Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Problems or Opportunities?

From the age of about 8 through 18, my summer always kicked off the same way. My swim teammates and I piled into our parents' station wagons and left for two weeks of swim camp at Mercersburg Academy. The next 14 days were spent mostly in the pool, or thinking about the next swim practice that day, or attending dry-land strength training sessions, or hearing coaches critique our technique from daily video tape sessions, or staying up as late as we could keep our eyes open talking about the cute boys in our lane, or eating (and eating and eating and eating some more).

In retrospect, the schedule seems grueling. I couldn't even guess how much yardage we logged in a week, but in reality, most of us couldn't get enough. The camp was founded and directed by John Trembley, the head swim coach at the University of Tennessee and one of the most generous, kind, positive (he named his dog Happy, for crying out loud), amazing coaches I've ever encountered. No matter what a camper's ability level--and trust me when I say I was never swimming in the fastest lane--JT seemed to give everybody the same time and attention, and evoke a plethora of laughter in the process.

It was rare that JT ever got angry, but that's not to say that we didn't fully realize that he meant business. After all, he has coached many Olympians, some of whom would randomly meander onto the pool deck in the middle of practice or drop by the dining hall for lunch.

There weren't many rules at camp besides the obvious, like boys and girls stay in their respective dorms, etc. However, of those rules that were strictly enforced were the following:

1. Every morning, when loudly and obnoxiously awoken by a coach pounding on your door at some ridiculously early hour, everybody began the day by saying (or muttering, which is usually all we could muster): "It's a beautiful day and it's great to be alive!"

2. Abide by the philosophy that there are no problems, only opportunities. As soon as camp began, nobody was allowed to utter the word "problem" without buying a lot of very public grief from JT and some extra sets at practice for yourself and your lane mates.

At the time, we didn't appreciate it. When a weird bug flew in my ear on the way to an afternoon practice and was buzzing around in there, I couldn't help but think, "This is a problem." So I went to one of the coaches and started by saying, "I have a prob...." before I was abruptly cut off. At that point it felt like a bat was flying around in my head and I was convinced that my circumstance couldn't possibly have an upside. But I did my best to rally.

"There is a bug flying around in my ear," I said flatly, careful not to revert to the "p" word.

Off I went to the infirmary, escorted there by the cutest coach in the bunch. And so at the awkward age of 14, I began a lifetime of finding opportunities in life's challenges.

It's not terribly easy to find those opportunities. Lord knows that there are plenty of things to be worried about these days. This struck me recently, because a lot of my friends are dealing with legitimate life issues right now: unemployment, seriously ill children, personal health matters. Lately it seems like so many e-mails or phone calls come with bad news. What is the opportunity in having a helpless child face the possibility of a heart transplant? That, I don't know, but it is because of JT that I spend a lot of time trying to figure it out myself.

So, as the holiday season is in full swing and a new year is about to begin, I pass on the gift that JT gave to me so many years ago. Even the most cynical among us can benefit, if you give it your best shot--believe me, I know. Do yourself a favor and honestly find the opportunities in your problems--see what happens when you eliminate the word entirely from your vocabulary. And don't forget that each morning that you open your eyes, it's a beautiful day and it's great to be alive.


Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Dumb Luck

A couple of days before I left for the Philadelphia Marathon, my mom sent me a card. The outside of it was a black-and-white photo of a little girl, climbing up a rock, with a wide smile as she teetered to gain her balance at the top. It said, “We cannot direct the wind, but we can adjust our sails.”

How apropos, in so many ways. With blustery cold weather clinging to the East Coast, I knew I was facing a frigid marathon experience. I also knew that if I’ve learned nothing else during the last six months, I have finely tuned my ability to adjust my sails.

So, I did it. I qualified for the Boston Marathon on Sunday by finishing the Philadelphia Marathon in 3:30:45. That was 10 minutes faster than the qualifying time and 11 minutes faster than my previous best marathon time.

It was perhaps the best race weekend of my life. Much like the 29 weeks of training that led me there, it was as near-perfect as a marathon experience can be. Was it luck? I have to believe it was more than that. I have to believe that when you work so hard for so long with a laser-like focus on your dreams, surround yourself with family and friends who care and genuinely support you, and have 100 percent trust in the person who is patiently, intelligently, and positively guiding you toward your goals, that the “luck” is really just the result of all the ingredients you’ve carefully, painstakingly mixed together.

Some might say that it was “lucky” that I never was sick or injured throughout my training, which began in mid-May. I see it a different way. I don’t think it was “luck” that changed my eating habits for the better or taught me how to listen to my body, so that I didn’t push through the little twinges and sniffles that could’ve blown up into full-fledged health problems. I don’t think it’s chance that I learned how to deal with real pain during track workouts, or taught my legs exactly what marathon pace feels like week after week on long runs that were continually besieged by horrible weather conditions. It wasn’t good fortune that led me to go to bed early or plan ahead to fit in a 60+-mile training week with my work and travel schedule, all while still being a good friend, daughter, and journalist. It wasn't a fluke that I maintained a positive attitude, even when a workout didn't go according to plan or my legs felt heavy and sluggish. 

So you’ll forgive me when I confess that as I approached the starting area in the pre-dawn hours of Sunday, I felt a lump in my throat. Quite frankly, it shocked me. I have, after all, run eight marathons now and have never been emotional about any of them. But as soon as I saw some volunteers hoisting the finish line onto the scaffolding as I approached the Art Museum, my eyes welled up. I knew that the next time I saw it, it wouldn’t be just a finish line – it would mark a new beginning in my running life.

The previous 24 hours were the most relaxed I’ve ever had before a race. I spent more time laughing with my friends about ridiculous things than I did thinking about the 26.2 miles ahead of me. Michelle and Suzanne took such good care of me, from driving to Philly to braving the freezing temperatures on race morning to scream at me, I honestly don’t know what I would’ve done without them. Our dinner on Saturday night with KC and Josh was not only delicious, but it was low key and fun, which was just what I needed. My final chat with Mike left me feeling inspired and upbeat, as well as calm and confident. And that Penn State win over Michigan State? Despite the Arctic temperatures, that clearly left me California dreamin’ :).

The race itself may be anticlimactic as far as good stories go. It went almost exactly as I had planned. I dressed in layers, which I shed as my body warmed up. I did exactly what I had practiced over and over and over again in training: starting out at 8 minute per mile pace and never going faster than 7:45. The only hitches thrown into the equation were icy water stops that doubled as ice-skating rinks, mile markers that were completely off in the first 6 miles or so, and a severe aversion to taking my second gel later in the marathon. Yes, I ran my best time fueled by nothing more than one gel at mile 9 and water every 3 to 5 miles. I knew I’d pay the price for that, and I did. But I didn’t feel the pain and fatigue in earnest until about mile 24, when I knew it was just a matter of gutting it out, which I had much experience doing over the past six months.

The second half of the marathon was by far my favorite. I had such amazing support—I felt as though I was just being handed off from friend to friend all the way through to the finish line, starting with Suzanne and Michelle at the halfway point, Megan at 14, Sarah at mile 19, KC at mile 20, Josh at mile 24, catching Nathan at mile 25, and crossing the finish line with him. And while I could feel the hurt you’d expect after mile 21, I can’t say I ever experienced anything unbearable, like last year. I was happy to see the finish line and knew that I didn’t have much left in me, but in retrospect it was by far the strongest I’ve ever felt throughout an entire marathon. There’s more in the tank to explore, and that’s the exciting lesson this race taught me.

So while I have no idea how life will unfold otherwise between now and April, I do know that it will include another marathon training cycle—this time, for the Boston Marathon. I go into that knowing that I’m capable of more than I ever realized and that if I do it right, there won't be any surprises on race day. After all, when you know how to work hard and adjust your sails, luck is always on your side.


Sunday, November 16, 2008

When the Work is Done

It's a strange feeling when you reach the point in a long journey that there's nothing left to do. After weeks or months or even years of focus, there always comes that juncture in whatever endeavor you've embarked upon when it's time to trust in the work you've done, have faith, and leave the rest up to fate.

The final seven days before a marathon always bring myriad emotions and it usually leaves a little too much time to think. All those hours that are usually filled with running, stretching, core work, ice baths, cross training, eating, sleeping, ingesting fluids, grocery shopping, doing yet another load of laundry, and preparing to start the entire cycle all over again are replaced by hours of thinking about if you did all those things the right way, and if they will finally put you within reach of the goals that have remained elusive for what seems like an eternity. 

