Friday, December 31, 2010

Recounting the Miles of 2010

Greetings from Great Sand Dunes National Park, CO.  Ok, I’m actually snug in my house in northern Virginia right now, but I took one last peek at my training log this morning and one stat jumped out that normally doesn’t catch my eye: the yearly mileage.  My attention usually goes right to the weekly/monthly tallies, but I’ve never bothered to take a look at the accumulation of all those miles.  My 2010 total is: 1548.6 mi.  If I ran west from house, Colorado is where I'd end up.
I wish I could add another four and change to that tonight at the Fairfax Four Miler, but unfortunately, I’m on the shelf with a knee injury (a topic for another, broodier blog).  But it got me nostalgic to think about where all those miles took me throughout the past 11 months and 30 days.
The beginning of the year started with many snowy/slushy miles, slogging my way through Snowmageddon, Snopocalypse, and the other monster storms that came through the D.C. area.  I probably logged a quarter of those 1500+ miles on a four mile loop around the neighborhood across the street, since they apparently got preferential treatment from the snowplows.  It became my own Groundhog day, going round and round under the gray, cold sky, dodging cars and black ice, day in and day out.
But once the thaw came, 26.2 of those miles went to my first Boston Marathon and carried me from the leafy streets of Hopkinton to the avenues leading to the Prudential building.
Spring miles carved through single-track trails along the Potomac, where I earned my first bee sting (around mile 8 of the Northface Endurance Challenge Half Marathon) and got more familiar with a pack of nettle bushes than I ever care to again.  My right side still tingles at the thought.
The summer brought tortuous miles in the humidity that reduced me to a sweaty, staggering walk and taught me new appreciation for Saturday long runs at 7:00 a.m.  Suffering in the heat, however, sharpened my resolve and helped me earn lactic-acid-bound miles around the track.
And following an afternoon thunderstorm that ratcheted up the humidity so much so that the steam rising from the pavement made the route seem like it was on fire, I met my new running partner whom I covered numerous miles with in the wee hours of the mornings.
The changing leaves also brought a new adventure: the Ragnar Relay.  Though I took on just 22 miles of my team’s total (we covered just over 200 together), I learned to run up mountains in 90 degree heat, friendships can be born and strengthened when you spend more than 30 hours in a van with the same people, it’s possible to sleep on a soccer field for two hours and feel totally refreshed, and, perhaps most importantly, beef jerky can be better than sex.
The fall also brought a staggering PR spree, revealing just how sharp those torturous summer miles had made the sword.  A 17:11 5K two weeks before the Army Ten Miler, and a 59:41 Army Ten Miler time.  
While these miles aren’t reflected in my log, I biked all of my wife’s long run miles with her for 18 weeks leading up to her Philadelphia Marathon PR, an experience I wouldn’t trade, nor did I anticipate to be as rewarding.
And I’ve enjoyed races with friends who previously didn’t run or race, such as my friend Sarah, who is my Ragnar co-captain and took on the Backyard Burn Series and is running her first Half Marathon in March.  And my mother-in-law, who when she heard we were running a turkey trot, said, “I want to do it with you guys.”  So, three hours and a shopping cart full of new running gear later, she was primed to run.  She ran her first race with my wife the next morning.
Lastly, in the past few weeks, I learned that sometimes you just have to chuck the training program and get back to the roots of why we run: because we love it.  And so I let out from the back door and just listened to my feet pound the pavement and my breath chuff in and out.
2010 has brought me more than just worn shoes and PRs, but also new friends, deeper relationships, and the knowledge that physically (and mentally) I can endure a hell of a lot.
Here’s to a 2011 where you find yourself healthy, fleet of feet, and passing the miles with those you love.  Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Tread Lightly

If the show “Big Love” was based in running shoes rather than wives, I would be the star.

