Archive for the ‘Running’ Category

Running, Part III

November 16, 2009

It’s been a month since the race but I feel like I need to finish the story.  Which is kind of weird, because only about 3 people in the world even know about this blog, and one of them ran the race with me.   For purposes of continuity alone.

We were off with a bang.  It was a little jarring to be honest, all of the races I used to run in NYC would start with a lot of hemming and hawing by the race director and usually some famous runner they coax out of retirement for the occasion.  There was no ceremony at this start, just a gunshot and we were off, into the crisp red morning.

Everything in Moab is red.  The rocks are red, the buttes towering overhead, the dust that cakes on your hiking boots, sometimes even the Colorado River looks red.  The start of the race is right along the river, winding through the canyon, only a stone’s throw across.  The sun had mostly come up by this time, though every once in a while we would come around a bend in the river and see the sun just breaking over a butte, hitting the canyon walls and making them glow.

It is mercifully flat.  I noticed we were passing people, and grumbled to myself about beaters who don’t know how to self-seed.  It is one of my bigger race pet peeves.  I must interrupt this waxing poetic to discuss.  Seriously, if you run a 13 minute mile you should not start at the 9 minute mile sign.  You are just creating a traffic jam.  And even if you think you might one day run a 9 minute mile, you should probably start at 10, just to be safe.  I certainly never start at the 6 minute mile sign.  I’d like to be able to run one, but it’s just not going to happen.  I start at the appropriate mile pace sign and am inevitably passing people the first 3 or 4 miles.  It takes an incredible amount of energy.

Anyways.  J and I kept passing people, left and right and everywhere.  We ran up the inside shoulder for awhile but even there we were passing people.  I had busted the band on my trusty Nike Imara watch a few weeks earlier so I had to dig it out of a pocket.  When I finally looked at it, around mile 3, I realized we were running 8:30 pace.  Faster than we had planned, but we were both feeling good so we decided to keep it up.  Unfortunately, soon after J felt a twinge in his knee.  He has had IT band issues for months, and for awhile it looked like he wouldn’t even be able to race.  But he is nothing if not determined, so we kept running on and played it by ear.  Or knee, I suppose.

Around mile 6 the mother of all hills starts.  You can see the elevation map of the course here.  As you can see, the first six miles are delightfully flat, maybe a few rolls here and there but nothing major.  According to the race website, “miles 8-12 contain some short hills.”  They are liars.  It starts slow and gradual, but by mile marker 7 you are going straight up a small mountain.  And it never ends.  It is straight up for a full mile and then some.  At that point J and I were playing a cat and mouse game.  He would speed up a little, I’d run to catch up and keep up the faster pace, and then he’d speed up again.  It was brutal.  And questionable judgement considering we still had more than 5 miles to go.  Luckily there was a nice long downhill before we headed up again.

At mile 10 I lost J.  His knee buckled just before the aid station and he stopped to walk.  I was a terrible girlfriend and kept going.  Don’t worry, I turned back to make sure he was okay, but at that point I was on a roll.  I still felt fresh and energized.  I sucked a couple more Clif Shot bloks and dug in.

There was an older woman who was pretty close to me the whole time.  She was wearing a super cute running skort (I want one!), and was thin and toned and kicking my ass.  She was at least my mom’s age, mid-50s or more.  I really, really wanted to beat her.  The last few miles passed in a blur.  I kept picking up the pace, especially once I hit the 12 mile mark.  I knew I still had plenty of juice left in me so I just let fly.  There’s a nice leisurely downhill before you turn into the ranch, and I just let my legs roll.  When I hit the ranch I started picking other runners off one by one until I was full on sprinting.  I kicked a little early and a couple of girls passed me right at the end, but I blazed through the finish.  I haven’t finished that strong in ages.

At the finish I went up to the older lady and told her what an inspiration she was, and how I’d just been trying to keep her in my sights the whole race.  I think I made her day.  I hope so anyways.

Only a couple of minutes later, J limped through the finisher corral.  As promised, he had gutted it out and finished strong.  The knee had not separated itself from his leg as feared but it was not in good shape.  We got some ice from the first aid station and he collapsed in the grass.  I was sad he didn’t get to experience the joy of the finisher tent, with its orange slices and gatorade and other deliciousness.

I think the reason I was so compelled to write about the race is it restored my love of running, and especially running races.  I had gotten so burnt out from injury and trying to hit time goals that I forgot the joy of just running.  I hope I can keep that.  Maybe that’s why I had to finish this post.

