Wednesday night’s six mile run was one of those magically great runs you always hope for when you step out the door. The kind of run that’s a perfect storm of everything good: good weather, good temperature, good legs, good mood, good health, and good friends. The kind of run that feels effortless, as if you could pull a Dean Karnazes and run all night long.
The kind of run that reminds us why we love running so much.
After last summer’s record breaking temperatures, I swore I would never again complain about running in the cold. Every day was a marathon of complaining about the heat, and no one complained more vociferously than I did. I was in a seriously bad mood for about six months. I was starting to think I was becoming a permanently negative person.
Now that it’s finally, finally colder, I’ve found myself some mornings procrastinating and trying to find excuses not to run. I see the trees moving, that means it’s a little windy, and that wind must be pretty cold. I quickly shake it off, though, and remember how any run below 100 degrees used to be something to celebrate.
Time to quit whining and enjoy our few short months of winter.
After wearing the bare minimum of clothing all summer, it’s sometimes hard to figure out exactly how much to wear when the temperatures start to drop. We all usually start out the first few cold runs by overdressing. Somehow, on this perfect night, I manage to wear just enough to stay both warm and cool at the same time.
There’s something special about nighttime running in the winter, especially on a clear night around Christmas. The run down to the lake is especially dark through the trees, and the cold air keeps the pace brisk. On this particular run there’s electricity in the air since so many people have recently completed marathons. There are enough PR’s and I’m-a-badass endorphins to go around to light up the night. A street lamp goes off as we turn the corner, confirmation that we don’t need the artificial light.
It just feels so good to run.
Once we get down to the lake, everyone converges at the water fountain, even though they’ve all been shut off. The stars are shining overhead, the lake is smooth as glass, and everyone seems to have forgotten that we’re in the middle of a run and not a party. Someone finally sends out a shout to get going, and we take off running again, along the edge of the lake. How many times have we run along this exact same path? Hundreds of times, if not more, but tonight it’s like a route I’ve never taken before, fresh and smooth and inviting.
Two miles farther and another water stop with no water. No worries. Cold beer is waiting just ahead. All we have to do is run up Meadowlake and Sperry, two old friends we know only too well. Even though I usually dread running up these two hills, especially Sperry, tonight I’m looking forward to it. My legs feel fresh and strong, and I’m in love with hills again.
Everyone’s quiet as we run up the hill, and houses glow with Christmas lights and trees in the windows. Running up Sperry brings back memories of training for Boston, when I was in the best shape of my life, and I wonder if I’ll ever be fast enough to go back. Almost immediately I have the thought, I have this, tonight, and that’s enough for now.
Finally, we’re back at Hillside, and into the warmth of Fuzzy’s, good friends, and an ice cold mug of beer. All is right in the world, and nothing could ever be better than this perfect storm of everything good on a cold December night’s run.
For the past two years I’ve spectated at our city’s largest race, the Dallas White Rock Marathon. As a marathoner myself, I love cheering on the runners and supporting them at mile 21, which coincides with a significant uphill climb from a long flat stretch around White Rock Lake. I get to see a lot of friends I’ve trained with through the years and help them out with words of encouragement, but most of the faces who run by are strangers who happen to share my love of running. Out of everyone I see on marathon day, the runners who touch my heart the most, and remind me what running is truly all about, are the ones at the very back of the pack. To me, they are the real heroes of the marathon.
I love watching the elites fly by. Their focused intensity and the beauty of their running form always leave me speechless. I know I will never run that fast, and will never know what it feels like to be the first person to break the tape at a race that large. I cheer for them, but they are so completely centered on their running they rarely look over. Seeing them glide by reminds me how beautiful the human body is performing at the apex of conditioning and training.
The faster runners who follow them are no less awe-inspiring. No matter how talented or lucky they are to be born with the right combination of muscles, strength, and mental focus to be as fast as they are, I also know they train a lot harder than I do. Most work full-time jobs, have families and responsibilities, and still manage to train seriously enough to win or place in their age groups.
The four hour pace group is always a great sight, mainly because so many of us want to be in that group, especially the last six miles of the marathon. It’s usually a large group, and a lot of the runners are starting to show the strain of keeping the pace for over twenty miles. For those who had aspirations of a 3:50 or faster finish, the dream is starting to fade, and they know they won’t be able to hold on much longer, especially on the long climb up from the lake. For others, who’ve trained on hills and know the course well, they’ve managed to dig deep enough to know how close they are to realizing their dream of a sub four hour marathon, and that nothing will stop them. I know that look in their eyes, and I cheer them on by yelling that they’re strong, and well-trained, and that they know what to do.