When I stumble down the stairs in the morning, I resist turning the lights on in the hall as long as I can. The dog will wait at the top of the landing in full anticipation, tail and butt wagging before committing to the trek down. I slip into my coat, take one heavy sigh, then turn the knob. If I’m lucky, nothing will tumble out of the closet. If I’m even luckier, my “dog walking shoes” will be right on top of the pile. I’m rarely that lucky. So I get down on my knees and start rooting through shoe after shoe, chucking them aside like socks, just trying to find a match. Worst case, I give up and flood the room with light, killing any notion that I might still be asleep.

Finally, ah-ha, a match. I pull them on, listen for the machine gun rattle of the dog’s collar as she shakes out and bolts headfirst down the stairs to go outside.

The point is: I have too many running shoes.

Yet, I’m happy to introduce you to the newest members of my running shoe family: the ASICS 2160s (Storm) and the ASICS 2150s (Lightning).

You see, since joining runnerdom, the gift list has never been hard to make. I normally answer the question, “What do you want for [insert holiday here]?” with: new shoes.

My father-in-law has my size and brand saved on Road Runner Sports and my parents just let me send them the link with color choice.

Who doesn’t love new kicks? I’m still getting over the aversion to new “things” going on your feet. For 17 years playing hockey, breaking in new skates usually required a package or four of moleskin and weeks of blister therapy. But when you find a pair of running you shoes you love, the break-in period is minimal.

So, over Christmas, the family and I got to talking about “just how many running shoes do you have?”

“Well, let me think,” I said, readying my fingers to tick them off. “There’s the pair I got for my birthday two years ago, the pair I qualified for Boston in, the pair I ran Boston in, the ones I got for Christmas last year, the ones I got for my birthday this year, the ones you just got me, the ones Rachel’s dad just got me, and of course my magic shoes. So…eight pairs.”

Naturally, they’re all in different states of use. And I love them all for various reasons. Some have no tread, others have holes in the upper. Some are caked in mud, others are pristine. The hard core ones have a few blood stains. Some are relegated to dog walking, others for the gym. Some are ok to run in but only come out for special occasions, such as the snow or muddy trails. Others only come out for speed workouts and races. Does this sound right to anyone?

There’s that great scene in Pulp Fiction right after John Travolta asks Harvey Keitel to say “please” and Harvey Keitel pretty much tells him what he can do with that. John Travolta walks past Samuel L. Jackson, puts a hand up and just says, “I can feel your look.”

In this scene, my wife would be Samuel L. Jackson because I could feel the look. And it was telling me, get rid of some of those shoes.

To aid this process, I left a pair at my parents’ house for my dad to drop off at their local running store. We shared a tender moment before I walked out of the room…out of each other’s lives forever.

On Friday, when we go to pick up packets for the Fairfax Four Mile, I’ll bring a bag of shoes with me to donate to the local Pacers store that I believe go to Shoe4Africa. It’ll be a sad goodbye. I can already picture myself cross-legged on the floor in front of the closet, clutching each pair to my chest and recounting the “trials of miles, miles of trials” in each shoe. The PRs, the disappointments, the new trails, the old favorites. There may be pictures coming to a blog near you…for posterity sake.

Am I alone? How many spouses shoes do you have?

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

16 Weeks to Boston & Needing Every One

One more cup of tea. One more knee-ice pack session. One more day staring (and longing) at my running shoes. It’s been a most unceremonious start to my Boston training program. Hampered by a sinus infection and a nagging knee injury (thank you floor hockey) that I just can’t seem to shake, my Boston training can be summed up in one word: thud!

I hoped just two weeks ago that some good old R&R would leave me fresh to embrace the 16 weeks ahead with renewed vigor. Tortuously, I paged through my summer and Army 10-miler training – which ultimately was geared toward getting stronger and faster for Boston – and admired the neat, colorful peaks that rose and fell depending on distance and workout. The only breaks in the range came on scheduled rest days.

Then I compared it to the last month, even six weeks, and shuddered at the gaps, the low weekly mileage, and the monthly totals that don’t even come close to scraping 100.

I feel heavy. I feel dull (i.e. the opposite of racing sharp). I feel unfit. I feel like crying out, “Do you know who I used to be?”

