Category: Life

A New Chapter

My life has undergone a huge change these past three weeks. Running has taken a backseat for the time being, though I hope to be running again within the next two or three weeks. As a friend said, “This is more than just a broken toe!” Indeed.

In the meantime, I walk. Yesterday I managed my longest distance: one mile. All things considered, it’s quite a milestone for me.

I’ll be writing more here on Run Nature once I’m up and running again. Until then, if you’re interested, you can follow my story on my other blog, Mind Margins.

Thanks for reading each week and for all your support these past two years here on the blog. It means the world to me.

Angela

Strength

AWOL

Sometimes it’s good to take a break. Sometimes you don’t have a choice. I had meant to post this two weeks ago, but life had other plans for me.

Up until ten days ago, I didn’t run much, but I did a lot of other fun stuff.

I ran a trail marathon and got injured. I stepped in a hole and fractured my third metatarsal. It happened at mile 3 and I continued on to the finish. I was more scared of the lightning during the race than I was of damaging my foot. Apparently I don’t even have to fall down to break something.

I went to the gym and tried to workout, but I hated it. I always hate working out at the gym. I did discover, however, that I LOVE the Stairmaster. I had to stay off my foot (or wear the Ugly Boot of Shame when I didn’t), so I watched a lot of movies and knitted. Yes, I am dorky enough to knit.

I had jury duty and got picked as a juror for the first time ever. It was only for two days  was a really interesting experience. Juror badge My daughter came home for a short visit, and my son and his girlfriend have been living with us until he’s needed at his new job site in Brazil. I’ve loved having the twenty-something energy in the house.

I signed up for two road marathons two months apart (a first): Marine Corps and Route 66.

I drove to Ohio and back for my husband’s uncle’s funeral. We drove 18 hours straight through, and I will never do that again. I love road trips, but I do have my limits. And we almost hit a deer at 12:30am on a dark Ohio country road at the end of those 18 hours of driving, which was not a fun experience. I got to drive through parts of the country I’ve never seen before, like Kentucky and a part of Missouri.

I went camping and hiking in Utah. I went on another road trip with my son and his girlfriend, this time to the opposite side of the country. The desert southwest, which I find beautiful, seemed amazingly brown and drab after the lush greeness of the Ohio Valley. That all changed once we got to Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks. They are spectacularly amazing.

I hiked a death-defying trail (Angel’s Landing) that I was too chicken to hike twenty years earlier. It was a great feeling to face my fears and do the hike. The view from the top was worth it, but the hike up was the best part.

Angel's Landing

At the top of Angel’s Landing. Under that left foot? Nothing but air, straight down, for 1,488 feet.

I was surprised to realize that I was still pretty strong on our hikes, despite being injured. I guess we don’t lose our conditioning as quickly as we think we will, and working out on the Stair Master really did help.

I discovered there’s no way around feeling the altitude at 8,000 feet, especially if you’re from North Texas, elevation 450. Even. Walking. Meant. I. Talked. Like. This.

Eventually, I returned to running. Coming back from an injury just plain sucks. I can’t say it any other way. It just takes time.

I’ve run two full weeks now since being given the green light by the doctor and it feels great to be back. I really missed running, especially with my friends. In all honesty, it was kind of nice to take a break, to change things up a bit, especially when it involved two road trips and spending time with my son and his girlfriend hiking in Utah.

Life really is good, my friends, and there is a lot of world out there to be played in and explored. In the meantime, it’s back to the hot, steamy, Texas asphalt for me.

And Here I Thought I Was Saving My Life

Last year, after running my sixth marathon — in Death Valley of all places — my doctor gave me a sobering look during my annual physical and asked how many more marathons I planned on running. I told him maybe a few more and he proceeded to tell me about a study he had recently read that was undertaken by a doctor and his son, both marathon runners. They loved running and wanted to study how running a marathon effected runners’ hearts.