Gradually, there are a few runners who decide to walk up the hill, then more and more appear. These are the runners who’ve given everything they had, and they hit the wall hard. Some smile and shake their heads as they walk past, and I know they’ll probably find that last ounce of strength to get them across the finish line. Others avoid my eyes as they walk past and act as if my words of encouragement are not meant for them, and I know exactly how they feel. If you’ve ever run more than one marathon, chances are you’ve been there, too, beating yourself up and feeling like you’ve let yourself and everyone else down. A few people look me straight in the eye with so much disappointment on their faces, so defeated, all I can say to them is, “I know, I know . . .” and “you can do this.”
This year’s marathon had the worst conditions I can remember in a long time, with temperatures in the low 40’s, wind, and intermittent rain. After training through the hottest summer on record, the weather was the complete opposite of what most Texas runners had to contend with. The faster runners were better able to handle the conditions, mainly because their steady pace kept their body temperatures relatively stable. The less fast runners suffered a lot, but it was the walkers who took the full brunt of the freezing rain.
After the 4:30 pace group passes a lot of runners start to look just plain miserable. The cold rain is unrelenting, and four and a half hours is a long time to be wet and cold. One girl walks past crying and shivering, her pink gloved hands covering her mouth. Her eyes speak volumes. I tell her to just keep moving. Another woman stops and asks me something I can’t understand because her lips are frozen, and she hands me a GU packet with teeth marks, and I open it for her. A man runs past and hands me a soaking wet knit cap, telling me to wash it and take it home.
The runners start to become more appreciative of my cheering. I stand alone on the hill, sometimes sounding like a drill sergeant, telling the runners that they’re FIGHTERS or they wouldn’t be here today, that they trained through the hottest summer on record, when it was 105 degrees, day after day, mile after mile, and they’re STRONG enough to get up that hill. I yell and tell them how they’ve battled all day long through the cold rain, they battled through the summer of hell, and that after this day they’re going to know EXACTLY what they’re made of. I tell them it’s time to dig deep, time to turn off the brain and just keep going. (Yes, I really do say all that stuff. Other spectators walking by look at me like I’m nuts, smiling and wondering who the heck I am.)
The pace gets a little slower and I start to see more runners in Team in Training shirts. My chant of “You’re FIGHTERS or you wouldn’t be here today!” seems to really hit a nerve with certain groups of the less fast women. They raise their arms and cheer and take off up the hill, telling themselves, “Yeah, we’re FIGHTERS!” Some people come over to give me high fives, one man calls me Sunshine, another tells me he’ll never forget me. Some walkers actually start running when they hear me cheering, and I feel like a proud coach, goading everyone on to victory. I feel such a bond with these back of the pack runners, and I realize I may be getting more out of being here today than they are.
So many people thank me for being there, for coming out to support them, and I tell them I wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t for them. I think about yesterday, how Michael and I got up at 4am to drive to Houston for a touch rugby tournament and decided to drive back the same day just so we could help out at the marathon. I also think about how I almost stayed home, not wanting to brave the elements, but feeling guilty and knowing at the last minute that I needed to give back, to repay all those who’ve ever taken the time to cheer me on in a marathon. I can’t imagine missing any of this.
The spectators down on the corner have thinned out, the five hour group has passed, but people are still running. The mood has changed. There are still many runners who are struggling and look completely spent, but many are also upbeat and determined to finish. I have to convince a few of the walkers that it’s okay, all they have to do is just keep going, they’re doing great. It’s as if they need some confirmation that it’s okay not to reach your time goal, that it’s really all about crossing the finish line and not how fast you get there.
The five thirty group passes, and everyone is laughing and happy that someone is still on the course, cheering them on. I tell them how amazing they are, how they are such an inspiration to everyone out here today, and they thank me profusely. I love their spirit, how they seem to revel in the bad weather and the challenges they’ve overcome. I look around and see that I really am the only person still standing on the hill, and think what a shame it is that people don’t hang around for these last heroes of the marathon.
When I run a marathon I almost always want to run it faster than the one before. These people in the back are here to finish. For them, it’s all about the journey that got them there, and the experience of the race itself. They are proving something to themselves and their families. Even though most of them are walking, they are still marathoners, and I call them that as I cheer them on. With frozen fingers and toes, I finally walk down the hill to the mile 20.5 water stop where Michael is helping out to cheer on the very last marathoners. I run into my friend Serena, a triathlete running her first marathon, who is running with another friend, Stacy. They are cold and miserable, and need hugs, but they’re still smiling and determined to finish strong.