I long for those satisfying evenings when the first mile sheds the weight of work day toil, then you settle in for the night to enjoy that physical exhaustion that wraps like a blanket.

My friend Sarah (who has a fabulous blog called Sarah Finding Fit) and I recently discussed the notion of muscle memory: the theory that your muscles can recall the fitness level that they once performed at. I’m hoping that my muscles don’t forget what it’s like to turn 75 second quarters 16 times over with ease, fly through the woods on a late afternoon tempo run, and accelerate through the final miles of a long run.

I had a previous experience with this, an epiphany if you will, that’s made me a believer, or perhaps heightened my faith. I spent most of summer 2009 nursing an IT band injury. The calendar days flipped by and the Army Ten Miler got closer and closer. I channeled that pent up energy by going to the gym and *gasp* swimming. Since I didn’t drown, I resumed training by hitting the trails and building up distance slowly.

After being at it for two weeks, I took an ambitious seven miler on the road. I suffered. The IT band was fine, but the pace felt terrible, my body felt out-of-whack, and I had to fight for every step. I’d taken the “downhill” version of this loop and fought back frustration that arose because I couldn’t even run downhill efficiently.

But nearing the halfway mark, I ran out of the last major downhill and made a sharp turn onto the main road. On it for only a quarter mile, something started to change. Picture Forrest Gump being chased by the kids on the bike, braking free of his leg braces, and suddenly finding his stride (Yes, the infamous "Run Forrest Run" scene that has probably been screamed at us by a passing car at one point or another). I turned onto the trail from the main road and darted through the trees.

The malaise had lifted. I shrugged off any lingering injury doubts and just flew.

From there, training went well and I experienced similar days to that one. But I’d been waiting for that one switch to flip.

While I haven’t gone out yet (stupid sinus infection, stupid knee), I’m on the mend and tapping the gas to get the bus started and point it toward Boston.

I have a race scheduled for New Years Eve, the Fairfax Four Miler. However, PR’ing is on the shelf for this as well, keeping with my “run to run” theme. I knew going into this that resting was going to be hard, that times were going to suffer, and frustration would most likely reign.

I’m just waiting for that switch.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Making Tracks

It never gets dark when you're running in the snow.  Home early from work today -- because two inches of snow will do that for you in the D.C. area -- I puttzed around the house and shoveled off the stairs awaiting dusk.  Now that I'm accustomed to running in the dark, I found myself staring up and out the back window at the golf course, wondering when the daylight would finally dim.  The thing was, it kept getting later and later, but never got any darker.

The morning's snowstorm began to taper off.  Mattie's tail batted expectantly at my leg.  She looked up at me, then back outside.  "We doing this?" she seemed to say.

At 5:15, normally near total darkness, I decided to lace up (and bundle up) and head outside.  Co-workers today asked, "You're not going to run in this are you?"  I smiled and quoted Bill Bowerman back to them: "There's no such thing as bad weather, only soft people."

And so, Mattie darted off through the two inches of snow and out onto the golf course, back legs splaying, and clumps of snow spraying.  I trotted behind, found the golf cart path, and away we went.  

The pace came a little a slower, the movements a little more cautious, but I nonetheless found a fluid stride.  Soon, I fell into a steady rhythm.  Mattie and I played cat and mouse.  She'd fall behind, stuffing her nose into the snow for anything good to smell, then go sprawling ahead of me.  We wound through the bare trees now coated with snow.  Mattie stopped occasionally to nibble the clumps of snow that formed between her paws, then we'd continue making tracks along the fresh snow.

There was no running by feel tonight.  No waiting for your eyes to adjust.  The snow lit the trail ahead and though night had fallen, the path forward, the entire golf course, glowed white.  

As a lover of running in the snow, particularly the year's first, the last thing I should have been thinking about was a spring race.  The last time I can remember longing for those warmer months was when I was held captive in my own house during snow-pocalypse earlier this year and ended up signing up for my first trail half marathon to make myself feel better.  The thought of heat and humidity in the early Virginia June summer seemed a keen thought.