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Running, part II

October 25, 2009

As I was saying, a few months ago I challenged J to run “The Other Half,” a half marathon in Moab, UT.  Moab happens to be one of my favorite places in the world.  It is home to both Canyonlands and Arches National Parks, as well as a lot of climbing bums and mountain bikers, a couple of breweries and a .  It also happens to be a spot of blue on Utah’s electoral map.  Definitely my kind of town.

I slowly but steadily started training, egged on by a certain dog who goes batshit when he doesn’t get enough exercise.  Pretty soon I was hoofing it up City Creek Canyon.  City Creek, like most good canyons in the Wasatch, is a butt-busting 7 miles straight up hill.  It’s nice though because there are water fountains at strategic intervals, distractingly gorgeous scenery and a delightful downhill to look forward to.  By September the up portion, which in July felt like a stair master on steroids, was actually starting to feel remarkably okay.  Not pleasant by any means but certainly tolerable.  My last long run, the weekend before the race, I took the aforementioned dog, and was disappointed to reach the watershed gate where I had to turn around.

Last weekend was a whirlwind.  We had planned to head south on Friday after work but J is just a big of a gear fiend as me and wanted to stick around for the Black Diamond Ski Swap on Saturday morning.  I’m glad we did, J sold a bunch of his old gear and I landed a pair of Alpine Touring boots for a ridiculously low price.  Here’s hoping they work.

We finally got into Moab just in time to make the expo, wander around a few galleries and gorge ourselves on pasta.  The whole town was packed with pasta seekers so it’s a miracle we were able to score any kind of nourishment, let alone of the carboloading variety.  We were also very pleased with ourselves for having made our hotel reservation a month in advance, as we drove past a hell of a lot of no vacancy signs.  Thank god for that foresight I was talking about.

On Sunday morning we hauled ourselves out of bed at the crack of dawn. Technically, before the crack of dawn, it was still pitch black out.  The desert gets chilly at night, without any humidity the temperature can drop from 90 during the day to 30 at night.  It was quite shiver-inducing when we left the hotel.  We finally reached the race start, via school bus,  a good hour and a half before the gun, and were greeted by packs of runners huddled around trash can fires and holding onto steaming cups of hot chocolate for dear life.  One of the organizers, over loudspeaker, kept reminding us all that we would need to ditch our extra clothing fifteen minutes before the race start so our sweats bags would make it to the finish before we did.  Needless to say, in the dry, bone-chilling morning air this prospect was rather unpleasant.  The sun finally rose over the canyon wall about half an hour before starting time which made it somewhat more bearable.

At this point I was absolutely giddy.  I had somehow forgotten how much fun races are, especially the waves of nervous anticipation at the start.  As J and I made our way to the starting line my legs felt fresh and ready to go.  J was less excited.  I didn’t mention this before, but he barely trained.  A combination of IT band issues and a nasty flu meant that he hadn’t done a run longer than about 3 miles for months.  I just hoped he’d be able to finish without ripping his knee to shreds.  I also wanted to beat him.  He didn’t help matters by making this comment as we were waiting for the start: “I don’t think we’ll finish together, but if I’m with you at the end I’ll gut it out and try to beat you.”

Oh, you are ON.

I am a flailing giraffe.

October 24, 2009

I found this essay I wrote after my first marathon while scouring my laptop for old papers I can use as a writing sample for grad school apps.  Anyways, I liked it.  Enjoy.

I am not a pretty runner.  I’ve spent my life watching other people fly by, their feet barely seeming to touch the ground, bodies in such obviously natural motion that it seems they were designed expressly to run, specifically past me.  When I run, on the other hand, to the outside observer the experience looks nothing short of painful.  Graceful I am not.  My knees turn in, so on every stride you can nearly see my hips, knees and ankles straining under the impact.  I pronate horribly, and my right foot inexplicably flails outward.  When I run through town, friends honk from far away, recognizing my gait long before they can see my face.

For the first eighteen years of my life this was not a problem.  I come from a family of jocks, both parents former marathoners, and my sisters all excel in various athletic endeavors.  For years I blamed my lack of coordination on the idea that I was secretly adopted, so different was I from my able-bodied siblings.  I turned to other pursuits, mainly theater and music, and longed to escape from my rural Maine town for the excitement of a big city.  Sometimes I envied those who could effortlessly kick a soccer ball in the direction it was intended, sprint around the track in a cloud of dust or ski for hours on end without feeling a searing pain in their quads, but for the most part my lack of athletic prowess didn’t bother me.

