Thursday, November 12, 2009

Go West (Part IV): Pines and Peaks

“Traveling…forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things—air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky—all things tending toward the eternal, or what we imagine of it.” –Cesare Pavese

When I decided I would head to Flagstaff for the Run S.M.A.R.T. Project Retreat, I didn’t know anybody else who had committed to it—a departure for somebody who has spent a decade worth of summers on vacation with 20 best college friends, in a massive house, on a beach, with unlimited, familiar amounts of laughter and antics. Would I make friends? Will I die of an asthma attack (or sheer embarrassment) at 7,000 feet on some random trail in the woods? Will I be too slow? What if nobody wants to run with me?

For a split second, I had all the anxieties of my 8-year-old self going to my first sleep-away swim camp. I also remembered that even back then I always managed to find somebody to eat lunch with.

So I registered. It was early spring—my focus squarely on Boston, my fitness at its peak, my confidence soaring. The thought of spending a week in a place that seemed a little magical and mystical to me, exploring the trails where the fastest runners in the world train, and having the opportunity to share the experience with a group of new people sounded like a fine way to jolt me out of my routine.

It was pre-injury. Pre-Boston Marathon deferment. Pre-disappointment. Pre-aggravation with all-things running. The week before I headed west, my hamstring relapsed into a painful state and was trying desperately to drag my spirit down with it. Thankfully, my head is by far my strongest asset and my saving grace (except, of course, when it’s really not…). Besides, what’s a little leg pain when you’re preoccupied with gasping for limited amounts of oxygen anyway?

We walked into the Embassy Suites lobby and were warmly welcomed to Flagstaff by my coach, Mike, who has lived there for about three years. Any trepidation I was harboring by that point vanished—the mark of a great coach is often an infectious enthusiasm at just the right time, and I won the jackpot when I signed on with Mike more than a year ago. His love of Flagstaff, of running, of fun, and of people made it impossible to be anything but eager for what the week held. And the fact that e-mails, phone calls, and texts had been our sole sources of connection for so long made the time together there even more meaningful.

On our first early morning run in Buffalo Park, I got my chance to meet the peaks and the pines, looming in front of us as the group embarked on its first jaunt. Finally, I understood what all the Flagstaff fuss was about—I was completely distracted by the surroundings, the cool, fresh morning air, and the opportunity to run with others, after a year of training nearly 100 percent by myself.

It marked the beginning of a week’s worth of breathtaking morning runs that gave us just a small taste of the endless trails to explore. It was the kind of training that never required a watch to keep track of pace or mileage—the altitude giving permission to run easy, the beauty and the company giving reason to simply savor each moment. The early hours gave way to leisurely breakfasts, which eased into afternoon sessions with a few of the best and brightest in the sport, generously sharing their time and expertise in everything from nutrition and fueling to injury prevention, recovery, and the art and science behind fitness and performance. There was gait analysis and track drills, an afternoon dip in a cold Sedona creek, and a “recovery day” of hiking at the Grand Canyon.

It was part vacation, part running camp. There was a lot to learn, more to observe, plenty to absorb. Lessons learned? Yes, plenty. A few in unexpected places:

Lesson 1: Choose wisely. When you enter a university cafeteria for lunch, give yourself one extra minute to really think through your options. Be cautious. And never, ever consume a tuna fish sandwich.

Lesson 2: Live and learn. So, you opted for the tuna fish. Fine. Now you’ll be throwing it up (and much more) all night long. If the running and altitude haven’t already caused dehydration, your body is certainly thanking you now for pushing it right over the edge, and adding a gigantic calorie deficit and sleep deprivation to the mix. By 6 a.m., though, it’ll be time to put on a happy face and head to Sedona, where you’ll fake your way through a run, jump in a creek, and pose for a Runner’s World photo shoot, knowing full well that when that issue hits the newsstand in the spring, your only thought will be, “I’m never eating tuna again.”

Lesson 3: Be grateful. I was truly surrounded by some of the kindest people in the world that week, which I would’ve recognized under normal circumstances, however I obviously added an entirely new dimension to the experience. Does your coach bring you smoothies when you’re sick? Or take you to Starbucks as soon as you’re all better? Mine does. Do your friends stay in, eat ice cream (yep, finally had reason and opportunity to visit Dairy Queen), and watch bad reality television with you when you’re not feeling well? Mine do (thanks, KC!). I even dragged myself out of the Grand Canyon, fueled by nothing but a handful of dry Cheerios, an obscene amount of Gu2O, and the constant encouragement of two fantastic hiking buddies (thanks Sue and Everett!).

Lesson 4: Laugh it off. I mean, really, if you can get through a bout of food poisoning and still manage to have an absolutely amazing experience, you know it was worth the price of admission and much, much more. Run S.M.A.R.T. put together an extraordinary week, with just the right balance of work and play. And they were relentless in their effort of ensuring everybody was having fun. If I wasn’t laughing or smiling through most of it, I have to think it was my own fault (see Lesson 1).

Last, but certainly not least, Lesson 5: It should always be about more than running. My favorite part of this sport is the ways in which it enriches every other part of my life. Thus, the best parts of the week were when conversations turned from calorie counting, PRs, racing goals, and training gear, to something more substantial (like Death Cab for Cutie, for example ;)). With any luck at all, while running may have brought this and many other groups together, the reward is when we look around the dinner table each night and it doesn’t much matter who is gunning for Boston, or is a world champion duathlete, or an Olympic trials qualifier, or the “World’s Best Coach.” The joy isn’t in discovering who wants to break 3 hours in a marathon or has found the ultimate training shoe. It’s finding out that the woman at the end of the table is on her first vacation in 14 years, the guy sitting next to you was on life support five years ago, the man across the table once landed a plane in some random farmer’s field during a blizzard, and a few people who were once just acquaintances have evolved into cherished friends.

Clearly I learned a lot…about running, about myself, about making smart sandwich decisions, and about the people around me. What I didn’t know, however, was that I had one more discovery to make, on the most beautiful run yet.

(To be continued…)