And still they come, stragglers in ones and twos, most walking, some shuffling along at a steady running pace. These are the people who bring tears to my eyes. Their resolve to finish is beyond inspiring–it’s life changing, even to those who are only watching. I remember reading a comment by Ryan Hall, that he couldn’t imagine being on his feet for four hours or longer in a marathoner. Being one of those persons myself, I think this is my equivalent, that I can’t imagine walking 26.2 miles, or running it in five and a half or six hours. I remember how sore I was the day I walked six miles down to the lake and back, and shake my head at the thought of walking in the freezing rain through an entire day’s marathon.
The water stop is slowly dismantled, but water and Gatorade are left out for those who need it. One of the walkers asks if he can have some of my orange juice (it’s actually a mimosa), and I wonder if I should tell him there’s something special in the drink. He says it will help him get up the hill, and I agree. A young guy runs up and yells, “I’m glad you guys didn’t forget about me!” smiling and laughing, and I could almost bet he’ll be back next year, with a huge PR.
Another man shuffles up just as Michael is lowering the Start sign. He looks up, confused, and asks me why it says Start. I tell him for most runners the last six miles are the hardest, and some say it’s where the marathon truly begins. I tell him he’s at mile 20.5 and he nods and slowly shuffles off. I’m not sure he really understood anything I was trying to tell him.
Finally, around 2:30pm, the last three marathoners come through, followed by two police cars. Two people walk ahead together, the other is an older woman. Her husband walks beside her in street clothes and a cowboy hat, larger than life and talking nonstop. He’s like General Patton gathering supplies, running over and asking if he can have some orange juice for his wife. I bring over the entire jug and he asks if I can walk with them. He has three cups of Gatorade in his hands, and drains them as we walk and talk. He tells me his wife is from Oklahoma, and this is her first marathon. He jumped out of his car when he saw her pass and decided to walk the last six miles or so with her. He takes a swig of the “orange juice” and asks why it tastes so much better than the Gatorade. I decide to come clean and tell him it’s actually spiked with something, and he turns to his wife to ask if that’s okay. He’s trying to give the other two marathoners some of the orange juice as I pull away with the empty jug. I kind of wish I could keep walking with them, all the way to the finish line. I try to imagine what it must feel like to know you are the very last person in a marathon. As I watch the woman from Oklahoma and her husband, I think it must be a pretty great feeling indeed.
I loved it when Lance Armstrong, after running his first marathon a few years ago, said that it was the hardest thing he’d ever done. I have to admit it’s somewhat satisfying when one of the world’s best athletes is humbled by your chosen sport. My friend Serena, who swore she would never do a marathon, said afterwards, “I would rather do a half Ironman, a 100K bike race, or a 100 mile bike ride any day. The marathon was twice as hard as any of these.” She’s a super athlete herself–and I doubt it will be her last marathon.
In the past, I’ve heard faster, more competitive runners say disparaging things about the walkers and slowest runners, saying they’re not “real” runners and only clog up the course, but to me they epitomize what the marathon truly stands for. If I keep running into very old age, I know that one day I will be one of those very back of the pack marathoners. I might even be the last one to cross the finish line. Until then, I’ll let the real heroes of the marathon forge the path, in their own way, at their own speed. I’d be honored to run, walk, or shuffle in their footsteps.
One day last week I decided to run without a plan. I wanted to break free from the marathon training plan and just run, as in head out the door with no preplanned route, no watch, no idea of where I wanted to go, how far, how long, and how fast. It had been so long since I had done this, and less than six weeks out from the marathon the idea of running without a plan actually made me somewhat nervous.
Just to change up the game plan, I even wore a running skirt.
Of course I couldn’t leave the Garmin home (I wanted to know my distance), but I did take a completely new route. Since our house is just a mile or so from downtown, we’re completely surrounded by very busy roads. Depending on the time of day, crossing these very busy roads means either playing Frogger with traffic or playing it safe and waiting forever at the traffic lights. In my neighborhood, it’s not always so easy to simply head out the front door and start running, but it’s not impossible either.
The cooler temperatures call my name these days, and now that fall is in the air all I want to do is hit the pavement. After complaining all summer long about how hot it was (hottest summer on record!) I feel I owe it to the Weather Gods to get outside and enjoy these beautiful blue sky days. We might still have green leaves on the trees for another month or so, but it is nevertheless officially fall, and I plan to celebrate that.
