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.