Sunday, January 31, 2010

On having four feet

For the most part, my running career has been as a soloist. I don't have a huge circle of friends and none of them run, so I've done most of it by myself.

It hasn't been for a lack of trying to find someone who would train with me. Once or twice I found a few adventurous souls who seemed gung-ho about it at first, but then for one reason or another just sort of drifted away after a while. It's been a source of frustration, at least up until now. I met Donna at the Ho Ho 5K in December, and we hit it off immediately and decided to start training together, since we share a fairly similar pace. She and I have committed to train all the way to the marathon, which is one of the reasons why I feel as positive as I do about my chances of success this time around.

Of course, running solo does have its merits. For instance, I tend to do a lot of my best thinking while running, at least after I'm no longer consumed with those first fifteen minutes of settling into pace. Being alone with your thoughts is sometimes preferable, and it's hard to stay in your own head when you have a companion. Running by yourself also means you don't have to keep up with anyone but you. You set your own pace, keep your own pace as you desire, and finish whenever you want. You have your own sense of accomplishment when you've finished since you don't have to compare your efforts with someone else's.

I think, however, that having a training partner is more beneficial than not. Having someone to help push you (or drag, as the case may be) can be quite helpful - perhaps you decide you can go just a bit longer and/or harder because you know the person with you will do so - and from that extra effort, you further develop your own skills. Being able to chat with someone is also very nice - it can help keep your mind from caving in to the negativity that creeps in when it gets difficult, like when you're staring down a nasty-looking hill on your route. But mostly it's just being with someone who is sharing your experience.

I have found that when I run with other people, the comraderie is there regardless of how well I know the other person - it's always been easy for me to settle in next to a total stranger at a race and just go. We both know what the goal is, and falling into a common pace helps set the tone where we don't need to speak unless we want to. It is often sufficient just to run side by side, like an old married couple who learned early on they don't need to fill in every silent space with words, and the knowledge that I'm not alone is enough.

Thursday, January 28, 2010


A couple weeks ago, I made a decision. A big one.

I have decided that running the Portland Marathon this year will occur.

So, yeah! The marathon. The Distance. The Big Kahuna. The Whole Nine Yards...well, considerably more than nine yards. I'm sure you get my drift here. It remains the only "standard" distance running event I've not tackled. I've tried twice. They say third time's the charm, though, and I hope they're right (whoever they are.)

The marathon has long been on my "gotta do it at least once before I die" list. Some people have sky-diving, some folks have mountain-climbing, others strive for that once-in-a-lifetime journey around the world - but for me, being able to run one mile exactly 26.2 times has always been the absolute pinnacle of what I think I can do, a lofty goal that seems the greatest physical feat I could ever accomplish. I think a lot of people probably have this same idea, which is fantastic. At least I'm not alone.

One thing I have learned over the years, however, is that the wagon-train of human potential never stops. If a certain feat is accomplished by an individual, especially one that has been extraordinarily difficult to bring to fruition, it won't be long before another person will attempt to better it, and will also eventually succeed. One can see this in almost every aspect of life, and sports is no exception, if not literally the rule itself. In the case of the marathon, even though it still is considered by most to be physically gruelling and a genuine test of determination and grit, there are distance events that have eclipsed it as the be-all and end-all challenge for the distance runner.

Enter the ultramarathon.

An ultramarathon is classified as a "footrace of more than 50 miles." Personally, I think running more than 20 feet beyond the original 26.2 miles of a standard marathon would be a pretty amazing thing, but most ultras I've seen advertised are close to or exceed 50 miles. While they aren't totally mainstream at this point, they are becoming much more commonplace - or at least, they're coming out of the shadows where perhaps they've been hidden away for years, reserved for the craziest of the crazy - kind of like that "special Uncle" no one ever wants to mention at family reunions. In fact, there are now 100-mile races to choose from that are held across the country - and for those who simply cannot abuse themselves any harder - there is the 135-mile Badwater Ultra. This little gem, considered to be the toughest race in the world, is held in Death Valley during the height of the summer season. That's insanity. Really, it is.

