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.