Three and a half years, one microdiscectomy, and a new puppy later, a new chapter begins…
Three and a half years, one microdiscectomy, and a new puppy later, a new chapter begins…
The eight weeks in Truckee were magic. The improbable occurred: I became a better runner by being less of a runner.
In four years of long distance running, I just assumed that to run better, one had to run. I ignored the occasional nuggets of wisdom from my trainer and triathlete friends that one should also spend time doing other things like strength and cross-training. The longer my distance goal, the more I ignored that advice. When I trained for marathons, literally all I did was run, because I simply had no time to do anything else. It was an unfortunate catch-22.
This summer proved without a doubt that you can’t be a solid runner without also being generally fit. After all, the body does not operate in isolation. There were also psychological benefits to scattering my focus a bit. It prevented me from getting bored and burning out.
My take-home prize from the summer up in the mountains was running superpowers. I could bang out an 8:30 pace anywhere, anytime without trying — a full minute per mile faster than 8 weeks prior. For anyone who is skeptical about the benefits of proper training, I tell you once again: training is a beautiful thing.
I was fully primed for Hood to Coast. I nailed my pace targets for all three of my legs, did not let my team down, did not bonk. I had never felt so comfortable in a race. I kept thinking, “Wow, this is how it feels to be perfectly trained!” but in truth I was probably overtrained. My track coach friend would have told me that if I felt that good in a race, then I wasn’t pushing a real race pace. I thought of that too on my first two legs, but having never done a relay before, I erred on the side of caution. I decided not to go guns ablazin’ at the beginning so I could avoid crashing and burning in the end. But in the end, I wasn’t fully tapped. I had held back too much. It was just too hard to believe that I could run in the 8’s repeatedly without coming close to sucking wind.
My superpowers lingered for a good month beyond Hood to Coast, but something strange happened. I lost my desire to run. Instead of capitalizing on my fitness and signing up for a slew of races to set new PRs, I ran one race (got a shiny new 10K PR) and otherwise felt very little motivation to run. I felt no hunger to achieve any goal. Ho hum.
What happened? Hood to Coast. I had reached the pinnacle of my running adventures. I had finally run the illustrious H2C and executed it to the best of my ability. And I guess the aftermath of all that is feeling the need to close the book on my running story. I guess when you finally get to the top of the mountain after a long journey, the last thing you want is to go back down and make the same trek back up. You put a notch on your belt and move on. You embark on a different trek, strive to reach a different summit.
In the past I’ve experienced how failure drives us to succeed. Now I’m learning that success is a short-lived thrill. Getting the prize is nice, but what makes me feel most alive is fighting for it.
You don’t go up to the Sierra Nevada to run on roads. You just don’t. Roads can be found anywhere. Challenging switchback trails through alpine greenery accompanied by bright blue skies, crisp air and just about perfect running temperature — those things you can’t find just anywhere. In Truckee, when you ask about a running route, the locals point you to trails. So this summer I took to the trails, and they chewed me right up.
I was a sea level dweller aspiring to run at 6000+ feet. I was also primarily a road runner. And apparently, unbeknownst to me, I was a green-behind-the-ears hill runner. For someone who lives in a city famous for its hills, I had relatively few hilly miles under my belt. That shortcoming was not tolerated on the North Tahoe trails.
I can safely say that of all my summer escapades, the trail runs were the toughest. Nothing quite made my heart jump out of my chest like a 90-minute trail run. Nothing made me sweat more. Nothing made me feel more dejected than the feeling of going nowhere fast because the ground absorbed all my energy and the rocks begged to throw me off balance with every step. And yet, once the beating was over, nothing made me feel more alive. There is something very primal and spiritual about roaming through nature on foot. No road, no cars, no town. Just you, the ground beneath and the sky above. Add to that the determination required to spring up into a jog when normal walking would be challenging enough. Trail running is hardcore.
If you ever find yourself near Truckee in the summer and are looking for an adventure, check out these runs:
Northstar Mountain Run
10.2k and 2280′ vertical to the top of Mt. Pluto. A religious experience not to be missed. Race takes place each year around mid-August.
