Thursday, May 23, 2019

New Jersey Marathon Recap: Falling Short and Getting Up

Well, I did not meet my goal. And disappointment is definitely a Big Feeling.

Those first few hours after the race, it was easy to mistake disappointment for devastation. I had put in so much work and gone, objectively, nowhere. 2:50:58 is thirty-three seconds slower than my time in Portland two years ago. It’s six minutes off of what I need to run to go to Atlanta next February. As I collected my gear and walked to the shuttle and drove to the hotel and stood in the shower and finally flopped down on the queen-sized bed with my fists to my face, I couldn’t stop wondering, “Why did I even bother?”

It’s a foolish question, of course. Anyone who competes at anything knows the answer. I was just disappointed. I still am.

The race really hurt. Not in that “I pushed myself to the physical brink” hurt, where you “give a race everything you’ve got.” I mean yes, it hurt that way, too, but my left foot, which had been plaguing me in the weeks leading up to the race, really, really hurt. This was not a surprise. Given the preceding weeks, I knew it was a question of when it would start to hurt in the race, not if. The answer was around mile 8.

That's Mr. Ironman there on my right. Photo cred: CheerEverywhere.
Mile 8 was around the time I started to get sad, too. I had started the race with a small pack of runners, but when it became clear that we weren’t going to run much faster than 6:30s, I tried following a guy wearing a backwards Ironman cap when he broke away. Yet by mile 8, he and I hadn’t picked up the pace by more than a second or two, and I didn’t need to do much mental math to know the race was not going to turn out the way I had hoped. My plan had been to run as close to 6:20s as possible for the first 18 miles while staying “comfortable,” and then to try to hammer the last 8 miles hard enough to get under 2:45:00. I was already more than a minute off track for the first part of that plan. And the pain in my foot was ramping up.

Three miles later, the half marathoners funneled away toward their finish line, leaving the few remaining marathoners strung out single file down a long, straight road. Ironman guy had broken away from me, and the effort it would take to catch up felt like too much. Should I even keep running? It felt bizarre to be asking myself that question as my feet continued to turn under me, but I couldn’t shake the thought: I could just drop out. No one would care.

I kept running, forcing myself to put in 1-minute surges at the twelfth and thirteenth mile markers. The little hope inside that refuses to die insisted. It might help. You could turn things around.

I lapped my watch at mile 14. It read 6:40.

F*ck this. My foot f*cking hurts. The goal is long gone. Why am I even doing this?

Yet even as my brain was sinking toward despair, I reached into my shorts for the gel I was supposed to eat at mile 14. Maybe it will help, whispered the little hope. Calories. Caffeine. You never know.

I kept running. My foot kept throbbing. I think a man passed me, maybe two or three. Otherwise I saw almost no one until I got to the boardwalk at Asbury Park, around mile 17. I was maneuvering up onto the wooden planks when two women went charging past me in the other direction.

Olympic trials qualifiers, I thought numbly as a third woman went whizzing by. I am so far behind.

Yet by the time I hit the turnaround cone at mile 19, something inside me had shifted. Thoughts of dropping out were gone. I had come this far; I was going to finish. The foot pain had sort of plateaued, but my right hamstring was getting tired. I’m compensating. It was a strange realization, because it made no difference. My foot hurt. Nothing I could do about that. My hamstring was tired. Oh well. My feet kept turning. My hands kept snatching cups of Gatorade. My eyes kept peering into the distance to glimpse the next mile marker.

“Never quit,” they say.

“If you believe, you can achieve.”

“You have to want it bad enough.”

Don't be fooled; that's 75% of the crowd on the whole course.
Photo cred: Kai Ng.
There is something to these sayings. They are meant to motivate you, to push you forward when society, and bullies, and your own brain tell you no, you can’t. And yet there are times when quitting is the smarter choice. When believing and wanting are not enough.

I wanted this 2:45:00 bad enough to invest incredible amounts of time and energy. To work on eating the right things and sleeping the right amount and doing little stretches and recovery exercises that I absolutely positively did not want to do. I wanted it enough to go to the weight room and to the pool and to parks and roads all over the city to run in the cold and the heat, the rain and the snow. I wanted it enough to do these things for months on end, and I know plenty of other women who “want” it just as bad. Some of us get it. Some of us don’t.