When I finally made it to the city, choosing a college smack in the middle of Manhattan, a strange thing happened.  I missed trees.  Stranger still, I felt cooped up in the endless streets and tall buildings.  I had spent my adolescence moaning about the lack of excitement in my tiny town, but now that I was in the center of excitement I missed the serenity of my old natural surroundings.  So Central Park became my oasis; I had to get there at least a few times a week to escape the madness of the city.  I started just jogging a loop or two around the reservoir, taking the subway there.  Soon I was no longer using the subway to get to the reservoir, but running the two miles or so to get there.  Not long after that I thought I would go a bit further, and ended up running the entire park.  By that time I was completely hooked.

The next summer I found myself back at home, bored, basically jobless and miserable.  I spent most of the day glued to the television and wishing I was back in New York.  Worse, in the busy end of freshman year I had pretty much stopped running, so I was back to the point of out of shape where it hurts to even think about going out for a few miles.  My younger sister, meanwhile, was training for a marathon.  Out of boredom more than anything else, I started doing long runs with her.  We started with loops near our house, but by the end of the summer I could comfortably run fifteen miles.  There was no aim in sight, I was running just for fun, because I could, and that surprised me.

My sister and I ran a few races that summer, and even though I was barely running faster than my usual training pace, I started to feel like I was a member of a very cool club.  I could now talk about the pain of blisters, the pleasure of the post-race bagel, and the sheer joy of crossing the finish line.  Never mind that I still looked like baby giraffe on speed while doing it; strangely, this didn’t seem to any of the other runners I met.  I didn’t have to be pretty or graceful as long as I made it to the finish like everybody else.  As soon as I got back to New York I joined a running club at school and started racing nearly every weekend.  I loved everything about it: the people, who seemed much more laid back than my usual theatrical crowd, the way my body had completely changed shape, and the satisfaction of reaching new PRs.  The beauty of being a beginner, of course, is that nearly every race is a PR.

Inevitably, I set my sights on the marathon.  Not just any marathon either, but the New York City marathon.  I trained hard all the following summer, running endless loops around Central Park.  Of course, there are drawbacks to running like a baby giraffe rather than a giselle.  When I went home right before school started I decided to run a sixteen mile loop that had a notorious mile-long hill about ten miles in.  Halfway up the hill, my left hip started to throb.  It hurt, but I thought if I could just make it up the hill I would be fine.  By the time I got there my entire left sidewas achy.  Still, I thought I could finish the run.  Which I did, but by the end I could barely walk.  Turns out I had managed to destroy not only my piriformis (a muscle buried underneath the glutes) but also my IT band.  Needless to say, the marathon was out of the question.

All through the fall I watched my running friends train, gleefully pounding the miles in the crisp October air, while I dutifully went to physical therapy twice a week.  I hated myself for not being more of a natural athlete.  I cursed my knock knees, my flat feet, and my weak hips.  How could I be a real runner, I wondered, if my entire body was fighting against it?  On the day of the marathon I bitterly stayed inside, working on a paper.  I could not bring myself to cheer on the friends who had stuck by my side through my injury-caused petulance.

Still, the date of the marathon came and went, and I was able to slowly start running again, bit by bit and frustratingly slow.  By the time the next summer rolled around I was in decent shape again and convinced that nothing would stand between me and Tavern on the Green.  Then, once again the third week of August hit, and suddenly I felt a weird pain in my leg, this time the right one.  Unlike the previous summer, I stopped before the pain became unbearable.  Diagnosis?  Severe tendonitis, which put pressure on one of the nerves in my calf, causing shooting pain up my whole leg.  Back to physical therapy I went, but this time I stated my goal up front: “I am training for the New York City marathon.  I am going to finish if it kills me, but I need your help to make sure I can run again afterwards.” The therapist sighed in acknowledgement of the shared insanity of the runners he was treating (four at the time) and told me that he’d do his best.

I lost three weeks of training, and in the end only got in one very long run, a twenty miler three weeks out from the race.  The week before I was a nervous wreck, worried that I would crap out, that I had lost too much training time, or that I would finish but break myself in the process.

