Friday, August 28, 2015

The Four Seasons of a 100 Mile Week

For me, running a 100 mile week is like living (and aging) through four seasons. The beginning of each week brings, as George Costanza would say, “rejuvenation, rebirth…all that crap.” But two easy Monday runs (because yeah, you have to do two-a-days to fit all that juicy mileage in) does not a week make. Each subsequent run edges me closer to the next season, deeper into exhaustion, ultimately plunging me into the depths of winter. At this stage I long for the thaw to come, balancing on the knife’s edge of fatigue, hunger, and madness until the sweet spring of a rest day arrives. In this kinder, gentler season I resemble a human being again, and wonder just what was I complaining about in winter? My coach calls this good tired. By Wednesday night, I call it madness. Here’s a glimpse: 

Tuesday Morning (Workout Day, e.g. 14mi total; 4mi warmup + 7x1mile w/ 60s rest + 3mi cool):
Awake. Not in the “lazily coming to” kind of way. This is alert, as though I haven’t been asleep for god knows how long. Which gets me thinking, “Just how long have I been asleep?” My eyes search the darkness. Darkness. That’s a good sign. It means that the dawn hasn’t begun to break yet. Which means that I have at least another hour left. In addition to “awake,” I am also “drenched,” i.e. in my own sweat. Apparently I’ve interrupted my body rigorously repairing itself from the 16 miles the day before and preparing itself for the 19 mile day coming entirely too soon – either that or I’ve peed. And speaking of…

I take the opportunity to let the cool air in the bedroom dry my perspiration. I totter gingerly to the bathroom and empty out the tea I drank prior to bed. I favor the tightness in my right heel from an angry plantar fascia, and a taut-like-a-bow-string IT band that hasn’t released as much as I would have liked. But, hey, it isn’t morning yet.

When I slip back into the damp sheets, it is time for truth. I peek at our clock and see 3:10 staring back. A little less than two hours. I’d like to say that I fall back into a deep, restorative sleep, but instead I lay uneasily thinking about the workout to come. I eventually nod off, but it brings anxious, vivid dreams. The kind where I’ve overslept and scramble to get the very run in that I’m preparing for in t-minus however many minutes. Or I’m in the middle of a hockey game and can’t pull on my goalie gloves in time for the faceoff. Normal stuff.

If the alarm does finally go off – the alternative being preemptively turning it off and just “getting on with it” – I leap from bed, pull on the shorts waiting for me on the dresser, attend to some basic hygiene, lace up, and am out the door before the sweat can even dry on the sheets.

Tuesday Evening (5mi easy + core): The morning is most like the beginning of summer, with the proverbial dog days languishing into evening. Fatigue lingers in my muscles from the morning, but once I’m actually running, I’m pleasantly surprised how my stride unspools. This brief optimism is a combination of summer hanging on, and the crisp fall air. I fall into a deep, dreamless sleep that night, feeling that as I close my eyes, that crispness has a frigid edge to it. As the Starks would say, “Winter is coming.”

Wednesday Morning (11mi easy): Exhaustion creeps in and settles like a heavy fog. Instead of “awake!” I sleep nearly to the alarm, i.e. 5-7 minutes before it’s due to go off. When I look at the clock, I am shaken at how tired I still am and how little I have left to sleep. I push the enormity of the run out of my head, “being rather than becoming,” I tell myself. My form eventually takes over, the run comes to me, and somehow I’m back in front of my house again. While I sit at the top of the stairs and unlace my shoes, it hits me: I have to run six more tonight.

I don’t eat during the day, I consume. My lunchbox is bulging with Tupperware and I wrestle with whether or not to go to the PotBelly across the street for an “emergency salad,” at 10:00 a.m. so no one gets hurt. Mentally this is post-holidays, bleak, nothing to look forward to winter.

Wednesday Night (6mi easy + core): Last double of the week. I trudge up the stairs to my car in the parking garage and wonder how – and if – I will rally. The first few strides are awkward and the word that passes through my head over and over is “galunking.” As in, I’m galunking along the street with barely any semblance of form. I’m trapped in a heatless cabin, “Trapped!” dripping down the panes.

Thursday Morning (12mi easy): The alarm buzzes. Who am I? I feel I have just closed my eyes. Suddenly I’m two miles into my run, drifting. Large segments of the route disappear from my conscious. It’s peaceful and startling all at once. When I come to, I try to force a return to this zen-like state, but of course forcing it is not zen-like at all. I think about work (boo), about the upcoming weekend with Mrs. OTBR (yay), about some childhood memory (aww).

