Sunday, November 15, 2009

Going to "Europe" Long Run Style

As runners, let's face it, we're a quirky bunch. We embrace the eventual breakdown of social norms with every snot rocket we blow, every phlegm wad we spit, and every pit stop we make in the bushes. These external "quirks" merely scratch the surface, because, as I hope you can relate, for every external quirk, there's an equally odd internal one. I didn't fully recognize this in myself until my long run yesterday. Here's a small glimpse into my window:

The first shade of doubt began to set in when I glanced at the clock: 9:15 a.m. I'd gotten a good amount of sleep, limited the alcohol and grease/fat intake the night before at the Capitals game and yet...I still woke up feeling groggy and stale.

I traipsed downstairs, Mattie trailing behind me (the source of my awakening) to be let out, trying to convince myself that I could shake the cobwebs from my head. An english muffin and a few mouthfuls of gatorade later, I set out for Saturday's 12-miler with apprehension.

I spent the first mile going over what had been a superb week of training, trying to pinpoint the reasons why I felt so sapped of energy. Perhaps the extended hours of mind-numbing training on the job and subsequent days of cramming five days of work into two had finally caught up to me. Like a stubborn car on a cold gray morning, I just couldn't get the engine to start.

I checked my watch at the first mile, 6:58...perhaps the pace had something to do with it. I tried to pull it back. Mile two: 13:50. Ok, even faster. Not good considering I had 10 miles to go, 20 minutes of intervals sandwiched in between, and sets of hills that would come like rolling waves just when I would begin to get tired. Cue the quirks.

Quirk 1: I talk to myself a lot on my runs. I used to be an ice hockey goalie (already dubbed the weirdos of the hockey world), and constantly waged war on negative thoughts with positive actions.

Between miles two and four is a looooong downhill that I typically use as a recovery/preparation stretch to get ready for those hills and reset my focus should I be struggling. Today was a struggling day. I had that same fuzziness in my head that seeped in last Sunday, except rather than getting it at mile 11, I had it at mile 3. Should I phone it in, turn around and hope for a better day tomorrow? Am I *gasp* getting the cold one of my co-workers kept breathing on me all week? I recalled, once again, a moment in John Parker's "Again to Carthage," in which Cassidy tells himself never to judge the effectiveness of a run until you're two-miles in.

I descended into the final stretch of that downhill, coming upon the last stoplight for 6-miles (i.e. my last opportunity to stop and grab a quick breather), with those words echoing in my head.

I watched the cars slide by in the flat steely morning light and visualized my hands reaching into my head, grabbing all the negative thoughts, sifting through them with my fingers, and then crumpling them up and tossing them on that curb...I didn't want them following me the rest of the run.

When the light turned green, I trotted across the street and kept playing this scene in my head:

My wife: "How was your run?"

Me: "Really crappy for the first four miles, but then awesome from there."

Quirk 2: I name a lot of the sections on my run, particularly the hilly ones.

The problem with that downhill section is that it leads into a steady mile of steep climbs and descents that I've come to know as "The Cabell's Mill Gauntlet." Giving it a name means it's something tangible, something that can be overcome, rather than just this abstract portion of a loop. This allows me to chant things like, "Run the gauntlet, run the gauntlet." Or, on a 3-mile loop, the cross-street at the top of one hill is Sweet Leaf Drive...hence, "Sweet Leaf, Sweet Leaf, Sweet Leaf." At the top, there is none sweeter.

My favorite chant, however, is one that I can take from one run to the next. It began on my beloved Manassas Battlefield loop earlier in the spring. The terrain is far from flat, and in fact, makes clear the importance of maintaining the high ground in battle. On my third loop, I came to one such hill that is short but steep and gives you that extra burn in your lungs and fatigue in your calves. I kept saying, "Up. Up. Up." Until I reached the top and said, "You're up. You're up." And continued chugging along. As I recovered, I smiled to myself in that long run delirium thinking that I was actually in "Europe." So, now, on my way up hills, I say ridiculous things to myself such as, "What's your favorite continent?" "Europe." "Where do you want to go right now?" "Europe." And so on and so forth. If nothing else, it lightens the mood of an otherwise very serious situation.

So, it was with great courage that I decided that this crappy run would actually turn around on the Cabell's Mill Gauntlet, and, oh! what a triumph it would be to know that that was indeed the case. And somehow, it was. I found my stride there on the second hill and found myself rising easily as I crest it and descended again. From there, everything seemed to settle into place.

At the conclusion of that portion, I still had 7-miles to go, but those remaining miles felt smooth by comparison. A tale of two runs, indeed. The scene I had made up starring my wife came to fruition after I came through the door.

Those are two of my quirks that I actually just shared with my wife for the first time, who is now looking at me with loving perplexity.

What do you do or say to get through your runs when the going gets tough?

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