kept the pain to a low dull ache, and decided I could give finishing a try. By mile 12, I’d reached a zombie-like mental and physical state, and was convinced that I could finish, if very slowly. So I just kept going.

Look closely, and you can see my
bright blue makeshift compression wrap,
still in place around the mile 21 mark.
In What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Haruki Murakami, one of my favorite writers of fiction and himself a distance runner, shares a mantra that I’ve thought about on many occasions, but never actually put into practice until this weekend: “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” Things started getting pretty ugly around mile 18, and it was the silent recitation of this powerful thought that got me to the finish.

Fortunately, everything else about this race was idyllic. The course is scenic and fun, and it’s a friendly and well-organized marathon-only event of about 400 people, mostly local. I couldn’t have asked for better weather, with a cold start (low-30s) that quickly warmed up to the mid-50s once the sun came out. I’d recommend it to anyone. Anyone, that is, who isn’t injured.

I woke up the next morning to a calf muscle that was clearly torn, swollen, and so painful I could barely walk. I know that I would have advised anyone who asked me to not even consider running it in that condition – and so, conveniently, I just didn’t ask anyone for their advice. In the days since the race, my running family and friends have all expressed understanding about my dilemma and poor decision-making, and support and admiration for the accomplishment. My non-running family and friends, while also supportive, now have all the evidence they need to confirm their long-held belief that every marathoner has a screw loose.

It remains to be seen just how much damage I did to that leg, as I can’t get seen by sports medicine until next week. (The week before Christmas, it seems, is a particularly bad time to do something stupid to yourself.) But the swelling and discoloration have both subsided, and I’m walking in reasonable comfort again, so I’m hopeful the news won’t be too bad, and that the recovery period won’t be too treacherously long. I know I’ve done some serious damage, though, and I’m committed to rehabilitating it properly, and waiting to come back until I know I’m ready, and I’m not just hoping.


Hope is a city in the southwest corner of Arkansas, 
and the birthplace of President Bill Clinton.

Thanks to the great town of Little Rock
for an otherwise fun visit!

Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Old Me

I've had a pretty wild week, filled with travel, old friends, art, music, and lots of running. Fast running. Life's been handing me opportunity after opportunity to reconnect with people that I've loved in different ways through the years, with people I haven't seen in far too long -- most especially, with my former self.

I turned 41 last month, which makes it official: squarely, solidly middle aged. In the wake of a major career transition this year, my running, along with several other areas of my life, has changed. As I've spent the last year creating a new version of myself that is less engulfed by the demands of work, I've let go of a lot of the ways I used to push and challenge myself. I resigned from some volunteer service and board of director positions, deciding that I would take a one year break, and then reevaluate what "extracurricular activities" would best feed my soul. I didn't plan any major travel, stopped over-scheduling my weekends with social activities, and instead learned how to enjoy a quiet day with a good book. I never stopped running - nor did I even stop running marathons. But during this time of transition, I consciously stopped training. I haven't done any strength training or cross training except when I felt like it (which, it turned out, was basically never), learned to ignore my pace, and just ran when and how I wanted. It was a break that I very much needed. But I'm coming out of hibernation ... and I'm hungry.

I know two spirited local coaches here in San Diego, Sheri and Teresa, who write a fun blog called Gals Who Run. In September, they issued an October challenge to "find your fast this fall," a four-week program of speed training, online coaching, and group accountability. Still quietly in the slumber of my period of hibernation, I scanned their posts and then happily ignored them. Even with a December marathon on the horizon, I was perfectly content to plod along, get in a few long runs, and just show up on race day and see what happened. And then Sheri reached out to me personally, and with a gentle poke of her coaching stick gave me the nudge I needed to shake off my lethargy and sign up.

We each started with a one-mile speed test, to establish our baseline, and then worked a four-week
program of speed training, tempo runs, long runs, cross-training, and of course rest days. I was disappointed to realize in my pre-test that I could barely run an 8:00 mile anymore. (I struggled for a 7:58.) Hibernating in my 40s, it turns out, is a bit more consequential than it was in my 20s and 30s, and I had really lost a lot of strength and speed. Although the challenge ran through four very busy weeks, between my organization's two largest annual fundraisers, my family being in town for a weeklong visit, and a jam-packed trip to the east coast, I'm happy to report that I didn't skip a single workout. Guilt accountability is very effective! Last night I did my post-test mile, and was thrilled to knock out a 7:17 mile in (reasonable) comfort. It's been a long time since I've seen a mile at that pace, and it feels good to be back on the upswing.