My head seems to be quiet this time around, though. I'm oddly at peace with the fact that there's nothing left to do. I am sentimental and nostalgic for the road that led me here--certainly my life was in a different place when I took that first step, 27 weeks ago. And every mile in between has been one enormous learning experience. But that's why I love running--it never fails to teach you a thing or two about yourself and the people around you. And clearly I'll never forget this time that I somehow found myself living in the Pocono Mountains, far from the city life I am accustomed to, attacking the hills on the endless country roads with only a pasture full of cows to keep me company along the way. 

The work is done, so now it's time to trust, have faith, rest, and rejuvenate. Here's hoping for a happy Philadelphia Marathon finish line that leads to a brand-new starting line...and the next big adventure.


Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Better Days Ahead

"If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.

It's the answer told by lines that stretched around schools and churches in numbers this nation has never seen; by people who waited three hours and four hours, many for the very first time in their lives, because they believed that this time must be different; that their voice could be that difference.  

It's the answer spoken by young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled - Americans who sent a message to the world that we have never been a collection of Red States and Blue States: we are, and always will be, the United States of America.

It's the answer that led those who have been told for so long by so many to be cynical, and fearful, and doubtful of what we can achieve to put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day."

-- President-elect Barack Obama


Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Has Anybody Seen Fall Weather and My Pace?

Once upon a time, in a strange little hamlet in Northeastern Pennsylvania...
I wake up this morning, look out the window after hearing the rain pounding on the house all night long, and see that it's snowing. I truly believe that I'm still asleep, because, you know, it's October and it doesn't snow in October. I rub my eyes, look out the window again, and realize it is indeed snowing. And sleeting. And pouring rain.

I turn on the TV, at the exact moment the local weather guy is saying (a wee bit too enthusiastically), "There are wind gusts of up to 50 MPH out there, knocking down trees and power lines."

"Awesome," I think, as I'm digging around in the abyss of my running clothes, trying to find anything remotely warm. Waterproof would be a bonus, but alas, I don't own anything that fancy.
It is my peak week of marathon training. Skipping today's speed workout isn't an option.
So I head out and get some very odd looks from the locals, who are peering out their windows from their kitchen tables...warm, dry, and sipping hot coffee. I am insanely jealous.
After warming up and doing some strides, I begin to turn into a human popsicle. So I figure I need to just get it over with. I am fantasizing about dry clothes as the wind is making the icy precipitation fall horizontally, as well as making me feel as though I'm running in place. I can no longer feel my feet, legs, arms, or face. I'm pretty sure my ears and nose fell off during the second and third strides. So I just take off.
The purpose of this workout is to hit two miles at 7:45 pace, then switch gears to a 7:00 for the third mile. After a four-minute recovery, repeat it, then warm down. Success of the workout is defined as sticking to the paces -- going faster is not better.
Mile 1 -- 7:15 (oops. conscious effort to slow down....)
Mile 2 -- 7:29 (better but still not great, so I think for a second about not picking it up for the 3rd mile in favor of trying to find the elusive 7:45, but then I think that I shouldn't, so I try to pick it up as the wind nearly blows me right into a cornfield...)
Mile 3 -- 7:15

4 min. recovery -- uhhhh...shivering...must start running again...freezing...thinking about running slower...

Mile 1 -- 7:21
Mile 2 -- 7:31 (I honestly thought this one would be right at 7:45. I even had to stop for a few seconds to fend off a random dog. I was wrong.)
Mile 3 -- 7:12

I cut the warm down a few minutes short. I figured that because I'm violently shaking at this point, it might behoove me to get out of the elements as quickly as possible.

So, here I am a hours later, wrapped in several layers of fleece ala the little kid in "A Christmas Story" (when he's so bundled up that he can't put his arms down), drinking and eating anything hot. And the only thought that keeps popping into my head is that this is a frightening sneak preview of what training for Boston is going to be like all winter long. Ohmygod. Where is the treadmill fairy? Serious thoughts going on about my next relocation...

And that is the tale of a workout gone awry. Stay tuned to find out if the girl ever finds her pace and lives happily ever after.


Friday, October 10, 2008

On the Right Track

Every couple of weeks I find myself staring down that large oval in a local park--the white lane lines, the orange rubbery surface, the grassy green football field in the middle, and the silver metal bleachers lining each side. 

It's on that track there where I doubt myself most. Ironically, it is also where, week after week, I prove to myself that I am a different person--a different runner--than I was just six months ago.

When I arrive, I slowly start jogging around the surrounding neighborhoods to warm up, gingerly weaving my way up and down the steep side streets of Bangor, PA, where my father grew up. I can't help but think about him on those days. My route, after all, takes me right past the cemetery where he rests, past the headstone that marks his grave, where I said goodbye to him nearly 21 years ago. 

But it's never sadness that overwhelms me when I'm making my way back to the track. It's a renewed sense of the discipline, strength, and courage he infused in me so long ago. I enter the gates ready to give it my best shot, shuffling through one more mile to get my legs ready, and a few short strides to prep them for the workout ahead.

And then I take a deep breath through my nose, let it out through my mouth, and hit "start" on my watch. I take off. My heart begins racing as fast as my legs, the sweat inevitably pours, my breathing is deep and loud and labored. It is uncomfortable. And I know that it will only get more difficult from here. My internal voice--that alter ego who is constantly questioning why?--starts telling me to quit, that it hurts, that it's not worth it. 

I tell her to shut up.

There is work to be done here and it's hard, lonely work. Everybody has that voice, I know, that whispers that it's okay to let yourself off the hook. Everybody faces that choice of whether to listen to it or forge ahead, confident that you won't come face-to-face with the disappointment and regret that is sure to follow giving up.

And I take off again. Seven times I run 1000 meters, consistently hitting my target time, recovering for 200 meters between each interval, fending off that annoying girl inside who relentlessly begs me to stop.

As I round that last curve, head for that last straightaway, and hit that last finish line, I've completed a task that an hour earlier seemed nearly impossible. I am relieved. I am also exhausted, thirsty, hungry, smelly, and sore. However, more than anything, I am happy. It's the kind of happiness reserved for when you have achieved something that didn't come easily, but in your heart you knew all along was worth the struggle.

With many more miles and trials ahead, I know it's not the last time that kind of joy will be mine.


Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Dress Rehearsal

My office is getting a little chilly and shooing the squirrels away is becoming an increasingly time consuming part of the day. I suppose this is what happens when your workspace is a large porch overlooking a lake in the Northeast. The temperature drops and the furry creatures become a bit more aggressive about storing up for the winter. It could be worse--I could be stuck in a battleship-gray cubicle, with no fresh air, politely encouraging the office "annoying guy" to scurry off. 

I'll take the squirrels and the scenery.

That little nip in the air, after all, is the harbinger of all things good in life: cozy sweaters, college football, beautiful changing leaves, and the thick of marathon training.

Indeed, the Philadelphia Marathon is just eight weeks away, so it seemed like a prime time to get a tune-up race under my belt as a gauge for what to expect in November. I chose the Philadelphia Distance Run half marathon, mostly because Philly is such a quick and easy trip from where I'm living and the race course, in part, mirrors the marathon course. I also coerced my running buddy Avi to join me--because, really, what's a race weekend without Avi?!

I had some serious flashbacks to last November, almost as soon as I arrived in downtown Philly on Saturday afternoon. I left that marathon last year with a host of mixed emotions--happy to come away with a best time, beyond grateful for my friends who came to support me, but disappointed that qualifying for the Boston Marathon remained elusive by such a slim margin. 

I haven't raced much since then, and, in fact, those few races that I entered in the spring just added up to some slow base miles. So, Sunday's half marathon was the first time I was testing myself. I couldn't wait to find out what I could do out there--I truly had no idea what to expect.

What I did know, however, is that I had nothing to fear. I've put in endless focus, hard work, miles, positive energy, and sweat into my training over the last 19 weeks. I arrived at the starting line with no particular goal other than to run a smart race, learn some lessons to apply to the marathon, and leave with a personal best half marathon time. I had nothing but confidence that all those goals were within reach.