The run also coincided with a new version of the running shoes I wear, and I was hoping they hadn’t changed them too much. I used to wear another brand, but my feet were not happy with the new version that came out, and was part of the reason I switched over to something more minimal in the first place. That, and a bad case of plantar fasciitis.
I didn’t notice any difference between the old shoes and the new ones, other than the color. They felt slightly roomier, but not enough to make a difference.
So I set out. I ran down past the fire station and kept going up towards the lake. At the last minute I decided to head north instead of going to the lake, where I run all the time, and take a completely different route. I hardly looked at the Garmin. I passed walkers with dogs and mothers with strollers, and a few runners who nodded hello as we passed each other. Everyone was happy to be outdoors. I wondered if anyone else was running without a plan.
When I got to 2.5 miles I decided to turn around and head home. I didn’t want to go too far since I was running 16 early the next morning.
There were no mountains or rivers or forests on my run, just a lot of paved roads through a pretty, urban neighborhood. But running without a plan was nice for a change. It gave me a chance to be alone with my thoughts, and most of them were thoughts of how fortunate I am to be healthy and active. Pace was irrelevant. The run was a good reminder of what running is really all about: body and mind working together, in tandem, doing what it was meant to do.
No plan needed.
I’ve been reading a lot lately about staying in the present moment, and I was cognizant of that as I ran back towards the house. Rather than worry about how much farther I had to go, and look at the watch constantly to check my pace, I tried to stay right where I was–just running. The miles behind me were already done, and the ones ahead of me were out of reach. All I had to do was focus on running the next step, then the next, over and over, and not worry about what was to come or what had already happened.
So I guess running is nothing more than a metaphor for life. You keep putting one foot in front of the other, over and over, and stay present in the moment. If the miles were tough leading up to the present, you try not to let them hold you back. You wouldn’t go back to run them over again anyway. There are still miles to be run, but you don’t worry about them. You know you’ll get there eventually. All you have to do is put one foot in front of the other and get the job done.
And plan or no plan, you do get the job done, every run, every day.
Saturday we ran our first 20 mile long run in anticipation of the Route 66 Marathon in Tulsa. It was warm and humid, and I was still ridiculously sore from a full day of gardening two days prior. I was sore in places not usually challenged by running, and I knew it would only get worse the farther I got into the run.
M woke up when I did at 4:30AM and commented on all the fire trucks and sirens he heard all night. I didn’t know what he was talking about, but then remembered it was the Texas/OU game. I heard the low rumble of bass from a passing car outside our house and later noticed there was much more traffic as I drove to meet my friends.
Usually we have the streets of Dallas to ourselves on these early Saturday morning runs. And when you run 20 miles, you cover a lot of city streets.
It was warm and humid when we started at 5:30AM, 73 degrees and 76% humidity, but thankfully there was a brisk breeze to keep us cool. It was also overcast, which is always welcome on a Texas long run, regardless of the season.
There were six of us who started, and the usually quiet streets were already awake with Texas/OU fans. Some we could tell hadn’t made it to bed from last night’s downtown debauchery; others were either en route to the game itself or a bar where they could snag a seat to watch the game on HD.
We ran one of our favorite routes, which takes us downtown past the public library, city hall, the Old Red Courthouse, the JFK Memorial, and Dealey Plaza, which is the exact location where JFK was assassinated from the 6th floor of the School Book Depository. We stopped to look at the two X’s that are permanently marked on the road to show where he was killed, and to look at the window where Lee Harvey Oswald stood that day and changed history.
I’m always happy to hit the halfway point in a long run, but at 10 miles my legs already felt like they usually do at mile 24 of a marathon. They were really, really sore, almost to the point where I felt like I was limping. I probably won’t be able to walk tomorrow, I thought, and trudged on.
An on and on and on. Through downtown, over the trolley tracks and cobblestones of McKinney Ave, along Turtle Creek and the opulence of Highland Park, and up the Katy Trail. Keep moving.
I finally fell apart around mile 17. My legs cried uncle and I had to walk. Normally this would feel like a defeat so close to the finish, and I would come in with my head hanging low, but I knew better than to push it. 20 milers are notorious for causing injuries, and starting on sore muscles was only asking for trouble. Hari, who is not even training for a marathon, needed to back off as well, and we walked it in together. After more than 4 hours of running, my feet were aching.
No matter how much it hurt, though, I was loving it.
Two weeks ago I had a fantastic 18 mile long run. The weather was cool and I felt strong and smooth. On the drive home, I had the thought that I’ve had many times after a long run: I wish I had the energy to keep going. As in, keep running all day, for the rest of the day.