I carried my disappointment with me for a good majority of that marathon, and I’m carrying it with me now. But after letting time and space do their thing, I have also dug out a few nuggets of pride. I did not drop out. I desperately wanted to, but I did not. And while I may not have successfully adhered to my race plan, I adhered to my nutrition plan. I choked down my gels and gulped water and Gatorade on schedule, no matter how futile. And as terrible and sad and hurting and lopsided as I might have felt, I did not crash and burn. I held on and ran the second-fastest marathon of my life. So there is a silver lining. Or maybe at least a copper one.

Race Length
Finishing Time
Average Pace
Overall Place
Gender Place
26.2 mi
29 / 2,316
4 / 864

Friday, April 26, 2019

Big Goals, Big Feelings: Pre-Jersey/Spring 2019 Recap

I listen to a lot of podcasts. Some are about running, some are sort of about running, and some have nothing to do with running. One of my current favorites, Work, Play, Lovefalls into all three categories. On this podcast, the two hosts, Lauren Fleshman and her husband Jesse Thomas, answer listeners’ questions about their business (Picky Bars), their sports (running and triathlon), and their relationship (including kids). On an episode that aired a few months ago, a question came up that had to do with setting goals and mentally preparing for success and failure. I don’t remember much more about the question, but I vividly remember Lauren’s answer: when you sign up for big goals, you sign up for big feelings, too. 

NYC Half Marathon. Andy (front) is having way more fun than I am.
Photo: CheerEverywhere
That statement has been a scrolling marquee in my brain this entire training cycle:  B-i-g G-o-a-l-s, B-i-g F-e-e-l-i-n-g-s. It’s a reminder, a warning. Feelings are coming. Prepare yourself. And now that I’m just a few days away from The Race that I’ve been training for, those feelings are coming out in full force.

If it’s been said once, it’s been said a thousand times: the marathon doesn’t owe you anything. You can put in countless hours of work over days and weeks and months. You can eat the right things, do the right exercises, run the right paces, train on the right terrain, hire the right coach, get the right sleep, buy the right gear, choose the right course. . . . You still aren’t guaranteed squat. And that’s scary enough under normal circumstances, but this time, I feel like I’ve invested so much more. I’ve tried incredibly hard to do All The Right Things. I cut way down on desserts and alcohol, and I focused on eating nutritious food both before and after workouts. I prioritized sleep. I passed up very tempting vacations with very good friends. I vigilantly performed strength sessions twice a week, committed to “recovery” activities* at least once if not twice a day, kept a hand-written training journal, and actually stretched. Give yourself the best shot, I kept telling myself as I shelled out hundreds upon hundreds of dollars for preventative physical therapy (when my foot started hurting) and for acupuncture (to manage ongoing lower back issues). Just get to the starting line.

Now the starting line is almost here, and I’m scared of the pain that I know is coming. Scared of the Big Feelings that await me if I fail.

About a year ago, in an episode of the Ali on the Run podcast, the host (Ali Feller) talked about being scared to fail at something she really, really cared about. She was scared because, according to her, she had never failed at anything she wanted that badly before. At the time I thought, Huh, I don’t think I’ve ever failed at anything important to me, either. But the thought nagged at me, until eventually, I remembered something.

When I was in high school, I wanted very badly to go to Governor’s School. Governor’s School is a summer program where the best and brightest students in the state of Pennsylvania go off to a college campus and study their “specialty field” with other equally gifted students. A friend of mine (who is now a professional Broadway musician) had gotten into the Governor’s School for the Arts in music, and when we visited her that summer, I immediately knew I had to attend. Everyone seemed so smart, and the campus was so beautiful, and the activities all looked so fun, and the performances were so amazing. It just seemed like a mecca for creativity and advancement—a place where the best went to become even better. And within my high school, I was arguably the best creative writer. At the very least, I was the most decorated. Plus, I had never failed at anything. I would apply, and I would get in, and I would have the best summer of my life.
Early season track 3k. Got beaten handily by Allison (behind me).
Photo: L. Sillen.