Squaw Mountain Run
Same concept as the Northstar one but even steeper — 3.6 miles and 2000′ vertical. I haven’t run this one yet; it’s on my list. Race occurs every year in early August.
A rock-n-rolling 9-mile single-track loop that gives way to some magnificent ridge-top vistas. It is a mountain biking favorite so look out for wheels. Oodles of rocks and scree and tree roots will ensure you stay alert, not to mention give your stabilization muscles a workout.
Something magical happened to me on those trails. It wasn’t until weeks later after I had already left the mountains that I noticed. I had been beaten down, but lo and behold I was also mended. I had come home with prize as unexpected as a winning lottery ticket.
To be continued in Part 5: Take-home prize
Due to unprecedented rainstorms in the Bay Area, the NFEC this year was one wet, muddy adventure. There was not a dry foot in sight. We lucked out with relatively mild temps (low 60’s) and no rain by the time our event began (11 a.m.). There was a slight tailwind going uphill that translated into a headwind coming down. The true challenge was the slippery sloshy terrain at the top and on the descent. I now know what it feels like to inadvertently glissade down a trail at 85% effort. It’s a miracle I didn’t do a face plant or pop a joint.
“HILL ME NOW” TEAM STATS
4:14:33 (22nd out of 59)
Splits (6.56-mile legs)
I was thrilled with my time since I was not in great form going into this race. A pesky recurring virus took me down every 10 or so days between mid-October and 5 days before the event. Then a surprise episode of vertigo 6 days beforehand made me wonder if I should run at all. In the end I decided to go for it because I was tired of being a sloth. I set modest goals to have fun, complete the ascent without stopping, make it through unscathed, and match or better my time from two years ago (1:06:28). All were met. It was a great day. Thank you, running gods.
Our shoes before…and after
I’ve always been somewhat scared of the water. I know how to swim. I can get from one end of the pool to the other and maneuver for short distances in a lake or the ocean. But I would harbor varying degrees of anxiety doing it. I was a chicken.
I hated feeling this way. It limited my enjoyment of the natural world, and now that I am a mother of boys who have no fear of the water, it limits my ability to keep my kids safe or at least have fun with them. I needed to set things right.
In July I signed up for evening adult swim classes for a week — one hour a day for five days. The morning of day one, I got a call from the instructor. I expected to hear that class was canceled due to underenrollment. Instead she told me that because I was the only person enrolled, I could pick a more convenient time to have the lessons if I wanted, and, yes, they would be one on one. Panic. I should have been thrilled but all I could think was that I did not want all that attention on me.
Day one of the lesson: I met my instructor. Her name was Anna and she was a competitive swimmer through high school and college. She also coordinated all the summer swim lessons for our neighborhood recreation center. Teaching qualifications – check. She asked about me. I told her about my panic attack in Donner Lake last summer 20 yards into my swim (basically I got early stage hypothermia, felt like I had a piano on my chest, and could not get any power in my limbs). So my goal, I told her, was not to be in that position again. I wanted get better at swimming, to feel comfortable doing it, and ultimately, to do a triathlon. She responded that the first step was to get a wet suit if I wanted to attempt Donner again. The rest she would help me with. She asked me to swim a freestyle lap so she could assess me. When I finished, she said I was actually better than some students she has had who had triathlons under their belt. Huh. Who woulda thunk it? She gave me tips on improving my freestyle then moved to breast stroke, which she was excited to work on because most triathletes use it as a fallback when they need a break. It turned out the breast stroke was the farthest thing from a break for me. It is powered by all the areas where I am weak: chest, upper back, abdomen, glutes and inner thighs. I also had been doing it all wrong, breathing at the wrong time, pulling my arms back the wrong way. What a mess.
