Thursday, December 27, 2007

I Eated It

I've been checking out my fellow triathletes' blogs in the last few days. It seems like I'm the only one who has traded in my training schedule for holiday cookie binges and a steady liquid diet of beer at lunch, followed by wine at dinner.

I won't lie -- it's been fun...but it's probably best that that this season of gluttony comes to an end soon. Well, maybe in another couple of days. Base training can wait until next week, right?

There are still a couple of cookies left in the kitchen. They aren't going to eat themselves.


Sunday, December 23, 2007

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas

I've made it back to the nest here in Hershey. No matter how old I get, there are still times when being home in the town I grew up in, curled up on the couch in the house I grew up in, can feel like a piece of heaven on earth. Especially at Christmas.

I'm thrilled to be home, where my mother makes this time of year magical. Still. Even though her children are technicially adults (we may not act like it most of the time, but whatever), the woman still goes to the trouble of making Christmas as big deal as it was when we were little kids. I mean, she doesn't put the presents under the carefully decorated tree--which she no doubt spent an entire day perfecting--until we've gone to bed on Christmas Eve. Today there is a full agenda of baking and card writing and gift wrapping to be done. It's never ending. And it's just as I remember it for every year of my life.

It's been quite a year and I can't say I'm all that sad to see 2007 slip away into the history books. There's so much to look forward to in 2008 (more on that to come...), but right now I'm just enjoying the peace and security and tradition that is a Strout Christmas. Well, until the dysfunction sets in, probably sometime around noon on December 25th. But, what's a family holiday without a bit of dysfunction anyway?

I'm wishing everybody a joyous, healthy, and memorable holiday season. Eat cookies without guilt and toast to all the new adventures ahead. Cheers!


Sunday, December 9, 2007

December 9, 1987

My dad as a kid, enjoying the day at Saylor's Lake.

I remember standing in the kitchen in the late afternoon that day in December. I was 13 years old and had just spent the last several hours in the orthodontist's office, going through a painful rite of passage: getting braces. There I stood, with an aching mouth full of metal and a bag full of homework I wanted to toss in the fire place.

It was unusual that my dad had taken several days off of work that week, uncharacteristically playing Mr. Mom, carting my brother and me off to activities and appointments in between helping my mother decorate the house for Christmas.

My face was forlorn, my attitude was everything you'd expect from a cranky teen who was feeling the burn-out effects of being a year-round competitive swimmer. I begged my dad to let me skip practice that afternoon. While I was learning how to play every bit the part of a daddy's girl, there were definitely limits. For one, whining was strictly prohibited in the Strout household. The guy--though fun-loving with an insanely smart, dry sense of humor--had a strong will and his own clear sense of right and wrong. Even for his only daughter, there was rarely room for compromise. And he had a bullshit detector like nobody's business. I don't know anybody, really, who ever defeated it.

“You’re going,” he said firmly, as we stood in the kitchen. “You made a commitment, you're part of a team, and you have to stick to it.”

As I trudged out the door, defeated, I had no idea those would be his last words to me. While I was swimming, he died of a heart attack during his own daily workout in our basement.
This morning I woke up to a cold, rainy day and decided instead of pulling the warm covers over my head, I'd head out to meet some friends and run a 10K. I haven't run a step in the last month, but knew the combination of paying for a race and meeting people would be enough incentive to get me out the door.

I'm not big on anniversaries. Truth be told, I typically forget them or choose not to acknowledge them at all. For some reason, however, today I find it hard to believe that it's been 20 years since my dad died. It seems like that number is too big, that it's simply not possible that so much time has passed. There are days when I still feel like that moody young girl who doesn't want to go to swim practice.

I thought about my dad this morning as I started the race. The two of us biked together, skied together, he took me golfing (that one didn't stick), he came to all of my swimming and cross country meets, enthusiastically cheering and congratulating me after every race, even when I came in last (which was more often than not).

And we ran together.

I'm not sure when it started, but there came a time, obviously at a young age, when I'd jump at the opportunity to tag along on one of his jogs. He was my very first running buddy. Our house, situated on what seemed like a mountain at the time, was surrounded by long country roads. I'd follow him up the hill, out to an old barn, and back home. I look back and wonder where his incredible patience came from, now knowing full well that my pace had to be slower than slow.

To me, it seemed as though we must be running at least 100 miles. In reality, it was less than three. We'd come back into the house and drop to the floor of the family room, where there were push-ups and sit-ups to do.

My dad knew a daughter who always tried really hard but was never the fastest one on the team. Not even close. He still found a way to make me feel like it was just as important and just as much of an accomplishment to be passionate, dedicated, and committed to whatever it was I chose to do and to the people relying on me to do it. As an adult, I realize that those values are deeply instilled in my very being and I take serious heart in the fact that they came directly from him.

And along the way, he also showed me that life isn't full--just not nearly complete--unless it includes a healthy dose of fun. And so today I ran because after not running for four weeks, there was no choice but to do it for pure enjoyment. I floated through 6.2 miles, cheering for my friends on the out-and-backs, and thinking how cool it would've been if my dad had been around to do marathons and triathlons with me. That, I know, would've been fun. I crossed the finish line and much to my amazement, I had clocked a 10K best time of 46:37.

Certainly everybody has those dividing (and defining) lines of "before" and "after" in their lives. I never really thought of my dad's death as that, though I suppose it might be. I prefer to think of what he was able to give me in just 13 years: blue eyes, a strong will, an intolerance of whining, an inability to sit still, a sense of responsibility and adventure, high expectations, an exceptional capacity to overcome, an above-average appreciation for sarcasm, a deep love of genuine laughter, and fearlessness.

Oh, and the bullshit detector? I got that, too. Thanks, dad.


Sunday, December 2, 2007

Tomato Soup and Grilled Cheese

My apartment smells like my grandparents' house on a Sunday afternoon.

In a rare occurrence, I actually turned on my stove today (it works!) and made myself a grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup. As I pulled a plate and bowl from the cabinet, which happen to be hand-me-downs from my Grammy and Poppop's house, there was a familiar aroma from my childhood filling up the place. It was, of course, just my lunch cooking, but there are certain scents that just take you back in an instant.

There were those weekends--usually not during swim season--that my parents would pack us up in the station wagon and head to Bangor, PA to visit my grandparents. It was always an extra-special treat if my cousins were also going to be visiting from Connecticut. What's better than a house full of instant playmates?

Regardless of who was there, we always headed to church on Sunday mornings, just a few blocks away. When we returned, we kids would scramble up the stairs, eager to change out of our church clothes into something more suitable for wreaking havoc outside, in the basement, or in my grandfather's dental office (conveniently located in the house), while my grandmother started making lunch for the whole crew. Inevitably Sunday "supper" included soup and, if I was lucky, grilled-cheese of about two things I'd actually agree to eat back then.

While I savored my lunch this afternoon, I thought how nice it'd be if I could bottle up that scent (rather than, you know, cooking more often...) and let it air when I need a nice dose of comfort and nostalgia for the days when troubles were few--and Sundays were reserved for soup, sandwiches, and family.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

49 Seconds: How Do You Define Success?

I'm not sure who has been looking more forward to the end of this marathon season: me or all the incredibly patient people in my life who have had to put up with me. The pacing might have been less than perfect since June, but it's over...six months later.

I'm a believer in not burying the lead (or, as we spell it in the journalism biz: the lede). I finished the Philadelphia Marathon yesterday in 3:41:48. My Boston Marathon qualifying time was 3:40:59. While my race was a personal best by 7 minutes, I missed my Boston dream by 49 seconds.

I guess there is a natural, human instinct to be disappointed with that. For some reason, I'm really not. I crossed the finish line, looked down at my watch, and instantly thought: I did everything I could. There's nothing I could have done differently.