The spring of my sophomore year, I received my first rejection letter. Just one piece of paper, folded into crisp thirds inside a standard envelope. It was a form letter. I was lucky they had even bothered to insert my name. In my junior year, I received a second, identical letter. Seniors were not allowed to apply.

The reality was crushing. My writing wasn’t good enough. I wasn’t good enough. And all this time, I had thought I was great. People had told me I was great, talented, special. But these canned, impersonal letters showed me that I was living in a very, very small pond. I couldn't even beat out students in the paltry state of Pennsylvania. It was devastating.

The only tiny consolation I had was that no one else knew about my failure. I think I might have told my parents and maybe my best friend that I had applied to Governor’s School, but I honestly don’t remember telling them I’d been rejected. I kept those rejection letters in my top dresser drawer, where no one would ever see them, and eventually they were smothered in socks and threadbare T-shirts, and I put the whole thing behind me—so far behind me, that I forgot about the event entirely. Until now.

Now I’m older and, if not wiser, certainly more realistic. I don’t have the luxury of assuming I’ll succeed, because I know better. I know what those Big Feelings are like, and how heartbreaking it is to come up short.

Yet as I was spending all the hours doing All The Things, I couldn’t help but imagine the other types of Big Feelings, too. The kind where if everything clicks, and my legs feel fresh, and the weather stays cool, and my stomach cooperates, and I have runners I can hang with, and my brain shuts up, I will get to mile 26.19 and look up at the clock and . . . cry? Or maybe I will smile. Maybe I’ll give a fist pump, or I could fall dramatically to the ground. I’m a writer—I’ve come up with a lot of scenarios. The important thing is that this moment will be one of the very few when I feel complete, genuine pride.

However, there are no guarantees; that’s the gamble we take with Big Goals. So in the last few days before this race, my job is to find pride in what I’ve done to get this far and to express gratitude for those who have helped me along the way. This time last year, I was just returning to running after three months off. I am so grateful to have stayed “in the game” since then, and proud of the patience and persistence it’s taken to rebuild fitness. I have a ton of people to thank, but the short list includes my coach J. Lakritz; my PT A. McGinnis; my acupuncturist S. Park; my “unofficial” teammates (Justin’s Joggers and beyond!); my ever-supportive fiancĂ©; and the many friends who are always in my corner, no matter if I’m running fast, slow, or not at all.

Finally, it wouldn’t be a season recap without some highlights, so here are just a few:

Biggest ChangeJoining Distance Project NYC. Historically, all of my sporting endeavors have been as part of a team, and there’s a reason for that. I like to contribute to something larger than myself. I like rooting for others and having them root for me. So by “running unattached” for the last two years, I’ve missed out on that camaraderie. However, being teamless also been good for me, because the lack of structure and built-in running partners has forced me to broaden my running circle . . . and ultimately led me to help start DPNYC, where I’ve met even more accomplished, speedy, enthusiastic women.

Toughest Run: Long run, in Guadeloupe. I had envisioned running along flat sandy beaches. Instead I wound up on unevenly paved, extremely narrow residential roads that were literally built into the sides of cliffs (and not the pretty “ocean view” sides, either). Also it was 80 degrees and humid, and I drank zero water throughout the entire run. (Yes, this does make me an idiot.) In the last half mile, I proceeded to trip, skin my knees, and tear my shorts. What’s the French word for “fury”?

Most Helpful Tool: Believe Training JournalThere is something about writing by hand that affects me in a way typing never will. The prompts in this journal and the routine of writing in it helped me to mentally focus each week-long block of training and (I think!) grow as an athlete.

Favorite RaceGridiron 4 miler. I ran this race early in the season and it went better than expected. I took a risk by approaching it with a “go out hard and hang on” attitude (not my preferred racing style!), but I still managed to finish hard and pass other women. Can’t ask for more than that.

* My recovery activities (and these vary by athlete) include: foam rollingHypervolting, and voodoo banding, often interspersed with text messaging, Instagram, Twitter, and Netflix. Still testing whether the media additions confer any advantages; stay tuned.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Hartford Marathon Recap: A Glimpse into "Elite" Marathoning

Let me begin by making something clear: I am not an elite marathoner. Shalane Flanagan is an elite marathoner. Desiree Linden is an elite marathoner. Me? I’m sub-elite at best, and even saying that, I cannot help but think of at least ten women whom I know on a first-name-basis, who live within a few miles of me, and who could kick my ass at a footrace of literally any distance tomorrow morning.

