Saturday, October 16, 2010

10/10/10: Hot. Or Not.

Today I made it down the stairs without looking like a nursing home escapee who forgot her walker, which is a step up from yesterday, when it took approximately 20 minutes to make it from my bed to the coffeemaker. My nose is an alarming shade of red, compliments of what I believe to be the worst head cold known to man. My knee? It’s sporting the kind of scrapes it hasn’t seen since the playground days, though they are camouflaged by a layer of purple bruises—because my dog turned an evening walk into a distressing game of tug-of-war, which, in my weakened state, I clearly lost.

Yesterday I noticed the second toe on my left foot is black. I have no idea why.

But what I do know is what happens to all those people who actually finish marathons as fast as they possibly can. Here I am, five days removed from the 2010 Chicago Marathon, and frankly I still want my mommy.

Truth be told, it’s the kind of bodily damage I had secretly always wondered if I’d achieve. I wanted the aftermath of a marathon to tell me this story—that’d I’d done absolutely all I could do out there, that every ounce of months of training was put to good use, that the endless time and energy my coach generously gave me was not wasted.

Mission accomplished. When I finished the race in 3:19:22, with the temperature in downtown Chicago closing in on 85 degrees, my head, feet, legs, and arms throbbed. I’m almost certain my hair, eyelashes, and teeth hurt. My first reaction was pure joy with a new best time, in less-than-ideal conditions. My second was pure panic that I’d never make it back to the hotel—a two-mile walk that may have taken me longer to complete than the 26.2 miles that came before it.

In the midst of all the physical pain, though, is a lot of happy bewilderment. I started running marathons ten years ago this fall—I completed the 2000 New York City Marathon almost exactly one hour slower than the 2010 Chicago Marathon. Ten years. One hour. I look at the finish line photo of that younger, slightly bigger, cotton-shirt-wearing version of myself and want to tell her that she didn’t just check a to-do off of some life list, that because of this sport she’ll make friends with amazing people, visit places she’d otherwise never see, learn how to deal with triumphs and disappointments with equal grace, teach kids how to lead healthy lives, and discover that most limitations in life are completely self-imposed. I also want to give her some friendly fashion advice, but I’ll save that for another time.

Prior to 10/10/10 there was a sneaky part of my brain I didn’t know about that let the rest of me off the hook when the going got tough. I’ve crossed many, many finish lines with new best times, but with a gnawing intuition that I could’ve gone faster, not really knowing why I didn’t. I felt it coming on as it got hotter and hotter throughout Sunday’s race. There were many valid reasons to cut myself some slack—or even consider not finishing, saving my hard-earned fitness for a better day—and nobody would’ve thought less of me.

But as the doubts crept in, I knew enough this time to replace them with other thoughts. I mostly had flashbacks to early morning track workouts at 7,000 feet in the weeks before the race, following my coach, Mike, around and around that damn oval despite the hurt—his way of showing me the paces I am capable of, which I otherwise wouldn’t believe. I remembered the text he sent me as I headed to the starting line that morning—something he’s had to tell me more than once in two years: “You can do more than you think you can. Don’t underestimate yourself out there.”

And so, for the final four miles, when I considered slowing to a walk several times, I repeated it in my sloppy, increasingly sweaty, sun-burned head. “You can do more than you think you can. You can do more than you think you can. You can do more than you think you can.”

Mike’s words and his confidence got me all the way to the finish, though as soon as I stopped and wobbled toward the Gatorade, the dam I had built to temporarily hold all those doubts back, broke—and they flooded my head. I was convinced I was not the kind of runner who could drop eight minutes under a hot Chicago sun, as everybody around me legitimately grumbled and cried about terrible races and many more sought wheel chairs to the medical tent. So I stumbled toward my bag, grabbed my phone, and called Mike to confirm what the time on my watch was telling me. I can only hope it made him laugh.

Post-race milkshakes with friends. It's what's for dinner.

I know my body will soon heal and catch up with my mind and my spirit, which have already moved on to dreaming about new possibilities, cautiously optimistic that one day I will pick a race that defies global warming. For now, however, I’m taking refuge on the couch, grateful for a successful weekend made so much sweeter by the time spent with some of my favorite people, the love, support, and encouragement sent by family and friends, and the knowledge that no matter how annoying it might seem, my coach is almost always right. I can do more than I think I can.

Now, who wants to walk my dog for me this week?

