Off these feet (Part 5): Take-home prize

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.

Taking a minute to enjoy my improbable 50:50 12K PR...and then moving on

Taking a minute to enjoy my improbable 50:50 10K PR…and then moving on


Off these feet (part 4): Tough as trails

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.

2012 NSMR trail 1

NSMR view

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.

Sawtooth Trail
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

North Face Endurance Challenge Marathon Relay 2012

race area
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.

Finish time
4:14:33 (22nd out of 59)
Splits (6.56-mile legs)
1:02:18 (me)

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.

NFEC marathon relay elevationwaitingIMG_2298

IMG_2294IMG_2291All donebefore


Our shoes before…and after

Off these feet (Part 3): Chicken or fish?

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.

The place I grew to know well

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