When the gun went off I made that typical mistake of letting adrenaline carry me a bit too far. Having missed the first few mile markers, I wasn't sure how fast I was going, but I was fairly certain I was going too fast. When I hit the first 5K mark, my hunch was correct, so I tried to relax a little bit and back off the pace, though I wasn't sure what that pace should really be. That's when it comes in handy to be in touch with perceived effort. After many track workouts, threshold runs, and sub-threshold training runs, I knew what it should feel like, even if I couldn't translate it into numbers, so I went with it. 

As I cleared the 10 mile mark and headed into number 11, I was hurting--it was time to pay the price for going out too fast. Luckily, with only a couple of miles to go, I was able to talk myself into hurting for a while longer. I hung on for dear life, crossing the finish line with a new best time by a little more than six minutes: 1:36.42. 

When I return to Philadelphia in November, I'm relieved that I'll be doing so with happy memories instead of mixed ones. I'm ready. Bring it on.

In the meantime, I'll add squirrel chasing to my training schedule. It's gotta be good for shaving a few seconds off my time.


Thursday, September 4, 2008

What I Did on My Summer Vacation

The guy climbed a ladder and stuck his head in the attic through a small opening in the closet.

"Yeah, there's something living up there. It's burrowing tunnels through the insulation," he declared.


The relative quiet of a Saylor's Lake night has been not-so-temporarily interrupted this summer by at least one uninvited guest, who has set up camp overhead. The scratching, clicking, and clacking of tiny paws scurrying around in the middle of the night added one more "first" to a never-ending list of things I never fathomed I'd have to deal with, all compiled in the short three months I've been living here. Did I mention it came just days after I spent an afternoon saving a little bird whose teeny leg was stuck in her nest?

The man set up some cage traps outside the house, where he guessed the critters were coming from, placing peanuts inside them as bate. Then he handed me his card, identifying himself as a "licensed wildlife pest control and trapper."

"Muskrat, mink, fox, coon, skunk, opossum, coyote, beaver, ground hogs, and squirrels," it said.

As he loaded his supplies into the back of his pick-up truck, he instructed me to check those traps a few times a day and call him if anything was caught.

Sure enough, a two days later, a lazy day on the lake with friends visiting from New York melted into a lazy night of plenty of food, drink, and Olympics. On the way up to the house to start dinner, I stopped underneath the porch to check the traps. One had a new resident: an opossum, who appeared to be taking an early evening snooze.

I promptly called the trap man, who was, of course, at a picnic (this area does not lack offerings of mayonnaise-laden potato salads on any given summer Saturday). He stopped on his way home to pick up his cages, as I was grilling hamburgers and hot dogs for my friends.

"Are you sure you don't want to throw him on there and call him dinner?" he inquired.

"," I said, glancing at my slightly horrified urban guests.

"Well, I don't think this is our guy," he said. "He's too big for the size of the tunnels up there. I took all the traps, though, because I'm going to the beach for a week. Call me if you want me to come back."

Approximately four weeks (and no rent) later there's still an attic housemate settling in for the winter. I swear I heard him stock-piling nuts up there the other night.

As the evenings start a little earlier every night, Labor Day has passed, and the frenzy of neighborhood kids squealing in the water has been replaced by squeaky breaks of school buses taking them to school in the mornings, I have finally caught a few moments to contemplate where my summer experiment in Pennsylvania has led me:

1. I have a new-found comfort level with wildlife. Um, see above.
2. I can run any hill, any time, without fear. Everyday.
3. I know how to cook dinner now, without cracking open a box of Cheerios. There's no Whole Foods salad bar in these parts, either.
4. I still miss tofu and sushi.
5. I really, really, really love that I get paid to sit by the water everyday and write about people, topics, and issues I believe are fascinating.
6. I found an previously undiscovered (or suppressed?) side of me that thinks I could be completely happy moving to Colorado, or Oregon, or...who knows. The West.
7. I learned that when my mother comes for a weekend visit and I haven't watered the plants to her satisfaction, she can make me feel like a rotten 13-year-old all over again. In an instant.

While I know the list could go on, the bottom line is that I am no closer to knowing what's next than I was when I rolled up the driveway in June. While that truth is starting to grow old with my restless mind, I also know that whatever this adventure was...or continues to be...I have faith that it's all unfolding as it should, for some yet-to-be discovered reason.

And on days when I have doubts--and there are plenty of those, too--I remember some wise words recently sent to me from my Running Superhero Mike, when I was second-guessing a workout gone awry--and once again, running became a metaphor for life.

"Decide whether the messages you're responding to are sent from your heart or you mind," he said. "Many times the mind speaks out of fear, self doubt, and panic. The heart, on the other hand, has the answers, but getting to them means wading through all the noise of the mind."

And sometimes a little noise in the attic, too.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Life Unplugged, Part II

I pulled into the driveway and took a deep breath. After five hours of solitude in my car, I was keenly aware that the whirlwind of the next few days and weeks would mean that time was simply not going to be my own for the rest of the summer. Wallowing in the loss of my Internet access and computer--and everything that was on it--would need to take a backseat to, well, real life.

In four short days my brother was getting married and the celebration was taking place here at the lake. Like any wedding, this one came with its share of last-minute preparations, visitors, dinners, events, nerves, and a few short fuses.

But when all was said and done, late that Friday afternoon I stood before my brother, his bride, and a small group of close family and friends, in the nearby church where the Strouts have attended for generations. I did that traditional "Love is patient, love is kind" reading from the Bible, and not long afterward, Jon and Erika were pronounced husband and wife.

Then the real mayhem began.

Following the two-day celebration of the newly minted union, my cousins moved into the lake house for a week's vacation. I went from a peaceful household of one, to a spirited household of 15, including six kids. We shared 10 days of playing in the water, eating leisurely dinners, having long conversations on the porch over many bottles of wine, drinking coffee in the morning, and of course, filling the house with lots of laughter...adding yet another chapter of family memories at Saylor's Lake.

During my run on one of those mornings it dawned on me that it was the first time in years I didn't feel distracted from any of those moments. There was nothing pressing or cluttering my mind, taking me away from the rare opportunity to fully enjoy the time I was getting to spend with a group of the most important people in my life. I had to wonder why. What was different?

The only conclusion I could come to was that my world was right there and nowhere else--without the option of escaping to cyberspace, there was nothing virtual about my days. I didn't have access to e-mail or Facebook or message boards. Those in my "social network" and "community" (we used to simply call them "friends"), found a way to stay connected--they used this old-fashioned device called the phone, or they stopped by for a visit.

While I thoroughly enjoyed rediscovering the human connection, when the new computer finally arrived, I confess that it took me less than 10 minutes to fire up the wireless access. I took one look at my inbox, where hundreds of unread messages resided, and felt overwhelmed, and a little bit sad. My respite from the real life, as it exists in 2008, was over. I may be able to live in Nowhere, PA, for a while, but I couldn't completely fall off the face of the Earth, for many obvious reasons.

What I learned is that a life unplugged is rejuvenating, healthy, and a good reminder of how to give my attention to the here-and-now, instead of constantly dividing it 20 other ways and letting the virtual world constantly distract me.
Rest assured none of this is to say that I'll be dumping white wine on my home electronics again anytime soon, if I can help it.



Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Life, Unplugged -- Part I

I was snuggled up at the kitchen table in Lake Placid that Sunday night three weeks ago, finally comfy in warm, dry clothes after spending more than 14 hours in the torrential rain watching Ironman.

Some wine was poured.

A glass of it ended up all over my laptop.

It died.

While the previous three glasses of vino numbed the pain--and the reality of what I had lost--until the following morning, I awoke to a personal endurance event of a very different nature. As a house full of triathletes said their goodbyes and we all went our separate ways, I was headed to the remote patch of Northeastern Pennsylvania that I am temporarily calling home, without any immediate hope of Internet access, without a connection to the world, my friends, or my work.

I was terrified.

On the five hour ride home, I began taking a mental inventory of the writing, photos, and documents that may be lost forever. I wondered how I'd go about drumming up some needed freelance projects until my new computer arrived. Afterall, I now had a laptop to pay for. What if the assignment of a lifetime was sitting in my inbox, waiting for a response? How would I access my marathon training schedule? Would my friends forget about me if I stopped returning all those Facebook messages?!