I don't remember the last time I crossed a finish line without second guessing myself immediately. Did I eat enough? Drink enough? Did I go out too fast? Too slow? Did I let myself give up when I truthfully could've pushed harder? What mistakes did I make? Yesterday I didn't ask those questions. I couldn't come up with the answers if I tried.

I arrived in Philadelphia on Friday night. The plan was to get up early on Saturday, go for a quick run, eat breakfast, get to the expo, and then head out to the 'burbs for a friend's baby shower. Everything was going according to that grand plan until we arrived at the expo at Temple University. My friend and teammate Jennifer and I agreed it would be a quick trip, which comes as no surprise to anybody who has shared a race weekend with me. I despise expos. I hate them. I spend as little time as possible at them. Unfortunately there was a 45-minute wait in a line of anxious runners that wrapped around the arena. Admittedly I have little tolerance for these events to begin with, but it mystifies me when race organizers force runners to wait in long lines the day before their marathons. There has to be a better way.

After a little bit of panic (but not an official meltdown ;-)) about being late for the baby shower, I made it there, played baby bingo, hung out with my college girlfriends, resisted cake, opted for water over punch, and headed back to the hotel to get ready for dinner. I had about 30 minutes before it was time to go to the restaurant, so I didn't do as much resting as I generally do the day before a race. I didn't feel tired, drained, or irritable, though, which was a marked difference from the way I felt the day before the Chicago Marathon.

Dinner was a blast. Michelle made reservations for all of us at Dante & Luigi's. The food was delicious (penne vodka), but the company was exceptional. Having such a great group of friends there to support me and each other was perfect. It was relaxing and reassuring just to hang out together for a while.

And then my phone started ringing. And ringing. And ringing. And ringing. Text messages, voice mails, even a few real conversations. There are absolutely no words I can find to adequately explain how startled I was by the outpouring of well wishes I got in the days leading up to the race from my teammates, coaches, friends, and family. If there is ever a time in my life when I somehow feel alone, somebody needs to knock some sense into my head and remind me of the past week. At the risk of sounding ridiculously cheesy, I clearly felt loved!

When we got back to the hotel, I started getting ready for the next morning, until there was a knock on the door. Avi and Deana had arrived and I was beyond excited. I haven't traveled to a major race without these two for a year now. I'm not sure I know how to function without them anymore. They create an instant comfort zone. I didn't think it was possible to feel any better before the marathon than I already did, but somehow my mood only escalated when they arrived. Even after my toenail fell off around 10 p.m. You know you've found friends for life when not only will they look at something as disgusting as a toenail falling off, but they'll head out to the 24-hour drug store to get band-aids to bandage the toe up, too.

We finally went to bed around 11 p.m. and I don't think I slept more than 5 minutes all night. I never have a problem sleeping the night before a race, but I was wide awake until it was time to get up at 4:45 a.m. I jumped out of bed when the alarm went off and made a peanut butter and honey sandwich on whole-wheat bread. I drank a large bottle of diluted Gatorade, got dressed, packed up, and we headed out to the start. As soon as we got there, we found Dave and Eugene and we checked our bags and headed to the bathroom line. With only 20 minutes left until the start we shed our layers of clothing (it was in the 30s with some gusty winds--exactly my kind of running weather!) and jammed into the crowd of tens of thousands of runners. Oddly, I still wasn't feeling nervous or anxious or tired (again, a big difference from how I felt in Chicago). The start and finish were right by the art museum of Rocky fame, so instead of the usual singing of the National Anthem, they kicked the race off with the Rocky Theme and "Eye of the Tiger."

Our starting position was pretty far back, so it took almost three minutes to cross the line. The first mile was congested, but I was content to be patient and wait for a chance to speed up without weaving through a lot of people. Around mile three, it was a clear shot to get on my pace. My original plan that Adam helped me devise was to keep an 8:30 minute-per-mile pace for 15 minutes, followed by an acceleration for 5 minutes at a slightly faster pace and repeat until mile 23, then just go like hell. After about two or three rounds of this, I aborted the plan. The heart-rate monitor wasn't giving me a reading and my mile splits were too fast, so I just concentrated on adjusting my pace one mile at a time, realizing that it was important to conserve energy for later. I thought this plan would work perfectly for me--and it likely would on a different kind of course--but it started stressing me out more than calming me down, so I had to readjust.

First 3 miles averaged an 8:21 pace
Mile 4-8:23 (Jennifer catches me here and says something about feeling good, but knowing she should slow down...I tell her to be cautious about her pacing. Everybody feels good at mile 4!)
Mile 5-8:19
Mile 6-8:19 (I got to see Kurt, Sonia, Ben, Guz, Michelle, Brandon, Deana, and Avi for the first of many times here. They are AWESOME!)
Mile 7-8:20 (I took my first Gu here. Goes down just fine.)
Mile 8-8:20
Mile 9-8:02
Mile 10-8:55
Mile 11-8:07 (Took so more Gu here. I pass Jennifer. She is having a break-out day, just two weeks after running the NYC Marathon. I tell her to slow down, but she says her heart rate is low and she feels good. She is rocking the race and I wish her well...)
Mile 12-8:05
Mile 13-8:15 (Avi hops in here to pace me the rest of the race...he rocks, but more on that later! More it turns out, it's my last Gu consumption for the race.)
Mile 14-8:27
Mile 15-8:20
Mile 16-8:38
Mile 17-8:29
Mile 18-8:20
Mile 19-8:18
Mile 20-8:41 (Walk through a water stop and my right ITB starts shooting sharp pain from the outside of my knee up through my hip. I struggled to start running again, only barely managing to shuffle until it loosens up. Ouch. Really, ouch.)
Mile 21-8:41
Mile 22-8:13
Mile 23-9:12 (Stupidly, I stop again at a water stop because Gu is now making me gag and dry heave, so I know I need to take in Gatorade. Repeat of before...the ITB has blown up. I have never felt this much pain in my life...only a 5K to go, so I gotta push through the best I can...I know my cushion for Boston is gone now, so I'm going to need to gut it out to make it.)
Mile 24-8:25
Mile 25-9:01 (All I can think about is stopping. I want the pain to end. I cannot run anymore. OUCH. For the love of god, I NEED TO STOP RIGHT NOW!)
Mile 26-8:55
And the .2 - about 2:42? (I dry heaved the whole way in. I'd love to see picture of this...dry heaving while running is not glamorous. It was the most fantastic pain I've ever felt.)

As soon as I crossed the finish line, I looked down at my watch and then realized I was going to fall over. I collapsed right into Avi. I have seen a lot of finish lines in my life...since I started swimming at age 4...and I can say with all honesty that I have never been so glad to see one as I was at that moment.

I couldn't put any pressure on my right leg without hitting the pavement face first. It turned out to be comical as a medic insisted that I get on a stretcher and be taken to the medical tent. Um, no thank you sir. I want to stumble on over to where my warm clothes are please. This guy, whose heart was certainly in the right place, wasn't taking no for an answer. Leaning on Avi, Deana, and Jennifer (who crossed the finish line right after me with a huge PR! I was so excited for her!) we made our way to the food tent. Avi helped me get food and I began to turn into a human popsicle. I was sitting on the ground with my mylar blanket around me, violently shaking to the point that a runner came up to me out of concern, wondering if he could help me find medical help. Good grief, what is up with everybody wanting me to seek medical attention?

So, we go to baggage check and they have lost my bag. I am feeling a kind of cold that gets into your very core and won't leave. To the volunteers' credit, they do everything they can to find my bag and are very attentive to the problem. Deana and Brandon help out...searching around and offering me clothes to keep me warm. Finally, about 45 minutes later, the bag is found. I put on my favorite post-race fleece and realize that I am not only starving but I'm decaffeinated, and this is never a good combination.