This week has been different, though.  Sure, it's been in the 20s.  Sure, we're on the front end of winter with warm weather a far off fantasy.  Still, this week I "captured" my white whale.  In terms of D.C. races, I've done Marine Corps; ran the Army Ten Miler; done Jingle All the Way; hit up the Shamrock 8K; the National Half three times.  But the lone race, the one that everyone talks about here: the Cherry Blossom 10 Miler.  

The wait is over.  I found out that I (along with six of my friends) got accepted into the 2011 Cherry Blossom 10 Miler.  The final major race in the D.C. area that has eluded me.  Granted this was the first time I applied for entry.  In the past, it's always been something: a vacation (cruel, I know), another race scheduled on or near race day, the Boston Marathon, etc.  

In 2011, however, Cherry Blossom runs two weeks before Boston, i.e., I'll be in full taper mode.  So long as I run smart, run for the experience, or run marathon pace and not shoot for a sub-60, I can enjoy that singular moment that defines spring's arrival in the D.C. area.  

The blooming of the cherry blossoms is essentially the antithesis of what I ran in this evening.

In keeping with the tradition of looking ahead to the coming year, I've suddenly realized that my April race calendar is nearly full.  I run my tuneup half marathon on March 26, followed up by Cherry Blossom on April 3.  Boston comes around on April 18, then two weeks later, I'll pile back into a van with 11 other friends to take on the American Odyssey Relay.  

And then I will sleep for an entire weekend.

With about two miles to go tonight, the moon burned through the thin, lingering clouds.  A lone deer spotted us from across the fairway.  Then, as quick as I saw it, it's silhouette bounded into the trees.  Mattie, oblivious, licked at the snow between her paws.

We arrived back at the fifth hole.  I turned back to call for her and noticed the line of footprints, the only ones on the trail left behind.  The cherry blossom trees lining the fence trembled in the cold wind.  Not a trace of a bud, and not one coming for some time.  

Thursday, December 9, 2010

This Ones For Me

The first warning shot rang out.  A sharp Honk! that shattered the still, cold silence.  Word traveled down the line.  A mild panic spread across the ice.  Honks echoed all around now, "We're here, we're here.  There are more of us then there are of you."  The nervous shuffling grew and became the anxious pitter-patter of steps skating across the thin ice: pit-pat...shhh, pit-pat...shhh. 

Sensing the mild panic she'd stirred, Mattie's ears rolled back, her tongue bouncing.  She moved her head in quick jerks from the geese now forming up in a tight circle, to the path ahead of her.  The look was one of desperation, "Please let me go after them!"  

I delivered my own sharp warning, "Mattie!" And she relented, falling back in step with me.  We rounded the water hazard and disappeared over the steep hill that links holes 11 and 12 just as quickly as we'd started it, leaving the commotion we'd caused behind us.  

When I'd set out some 3.5 miles prior, I did so with tempered expectations.  Since Thanksgiving, I could pinpoint my mood in one word: exhaustion.  Following my sub-60 at the Army Ten Miler, I hadn't taken much time off.  In fact, I went full steam ahead into an intense half marathon program to prepare for my soon to come Boston program.  Yes, a program to train for a program.  Between running, playing hockey (as cross-training), work, and the recent death of my grandmother, I was, in a word, exhausted.

Normally during points of tension in my life, I've turned to running as the release valve.  You can run off a bad day at work, a bad night (or week) of eating, a bad anything.  But what happens when the runs become bad?  Last week, I was at a loss.  My grandmother's death, I soon knew, had taken a bigger emotional toll on me then I thought.  This is really the first time in my life I've had to grieve, and quite frankly, I don't know how to do it.  I thought running could save me, instead, it made things worse.

I did what I thought once to be unthinkable: I chucked the training program.  No more intervals.  No more tempo runs.  No more pressure for pace or distance or PRs.  I decided it was time to get back to basics and just run for the pure sake of running.  