When I’m not training for a marathon, the thought of a 20 mile long run causes me to shudder in wonder and revulsion. I forget that it’s simply a matter of building up the mileage, week by week, run by run, until it’s not only possible, but attainable. I forget how much I enjoy it.
There’s something about the long run that keeps me coming back. Part of it is the challenge of pushing myself physically and mentally beyond my previous limits. Part of it is being outdoors when most of the city still sleeps, when the only thing that matters is making it to the next water stop. But mostly, it’s the fellowship of running mile after mile with a group of people I’ve grown to love, people who know exactly what I’m made of, who’ve seen me when even my worst was the best I could give.
It’s difficult to explain. Something happens when you’re having a good long run. Something clicks in your brain. Body and mind come together and everything flows.
No matter how tired you are, life funnels down to only one thought: keep moving. That’s all you have to do, keep moving. It’s stunningly beautiful in its simplicity. There’s nothing else that needs to be done, nothing that needs to be worried about, nothing other than this one thing that you love: RUNNING.
Why do we run marathons? It’s a question I’ve asked myself often.
There comes a point in every marathon I’ve run, usually around mile 19 or 20, when I start to ask myself why I’m here, doing this to myself. At mile 23 or 24 I start promising myself that I’ll never do this again, it sucks, it’s hard work, it’s not fun, why would anyone do this to themselves, and no way, not ever again, will I do another one of these.
So far I’m at six marathons, training for number seven.
Are we just gluttons for punishment? Are we masochists? Or are we just plain crazy? People who don’t run, or have never run the 26.2 monster, don’t get it. Before I ran one myself, it wasn’t so much that I didn’t get it, it was more that I didn’t think I would ever be able to run that far. I didn’t think I was physically strong enough. At the time, I didn’t understand that physically it’s simply a matter of training and building up to a certain endurance level.
But I also know that it’s much, much more than that. In fact, I would say that running a marathon is actually more mental than physical. For me personally, it’s about 99% mental.
It takes a certain type of person to run marathons. In general, my friends and I tend to be overachievers who set goals for ourselves that we eventually want to exceed. We read everything we can about running and improving, and we’re tough. We run through bad weather, high and low temperatures, and usually get our runs in before the sun peeks over the horizon. We make schedules, track our progress, analyze our data, and set new goals based on our data. While we are competitive, the only thing we’re truly competing against is ourselves and our previous PR. Most of us say we’re going to run the next race “just for fun,” but that rarely happens. We do what it takes, and not crossing the finish line is never an option.
Years ago I read Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth. For me, an English Lit/History geek, it was a book that held deep meaning, and I felt like a different person for reading it. Strangely, I had the same experience after running my third marathon and qualifying for Boston. I had never pushed myself physically or mentally as hard as I did that day, and I wasn’t the same afterwards. A few weeks ago I was reading Karen Armstrong’s A Short History of Myth and was reminded of the parallels of the hero’s journey and running a marathon. The mythology of the hero most probably began in the paleolithic age, and was part of the rituals that took place under the resplendent cave paintings in France and Spain.
The hunter, the shaman and the neophyte all had to turn their backs on the familiar, and endure fearsome trials. They all had to face the prospect of violent death before returning with gifts to nourish the community. All cultures have developed a similar mythology about the heroic quest. The hero feels that there is something missing in his own life or in his society. The old ideas that have nourished his community for generations no longer speak to him. So he leaves home and endures death-defying adventures. He fights monsters, climbs inaccessible mountains, traverses dark forests and, in the process, dies to his old self, and gains a new insight or skill, which he brings back to his people.
When people told these stories about the heroes of their tribe, they were not simply hoping to entertain their listeners. The myth tells us what we have to do if we want to become a fully human person. Every single one of us has to be a hero at some time in our lives.
You cannot be a hero unless you are prepared to give up everything; there is no ascent to the heights without a prior descent into darkness, no new life without some form of death. Throughout our lives, we all find ourselves in situations in which we come face to face with the unknown, and the myth of the hero shows us how we should behave.
This is where the entire idea of running a marathon as a hero’s journey comes together for me. Even when we train for 16 weeks and do a couple of 20 mile long runs, we don’t really know what lies ahead when we stand at the start line of our first marathon. We’re embarking on a road we’ve never traveled before. There’s a reason people say “the race begins at mile 20.” For most runners, going beyond your previous longest distance is uncharted territory, your very own personal “descent into darkness.” Even if you’re running your 20th marathon, something happens to body and mind around the 20 mile mark that pushes you into a place you don’t often visit.