They were surprised by their findings. Apparently, at least in the people they studied, in the days following a marathon the runners’ hearts showed just as much damage as if they had suffered a heart attack. Sobering findings indeed. Even worse, people who had run ten or more marathons showed increased blockage and calcification in their arteries. My doctor, who has known me for 22 years, quietly told me he hoped I wasn’t planning on running that many marathons.

I laughed and agreed. I had, after all, just run 26.2 miles in Death Valley! In the back of my mind, however, I was rolling my eyes and thinking there was no way running could be bad for you. Data can be manipulated.

Bold in the Cold 2012

At one of the few races I ran this year, Bold in the Cold, with my friend, Hari.

Today a friend posted a link to an article in The Wall Street Journal about two new studies on the effects of running, especially in older athletes.  The news is, once again, not very good. Here’s the part that stood out the most to me:

What the new research suggests is that the benefits of running may come to a hard stop later in life. In a study involving 52,600 people followed for three decades, the runners in the group had a 19% lower death rate than nonrunners, according to the Heart editorial. But among the running cohort, those who ran a lot—more than 20 to 25 miles a week—lost that mortality advantage.

It’s that last sentence, emphasized by me, that makes me cringe. In my circle of running friends, 20 to 25 miles a week is small potatoes. Especially now that I’m training for a 50 mile race in nine weeks, and regularly hit weekly mileage of 50-60 miles, I often run 20 to 25 miles in one run.

This sentence from the article calmed me down somewhat:

Meanwhile, according to the Heart editorial, another large study found no mortality benefit for those who ran faster than 8 miles per hour, while those who ran slower reaped significant mortality benefits.

It would take about a 7:30 minute pace to run 8 miles per hour, and I’m far from ever achieving that pace for longer than, oh, ten seconds, maybe? I’m a solid middle of the pack runner. I like an occasional good, fast tempo run, or a race where everything comes together and I surprise myself with a faster than expected pace, but I don’t train for speed. If it’s a byproduct of hills and distance, all the better, but it’s just not that important to me anymore. I guess I’m starting to mellow in my old age.

I’m all about distance. Nothing makes me happier than spending a few hours on a Saturday morning running a 20 mile route around the city with my friends. Even better, spending five or six hours on a trail, pushing just hard enough to enjoy the experience and still have enough energy to make it back to the car and the drive home, is what fills me with the deepest sense of accomplishment I’ve ever known. Nothing else in my life has ever made me feel as satisfied with myself as running.

Palo Duro Trail Run 2012

At the Palo Duro 50K Trail Run last month.

I like to think I run intuitively and listen to my body. I’m pretty good about taking rest days and not being a slave to the training plan. I don’t race half as much as others I run with, and I don’t push myself as hard either, especially on long runs.

It seems like common sense that running really hard, day in and day out, over fairly long distances, will eventually wear out your heart faster than if you did nothing but sit on the couch. Moderation is the key. Maybe speed is the culprit, and the studies don’t give us all the variables.

I have a deep down feeling that our bodies were made to run. The only thing more natural than running would be walking, something I plan on doing more of when I get much older. And I don’t intuitively feel that running long distances, at a comfortable, conversational speed, can really be the same — or worse than — doing nothing at all. Someone will need to show me the data on that to make me a believer.

For me, at this point in time, I’m in the best shape of my life. It took me 52 years to get here, and nothing beats the feeling of power and strength I’ve gained from running these past seven years. I love being able to go out for a 10 mile run on a cold autumn morning and have it feel easy. I feel energized the rest of the day, it keeps me in a great mood, and I sleep better and deeper than when I’m not running.

But, honestly, if I had to, I could be happy with 20 to 25 miles a week. If someone could prove to me that I would be able to have an extra five or ten years of running if I cut my current mileage in half, and have the same physical and psychological benefits I garner with 50 mile weeks, I could do it.

Because that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? Being healthy and staying alive, and being able to appreciate the gift of running — even if it’s “only” 25 miles per week.

Besides, we all know that anything done to excess can be bad for you, and that includes something as healthy as running. Just keep it simple, and listen to your heart.