I had a few weeks to figure all of this out. And, as is always the case, the experience taught me oh-so-much more.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Falling in Love, Again

This morning I put my "fast" running shoes on. I braided my hair to keep it off my neck. I gulped down some water to wash down a half of a banana. Then I headed to the next town over, where the hills aren't quite as menacing and the rolling country roads are indeed less traveled.

Over the past nine weeks, Wednesdays have become the day of the week that I meet with almost the same anxiousness and preparation that I do for long training runs on the weekends. I've spent most of the past nine Wednesdays heading to a track for workouts that make me feel like I could puke, or taking to the roads for a fartlek run. I'm never really sure what a new week will bring, but when that training schedule appears on Sunday nights, it's almost always the first day I look at.

See, as this Type-A girl with some subtle control-freak tendencies is learning to cope with a life of horrifyingly little structure this summer, my training schedule is what keeps me sane. Running has always been a stabilizing force in my life, however the combination of an uncertain future, an obsession with avenging last November's Philadelphia Marathon/Chicago Marathon debacle, and a desire to be held accountable for something (anything!) while I'm figuring out the rest of my life, have all conspired at the same time, making my marathon training this year seem like something more than just a hobby.

The side effects of my training mania have been a pleasant surprise, to be sure. Last fall I was ready to give it up forever. I had spent two years struggling with a serious plateau in my performance and finding that running was more of a chore than something I was enjoying. I'm not a professional runner, obviously, so it struck me as pointless to keep battling through a training schedule that was seemingly only adding stress to a life already way too stressful. It was frustrating that running wasn't filling the role that it always had for me--it was supposed to be the one thing I could rely on when everything else seemed like it was crumbling. Instead, it was turning on me. That made me angry and sad, so after I crossed that finish line in Philadelphia, 49 seconds too late, I walked away.

After two months of eating too many cookies, drinking too much beer, and leaving my "racing weight" a distant memory, I headed to the pool for a winter of swim practices and put my bike on the trainer in front of the television. I rode many miles in my living room and was disciplined about making it to swimming a few nights each week, but my running shoes stayed tucked away in the corner, collecting dust. I was punishing them for betraying me.

But soon, the slush of the DC winter was gone and all those spring races I had registered for months ago were coming up fast--specifically, the Lehigh Valley Half Marathon and the Cherry Blossom 10 Miler. I went through the motions for each of them, posting some personal worst times in the process. I knew it was time to make a decision, because I'm not the kind of person who is at all happy in merely participating...for me, the joy is in the hard work, in doing my absolute best, and achieving the goals I set for myself in the process.

I decided to give my old friend, running, a second chance. And, not to be dramatic, but I am in love, again...antsy on my day off each week, enveloped by that incomparable feeling of getting stronger each day, grateful that it's back in my life.

This morning, as I finished my last interval with the same fervor as my first, I couldn't help but smile. Like any true friend, running is there for me when I need it most.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Summertime. The Livin' Really is Easy

Remember when summer seemed to last forever? I distinctly recall when the final bell of the school year would ring and as a mess of kids exited the building, the sense of anticipation for the months ahead to do with whatever you pleased was palpable. That's precisely how I felt when I bolted from my apartment in DC, now six weeks ago.

Really, I had every intention of finding a full-time job in New York and saving the world in my spare time, all within three months. I'm not sure how it's possible that the Fourth of July has already passed and my biggest accomplishment so far has been updating my blog exactly twice.

To be completely honest, I haven't felt so relaxed and healthy in years. I have no complaints--whatever it is that I am meant to do, wherever it leads me, it will happen in its time. I believe my job right now is to take full advantage of a situation that may never happen again: responsible for nobody but myself, living in a gorgeous home on a lake, enjoying the copious time I'm getting with my friends and family, going into the city (often) to run and play, writing to my heart's content, and training my face off for my next big race. In a way, I really do feel like a kid on summer vacation. Although I had been awake and working for hours, I actually answered the door in my pajamas at 11:30 a.m. today.

Even the pressure of triathlon training--something that tends to overwhelm me when I'm in the thick of it--was alleviated this year. There was no way to prepare properly for any races this season while I was moving--and I vowed to focus on my running this year anyway--so I turned my Tupper Lake Tinman half ironman race into a relay. I did the swim and run legs, while my teammate, Bill, completed the bike.

While the weekend was a blast, the race itself was an odd experience and I'm not sure how I'd even go about writing a race report for it if I wanted to. I had a dreadful swim--probably the worst I've done in 30 years of swimming. That's a lot of swimming, countless races, and a bold statement. But it's 100-percent true. Coming off a great winter of swim practices, I was derailed by my move and didn't take full advantage of the body of water right outside my door after I settled here. Also, my weekly running mileage is gradually building to a level I've never done before, so the motivation to also get swim workouts in during the week dwindled. Lesson learned: you can't race a swim you haven't trained for...and it also helps to stay on the course instead of zig-zagging across the lake countless times (I'm estimating I swam at least 2 miles, instead of the 1.2-mile course!).

So, as I trotted into transition, Bill was pacing, wondering where I was.

"I was getting worried!" he said.

Yeah, you and me both, buddy.

Off he went on his 56-mile ride. It was Bill's first race experience on his bike, leaving me with a few hours to kill before I had to run the half marathon. So, I met up with Josh, who was there supporting everybody, and we strolled across the street for coffee, I made a peanut butter and honey sandwich, and we cheered in our teammates who were finishing the sprint race. It was the oddest transition I've ever had. After about three hours had passed, I meandered over to my car to exchange my flip-flops for my running shoes, get my race bib, and head over to our transition area. I chatted with others waiting for their teammates and passed some time with other friends who had already finished their sprint races.

Another hour passed, the sun came out, the temperature soared, and it was my turn to wonder what had happened to Bill. He had been out there longer than I knew it should take him. I was hoping nothing bad had happened and was selfishly starting to get worried that I'd actually end up being the last runner on the course. Soon Bill showed up all in one piece, mumbling about a flat or something as I headed out onto the course for a 13-mile run.

I've never actually worried that I'd get lost in a race before, but I had to stop in the beginning to ask if I was going the right way -- on the way out, I passed the finish line, where a lot of people were now wrapping up their races. Depressing. Thankfully, the loneliness didn't last long as I took one mile at a time and saw teammates out there ahead of me on the out-and-back portions of the course. I kept the pace just comfortable in the heat--there was no need to treat it as anything but a training run. My idea of success was to get the miles in, not tax myself, and feel like I could have run farther when I was finished.

All of those goals were accomplished and I feel great about where my running is right now, as well as excited about what's to come. I didn't break any personal records (by a very long shot), but that wasn't my goal either. I feel strong and energized. More importantly, I wake up in the mornings looking forward to the day's run. This hasn't happened in years and I couldn't be more thrilled.

Speaking of which, seven miles await me out there this afternoon, so I better get moving. It's summertime and all is well.


Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Welcome to Rural Pennsylvania

I'm not going to pretend that I don't remember where I came from--I am always going to be a Pennsylvania girl when it comes down to it. But I grew up in the decidedly suburban town of Hershey and went to college at Penn State, which is a city unto itself. After that I headed to Manhattan for a six-year stint, before I went to Washington, DC for another four years.

So here I am now, in Saylorsburg, PA. Where? Yeah, I know. It's sort of south of Stroudsburg, in the Pocono Mountains. I'm only about 75 miles from New York City, but, as "they" say, really a whole world away.

For example, the other night we had an Apocalypse Now-like thunderstorm. The lights flickered on and off, the outdoor furniture was tossed around kind of like those cows in the movie "Twister," and the lightning felt like it was going to strike me down right in my family room. As soon as it passed, I saw a man on my porch peering into the house through the sliding-glass doors, which in my previous urban life would have been cause for some degree of alarm for a single gal like myself. Here in Saylorsburg, however, it was actually just the neighbor checking in on me to make sure I was okay. Yes, they do that here. They also help you do your yard work out of the goodness of their hearts. I had no idea such humanity still existed.