But here's the thing. There was a point in my life where I thought running ten miles was out of the question - a totally stupid and nutzoid thing that I would never do. Why in the world would I want to subject myself to that kind of torture? However, as I grew stronger, that perception changed and now, while they aren't easy, ten-milers aren't really that hard either. Even half-marathons are totally doable - in fact, the more of those I run, the more I find I really like that distance, especially on the trail.  And the marathon? It's still a scary concept in some ways, but the more I work and visualize myself actually doing it, the less daunting it seems. I'm sure that on that glorious day, when I've hit about the 20-22 mile mark, the only thing going through my head will be the admonition that I will never, ever, EVER run that distance again. But I have a lot of hope that running Portland this year will be the first of many marathon experiences to come.

That being said, the whole idea of ultrarunning doesn't really sound all that crazy to me anymore. To be quite honest, I have no concept of my true potential. I've spent so many years so far removed from what I've become, even at this point, there's no telling how far I could go with proper and prudent training. I don't think I would ever do Badwater, and obviously, I've not conquered the marathon just yet, but who's to say that perhaps a nice little 50-miler shouldn't be next on my list...?

Sunday, January 24, 2010


This morning as I lay under the covers, working myself up to the point where I could finally get my sorry behind out of bed, I couldn't hear any rain coming down so I thought maybe I'd dodged the bullet for today's run. But when I actually stepped out the front door, I was quickly and thoroughly disavowed of that particular notion.

As I sat in the parking lot at the Nature Park waiting for Donna to get there, it started coming down even harder, taunting me - yeah, you thought you'd get away with a dry run - ha! I'll show you dry! In anticipation of heating way up as I always do on a run, I was in shorts, short sleeves and just a thin fleece vest even though it was only 38 degrees outside.  Donna arrived, we whined at each other for a few minutes and off we went.

True to form, the first 15 minutes or so of the run was a glorious exercise in complete and utter suckage. My hands got very cold and then went numb and the rain was relentless. All the body parts threw giant hissy fits like a bunch of spoiled children - one way or another, they were gonna be heard from. Finally, I found a trace of my groove and started warming up, literally and figuratively. The rain didn't let up for the entire run, but as most of us crazy-assed runners know, especially the Oregonian types, after a while you hit a point where you just can't get any wetter, so it really doesn't matter. However, warming up apparently sent the signal to my sinuses to immediately start "double-time production" (for lack of any other polite terms) and before I knew it, the river started running like I had the head-cold from hell.

Oh well. Can't win for losing, I suppose. Being there was nothing else I could do, I swiped at my nose with the collar of my vest as gracefully as possible and we veered off the paved path onto a trail. It didn't take long for the real fun to start.

We progressed from bark chips to pine needles to wet leaves, which then degenerated into muddy patches we could at least partially dodge, and then to 10 and 20-foot-long stretches of ankle-deep mud that were impassable in any other fashion other than straight through the middle. All around us were veritible ponds of water where the ground just couldn't absorb any more, making it look more like a Florida swamp rather than a forested Oregon park. At one point, there was a huge puddle that encompassed the entire width of the trail (and then some) and was also too big to jump, and it was clear there was no getting out of it - at least one foot was going in, and possibly both if I couldn't lengthen my stride enough. With gritted teeth I went for it - one shoe completely submerged with a rush of freezing water. My other landed on the opposite side  - far enough to avoid complete submersion but not enough to keep from giving those toes their own chilly snap-to.

We did this particular loop of the park twice. Don't ever let it be said I'm not a glutton for punishment! At the end, though, we showed off our mud-covered feet to each other as water dripped non-stop from our hair and our noses and fingers, and we crowed about being hard-core. Suddenly it occurred to me right then that in reality, this was the first truly hard-core thing I've done in a very long while - perhaps my whole life. And wow, did it feel good.

 Here we are, a couple of drowned rats, but this photo doesn't come close to adequately portraying just how wet we were. I literally could have wrung water from my clothes.

Look, ma! Mud!

Today was an hour and 10 minutes, next week we'll push it to an 1:15 or perhaps 20. We've decided to give the mud a rest and go run the Promenade downtown.

And rain? Bring it on, baby!

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Settling In

L:ast Sunday I went for a run with my new running friend Donna at the Tualatin Hills Nature Park. I'd never been there before, let alone run there, and I was delighted and amazed that such a wonderful place exists. It's like this little woodsey oasis out in the middle of suburbia - a wilderness escape smack dab in the middle of civilization.