Here’s a great rebuttal published by Runner’s World on the studies mentioned.

Runners, Don’t Read the Comments!

Last month I got upset. Several times, in fact. The reason: reading the comments sections of online articles.

Ever since I quit teaching I’ve had a lot more time to spend on the computer. In the past, I rarely had time to read articles, blogs, or much of anything. Now that I do have more time, especially since I now have the  iPad, I’ve been pretty shocked at reading the comments sections of just about anything I read.

I had no idea there were so many mean people out there.

Everyone has explained to me that some people go out of their way to write offensive comments just to stir things up. I now go out of my way not to read the comments section of anything political. Scary stuff, indeed, no matter where you stand on the political spectrum. Both sides are equally represented by some serious wackos. But sometimes it hits a little close to home and I can’t help myself. It upsets me.

I guess it’s like when people get behind the wheel of their car, and the anonymity and protection of all that steel makes them act, shall we say, not always considerate of other drivers.

But here’s where it really hit home for me. Last month I read two blogs, both of them ragging on runners and marathons. The first one was by someone who writes for a local, free, weekly magazine. He essentially makes his living pissing people off. He’s pugnacious, and goes out of his way to annoy. That’s what you expect from the guy. I rarely read anything he writes, even if I agree with his position, because I don’t like his style. I only read this article because someone shared it on Facebook, and it was just another one of his rants, this time against the city’s largest marathon and what he repeatedly called “positive runners.”

I guess deriding someone for being positive makes sense if negativity is your norm. And he obviously hasn’t run with me in the summer when it’s 105 degrees outside. I’m anything but positive. Just ask my friends.

What really got me going, however, was the degree of animosity from the people commenting, and not towards him, but towards runners and the marathon.

I had no idea.

I can understand being upset at road closures. Before I started running I forgot about the marathon one year and got stuck in traffic. I was irritated at the inconvenience, but mostly at myself for forgetting about the race. But these people commenting didn’t hold back, saying runners felt a “sense of entitlement” and calling the people who cheer them on “assholes.” When someone brought up the point that charities benefit tremendously from races, the consensus was that runners should just send in a check instead–which is kind of missing the point. The overriding sentiment seemed to be: not on my street, not in my city, and quit showing off.

The other incident that got to me was a blog post entitled “Running a Marathon Does Not Make You Mother Teresa.” It was supposed to be a humorous look at so-called self-involved runners. Again, it wasn’t the post that bothered me, it was the comments. Everyone seemed ready to jump on the Bash Runners Bandwagon. Quite a few people made comments about how runners were looking for attention by running marathons. Believe me, I can think of much easier ways to get attention than training for 20 weeks through the hottest summer on record just to put myself through hell for a 26.2 mile race. One commenter on another blog that linked to the article, a trail runner, made snarky comments about people running street races just for the attention it gets them, implying she was better than them because she ran on dirt. Even our own are turning against us!

People also made a lot of comments about those goofy 26.2 stickers people put on their cars after they run their first marathon. (Yes, I have one. Could this be the adult equivalent of the stickers we got in grade school for good work? I did love those shiny gold stars I got for getting 100’s on my spelling tests . . .)

I had no idea that pounding the asphalt ticked off so many people. I didn’t think anyone else really noticed.

Once I ran into a substitute teacher from my school when I went to pick up my race packet for our local Turkey Trot. She was one of the volunteers giving out race t-shirts. When I saw her again a few weeks after that, and asked if she ran, she went on a rant about runners always running down her street, and how she can’t get out of her driveway on Saturday mornings because there are so many of them. I had to really think about that. I’m guessing she has to wait 30 seconds tops to let a large group of runners pass her driveway.

What is this really about? I pondered this all last month, trying to figure out what people had against runners. Finally, I realized, like always, I needed to lighten up. It wasn’t really about me, or runners, or any type of inconvenience.

It’s about anyone who is different from us.