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Boston, the Conclusion: Peace and Pink Tutus

Ok, so the Boston Marathon was five months ago. In five months time a gal can see 26.2 miles in about ten gazillion different ways. Perspective changes, goes away, comes back, and changes again. This story has been altered, many, many times.

I remember the first thought I had, immediately after crossing the finish line and maybe that’s the tale I should tell. Whatever my initial impressions are—for better or worse—the first person to hear them is always my trusty coach, who oh-so-patiently endures a gamut of emotions before and after a race. When I finally qualified for Boston, at the Philly Marathon back in 2008, with an 11-minute personal best time to boot, I blurted out, “Mike, I thought I’d be faster.” I could feel his eyes rolling through the phone and I’m pretty sure I should be grateful for the 2,500 miles that separated us back then. This time, my first reaction was, “Mike! That was the most fun I’ve ever had running a marathon!”

(Editor’s Note: In the interest of full disclosure, I later questioned…more than once… “Mike, why didn’t I run faster?” The first step is recognizing the problem, right?)

Given the events of the year prior, I didn’t allow myself to ever fully believe I was running the race, until I found myself in the starting corral. Then I wondered how, exactly, I ended up there. The road to Boston was not direct, as I’ve alluded to before. It went through New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, DC, back to Philadelphia, spent some time in Saylorsburg, and eventually found its way to Flagstaff, AZ, in the dead of the worst winter the town has seen in decades, apparently. I never realized I had the tenacity to keep a dream alive through all of that. But I do, and that’s good to know.

And so there I was, at the start of the 114th Boston Marathon, with my new Flagstaff friend, Anna, by my side. Smiles all around, until out of the corner of my eye I saw a flash of pink. There he was. Again. Pink Tutu Man.

Pink Tutu Man is a middle-aged bald guy who sports a pink tutu, pink racing singlet, and carries a pink magic wand. He’s everywhere on the road racing circuit and I’m 99 percent certain I’ve found myself staring him down at every race I’ve entered in the past five years. While we’re roughly the same pace, the dude always beats me. And he’s not nice about it. At all. As he passes his nearby competitors, he taunts along the way, “HA! Look at you! You’re getting beat by a guy in a pink tutu!”

Seriously. Do you know what it’s like to be defeated—multiple times—by a man dressed like that?

But this was my Boston Marathon and I refused to let the man in pink steal my fun or my pace. If I’ve learned nothing else over the years, it’s to run my own race. One day my own race will end sooner than Pink Tutu Man’s.

I’m not sure what else I can say about the experience of the Boston Marathon that hasn’t already been said. It lives up to the hype, the history, and contrary to what some people say these days, it lives up to the prestige. I’d earned my spot there and there’s something magical about running against a group of people who did the same. There is respect for the distance and the race in Boston, not just from the athletes, but from the millions of people who support it as volunteers and line the course, screaming for hours on Marathon Monday. The atmosphere is extraordinary and at times, just gave me chills.

And so instead of paying too much attention to the clock or to any other costumed runners in our midst, I found myself just thoroughly enjoying the experience—a departure from any other race I’ve finished. I couldn’t help myself from actually having fun and soaking it all in. Maybe it was the oxygen-rich air (sea level might be my new favorite thing in the world), but I was happy. For the first time since I picked up my life and moved it across the country, I was running free. For exactly three hours and 27 minutes I wasn’t the new girl in town any more. I didn’t have to introduce myself to anybody or wonder if I would ever make new friends. I didn’t have to put on a happy face or feel awkward at yet another social event where I didn’t know anybody. I didn’t have to muster courage or fight fear that I’d never fit in. I didn’t have to worry about saying the wrong thing. All I had to do was run and it felt like pure peace.

I don’t know how it happened, but I’ve been at this marathon game for ten years. I now see that each race is its own chapter. I look back on my first marathon and recall some of the most exciting, friendship-and-adventure-filled, 20something, wide-eyed New York City years of my life. The Marine Corps Marathon conjures memories of turning 30, moving to Washington, DC, and starting a new job all within seven days. The Philadelphia Marathon (Part Two) came while I was wondering where to go next and knowing that temporarily living on a lake in the middle of nowhere was the best answer for the time being.

And then came Boston, when running was the one thing I could turn to during the most difficult transition of my life. The training itself was far from perfect, but the act of moving forward every day saved me from homesickness, self doubt, loneliness, and the darkness of a seemingly never-ending winter. Without it, I’m pretty sure the U-Haul would’ve done a quick u-turn back to the East Coast.