Thursday Night (0mi): I am worthless. A zombie. My dog and I hit the far reaches of our afternoon walk loop (a half mile out) and pause at the crosswalk and, nearly in tears, I wonder how we’re going to get back to the house because I could curl up right here and fall asleep. “Save yourself, Mattie. Or better yet, go bring me food.” At night, I prepare to get into bed, but before I do, I pause, look lovingly at it, and say aloud, “I missed you.”

Friday & Saturday morning (11 and 20mi, respectively): I’m not dead yet! I think I’ll go for a run. With 24 hours of rest, my body has been busy stitching itself back together. It’s like I woke up and the birds started singing, the bees buzzed, and yes, those are buds on the trees. I’m hitting 6:30 pace and not giving it a second thought.

Sunday Morning (6mi easy): Ten hours of sleep. I swing my legs from the bed and pull on shorts and shoes. I start at an easy trot and wonder, “What was the deal with Tuesday-Thursday Brad? What a complainer.”

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Race ya?

The author in a formal dramatization
It was one of THOSE runs. Not the “I-could-run-forever-why-can’t-the race-be-today” kind. No, this was of the “how-can-there-possibly-be-more-poop-left-in-me” variety. To be fair, one could argue that I had perhaps indulged in my wife’s birthday cake a bit more than was necessary the night before, testing the old “if the furnace is hot” theory. What I didn’t realize – or didn’t care to acknowledge – was that during marathon training, this (gestures to bird-chested frame), is a delicate ecosystem. In other words, consume confections at your own risk.

After making a number of, err, deposits along my nine mile loop at roughly two mile intervals, I was never happier to emerge from the trail onto the neighborhood street that would, in one mile, return me to the comfort and privacy of my own home.

Side note: There’s the ‘ol rolodex of mantras and workouts, but make no mistake, there is also a catalog of suitable “bathrooms” along my various routes, each with their pros and cons. Some, for example, are best befouled prior to the sun coming up to ensure maximum coverage, while others are safe after sunrise yet bring the inherent risk of poison ivy in sensitive areas.

As if the run hadn’t been challenging enough, a garbage truck rumbled past me, leaving me caught in the sickly, sweet wake of rotting refuse. If I could do it without breaking form, I would shake my fist at the garbage truck convoy that seems, without fail, to race by me each-and-every-god-damn-morning in the summer, permanently embedding that smell into my nostrils, nay, my soul!


The last half mile of this neighborhood street features two rather large hills that one must climb before crossing over the main road and back into my own neighborhood. I neared this fateful point and prepared to ease into the initial climb. I noticed, however, that since spotting the truck, my legs had started turning over more quickly. I also noticed that this truck’s run had the driver and rider making frequent stops at nearly every house, but not all. They lingered long enough for me to pull even as I started my initial ascent. There existed the brief possibility that I could salvage this dumpy run – more than anyone could salvage what was overflowing from the curbside garbage cans (bada bing!). And that’s how I found myself catching the eye of the rider as he swung onto the back of the truck. I pointed at him, smiled, pointed to the stoplight a half mile away and mouthed, “Race ya?”

He laughed, called something to the driver who then hung his head out the window, looked at me, then at his partner, then back to me. He grinned and gave the thumbs up. The race was on.

The truck chugged a few houses ahead of me then came to an abrupt, almost dramatic halt. The man in the back leapt off the truck and sprinted over to the cans on the right side of the road, while the driver flung his door open and hustled to the bags on the left. They laughed as they looked back at me and hurried back to the truck that wrenched into motion again, hitting me with another blast of dumpster bouquet.

I had pulled even as they bounced ahead another two houses and repeated the routine, dodging the driver as he swung the can around to empty it into the back. I lengthened my lead to two houses (wondering if perhaps they could smell my wake trail) and started to crest the first hill when the truck come back to life behind me. I had reached the mailbox that signaled the top of the hill and only a quarter mile to the stoplight. Puffing audibly at this point, I ran through the top and used the backside to lengthen my lead.