Day two: I rushed through 8:30 a.m. drop offs at soccer camp, then rushed home to get my swim stuff. With 10 minutes to go before my lesson, I plopped my gear in the back of my SUV, went to close the tail gate and heard a loud BONK! Just as I pondered where that noise came from, a dull ache came over my skull. That bonk was the sound of the corner of the tail gate door slamming down on my head. I touched the spot that the pain radiated from, looked at my fingers, and saw blood. I called Anna, “Um, I’m sorry to do this but I think I have to cancel today…,” explaining my predicament. She understood, hoped everything was okay. Then I went upstairs to look in the mirror. Yep, definitely still bleeding. I got on the Internet, googled “head laceration treatment.” I wanted to know if I needed to see a doctor or if I could just put antibiotic and a band-aid on it. The rule of thumb, apparently, is if the cut is longer than 1 1/2 inches and “smiles” (gives way and curves) when pinched, you need to seek medical attention. Dang, I thought. How was I going to get this done and pick up my kids in three hours?
Day three: Seven staples, a good night’s rest, and a swim cap later, I was back at the pool. The nurse told me I could swim as long as I covered my head and kept the suture dry. The order of the day was more freestyle, working on turning my body to face the opposite direction as the reaching arm (not staying flat), keeping the hand of the reaching arm close enough to graze the side body from hip to armpit, then extending the arm as far forward as possible before pulling back, not spreading my fingers apart while doing all this, and keeping the legs lifted as close as possible to the surface of the water (not letting them drag down). I also worked on breast stroke fixes — snapping the legs together so that they touch and shooting the arms straight ahead quickly after the pullback.
Day four: I was sore. My chest and inner thighs killed, evidence of having swum more breast stroke in 72 hours than I had my entire life. Anna reminded me that the only way to get over the soreness is to get the muscles accustomed to doing the work. So we did more breast stroke. Then she figured she’d give me a break and try out a couple fun things. Well, unlike the breast stroke, where I felt I had some potential to improve, two swimming skills my body simply was not designed for were the side stroke and flip turns. The side stroke was a sinking exercise for me. And my flip turns came out lopsided every time. I was so hopeless, it was comical. “So when you’re doing a triathlon, you’ll want to stick to the freestyle,” Anna advised.
Day five: We went to the back stroke. On the demo lap, I rocketed across and back, realizing something odd — it felt like no effort. I asked Anna, “That felt easy – why?” She chuckled and said, “Because you’re a runner. That stroke is powered by legs, not arms.” Eureka – I found my fallback stroke! If only I had eyes on top of my head.
Make up lesson: Anna gave me an extra day because of the day two debacle. We reviewed freestyle and breast stroke. Both felt more natural now. My rhythm was still off for breast stroke but I felt nimble and lithe doing freestyle. “You look comfortable and you’re actually getting fast. Remember to slow down to a pace where you can keep swimming longer,” Anna reminded me. Yes, of course; basic endurance strategy. She videotaped me doing freestyle and proudly announced that I had improved by leaps and bounds in just a week. I graduated. Frankenfish (yes, the staples were still in my head) was freed to practice swimming on her own.
I needed no egging to go to the pool. First of all, the Summer Olympics were happening at the time and Team USA swimmers were sweeping up medals left and right. When you see folks swim so powerfully and elegantly, it takes your breath away. It makes you love the sport. What’s more, the pool became my refuge. It was a warm, refreshing and peaceful place to retreat to after a hot grueling run. Swimming was also something new and therefore interesting. I had no expectations and therefore could go easy on myself. Every lap in the pool was a personal best. That’s the beauty of trying new things. You can only get better at it.
My eight-year-old still swims better than me (he’s the one who did the kiddie triathlon this summer), but at least I feel like the swimming pool is my friend. Next I need to make friends with the open water. I’ll save that for next summer. This chicken might one day become a fish after all.
To be continued in Part 4: Tough as trails
That title was penned in jest.
In truth my biggest fear while up in Truckee was that I would blow my training for Hood to Coast because of the cards stacked against me: the altitude (6000-6600 feet), the hilly terrain and the usual distractions of summer in paradise. Here I was finally going to experience the Hood to Coast relay. I didn’t know how serious of a runner my teammates were but I refused to become the deadweight. So I set out to be 100% ready to do my share. Lean and mean was never the goal. Just in shape to give a solid effort.
My preparation can be best summarized as “opportunistic training loosely based on the Ryan Hall Half Marathon plan.” It was summer, and I have kids, so things had to be fitted in on whatever days they could. The plan provided clear targets. I adapted purposefully around them.
