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


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

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.

I grew enamored of small town living. Small local races where it’s not a hassle to get to the start line, there is no parking stress, no bureaucracy, and everyone knows everyone.

The Truckee Summer just swept me off my feet…

To be continued in Part 2: Lean mean Hood to Coast machine

France en courant

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.

What to wear for Hood to Coast: Oiselle for every occasion

I ran my first Hood to Coast relay last weekend. I have so much to say about that zany experience, but will start by documenting what I wore because it turned out that I had it down to perfection. If I were to do it again under the same weather variables, I wouldn’t change a thing.

I obsessively curated my H2C outfits. I tend to be picky about what I wear while running in the first place, because I dislike being constrained, pinched or uncomfortable in any way when I’m out there doing my thing. I am not the kind of person who can tune out the nagging itchy seam or the digging bra strap. Those types of things will get into my head and cause my entire workout to unravel. With H2C being an out-of-town race, my outfits needed to be dead on. Once I left my house for the airport there was no turning back. No chance of borrowing anything from a teammate, thanks to my lilliputian size. And no time to go buy something at a local store because of my Thursday evening arrival in Portland plus our team’s Friday morning start time.

Here are the 3 outfits I packed for the 3 legs. On top of this I had a hoodie, sweatpants, an extra shirt, a light shell, a fleece beanie and fleece gloves. Basically it was Oiselle apparel plus gear and accessories (#oisellelove):

Here is how it all played out:

Warm Up, Cool Down, Van Riding and Snoozing
1. Oiselle Green Lake Hoodie — This is an ultra comfy, easy-on-and-off, loose-fitting zip hoodie that was perfect for whenever I wasn’t running. The zip pockets were great for safekeeping things that I needed or picked up on the journey but did not want on me while running, like the Office Max temporary tattoo that I grabbed at the Start Line Expo, and cash for my morning coffee. And when it was time to tuck into my sleeping bag on the pasture, I added a down vest on top and was soon counting sheep.
2. Sweatpants — I had a pair that stayed on without tying any sort of drawstring. Again, easy on and off is key.
3. Oiselle Long Sleeve Run On Tee — This was my all-purpose extra shirt and that’s exactly how I ended up using it. It was the warm dry shirt I threw on after my night run. It was the shirt I slept in. It was also the shirt I tied around my waist at the beach in case the air got nippy.

LEG 11 — 4.84 miles flat, 5:30 PM, temps in the high 70’s
1. Oiselle Easy Run Cap Tee in Stripey — The light colored top deflected heat, and the cap sleeves protected my shoulders from the sun but was unobtrusive enough to ventilate the ole armpits (very important, you know).
2. Oiselle Stride Short — Simple and minimal. Given the short distance, there was no need to carry anything on me so the streamlined no-pocket design was ideal.
3. Cap and sunglasses — My doctors have made me neurotic about sun damage (to my skin and eyes), so I always cover up whenever there is even a hint of sunshine outside.
4. Feetures Elite Ultra Light Low Cut socks — These are my go-to socks except when temps fall below 50 degrees. They never bunch up, fit snug, feel smooth and comfortable, and do not interfere with ground sensation.

LEG 23 — 4.18 miles on gentle rolling hills, 3 AM, temps in the high 40’s
1. Oiselle Long Sleeve Renewable Tee — The pear green color increased visibility. Oiselle’s comfy cotton/poly blend kept me warm without causing me to overheat on this short jaunt. The cotton content was not a problem since I was done and out of the shirt within 35 minutes.
2. Oiselle Lesley Knickers — I do not wear shorts unless it is at least 50 degrees out, so these warm, wicking, compressive knee-length capris were the clear choice.
3. RoadNoise Vest — A reflective bib is a must-have during a night leg of H2C. This vest not only provides visibility, it discreetly pumps out tunes and securely holds your phone or iPod on your body…all in one sleek solution! The mesh body is thin and comfortable and allows moisture transfer. The velcro closures let you adjust the fit around your torso so that it sits just right. The flat thin slabs which are the speakers lie in place within earshot without poking your shoulder area or bouncing around. This vest was conceived as a solution to the no-headphones rule at H2C, but the visibility plus music feature makes it a must-have for all runners who like to rock out or listen to the radio while on the move, for the upcoming seasons of limited daylight.
4. Headlamp and fleece gloves
5. Smartwool PhD Run Light Micro socks — I needed the wool to keep my piggies warm.

