Po and the art of cultivating a PR

I did it. I finally accomplished the nagging goal of finishing a half marathon in under 2 hours. My time was 1:55:31.

I won’t recount the picture-perfect race skillfully orchestrated by my loyal running buddy Beth, who generously sacrificed her Sunday morning to ensure I would be evenly paced, sufficiently hydrated, and well fueled for my “revenge,” who took on the entire mental burden so all I had to do was follow her. Because I can’t. The whole thing happened in a seamless blur. Beth moved, I moved. She ate a gel, I ate a gel. She drank, I drank. It was effort for sure, but because I didn’t have to think, it almost felt like I floated through the 13 miles.

No doubt it is wonderful to finally be here. But in some ways I feel like I had already arrived before the race even began. Instead of a typical race recap, I feel compelled to chronicle the ways in which the stars alignedbefore June 5. It began with my failure 4 months ago almost to the day…

Bad race or good race? Time will tell

After I crashed and burned at my first bid to break 2 hours in February, Marissa, who coached the run club I joined in 2009 that catapulted me into “serious running,” helped me accept that everyone has a bad race. I needed to get over it and move on. She also suggested that I redefine what it means to have a good race. I needed to allow more room to give myself a pat on the back.

So in March I stepped out of my (dis)comfort zone and ran a race without a watch. I ran it with no plan, no advance registration, no expectation. I ran by feel. I ran with friends. Not just any friends, but two running pals who were zany enough to spin a casual mention of a race from Sausalito to San Francisco into a madcap reality less than two hours before the race began. In the 6 a.m. darkness we shot text messages back and forth, debating whether we really wanted to slip out into the ominous sky that had been doling out thunder, lightning, and cold pelting rain just hours before. We resolved to suck it up, come what may. We were rewarded with the clean crisp air that emerges after a good storm, unobstructed views of some of the most breathtaking scenery on this planet, and respectable finish times. As we sipped our free cups of coffee at the post-race expo, we were invigorated by our daring and grounded by the joy of running for running’s sake.

That was a good race.

Where there is love, good things follow

In February, when I sought advice from my mentor Lulu from the 2009 run club, she told me to go find the joy in running again. I am a spiritual runner at the core, and people in my running circle know this. I am not at all motivated by the thought of beating other people (with one exception to be discussed later) and I don’t aspire to be fast per se. Running needs to feel good first and foremost, and if I go beyond my comfort zone, it has to be in order to learn something from the experience, to grow from it. The sub-2 goal came out of a desire to discover my inner athlete. To challenge my feel-good-runner self to work hard for a change. I ended up training so hard for the February race that running became tedious, dreadful, another thing to do on my burgeoning list. I needed a system reset.

I gave up the late March half marathon that I impulsively signed up for, took six weeks off from training, retreated to yoga, stripped away rules, ate lots of cake and french fries, ran that impromptu race, ran whenever it suited me, and delved, aptly, into Kristin Armstrong’s book Mile Markers: The 26.2 Most Important Reasons Why Women Run.

Wham! The book was an epiphany. In the opening pages Armstrong addressed the precise question of why she runs. She wrote: “It’s like asking why we love who we love. We love them because of all the precious moments we have spent together, because of all the intimate ways they understand us, the subtle acts of kindness and grace they offer us, the way they accept us – good and bad – the way they offer us insight when we are stuck in a bad place, the way they keep us humble and make us feel great all at the same time, the way their presence is our insurance that we’ll never be numb…” Amen.

Why do I love running? Because of the simplicity of it. Because when I run, I see things I normally don’t take time to see. Because it takes me outside, and nothing grounds you like a date with Mother Nature. Because it brings me inside, and the mental stillness at mile 6 is the closest I ever get to meditation. Because it allows me to reclaim myself when I feel I’ve been divided into pieces and given them all away. Because it prepares me for the real marathon that is life. Because when I run I feel truly alive and free. Because I can, for now.

There you have it. Love of running reaffirmed.

Patience, young grasshopper

Lulu had also said to me in February that she knew I had sub-2 half in me, and that one day when my body’s ready, when conditions are right, it will happen.

How many times have we wanted something so badly it blinds us? We chase it and it runs away. We swipe at it frantically and it floats further out of reach. Then eventually we exhale, let go, stop counting, stop measuring, and the thing we wanted all along falls into our lap.

At the end of March, with my body rested, my love reaffirmed, and my attitude rebooted, I felt ready. For everything this time. I was ready to push towards the goal but also to cope with failure.

When I began training, I made sure to live my life too, and to do it with as much intention as the training. When my birthday came around, I woke up early and made my way through a blizzard to get on a treadmill and crank out the prescribed 6 miles, then went out to a celebratory dinner with family and topped it off with a heaping portion of fruit cobbler a la mode. I kept up with school volunteering, skied with the family, and found another pastime to focus on besides running (bootcamp). I took time, and time took me. I filled it with many things and it filled me with a sense of accomplishment daily, whether it was from a successful race simulation or doing 100 pushups in 10 minutes or pulling off a dinner party for 8 after an all-day school field trip.