But when you persevere, when you go beyond the parameters of your old expectations and abilities, when you cross that finish line, you truly do die to your old self. The person who wears the medal at the finish line is not the same person who stood nervously at the start line. Sure, afterwards, life goes on, you go back to work in a few days, you still have to pay the bills and wash the laundry, but you’ve changed. You’ve learned something about yourself that can only be experienced by going farther than you’ve ever gone before.
Joseph Campbell, himself a runner in his college days, says it this way: This, I believe, is the great Western truth: that each of us is a completely unique creature and that, if we are ever to give any gift to the world, it will have to come out of our own experience and fulfillment of our own potentialities, not someone else’s.
This journey, Campbell reminds us, is nothing less than the adventure of the hero–the adventure of being alive.
It’s a journey of your own making, and the only person you can trust to reach the end is yourself . You have to trust that everything you’ve taught yourself up to that point is going to work, and that everything you rely on will do its job successfully: your legs, your mind, your strength, your endurance, your focus, your spirit, and your belief in yourself. When it all comes together, when you finish the race, no matter what metaphorical monsters, inaccessible mountains, or dark forests you had to travel through, or all the years of being overweight, nonathletic, depressed, abused, unmotivated, alcoholic, lazy, financially unstable, or whatever shadow chases you, no matter how long it took you to get there, you become a hero to yourself.
We started our second long run of the marathon training season at 6AM. It was 84 degrees with 61% humidity. To say it was another tough July run in Texas is an understatement.
I felt horrible at mile 4. We started out at a 9:30 pace, which was 15 sec faster than the pace I wanted to keep. I had been feeling a little under the weather since Wednesday and wondered if I would be able to go the entire 10 miles. I struggled up the hills from the lake, and stopped several times for water. However, at mile 6, something changed and I felt great–all the way up to the end of the run. I have no idea why I suddenly felt better, but wish this would happen to me sometime in a race, especially around mile 23.
The original route took us a block from our house, so we incorporated a water stop in our driveway. Knowing there would be cold water and Powerade at mile 7 made a HUGE difference for most of us. Michael set up the video equipment and asked the group to describe today’s run.
Last Saturday I ran my first 9 mile loop of the lake in two months. With temps in the 90’s it was tough, but I feel I’m pretty much back to where I want to be for the summer. A little slower, perhaps, but that’s not a bad thing when June temps this year are already as high as our usual July temps. I purposely keep my summer mileage low, mainly because of the heat and humidity, but also to give my body a rest before I start training for my next fall marathon.
All of this means: it’s time to start thinking about some barefoot running again.
I’ve been working up to running barefoot for the past two weeks by walking–a lot. Every morning I take my two dogs for a 2-4 mile walk, and rather than wear an old pair of running shoes, like I usually do, I’ve been wearing an ugly old pair of Columbia flip flops. I’m thinking that’s as close as I can get to walking barefoot without actually taking off my shoes. On Monday I wore a pair of my most minimal running/trail shoes–barefoot–and got a blister, so I took my shoes off the last half mile and walked home barefoot. It was fun, and I didn’t care what anyone thought. On Tuesday I ran 4 miles at the lake, including a half mile stretch barefoot where the running path is extra smooth. The barefoot stretch was the best part of my run.
I could feel the barefoot half mile I ran the next day in my shins, calves, and where my feet bend. Nothing serious or painful, I could just tell that I had done something different. I plan on only running barefoot every other day, and not more than half a mile for the first week or two, and see how I feel.
For me, I think barefoot running is going to be nothing more than an occasional thing, though I would like to transition to even more minimal shoes than the Nike Free. I’ve been rereading a book I read several months ago, Barefoot Running: How to Run Light and Free by Getting in Touch with the Earth by Michael Sandler, and he gives a lot of information about the best ways to make the transition to complete barefoot running. His best advice: start very, very, very slowly. Second best advice: run more on your toes and forefoot. Third best advice: have fun running.
While I do believe the human body was made to run, and without all the bells and whistles the major shoe manufacturers tell us we need, most of us haven’t run barefoot since we were kids, which means we need to build up all the muscles, ligaments, and tendons in our feet and toes to accommodate a change. Even if you wear minimalist shoes, which may be essentially nothing more than a rubber sole away from barefoot, better to take it slow and ease into it to give your feet time to get used to running in a different way.
Just like when I was a kid, now that it’s summer I pretty much only wear shoes when I have to go somewhere. I don’t remember anyone telling me it wasn’t okay to run barefoot back then, so why should things change just because I’m an adult? We had glass in the streets back then, too, and rocks, sticks, burrs, rusty nails and hot asphalt, and we did just fine. Sure, we didn’t run 26 miles in our bare feet, but I bet a lot of us put in at least a few miles everyday running around outside.