People like to gripe. We all do it. Guilty as charged. How many times have I made disparaging remarks about people who take too long in the checkout line at the grocery store? How many times have I cursed the cyclists who don’t let me know they’re passing on my left when I run at the lake? How many times have we all looked down on someone for doing something we think is stupid?

Maybe the runners I know, myself included, talk about running too much, especially to people who aren’t really interested. Maybe we talk about our races, our training, our nutrition, and it irritates other people. Maybe we tell people who don’t run what they’re missing out on, how running will change their lives, even when they don’t want to hear it. Maybe we put those 26.2 stickers on our back windows as a beacon to other runners, a sign of kinship as we drive around doing nonrunning things. Maybe we’re positive because running makes us feel good. Maybe we just really like running, and forget that not everyone is as interested as we are.

Everyone has a right to their opinion, and it’s not personal if someone writes mean things about what we do for fun. It’s only running. It’s not going to stop us, though, and that’s the bottom line. The human body was made to run. One day a lot of those people complaining about the marathon that inconveniences them so much now may decide they need to make a change in their lives. They may decide to push themselves mentally and physically beyond any limit they’ve ever known. When they do, my running friends and I will be there to encourage them and push them and cheer them on, no questions asked.

I’ll still read articles online, and I’m sure I’ll still get irritated at the rude comments. Oh well. At least I can always go for a run afterwards to cool off. Or to get attention.

Lost at the Lake

The other day was just one of those days.  You know the kind, where despite your best efforts, everything seems to be a little off.  The kind where the day you’ve envisioned in your head doesn’t quite match up to the one that actually occurs.

I set the alarm for 4AM to get up and meet my friends for our first speedwork session at the SMU track field, but I wasn’t looking forward to it.  Speedwork is my least favorite type of workout, and I was dreading it–especially at 5AM.  When the alarm went off at 4, I hit the snooze button twice and fell back asleep.  When I woke up it was 4:45, still enough time to get up, throw my clothes on, and race over to the SMU track field.  I fell back asleep.  I’ll get up at 6 and run on my own, I thought to myself, and went back to sleep again.  I woke up at 8, feeling grumpy and guilty.

The whole day was blah.  The dogs were tired of being inside because of the high temps and kept whining and looking out the front window.  When I let them outside all they wanted to do was bark. I felt unmotivated and guilty all day for not running, and hoped it might turn cloudy by the evening so I could make up my missed morning run, knowing I was completely deluding myself about it magically turning cloudy.

I decided to punish myself.  Thinking it might get a little cooler by 6PM, and knowing it wouldn’t, I resolved to run a loop at the lake all alone.  When it was still 102 degrees at 6, I knew a loop wasn’t going to happen, so Michael talked me into taking the dogs to the dog park.  He said he’d stay with them and I could go for my run.  I figured I could still get in 5 or 6 miles and let go of my guilt for missing my morning run.

We didn’t leave the house until 7:15PM, and it was “only” 100 degrees.  When we got to the lake, I told Michael I would stay on the hilly path on the east side (remember, I was punishing myself), and if the dogs got bored after awhile he could come meet me on my way back.  As I ran off I yelled out over my shoulder, “Remember, I’ll be on the path.”

Path in the Woods

This is the section where we crossed paths and missed each other.

It was actually a very good run.  Except for the broken up path, which would feel like a cheese grater if you tripped and fell (which I am prone to do), I always enjoy running on the hilly path.  The hills are not extreme, but still steep enough and long enough for a pretty good workout.  Most runners stay on the road on the east side of the lake, so the path never has many people to dodge like on the newly paved section of the west side.  The hilly path also stays mostly in the trees, where it’s cool and shaded.  I pushed myself and kept a 9:18 average pace for the first half.  Not bad with the hills and 100 degree heat.

I decided to run 5 miles instead of 6, mainly because it was getting dark so quickly.  I turned around at Sunset Bay and headed back to the dog park.  The path here is in pretty rough shape, so I knew I had to be extra careful not to trip in the low light.  I trudged on.  It really was getting dark much earlier these days.  I had noticed on the weather website a few weeks ago that the days were getting shorter by a full minute every day.  This was good news considering our ungodly high temperatures this summer. (The days are now getting shorter by almost 2 full minutes.)