As we started out on the run, the enthusiasm for my newly discovered mini-paradise receeded a bit as I had difficulty "getting the engine started." In fact, it felt like the first time I'd ever run - my legs were achy and my breath was short. My "I-don't-do-mornings" voice chimed in with the helpful suggestion to stop running, get back in the car and go home. After all, the weather wasn't the best (although it wasn't raining for once) and it was early and really, wouldn't crawling back into bed for a nice little nap be wonderful? 

Donna was trotting right along about twenty feed ahead of me, unaware of the great psychological battle going on in my head. I had to keep up with her - as the only one of the two of us possessing pockets, she had my car keys and I didn't want to lose sight of her, being in an unfamiliar place. But I really did want to quit, with all countries heard from at that point - the pillars of lead underneath my hips, the lungs still adjusting to the crisp morning air, the brain a bit foggy and not really into it at all. I kept stopping to walk, angry with myself for doing it, yet needing to catch my breath or simply not continue.

Finally the "you-can-do-this" voice started breaking through, ostensibly due to the fact that the blood was now sufficiently circulating through my grey matter enough to wake it up. The fog cleared, my legs limbered up and the lungs adjusted to the chill, and gradually I fell into a comfortable pace and quit feeling like I was going to fall over.

Now that I could concentrate on something other than discomfort, I began to soak in the beauty of the place. We were running on a dirt trail that was springy soft with wet leaves and pine needles - it felt like running on foam. All around us the trees towered overhead, dripping rainwater that cooled my skin. Squirrels and chipmunks were everywhere, scrambling across our path and barreling though the underbrush on the sides of the trail and up into the trees. We had fun splashing through puddles and navigating the gooey parts of the trail, looping around the park for a full hour. As we stretched out in the parking lot, ready to carry on with the rest of our day, I couldn't help but feel quite proud of myself. My persistence had been well-rewarded.

In the course of my life, there have been many times in which I've started to do something hard, and at the first sign of difficulty, I would cave in to the pessimist that seems permanently camped out in a corner of my head and give up. In fact, if I had a dime for every time I've felt like quitting because it was too hard, I would be sitting on my own beach in the caribbean, my most pressing concern being whether to have the prime rib or the lobster for dinner. But this one thing - this running thing - I've soldiered on with it because I know it's something I can do, and I know that once I get the blood going and the various body parts on board, I enjoy it immensely.

Tomorrow is Sunday, and Donna and I will be meeting at the Nature Park in the morning to go for our weekly long run. I imagine it will probably be hard for me to get going, as usual, with the lazy parts whining about whatever and the negative voice doing its damndest to change the itinerary. So I will look it in the face, shrug a bit and perhaps apologize, just to be polite - and keep on going.//

Monday, January 18, 2010

Why did I ever stop?

One fine evening back when I was in college (some 20+ years ago) my roommate said, "Let's go running!"

I thought that was a grand idea, so me and my extremely-not-designed-for-running white Reebok court shoes went along with the plan, and I managed to go about one city block before I practically keeled over. Something bit me that night, though, and I persevered; soon I was running about three to five miles every day.

After a while, I lost a bunch of weight, got into and then back out of a very horrible relationship, dropped out of school, and for reasons I still don’t understand, also stopped running. I didn't think about it much - in fact, hardly at all. I guess I just had other things to do.

Fast-forward about 12 years (insert husband, kids, mortgage and full-time job here.) Lots and lots of poor food choices and very little exercise and not-so-gradual but quite steady weight gain were the hallmarks of these years. I spent quite a lot of this time feeling vaguely comatose, yet it just never occurred to me in an urgent way to get back on the ball. I grew accustomed to feeling sluggish and not really being able to keep up with my kids.

But one day, I knew I’d had enough. So I started going to the gym and got real up-close and personal with lots of broiled chicken, vegetables and fresh cold water. I was determined, and after a while, seeing some tangible results, I thought, "Wow! Maybe I should try running again!"

So I did. Slow walking morphed into fast walking which turned into slow plodding which eventually became a comfortable 11-12 minute mile. It occurred to me not too long after that milestone that perhaps I could finish a 5K road race.