Best of all, we didn’t even think about it, we were just having fun, and that’s the best way to run if you ask me.
I hate rules and I don’t like people telling me what to do–ironic considering I was a teacher for so many years. If you tell me I can’t do something, first I’m going to ask why, and then if I don’t like your answer I’m probably going to do it anyway. I guess all those years of being shy and obedient have come to this. I like to call it The Little Miss Goody Two Shoes Backlash.
Right now I’m all about breaking the rules when it comes to running. But what are the rules exactly? You know, the ones about building up mileage slowly, wearing supportive shoes to correct pronation, stretching before and after a run, eating before and after a run, and so on. After five years of reading Runner’s World, I’ve come to realize that whatever you read one month about running will usually be disputed in the next month’s issue. The rules I’m mostly talking about, though, are the ones that are self-imposed. I think each person has their own set of running rules that they follow, so my rules probably won’t be your own.
Some rules were made to be broken. For example, I totally believed the salesperson when I bought my first pair of running shoes. He watched me run back and forth a few times and told me my shoes needed to be supportive, and brought out the perfect pair for me (or so he said). They did serve their purpose for awhile, and got me ready for more serious running, but eventually I started to have a persistent problem with plantar fasciitis and wanted to try something lighter and more natural. I switched to Nike Free and the problem went away. It probably wasn’t even the shoes that caused the problem, but I knew that was the first place I should look to make a change. Even more importantly, I wanted to make a philosophical change and go with something a little more “natural.” Again, just because someone told me something was “the best” for me, I knew what I wanted, and I loved the way running felt in the lighter, more minimal shoes.
Having said all that, I’m also a strong believer in “Don’t fix what isn’t broken.” Most of my running friends are perfectly happy with their shoes, and a lot of them wear the same brand season after season, which is great. The bottom line is, you have to find what works for you, and not fall for the latest fads and gadgets just because someone tells you it will change your life. That gets expensive after awhile, too, unless you ditch the shoes altogether and run barefoot–my favorite break-all-the-rules way to run.
I’m definitely a rule breaker as far as stretching goes. In essence, I don’t. I used to have a rule that I needed to stretch before and after every run. Then I gradually went with stretching afterwards. Now I usually just start running, and then I stop. Simple. I used to do yoga several times a week, back in the days before I ran, but I never seem to make time for it these days. It’s definitely on my list of things to reincorporate into my life. I know it will improve my core strength–and the feeling after a good yoga workout is priceless.
Walking during a run is a love/hate rule for me. When I run from my house I will walk to the corner first, but that is usually because my Garmin hasn’t calibrated with the satellites yet. I count it is as a light warm-up. And these days, when the evening temps are still in the high 90’s, I like to walk briefly at the end of my run before I come back inside the house. I will even take short walk breaks during a run when it’s this hot, if for no other reason than it’s just so dang hot–and walking is a rule I rarely broke in the past. But during a race, walking is a sign of weakness–but only for me. I admire those who employ the walk/run method, and wish I could walk without beating myself up. Which doesn’t mean that I don’t walk during a marathon in those last six miles. I’ve only run one race where I didn’t have to stop and walk some, and that was the race where I qualified for Boston.
The best rule I’m breaking lately is not caring as much about pace. I still run with a Garmin, but now I have the cheaper, simpler watch that only tells my average pace for the entire run. I used to finish my runs by scrutinizing each mile lap, but now I’m okay with just knowing the overall average. I’m also okay these days with running 3.98 miles instead of an even 4. In the past, I would’ve run around the parking lot to finish up. Now I’m happy with “close enough.”
The biggest rule, though, numero uno for years, was being a slave to the training plan. I used to follow my plans religiously, doing everything in my power to never miss a scheduled run. If I did miss a run, or didn’t run as far as I was supposed to, it was like the earth had collided with the moon. It was an instant guilt bath–and I would make up that missing run/mileage by the end of the week. Now, I’m much more easy-going. Yes, if I’m training for a marathon I’m going to do my best to stick to the plan. I know full well how 26.2 miles can feel twice as long if I’m undertrained. When I’m not officially training–and I really am trying to run only one marathon per year now–I’m going to enjoy my runs more and not beat myself up so much.
So, what does all this mean for the serious runner? It simply means finding what works for you. We’ve all read the running books and the running magazines and the running blogs, but the bottom line is that no one knows your body like you do. Some things work, and some don’t. The shoes that work for you may not work for me. Your training plan may get you that sub four hour marathon, but it may run me into the ground.