The truck grinded behind me and the brakes squealed as I started powering up the second hill. With only two more houses before the wooded clearing to the light, I had to pour it on here to maintain my lead. I leaned into the hill and pumped my arms harder, feeling light and fleet. (how could I not after the run’s previous events). The truck groaned behind me, its engine straining against the hill. Lactic acid began to gather in the tops of my quads, but I could see the cars racing through the intersection. I wouldn’t give them the satisfaction of looking back, and instead rounded the final curve and slammed my hand into the walk sign button – victorious!

The truck pulled next to me and all three of us wore big grins. The garage men applauded lightly and I gave a quick fist pump (careful not to shake it at them). The light turned green and we saluted one another before going about finishing our job for the morning. I trotted back to the house happy to have made the most of this once crappy run. 

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Amor Fati

Bluemont elevation profile
George Sheehan may be considered today's running philosopher, but maybe Nietzsche was on to something too. Let me explain.

Seven-some miles away from the car, Rohan and I wound along the shoulder-less curves of Snickersville Road on the return trip from Bluemont. Beyond the neat rows of trees shielding us from the sun, bucolic fields reached for the mountains, cows lazed and occasionally announced our presence, and horses shied away from us while we fantasized that they might canter along with our strides. 

But despite this pastoral and picturesque Virginia countryside, the hills came like unrelenting sets of waves. Conversation ceased as we powered up each steep face and tried to ease down the backside to save our quads. 

Right about this time, I started to mentally thumb through my catalog of mantras: “smooth and easy,” “powerful and efficient.” And I thought about that singular piece of advice, which all marathoners (or even racers at any distance) receive from the magazines, experts, and those who have “been there”: run the mile you’re in.

And while this running commandment that has been passed down through the ages sustained me for a few minutes, my mind started to dive deeper into thought. That’s when Nietzsche’sphrase “amor fati” bubbled up. 

I first came across the phrase a month ago reading Kate Atkinson’s book “Life After Life, and have been infatuated with it ever since. Like Ursula Todd, the book’s main character, I initially pronounced it “a more fatty.” Which, on this particular run, got me thinking about “amor,” and could it be “love of fat”? I mean, who doesn’t love an avocado these days or a certain anthem from 1978?

In actuality, it means “love of one’s fate,” or as Ursula comes to understand, “a simple acceptance of what comes to us, regarding it as neither bad nor good, (stay with me here). It’s focusing on being, rather than on becoming. We worry away the present, seldom appreciating where we are, in order to get to what we assume will be a better place.

Recently on runs, for example, I find my thoughts at mile two drifting to where I will be at mile ten. Rather than becoming weighed down by the enormity of covering those eight or however long miles, I try to refocus and say, “Yes, we will get there, but we must be here first. So let’s be present and give this part right now – painful or powerful – its due.

As Rohan and I tackled another set, I chose to accept, instead of dwell in, this dark place. I tried to simply (or perhaps not so simply) accept what came. Accept what the run gave or took from me. A “this too shall pass” mindset, whether I was in a good place or bad. Knowing that pushing through the dark places meant getting to a lighter place on the other side.

Frank Shorter expressed a similar sentiment when he said that, “Experience has taught me how important it is to just keep going, focusing on running fast and relaxed. Eventually it passes and the flow returns.

And sure enough, during this philosophy meets running session, I came back to reality – to the task at hand – and noticed that Rohan and I had arrived at the final climb of our toilWe stared down the hill we had both noted on our way out some fifteen-and-a-half miles ago. It seemed to reach beyond the tops of the trees and disappear around a bend where we knew it would still continue to rise. We each took a pull on our water bottles, exchanged a fist bump, and climbed. I felt the effort strain my hamstrings and a grimace break across my face. Our breathing came in ragged gasps. And as the road began to curve revealing the final climb, I thought, “Amor fati.” The pain didn’t dissipate, but the mental stress of willing it to fell away like the road behind us. We surged up and over the lip and rode down the backside where the road unspooled with our strides. Our footfalls fell in synch and we appeared to move as one fluid organism charging for home. And there it was: acceptance.

Friday, July 24, 2015

We Begin Again

I returned to my front steps this morning, shirtless, wrung out, dripping – the hallmarks of a mid-summer Virginia run. The dark and cold mornings that defined this past January seemed a distant memory. But I still remember them.

I remember the tail end of what I would consider the first real training week. That Saturday morning called for 18 miles, a.k.a. serious mileage. I had plans to meet up with Rohan to do “a new route I’ve wanted to try.” “I just want to get some hills in,” I said, thinking ahead to the rolling elevation profile of my impending March half marathon.