While I was in New York City last week, I got to spend a day with one of my oldest and dearest friends. (We met on the school bus, on the way to our first day of junior high school, and have been close all our lives.) I watched Blur - a band I've madly adored since I was 16 years old - play Madison Square Garden. I visited with friends from my early adulthood - a fellow graduate school survivor, and friends made at my first "real job" - and went on a long Sunday morning run with a favorite former colleague who runs a care management business in NYC similar to the one that I recently sold. A few days ago, the happy occasion of an old high school friend's book launch in Los Angeles brought me together with him and several others, some of whom I hadn't seen in over two decades. Having lost my stepfather this summer, who has been drowning in the depths of dementia for many years, I found it powerful to be with old friends who remember him. It is a very important thing indeed, to be known. To oneself, and by others.

It's been a great week of putting my current self into context, through a good look at my former self. I'm now seven weeks out from my next marathon, and inspired to give it an honest go, and see what I'm capable of. As in running, so too in life.

Come back baby
Fight off the lethargy
Don't go quietly
Combat baby
Said you would never give up easy
Combat baby come back
- Metric, "Combat Baby"

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Owning Up

As I expect it did for all of you, the loss of those nine lives in Charleston, South Carolina this week has shaken me to my core. By no stretch did I imagine that we actually lived in some kind of a dream "post-racial" society, but I've now been forced to acknowledge that race relations in the U.S. are far worse than I had been willing to admit. On a day-to-day basis, the struggles of people of color are not on my radar, unless I go looking for them. Nor are the challenges of the poor, those without U.S. citizenship or a strong command of the English language, the LGBT community, or those with intellectual or physical disabilities. I'm a social worker, and I understand the issues faced by disenfranchised groups academically and intellectually. But I don't live them, and they're easy to simply not see.

No, I don't blame myself or feel guilty about my position of privilege as a white, middle-class, English-speaking, heterosexual person without disabilities. But I do believe it's important to acknowledge the advantages I've been afforded through these basic facts of my life. As Robin Diangelo* eloquently summed it up earlier this week: "I did not set this system up but it does unfairly benefit me and I am responsible for interrupting it."

As these thoughts have churned over the recent months, and in these especially difficult past four days, my impulse was to write about them, a self-soothing activity when I am in pain. And as the thoughts churned further, I was struck by the fact that my outlet for writing is a blog that is (sort of) about running. Talk about living a life of privilege! I not only have the resources, capacity, and ability to run, but I also have the resources, capacity, and ability to then turn around and write about the fact that I run. What I think is missing from the distance running and blogging community's well-intentioned and near-constant expressions of "gratitude" for the "blessings" in our lives is the uncomfortable truth that most of us are not merely lucky or blessed. We are privileged. Yes, some of us have worked hard, we may have put ourselves through school, cultivated careers and relationships, and taken care of our physical selves. But most of us started out with - and continue to live with - at least a few advantages. We hint at this self-knowledge with our ubiquitous #firstworldproblems, #whitepeopleproblems, and #runnerproblems hashtags, when we have to wake up early for our weekend long runs, or when Whole Foods is out of organic kale. But let's be willing to dig a little deeper.
When I open a running magazine, 
or scroll through social media,
I see people who look like me.

When I open a running magazine, or scroll through social media, I see people who look like me. On a 20-mile run, I'm often carrying more calories in my pack than some people will take in all day. When I go to an expo, or line up on race morning, no one notices me as an exception in the crowd. I've got more articles of running clothing in my closet than many people have of the regular clothing they need for school or work. When my husband cheers for me on the sidelines, and kisses me at the finish line, no one looks twice with interest or judgement. Every morning I run through the quiet streets of a neighborhood where I feel safe, and where nobody wonders what I'm doing there. If a police officer stopped me in the park to ask me a question, I would not be afraid. I have time to run for pleasure, and the energy to write about it, because I only need to work one job in order to survive. 

My identity as a runner is an important part of who I am, and it's made possible through much more than a willingness to wake up early and put in the miles. I don't know how to close the great divides that separate us, but I know that I've got a role to play. I've identified and am owning my positions of privilege - at least the ones of which I'm currently conscious. I'm committed to being conscious of them as I move about in the world, and as I observe and make judgements about how others move about in the world. It's not enough, I know, but it's the only way I can think to start.