However, according the Hartford Marathon's standards, I was “elite” enough for them. And if they wanted to give me free entry into a race I was already intending to run, I certainly wasn't going to say no.

Of course, as I was applying for “elite” status, I quickly discovered that the race had an even higher tier than elite, which they called “New England’s Finest.” If you, as a woman, ran a 2:55 marathon or better and lived in New England or New York, you could apply to receive travel reimbursement of up to $150, a free hotel room, and the opportunity to win considerably more prize money than the rest of the elites. (Take, for example, first place: the NEF runner would receive $6,000, while the regular elite could only earn $1,000.*)

I think this is the finish. But I'm honestly not sure.
Alas, while I did run a sub-2:55 marathon last year, and while I can literally see the World Trade Center from my apartment window (and spend more time running in New York than I do in New Jersey), I do not actually live in New England or New York. Therefore, despite my beseeching email to the race director, I was relegated to elite status. (Yes, yes, poor me. Merely elite.)

What I did get as part of the elite program was access to a tented area beside the finish line where I and the other NEF/elites could put our gear. The morning of the race, my friend and wonderful weekend host A___ and my fiancé R___ escorted me to that tent, which turned out to be not so much a clean, heated haven, as I had envisioned, but instead consisted of two rows of folding chairs and a folding table laden with safety pins, a case of water, and a box of bananas, all set up atop some already-soggy grass. (But hey, we had a tent, which was a lot nicer than standing out in the rain!)

After quick hugs and mutual wishes of “good luck,” A___ and R___ departed, leaving me feeling incredibly out of place as I hunched over my folding chair and watched all of the svelte runners arrive, looking like they knew exactly what they were doing and wearing matching warmup kits to boot. I, meanwhile, was wearing men’s sweatpants from Marshall’s and a free jacket I got at a race in Massachusetts last year. (I had meant for them to be my throwaway clothes, but apparently a volunteer was assigned to collect the NEF/elite runners’ warmup clothes at the starting line and take them back to the tent for us. Who knew?) Just as I checked my watch for the twelve-hundredth time and decided that 7:02am seemed like the perfect time to start tucking gel packets into my shorts, a woman in the next row of folding chairs made eye contact with me and smiled. After we exchanged a few pleasantries (yes, the weather was a little gloomy, and the grass beneath these chairs was awfully soggy, but hey, at least we wouldn’t be too hot!), she asked what I was going to do to warm up and would I mind the company? This was her first marathon, so “she didn’t know what marathoners did to warm up.” I invited her along on my one-mile warm-up jog, and as we trotted away, she asked what time I was hoping to run. I said anything under 2:55 would be a success. When I returned the question, she said she was hoping to OTQ (which is short for "Olympic Trials Qualify," meaning running under 2:45:00). Hmm, I thought. That’s a bit ambitious for a first marathon. But when she followed that up by saying she had recently run a 1:16 half marathon, my skepticism vanished.**

After finishing our jog, we parted ways. I had been told we’d be “escorted” to the starting line, but as I started seeing more and more runners leave the tent on their own, I decided that I must have been misinformed and jogged out toward the throngs of runners. When I finally found the starting line, I simultaneously ran into C___, a friend of a friend whom I’d met once before on a run in Connecticut. We hugged, at which point she said that since it was her first marathon, she just wanted to break three hours. (Just!) Then she inevitably asked what I wanted to run, and when I told her I was aiming for 2:55, she declared, “Perfect! We can run together, then.”

As the gun went off, my competitive brain got hostile. She’s totally crashing my marathon. Now I’m going to feel like I have to stick with her, instead of running my own race. What if she goes out too hard? What if she feels good? What if I feel good? I tried to reason with myself that if she started throwing down 6:15s in the first half, I’d just let her go and try not to let it bother me. On the other hand, if I felt good and she was flagging, I could leave her at mile 20. She’d better be flagging, warned the competitive voice. It’s her first marathon. You aren’t going to get beat by a first-timer are you?