November 5 dawned misty and a bit chilly.  I climbed onto the start bus with my teammates, stomach churning in a mixture of excitement and anxiety.  We were on one of the earlier buses, so I had three hours to sit with my friends and freak out.  But soon enough it was time to line up in the corrals, and my running buddy Violeta and I giddily made our way to the start.

The race itself was everything I had imagined, only better and far more painful.  Violeta and I had our names on our shirts, and it never got old hearing people cheer for us.  I felt like I was in the middle of a huge block party, and I was the feature act.  I lost Violeta on Queensborough bridge when she had to stop to use her inhaler, but my uncle ran with me from Brooklyn Academy of Music, and my aunt from First Avenue on.  I had two personal cheerleaders the entire way, and two million more along the course.  Amazingly, none of my injuries flared up, but around the Bronx I started to feel like there were daggers in my legs.  At one point I had the distinct perception that my right big toenail was completely gone.

By the time I got to Central Park, I could barely feel my lower body.  I heard people cheering my name and was more or less aware that I had run on this stretch of pavement many times before, but everything was blurring together.  I was finding energy from a source deep within me that I never knew existed, a source that no amount of pain or exhaustion could diminish.  Suddenly I was running faster, and though the finish line seemed eons away it no longer seemed impossible to reach.  I blazed down Central Park South, passing scores of runners who were limping along, looks of sheer determination on their faces.  Minutes later I was climbing the final hill up to Tavern on the Green.  I heard the roar of the crowd as I came through the last stretch.  I raised my arms as I crossed the finish, cracking the biggest grin I could muster.  A second later I burst into tears.

The cameras at the finish captured this very instant, the moment when my smile broke into a sob of triumph and relief.  That moment encapsulates the whole experience of the marathon for me.  To make it to Tavern on the Green, I had to endure countless long runs, painful physical therapy and a whole season of disappointment, not to mention the agony of the final miles of the race itself.  Still, what I gained in the process was the knowledge that I can do pretty much anything I put my mind and body to, in spite of and perhaps to some degree because of my flailing, knock-kneed legs.

Running, part I

October 22, 2009

This weekend I ran my first race in three years.  The last race I ran was the 2006 New York City Marathon.  Three days after the race I started my trek west, for what I thought would be a ski season in Utah.  About a month after that I crashed while skiing at Alta and shredded my MCL and meniscus.

It’s crazy how seemingly insignificant things can completely alter the trajectory of your life.

I digress.  In college, I ran a lot.  Partly it was the stress of being 19 years old, on my own for the first time in my life, and in a city where trees are few and far between.  If I didn’t run for a week or two my stress level would build to the point explosion.  I was so committed I would go to Central Park when it was sleeting, raining buckets, below zero, and a couple of times during finals I went in the middle of the night (always with company).  It was so freeing to just be able to throw on some shoes and book it around the city.

It helped, too, that I had company.  My school had a club that was affiliated with New York Road Runners.  We had a serious hook up with races and no shortage of training buddies.  On weekends in the fall a group of us would often do long runs together, looping around the park again and again, or going down the West Side Highway to Battery Park, or across the GW bridge to New Jersey.  It was pretty fun to be able to say later in the day “I ran to Jersey this morning.”  One of those running buddies became one of my closests friends.  She is now running ultramarathons in South Africa and I just airmailed her a big box full of GU.

At some point running stopped being fun and started being something of a dredge.  I was plagued by injuries–I’m pretty sure only runners even know what a piriformis is, but damn it hurts when you tear it.  I became way too obsessed with training, with getting the miles in, and not focused enough on the euphoria that comes with a hard workout.   My second NYC marathon I was trying to break 4 hours so the entire time I was stressed that I wasn’t making my mile splits.  I tried to make up for a slow second and third mile by running way too fast the next few miles.  As any past or present marathoner will tell you, this is the worst possible strategy.  I came up 6 minutes over my goal time.

On some level, my jacked up knee was a blessing.  When I couldn’t run I remembered all the things I missed.  I started back up slow, mile by mile, first on a treadmill and then on the trails.  I wasn’t doing all that much until recently, partly from cosseting my knee and partly because I had become obsessed with all the other sports you can do in Utah.  Like rock climbing.  And skiing.  And backcountry skiing.  And hiking big mountains.  And the occasional bike ride thrown in for kicks.

In July, on something of a whim, I challenged J to a half marathon in Moab.

To be continued…