There were a few key elements that I knew, based on prior experience with the training plan and my own quirks, were non-negotiable. One, I had to adhere to the prescribed paces — no faster and no slower. Two, I could not skip the speed work. And three, I had to cross- and strength-train.
Within those boundaries, I began tinkering. The first big switch-up was to focus more on speed than distance. A running coach friend said that for relay racing it was more important to get used to running fast each time you run than to run long. The same point was made in various articles I found online. They all concurred that to train optimally for a relay, specificity is key. This meant practicing the individual distances and target paces, if possible on the same (or harder) type of terrain for each leg.
Truckee proved to be the perfect training ground for my H2C legs, which were 4.84 miles flat and paved, 4.18 miles rolling hills and paved, and 7.2 miles uphill mostly unpaved. The 6-mile tempos along Donner Lake and 5-mile tempos on the Legacy Trail strengthened my legs for rolling hills. The 800s at 5K pace – to the point of visibly gritting my teeth and feeling like I was about to puke and pee my pants at the same time – gave my neuromuscular system a jolt. The hilly roads in my neighborhood tested my resolve on hot afternoons to keep the legs turning and not stop or walk. And the trails familiarized me with the leg and lung burn associated with continuous climbing on uneven ground. Two weeks before H2C, my training peaked with a 6-mile, 2280-foot trot to the summit of Mount Pluto in Northstar. I had no fear of hills left in me after that.
The Legacy Trail
Other changes had to do with being flexible, listening to my body and not spoiling my summer. I would miss a workout (or two or three) because I had no childcare or made social plans, then have to decide whether to move the runs to another day or scrap the entire week and reattempt them the following week. I would listen to my body and err on the side of taking it easy. If I was struggling to complete workouts, I would repeat them rather than move ahead.
And by the way, I struggled a lot. If there was a phrase to be emblazoned on the tombstone of my summer training cycle, it would be: “Truckee Summer 2012, wherein Tita struggled.” I rarely felt good during a run. Even when I podiumed at a race, I did not feel like a winner. It took me four weeks to complete a prescribed speed workout on pace. I ended up falling permanently two weeks behind schedule. I sank to a very low place during the eight weeks. I found that the only way out of the doldrums was to accept struggle as a necessary part of training…and to indulge in diversions.
Diversions consisted of any and all other opportunities to be active. If someone invited me to run a trail on a tempo run day, I went on the trail run and called it tempo workout, figuring the effort was probably about the same. I played tennis with friends, biked with my kids and paddleboarded despite my fear of falling into frigid Donner Lake. I would jump at opportunities to do these things even if it meant working out twice in a day or skipping a run.
Even the cross- and strength-training became welcome diversions. Just when I thought I had seen plenty when it came to producing sweat while riding a spin bike, or tormenting one’s core, I was introduced to yet another plethora of instructor-led torture. The spin instructor was fond of simulating long, slow climbs (ouch). The core instructor’s MO was to do 25 reps of each exercise with no rest for 45 minutes (there was a day when I began to see stars in this class). But week after week I went, because I liked the instructors and the people in the class. Some were fellow moms, most were locals, and all were friendly down-to-earth folks. The classes were a counterpoint to my solitary running. I looked forward to my hour of catching up on local gossip and getting tips on fun things to do around town.
The beauty of these diversions was that they contributed to my fitness and, more importantly, gave me the mental balance to keep slogging through the training. They made me enjoy the experience as a whole. And who would have guessed that my favorite secret indulgence by summer’s end would be…swimming?
To be continued in Part 3: Chicken or fish?
It’s November and I’m finally going to put my summer experience into words, in several parts. July and August were immense and changed me profoundly as a runner. Something so big cannot be encapsulated all at once. I need to take small bites, chew slowly and digest.
Where to begin?
Our family carves out a chunk of our summer to stay at our place in Truckee, in the North Lake Tahoe area. Truckee is our playground. In summertime, life up there suits all of us. We are a family that likes being outside and needs to roam. Truckee gives each of us everything we need to thrive.