But no matter where I've lived, like most runners, I've found that the absolute best way to get familiar with new surroundings is by foot. This philosophy has proven useful once again, as I've settled in here. What I've seen while running is very telling so far--a vast array of all walks of life exist here in Saylorsburg--people live in run-down huts, as well as full-on mansions, and everything in between. As far as the local culture, here's a little taste of what I've experienced so far:

1. Some folks are territorial. And really like firearms. A woman who runs a flower market in "town" (believe me when I say, I'm using that term loosely), posted a sign: "Beware of Owner: She has PMS. And a Gun." I also run by a driveway every morning displaying a sign: "No Trespassing. Violators will be Prosecuted. Or Shot." I would've taken a picture of it, but I sort of feared for my life.

2. The local Citgo station convenience store sells a Star Spangled Ice Cream line, from a company that apparently gives 10 percent of its profits to "conservative causes." Flavors include Iraqi Road, I Hate the French Vanilla, and my, um, personal favorite, Gun Nut. According to the Web site, the ice cream is "...NOT Kosher certified. It is manufactured by a small producer, so nutritional information is not available." Is it pathetic that I'm yearning to be friends with the people with the Obama sign in their yard, about a tenth of a mile away from the gas station?

3. The wildlife is unlike that of Central Park or the National Mall. I have been chased by deer while training. Twice. Forget aggressive dogs, I just want to know when exactly deer started to attack?

4. Men driving pick-up trucks don't like sharing the road with small women running. They yell things like, "Get out of the way." I view this as a healthy way to hold on to my cynicism, so that all my overly nice neighbors don't make me too soft this summer. After all, I have reputation to uphold, and a journalism career to worry about, which requires a fair amount of skepticism. I give thanks to all those guys with mullets who try to run me down in their 4x4's. Really, I do.

Everyday is an adventure. I can't wait to see what tomorrow brings...


Thursday, June 12, 2008

Enjoying the View, At Last

Um, I don't miss working in a cubicle. At all. Above is a tiny taste of what I look at from my new desk here in Pennsylvania, where I have to confess that my productivity level is at an all-time high and my stress level is at an all-time low. I hate to gloat, but I think I've finally figured out what peace is all about.

The short end to a long story is that I made it. For the most part, I'm all settled in here for my summer at the lake house. Those ridiculous movers finally did show up, they threw my worldly belongings in their truck, and now all those things that I thought I couldn't live without are in storage. And guess what? I'm living just fine without them.

I thought I'd be plotting my escape back to civilization by now, craving the buzz of the city and going stir-crazy from the quietness of rural Northeastern PA. So far, I haven't been bored for a second (knock on wood -- which, by the way, is not hard to find around here). I've easily transitioned into the rhythm of the country life without effort or much thought...I think the trick was just to surrender to it. Nobody is more shocked about all of this than I am.

I actually cook nutritious dinners, I visit farmer's markets, I sweep the porch, and water all the flowers. I snack on locally grown fruit. I run on the enormous hills every day, swim in the lake, and kayak to my heart's desire. And I write...a lot. It's amazing how the creativity flows when my head isn't running in a thousand other directions. I hit the pillow hard every night, contently exhausted from it all, and wake up as the sun rises every morning to start my new routine all over again.

Will it last? Who knows. It's not perfect, but it's close enough for now. And I'm a firm believer that I shouldn't try to fix something ever again that isn't broken. I made that mistake once, four years ago. And maybe that, after all, was the lesson learned.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Victory Lap, Part II

So, I looked at him and shrugged.

"Sure. What do you want to know?"

"How many miles do you run every week?"

Ok, definitely not what I thought he was going to ask, though to be honest, I didn't really know what a shirtless street hockey player in front of the White House would inquire about.

"Um, it depends on what I'm training for," I said, as I made a subtle move to continue my run.

But he kept talking.

"Oh. But why would you run? It's not fun."

At this point, the guy is being borderline offensive.

"Well, why do you play hockey? That doesn't seem like very much fun either," I retorted.

"But hockey isn't hard. Running is hard. What do you do for fun?" he persisted.

I wracked my brain. Is it wrong that it has naturally filed running into the fun category?

"Triathlons?" I said, knowing that this wasn't going to be the right answer either.

He laughed.

"How about dating? Do you date?"

Ah, finally, he cuts to the chase.

"Yes, I date."


"Yes, I date guys," I said.

"Do you want to date me?" he asked.

Give the him points for courage. Or maybe he's been hit in the head several times with a puck.

"Why would I want to do that?" I asked, thinking it was a fair question to pose, under the circumstances.

Clearly he wasn't prepared to answer.

"Because I'm going to be famous one day," he said...not very creatively.

"Oh really. What for?" I asked.

"I'm going to write a book about my life," he said.

"Is your life really that fascinating?"

"It might be," he said, handing over his digits, which began with a Northern Virginia area code.

"Ah, well, I'll take my chances--if it's meant to be, I'm sure I'll run into you again one day," I said.

"But I'm not the kind of person who will remember the little people, so you should call me," he said. "Or, you can give me your number and I'll call you."

"I'm moving out of DC tomorrow, but if you ever find yourself wandering through Northeastern Pennsylvania or Manhattan, perhaps our paths will cross again," I said, now not-so-subtly moving away.

"Ok, but I could have made you famous, too," he said.

"How do you know I wouldn't have made you famous instead?"

"I guess we'll never know," he said. "But with all that running you do, I doubt it."

I've run hundreds--perhaps more--miles in DC in four years, but that was the first pick-up attempt I've experienced while pounding the pavement. It reminded me of one thing that has taken me by surprise while living in Washington: how often my love of running has factored into the dating equation.

There was the Coast Guard guy who smoked cigarettes behind my back, but in an act of desperation to spend time with me one fall Saturday morning, tagged along on a 17-mile training run (the farthest he had ever gone before was 6 miles...once). There was the oh-so-attractive guy with the adorable dog, who couldn't understand why I continually chose to rise with the roosters to run before work, instead of getting drunk with him every night at the bar du jour. And then there was the Ironman, who was even more obsessed with his schedule than I.

I reminded myself that part of the reason I decided to move on is to help regain perspective and balance--something I've been lacking for far too long -- and not just on the dating scene. I guess my little street hockey guardian angel was there to hand me some of that perspective I am looking for: running is one thing that makes me happy, no matter where I am. And that's not a bad thought to have when the big moving truck is scheduled to pull up in the morning.

But as I arrived at the door of my apartment building, ending my last run as a DC resident, I began to question whether those movers will ever actually arrive.

To be continued.


Thursday, May 29, 2008

Victory Lap, Part I

I shouldn't be here. And while I've known that in my gut for now more than four years, I can't help but think I'm at the tail end of a breakup with the city of Washington, DC that would make good fodder for someone ridiculous like Dr. Phil.

My extended exit from the District is, of course, the moving company's fault. After frantically preparing for the big day and running all over the city saying my goodbyes to friends over too many bottles of wine, I've been sitting here for no less than three days--all of my belongings sealed in boxes, all of my furniture dismantled, all of my clothes packed away--waiting for them to show up, taunted by phone calls that keep delaying my plans.

I've never had an uneventful or easy move in all my many transient years, so I although I'm genuinely annoyed and ridiculously exhausted, I'm trying to keep my (relative) sanity intact. In the interest of full disclosure, however, I'll confess that around midnight last night I resorted to eating the last of the Ben & Jerry's in my freezer with my plastic coffee scoop, because all of my silverware is in a box...somewhere. Did I mention that I've essentially been wearing the same clothes since Sunday?

So today, Day Two of Erin's Not-So-Great-Escape from Washington, it became apparent that the big truck wasn't going to make it by my building's 6 p.m. deadline for using the freight elevator. I screamed at Tom the Moving Guy on the phone (who now picks up his line by saying, "Hi Erin..." as if we've somehow become friends through this ordeal) and then did what any self-respecting recreational endurance athlete would do: I ripped through my carefully packed car to locate my running shoes, a pair of shorts, dri-fit top, and hat so I could take one last lap through the Nation's Capital. After all, my training schedule very clearly stated "6 Miles -- Easy" today, and who am I to ignore a schedule if I don't absolutely have to?

Off I went, on a route that had become a favorite of mine over the past few years in the early mornings, before the tourist walk 3-to-8 abreast, the middle school field trips overwhelm the mall, the bike commuters ride on the sidewalk, and the cab drivers insist on nearly killing pedestrians at every intersection they choose to make a right turn on red. I thought it might evoke some nostalgia for my time here, perhaps some reflection on how my life has changed through this experience, and a bit of thought about what I'll truly miss about being here. And it did, but I suppose all of that is a posting for another time.