So this week, that's what I've done.  No watch.  No headphones.  No prescribed distance.  

There's a Tom Petty song that goes, "This ones for me.  This ones for me.  Not for anyone else.  This ones for me."  It's sort of become my mantra over the week to take back my running.

I've taken to the golf course that loops through our neighborhood and followed the five mile golf cart path.  Before I break into an easy trot, I can smell the brisk cold in the air that stings your lungs until you've warmed up your chest.  The cold energizes Mattie and she alternates between quick dashes and her best impression of a bucking bronco.  

In the dark, without headphones, senses are heightened.  Like I said, you can smell the cold, the traces of burning fireplaces, the dampness around the marshy water hazards.  I can hear only the steady clip-clop of my shoes over the path.  I can feel the clouds of warm breath blooming in front of me.  On the golf course, I embrace the unique feeling of being alone and having that entire expanse of running path to myself.

And so we run together down the long fairways and steal glimpses into the backlit dining rooms of folks getting home from work.  Other parts are lit only by moonlight.  The sun, long since dipped below the horizon, still creates a pristine, electric sky that silhouettes the trees like black spires.

At the 14th hole, Mattie and I emerge from a short tunnel.  With no more roads to cross, I stop for a moment, unhook her, and she darts off ahead, a white flash of fur.  Perhaps feeding off her exhilaration, I feel my legs turn over faster.  The pace drops naturally to tempo.  There's no pressure to run it that way, no guilt or anxiety if I don't hit the splits.  My body's just ready to go.  And it feels wonderful.

Mattie and I flow through the night.  My legs burn.  My lungs suck in the cold, stinging air, but I push on.  Not because I have to.  Because I want to.

Overtaking the last hills, Mattie gallops up next to me.  We stop and stand together for a moment, huffing and puffing, then begin the slow walk across the 5th green, under the fence, and back to the house.  But before we make it to that fence, I stop for a second and close my eyes.  I have the urge to lay down and catch my breath.  So...I do.  I lay down, legs and arms outstretched and take in the night sky.  I start to think about my grandmother and how she used to ask about my running, but never really knowing just how much work I'd put into it in the last five years.  Her reference point was always the New York Marathon.  "What about the New York Marathon?" she'd ask.  "Have you run that yet?"  I like to think maybe now she can watch me and know.

Most of the stars are out now and I follow a plane blinking by overhead.  I can feel the blood coursing through me and my heart pulsing in my head behind my eyes.  When my breathing is under control, I lay for a minute longer.  I can hear Mattie's jingling collar getting closer.  She must be finished smelling whatever caught her nose.  I start to call to her but my face is so cold, it's hard to talk. She's on me, sniffing and licking my face.  "All right," I say.  "Let's go in."  And we finish the walk to the back door.  

Friday, December 3, 2010

Philly Marathon (Spectator) Redux

When the wakeup call came at 5 a.m., I’m not sure who leapt out of bed faster, my wife or me.  Rarely is there an occasion to get out of bed at 5:00 with excitement, but perhaps race mornings are the exception.  Funny thing is, I wasn’t even running this race! 

My lady friend and I post-marathon
Back in June, my wife and I ran our first trail race.  On the bus ride back to our car, she looked at me and said, “I’m ready to run another marathon.”  It’d been three years since we suffered through the scorching heat in Chicago.  I’d gone on and run the Vermont marathon to qualify for Boston, and then run this year’s Boston.  She traded marathon training for school work.

Not one to drag her feet, she called her dad in the car on the way home to rope him into it, and before we’d stepped back into the house, they were signed up for the Philadelphia Marathon. 

Suddenly, my training program was not the only one hanging from the fridge.  In the past, we’ve talked about what a time commitment it is to train for a marathon, then we discovered it was something we could do together.  So, on our precious Saturday and Sunday mornings, one of us would bike alongside the other, playing both water jockey and moral supporter, while the other ticked off the long run miles. 