I barreled around the Stone Tables and up the hill, through the trees where coyotes are often seen in the evenings.  I hoped I wouldn’t see any tonight.

By the time I got to the Bath House it was pitch dark, and kind of creepy on the path.  There was hardly anyone around, and those who were stayed on the road.  A police car passed me on the road, then parked down the road facing the path.  This particular part of the path goes up the hill into the trees, and I wondered if the police had seen me running and were watching out for me.  I felt better just thinking that.  I also considered going down to the road, but remembered how I had told Michael I would be on the path.  I didn’t want to miss him in the dark.

Just before I got to the top of the hill I heard rustling to my left.  A male runner came running up the hill onto the path, headed in the opposite direction.  It totally spooked me, and I picked up the pace.   I was surprised I hadn’t run into Michael and the dogs yet.  This section of the path is pretty high above the road, tucked in between Big Thicket and some neighborhood homes, and it was full on dark.  By the time I got to the bottom of the hill, just before entering the last segment of the path, the part that goes directly into the trees, I decided it was too dark to stay on the path.  Not only was the path in bad shape, it just didn’t feel safe.  I decided if I hadn’t seen Michael by this time he was probably waiting for me at the dog park.  I ran the last quarter mile in the road, against traffic, and kept an eye on the path just in case Michael and the dogs passed me.  Several cars passed by, none of them Michael, and I was ready to be done with this run.

When I got to the dog park, no Michael, no dogs.  Great.  He must’ve been on the one part of the path I didn’t stay on, the part at the very end that was so dark.  Thinking he might be sitting at the top of the hill with the dogs, waiting for me, I walked back over the bridge and up the hill.  No luck.  By this time there was almost no one walking, running, or biking at the lake, and there was only one woman and her two dogs at the dog park.  I walked back to the dog park to try and figure out what to do.  Not only did I feel unsafe, the dog park is located in a swampy area of the lake and the mosquitoes were ferocious.  I started pacing.

Pedestrian Bridge at White Rock Lake

The dog park is just to the right of the bridge.

I had no phone and no car key.  I didn’t want to get back on the path alone in the dark, and knew I probably wouldn’t catch up with him anyway.  I walked back over the bridge a few times, hoping to see them headed back, then talked to the woman at the dog park who assured me the park was safe after dark.  I thought of a recent rape that had been reported at the lake, and the dead body being hauled out one early morning run.  Maybe I’m a scaredy cat, but I don’t think a female alone after dark is safe anywhere in the city.

I had always told my children if they ever got lost to stop and stay where they were, I would come and find them.  It actually worked, too, several times.  I remembered telling Michael that not long ago, so I knew the best thing would be to stay at the dog park and wait it out.  A few more people brought their dogs to the dog park, so I was less alone.  I must’ve looked odd walking around the empty parking lot.

I waited and waited.  I worried.  What if one of the dogs had chased an animal and got off leash and ran away?  What if someone had attacked him?  What if he got hurt and the dogs couldn’t help?  How far would he walk before turning around?  What if all the people left the dog park and I was all alone in the parking lot?  What if I got eaten alive by the mosquitoes?  Would Michael be mad because I hadn’t stayed on the path?  What if he never came back????

A full hour later, I saw them cross the bridge.  Michael came running up with both dogs, sweaty and smiling.  He was so happy to see I was safe.  I felt so stupid.  He had walked 4 miles total, thinking I might have injured myself in the dark and was hurt on the side of the path, unconscious.  What a man!  He’s always told me he has my back, and he certainly proved it this night.

If I had stayed on that last stretch of path I would have met them.  We still can’t figure out how we didn’t see each other from the street and path, how he didn’t see me when the cars passed and shined their lights on me, why the dogs didn’t act a little excited when I passed, and can only surmise he was in the trees when I passed on the road.  We simply missed seeing each other.