Within the first few miles, all the OTQ women were long gone. Sure, there were a few men around, but otherwise it was frankly just me and C___. She seemed fine, and I seemed fine, and so we carried on, with her informing me at every mile marker exactly how fast her watch said we were running. (She was using the GPS auto-lap, while I was manually lapping my watch, so her announcements came earlier and earlier as the miles clicked away—exactly the reason I'd chosen not to use auto-lap.) We ran on a narrow park path and up along a highway. We ran beneath a bridge underpass where her family was screaming her name, and through a downtown stretch where R___ was screaming mine. On the uphills, she forged ahead, and on the downhills I sped past, but for the most part we ran stride for stride, taking turns going ahead of one another at water stops. (That is, except at three water stops where there were “elite runner” water tables. At those, she grabbed her pre-placed water bottle, and I ran straight past to grab a regular Dixie cup from a volunteer. Nothing new on race day, right?)
A rare photo with the "Dalai Lama" of running.

Now, my “ideal day race plan” had been to run 6:35-40 per mile for the first 10 miles, 6:30-35 for the next 7, 6:30s for the next 5, and anything sub-6:30 for the last 4+. However, the terrain was so uneven throughout the race and, quite frankly, I was so caught up in the fact that this girl was sticking to me like glue, that somewhere around mile 15, I abandoned that plan. My reasoning was as follows: (1) Nothing in my training indicated that I’d be able to negative split with this kind of precision. (2) If I picked up the pace significantly, C___ might not come with me, which would mean two things. First, I’d have to run the rest of the race literally by myself (because the annoying man who decided to sit on our heels starting at mile 8 was clearly not going to run beside me), and second, if my "wheels came off," I would have to watch C___ fly right past me. And call me a wimp, call me a coward, but I just did not want that to happen. Better to outkick her at the very end, I thought. After all: you know the kind of fatigue that’s coming. She doesn’t.

In fact somewhere right around where fatigue was starting to set in, we reached the second “elite” water bottle table, and C___ dropped her bottle. I saw her do it, and immediately thought Now what do I do? I could pick up my pace and try to drop her. I could simply keep going and see what she would do. Or I could slow down a little and look over my shoulder to try and encourage her to join me again.

You don’t know this girl, my competitive brain said. You don’t owe her anything.

Yeah, but if that were you, you’d want the other person to wait for you, said my rational brain. And what’s a few extra seconds? It’s not going to make a difference in the ultimate outcome of your race.

So I slowed down a beat and kept looking over my shoulder until I heard her footsteps again.

Around mile 19, we passed one of the OTQ girls. She looked absolutely miserable. “Come with us!” I tried to shout, but I was getting cold and my lips weren’t really functioning, so I doubt she heard me. And speaking of things not functioning, I spent all of miles 20 and 21 trying to get a gel out of my shorts pocket with fingers that absolutely would not cooperate. By the time we hit mile 22, my shorts were twisted, my shoulders were tired, and I had completely given up hope of getting that gel out—at which point C___ asked, “Do you want a gummy?”

See, this is why you were right to wait for her, my rational brain said as she handed over one of her shot blocks (which is basically a giant cube-shaped gummy bear). My competitive brain had absolutely no comeback to that one.

However, it had plenty to say when, a few hundred meters later, the man who had been running one step behind us the entire time finally started taking off.

Go with him! screamed my competitive brain. You can’t just let him beat you after he used you all that way!

But we were still four miles out from the finish line, and I just did not feel spry enough to match the move.

It’s okay, said my rational brain. Another time, another guy. You can go next time. This time, in this race, just hang on until 25.

And so I did. At mile 25, I saw what looked like an old man up ahead of us, near what looked like a gas station. He didn’t seem to be moving particularly quickly, and some guy C___ knew had just jumped onto the course to help her out. Neither he nor she said a word to me, so I figured all bets were off.

Time to go.

I pushed as hard as I could up the highway ramp that led back into downtown Hartford. I suffered through the downhill that came next. I tried to turn a wince into a smile when I passed by A___ and R___, all without turning my head, because I had to focus. I couldn’t let up, and I didn’t dare look back. C___ might be there, and I needed all of my energy to move forward. If I got out-kicked by the first-time marathoner who “just wanted to break three hours,” I’d never, ever forgive myself.