After a cup of coffee, and a long, hot shower we headed to brunch with the crew and I devoured everything in front of me. I start to feel a kind of satisfaction that's difficult to articulate. Here I am, sitting at a table with a bunch of friends who gave up a weekend to travel there to cheer me on and congratulate me. I ran my own "perfect" race in no small part because of the unwavering help and guidance of Avi, somebody who gives his whole heart to his team and friendships and I'm lucky enough to be on the receiving end of his incredibly generous spirit. I would not have had this race, which I am so proud of, without him. How could I not feel satisfied? How could I not feel invigorated by the experience? How could I not be inspired by the countless acts of selflessness around me all weekend? How can I not be completely psyched that I will eat pie and drink beer without an iota of guilt this week?!

How do I define success? Achieving the only personal best time I've had in a year. Rediscovering my love of this sport. Doing it with a real smile on my face, in the company of friends. Running a 3:41:48 on a beautiful course in my home state of Pennsylvania.

I wouldn't trade a second of it. Or 49.


Friday, November 9, 2007

Long May You Run

For some, distance running is more than sport. It is perspective. It's clarity. It's peace. It's where we take risks and crave a kind of pain that reminds us that we're alive. Running is liberation from sadness, a bad job, unkind words, and hurtful people. It's a celebration of friendships, teammates, and a choice to not idly let our years slip by.

It teaches us discipline, dedication, and passion that filter into every other aspect of our lives.

Last weekend I traveled to New York for the ING New York City Marathon 2007 and the men's Olympic Marathon Trials. Driving into the city on Thursday afternoon, I was full of anticipation and excitement for my own runner's paradise: the culmination of the inaugural season of Race with Purpose, working out with my teammates, the rare opportunity to watch America's fastest marathoners vie for three spots on the 2008 Olympic team, and coaching our runners through their race on Marathon Sunday.

On Thursday night we gathered near the marathon finish line for a tempo run. I was genuinely happy, drinking in the chance to run among my friends as we moved through the darkness of Central Park at a speed I rarely achieve by myself, but seemed natural and comfortable in the company of my team. We laughed and celebrated and toasted our first season at a dinner on Friday night -- an evening that, deep down, I may have doubted would ever arrive a few times over the last 11 months.

In the chilly, windy, pre-dawn hours of Saturday morning, my friend and teammate Avi and I once again ran through the darkness of Central Park. We've run hundreds of miles there over the years, but as we cruised onto the West Drive, there was something undeniably different and electrifying about it. The white aluminum barricades flanked both sides of the road and American flags lined the street leading up to the finish line of the Olympic trials course.

As we rounded the full six-mile loop of the park, watching volunteers lay the timing mats, hang the mile markers, and place each Olympic hopeful's prepared fuel bottles on numbered tables, we couldn't stop marveling that in just a couple of hours, history would be made by the country's elite distance runners on the very ground we were running. There were 130 guys roughly our age (and younger) who woke up that morning ready to make a life-long, unfathomable dream come true.

As we completed our own run, we headed over to the east side just south of the Boathouse near the 72nd Transverse, where we'd stand for the duration of the race. The runners would pass by this spot at miles 6, 15, 20, and 25. I'd never seen so many people so completely in love with the sport of running gathered in one place, sprinting from one side of Central Park to the other in order to double the number of times they'd be able to see the competitors, who would make five loops to complete the distance.

Not long after the runners cleared the 10K point, an ambulance blazed toward us from 72nd Street. The barricades made it difficult for it to clear the left-hand turn north, so we rushed to move them back, to allow it to proceed.

It didn't take long for the pace car to make its way past us four more times, each time with the runners more spread out behind it than the last, flying by just inches away from where we stood, cheered, and felt incredible inspiration. As Ryan Hall made his way past mile 25 with the race in the bag, we screamed. He smiled and pumped his arm in the air, enjoying every remaining second of his 2:09 marathon that would lead him to Beijing. Then came Dathan Ritzenhein and Brian Sell to round out the team. Each of them looked as though there were wings attached to their shoes, but Hall's stride was so relaxed, his body just gliding toward the finish, his race plan executed perfectly.

I was in awe. I haven't felt so motivated to run, and run well, in years. But as everybody knows by now, the "runner's high" of the morning quickly turned into shock and sadness as the news spread of Ryan Shay's sudden death at mile 5.5. Talk about unfathomable. As it turned out, the ambulance we moved the barricades for was for Shay. How a 28-year-old elite American athlete simply dies in the middle of the race of his life is probably a question that will never be answered to full satisfaction.

Was it his enlarged heart? Another undetected heart condition? As his wife of just four months, Alicia (Craig) Shay (also an elite distance runner), said in a newspaper article, it doesn't really matter--an answer won't bring him back. What is undeniable is the mark he's left on the running community--from the elite to the recreational to everybody somewhere in between. Just one glance at the outpouring of grief, tributes, and reflection at tells the story far better than I could, but his intensity, work ethic, and sheer will to conquer any obstacles in his way are pervasive.

And as 38,000 more runners toed the starting line of the New York City Marathon the following day, including 40 of my Race with Purpose teammates, that will to conquer lived on. As I ran up and down Fifth Avenue with one teammate at a time for more than 6 hours, I thought a lot about how lucky I am to be part of a sport and a community that never stops teaching me to be grateful, and even more so in times when personal stability is hard to come by and the fragility of life is amplified--grateful for the serenity and discipline it has taught me, the deep friendships it has afforded me, the health it has brought me, the refuge it has given me.

Onward to Philadelphia...


Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Homecoming and Happiness

There are two places I've found on earth that I feel alive, in every cheesy and honest sense of the word. The first is New York. The second? State College, PA.

This year's Penn State homecoming festivities couldn't have come at a better time. After not much more than 24 hours, I felt refreshed--and even more so on Sunday morning, when I finally hit the "reset" button on my watch to erase my marathon time, as I headed out on a 13-mile run around town and campus, relishing the cool air and the old, familiar sites.

When I had made my plans many months ago to be there for the weekend, I had envisioned being fresh off my one-and-only fall marathon, ready to let loose and celebrate. That didn't turn out to be the case, but it didn't matter.

On Saturday morning I parked my car at the Nittany Lion Inn, eager to find my friends as soon as possible. I walked less than ten paces and found four of them sitting on the porch, regrouping before heading to tailgates at the stadium. It's as if we never left the place.

Maybe it's no coincidence that the places I feel most confident, comfortable, and invigorated happen to be where I am afforded the most quality time with my closest friends. What was a saying a couple of months ago about wanting Beach Week to last forever? I'm sensing a common theme here. But when you're lucky enough to have stumbled upon a posse of extraordinary people--the kind who know you inside and out and actually still love you anyway--you hang on to them as tight as you can.

So while Penn Sate football weekends have changed over the years--beer bottles comingling with baby bottles, for example--there's still nothing better than being home, with all the people who make it feel that way.

Oh, the the crushing of Wisconsin on the football field wasn't too shabby either.

We are...Penn State.


Monday, October 8, 2007

Chicago Marathon Meltdown

It was about 12 months ago that I first admitted quietly, only to myself, that becoming a Boston qualifying runner was possible. It was, I believed, a pursuit worthy of the thousands of hours, fierce discipline, and hundreds of miles it was going to take to earn that distinction. The challenge ahead was one that I embraced, one that I had anticipated I'd have uncompromised focus on until October 7, 2007: The Chicago Marathon.

Anybody who knows me even just a little bit understands that discipline and focus aren't hard for me to come by. So why, then, have I allowed so many distractions tear me away from what my heart and head were set to accomplish? Is what I'm feeling right now confusion or is it regret? Is it exhaustion or is it just disappointment? Is it a bit of everything?

What happened? So many things, though none of them make perfect sense to me yet. Maybe this is one of those rare times in life that I need to let it go, and simply move forward. It's still hard to swallow that I arrived home today with my worst marathon result ever. Ever. It capped off an entire year of personal worsts, from my winter road races, to triathlon season, to the main event yesterday at the Chicago Marathon. The last time I had a race to be proud of was in November at the New York City Marathon. That seems like a gazillion years ago.