This year we planned to spend the longest stretch of time there yet — 8 weeks. To say I looked forward to it is an understatement. As I checked off the last few days of school in early June, I was living and breathing for Truckee Summer. As we vacationed at my in-laws’ home in coastal North Carolina, relaxing and fun in its own right, I was giddily anticipating waking up to the scent of evergreens, the sound of a train whistle echoing off mountain peaks, the bright sun, the limitless blue sky. I knew it would be divine. I had no idea it would be even better than I imagined.
I had set a few goals for the summer:
1) I wanted to be optimally trained for Hood to Coast.
2) I wanted to get better at swimming.
3) I wanted to run more trails.
Happily, I saw them all through, and even got a surprise bonus for my efforts. How many times in your life does something exceed your expectations in an abundance of unanticipated ways? I wound up uber-trained for H2C. I came to love swimming. I learned that the secret to my improvement as a runner was to submit to trails.
I also grew to enjoy the solitude of training on my own because when you’re surrounded by nature, you don’t feel lonely. Nature is brilliant and alive; it is quiet in the best way. And the occasional runner who passed me on the road or trail would always wave and smile as if we had known each other for months. I was never lonely.
I learned that making time to do other things made me a happier runner. So I mountain biked. I went stand up paddling. I stopped being paranoid about busting my knees on the tennis court, played a lot and even took lessons. I’m still not very good but had a blast anyway.
The Truckee Summer just swept me off my feet…
To be continued in Part 2: Lean mean Hood to Coast machine
Two memorable running journeys I had last month during a whirlwind 4-day trip to France, both to World Heritage Sites:
Paris, October 12
4 miles roundtrip from our hotel in the Madeleine District to a place that needs no introduction. Damp, cool autumn morning. Overcast skies with breakthrough sunshine. I ran with my husband – a rarity. I waited 4 hours for this to happen, thanks to my jet lag, a late (8 a.m.!) sunrise per Central European Time, and my husband not having jet lag. But I wanted this to be something we did together on our anniversary getaway: running to Eiffel. As Parisians walked, biked and drove to work, we ran. Past the US Embassy and the Place de la Concorde, where revolutionaries set up the guillotine. As tourists sauntered their way through the Tuileries and toward the Louvre, we ran. Over to the left bank, down the Seine toward Invalides. Le Tour Eiffel was bustling with visitors at 9 a.m. – no surprise. It is an incredible sight that gives me the same chills as the Golden Gate Bridge. To think that humans are capable of building something that big, that magnificent, with the means available more or less a century ago. To witness how the human imagination dares. Creations like these are an affirmation of all that is good about our species. And Paris has a disproportionate number of them.
Fontainebleau, October 13
About 4 1/2 miles through town and the grounds of the Chateau de Fontainebleau – the hunting lodge of French kings. The air smelled like rain, the sky threatened rain, and sure enough it eventually rained. Fallen chestnuts everywhere, reminding me it’s autumn. I did some intervals on the nice flat dirt walking paths that flank the canal and other walking paths radiating from that area, to add distance. I had to admire the exacting layout of even a remote part of the royal residence like the park. Every tree, every path was placed just so. I imagined gardeners hundreds of years ago toiling away during the hot summer months, trimming every branch, picking up every twig, maintaining this pristine vision. I imagined Louis XIV’s hounds tearing down these paths for exercise, his minions calling after them. My autumn reverie was interrupted during the final stretch at 5K pace, which felt excruciatingly hard. I couldn’t understand why at the time, but got my answer the next morning: I had picked up some sort of flu. My take home prize from an extraordinary, soul-soothing trip. I say it was still worth it.
The recent hurricane devastation in New York has brought forth myriad concerns. Mostly I have worried for the safety and well being of many friends and families of friends who live there. But as a runner I also lamented the unfortunate timing of this natural disaster vis a vis one of the greatest running events in the country: the New York City Marathon. The race is slated to occur a mere six days after Hurricane Sandy’s battering.
Quietly, as not to show disrespect to the residents of New York who have suffered far greater hardships than having a marathon get canceled, runners like me all across the country have been pondering: will the race go on?
There are many obvious reasons to cancel. In short, the city has bigger problems to solve than how to make the five boroughs accessible to 47,000 people who want to cover 26.2 miles on foot this Sunday. So it came as a surprise when Mayor Bloomberg boldly (perhaps even brazenly) announced yesterday that the race will go on.