When the finish line finally came into sight, I couldn’t hear anything but my own footfalls, and there was nothing in front of me except that big, unforgiving clock. Suddenly it was all very real: if I didn’t push for these last 200 meters, I was going to finish with a 2:54 to my name, and damn it, I might have traveled a long way to get here, but I was better than 2:54. So I kicked as hard as my weary, beaten legs could kick.

And, as it turned out, those legs didn't let me down.

2018 Hartford Marathon Race Results

Race Length
Finishing Time
Average Pace
Overall Place
Gender Place
26.2 mi
27 / 1,560
5 / 635

* Not that I had any dreams of winning, the race, mind you, but prize money extended down through eighth place, and given the previous years’ finishing times, finishing somewhere in the top eight seemed possible.

** This woman went on to not only OTQ—by nearly 4 minutes, I should add—but she also won the entire race. Guess my warmup routine was sufficient....

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Pre-Hartford: 2018 Year-Long Recap

Pro tip: pretend you're actually exercising by doing your PT at a gym.
They say "don't take things for granted," but we inevitably do. So let me start this off by saying how grateful I am to even be writing a pre-marathon season recap. Just getting to the starting line this year is a triumph on its own.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Let's start back in January. As of the first of the year, I was sidelined with an "overuse" injury called patellofemoral syndrome. If you happen to be a physical therapist, you'll recognize that this isn't a break, or a strain, or even anything specific; it basically means I was having pain around my knee, mostly likely caused by inflammation. The trick—and what my physical therapist and I worked on over the next several months—was to determine why I was having pain and to train my body to move in a way that would stop causing said pain. For everyone who's not a physical therapist, all you really need to know is that bending my knee hurt. So running was out, along with biking, erging (rowing), elliptical-ing . . . it even hurt to walk. Also, stairs were especially painful, which, as anyone who lives in or around New York City knows, was especially problematic in terms of getting anywhere. However, luckily for me, my fiance and I had moved to a building with an elevator in late 2017, so at least I no longer faced three sets of stairs anytime I wanted to leave the apartment. That was one silver lining, and the fact that I could still swim freestyle without pain was another. So from January until April, I went to the pool 4-5 times a week and spent the rest of the time dutifully practicing PT exercises and trying not to feel too much FOMO as I watched everyone else get fitter and faster.

During this four-month span, I was faced with a hard choice. At the end of 2017, I was accepted to attend Wilder, an all-women's running-writing retreat hosted by retired professional runner Lauren Fleshman. Anyone who knows me knows how excited I was to be accepted—this retreat was practically made for me!—but given that the event was scheduled for Memorial Day weekend, I was now faced with a tough choice. Should I pay the rest of the deposit and buy a plane ticket, gambling on the fact that I'd be healthy enough to run by the end of May? Or should I save my money, give up my spot, and hope to be accepted into a future retreat?

With the encouragement of my physical therapist (who also happens to be my coach), I took the gamble, and lo and behold, by the end of May, I was finally running again. (Albeit very low mileage and with a lot of huffing and puffing . . . but I was putting one foot in front of the other with minimal pain!) Suffice it to say, that weekend in Sisters, OR, remains a highlight of my year. I met amazing women, communed with nature, and basked in a sense of security and freedom that I rarely, if ever, feel. It's hard to summarize the experience in a few short sentences, but the whole weekend was an important reminder that I don't always need to have an agenda. Every word I write does not need to be an act of performance, and every run I go on does not need to be in service to larger goal.

That said, I was still eager to get back to training for my "larger goal," so when I returned to New York (okay, okay, New Jersey), that's what I did. And man, was it humbling.