LEG 35 — 7.2 miles on a seemingly never-ending ascent, 12 noon, temps in the mid 70’s
1. Oiselle Roga Short — I brought out the big gun for this arduous mid-day leg. The light-as-air stretch woven fabric always performs beautifully in the heat. The Roga does exactly what you want your running shorts to do on a hot day: wick and otherwise act like they don’t exist. I thought about stashing a gel in the back zip pocket but never ended up taking one along (I went with a handheld bottle of coconut water instead).
2. H2C Race Tshirt — This was a last-minute swap-out. I admit that wearing the race shirt at the race is a total dork maneuver, but it was the last leg and this was my first H2C and most of my van mates wore their race shirt…yadda yadda yadda. Anyway, it was made of a tech fabric and fit me decently so ’nuff said. My Oiselle race singlet graciously gave way.
3. RoadNoise Vest — This was a strategy solely to keep my motivation up. I needed tunes for my one-hour uphill journey. I can’t tell you how hilarious it was to come trucking along on an otherwise silent gravel fire road in the middle of Oregon’s Coastal Range and eke out Taylor Swift “You’re on the phone with your girlfriend she’s upset….” And I dare say my compadres on Leg 35 appreciated the comic relief. At one point this youngish, maybe late 20-something buff-looking guy (read: not the type to be a Taylor Swift fan) actually turned around as I came up on his tail and burst out in a chuckle because of my non-sequitor music choice. He kept smiling as I cruised past. I credit my RoadNoise vest for breaking the tension of a hot hilly run that nobody was enjoying with a dash of humor.
4. Feetures Elite Ultra Light Low Cut socks — Did I mention that the smooth dense knit of these socks was great for keeping fine dirt and sand off the skin of your feet while running? This feature came in handy on the gravelly path that we ran on for 2/3 of this leg.
5. Cap and sunglasses — Again, gotta protect from the sun.

There you have it: how to get through the Mother of All Relays on Oiselle and a shoestring. Kidding aside, we pretty much had ideal weather so it was easy to stay really pared down. Things like my light running shell and fleece beanie never got pulled out of the backpack. Had a rain storm or some cold front swept through, it surely would have been a different story. But this year, all we needed was the basics and I will definitely be using this formula as a baseline for future all-night running adventures.

Putting the (f)un back into the (r)un

I still remember the scene from Rocky III when the sportscaster interviews Mr. T before the big rematch with Rocky.

The sportscaster asked, “What’s your prediction for this fight?”

Mr. T barks in response, virtually spitting into the microphone, “PAIN! Lots of PAIN!”

That is how I would sum up the first 3 weeks of training at 6000+ feet altitude.

It was rough. Even with my unexpected 1st in AG and 2nd female overall finish at a local 5K at the 2-week mark (a total fluke which I attribute to the local rockstars flocking to that morning’s 10K and half marathon instead), I found very little reward in running. It just felt so darn hard. My paces were way off what they normally are, and I could not tell if I was just losing it, or if it really was the altitude.

2012 Truckee 5k medal

Approaching the third week I reached an all-time morale low and actually envisioned hanging up my running shoes for good. I just didn’t want to do it any more. That day I had bombed at a 5-mile moderate tempo run. My lungs burned even though I wasn’t even going that fast. My right knee felt “bunchy” and unstable. My attitude was the pits. That lovin’ feeling was gone. And as I sputtered through several stops and restarts to the finish like a broken down old car, I contemplated what my next pastime would be. What does an ex-runner with a wrecked knee do for fun? Swim? Lawn bowl? Birdwatch?

Just when things looked bleak came a ray of light. It was called the Donner Lake Triathlon. I didn’t compete in it, but participated in the most fulfilling way: as volunteer, support mom, and cheerleader.

My son was signed up for the Kids Triathlon. He had never done one but decided almost on a whim two weeks before the event to go for it. He’s an active, hardy kid who likes sports generally, but had never taken an interest in endurance pursuits except for swimming. I am guessing he was inspired by his daddy’s recent entry into the triathlon world. So for my son’s age group, the event consisted of a 25-yard swim, a 1-mile bike, and a 1/2-mile run. As if his decision to sign up wasn’t surprising enough, right away he came to me and said, “Mommy, can you help me train?” I realized then and there that I love training someone a thousand times more than training myself.