Not everybody has the opportunity to run past the White House, Capitol, Washington Monument, and Lincoln Memorial pretty much every day before most people wake up. To not appreciate that kind of scenery and symbolism in my backyard would be ignorant. But every time I was held up at a stoplight or inhaled bus fumes and cigarette smoke, a part of me started longing for the summer days that I'll spend in Pennsylvania with unlimited miles of country roads to myself and all the fresh air I can handle.

I turned right from 17th Street to run past the White House, where a large street hockey game was in full effect. I was startled out of my deep thoughts as one of the players skated right in front of me, stopping me dead in my tracks by holding his hockey stick in my way.

"Hey, can I ask you a question?" he said.

Maybe it was because the guy was, to be frank, pretty hot, or maybe it was because I was craving human interaction beyond Tom the Moving Guy after 48-hours of isolation in my barren apartment. But I stopped...

To be continued.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Pictures of You, Pictures of Me

I'm in the midst of packing up and moving out of DC, heading north of the Mason Dixon Line and eventually back "home" to New York. In the meantime, my life has turned into a bit of chaos, as well as my apartment. I don't specialize in disarray. I am partial to order. But, my capacity to adapt continues to be finely honed during this interesting period of balancing priorities.

The first things I packed up were my photos, pictures, and books. I feel like a home without photos of good times with loved ones is just bleak, so I am really looking forward to the day that I land in a new home, so that my walls will once again display all of my favorite people, reminding me every day of the outstanding life I lead.

On the upside, packing is a great time to purge unnecessary clutter, so that when I unpack, I am truly starting anew. I hate owning superfluous stuff, so I'm challenging myself to give many belongings away instead of throwing them in a box to deal with later. So far, at least 11 big bags have gone to Good Will, with more to come.

I also took a little trip down memory lane. I have one keepsake box that sits on top of my dresser with only a small sampling of cards, letters, photos, and news clippings that have some sort of special meaning to me. The last time I went through this box was probably four years ago, when I moved to DC. I found the following "Wish for Leaders" scribbled on a piece of notebook paper. I don't know who it was from or who wrote it, but it looks like it was given to me as I was entering my senior year at Penn State. I must have found it pretty meaningful back then, and just as much so now, so I thought I'd share it.

A Wish for Leaders

I sincerely wish you will have the experience of thinking up a new idea, planning it, organizing it, and following it to completion and having it be magnificently successful. I also hope you'll go through the same process and have something "bomb out."

I wish you could know how it feels to run with all your heart and lose...horribly.

I wish that you could achieve some great good for mankind, but have nobody know about it except you.

I wish you could find something so worthwhile that you deem it worthy of investing your life.

I hope you become frustrated and challenged enough to begin to push back the very barriers of your own personal limitations.

I hope you make a stupid, unethical mistake and get caught red-handed and are big enough to say those magic words: I was wrong.

I hope you give so much of yourself that some days you wonder if it's worth it all.

I wish for you a magnificent obsession that will give you reason for living and purpose and direction in life.

I wish for you the worst kind of criticism for everything you do, because that makes you fight to achieve beyond what you normally would.

I wish for you the experience of leadership.


Sunday, May 11, 2008

Moms Are the Best

I was walking down Columbus Avenue this morning, on my way to meet up with some friends for brunch when I heard a woman walking ahead of me talking on her cell phone.

"Happy Mother's day!" she said.

Although I had remembered to send my mom a nice gift late last week, in the midst of traveling (a lot) this weekend for a wedding (congratulations Sonia & Ben!!!!!), the holiday itself had slipped my mind until that moment. I felt ashamed--not because my mother would care that I hadn't yet called--but because there's nobody on earth who deserves recognition more than she does.

I suspect I'm not the only one who feels that way about her mom. Moms, quite simply, are amazing human beings, for all the reasons that have been articulated many times before--Thomas Friedman, for example, does his mother much justice on the pages of the New York Times today.

Now that most of my closest friends have becomes moms themselves, I have an entirely new appreciation for the role and I absolutely swell with pride because of the women they've become in motherhood. They are dedicated, driven, tireless, and loving. But, perhaps most impressively, each one of them has kept a healthy sense of humor, even on the most challenging days.

So, Happy Mother's all the moms in my life, most especially to Michele, who brought baby number 2 into the world on Friday and Jenn, who is welcoming baby number 3 as I type. Congratulations and cheers!

Monday, May 5, 2008

'...the Pride of Her Friends.'

In the self-created chaos of the past few months, there have been few moments that I've stopped to simply enjoy. I had missed that feeling -- those rare snippets in time when you don't care what's coming next and you've already forgotten what was bothering you 10 minutes ago.

As I entered the old, familiar lobby of that white colonial building on the west side of the Penn State campus on Friday, it was apparent that I was in for a weekend of happiness in its purest form. It's as if my group of closest friends have this magical power to calm, heal, and rejuvenate each other, without ever necessarily knowing their effect.

We descended on campus for a celebration of the 100th anniversary of Lion's Paw -- the organization I count myself eternally lucky to be part of, but never really sure how or why it happened, even 11 years after the fact. What I do know is that it has afforded me a group of people who quite simply are my family. Some of us grew up together, others watched us grow up, and now we find ourselves old enough to see an entirely new generation embarking on the paths we helped to pave. And for 100 years, the tradition continues.
Everybody (hopefully) has those people in their lives. The kind who can melt distance and time in an instant, because no matter what else is happening or has happened since you last talked, you come from the same roots. There is always respect and appreciation for where you're coming from and a common bond that has only gotten stronger as the years go on.

We were brought up on an old-fashioned diet of work hard, play hard. Together, we were taught to have the courage to take initiative when we see a not wait to be asked, to not expect payoff for doing so. We found that honest discussion among the most diverse of us led to the ability to reason together, and in turn brought out the best in all of us.

Those aren't bad values to leave college with and perhaps we didn't even realize that they were being ingrained at the time. But I don't buy the part about never receiving payoff. I left Penn State with so much more than a degree. I left with a treasure trove of friends who I am beyond grateful for every day of my life, who established my self confidence so long ago, and continue to feed my dreams today. They listen to my plans and goals and they ask how they can help make them reality. And beyond all of this, these are the people who draw out my laughter, who know better than anybody how to have a good time. Again, I ask how I got so lucky?

Here's to 100 more years, my friends...M.I.E.R.


Wednesday, April 23, 2008

An Epiphany...Or Just More Rational Thinking

I don't need to do a half ironman this season.

I know--nobody actually ever "needs" to do a half ironman. But many a triathlete has convinced herself that she must. I did one last year, so therefore, I believed that I must do one this that the ultimate goal (yes...that goal...take the "half" out of "half ironman") might be just one step closer.

But I don't need to do a half ironman this season.

Am I capable of finishing one? Yes. Absolutely. Unlike last year, I have no doubt about that. But my brain finally put a few key pieces of information together this week:

1. My bike, which I adoringly refer to as Lucifer, is still ill-fitting, after four (FOUR!) bike fits. I think it's time to face an inevitable truth that Lucifer wasn't meant for my less-than-five-foot frame.

2. Ill-fitting bikes cause injuries. I know this to be true, because at the conclusion of the last two triathlon seasons, I've had ITB issues on my right knee and lower back pain. It's really annoying to dive into fall marathon-training season with a bum right leg. And lower back pain.

3. I don't have the money right now to replace Lucifer, therefore, Lucifer and I are in for another long triathlon season together. That means I should limit the time on my bike, which limits the ability to train for that 56-mile ride that comes right smack dab in the middle of the 1.2-mile swim and the 13.1-mile run.

4. I'm moving. Where? Ultimately New York, with a possible pit stop in Pennsylvania. When? Uh, sometime in the next six weeks, in between attending bridal showers, college reunions, weddings, building my freelance work, helping get the Race with Purpose season underway, and OH YEAH, trying to find a place to live. When, exactly, am I suppose to do those long rides anyway? Or those BRick workouts? For somebody of my speed, they can take all day.