And while I wasn’t training for the marathon, I felt like I was a part of it. 

Fifteen weeks and six days later, I soaked in the race atmosphere in Philadelphia.  People of all shapes and sizes clogged the streets on the way to the expo, the majority clad in running attire and a water bottle nearby. 

“Do you wish you were running?” she asked as I watched them pick up their race packets.
“I do.  I’m quite jealous.”
“Here,” my father-in-law said, thrusting his number at me.  “You can have mine.”  We shared a half-serious, half-kidding laugh. Could I pull it off, I wondered?

On race morning, my wife dressed and spooned down some oatmeal while I got a backpack together of post-race clothing for her to throw on.  We leashed up the dog (thank you Westin hotels for being dog-friendly) and headed outside into the crisp, cold morning a.k.a. perfect marathoning weather.  Like ants returning to the hill, droves of runners converged on the Philadelphia Art Museum steps for the start. 

The slight flutter of butterflies came to my stomach as we got closer.  Glimpsing the starting line and the nervous energy of those about to run, conjured feelings of races past.  Damn I wish I had been running.

With a final kiss and pat of the dog, I parted from my wife and her dad while they slipped into the starting corral and disappeared. 

Mattie and I started walking back toward the line when the gun went off and the dam of runners broke free.  We started a trot to make it to the start so that I could click my watch and keep track of her progress.

Once they ran by, I dialed up my friend whose husband was also running.  We decided to meet up at the 10K mark.  Mattie and I speed-walked through the empty Philadelphia streets until we came back along the race course.  Runners were already making their way past us.  I met up with Caroline and she froggered across the street to meet Mattie and I.  Trying to pick my wife out was like a moving game of “Where’s Waldo.”  But I finally picked her teal longsleever and white hat out.  Mattie might have seen her first because she went into full body wag.

“Looking great!” I called.  She darted over and planted a sweaty kiss on my mouth, barely breaking stride.

From there, Caroline and I hurried back to the start to catch her husband and Rachel once again at the halfway.  Given our spot we not only caught those two, but also the elite men finishing up behind us.  I caught a rush of adrenaline as the leader, in the full throes of pain and discomfort, staggered by us with no one in sight around him.  You could hear the cheers build as he neared the finish line.

My wife went by us effortlessly.  “This course can’t even handle you right now!” I cried to her before getting another sweaty kiss.  She’d picked up time since the 10K.  Her dad, however, decided to drop back and run the race as a half. 

Half the race down for both our runners, Caroline and I headed back into town for a bagel and much needed dose of caffeine.  Then it was back to the finishline. 

We squeezed in among the other fans, families, and friends.  Normally, I’m on the other side of the guard rail, fighting my own thoughts, urging myself on, and trying to soak in the encouragement.  But it’s quite another thing to be watching it.  As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, one of the best things about a starting line is taking a step back to look around at the others toeing the line with you. Their stories are as unique as yours, their journey just as great.  To watch this same people cross the finish line, some in agony, some in elation, others smiling, while still more smiling through tears, is inspirational in and of itself.

I kept looking at my watch knowing that she’d be coming soon.  Any minute now.  Any minute now.  Watch for the hat.  Find the shirt.  Then, I saw her.  She strode forward.

“Go, Rachel!” I yelled.  Her eyes gazed forward a few feet in front of her.  Maybe she didn’t hear me, I thought.  “Come on, Rachel!  You’re there, you’re there!” 

She turned her head and gave me a slight smile and nod. 

Mattie and I rushed off to go meet her at the end.  I watched her cross, clicked the watch, and gave a little fist pump at the four minute thirty second PR she set.

“So proud of you,” I said.
“I hurt,” she said.  “That last 10K…brutal.”
“But you made it, and PR’d no less!”

We walked (well some of us did) back to the hotel.  Rachel showered, a long hot shower, then we kicked back and ordered room service, waiting for the time to come to go for massages (hey, spectating is hard work too).

While I had a great time crewing and watching, the most rewarding moment was when she said, “We did it together.”

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