He only needed my input on the biking and running. He owned the swim part because he was already in the midst of two weeks of swim lessons, and his group was comfortably cranking out 15 laps at each lesson. For the bike/run part, I mapped out a course that would be a similar terrain to where he would bike and run, and serendipitously the street we live on fit the bill to a tee: mostly flat with gentle hills and exactly 1 mile long. I had him bike the whole mile then work up from running 1/4 mile to 1/2 mile. We trained as often as he wanted, which turned out to be about 5 times total in 14 days. He would bike alone while I waited at the transition area, then get off the bike and run home while I rode his bike.

Highlights from our training experience:
— Our biggest issue was the transition. On Day 1, my son came cruising up, barely braking, tossed the bike sideways onto the road, unclipped and yanked off his helmet and hurled it in the direction of the bike. Yes, the transition needed a little polish if we wanted that bike to last him through the event and beyond.
— Me pedaling an 8-year-old’s bike intrigued many a neighbor strolling our street. They smiled politely, I smiled politely, no one uttered a word about the spectacle that I surely was. Since I am only 5’1″, barely bigger than 8-year-old size, I am sure they wondered if I was riding the bike for real or in jest. I thought it was fun to keep them guessing.
— The best part of each training day was the reward smoothie, which the whole family got to enjoy. We shared the spoils, no matter who conquered the challenge. My two sons say I make the best smoothies and I gladly accept the compliment.

Then the big day came. I got a special front row view of the whole thing as a volunteer course marshal at the bike in/out area. It was amazing to see kids as young as 5 jog up with their bikes — wet, shivering, but undeterred. They hopped right up and motored along. Minutes later they would come cruising back and move onto running. When you watch kids do a triathlon, you realize how a triathlon is really just a magnification of the holy trinity of summer fun. Kids move through it with ease. They don’t stress about it. They jump into it and go as fast as they can. My son had a blast. But having a blast is something you take for granted when you’re 8. As soon as he finished and collected his medal, he asked, “So now can we go crawdad fishing?” Yeah, triathlon one moment, crawdadding the next. Ain’t no big thang.

The day after the kids’ event, the grown-ups had their turn: a sprint and an international distance. My husband and several people we knew were racing, so my other son and I headed back to the event area with our big cheering voices and virtual pom poms. We arrived just in time to hoot and holler for my husband’s 7-minute-mile dash to the finish. We treated ourselves to a big recovery breakfast at a nearby diner (remember, we share the spoils), then I threw on my running garb and apprehensively set off for the prescribed 10-miler on my Hood to Coast training plan. Being deep in a running funk, I was not looking forward to my first double-digit run at altitude this summer. So I decided to distract myself by making it a spectating run — i.e., I went in the opposite direction of the international distance triathletes, hoping to bump into folks I knew and cheer everyone on.

A few thoughts from that experience:
— Time flies when you’re cheering other runners on, even when you’re running uphill. The power of distraction is potent.
— It feels good to draw a smile out of tired athletes. I clapped, held thumbs up, gave the knowing nod and yelled for each one. My favorite sighting was a guy I called “Wig Man.” He was scooting along wearing a huge black ‘fro wig. As if trying to finish a 10K on an 80-degree sunny day after swimming 0.9 miles in a frigid alpine lake and biking 24.8 miles up and down 1200’ wasn’t enough. This race seemed like no big thang to him either.

At what point does a pastime morph from something we do for fun to something that feels like work? How do you draw that line between pushing ourselves to grow and pushing ourselves over the edge? Maybe every runner should wear a silly wig to at least one race a year. Or plan to go fishing after another. Just to keep ourselves in check. To remind ourselves not to stress and to have fun. Life is too short to beat ourselves up pursuing a hobby.

Hilarity and a wakeup call

Yesterday was the 101st running of the Bay to Breakers, San Francisco’s madcap running Mardi Gras. I signed up to do it long ago but didn’t start thinking about a costume until last minute. In trying to come up with something runnable and funny, but not laughable, I became transfixed on a cartoon character from a special edition t-shirt that celebrates the 40th anniversary of Title IX, which is this year. I tried to imagine what the racer girl on the t-shirt would look like if she were to jump out of that car and run. Et voila!

