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