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.