I had no idea.

I awoke to a room dark as pitch. Rain tapped the windows, eventually changing over to the unmistakable hiss of ice crackling – popping and snapping like fire – against the glass. What the forecasters call a wintry mix, and DC-ites call a bread, toilet paper, and water emergency. I let out a heavy sigh and pulled the blankets up.

When Rohan and I eventually let out, the sleet had tapered to a fine mist. Steel-colored clouds stretched across the sky and the air carried the unmistakable scent of snow.

The now infamous-run, which we refer to only as “Bluemont” for the town this ribbon of torturous inclines and declines carves through, led us each to new places, both literal and figurative. The elevation profile looks like an EKG of someone who suffered a massive heart attack or, as I prefer to call it, “shark’s teeth.”

It was the kind of run that – having come through clean on the other side – has changed you. You are a different person when you return to the car from the one who set out – hardened somehow.

It has been six months since that run. Over the past half year, Rohan and I have texted each other that one word – “Bluemont” – and it was enough to bring pause to whatever the recipient was doing. Those breath-stealing climbs and quad-pounding descents still linger in our lungs and legs. The word was not (and is not) one taken lightly.

I bring it up here because this week the schedule calls for 18 miles. In other words, serious mileage. I stand at the beginning of yet another training program – as I have for the past 10 years – seeking to once again redefine what I once thought of as “the limit.” That training plateau where you believe, “I have reached the edge and can go no farther.” Where you live at the margins for weeks on end, hanging on. I thought I had reached it last November and then again this past March, as I had back in 2009 and 2004. But each time I have begun, I have ended in new territory – changed, hardened, stronger.

One text went out on Monday: “Bluemont.”

And so, we begin again.

Friday, May 16, 2014

5K Roundup (or A Tale of Two Races)

Last weekend, I made the somewhat rash, somewhat thought out decision to race back-to-back 5Ks: the National Police Week 5K on Saturday and the Angel Kisses 5K on Sunday. There’s something liberating about going into a race having no expectations and no clear grasp on your fitness level, particularly when your diet has consisted primarily of what I can only describe as the post-marathon beer and ice cream nutrition plan. So, it was with a come-what-may attitude that I laced up and lived through the tale of two races.
Guns blazing

National Police Week 5K
Rohan and I rounded the final turn and came into the homestretch. I felt a slight surge of adrenaline but it wasn't time, not for the real thing. Despite the easy pace of our warmup, my shoulders were already slick with sweat courtesy of the heavy humidity. Before we pulled up to a jog, I turned to Rohan and said, “Ok, in an ideal world, we turn onto 4th street like this and we’re shoulder to shoulder and alone. How do you feel about a tie?” He started laughing. “I was thinking the same thing last night! And we split the pot.” “And we split the pot,” I replied. In addition to battling for cash, the Police Week 5K also features a team competition, of which Rohan’s team (1 Life to Run) has won the past three years.

We nervously stood on the start line, sizing up the other runners around us, fingers atwitter, and stepping from foot-to-foot. When the gun went, Rohan bolted to the front followed by two other runners, and then me. I was content to sit on the shoulder of the St. Joseph tank top in front of me. Our group made two quick turns before a long straightaway that would bring us in front of the Capitol. The pace felt fast but comfortable. Rohan pulled 10 feet in front of me followed by a shorter runner in baggy shorts. “I’ll see you later,” I thought, snickering at baggy shorts.

The day before, I’d been at the eye doctor, and the conversation turned to running as it often does with me. He told me about how his son can turn a 4:50 mile, which got me thinking, “How fast can I run a mile?” As this thought crept back into my head over that first half mile, I looked down at my watch and my eyes bulged when I saw the 4:37 staring back at me. I tried to pull the pace back at that moment but when I looked at my watch again, it said 4:34.

With a more deliberate adjustment, I came through the first mile in 4:59 – the fastest mile of my life. Literally. Ever. The smirk disappeared when I realized I still had 2.1 more miles to run. “This is where I die,” I thought.

The course curved and we ran a jug handle in front of the Capitol. Baggy shorts had taken off and I really would see him later…after he’d crossed the finish line far ahead of me. I started to reel Rohan in at this point, and looked at my watch again: 4:50. “Maybe this is what 90 miles per week gets me.” Well, it didn't get me much farther.