I let time pass, but meaningfully.

The joy lies in the journey, not the destination

Ten weeks of training led up to yesterday’s personal record and I can easily recall one running milestone from each week, each one feeling nearly as triumphant the ultimate 1:55 finish. You bet I celebrated those little victories. They were building blocks toward my sub-2 goal. If there’s anything I’ve learned from 2 years of long distance running it’s that the process is pretty much everything.

We see an artfully crafted cake in the bakery window and we say, “Wow, what an amazing cake!” But how many of us actually stop to ponder what it must have taken for the baker make that cake? How often do we actually celebrate the process rather than the outcome? Running has reaffirmed my belief that the true measure of our greatness lies not in who we are when we are tested, but who we are in all the days in between.

It’s in waking up before sunrise to run when you’ve never been a morning person. It is in hitting the road no matter the weather. It is in pushing yourself to the point of breathlessness today, knowing it will feel half as awful when you repeat the exercise next week. It is in knowing to back off when your body raises a genuine red flag. It is in failing, then trying again. Whatever the pursuit, it is in the preparation for the big day that we demonstrate our truest talents: our capacity to commit, focus, devote, create and persevere. The outcome is a mere reflection of who we already are.

Coming into this second bid for a sub-2 half, I was armed with more miles under my belt, a more enjoyable training season, and a better tolerance for self-induced physical discomfort. Pulling our bootcamp instructor Shannon uphill in dogsled has made running at race pace feel cushy. (I’ll easily take any number of minutes of running over the same number of minutes of bear crawl or push-ups.) Acquiring this tolerance and a consistent eight-forty-something tempo pace were huge achievements for me. The sub-2 finish was going to be icing on the cake.

Let’s be clear: who we are at the start line is a product of not only our efforts, but the efforts of everyone who supported us along the way. My husband who tolerated my long absences on Saturday or Sunday mornings. My best friend who immediately sent me a new iPod when mine got stolen, because God forbid I should have to do my training runs alone AND without music. My mom, who congratulates me after every race even though she knows nothing about running. My sons who believe that one of these days their mom will actually win a race. I am grateful to them and so many others for humoring my 6-month-long experiment and quest.

It has been one rockin’ journey.

Inner peace

On the way over Sunday, Beth asked how I was feeling about the race. I told her I felt fine – not nervous, not pumped, just fine. I told her that the previous 2 days on a school camping trip followed by a day of trying to snuff out a lice problem have kept me too occupied to think too much about the race. And probably for the better. I felt an odd sense of non-attachment to the event in stark contrast to February, when I possessed the focus of a hunter out on a kill, albeit a sick one. I did not make time to pick up my race packet in advance. I had not studied the course map to formulate a water and fuel plan. Admittedly I suspected Beth would probably come to my rescue on the logistical front, and sure enough she did. While I drove, she went over our hydrating and fueling plan, fed me directions, told me where to park. While I ran, she regularly checked our pace and told me to either hold, pick it up, or bring it down. All I had to do was deliver what she asked of me, and for that I came prepared.

Except for one thing. Less than a mile into the race, I spotted someone ahead of us and got knots in my stomach. I could tell from her height and build, and the height and build of the woman next to her, that it was none other than the one person in the world that I have a grudge against. That threw me into a silent tizzy – Oh my God, HER? I can’t let that woman beat me. But what if she’s fast? How much faster could I go just to finish first? Do I tell Beth about this? She’ll think I’m ridiculous. She’ll lose all respect for me. Ugh, how am I going to keep it together for two hours with this thorn in my side!? All those thoughts swirled in my head while I kept mum. I resolved to speed past this person and stay ahead, so that maybe I could forget about her.

Then I remembered Kung Fu Panda 2. I saw the movie the day before. In it, Po the Panda takes on a fearsome enemy whom Po is destined to defeat, but in his first few battles with this enemy Po loses focus at the moment when he should be dealing the final blow. He allows the enemy to escape. He is distracted by an inner torment (not knowing who his parents are and why they abandoned him as a baby, and sensing somehow that this enemy knew the answers). This remains his Achilles heel until he resolves to make peace with his internal monsters. Before the final battle he repeats to himself, “Inner peace, inner peace, inner peace” and suddenly his kung fu is transformed. His calm translates into fearlessness and his fearlessness gives him unforeseen power.

So I chanted to myself: Inner peace… inner peace… inner peace… Run your own race. You are here on the best running day we’ve seen in a while. You’re trained, you’re rested. You know this course and it’s nice and easy. You’ve got the best personal pacer right by your side. Don’t blow it. Do what you’re here to do.

The one time I looked for her was when we got onto the bridge at mile 3. She was still behind us. I never looked for her again. It’s nice to know I’ve matured somewhat since high school. Just somewhat.

And the rest is history.

Next up: run a marathon without bonking. Training begins next month… after I’ve had my fill of eating whatever I want and running only if I feel like it.


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