So I found one being held a few weeks later, and finished. Not in an amazing amount of time, but it was a winning situation in my book, and that little victory spurred me headlong into about three years filled with a whole bunch of 5Ks and then 10Ks and then - a half marathon. I finished the half-marathon, and wasn't last, and was quite pleased with myself.

After a few months, I thought, "Hell! I may as well go the whole way!" And so I started the training with my sights set on the Portland Marathon, which is purported to be one of the best marathons to do if it's your first one. I joined a great training program called Portland Fit, and fell into a nice groovy groove. At about Week 10 of the training, I wrenched my ankle – a really bad sprain - and had to give it up for that year because I just couldn't catch up with the training after I healed.

When the time came the following year, I started training for the marathon again with Portland Fit, and made it all the way to about Week 16. This time, roughly halfway through a 15 mile training run, I noticed that everything was starting to swell. Fingers. Hands. Arms. Legs. I felt like a balloon, and looked like one too - a not-so-amusing caricature of myself. It was somewhat grotesque and quite frightening because that had never happened to me before. Turns out I was pregnant. And that little development quashed my marathon plans once again.

But instead of pulling my Asics on and getting back on the road after recovering from the birth, I just…stopped. The desire was gone. Or maybe it was just that I was way too busy juggling an infant, his two older brothers, my husband, a full-time job, a house that needed keeping and all the other various and sundry things that come with domestic life.

That was back in 2002, and in retrospect, I realize those barriers were self-imposed to justify my Great Return to the Couch. It took me a long time to figure it out, but they were the exact reasons why I should have fit running into my schedule, somehow. Hindsight is indeed 20-20.

Seven years later on New Year's Day,  I - like many across the land surely did - finally decided getting back into shape might not be such a bad idea. Stepping on the bathroom scale that morning, I expected to see a number within a certain range, but when the digital numbers flickered and stopped, I did a a double take. I stepped off, let the scale clear itself, and stepped back on. No change. I'd really let it go this time.

So I sweated buckets, counted calories, strained muscles, carefully measured cheese and weighed meat and groaned through full-body bootcamp workouts with a personal trainer; I drank enough water to sink an aircraft carrier. I was once again singular-minded and determined that this would be the last time I would have to lose this kind of weight. And if I was going to keep the momentum and be successful, I knew I had to return to the only exercise I’d ever really grown to love: running. So I did.

Like it always had, my “journey to being a runner” began with a crawl, and progressed through familiar phases: Trudge. Stroll. Jaunt. Trot. And finally - run! Just like that, more or less, I was a runner again. I was back – this time, in spades.

In June, I finished my very first 10K in roughly a decade, clocking in at 1:46. In September, I crossed my fingers, said a prayer and signed up for a half-marathon + 1.1 mile trail race and finished in 3:42. In October, I took on another 10K and finished in 1:21. Later that same month, I tackled a 10-miler with evil killer monster hills and finished in 2:22. Topping off the year, I did two 5Ks in December.

The cherry on top of all of this productive activity was when 2010 arrived, instead of having to make another resolution, I merely had to remind myself to continue on the path already started. I’m nearly 60 pounds lighter now and tantalized with the thought that this year I will probably get very close to my goal weight as long as I keep the sensible eating and the exercise a priority. It’s been a long time coming and as a permanent way of being is severely overdue.

In the final tally, I suppose it doesn’t matter why I stopped running (twice, even!) I will never win a race, unless it’s only with myself. To that end, neither will I ever be fast – my current pace is so slow I get passed by just about everyone who isn’t walking (and some who are.) I still have yet to do a race this time around without some amount of walking myself. But that doesn't matter either.

What does matter is that I'm out there on the treadmill, the road, or the woodsy trail. I am determined to be the 90-year old crazy lady on a 5K or a 10K or even a full marathon course, chugging away among the back-of-the-packers - or even dead last - but crossing the finish line in triumph no matter how long it takes me. It matters that the doctors will most likely say that because I started running before it became an impossibility, I saved my own life and God willing, I will probably die a happy woman many, many years hence with a strong heart, amazing legs and a peaceful mind.

I’m determined that this time, stopping is no longer an option.