Fast-forward to the end of July, when I ran my first race of the year. It was a low-key 5k in Brooklyn's Prospect Park, and I knew I wasn't in shape to do anything impressive. In the end, I was pleasantly surprised to come in under 19 minutes, and, thanks to very few other women showing up for the race, I won. Two weeks later, I ran the exact same race . . . almost 30 seconds slower. This was yet one more slice of humble pie, but, to take this metaphor much farther than it needs to go, I got a scoop of ice cream with it this time: at mile 2, a man-woman duo started to pass me. I huffed something along the lines of "good job, go" and then the woman turned and invited me to "come with us." This was somehow exactly what I needed to hear, because I kept pace and wound up out-kicking her and another woman at the end, for second place. All of a sudden, I could feel that old love of competing nudging me. That was exciting. Can we do that again?

Still can't quite believe this trip was real. That's Lauren Fleshman, in the flesh!
I had just started searching for more upcoming races when, the next week in August, disaster hit. I got the call that my sister had been rushed to the hospital, and since both of my parents had just left on a cruise to Alaska, I was the family member left in charge. Without getting into the details, my attempt to "get to Cleveland ASAP" involved two separate trips to La Guardia airport and half a night spent in the Port Authority. To make matters worse, cruise lines still apparently communicate using smoke signals and carrier pigeons, so by the time I arrived at the hospital, two days had passed since I first got the call, and I had only just reached my parents to tell them what had happened. I spent the rest of the week in and out of the hospital, so needless to say, not much running took place. 

The good news is that by the time I was able to leave my sister's bedside, I had an excellent distraction lined up: the 2018 Hood to Coast relay! It was a dirty, smelly, stressful race . . . with really awesome people. If you want more details than that, you can get them here.

September thankfully calmed down, although it was still not smooth sailing: I tweaked my neck, and as soon as that was fixed, I got sick, and on top of all of that, a lower back problem I'd been trying to manage since springtime finally insisted that it would no longer be ignored, so I grudgingly went back to PT (although thankfully I was still able to run).

Also, it was during this month that I ran the second-worst half marathon of my life. This pattern is apparently pretty standard for me: before my each of my last two marathons (Berlin and Portland), I had an "all is lost" moment when I seriously questioned whether I'd be able to run the upcoming marathon at all, let alone as well as I wanted to. This year's "buildup" race was no different, complete with bitter tears of self-rage and utterly shaken confidence. But this is also my year of attempting to re-frame what happens to me, so I did my best to take away some positives: I did not drop out of the race (despite an overwhelming desire starting at mile six), I (miraculously) did not walk, and I got lots and lots of practice with my various mental strategies (ignoring my watch, remembering to be grateful, listening to my breathing, telling the doom and gloom voice in my head to "STOP").

If you look up "anguished emoji face," this is what you'll find.
And here's the thing about reframing: it doesn't always work in the short term (as can be deduced from conversations like, "Allison, you'll come back from this mandatory rest stronger!" STFU. You try not running and see how strong you get), but in the longer term, I think it is helping. I really am grateful to run again. I'm grateful to my training partners (both new and old) for their constant enthusiasm, and to my coach for his limitless patience and optimism. I also focused on one of the few controllables in my life this year, my diet, and while it's hard to say if it has helped in any measurable way, experimenting with a farmshare has been fun, and eating more fruits and vegetables can never hurt!

All told, I wouldn't say I'm any sort of "new athlete." I didn't come away from this year's challenges with stronger muscles, a leaner frame, or an ironclad mindset. But I'm working on that much-lauded "process" mindset, and one thing I can say for sure: I really did enjoy putting in the work.

We'll see what that's worth on Saturday.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Hood To Coast Recap: Teamwork and Traffic Jams

Almost exactly one month ago, I ran the Hood to Coast relay as the twelfth member of the North Queens Runners (NQR) team. Whenever I tell anyone about this, the number one question I get is, "Was it fun?"

Honestly, I'm not sure.

Carly & Garen, Leg 6
For those of you who don't know what Hood to Coast is, let me summarize: on the second-to-last weekend of August, 1,000 teams of 12 runners each (split into two vans of six) start at the top of Mount Hood in northern Oregon and run 199 miles across the state to Seaside, i.e., the Pacific coast of Oregon. Each of the twelve runners runs ~15-18 miles, split across three legs of the relay, which are run in rotation, equalling 36 legs in total. If your team is walking (or running very slowly), your first runner starts at the crack of dawn on Friday, with each subsequent sendoff containing progressively faster teams. If your team wins, you will finish in about 17 hours. If not, the cutoff time to complete the relay is 36 hours. There are very few rules: you can eat and drink whatever you want, drive (almost) whatever you want, and wear whatever you want (unless you are running at night, in which case you are required to wear an LED light vest and a headlamp).

