Saturday, April 16, 2011

Getting to the Line - Part I

Our friends began to arrive at the house one-by-one, couple-by-couple on New Years Eve.  They swung race bags from their wrists and donned layers of past race shirts, warmup pants, winter hats, and gloves, things that would soon be shed at the start.  I greeted them all and tried my hardest not to look stung by the concerned look that broke across their faces when they saw me.  I traded my race day garb -- those same hats and gloves, the rituals, the nerves -- for a pair of jeans and a sweater.  It was not the New Years Eve I’d envisioned.  It was certainly not the 2010 send off, or the kickoff to my Boston Training Plan I’d imagined.  I was injured.  And I was lost.
* * *
When the “marathon regret” began to seep in after signing up for the 2004 Philadelphia Marathon, I sought advice from anyone and everyone who’d completed the 26.2 miles.  But it was a friend’s dad who said to me, “The hardest part about a marathon is getting to the starting line.”
Toeing the line that cloudy and cold November morning, I realize now that I had taken those words for granted.
Though my blog is called “On the Bus Running...,” the metaphor I often choose to associate with my training is one of a ship sailing.  Each race is a new port of call.  And the waters between each destination can be smooth.   Some days my skiff elides over the glassy surface as I catch a current or a strong breeze that pulls me along with little effort, and we fly.  Others come with white caps or deep swells, where I can only lash myself down and ride out the peaks and troughs, hoping to come out unscathed when it’s all over.
When I crossed the line at the 2010 Boston Marathon, I vowed to return in 364 days: stronger, smarter, ready to sail the course that humbled me.  And I enjoyed a summer of sunny days and calm waters.   All the summer miles.  The endless loops around the track.  The dark, humid morning miles.  The thick afternoons on the heels of a thunderstorm. The strides at the end of workouts when I already looked as though I’d jumped into the pool.  I stayed at sea through those humid Virginia months, waiting to pick my spot to dock.  The first breakthrough came in October when I lowered my 5K PR by 63 seconds.  Two weeks later, I returned to the roads and went sub-60 minutes at the Army Ten Miler.
Emboldened by my success, I raced weekend after weekend.  Fall runs, Turkey Trots, Jingle all the Ways, I signed up for all of them.  I thought I was invincible.  But my times started to reflect my mortality.  Clouds began to gather on the horizon and darken the sky.  The storm moved toward me and brought a chilling wind to let me know that the weather had turned for good.
The winter brought rough seas and a torrent of unending storms, dark days, and darker nights.  
I rested for days at a time.  I consulted my Uncle and dad for coaching advice.  Could I put together a training plan in 14 weeks? In 12 weeks? In 10 weeks?
I went to the doctor who told me nothing was wrong, only overuse.  So I’d try and run, but instead I suffered through two miles at a time on the treadmill.  All the while, Boston hung in the air.  I watched with dread as the weeks wasted away on my training calendar.  ”0s” where “10s” and “12s” should have been in my training log. ”2s” where “16s” should go on the weekends.  
I caught one week where I experienced that brief moment in the Perfect Storm where the eye passes over the lost boat, the clouds part and the sun pours through the opening for one brief, hope shedding second...before getting swallowed up again.  I kicked my training into full gear, going from 10 miles a week to 41 miles a week...only to be hobbled a week later and back in the doctor’s office.  “Why did you think you could do 41 miles?” he asked.
“Because I’m stupid?” I replied.  He smirked, manipulating my knee.  
“I have to tell you,” he said, his voice reassuring, “There’s nothing structurally wrong.  Let’s work on a plan to get you to the line.”
“Get me to the line.”  Those magic words, once so simple, now seemed to hang in the ether.  I laid awake at night thinking about canceling my plane reservations to Boston.  I thought about not being able to slide my arms through a 2011 Boston jacket at the finish line when the medal clangs proudly against my chest.  Will I ever even be able to run pain free again?  With each run, I could only think about the injury:  Was that it? Did I tweak something? Can I continue?  So many questions.  Not many answers.
It used to be so simple: go run the miles, check off the box on your program for 16 weeks, and show up to run.  Not this time.  
So, under doctor’s orders, I ran easy every other day, then started upping the mileage on the weekends.  There’ve been weights, and bands, and stretching, and lots and lots of ice.  
There’ve been sleepless nights after setbacks and ginger steps in the morning, waiting for the pain to come.  
Then one morning, the pain suddenly wasn’t there.  I trotted away from my house without a second thought about it coming back.  It’s as though the sun melted away and the clouds and left a clean palette of blue sky.  
Somehow I knew it had gone for good.  And just as the days began getting longer and the bite left the air, so too did I begin to emerge from that cold storm and set sail for smoother seas.

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