Find what works for you, and run with it.
beginner’s mind: having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions
After a three week layoff from a back injury, that perfectly coincided with the last weeks of my teaching career and temperatures rising into the mid to upper 90’s, running has become tough. Not only have I not run for three weeks, my weekly mileage the past three months has barely been half of what it was before my last marathon in February. This was deliberate. I wanted to take a much needed physical and mental step back from running and training, a running pause, if you will, knowing full well that my overall level of fitness would drop.
Now I’m wondering if it was worth it. Brain and body don’t seem to be working together anymore.
Body liked the step back and comfort of little to no running. It really enjoyed all that time spent relaxing on the couch. I could get used to this! it said. Brain has not liked the past several months at all. At first, it spent most of its time berating its owner: You should be running! You’re going to get fat and lazy! Everyone else is running hills and you’re spread out on the couch! It was good at making excuses. I’ll run tomorrow when it’s less windy. My allergies are horrible today. It looks like it’s going to rain . . .
I knew it was time to take action to get Brain back in the game. It was time to adopt a beginner’s mind attitude to running.
What does this mean? Beginner’s mind running simply means to run like we did when we first started out, before we had any preconceived notions of what running was really all about. It’s when we ran because we had never run seriously before, and weren’t really sure if we could, but were willing to keep at it, mile after mile, because we loved the way it made us feel. It’s when we ran without knowing or caring about our pace, when we ran just because we wanted to challenge ourselves and see how far we could take it. It’s when we ran and the mind didn’t turn it into something it wasn’t, like a means to an end, miles to be put in that would bring us closer to our weekly mileage leading up to a race. It was just running, nothing more, nothing less.
In essence, beginner’s mind running is like pressing the rewind button on the brain, erasing every “should have,” “why didn’t I,” and “if only.” It’s when we put all the training plans, pace expectations, and disappointing race times on the shelf. We leave the guilt, the excuses, and the expectations behind, and we remember what it was like to be a beginner again, taking those first tentative baby steps towards the runners we have become.
Now that I think about it, shouldn’t we almost always run this way?
Working to regain my lost stamina and conditioning hasn’t been easy, but it hasn’t been all bad either. I enjoyed not having a training plan to follow and no races in the immediate future. I needed to look forward to running again, to miss it, and I have. I’m running for no other reason than the pure enjoyment of running, just like I did when I first started out five years ago.
The training plan, the speedwork, the hillwork, and the races will all come down off the shelf soon. In the meantime, I’m going to go back and start at the beginning.
Every runner has stories to tell about falling down. Sometimes they’re spectacular, like cracking a few ribs on a trail run in the Tetons, and sometimes they’re minor, like tripping over an uneven sidewalk. None of them are fun. Falling down as an adult, from a higher elevation than childhood, just plain hurts. In my own experience running with groups of friends, women seem to fall more than men. I don’t know why this is (and it has nothing to do with women talking more than men because I have several male friends who can out-talk any woman on a run, honest). Speaking for myself, my knees have seen many Bandaids, and they have since I was a kid.
Like the unstoppable (or is that stubborn?) woman that I am, we continued on and ran the 9 mile loop. I wore my tire-track shirt and bloody knee with pride around the lake, and got a few sympathetic looks from other runners. My head stopped hurting, I made sure to drink lots of water and monitor my jaw as I ran, and we finished our run. Poor Hari felt somehow responsible, and I toyed with the idea of guilting him into post-run dark chocolate reparations, but it was no one’s fault.
A few days later my back started to ache, just below the shoulder blade. It wasn’t severe, but enough to be irritating when I stood or sat for long periods of time. I did get quite a few sympathy back massages from Michael, who kept telling me a good massage would fix the problem, but I just couldn’t seem to shake the pain. I moved stiffly around my classroom, and after two weeks I felt like I was a million years old.
I finally went to the doctor, who took a few x-rays, told me no ribs were cracked, gave me a muscle relaxer and an anti-inflammatory, and told me to curtail all physical activity for the weekend. The pain moved down to my lower back and up to my neck so I decided to stop running completely until it went away. Not surprisingly, taking some time off was exactly what my back needed.
In the past, not running for three weeks would be cause for a total meltdown in my life. Maybe it’s a sign of running maturity, but I made my peace with the situation and didn’t fight taking time off. An injury coinciding with the last two weeks of school was actually perfect timing, since I was too tired at the end of the day anyway to do much more than stretch out on the couch and feel sorry for myself. I guess it was a blessing in disguise.