Like I said, it was just one of those days.  I’ve lived in Dallas almost all my life, and run around the lake hundreds of times, but it figures that only I could get lost there.

The small section where we missed each other

Adventures in Barefoot Running

After marathon number six in February, Death Valley, I decided I wanted to step back for awhile and run less, just to give my body and mind a rest from the grind of long distance running.  I wasn’t enjoying putting in the miles as much as I had in previous years and knew it was time for a break, a pause, if you will.  I needed to regroup and figure out what my next plan of action would be with my running.

I toyed with the idea of barefoot running.  I’m very picky about my shoes–all shoes, not just running–and have a difficult time finding shoes that fit just right.  I have narrow heels, a long second toe, and a bunion on my right foot, so finding the perfect fitting shoe has been a lifelong quest of mine.  When I started running five years ago I must have tried every brand out there.  After an extended episode of plantar fasciitis two years ago, I eventually settled on Nike Free shoes.  I wear them for both training and racing and couldn’t be happier.  They fit me perfectly, are comfortable and light, and have just the right amount of support for my feet.  I wondered, however, just how minimal I could go.

I had a pair of Vibram Five Fingers that I often wore when I walked the dogs, but because of that long toe they never felt comfortable.  I loved running short distances in them, but knew they weren’t the shoe for me for long distances or races.  I still like to wear them, but I also think they are ugly.  I look like I have monkey feet.

Next I tried the new Merrell Trail Gloves.  I loved the feel and look of them, but they were too wide when I wore them without socks.  When I ordered the next half size smaller, they fit better across the top of my foot, but that long toe just grazed the end of the shoe.   By the end of a 6 miler my toe was pretty sore, and I knew it wouldn’t take much more before I started getting a black toenail (horrors!).  I really loved the look of the shoes, though.  They looked like track shoes, and I felt kind of cool wearing them.  (I always wished I had run track in high school.)

Like most of my running friends, I read Born to Run and was intrigued with the idea of running barefoot.  I ran behind a barefoot runner most of one marathon, and he seemed to be doing just fine sans shoes.  I liked the idea of running barefoot every once in awhile, for short distances, and I downloaded Barefooot Running:  How to Run Light and Free by Getting in Touch with the Earth on my Kindle and read it on the Death Valley trip.

Running barefoot would go right along with my new, simpler life.  I had started a vegetable garden, quit my job, and cut my hair all in the past two months.  I have friends who might call me “granola” because of my tree-hugging ways, so trying out barefoot running wasn’t really that much of a stretch for me.  I  truly believe the human body is made to run, so why not keep it as natural as possible?  I decided to try it.

My friend Hari had also wanted to try barefoot running, so one day we decided to run barefoot the last mile of a run at the lake.  It was AWESOME!  I couldn’t run on the rough sidewalk or road like Hari, however, and had to stay on the ultra-smooth white edge of the somewhat newly paved running path.  We tried it a few more times and I loved it more and more.

Running barefoot was fun, and I felt like a kid again every single time we tried it, which was usually at the end of a longer run.  It always felt so freeing to take off our shoes and socks and, shoes in hand, run that last mile back to the car completely unfettered and unshod.  I felt free and without a care in the world, much like I had felt when I was a kid.  Back then I practically lived outside, and rarely wore shoes.  Grass was cool and smooth, and the tar would stick to the soles of our feet when we played in the street.  Running barefoot as an adult brought that all back.  All I focused on was the path in front of me, and pace never crossed my mind.

Alas, when I tried to run around my busy inner city neighborhood barefoot it was as if I had grown two heads and six legs.  People stared, cars honked, and mouths dropped.  I know I shouldn’t have let it get to me, but it was disconcerting and did mess with my runner’s zen.  Plus, the sidewalks are in bad shape in my area and it was sometimes a painful run.  Even worse, Hari went a little too far too fast with his minimalist running and developed terrible plantars, which he hasn’t been able to shake for over a month.  Turns out he has a bone spur and won’t be running for a few more weeks, and no marathons until the end of the year.