5. The nice race director at the Tupper Lake Tinman told me I could change my entry to a relay. Because my swim coaches have beaten the crap out of us for months now, I strongly believe it'd be a crime to give up the swim portion of the race. Because I have big hopes and dreams for my next marathon in November, I don't want to give up the run either. Cue my good friend Jeff, who doesn't necessarily crave a good swim and generally hates running. But the guy truly rocks on his bike. It's like it's meant to be. Our two-person half ironman relay is born.

Sometimes life gets in the way of a good plan. Like many, many others I know, I've had a hard time accepting that, and it's difficult to let go of a goal. But I also realize that trying to jam 20 pounds of potatoes into a 10-pound sack has turned me into a cranky, tired, irritable person for approximately two years now. No more...the epiphany finally happened.

I don't need to do a half ironman this season.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Remembering the Lessons Learned

Tomorrow marks the anniversary of the tragic shooting rampage at Virginia Tech University. I was going through some old e-mails and came across one that I wrote to my running team as we wrapped up that horrible week of endless news coverage at The Chronicle of Higher Education. I thought it was worth sharing.
I can't remember the last time I was so happy to see Friday. Like Michelle explained at the beginning of the week, we all have our releases and I too count running, swimming, and (sometimes) cycling among them. Unfortunately for you, you've signed on to a group that is a captive audience for my other outlet: writing. Bail now. Hit delete. I'll never know.

Most of you know that my career--the one that pays my bills--is as a reporter for a newspaper called The Chronicle of Higher Education. Busy days for us usually involve a university president getting fired, student-loan scandals, faculty members who have plagiarized, groundbreaking research, or a campus protest that got out of hand.

Obviously the week in higher education took a tragic turn on Monday morning in Blacksburg, Va. And while most of us in this newsroom have cut our teeth elsewhere, hardening us to the tragedies we often cover, this week had every journalist I work with overwhelmed with a sense of stress and sadness, and finally today, exhaustion.

Just about an hour ago, I finally finished writing the last profile of one of 33 victims. She was the captain of her high-school swim team, an environmentalist, and a person whose laugh was so genuine and loud that her professors said they could hear her coming down the hall. She had plans to travel to Zambia to start a career that would take her to the far reaches of the earth, to help those less fortunate create clean water systems. She spent her free time helping community children appreciate the outdoors and learn about science. He adviser told me that while she had the heart of an idealist, she tempered it with a healthy dose of pragmatism, never simply saying that something "should" be done, without figuring out a way to make it happen.

I wrote about a 19-year-old girl whose smile was so warm and broad, her friend told me she could put an entire room at ease without speaking a word. She didn't live long enough to declare her major, but had dreams of becoming an elementary school teacher. In the meantime she was happy playing lacrosse, baking cookies with her friends, and watching reruns of Dawson's Creek. She was killed on Monday during French class, just a few weeks shy of completing her freshman year at Virginia Tech.

So, take a look around your world this weekend and know that life is good, at least for this moment. Cliché? Yes, absolutely. But after a week of talking with those who are in such grief and despair, it's hard to ignore the fact that to care for and love your friends and family so deeply is what makes this life worth living. How many tragedies--global, national or personal--do we need to go through to finally learn?

Be generous with your compassion, be quick to forgive, be fast to laugh, and even faster to move on. Be gentle and everybody. There's not enough time to be petty. There's not enough time to be mean. There's not enough time to worry about what you can't control, or to not surround yourself with the people who encourage your dreams and support your goals--and to not choose to live your life in such a way that it's natural instinct to do the same right back.

Go to the 4-miler in the park this weekend and relish the time together. Have brunch. Eat bacon. Laugh loudly. Don't worry about the color of your singlet or the logo on your shorts. Run for the graduate student whose last phone conversation on Monday morning was with his little sister, calming her nerves and confidently saying that yes, she would finish the Boston Marathon, even though it was cold, wet, and windy--after all, they had trained together in far worse conditions in the mountains surrounding their childhood home near Penn State University.

We're all in this together, whatever "this" ends up being. So enjoy it. Every minute of it.


Tuesday, April 8, 2008

A Last Look at the Cherry Blossoms

When I looked out the window early on Sunday morning, I didn't much like what I saw. It was still dark, but the raindrops hitting the puddles below were a strong indication that it was going to be a long, cold, wet day.

This past Sunday was the Cherry Blossom 10 Miler, which is one of DC's most popular races. It has become a favorite on my race schedule year after year--I think because it marked the "beginning" for me two years ago as a runner.

Although I had run cross country though out middle and high school and have been running marathons since 2000, the year I ran the Cherry Blossom race in 2006 was really a turning point for me in the sport. It was the first I had actually trained through the winter, and the first I had ever incorporated strength, conditioning, and speed into my routine. I went from running a 1:29 in 2005 to a 1:17 just 12 months later. I astounded even myself -- I had no idea I was even capable of it until it actually happened. And it is amazing what happens when you figure out what you're capable of.

This year, however, was no 2006. For one, it wasn't warm and sunny. It was cold and rainy. And a little windy, too. The course was new and consisted of a whole bunch of out-and-backs that started to make me dizzy. But, as it turned out, that was the least of my problems.

I was fortunate enough to run with Josh, one of my Race with Purpose teammates, who is super fast, but super injured right now, hence the reason he chose to hang with me. I had wanted to see if we could stick to about a 7:45 pace, but my legs had an entirely different plan in store. From the start, they just felt heavy and tired. I had no gusto--it was a chore to keep turning them over, mile after mile. I knew pretty soon into the race that it wasn't going to be my day, so my goal was to just turn it into a tempo run and get a good workout in if nothing else...maybe try to at least run a negative split.

Josh was excellent company throughout the race and I felt bad that although the pace was a walk in the park for him, I wasn't really holding up my end of the conversation. Heavy legs plus no coffee turns me into a lame running partner, I admit.

With about a half mile to go, Josh took off. He tried to get me to go with him, but being the stubborn witch I am (sometimes), I declined for about 2 minutes and he wisely went on without me. The rain started really coming down just as we crossed the finish line, so we hurried to brunch as quickly as we could.

Somehow in the process, I lost my coveted Nike running gloves which totally bummed me out at first, but then I realized that I have never run a good race with them, so I decided they were bad luck anyway. Yes, runners are oddly superstitious. Besides, my friend Michelle brought me a new pair of Asics gloves straight from Japan -- they are like the Five Borough gloves they give out at the New York City Marathon (of which I have multiple pairs), but they have the names of Japanese towns on the fingers instead. They are my new lucky gloves, for sure, not only because they are so very cool, but because they are from Michelle, who has always been and continues to be my running hero (injured or healthy, happy or sad, running or swimming, racing or spectating -- it doesn't matter, because she rocks :-)).

So, my splits turned out like this:

Mile 1 - 8:35
Mile 2 - 8:04
Mile 3 - 7:52
Mile 4 - 7:51
Mile 5 - 7:59
Mile 6 - 7:57
Mile 7 - 8:06
Mile 8 - 8:03
Mile 9 - 7:44
Mile 10-8:03
Finish time: 1:20

Not my best performance by a long shot, but good incentive to take a look at the training plan and figure out why it's not working. Regardless, I had a great weekend with a fun group of friends, so thanks to Michelle, Sonia, Ben, Suzanne, Christine, Josh, and Bill for making the trip down here. Maybe wine and ice cream wasn't the best pre-race meal on Saturday night, but it sure tasted good.

That's it for the Cherry Blossoms this year. Here's hoping that next year brings warmer, drier weather...and a fresher pair of legs.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Happiness Is...

  1. Kicking ass during an hour-long morning hill workout.
  2. Having an entire day of challenging, rewarding, and well-paying work, with no fear of not being able to pay the bills.
  3. Getting a 3,000-meter evening swim workout finished in just less than 60 minutes.
  4. Being too warm in a light jacket on the walk home (nobody does springtime better than the states...and the District...south of the Mason-Dixon Line!).
  5. Picking up a special Ben & Jerry's treat and savoring it completely without an iota of guilt.
  6. Putting on my most comfy pajamas and being contently exhausted.
I had a really good day, and when you finally learn the true meaning of taking it one day at a time, there's nothing more satisfying than that.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Most Wonderful Time of the Year

So, DC may have its problems, but even I love the cherry blossoms. Welcome to spring in Washington! I thought it would be fun to post a few photos of what I get to see these days when I'm out for a run or a ride. It doesn't get much more beautiful than this -- especially when we locals can get out there to enjoy it before all the tourists take over.


Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Stupidity on Wheels

Warning, my friends: I'm about to rant.

I just returned from a five-mile hill workout, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I may have lost some speed since the Philadelphia Marathon, but I'm almost certain I've gained some strength since triathlon training began. It's a fair trade, I suppose.

On my way back down to my apartment, it started pouring rain. Apparently it's not supposed to stop until tomorrow, which is a shame because it's also 67 degrees outside. When you're battling Spring Fever and nature has made it impossible to take advantage of such a lovely temperature, it hardly seems, well, fair.

Anyway...all of this is really not the point. I was stopped at a red light a few blocks away when I saw something that struck me as absurd. In the middle of the usual busy, rainy-day traffic jamming the streets of our dear Nation's Capital, a woman was weaving in and out of the cars riding a bike. Wearing fashionable knee-high leather boots. With no helmet. Holding an umbrella over her head.

Ok, there are several things wrong with this scenario, none of which I probably need to point out, but I will anyway.

1. I'm all for people commuting on bikes and I truly don't care what they're wearing. I was just trying to set the scene with my snarky boots comment. Really, I'd take a gazillion people wearing inappropriate clothing to ride their bikes if it meant there would be no more silly SUVs polluting our world anymore.

2. However, there is never, ever any excuse for not wearing a helmet. I don't understand why anybody would get on a bike without wearing one. It's among the dumbest things anybody can do. Do I think that every state should enforce laws making people wear helmets? No. I don't believing in legislating common sense. But I have a really hard time feeling sorry for somebody who crack their skull in what should have otherwise been a minor bike accident. Helmets have saved lives...and if that doesn't strike a chord, they also save money. In fact, according to the Helmet Safety Institute, direct costs of cyclists' injuries due to not using helmets are estimated at $81-million each year. Indirect costs of cyclists' injuries due to not wearing helmets are estimated at $2.3-billion.

3. So back to this woman I saw earlier today. Really? You're going to protect yourself from the rain by trying to balance an umbrella over your head, while your steering your bike through rush-hour city traffic with one hand? I bet you're going to happy you stayed so nice and dry when you end up face down on the concrete with the paramedics assessing the extent of your head and body injuries.

I could go on and on all day here. But, really, what is so hard about putting a helmet on? I'm imagining that these people are the same ones who can't seem to exert the energy to put their seat belts on in the car either. Is it laziness? Just trying to look cool (whatever that is)? What is the issue? Can anybody help me out here? I mean, if it's a cost issue, there are nonprofit organizations all over the place that give the damn things out for free.

And don't even get me started about all the people in this city who ride their bikes on the sidewalk. I think I better just save that rant for another day.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Giving Big Isn't Always Easy

I watched Oprah's Big Give last night. Me and approximately 16 million other people. Oprah told me I'd be "inspired" to give big myself. She promised America that giving big is "easy."

That's when Oprah lost me.

Making a positive difference in the life of another person doesn't have to be hard and it doesn't always have to cost money. With that, I agree. But watching 10 people handpicked by Oprah's lackeys, running around unknown cities, raising thousands of dollars during the course of just a couple of days for causes already screened by television producers, makes real philanthropy look deceivingly simple. Not to mention that corporate sponsors are, of course, going to pony up with a single phone call when they've got Oprah's platform to tout their good deeds.

In real life, philanthropy doesn't work that way. It's full of rejection and disappointment, just as often as it is filled with utter joy and fulfillment. The average charity--often run by people with deep knowledge, unrelenting passion, and pure hearts--doesn't have the most powerful woman in America backing its endeavor to do good in this world. Cold calling corporations for sponsorships and approaching donors and foundations for crucial funds is hard. Plain and takes a ridiculous amount of time, energy, and tenacity to build support for a cause, no matter how much it may help the world's neediest people.

Maybe I'm a little touchy right now. I'm part of a committee that's deciding where to invest all the donations we collected during our first season of Race with Purpose. Our team raised almost $90,000 when all was said and done, and we put that money in a separate Race with Purpose fund at a private foundation. The investment committee of five team members has been devoted since October to finding the charities most closely aligned with our mission to help under-served children lead healthy, active lives.

To be blunt, the process has been exhausting. We have been rigorous in our research to ensure that our money is going to organizations that have the best shot at being successful and using our funds to have measurable, meaningful impact on the kids they serve. We created our grant-making process from scratch, writing an application, inviting our list of 20 possible grantees, getting in touch with all of them, reading through each application, and finally narrowing our choices down to four groups, all of which we then interviewed on the phone.

During the course of this experience, it was astounding to me how many charities are out there doing so many compelling things. Our "final four" is presenting us with a difficult decision, because all of them are deserving of our support. I guess the upside is that there doesn't seem to be a "wrong" decision. In the end, there are some kids out there who will inevitably live better because of the money our team raised. There is something unbelievably satisfying about that.

I don't fault Oprah for giving this reality show a whirl. The less cynical side of me truly believes that anything that can get more people to be selfless, to care about those in need, to live for something bigger than themselves, is a fantastic idea. I hope it works and I do hope that people are moved to do more good in their communities, or at the very least reach out to a friend could use support and do what you can to help. God knows you don't have to look too far to find somebody who could benefit from your kindness and concern.

My inspiration comes from the amazing committee of Race with Purpose members who have given their time, intelligence, and work ethic to help underprivileged kids--and the organizations that are doing the real work to make it happen.

And I am continually in awe of and grateful to the organization that set me on this path to begin with: Penn State Dance Marathon (Thon), the largest student-run philanthropy in the nation. Once again this year, thousands of Penn State students dedicated themselves to helping the families of children battling cancer at the Penn State Hershey Medical Center. Those students just raised a record $6,615,318.04 for the Four Diamonds Fund last weekend, meeting the challenge with the same spirit and enthusiasm they bring to the biggest Nittany Lion football games. As our beloved JoePa says of Thon, "This is what they mean when they say, 'We are Penn State.'"

Watch this snippet on CBS from my senior year of college...and be inspired.


Friday, February 22, 2008

Running Away from Flu Season

Who has the flu? Everybody, it seems. This year's strain is a particularly nasty one. I've been paranoid for a good solid month that I'm going to catch it. Every tickle in my throat or slight sniffle compels me to wash my hands (again), drink an extra glass of water, eat my veggies, and add a few more blueberries to my morning yogurt concoction.

My kitchen may soon be dubbed Antioxidants "R" Us.

But it's tricky to know when to take a day off from training in an attempt to stave off illness. Yesterday is a perfect example. I had been traveling this week and was overtired already. My throat was a little sore, I had a dull headache all day long, and just felt a bit off.

The decision I was facing: Go to swim practice, or take the day off.

Because of my traveling, I hadn't been to practice at all this week, though I had gotten some good running and cycling sessions in. The guilt of missing an entire week of swimming made it tough for me to quickly jump to the choice to skip it. Besides, there are times when a workout actually makes you feel better. Maybe this was one of those times.

With an hour left to decide, I popped a couple of Advil and took a quick hot shower (yes, I know it's weird to take a shower before working out, but sometimes it can get rid of a headache). I started to feel better, so I headed to the pool. Halfway through warm-up I knew I had made the right decision. It was a tough practice, but a good one -- I was a new woman when it was over.

It's a tricky spot to be in this time of year, when so many people around us are coughing, sneezing, and curling up in the fetal position with full body aches. My philosophy? It will never hurt to take one day off, especially if it saves you from catching something that will have you sidelined for a week or more. I was fully prepared to bag my swim if I was feeling lousy after the first set.

Listen to your body -- even if you're not training for anything or not an athlete at all, learning to recognize the signs it inevitably sends you can save a lot of grief. For me, it's time to chill out and lay low if my resting heart rate is elevated, I feel drained or unusually fatigued, I have a drop or loss of appetite, or a workout that should be easy seems hard.

When your body is fighting off an illness, you need to let it do its thing and not bother it with the nuisance of keeping your busy schedule. Take a time out. Or, as we like to say at Race with Purpose: Rest your body, or your body will rest you.

And if you do come down with the flu, my message to the world is this: FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, STAY HOME! Nobody wants you spreading your germs. And nobody is that important. We promise the world won’t end because you had to take some time off to get better.

This hereby officially ends my rant for today.