Running a relay like this was an entirely new experience for me, and I think when we have new experiences, rare experiences, or experiences we've invested a lot of time and money into, we expect (and others expect us) to "have fun." No matter how we feel during the event itself, we tend to revise our story afterward in order to make it seem like it was a total blast. After all, our audience probably didn't have this experience, so the least we can do is give them the best highlights, right?

Well, this is going to be the best and worst highlights.

First I want to say that I am very glad to have had this experience. I really enjoy new challenges, and  I've certainly never run what amounted to approximately three 10k races in 24 hours, nor have I spent 24 hours with the same seven people in one van. I also love contributing to a team, and this team was especially great; everyone on NQR was enthusiastic and supportive, while also intent on giving their best effort toward our goal of winning the mixed division (i.e., teams with at least six women). Finally, I love competing, and I was surrounded by competitors, and we were working together toward a shared goal. That was really fun.

Literally stretching my legs
However, there were a lot of parts that were not so fun. There were things I expected to be unpleasant, like wearing perpetually sweaty, smelly clothes; eating room-temperature sandwiches that have been squashed into unrecognizable shapes; "sleeping" for a grand total of one hour in a cramped van seat; and squatting in not one, not two, but three different leafy roadside "bathrooms." But then there were other elements I did not expect. For instance, I discovered I really do not enjoy running in the dark. Where I live (right outside Manhattan), it's never truly dark; there are always so many street lights and car lights and lit-up storefront displays that visibility is never a problem. However, on the uneven, poorly lit sidewalks of suburban Portland, curbs drop off without warning and you never know when a tree root will emerge. And that was only my first leg; during my second (at about 3am), I spent five miles running through a pitch-black valley of fog. (Dinky headlamp + zero streetlights + fog = unabated terror of falling in an invisible potholes.) Fear is very stressful, and apparently when I'm running, I'm scared of the dark.

The other unexpectedly stressful element had nothing to do with running at all.

When I was initially envisioning this race, I pictured running through hill and over dale. I saw trees and grass and dirt and even a few inevitable highways. What I did not picture was how 1,000 teams--meaning 2,000 vans--would get from point A to point B (and then to point C, and then point D . . . ). As it turns out, while the athletes are running through the wilderness, their vans are winding through narrow, rickety back roads that were absolutely not designed to accommodate 2,000 vehicles at once.

Driving--or, rather sitting--in standstill traffic was unquestionably the most stressful part of the whole relay. Here we were, trying to test our physical limits, to see if we could prove ourselves to be faster and grittier than our competitors, and we being hamstrung by . . . what amounted to rush-hour traffic. We left one of our runners stranded at a checkpoint, out in the cold, for over twenty minutes. And on top of that, there was no cell service, so we had no way of telling our other van (i.e., our six other teammates) that we were way, way behind schedule.

Team NQR! Clearly a photogenic bunch.
The upshot is that we lost the mixed division title by one minute. That's five seconds per runner. Less than two seconds a leg. Yet, I felt robbed of what would otherwise have been disappointment, because it didn't feel like a real loss. There was no way to know if we actually ran slower than the team that beat us, because they left in the very last sendoff, fifteen minutes behind us. Maybe, as a result of their later departure, they had less traffic, and "drove" their way to victory. (Or, alternatively, maybe we would have lost by a wider margin if they'd been in our sendoff.) Without going "head to head" with them, there was no way of knowing if we could have closed that sixty-second gap. As a result, most of what I felt, upon reaching the beach, was fatigue, and most of what I remembered was glaring helplessly at endless red brake lights.

Of course, that's not the end of the story. At the awards ceremony, there was some insane drama involving the winning women's team, but we weren't there for it, because we had rented a beach house! For the rest of the weekend, the twelve of us sat in the hot tub, ate ridiculous quantities of food, drank equally ridiculous quantities of alcohol, and slept. A lot.

Now that was fun.