For the time being I think I’ll stick with the Nike Free’s.  I would like to try the New Balance Minimus shoes at some point, but right now there’s no hurry.  I don’t think I’ll ever be a completely barefoot runner, but I still reserve the right to ditch the shoes and socks whenever the mood catches me.  The days are getting much warmer now, and the pavement will be as hot as sin soon, so shoes sound like a good idea–for the time being, at least.

Headfirst Into the Wind

The Weather Gods sometimes like to torture us runners, and nowhere is this more evident than in Oklahoma City.  I’ve been reading about the experiences of several friends at this past weekend’s Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon and the cold, windy, stormy weather conditions, and it brings back memories of my own challenge there in 2009.   In fact, OKC 2009 holds top ranking as the Worst Marathon Ever for me–in particular because of the wind.

Oklahoma is where I was born.  My parents are from a little town in the southeastern corner called Broken Bow, but I was born in the next town over because it wasn’t big enough to have its own hospital.  I was brought home on a cold, icy night in early March, so maybe bad weather just naturally goes along with Big Moments in my life.  It certainly seemed to follow me on my first two marathons.

The fact that I live in north Texas means accepting that the weather can be dramatic at times, if not downright dangerous.  There’s nothing to break the wind out here on the prairie, and summers mean blazing hot temps and high humidity.  Sometimes the wind can seem unrelenting, and can blow for days and days on end.  I tend to do most of my running along the perimeter of White Rock Lake in the center of Dallas, which means there is usually a headwind side and a tailwind side.  People who run with me know that running into a strong headwind is my least favorite thing to do–especially in the winter–and may cause me to grow quite grumpy (which, as those who run with me know, is a huge understatement).

Rewind to December 2008, my first marathon.   Training  for the White Rock Marathon went well, and even though it was my first, I went into the marathon thinking I might be able to pull off a finish time just under four hours.   On race morning, however, the Weather Gods decided to give us a very warm, humid day, with winds gusting to 30 mph. This,  coupled with the usual rookie mistake of going out too fast, spelled disaster for me.  A large part of the course is along White Rock Lake (hence the name of the race), and at mile 13 we headed straight into the wind.  It was like pushing against a brick wall.  At mile 16 I was so beaten down I could not have told you my name, and by mile 19, at the start of the hills, I was toast.  I finished in 4:16:22, humbled by the wind and happy to be finished.  My more experienced marathoner friends felt bad that the weather had been so tough for my first marathon, but I shrugged my shoulders and started thinking about the next one.  I wanted more, and I knew I could do better.

I decided to try a spring marathon.  The 2009 spring training season was extremely cold and windy.  It seemed as if every week the weather would be nice and mild until Saturday morning, when we would wake up at an insanely early hour only to be met with cold, extremely windy weather.  At least it was good training, we told ourselves, and we knew we would be ready for anything in Oklahoma City.

The weather that April in OKC was almost identical to White Rock’s, with even stronger winds gusting to 45 mph and the temps in the low 70’s at the start.  The entire spring training had been cold and we weren’t acclimated to the heat and humidity yet.  Those of us who had run White Rock in December felt jinxed.  Looking out the hotel window that morning at the flag waving wildly in the wind, I felt disheartened and strongly annoyed.  I couldn’t believe it was going to be a repeat performance of marathon #1.

I decided to make the best of it and soldier through.  The first half of the race wasn’t too bad with the wind at our backs, but the high humidity seemed to sap the energy out of my legs.  When I reached the lake just after the halfway point and made a sharp left, it was like coming to a standstill.  My legs were moving but I wasn’t going anywhere!  I must have had quite a scowl on my face because a volunteer ran over to me at one point and asked if I was okay, and if I was “going to make it.”  I looked at him as if he were crazy and yelled out, “Of course I’m going to make it!” and took off.  It was just what I needed to get me around the lake.