As I turned that corner onto Boylston, the finish line finally in view, it represented so much more than just the end of another race. In many ways, it marked a beginning. I crossed the line a few seconds behind Anna, but three minutes faster than ever before, feeling more like the confident, comfortable gal I’d like to believe I really am.

“Congratulations,” a fellow runner said, lingering near the fabled finish.

“Thanks,” I said, as I turned to see a bald middle-aged man in a pink tutu.

“You’re toast at Chicago,” I thought, heading to my phone, eager to once again share my first impressions and start writing the next chapter.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Boston 2010 (Part I): Mind over Matter

I was the slowest girl. Always. And it never bothered me. At all.

I had shelves lined with spirit awards and participant certificates, while the majority of my friends had blue ribbons, first-place medals, records, and state titles. The one trophy I managed to bring home is still proudly on display in my childhood bedroom back in Hershey: a hard-fought seventh-place finish at a middle school Thanksgiving cross country invitational. I imagine most of the kids in Central Pennsylvania were enjoying a plate of turkey and mashed potatoes that day, but I couldn’t have been more thrilled.

Sports were never going to be my ticket to college, but it wasn’t for lack of hard work and dedication. By the time I headed off to Penn State, I had fourteen years of (year-round) competitive swimming and seven years of cross country under my belt, but not enough talent to continue in either sport. I took the usual array of deep friendships, lessons, values, work ethic, and memories that kids carry with them for the rest of their lives and, quite honestly, couldn’t have asked for greater gifts than those.

What I lacked throughout those years, besides the sheer strength and body mass most children my age were developing, was the ability to move beyond expectations. I didn’t have that instinct to believe that I could do any better than what the people around me thought I could do. I was expected to win essay contests. So I did. Lots of them. I was told early on that math wasn’t my strength, so I was happy with B’s. Besides an early knack for skiing, when it came to athletics, I was small and slow. And so I always believed I was, well, small and slow. And that was okay.

While I had a competitive streak inside me, it wasn’t often ignited in the most traditional fashion. My coach screaming from the pool deck did little to make me move any faster, but when my biology teacher promised a scoop of ice cream at lunch if I finished in the top three in the 500 freestyle, I came in a surprise second-place at the meet that night, beating a couple of stunned teammates.

I took that pre-existing condition into adulthood, as I eased my way back into jogging regularly. When I moved to New York and did my first road race—the Gridiron 5K on Super Bowl Sunday—I was content to hit 10-minute miles. The 5Ks turned into 10Ks, which turned into my first half marathon, which turned into my first New York City Marathon.

It was the encouragement of good friends, who promised blueberry pancakes after every finish line (noticing a trend here?), that kept me climbing the ladder…at a steady 10-minute-mile pace. It never occurred to me that I could run any faster than that, no matter what the distance. In my mind, I was still small and slow. Any finish time was a good one and a reason to be proud—besides, the New York City lifestyle wasn’t doing my not-as-small physique any favors.

For the next few years I happily marked fall by completing another 26.2 miles. I finished all of them in 4:17. I get points for consistency. During that time, I’d hear friends discussing loftier goals, like qualifying for the Boston Marathon. I never even dared to dream of breaking four hours. The thought of running a 3:40 qualifying time wasn’t even a fleeting notion. I knew my limit and 4:17 was it.

But the more I ran and the more friends of varying abilities I collected along the way, the more running became less of a hobby and more of a lifestyle. It evolved from an interest to more of a passion. Suddenly the determination I had always brought to excelling in other aspects of life, like my career, was trickling into my training. As I ran with the 10-minute pace group, I eyed the 9:30s. When that became too easy, I joined the 9s.

Confidence grew as I immersed myself in training and because of the help, advice, and encouragement of many more people than I could possibly name. Along with it, my running ability evolved. One day I realized that the people I routinely completed long runs with were setting (and achieving) goals like qualifying for the Boston Marathon. Making their goal my own didn’t seem like a silly consideration anymore. I just had no idea what awaited me on the road to Hopkinton.

It would be years. I would live in three different states. I would start new jobs. I would quit them. Extraordinary people would believe in me. Other people would discourage me. I’d have my heart broken. It would mend. I’d celebrate huge breakthroughs. Then I’d get hurt. I’d get better. I'd learn how to take care of myself. I’d be challenged by a new coach to do things I would have once written off as absurd and beyond me.

My life would look completely different than it did that day I finally mustered up the courage to say out loud, “I want to qualify for the Boston Marathon.”

But not once would I ever think of myself as small and slow again.