B2B101, overall, was fun. Cleaner, mellower, and better organized than previous iterations. Corral A had a handful of tortilla throwers, a few costumed runners, and some naked folks, but no rowdy behavior. Granted, this is the corral where you’re most likely to find the serious folks. But I got the overall feeling that the race sponsor was under a lot of pressure to tidy up this crazy footrace.

The kinder, gentler B2B had its pluses and minuses. I appreciated not having to dodge pools of vomit, bottlenecks of walkers, or groups of costumed frat boys pushing kegs uphill. And I really appreciated not seeing the haters (the Jesus fanatics holding big signs condemning sinners to purgatory) at the entrance to Golden Gate Park. But there were fewer bands than I recall, and the whole experience just felt…well, more ordinary.

Some of the old endearing traditions stayed intact. The nudies. The amazing crowd support on Hayes Street (all the people up and cheering before 8 am on a Sunday morning — God love ’em). The salmon running upstream (i.e., east, toward the start line). And the incredibly inventive costumes, fewer and farther between as they may be.

And I must say that running with a cape on was fun. You do feel faster. It also makes for great race photos. I highly recommend it, with one caveat: When running due west in the morning, the sun pretty much bakes your back, and meanwhile shiny synthetic fabric only makes things feel hotter. To maximize ventilation, you gotta run fast.

Super 9

That, unfortunately, did not come easily for me yesterday. I felt super fly as Super 9 Girl, but my performance was a lackluster. I finished the 12K in 1:05:45. I got smoked by my husband who had been an occasional runner then began triathlon training pretty much at the same time I began my off season. He finished 40 seconds ahead and probably could have left me in the dust long before the final mile, judging from the few times I saw him jog in place ahead of me. I also got bumped (literally) and passed by someone dressed as a giant green android. The costume was bulky and hard as a barrel and could not have been easy to run in. So yeah, lackluster. The off season has clearly taken its toll.

Interestingly, this answers the question of where the line lies between tapering and loss of fitness. For the past 4 weeks I had been running about 2-3 times a week. I mixed things up by tackling some big hills and dirt trails and attending weekly TRX and spin classes, but overall I worked out less, ran less. The result? I struggled to average an 8:50 pace for 7.5 miles when 4 weeks ago I comfortably averaged an 8:46 pace over 10 miles. Lesson learned: a drastic mileage cut over 7-10 days can translate into beneficial taper, but low mileage for a longer period causes cardiovascular regression. For me, anyway.

So thank you, Bay to Breakers, for rounding out the off season on an amusing note. And for providing the perfect wakeup call for my summer training. I’ve got 3 races on deck for the summer, concluding with my debut at Hood to Coast. I’ll be thinking of my new nemesis – the android – as I hit the track or push myself through tempo runs the next 3 months.

Like strawberries and shortcake

Today I went on my last run as a 42-year-old. By happenstance, my husband was able to accompany me. He and I hardly ever get to run together. We usually have to tag team our workouts so one of us can be with the kids. But today both kids were in ski school and we both had a run on our agendas, so we went for it.

He suggested we run along Donner Lake (10 minutes’ drive downhill from our house in Truckee) versus in our immediate neighborhood because the lake is at a lower elevation. I frankly did not see how 600 feet could make a difference, but also did not see the point of arguing, so I agreed.

As soon as we arrived at the lake, he muttered, “Oh darn! I forgot my iPod.” Really? – I grimaced to myself. We are here to run together and you were planning to listen to music? Sheesh.

A half-mile into our run, where the two of us ran side by side sharing the bike lane, I noticed that he was weaving as he ran. And whenever he veered in my direction, I ended up running on the dirt off the road. “Please stop,” I told him. “You’re running me off the road.”

“Oh really? I just don’t want to get too close to the white line. I don’t want to get hit. Here, I’ll switch with you. I don’t mind running on the dirt. I like the softer surface.”

We switched. But soon enough, I noticed he was still weaving. And this time I was edging the white line. I piped up, “Can you try to stay straight?”

“Oh sorry. I just don’t want to step in the puddles,” he said, pointing to the muddy puddles in our path, remnants of last week’s snow.