The mayor said: “It is a great event for New York, and I think for those who were lost, you know, you’ve got to believe they would want to have an economy and have the city go on for those who were left behind.” He wanted the race to be a symbol of the city’s resilience.
Runners are not newcomers to symbolic acts. We often dedicate our efforts to some greater good beyond ourselves. Think of all the races that funnel their proceeds toward a charitable cause. And all the organizations that hold road races as fundraisers. In running, we push ourselves (to cross the finish line) to inspire others to do the same (overcome a challenge). As a fundamentally solitary endeavor, there is something personal and spiritual about running, and this makes it conducive to expressing values and beliefs.
A good handful of this year’s NYCM entrants are charity runners — those who aspire to cross the finish line in support of a charitable cause. Now comes an opportunity for all NYCM participants to run the race for a cause. That cause is to lift the spirit of folks who call New York their home.
I cannot say whether the mayor’s decision was the right one. (It seems on one level bullheaded and insensitive, as well as needlessly taxing on public resources.) But if the show will go on, let the race participants and their supporters come to New York nobly. Let them rally behind the battered city instead of expecting to be catered to by it. This is a time to check one’s sense of entitlement at the door — to be at peace with travel delays, to accept screwups with bag checks, fuel stops, shuttle rides and what-not, and to not complain about lack of crowd support.
So run strong for the New Yorkers, racers. Do it for them this time. When you put one foot in front of the other at mile 25, do it in honor of those struggling to put their lives back together. Share your strength with them. Make our tribe of long-distance runners proud.
REFLECTIONS ON MY FIRST LONG DISTANCE RELAY AND H2C ADVENTURE
How do I love thee, team relay? Let me count the ways…
ONE: Camaraderie. Team relays teach the meaning of having someone’s back. It’s not about the running. It’s about the teamwork. Special mad props to the Van 1 runners for taking on the descent from Mt. Hood to Sandy. Shit is no joke. A serious quad grinding extravaganza.
TWO: Misery loves company but lunacy does too. Wouldn’t be half as fun to do something completely wacky and somewhat masochistic alone.
THREE: Running in the dark is the bomb. Truly one the greatest thrills in life. It’s like cheating death making your way through the blackness, feeling your feet hit the road and yet not being able to visualize the point of contact.
FOUR: Oregon crowd love. Everyone everywhere came out to support us crazy runners. They cheered, they protected (cops and paramedics), they made us hot food and drinks.
FIVE: The Timberline Lodge at Mount Hood. A sweet, cozy little slice of the European Alps in the good ol’ US of A.
SIX: The Oregon countryside with its bucolic rolling green hills. Ah, summer…!
SEVEN: Sleep is overrated. It’s amazing how refreshed you can feel after 1.5 hrs of sleep. The power of adrenaline is not to be underestimated.
EIGHT: Meals are overrated. Relaying teaches you how little food you actually need in a given day, even while burning calories running. There is a temptation to eat and drink more than necessary in between legs because of all the wait time and nervous energy. But you don’t actually need more than one square meal. In fact, real food is not exactly your friend in an all-day relay, unless you have a stomach of steel.
NINE: Running 16 miles over 29 hours is easier to do and recover from than running 13.1 straight. My coach friend was right: it’s not really like a half marathon. In some ways it’s easier (you get periods of rest). In some ways it’s harder (you gotta dial in a 5 or 10K pace each time you run).
TEN: Organized people make the world go ’round. Our team put its trust in a Team Captain Extraordinaire and Mama Bear named Shelley. She rocks. Thank you, Shelley.
Leg 11 @ 4:30PM — 4.82 miles in 40:02. Easy-peasy flat paved trail through Portland.
Leg 23 @ 3AM — 4.18 miles in 33:15. I hauled ass because it was freezing and pitch dark. Didn’t even stop to tie my left shoe laces so they flopped around the entire time. This leg was the most epic!
Leg 35 @ 12:30PM — 7.2 miles in 64:47. Uphill, part gravel in the heat of day. Damn. But I did it.