(To be continued.)

Monday, March 1, 2010

Thon On

I had my running gear on late last Sunday morning, but there I sat in my family room staring out the window at what is an all-too familiar scene in Flagstaff. Snow. Wind. Cold. And a hill workout ahead of me.

I couldn’t push myself out the door, wasting lots of time on Facebook, returning e-mails that could’ve waited, watching the cable television I decided to install for the first time in my adult life (for the record, I’m not yet convinced it’s a wise investment…), lamenting the departure of a BFF who had been visiting from L.A. for the weekend…generally wallowing in lethargy, feeling less than enthusiastic about running and life in general.

I was in search of inspiration and in a very shameless, 2010 way of dealing with such a quandary, I posted my quest for motivation on my status update. Desperate times, friends, desperate times.

Then a very un-Facebook thing happened. It served a purpose. My friends came through— real ones, like people I can communicate with regularly without typing on any electronic devices (as it turns out, my phone has a nifty function that allows for voice transmission, which facilitates a custom from days of yore called a conversation. Who knew?).

A couple of these for-real friends simply posted a link and told me to click on it. I followed their directions. I wasn’t disappointed.

In front of me, a live feed from Penn State’s Bryce Jordan Center, where thousands of students, alumni, kids, and their families come together each February for the weekend-long Penn State Dance Marathon, affectionately known to most of us as Thon. And while the no sleeping, no sitting, two-day dance party is the main event, it is really the culmination of a year-long fund-raising effort by Penn State students that benefits the Four Diamonds Fund, which supports families battling pediatric cancer at the Penn State Hershey Medical Center.

It is the largest student-run philanthropy in the nation. Since 1973, it’s raised almost $70 million--$7.8 million this year alone (yes, $7.8 million during a recession. Take a moment to let that sink in…). It involves 15,000 student volunteers, 700 dancers, and an experience I am still unable to adequately put into words.

This was one of the first Thon weekends I’ve missed—a byproduct of my grand experiment of living 2,500 miles away. But I tuned into that live feed just as “Family Hour” was beginning, when the children receiving cancer treatment and their families stand before the tens of thousands of students, many of whom have been on their feet for more than 40 hours, to say the most heartfelt, emotional, meaningful “thank you” you’ll ever hear. Ever. If you’re left untouched or unmoved, I promise that you do not possess a heart.

A boy took the microphone and declared to the packed house in front of him that he didn’t come to talk about his cancer, or really any of the “bad stuff.” He preferred to talk about why he loved Thon and why he is grateful for all that is good in his life. Not more than 11 years old—most of which has been spent within the confines of a hospital, battling for his life—he could find more to be happy about and thankful for than most adults I know. Myself included.

In that moment, I started remembering where I came from, where I learned about the person I wanted to become, and what I wanted to do with my life. Being involved in Thon during such formative years was a little bit of magic. We found out, perhaps too early in life, what can happen when passionate, intelligent, energetic, dedicated, and downright fun people come together and pour themselves into every detail and logistic of a cause they wholeheartedly believe in. Every year a new group of students do as we once did: push themselves to make the effort more successful than the last, in order to make life better for people who need it. They find out along the way that when they look outside themselves—in big ways and small—not only are they making their little piece of the world a better place, but their own lives are happier and more fulfilled because of it.

It was a utopia (Thontopia?!), of course. Many of us often joke that it was a rude awakening when we were sprung from that bubble, hatched into the cruel realities of the “real world,” where so many obstacles get in the way of simply doing good. The basic lessons always stick though: do nice things for others, work hard, and be grateful. Not hard to do, but unfortunately far easy to forget in the rigors of everyday life.

I took a little personal inventory as Thon continued on my computer screen. I didn’t really enjoy what I saw, knowing that the past few months had largely been all about me: moving, shoveling, adjusting, getting sick, getting better, being injured, healing, good running, bad running, water damage, work stress. The list could go on, but only if I allowed it to. No wonder I felt lethargic—self pity takes a lot of energy.

So I headed outside for that hill workout in the snow and wind and cold, which at that point seemed largely inconsequential in the grand scheme. I thought about how my very first “marathon” had nothing to do with running, but it—and the kids—taught me how to stand, in so many ways, even when it seemed impossible. Thon gave me four words to live by—Four Diamonds—I continually recite in my head when the day seems long: courage, wisdom, honesty, and strength.

So, yeah. Inspiration and motivation? Apparently I have all I need to last a lifetime, if I only remember it’s there. Status update not required.