“Can’t you go ahead of me then?” I sighed. We were like a pair of ballroom dancers who had gone too long without practice, literally getting in each other’s way. It occurred to me that much artful synchronization goes into being someone’s running buddy. What are the characteristics of a perfect running pal? I came up with this:

1. Cheerfully takes turns driving the carpool to races and runs.
2. Takes turns mapping out a route.
3. Tells great stories.
4. Shares your level of runnerdiness, or lack thereof.
5. Offers you water or gel when you’re stuck without it.
6. Knows when to run alongside, pull ahead or fall behind, but never runs you off the road or trail, or into harm’s way.
7. Motivates you without being competitive with you.
8. Will run the run you need to be doing even though it’s not the one he or she needs to be doing, knowing you’re the one who needs the support that day.
9. Celebrates your victories as if they were his or her own.
10. Knows exactly what to say in your moments of defeat.

Sizing up my husband, I would say he possesses many of those characteristics but could stand to improve in a few areas. In fairness, he rates quite highly for someone who doesn’t run regularly. So he doesn’t speak runnerdese, doesn’t carry gel, and doesn’t pore over all the possible running routes. But he cared enough keep me company on my birthday eve run. At one point during our easy 5, he said this would be the longest he will have run in months. Still he came. And he kept up. And that counts for a lot.

To my other running pals – you know who you are – a huge thank you for your big hearts, strong running legs, and endless supply of gel and belief in me. We go together like strawberries and shortcake, and I adore that.

Forever pace

One time while running with a couple friends, I posed the question: “Do you think everyone has a preset limit as to how many miles their body can log before they can’t run anymore? Or do you think we all have the capacity to run our whole lives?”

I asked this because you always hear stories about how so-and-so so used to be a runner but wrecked some part of his or her body, and either lives in chronic pain or had to have surgery, and now can’t run anymore. It’s as though each of our bodies is built to tolerate a certain amount of stress from running or some other physical activity, and once we cross that line the game is over.

And then there’s my chiropractor’s colleague, who believes running is the worst thing you can do for your joints and that no one should run. There is a general sense that running poses a hazard and that runners take a calculated risk when they choose to pursue the activity, which I can accept. But hearing someone deem running a categorical no-no shocks me. In a society that struggles with obesity, permits people to drive around in cars, and commemorates life occasions with alcoholic beverages, why the antagonism towards running?

There is a recent study that suggests running does not contribute to osteoarthritis and can actually benefit our joints. I’ll leave the scientific debate to those who are better informed than I am, but what I know empirically is that I have never been more fit or felt stronger than I do now. And I attribute that to long-distance running. I’ve picked my poison, and lo and behold it hasn’t killed me.

In fact it was three years ago this month that I dove into the half marathon training program that sparked my current passion for running. I went from someone who had to be dragged out on a 1-2 mile run to a runnerd with a bucket list of places to run and races to do before she dies. A fanatic who buys 10 times more running clothes than normal clothes. And follows the Olympic marathon trials live on Twitter.

Where am I going with it? What do I hope to gain?

The simple answer is:  I’m in this for the long haul. I want to run in this body for a very long time. I want to get to the point of winning my age group at races not because I’m fast, but because I am the only one who still manages to show up and run. Yep, I want to be that crazy old lady.

As my friend Beth said so poignantly in response to my question: “I think everybody’s got a forever pace.”  A run-forever pace that ultrarunners are so expert at locking in.  The one that enables them to trot with zen-like focus over hill and dale, from sunrise to sunset, until they get to their destination.  But I think the forever pace is about more than just how fast your run. It is about dialing back your approach to running overall, being patient, foreseeing what it will take to be able to run at age 50, 60, 70 or whatever your heart desires, and figuring out how to preserve yourself for that.

I wonder what my forever pace is. Is it one marathon a year, or one good one and that’s it? Is it running no more than 3 times a week? Or running soft surfaces only? I took up long distance running at the inopportune age of 39, with old bones and worn ligaments. Whenever something feels off or downright painful, I often wonder if it’s indicative of a middle-aged body just needing more recovery time, or a major systemic screwup. I don’t always figure it out but I am definitely always thinking and being attentive to my body. Listening, reevaluating, and honoring where my body is at today. Forever pace. Sustainable running.

Running free: an epiphany

Ask a runner what she likes about running and guaranteed one of the top 5 things will be the sense of freedom. There is no clearer demonstration of what it means be free than the act of moving forward through time and space on one’s own terms. Freedom is mobility.

