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!