I realize that yesterday brought extraordinary circumstances. It's not everyday that a major marathon calls off the race halfway through. We all knew days in advance that the humidity level and the near 90-degree temperatures should temper expectations for whatever we were going to experience out there, but I had no idea that runners would just be dropping like flies all around us. To hear race officials demanding that runners stop and walk, that the race had been "cancelled" due to the excessive heat, was bizarre and disturbing and a relief all at once.

My day had almost come to an end at least a half dozen times before the marathon was officially canned. I started out with my pace group for the first three or four miles, but it took me no time to realize that I couldn't stay with them for the long haul. The mental and physical battles took on a life of their own, starting at mile three. My heart just sank at that point, knowing that a year's worth of work and dreams were slipping away and that I had hours left in front of me to spar with my demons.

My breathing and heart rate were never comfortable and no matter what games I played to acclimate to the conditions or try to settle myself down, nothing seemed to work. I watched Moffat, Alan, and Kurt forge ahead and I quietly dropped back without a word, obsessed with the high numbers displayed on my heart rate monitor. I slowed down, and then finally at mile 6, I had to stop. Frustrated and mad at myself and my body, the capacity to get a good breath was further complicated by the tears streaming down my face.

Adam stopped with me, chasing after the gel I had thrown in my rage. He waited there, calmly suggesting that I take my time gathering myself and just start shuffling my feet when I felt up to it. I said nothing, but just followed his instructions. We would try running for six minutes and walking for one minute. We'd walk through the water stops, too.

"Now it's just a training run, Erin," he said.

Several times I doubted out loud that I should continue. Adam asked what my mind was telling me versus what my body was saying.

"My mind is saying that I don't quit races," I said. "My body is asking me to stop."

Around mile 16 we stopped at the medical aid station. It was time to make a decision--either finish or quit, but put the issue to rest. I iced myself down for several minutes and Adam went to get me Gatorade and water. The ice felt so good and stopping for so long brought my heart rate down, finally, to an acceptable level. Continuing the run/walk plan, we pushed forward. I joked with Adam, finally feeling a bit human again, that I had hit the final stage of grief: acceptance.

Once I had put aside my own debacle, I began to be seriously concerned for our Race with Purpose runners out there. As soon as I crossed the finish line, I rushed back to our reunion area and started counting heads, checking off each teammate as they made their way back, making phone calls and leaving messages on cell phones and at hotel rooms to make sure everybody was accounted for. I think I have a sense of the fierce, protective nature of the Momma Bear when it comes to her cubs :-)--I just wanted to know that anybody wearing neon orange was doing okay. When we finally were sure that each team member had made it back healthy, albeit with some broken spirits, I just breathed an internal sigh of relief.

What I hope to remember and cherish about the last three days in Chicago are the moments before and after the race. It was, after all, Race with Purpose's first official event, and to not allow myself to enjoy the fact that we made it this far would be silly. Helping to get us to this point may have been harder than training for it.

So, what will I remember? Caprice's comedy show on Friday night, the great dinner escapade that followed, and the cozy room service dinner for four at 11 p.m. with Eugene, Deana, and Avi. Ridiculous amounts of laughter, drinking coffee and catching up with Beth on Saturday morning after our fun team run, lunch with the Casale family and Bob and Avi, watching Goonies with Deana, catching Penn State's win over Iowa, and the awesome team dinner on Saturday night, which came with the honor of congratulating this extraordinary group of people on what they have accomplished so far in the young life of the organization. Seeing everybody's easy, relaxed attitude before heading to the starting line on Sunday, sharing the corral "experience" with Moffat, Alan, Kurt, Adam, KC, Eugene, Dave, and Ryan, finding a group of people waiting with unrelenting support for each other at the finish tent, discovering that Moffat and Alan had hit that 3:40 goal time and then some, and hearing that Avi had killed the course with a 3:10 Boston qualifying race.

Oh, and the gin & tonics I consumed last night. Delicious.

But what I have found to be most overwhelming is the outpouring of voice mails, e-mails, and phone calls from my friends and family in the aftermath, checking up on me. There are no words to describe how much it means to know that so many people care. After many years of marathon running and triathlon racing, I take for granted that I'll always make it to the finish line. As we saw firsthand in Chicago, making it that far is never a given. In the end, pushing past the disappointment, I'm thankful for each step I'm able to take and for the people in my life who make it possible and so worthwhile.

So, with a little help from my friend Michelle, immediately after the race on Sunday, I signed up for the Philadelphia Marathon on November 18th.

Please start praying for a cold front.


Thursday, October 4, 2007

And We're Off

Well, only a few major meltdowns, a couple of minor ones, and about four very late nights at work, and the taper was over before I ever thought it started. Such is life!

The running shoes are packed up and ready to go. We are off to Chicago tomorrow morning. I'm so very much looking forward to the next few days with my friends. Some of my most favorite people in the world will all be there. What could be better than that?

Well, the only thing that might make it just a teeny bit better is the weather. I wasn't happy to find an e-mail from the fine folks at the Chicago Marathon with the subject line: Weather Advisory. It seems that the temperature is going to top out at about 86 degrees on Sunday with the humidity around 75 percent. Not ideal. Not what I ordered.

Alas, it's nothing any of us can control, try as we might.

I think Moffat said it best, in a quick e-mail this afternoon: The pressure is off. Let's just go have fun.

Couldn't agree more. And now bedtime is calling and the computer is being shutdown until I return. Time to unplug and destress.

To all of you joining me on the streets of Chicago on Sunday, I'm wishing you a rewarding, memorable, happy, and safe run. Be smart and remember to trust in your training. We've done the hard part -- the marathon is our celebration. It's our last long run of the season.

See you at the finish line.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Taper Tantrum

At this time next week, it'll all be said and done in Chicago. I can't wait.

In the last week I've run the gamut of emotions, which is quite typical of a productive taper for a big race. Kudos to me for achieving the peak of agitation and irritability!

My overall balance and energy levels are highly dependent on my training schedule. When the volume suddenly decreases, my head doesn't know what to make of it. Unfortunately, some of the people around me don't quite know what to make of my mood swings either.

My blanket apologies to any innocent victims who crossed my path last week or will do so in the next seven days. Is it a coincidence that some of the closest people in my life are all out of the country or on business trips right now?

I went so far as to seriously contemplate dropping out of the race altogether last Sunday, after the sluggish Quantico experience. I set out a long time ago--before there was Race with Purpose and so many other distractions in my life--to run Chicago in 3:40, which would qualify me for the Boston Marathon. I'm a realist, though. While I never set a goal that doesn't present a high degree of challenge, I don't raise the bar so high that it's inevitably beyond my ability level.

My thought last Sunday afternoon was simple: Why am I going to do this if I already know that 3:40 isn't going to happen?

After a while, a marathon just becomes like any other race to some runners, including me. If your training gives you no reason to believe you're ready to perform at the level you are hoping for, sometimes it's best to just bail and pick another one that gives you more time to prepare.

I fired off an e-mail to Adam that simply said: "I think I'm dropping out of Chicago. I just don't see the point."

About five seconds later, my phone rang. It was time for a bit of a coach's reality check.

A long conversation boiled down to this:

1. A 3:40 is not out of the question. On a great day with perfect race execution, it will happen.
2. If I'm having a good or an okay day, it's unlikely that I'll qualify for Boston, but I will still PR, given the flat, fast course in Chicago.
3. I have to go into the race on Sunday already knowing how I will handle each scenario and stick to the plan I create for each circumstance, whether it's humidity, snow, or if I'm just not feeling it that day.
4. I have to run my own race. This is up to me, whatever plan I end up following. I can't get caught up in what my beloved teammates end up doing on race day. I have to stay inside myself and inside my own head--nobody else's.

The dangerous thing about taper time is that I lose perspective and focus on just about everything (just ask my editors at work!). The hours usually occupied by training are filled with analyzing the scenarios and overthinking the simple act of running.

In the end, spending four days in Chicago with a bunch of friends is supposed to be fun, not stressful. I remember the first weekend in July, after months of less-than-perfect training for my first half ironman at Tupper Lake. I was terrified and spent most of the time worried about how I was going to do. The moment I realized, about 20 miles into the bike ride, that I was going to do just fine, I couldn't stop smiling. I couldn't stop enjoying the experience and cherishing the fun I was having that weekend with my friends. I instantly felt this wave of relaxation wash over me.

I ran my 5 miles this morning on that National Mall, heading directly toward the steps of the Capitol building, back to the base of the Washington Monument, and up to my apartment. It was the first effortless run I've had in months. My legs felt free, my mind was clear. There's nothing more I can do but rest and enjoy whatever the next seven days bring.

I'm feeling more at ease and peaceful right now. I can't promise it'll last. Five minutes from now I could be a bundle of nervous energy again or snapping at somebody who meant no harm.

I'll just say "sorry" now and get it over with.

To be continued...

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Not Very Quick at Quantico

Today leaves me with two nagging questions:

1. Why can I no longer run fast?
2. Why can't Penn State ever beat Michigan?

OK, and maybe a third:

3. Are the two at all connected?

I'm not ready to ponder question No. 2. The wound is a bit too fresh, just about an hour since loss number 9 to the Wolverines. I will say, however, that one of the last times we beat them was when I was a spontaneous college student and Penn State would eventually end up in the Rose Bowl.

It was 1994 and the game that sent us to Pasadena was being played at the Big House. Just about 14 hours before kick off, my friends and I piled into my green Nissan Pathfinder and hit the road from State College, PA to Ann Arbor, in hopes that we'd find tickets when we got there. We forked over $50 each in front of the student union for our seats, which seemed like a fortune to us then. Dressed in blue & white from head to toe, we ended up in the Michigan student section, and as it became clearer that we'd be spending New Year's in California, we grew more boisterous as everybody around us began filing out the stadium.

Ah, the memories. Definitely one of those "best days of your life" kind of stories.
Anyway, today marked my last run of any consequence before Chicago. At the last minute I decided to run the Quantico Half Marathon, which turned out to be a beautiful course of minor rolling hills on the Marine base in Virginia.

After a nice string of beautiful, cooler days down here (below the Mason Dixon Line...), unfortunately the streak ended this weekend. At the start is was 78 degrees with 85 percent humidity. Will it ever end?

I definitely didn't give myself enough time to park, get my race packet, and make it to the starting line on time, so I ended up running about 2 miles before the gun went off. As the National Anthem was being sung, I was just arriving at the line, already drenched in sweat (note to self: Marines dislike it when people continue jogging during the Star Spangled Banner, no matter what the circumstances...).

Just as I hopped into the crowd, we were off. Curiously, although we were using timing chips, there was no mat to cross at the start, just the finish. Hmmm.

I made so many ridiculous mistakes today, I'm not even sure where to begin. I went out too fast. I didn't slow down after I realized I was going too fast. My first mile was allegedly around 7 minutes, which I don't believe -- I think the mile marker had to be off. My heart rate remained ridiculously elevated the entire first half of the race and I pretty much felt like I was dragging rocks with me for the duration. My breathing was pretty labored the whole time, which I chalked up to the humidity ( there an echo in here?).

I made it to mile six at around 47 minutes (7:50 pace), which surprised me, given how slow I felt I was going. I knew if I could maintain that pace, I'd be golden and have a nice confidence boost heading into the marathon. Unfortunately, my body wasn't agreeable to that plan and I started losing steam right around mile 9, which coincidentally marked the start of the only real hill on the course.

I began walking through water stops to give my legs and lungs recovery time, then I'd decided to do intervals to catch the people ahead. That kept me occupied for the remaining miles, but I slowed considerably during the last two, just focusing on my cadence and looking forward to calling it a day.

I finished in 1:47, about 5 minutes slower than my fastest half marathon. I am bummed. My legs aren't sore, they just wouldn't turn over. I was wearing some fantastic new Nikes (love them!), but there was no spring in my step. Maybe I'm still recovering from last week's 21-miler and fatigued from a long week at work and final Chicago preparations for the team.

As I headed out of the stadium, disappointed with myself and in deep contemplation about what October 7th is going to bring me, a woman stopped to comment on my neon-orange Race with Purpose singlet.

"I saw you a few times out there and I just wanted to asked you: What is your purpose?" she asked.

I explained how our team raises money for charities that help at-risk kids live healthy, active lives. As her two small children turned to cheer for their Marine dad who was nearing the finish line, she smiled and said, "That's amazing -- please keep up that great work."

Then, a young Marine who was marshaling the course near the parking lot congratulated me as I was about to cross the street. He asked what my time was. I responded "1:47."

"Wow. You're good," he said. "I'd probably do it in like three hours or something."

Well, if my race results weren't going to feed my ego, I guess a cute Marine would suffice.

Now it's time to taper and I'm wondering how I should go about it, given the signals my body is sending me. Tapering is a tricky time, especially when you haven't had a stellar training season. Should I divert from the team's prescribed schedule or hope that it does what it needs to do for me?

I guess I'll just figure it out as I go. And hope those better days are indeed ahead...for me and my Nittany Lions.


Sunday, September 16, 2007

Margaritas Are Not a Recovery Drink

Alan, Kurt, me, Moffat, and Coach Dave, charging up one of many hills on Saturday

"This is your confirmation brochure and ticket...The LaSalle Bank Chicago Marathon: October 7, 2007"

It arrived in the mail last week--my one-way ticket into the race.

With three weeks to go, this weekend's 21-mile training run was my final test. Is my goal time realistic? Is it time to readjust my expectations?

I wish I could say I have answers, but I'm no more sure of my abilities today than I was last week or the weeks before. One step at a time is all I can handle these days--I can't allow myself to look too far ahead for fear of finally losing my sanity for good--and it seems that October 7, 2007 will be no different.

If I just keep putting one foot in front of the other...eventually I'll make it to wherever it is that I'm going.

On Saturday we had our toughest training run of the season on tap. I spent the week prior to this run in a mixture of denial and slight anxiety. I was a little gun shy since the last long-run debacle and was just hoping for cooler weather and the ability to stay with my pace group for as long as possible.

The day started around 6 a.m. with two pieces of whole-wheat bread and peanut butter, washed down with two tall glasses of diluted Gatorade. Our route took us from West 165th Street over the George Washington Bridge into Jersey. We trekked the span of Henry Hudson Drive (commonly referred to as River Road), which is an 8-mile stretch that offered a total climb of 4,800+ feet and a nice 1.2-mile, 350-foot climb to the turn-around point.

There are all those numbers: 21 miles, 4,800 feet, heart rate at 170 (except when climbing or incorporating all the 5-minute acceleration intervals...then around 182 to 185), about a 9 minute overall pace, etc. etc. etc.

But the numbers don't mean much to me. I felt good. I made it up that last hill leading up to the bridge without walking, for the first time ever. I could pick up my pace for the last 2 miles, despite the fatigue. I wasn't rattled that my pace group could pick it up more than me during those last couple of miles. We all have our strengths. That isn't one of mine.

What made Saturday a success for me, as cliche as it sounds, was the people I shared the road with. We knew that a tough 21 miles were ahead of us, but our collective calm and easy chatter throughout the first half of it brought it back to me: This is why I am a part of this team. It's because I know Alan Lopez will be the quiet, steady one, leading us up the hills. It's because Moffat and I can catch up on each other's lives while we run across the GW Bridge. It's because we can continually crack the same tired joke about Alan being too loud and he'll just look down at me and roll his eyes. It's because Eugene makes me laugh, even when I'm exhausted, always reminding me that I shouldn't take things quite so seriously. And it's because we can all live vicariously through Kurt--the only one experiencing it all for the first time.

Those three hours on Saturday are the experiences I hold on to when I'm so overwhelmed with Race with Purpose "duties" that I think I can't handle one more minute of it. It's what gave me the energy to drive to Scarsdale after the run to help Adam sort all the singlets and just laugh when we figured out later that they were all mislabeled. [Ok, maybe not "Ha Ha" funny...but one more ridiculous story to add to our epic journey this year...].

What better way to top off a successful last long run and crazy orange singlet debacle than head out with good friends for Mexican and margaritas? It sounded like a fantastic idea at the time and don't get me wrong -- going out to blow off steam was exactly what I needed. What I clearly didn't need was margarita #2 and any of the following beer. However, thanks to Beth, the margarita was ordered and who was I to deny it?

As they say, a good time was had by all, but now the countdown officially begins. October 7th will be here in the blink of an eye. And while I'm not at all sure what to expect of myself that day, I do know that I'll once again share the road with a most rocking group of people. Maybe that's all I need to know right now.

And that margaritas are not a recovery drink.


Friday, September 7, 2007

Lights Out, Part II (or, It's Been Awhile...)

Yes, I know I'm a bad blogger. You don't need to tell me. In the blog world, letting so much time pass between entries is a no-no. Sorry. You know, life can be just just plain busy sometimes.

Anyway, when last we met I was talking about my family reunion (post-traumatic 20-mile run). And now, I can hardly even remember it, except I do know that the lights went out.

Not long after I arrived back at the lake house, it was time to head to a restaurant named The Stroudsmoor. My grandfather used to love this place, which sits atop the mountains and has these breathtaking views from every which way, especially in the fall when all the leaves are making everything that much prettier. It's a quaint "country inn" and, to be honest, a bit of a wedding factory. Being the only granddaughter left that wasn't (isn't...) hitched, my Poppop used to not-so-subtlely suggest, "Erin, this would be a wonderful place to get married, wouldn't it?"

Umm, yeah, sure...if Prince Charming ever appears then maybe we'll consider it. But, for now, it was a fantastic place to catch up with Strouts that I hadn't seen since apparently I was a baby.

I can safely say I come from good people, though I already knew that. As we mixed and mingled over drinks at the bar, it was fun to see faces I could remember...even if I couldn't remember all of their names.

And as we made our way into the dining room, a post-20-mile-run miracle occured. Yes, it was true: an all-you-can eat buffet was mine for the taking. How lucky can a marathoner get?

These are the moments when I know that I am forever genetically linked to my Poppop, that I wasn't actually adopted as my older cousins and brother had told me more than once as a child. My eyes were so big, my pure joy written all over my face as I plowed through the salad bar and then headed straight to the entrees. There was nothing more thrilling for my Poppop than food -- good food and lots of it. I could not agree with that philosophy more.

As I sat next to my cousins, catching up on lost months and years of time while stuffing my face with a variety of chicken, fish, and beef concoctions, a storm was brewing outside. Not just a small, passing thunderstorm, as advertised on the weather forecast. This one included claps of thunder that cut through the noisy chatter of the room and bolts of lightening that seemed way too close.

A waiter passed by and joked, "I hope the lights don't go out."

He had to say it, didn't he?

All of a sudden, the power was out. That glorious buffet of food went dark, and we continued to eat by candle light in that quaint country inn. We theorized that the jokester Strouts who have long-since passed away decided to play a practical joke. Perhaps my dad and my Poppop decided this was their way of getting in on the party.

The lights stayed dark for the rest of the evening and it just added a certain charm to an already beautiful event. I'm a sucker for family events. I find it fascinating to sit in a room and know that I share such a bond with everybody in it. The old stories and photos being tossed around just give me a sense of belonging...of knowing where I came from. I find it fascinating and comforting and fun all at the same time.

The next day the sun came out in time for a family picnic at the lake. Our lake house holds some epic family history, so those who had not visited for a while were overcome with warm memories and sentimental recollections. My grandparents had a summer cottage here, and my cousins and I spent some of our happiest childhood days at Saylor's Lake, as did our parents and even our grandparents and great grandparents. Now my cousins' kids are carrying on the tradition.

Maddie -- master inner-tube balancer!

As we passed around ancient photos of the earliest generations of our family, we came across one of my Great Grammy (Daisy Mae) and her husband--who I imagine we would have also called Poppop had we known him--sitting next to the lake as a young couple, what seems like a million years ago. We found another photo of Great Grammy probably taken around the same time and it finally hit me: there she stood, this tiny woman with curly hair and a skeptical look on her face. Somebody held up the photo and looked at me and said, "Oh my gosh, I never saw it before, but you look so much like her."

Weird how that happens. As a child, I just remember my Great Grammy as the warmest, most patient woman in the world. When we were all gathered for family events, she would shoo my grandparents and all of our parents out the door and babysit a flock of her great grandchildren. We'd watch Lawrence Welk with her and she let us eat ice cream. Much like her son, my Poppop, she relished any opportunity to let us kids just be kids. I may have been young, but I have such vivid memories of her, and now I know that she gave me my curly locks and petite frame, too.

My favorite part of the Lawrence Welk show was at the end, when all the bubbles cascaded on the stage and they sang:

Good night,
Good night, until we meet again.
Adios. Au revoir. Auf Wiedersehen 'til then.
And though it's always sweet sorrow to part,
You'll know you'll always remain in my heart.
Good night, sleep tight and pleasant dreams to you.
Here's a wish and a prayer that every dream comes true.
And now 'til we meet again...
Adios, Dobranoc, Auf Wiedershen.


Sunday, August 26, 2007

Lights Out, Part I

Just when you think the marathon training gods are shining on you, they will turn in an instant, giving you the nastiest of reality checks.

Part of me believes I deserved the kick in the gut...and I got the kind that knocks the wind right out of you. I was getting too bold. I just knew my ultimate goal in Chicago had to be within my reach.

But on Saturday, I had a bit of a scare.

Forget how long it took to finish my 20 mile run. I shouldn't have been out there in the first place. The rational part of me knows this, somewhere inside this head of mine, but my ego and my pride took over.

Ego and pride, for the record, never win.

I drove into Manhattan early on Saturday morning. I should have taken the hint when I was approaching the Lincoln Tunnel from New Jersey and the air was so thick with humidity that I couldn't see an inch of the skyline across the Hudson. But I was excited for this run, because my legs were ready and I was so very much looking forward to my reunion with my running buddies Alan and Moffat.

The GW Bride on Saturday morning -- we couldn't see the top of it on the way over!

The three of us and Adam started up the West Side with the goal of running according to my heart rate, which was not to exceed 180 for the duration of the run. Perhaps I should have given the plan the once-over when the monitor read 144 just standing there after warming up, waiting to run. It was hot, humid, smoggy, and just miserable outside.

Never one to let something silly like weather conditions get in the way of my training plans, I felt good for about the first three miles, then pretty suddenly I really didn't. When we hit the first hill, my chest hurt in a way that was, well, just not right. My breathing was all off and I felt wheezing coming on. I pushed forward. My heart rate shot up to 195. It hurt. I pushed forward, again, but slowed down. I listened to Adam calmly suggest taking "baby steps," so I did. We climbed up the hills and I simply couldn't get enough air.

I stopped and walked for a minute. Adam, Michelle, Alan, and Moffat stopped too. Those are the kind of teammates I have -- I couldn't convince them to leave me behind, although I did not want to be the one to ruin their training run. I relaxed and focused on filling my lungs for a minute, and started shuffling my feet again, up and over the overpass to the big hill up 181st Street.

And then it started again. I made it just to the top of the hill before a full-on asthma attack scared the shit out of me. Heart rate? 198. I haven't had one of these since I was probably 19 years least not one like this. Wheezing? Yes, it's part of the deal when I am training hard. Feeling like I might never get a breath of air again, however, is not normal. I don't carry an inhaler (I don't like the way the medication makes me feel so jittery). Truth be told, I haven't come remotely close to needing an inhaler for decades.

Again, I stopped. Again, Alan, Moffat, and Adam stopped too. What would I do without these people? I really wanted them to go. They really wouldn't. I walked and I couldn't say anything but "go...just go." They patiently walked beside me while I played those games in my head to relax myself and eventually my breathing. I rationalized that the weather was tough, but if I just tried to breathe in through nose and out through my mouth, I'd be okay.

Soon, I was okay and began to shuffle my feet up toward the George Washington Bridge and followed Alan and Moffat right over, into New Jersey.

And for the remaining miles, the self-coaching persisted in my mind: "Just get the miles in. You'll be fine. You can walk if you need to. Just get the miles in."

Off of River Road, I stood at the top of the hill and again I stopped. I was scared to go down. I knew if I did, it meant I'd have to run back up. I stood there for nearly 5 minutes while Moffat and Alan went ahead. I shuffled down halfway and waited. And then I ran the rest of the way down and waited for them to head back up. I ran. Baby steps, baby steps, baby steps. I made it back to the water stop and we took a break before taking more baby steps the whole way up the giant hill leading back to the bridge.

I stayed with Moffat and Alan until mile 12 and then watched them power up the rest of the hill. I knew it just wasn't my day and trying to stay with them would be bad for all of us, as disappointed as I was to come to that conclusion. It was awesome to watch them run so strong in such ridiculous conditions. I was (and always am) so proud of them.

Alan and Moffat in the homestretch of the run.

At the end of the bridge, Kim, another Race with Purpose teammate, came running up behind me, looking so strong. She was having a great run and it was awesome to watch her success for a little bit. We stuck together for a few miles down the West side until it was necessary for me to take another walk break (my self-coaching gave me permission ;-)). We met up at the water stations until we made it home, back to 72nd and Riverside.

It was easy to let those stupid demons start demoralizing me for such a crappy training-run performance. I hear them. They're still there, nagging me. I'm trying to ignore them and realize that one horrible day does not preclude me from having one glorious day on October 7th. There just isn't much I could have done to make the day any better -- when you can't get a breath of air, the rest of it all seems irrelevant.

I always try really hard to shake it off immediately, because there's nothing worse than moping around your teammates, when all of them have every reason to be happy with what they've accomplished. Who wants to hang around with Debbie Downer?! The best cure for a bad training run is breakfast with people who can make you laugh hysterically, so that's what I did. Thanks to Moffat, Jennifer, Avi, Russ, and the magnificant return of Alan Gardner -- what an awesome way to end an otherwise horrendous start to the day. the way, since I thought up the killer post-run meal, I WIN :-).

[For those of you wondering what we just discovered to be the most perfect combination of food to refuel: A BLT, two scrambled eggs, a cup of regular coffee, and an iced coffee. Spilling the iced coffee all over yourself is optional.]

So then it was time to head back to the lake house in Pennsylvania, get cleaned up, and go to a dinner to kick off our Strout family reunion.

But then, the lights went out.

To be continued...

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Drive for 4 Hours, Run for One Hour and 29 Minutes

I literally went over the river and through the woods to get to last weekend's run at Rockefeller Park--a trek that began with a 4:30 a.m. wake-up call at the lake in Pennsylvania, a drive through New Jersey and over the Hudson River, and an arrival time in Sleepy Hollow, NY by 7 a.m.

Then there was the small matter of actually running the 11 miles I had traveled all that way for.

We ran fast. Too fast. It's almost like we weren't in control -- some weird force of nature stole our common sense.

Maybe it was the stunningly gorgeous weather. The cool breeze was a welcomed reprieve from the humidity we had been training in for weeks.

Maybe it was the ever-beautiful surroundings of the park that inspired us to speediness.

Or maybe we just ran too fast.

Doing core work after the run

The purpose of our run last Saturday was to keep a constant pace (not constant effort) on the plentiful (and rather big) hills throughout the course. The thing is, based on my pace group's past experiences, our pace should not have been any faster than 8:30 minutes per mile--what we refer to in the Race with Purpose marathon-training program as our Commute Pace.

We ran an average 8:05 pace instead. Why? I don't know, but it did feel good in a "I'm going to barf" kind of way.

I'm waiting to be sore. I am tired, but not sore. My left Achilles is a little tweaked, but I'm taking care of it. I'm working hard -- I'm doing the core work, the lunges, the squats, the hill workouts, the tempo runs, the recovery runs -- I'm doing it all and yet my legs aren't revolting yet. It worries me a little, like I'm missing something.

Other than feeling general fatigue (which I can't say is totally a result of marathon training, but just my hectic schedule in general), I am suspicious that I'm entering a recovery week not feeling more beaten up. Does this make me a freak? Maybe to some people, but I know there are others who know exactly what I'm saying.

Like all things in marathon training, patience is in order. Before I make it into the recovery week, I have to get through Saturday's 20-mile run. Chances are, it will produce some soreness. I'm looking forward to spending some quality time with my running buddies Moffat and Alan. The three of us haven't run together at the same time all season--in fact, the last time the three amigos embarked on a long run together, it was the start of the New York City Marathon last November.

And it's a good bet that we'll have more than 1 hour and 29 minutes to catch up.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Build, Build, Build

The week after vacation is always rough. Add to it that it was the second week of our strength-building phase of marathon training, and it can quickly become a near disaster. I'm thrilled to report that I'm still alive and kicking.

So this week there have been a lot of Race with Purpose team members in pain. They are tired, sore, and many of them can't fathom taking one more step. Yet, they do. They still show up to practice and submit themselves to tempo runs in dreadful weather conditions. Heat and humidity are no friends to runners. Living in DC for the last few years, these conditions are no more welcome in my life than they were when I was living in the Northeast, but they've just become part of the deal. I guess I'm actually adjusting to the swamp life that is the South.

Tomorrow is the team's Rockefeller Run in Sleepy Hollow, NY. It's one of our favorite training sessions of the year and such a treat for those who spend most of their time running in circles in Central Park. The wooded, hard-packed trails twist through pure nature in all its glory. You can instantly forget that you're only a few miles north of New York City. It's a hilly, challenging place to run, so for those who are in pain, it won't be an easy 11 miles. But these are the workouts and the weeks of training that count when you step to the starting line of the marathon -- there's no doubt in your mind that you've done absolutely everything you can to prepare yourself for the only race that matters this season.

Pam Block sporting our new team singlet
Photo: Bob Scofield (

It's amazing to finally see our team come together and almost surreal to see them all gathered, wearing Race with Purpose singlets (in the most neon atomic orange color we could find -- there's no missing us!). I guess part of me never thought the day would come that the organization would "exist" like this. Then again, I realize that we only started out on this crazy endeavor at the end of January. It's truly remarkable to know how much you can achieve when you want it badly enough. Passion for anything, whether it's a cause, a sport, or your career can propel you to some amazing success. As for Race with Purpose...we still have a long way to go, but I am thrilled with how far we've come and excited about where we might go.

Here's to another weekend of hard work and good fun. This is what it's all about!

Sunday, August 12, 2007

The Week That Was

850+ miles driven.
50 miles run.
25 miles biked.
63 amazing hours spent sleeping.
Approximately 40 hours spent floating in the pool (possibly fingers and toes are still slightly pruned).
A few bottles of white wine, a couple of beers, and many margaritas consumed.
At least 2 dozen Oreos dipped in chocolate icing and an unmentionable amount of ice cream devoured.
7 glorious days devoted to laughing with 15 friends.

Really, that's what summer vacation is all about. Needless to say, Beach Week once again lived up to the hype, and far exceeded the amount of fun that should be legal. My abdominal muscles are still recovering from the belly laughing that was induced multiple times a day. Yay for Beach Week! This is what life is all about: good times, amazing friends, and pure relaxation (plus I discovered the most delicious ice cream flavor I've ever tasted: "Graham Central Station"at Handel's -- all I can say is DO IT).

I haven't been so unplugged, de-stressed, or downright lazy in far too long. The most difficult decisions I had to make were whether to lounge by the pool or go to the beach...drink a beer or have a glass of outside or go to the gym (Mother Nature actually answered that one for me with the 110-degree weather)?

Why can't life always be so simple and enjoyable? Maybe it can. Maybe we can all take a cue from how we function on summer vacation and apply it to the daily grind. The key, I believe, is to surround yourself with good people who treat each other well. If you can do that, the rest will fall naturally into place.

When it became clear that the heat warnings in the area weren't going to subside any time soon, and I had an 18-mile training run on the schedule for the weekend, I made the spur-of-the-moment decision to take off early on Friday morning for cooler temperatures and some needed pace-group support in New York.

Side note: Has anybody ever driven the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel? Holy mother of God. What is that all about? A $12 toll and a 24-mile combination of bridges and tunnels leading to the Eastern Shore. Good grief!

Ok, so anyway, I left the southern tip of the Virginia Coast around 7:45 a.m. and it was already 90 degrees. I arrived at the George Washington Bridge in New York around 3:30 p.m., rolled down the window to pay the toll, and discovered that it was 59 degrees in the city. Sweet! Still wearing a tank top and shorts, however, I quickly realized my packing could've probably included some, um, fleece.

The 18-mile training run was well worth the trip (and the $50 in tolls along the way). The weather was perfect in Central Park: a slight breeze, nice sun, and it couldn't have reached much beyond 70 degrees.

The plan was for Alan Lopez (one of my pace group members) and I to run our usual 8:45 minute-per-mile pace. I had tried unsuccessfully through a texting ambush the day before to persuade him to try 8:30s instead. Being the more rational one in our group, he said no. And when I arrived, our Coach Danielle agreed. I was outnumbered and thought maybe I wasn't ready to push the pace anyway, though with the encouragement and participation of Coach Eugene, Alan, Sharon (another teammate), and I started out with the 8:30 pace group anyway with the intention of dropping back to keep our slower pace.

They say that you're never judged by your intentions, but your actions. If suffices to say that we never dropped back from the 8:30 pace group and in fact dropped them while they indulged in a pit stop after mile 11. But that wasn't even the best part of the day -- the run was actually significantly easier for me than any run of that length that I've ever done (and I've been doing this marathon training thing for nearly 8 years now). My heart rate was incredibly low, even while keeping a constant pace on the hills (according to my monitor, it never got higher than 172, which is extremely low for me and was at 160 or lower for the majority of the run). The only time I dropped back and felt somewhat fatigued was during the last 2 miles on the hills at the northern end of the park, which I can directly attribute to not eating anything during the run and only consuming one cup of Gatorade.

So, bear with me while I record some thoughts about what went well here. It'll be helpful for future reference:

1. I was more than well rested and clearly hadn't spent the week prior to the 18-miler being stressed or crazed, like I normally am.

2. I had excellent pace-group support, something that I didn't discover was so helpful until last year. I love my pace group (Moffat - come back to us soon!)!!!!

3. I am simply in better condition than I truly thought I was. I had trained in the off-season to complete the Tinman half ironman triathlon race and had started regretting that decision as this marathon-training season seemed to be very challenging to transition into, coming off of tri training. Now I realize that it was just taking a few weeks for that conditioning to translate into running faster.

4. The weather helped. To do a long run on a sub-90-degree morning was delicious.

5. My hip/pelvis/ITB remained pain-free throughout the run and I woke up this morning without any residual soreness in my legs from the run (none. zero. this is WEIRD.). Hooray for core work, stretching, and the foam roller!

So, now the question is if I can push that base 8:30 pace (what we Race with Purpose runners call our "Commute" pace) even more, given that my exertion level remained pretty low. I will use the next long run to figure that out, but I am thrilled to have had my confidence boosted a bit by this first long run. Any doubts I had harboring about my goals in Chicago are starting to subside -- I think the biggest lesson learned here is to be a little more patient with myself.

That, and to pretend that I'm at Beach Week every week...


Friday, August 3, 2007

Better than Christmas

I cannot contain my excitement any longer. My favorite week of the year has just arrived--Beach Week 2007!

Let me find a way to describe the pure joy that this week brings into my life every year. For those of you who grew up with the Santa thing in December, it's a little like peering around the corner to see all the presents under the tree that magically appeared over night. Or, walking out of the office this afternoon felt an awful like that last day of school, when the final bell rang and you just knew three months of endless fun with your favorite people was ahead.

That's beach week.

My Penn State friends and I have held this tradition since graduating, now ten years ago. We reserve the first week of August each year to spend together, doing what college friends do: retell inside jokes, create new ones, drink beer, eat bacon, act ridiculous, and catch up on each other's lives. There have been karoke competitions, drunk 5K runs, trailer-trash night (the last night of beach week, when whatever is left in the fridge must be consumed and only the white-trash canned beer remains), bonfires on the beach, and every night topped with a home-cooked, sit-down, family style dinner cooked by the group (well, to be honest, I usually am on clean-up duty instead). We respect the cocktail hour and you will never find a more competitive, Type-A group of mini-golfers anywhere. Really. Anywhere. That goes for beer pong too.

There is nothing more rejuvenating and refreshing than having an annual, reliable reality check by the one group of people in this world who know you the best. We may not talk to each other nearly as much as we used to, but when we come together for this one week each year, it is like coming home to family. Nobody knows how to bring me back down to earth better than these best friends of mine. Nobody else in this world can glance in my direction for half a second and instantly know exactly what I'm thinking and start laughing uncontrollably because of it.

So, throughout the years boyfriends and girlfriends of the group have come and gone. Now there are spouses and babies and puppies, too. Our family continues to grow, and that's a good thing.

Time to pack--Beach Week is here! Beach Week is here!

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Words to Live By

Better days ahead.

I can't remember the very first time I heard those words, but I do know exactly who said them to me. My grandmother had a distinct way of reading the unverbalized worry on a child's face and erasing it with simple reassuring words, a warm smile, and a quick wink. Her unfailingly kind and gentle way was mixed with just the right dose of pure-Irish mischievousness that made her among the most classy, genuine, and beautiful people you'd ever hope to know.

I grew up thinking of those three words every time something got me down--although my grandmother isn't around anymore, the reassurance she left me with has come in handy more times than I would've ever expected. And now when I call my mother with whatever tale of turmoil has engulfed my attention at the moment, she chuckles and says, "Well, Erin, you know: Better days ahead."

But while I have always thought of that advice as a way to dig myself out of a funk, lately the meaning has shifted. There's something so hopeful about always thinking, no matter what, that the best of times are still to come. I smile, laugh, and savor a good day, a meaningful experience, or a special life event, and I stop, if even briefly, to think about how lucky I must be to still believe that even better days are coming my way.

So, when pondering the many catchy names I could use for this new blog, I settled on this one little phrase that can mean whatever you want it to. Right now, besides my job and training for the Chicago Marathon, my time and energy is devoted to a new organization that I'm helping to build from what (on some days) seems like scratch. It's called Race with Purpose, and the bottom line is that we train athletes of all abilities to run their best marathon, while they raise funds for charities that have a meaningful, measurable impact on helping the nation's neediest kids lead healthy, active, and productive lives. Not every child grows up lucky enough to believe that better days are ahead, so my passion has become trying to make it possible for more to learn how to make it happen for themselves by achieving a healthy lifestyle.

[Side note: If you'd like to contribute to my Race with Purpose fund-raising goal, just click here! Your contributions of all amounts are all equally appreciated and 100% tax deductible. I'll now return you to our regularly scheduled blog entry....]

I hope this space becomes a place where I can record all the ridiculous adventures that come along with starting a new group, training for whatever crazy race I've chosen next, and keeping up with the zaniness that is my friends and family.

I invite you to comment often, laugh at me much, and enjoy the journey. Welcome!