Two months ago I visited Thailand and Cambodia on a family vacation. In typical American fashion, I took my habits with me and practiced them wherever I went. I had a marathon to run in 2 weeks, so naturally I was intent on executing the taper portion of the training plan during our 11-day vacation. My single piece of luggage was one-third occupied by the Holy Trinity of running: sneakers, a Garmin, and a running outfit.

Of course I knew that no one runs in Southeast Asia. Not outside on the roads, not if they’re not being chased. There is a reason Olympic long-distance runners don’t hail from places like Thailand and Vietnam. It is not part of the culture, nor is it practical. First of all, it’s hot and humid as all get-out. Moreover, no one can afford the luxury of disappearing for hours to huff and puff on the road and spend time in one’s own head. In places where people struggle to make ends meet, running is a form of vanity and, worse yet, idleness.

And so that morning when I took a 4-mile lap around my hometown in northern Thailand, I was met with stares. Blank, perplexed, amused, and perhaps even chiding. I was also met with nonchalance. Rightly so, because who has the time for my foreigner eccentricity? While I look Thai and am part Thai and spent my early childhood in Thailand, the activity I was engaging in was all “farang.”

One of the other stops on our trip was Siem Reap, Cambodia, home to the World Heritage Site known as Angkor Wat. Cambodia, as many know, is a country that has been rocked by civil war and strife of unimaginable proportions in recent history. Having emerged from the brutal totalitarian grip of the Khmer Rouge just over 30 years ago, it is only in the nascent stage of peace. Siem Reap’s genteel French gardens, chic restaurants and luxury hotels certainly belie the city’s bloodstained past. As do the streams of air-conditioned buses emblazoned with alphabets of various kinds – Korean, English, Khmer, and French. “The past is past” seems to be the sentiment here. Then again, what is the alternative? Who among these survivors can spare the emotional capital to dwell on the execution of at least 1.7 million of their brethren by their own government?

On the second day of our stay in Siem Reap, my training schedule called for a 9-mile run. I approached the hotel concierge to help me map out a safe and straightforward running route. She directed me to follow the main road that would take me from Siem Reap to Angkor. “Many guests like to run that route,” she said. Sounded good to me. I was excited to pull another Forrest Gump in yet another country.

At 7:30 a.m. when I started off, the temperature had already reached the low 70’s Fahrenheit, which meant it was on the cusp of becoming uncomfortable. I ran on the shoulder of the road since the sidewalk was uneven and crowded, sharing the space typically occupied by tuk-tuks, motorcycles and bicycles. I yielded to everyone who I sensed coming up behind me. I was in no rush and had no interest in becoming the next unidentified subject of an unfortunate traffic accident (I carried nothing on me that morning except one gel and one bottled water). I was pleased to be able to keep pace with a few of the tidily uniformed children commuting by bike to school. By this, I mean as many as three 5- to 10-year-olds astride single-rider bikes shimmying alongside me, their schoolbags dangling from various angles.

Finally the temples of Angkor came into view. There in the golden light were the unmistakable carved stone towers that have persisted since the 12th century, jutting out of the green sweep of their jungle surroundings. I always have to catch my breath in the presence of monuments of civilizations gone by. Doubly so, when I approach them running.

I stopped at the promenade in front of Angkor Wat to eat my gel and finish the bottle of water I had been carrying. As I squeezed out the last globs, I walked up the handful of steps to the promenade, debating whether I had time to keep walking to the gate of the temple city for a closer look. Two steps into my thought process, a uniformed guard blocked my path and said, “Can I see your pass?”

Confused and slightly winded, I mumbled, “What?”

“Your tourist pass. Show it to me.”

“Um, I don’t have one. I just came running here,” I replied, taking stock of the fact that I had no identification on me, let alone a permit apparently needed to stand at this World Heritage Site.

“Then go back,” he orders, swiveling his index finger counterclockwise.

I rejoiced. In not being hauled off to a Cambodian jail. In not getting a fine that I wouldn’t have the ability to immediately pay. In being allowed to go back on my merry path without police escort, or who knows what. It was the last time I would take the freedom to roam for granted.

I am lucky to live in a place where running for leisure is possible and commonplace. I am grateful I don’t routinely have to answer to inspectors and guards wherever I go. I am thankful for open roads and public spaces that allow me to run free. It is clearly an immense privilege.