*For more reading on this important topic, please see Dr. Diangelo's excellent post from earlier this year on The Good Men Project, "White Fragility: Why It's So Hard to Talk to White People About Racism."

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Tater Trot

The only thing I love more than a marathon is a small, local marathon. And the only thing I love more than a small, local marathon? A small, local marathon that gives you a baked potato at the finish. I've got no beef with the corporate behemoths, by the way. I've not yet run a Rock 'n' Roll Marathon personally, but that's only because I've had so many interesting options from which to choose in the cities I've visited so far. The Rock 'n' Roll Marathon Series, runDisney, and other such groups have changed the lives of many thousands of people through the proliferation of road racing, and I'm grateful for that. I've run a few very large races, including one of the "majors" (Chicago), and I've enjoyed them and look forward to doing a few more. But give me a few hundred runners hitting the streets of a small American town any day of the week. I love when my entry fees are going right to a local charity, who's out there in droves on race day to cheer us on and thank us for the support. I love an aid station being staffed by the junior high school with some kids' garage band rocking out on the sidewalk behind them, and hand-painted mile markers with our times being called out by the local cross-country kids.
And I love a fully-loaded baked potato.

For all of these reasons and more, I've looked forward for many years to running the Famous Idaho Potato Marathon, held every May in Boise, Idaho. I actually registered for it last year, but got sick with pneumonia and had to back out. This annual fundraiser for the Treasure Valley Family YMCA is sponsored by the Idaho Potato Commission, and in years past finishers got a bag of potatoes in lieu of a medal. Those days are gone -- now you get a medal and baked potato. (A race has to got to keep up with the times, I suppose.) But this race absolutely didn't disappoint, and had all of the small-town charms I hoped it would.

As I described in my last post, I had just registered for Boise when I made the decision to sell my business and change careers in February of this year, and with all of the long hours, stress, and upheaval in my life, I lost focus on the marathon. I never stopped running entirely, I just didn't actually ever really start training. I threw in a long-ish run here and there when I could rope a friend into it (one 16-miler, and one 18-miler), but for the most part was just doing two or three short and leisurely morning runs per week, no cross-training, no strength-training, no speed work. There was no focus or intention to what I was doing, I was just running for running's sake. And as the weeks ticked by I began to debate whether I really had the marathon in me. By the time my life had stabilized to the point that I could have started training, race day (May 30) was only about a month away. I did some weighing of my options, and decided that piling on the mileage for a few weeks would probably not yield much in the way of results, and would probably be more likely to result in an injury than just showing up on race day and going for it. So I just maintained my status quo, turned it into a fundraising race (raising nearly $700 for my favorite charity that oh-by-the-way happens to be my new employer), bought some motivation in the form of a cute new pair of shorts, and got on that plane.

Boise turned out to be one of the loveliest towns I've ever visited. We had pleasant weather, fun with friends, potatoes in every form imaginable, and lots of good beer. And the race, which travels along the Boise River Greenbelt, was one of the most beautiful and enjoyable I've ever run -- well-organized and run by some of the nicest staff and volunteers I can remember encountering. I ran the race as slowly as leisurely as I could, and managed to maintain a steady and comfortable pace throughout. A friend from San Diego who has family in Boise and runs the half-marathon every year was there, too, and because the full and half runners start at the same time and run the entire first half of the race together, I had great company for the first 12.5 miles, which was huge. I certainly could have run a faster race if I had trained for it -- but I probably couldn't have run a more enjoyable one.
After the heartbreak of last year's race at Ventura, the pure joy of the Famous Idaho Potato Marathon healed my marathoning wounds once and for all, and proved to me beyond a shadow of a doubt that I am in fact, a legitimate distance athlete. Lumps, bumps, dirt, and all.

A few photos:

It was so great to have a buddy for the first half!

It was long, and it was slow ... but a finish line is always FUN!
Nature's post-race ice bath, the Boise River
Finish time: 4:47. A full half-hour slower than my last race,
and a good hour off what I'd like to be running these days.
But it felt great, and was fun as heck, so no complaints here!
The Famous Idaho Potato Marathon was my 18th full marathon, and the 15th state in my quest to run a marathon in every state. Here's the status update, for those who are keeping track at home: