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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Tita26.2 updates

9/25/10

Goodbye, 20-something miles. See you again in three weeks.

Today we peaked. Completed our last long run, momentously, in record heat. Forgot all about trying to run the first half slower than the last because I had too much fun chatting for the first 9 miles with people who ran faster than me. By the end, I had no motivation to push past 20. So that’s as close a look as I get at 26.2. It remains enshrouded in 6.2 miles of mystery.

9/20/10

I’m four weeks away.

What lies ahead: a 20-mile run, lots of hills, and possibly a visit from Heather.

This is peak week. I’m going to enter the jaws of the infamous Presidio and Clement Street hills that lie at miles 6-10 of the marathon course, just waiting to chew us all up with a 250-foot climb for a mile on one, and a 150-foot climb for nearly 2 miles on the other. Better the devil you know, I say. Then I’ll tackle the last and longest run of the training season. As a reward, my beloved honoree may make a Bay Area appearance the weekend before the race. Heather has healed well and is currently undergoing the post-treatment “testing circuit.” The hope is that the worst is over, and if so, she will come visit. Fingers and toes are tightly crossed!

What I’ve left in the dust: an incredible 18-mile run and a decent finish at an impromptu half-marathon.

I set out on the 18-mile run with low expectations. But on that glorious Saturday morning the sun shone bright and I swear angels flew overhead and sang while the bunch of us wove through 3 pristine bayside towns in Marin. It was one of those rare perfect experiences that completely reaffirms my love of running. To move on foot and be free. To feel the crisp air and bask in the open sun. To take in views of marshes, lagoons, the bay, the city skyline, a peregrine falcon perched on an electricity wire. To listen to the sound of early morning stillness, water sloshing around the pier, children playing soccer. It’s a gift to be able to experience the world on such simple terms. We’ve all been there in some way — on a walk, run, bike ride, hike, or drive through some beautiful countryside. The run also felt like a resurrection after my 15-miler that went south. How uncanny that it happened on the commemoration of 9/11, this lesson in perseverence and rebirth.

Yesterday I ran the Lake Merced Half Marathon on a lark to make up for a missed workout the day before. It was a DSE Runners event and they’re a great bunch of folks. How could you not love a running club whose motto is “Start Slow and Taper”? Two of my favorite running pals were also at the race. We mused over how once a upon a time (18 months ago), we spent 14 weeks training for a half-marathon (my first); and now we roll out of bed and run that distance for fun. My friends ended up placing second in their age groups. I finished in 2:02:45, including 3-4 stops at aid stations to drink water and munch on cantaloupe and Clif Bars. We’ve come a long way, baby.

 

p.s. 9/22/10

And now for a moment of levity.

So much for the good. Let’s keep it real and hash out the bad and the ugly of marathon training too.

THE BAD

– Compression bras. As if I weren’t flat enough.

– Having my glutes cramp up from sitting in an ice bath.

– Wondering every time the phantom knee burn strikes whether THIS will be the run where I’ll finally blow out my knee.

– Gasping for air while running at altitude, as if my lungs had holes in them.

– Gasping for air while running in 100% humidity, as if I had a gas mask on.

– Continually wrestling the demons that say, “This sucks – I’m gonna stop” and “I’m bored” and “Ow, this hurts! I have to stop” and “I don’t really feel like doing this today” and “I hate this!” These mental battles are the biggest challenge of all.

– Consistently missing out on my husband’s Saturday morning pancakes because of a long run.

THE UGLY

– Attaining stalker status at my neighborhood running store. I go there so often, they know my full name. Pretty embarrassing.

– Clearing my nose mid-run (“Thar she bloooooows!”). Paula Radcliffe, female world record holder for the marathon, once squatted on the roadside to relieve herself in front of hundreds of spectators before going on to win the London Marathon. At least I haven’t disgraced myself to that extreme. Yet.

– Last but not least, coming home stinky post-run. I never thought I could sweat so much or reek so badly. Even my kids won’t come near me. On second thought… this may be a blessing in disguise.

8/31/10

“When you run on the earth and run with the earth, you can run forever.”

~ Tarahumara proverb, Born to Run

I’m reading Born to Run by Christopher McDougall and the timing couldn’t be better. Within the first 20 pages I drew enough inspiration to last me the entire week of training. We are sharpening now. Pushing the weekly mileage past 30 and beyond. And I’m feeling it.

A week ago I ran the farthest I’ve ever run (15 miles) and sent my legs into a state of shock. Sirens went off when I passed the 13-mile mark (my previous limit). The mid-day heat didn’t help. My legs screamed, “Oh no you don’t!” and for the last 2 miles I literally had to slap my quads and tell them to giddy up.

Three days after that humbling experience I hit the track for a pyramid workout (400, 800, 1200, 1600, 1200, 800, and 400m with 45 seconds’ rest between each). I was at our old high school track in Pennsylvania. I noticed an older man jogging slowly but determinedly around the loop with me. Around my 10th lap, I noticed he looked familiar. By the 14th lap, I realized he was one of my best high school pals’ dad. I decided to wait for him to finish his workout so I could say hello. I turned the other way for a few minutes and by the time I looked back, he had already jogged off the track and up the hill towards his home. He must be well into his 60’s, yet there he was doing intervals at the track. The mark of a true Army man. My friend’s dad was a career Army officer and he sure put my wimpy 41-year-old self in my place that day.

Let’s face it: pain is part of running. This is a huge lesson for someone like me who has never pushed herself hard enough to feel sore after any run that wasn’t a race. These days I feel sore pretty much after every run. And these days I run 3 or 4 days in a row.

Why put myself through all this if it hurts? I’m not always certain of the answer, but when I looked at this plaque before I left our high school track, something clicked…

It’s been so long that I almost forgot about the plaque. Fred was our high school classmate who lost his fight against leukemia a few months before we graduated. He exceled at many things, including football. When he came out of his treatment he actually played a few games before leukemia took him back. Why did he subject himself to this grueling sport when he was recovering? Because any pain you experience while pursuing something you love is nothing compared to the pain of being stifled on a sickbed. Pain is sometimes part of the joy of living.

This quest to “run forever” is for you too, Fred.

8/17/10

Two months til the marathon. Two months to the day.

The past two weeks saw me hit rock bottom in terms of attitude. I got to the point of feeling like I was going to vomit and telling myself that I hated running, I didn’t want to do this anymore. It was on a tempo run (the bane of my running life). At 6,600 feet.

On top of being a mile above sea level, there was the challenge of training alone. Seven-thirty in the morning and barely fifty degrees? I dragged my butt out there alone. Yasso 800’s at the track? I found the local high school track and ran those laps alone. I am pretty sure I didn’t push myself as hard since there was no one to pick off and pass, or try to keep pace with. No Coach Gigi saying she wants me to shave off 5 seconds on the next round. But I did it.

The silver lining was that I got to run my 12 miles alongside Donner Lake, a deep blue expanse surrounded by evergreens and skirted by a rocky shoreline. I drank in the golden late afternoon sun until a blanket of gray overtook the sky, and got back to the car just before the thunderstorm broke. The air was crisp and moody and perfect. It was magical.

It’s amazing how one happy experience can be enough to vanquish all the unhappy ones and give you the will to go on. So onward I go… to double my long-run mileage over the next 8 weeks.

7/25/10

Turning point weekend.

Ran my first double-digit distance of the season: 10 miles. Around mile 6, the pesky numbness in my left toes came back which I was able to alleviate by loosening the laces over my instep. But then I got hungry. And then I felt queasy. And on top of that I began to sense some tightness on the sides of both knees and a crunchy pain in the ball of my right foot. I was ready to stop. But walking the remaining 4 miles really wasn’t appealing so I kept going. And before I knew it, I crested the Fort Mason hill, felt no discomfort, and had 9 miles behind me…

Got my first taste of marathon excitement. Came upon runners at the 20-mile mark of the San Francisco Marathon today. Witnessed the dazed eyes, the slack limbs and yet that forward motion that spills out almost involuntarily. That’s going to be me in just 3 months, I told myself. That’s what I’m doing the weekly 400 crunches, 45 pushups, and 60-second plank holds for. That’s what the 10x400m at excrutiating speed is for. And I felt a strange thrill rising.

Watched my sons hold their first charity sale. They sold chocolate chip cookies, banana bread, and books they’ve outgrown and donated all $27 toward my fundraiser. My six-year-old said it was the highlight of his day, and that’s a day that included a pony ride, bouncy houses, and a playdate with one of his favorite pals. Makes mama so proud!

7/20/10

Heather is done with treatment and healing well. At last report she has gone out shopping with her sister and to the movies. Fingers crossed that she has seen the last of radiation and chemo and that the post-treatment tests come out well in a few months.

7/16/10

Survived 3 weeks of training in high 80’s temps and 100% humidity in coastal North Carolina. I realized I was becoming bored with my routine and so it was nice to pick up some new tricks while on new terrain. Did some swimming (harder than expected), running on the treadmill (quite pleasant to crank out intervals in air-conditioned comfort), and tennis. Ran the Tri-Span 10K in Wilmington, NC, with my sister-in-law who is training for the Marine Corps Marathon. It was a sweet little event (only 300 runners) but had plenty of challenges (humidity and 3 bridges) and lovely perks at the end (fresh cantaloupe slices, sesame bagels). I finished in 56:15 — not terribly fast but it was a 10K PR and I placed 5th in my division.

But the most exciting development is that I’ve topped my fundraising goal at 3 months ahead of the race! It is said that true generosity is when you have nothing and give everything. I am deeply humbled by everyone who has donated to this fundraiser at a time when there is so little to spare. Your generosity is an inspiration. Thank you.

6/21/10

No more procrastinating. This is the week I will add spinning into the mix. Heather is actually a spin goddess. Apparently she wore crazy costumes when she led class. No costumes for me, but I recently unearthed the NAVY t-shirt that she gave me 2 decades ago when she was at the Naval Academy. Perfect homage to my friend who is now really suffering after 5 weeks of treatment. Hang in there, Wonder Woman. You can do this.

6/9/10

My friend Heather is in her fourth week of chemo and radiation. Last we connected, she was doing stellar. She looked fabulous, sounded upbeat, just felt more tired than usual. You go, girl!

Buddy runs kicked off this week. Despite an ear infection, did an easy, comfortable 3 miles with a nice group of gals. Yes, time flies when you run with others. But who knew that running can stave off ear-related disequilibrium? When in doubt, run. Just do it.

Track also began. My 2-mile time trial was supposedly 14:50. I must have missed a lap. I’m calling it 16:50, yielding a projected marathon finish time of 4 hrs 17 mins. Now let’s see what 4 months of speedwork brings.

The mohawk challenge was completed in just 6 days. Thanks, friends!

5/31/10

First prescribed run on my own yesterday. A massively uncomfortable 4 miles at 6,600 ft elevation (in Tahoe). Cursed myself for signing up to run 26+. Ate multiple servings of marionberry cobbler over vanilla ice cream to make myself feel better.

On the fundraising front, the Facebook mohawk challenge is on: I once had a mohawk. It was a present to myself in 1983 in antipation of losing hair from chemo. Only about 5 people have actually seen it because I wore a wig in public. If I reach $2000 by June 30, a photo will go up on my FB page!

I run because I can’t fly

That motto has been imbedded in my mind for about a year. It is printed on a t-shirt I bought from a women’s running store a few blocks from my house. I bought it to motivate myself to train for a half-marathon, on a self-induced dare to do something improbable to commemorate my 40th birthday. The t-shirt became a talisman to ward off evil spirits that would beckon me to take a pass on a scheduled run. There always seemed to be a reason not to go: it’s raining, it’s windy and cold, it’s dark already, I have awful cramps or a terrible headache, I’m too hungry, I’m too tired…and the list goes on. But if I succeeded at keeping the demons of doubt at bay, I would always be rewarded handsomely. At around the fourth mile, an ethereal feeling would radiate from my right brain and settle into my body, and suddenly the world would seem utterly beautiful and grand, and I would feel overcome with infinite love for everyone and everything. It’s the infamous runner’s high, and I confess I became addicted to that good stuff.

Three days ago I ran the improbable half-marathon, at a speed that surprised no one more than me. My goal was simply to finish. I felt that was heroic enough, considering there was a time I was being followed for possible cardiac arrhythmia because of a chemotherapy drug given to me as a teen, and I only began exercising voluntarily in my mid-20’s. To finish at a pace that was 40 seconds faster than that of every training run in the past three months – my personal best race pace, even though all the races before were much shorter – seems unfathomable. Honestly, where did it come from?

I am awe of what the human body can accomplish when the mind remains strong. My mind was in a decidedly good place that morning. My running buddies and I arrived at the race with plenty of time to spare. The weather was ideal: overcast skies, cool temperatures around the mid-50’s, a bit of dampness in the air but no precipitation, an occasional breeze. I had eaten a solid breakfast. I felt well-rested despite only six hours of sleep.

I set out to do things the same simple way that I did them during training: not to go too fast or too slow (which I would gauge by singing the words to the songs I was listening to), to remember to eat, and to drink water whenever I ate. I felt none of the occasional aches and pains in my right knee or foot during this run. My iPod continuously fed rockin’ music to my ears despite my earlier fear that the battery might run out. Mile markers passed by one after another. Before I knew it, the sign said, “11.”

Soon after, I spotted the finish. As I did on my training runs, I tapped into my energy reserve and revved up to a sprint. Only this time, my brain was getting signals back saying, “Alert! No Reserve! Abort Mission!” I could not feel my legs. They felt detached from me. For those of us who remember the Kool Aid commercials where thirsty kids would yell, “Hey, Kool Aid!”, and out would come this big bumbling pitcher, this massive red orb teetering atop two floppy legs, running to their rescue – I felt like that Kool Aid character as I sprinted. I felt clunky, wobbly, ready to topple over. But I didn’t topple over. I didn’t trip. I crossed the finish line. The second I stopped moving, I sensed a burning soreness in my quads like I’ve never felt before. But I was still standing. I was still alive.

Now I know what it feels like to fly. It feels exhilarating…and exhausting. I don’t know why I assumed flying was a serene, effortless endeavor. A bird’s flight muscles make up 30% of its body weight. Its entire body is designed to support the function of flight – from how much it eats to how quickly it digests food, and how efficiently its lungs process oxygen. A bird makes flying look easy and graceful but it is a still major feat for that little creature. But…oh, the rewards! To feel the air rush past your cheek, to know you are being propelled by the strength of your own body, to breathe deeply and rise above every burden, if only for a few moments… At one point during the race, I closed my eyes and dreamed I had soared to the sky. It was quiet up there…and the view was absolutely majestic.