St. Joseph tank top went by me like I was standing still. Mercifully, I reached mile 2 and saw a more reasonable 5:30. Still, I felt death coming on. I glanced over my shoulder, and it wasn't death, though, but another runner gaining ground and in a hurry. I turned my eyes down at my watch and realized I still had .75 miles left. An eternity. Lead poured into my legs. I lived the awful dream of trying desperately to move my legs but simply couldn't get away. If I could have managed to form audible words, I would have said, “I am dead in the water.” But it came out, “Gaaaack.”

The finish line finally came into view and I threw every last bit I had into it and came across the line in fourth, salvaging a 16:53. Rohan followed just eight seconds behind, though I didn't see it because my hands were locked around my knee caps.

It wasn't the finish we had imagined, but 1 Life to Run captured its fourth straight title, I found out I could run a sub-5 mile, and could still turn in a sub-17 5K.

Angel Kisses 5K
A week before Angel Kisses, my dad and I met up to preview the race’s new course. The majority of it traversed my daily running routes with the exception of a 200m jug handle .25mi from the finish. That diversion featured a steep uphill followed by an even steeper downhill that sent one hurtling toward the finish line. My dad and I agreed that should the situation arise, that short uphill would be the perfect spot to make a decisive move.

The morning dawned 10 degrees cooler than yesterday, but the zip in my legs had gone and in its place, the lingering exhaustion and memory of Saturday’s effort. I chatted with a couple runners at the start line to gauge how fast everyone might be going out. Everyone seemed to agree that they’d be around 17 minutes. “Hmm,” I thought. “This could be interesting.”

At the gun, my pre-race chatters took off in a swift pack and began a steep climb that would take us out of the neighborhood. My legs already felt tired but I ground up the hill to try and stay with the lead pack. Out of breath at the top, I thought, “You could have done that better,” but I forged on with little other choice.

The pack hung about 10 feet in front of me. My thoughts toggled back and forth from “keep contact” to “meh, another fourth place finish isn’t so bad.”

We came through the first mile in 5:17. “Much more doable,” I thought, but that 5:17 felt much harder than the 4:59 had the day before. Our pack made a left turn onto the stretch of road where I run my 400m and 800m repeats. “Slight down into slight up” I thought. I stayed on the left side of the road knowing that would give me the best tangent later in the race, while the other three drifted to the right.

All at once, the group seemed to slow and I began making up ground. One runner came back to me then completely dropped off. I used the gradual incline to reel in the other two and maintain contact. My childhood friend’s father was a course marshal and tossed me a “Good job, Brad." “Thanks, Mr. D,” I said back as casually as I could. We crossed back over the main road and came upon mile 2. I didn't bother to look at my watch. “Place not pace,” I thought, as things had indeed gotten interesting. I pulled even with the second runner as we began a steeper climb. Having run it many times over, I knew the pitch down was coming. The leaden feeling in my legs began to return and I pulled back on the pace, knowing what was to come, knowing that I didn't have to burn myself out here. Even slowing, the second runner dropped off.

I fixed my eyes to the back of the orange singlet slicing his way through the 2K walkers. At the crest of the hill, I’d pulled even. His chest heaved loud gasps. I hurt, too, but hearing him breathing so hard, I knew I had a chance. On the back side of the hill, I was content to stay next to him and let him listen to my easy breathing. Volunteers started waving wildly to send us into the jug handle. “Isn't this convenient,” I thought, as my plan came together. A couple feet before the turn, I began to accelerate and cut the diagonal across the road as I came to the top of the hill. My arms powered me forward and when I reached the top, I heard only my own footsteps hitting the pavement. I gave a quick turn over my left shoulder and nearly did a double-take when I saw the empty road behind me. “Did I make the right turn,” I wondered. Momentum carried me downhill and I took one more look as I made the final turn to the finish line. Orange singlet was duking it out with runner three. I took the break off and came hurtling down the final straight, taking first place in 17:03. In that last quarter mile, I’d opened up a 16 second lead.

I tried to walk off the nausea that overcame me but had to grab my knees. Still, that bile in the back of my throat was nothing compared to the sweet taste of victory. I smiled through the deep breaths, letting the win wash over me, having avenged last year’s loss at the line, and finally adding my name to the list of this race’s winners.
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