There is a long stretch of gradual incline before the finish line at OKC that was like a death march that day.  The wind was full-on in our faces, pushing us back, and it never stopped.  I remember gusts so strong that I would lose my footing, and the wind blowing dirt from a construction site against my legs felt like needles against my skin.  The worst part was that almost everyone was walking at this point, which is my own personal achilles heel.  It’s always tough for me to put the blinders on and ignore those walking around me, especially the last few miles of a marathon.  My brain starts screaming why are you running, they’re not! and I start debating the merits of walking vs. running.  On this day my mind won, and I finally broke down and cried.  I didn’t want to walk, but I did.

One of the best things about OKC is the long finish chute, and I felt like I had earned the screams of onlookers as I crossed the finish line.  I had not enjoyed my second marathon, and wondered if I would ever try another one.  My friends assured me there would be good marathons in my future (they were right), but my first two seemed a steep price to pay for the privilege of a good race.

There’s no getting around it:  marathons are tough.  But that’s why we run them.  Good weather or bad, calm skies or strong winds, we take a deep breath and get the job done.  So congratulations to all those who battled the elements and won in Oklahoma City this past weekend, and here’s to the good stories that will come out of the struggle.

Remembering a Friend on the Anniversary of His Death

Today is the three year anniversary of the death of a good friend. Actually, he was more than a good friend. He was someone I ran with.

We make friends throughout our lives and we lose them, usually when we change jobs, or move, or simply make new friends when our interests change.  Some friends we stay in touch with sporadically through the years, some we rediscover through Facebook or chance meetings, and some we wonder why we never made more of an effort to stay in touch.  We make new friends, we move on, and life continues.  The friends we lose to death, however, are the ones whose memories visit us late at night, and the ones we can’t forget.I met Arshad through running.  We had a mutual friend, Rich, and both caught up with me early one Saturday morning on a nine mile loop around the lake.   We discovered we were all training for an upcoming local half marathon and decided to meet during the week for a few runs together.  Arshad and I were both relatively new to running and had never run a half marathon before, and we knew that training with someone else would be easier.    Also, I came to discover Arshad was the type of runner who enjoyed socializing and meeting new people more than he did running, so it made sense.  Even though he was tall, lean, and naturally fast, he would purposely hold back because the companionship was more important than the running.

Arshad

So we trained together.  Rich had run a marathon before (which was something I could never fathom doing at that time) and he was our biggest cheerleader.  He liked to run a few steps ahead of us and keep the pace.  Rich was also tall, so keeping up with the guys was good training for me.  We jokingly called ourselves “The Dream Team” and logged many miles together in preparation for the race.  I found out Arshad was from Bangalore, India and had gone to school in Chicago for engineering.  I got to know him as a person, and he was always happy and in a good mood.  We made plans to visit India one day with Arshad as our guide.

There’s something about pushing yourself physically with another person that bonds you to them.  Running mile after mile, through every type of weather and temperature imaginable, at impossibly early times in the day, you really get to know a person.  All your differences melt away with the miles you log together.

The day of the race arrived warmer than expected, and finishing was tougher than I thought it would be.  I made stupid rookie mistakes (eating something different for breakfast and going out way too fast at the start) and seriously considered bailing at mile 10.  I finished in 2:03 and Rich in 1:56.  Arshad finished in1:49.  I couldn’t believe how fast he had run his first half marathon.

The Dream Team

I joined the Dallas Running Club and talked Arshad into joining as well.  Our goal race was the Oklahoma City Half Marathon.  He didn’t want to run another race so soon but trained with us anyway.  I noticed that Arshad would run with any group, no matter the pace, and could usually be found in the back of the pack talking to any one of a number of pretty, young, female runners.  He always adjusted his running speed accordingly.

Rich was training for a full marathon, and sometimes the groups would converge and run together.  I was in awe of the full group and the distances they ran each week.  The seed was planted for me, but Arshad said no way, he’d rather stick to half marathons and run them really fast.  The months and the miles passed, and I noticed Arshad seemed to be running with the same group—and one girl in particular, Elizabeth–each week.  I was happy for him, but never got the chance to ask what was going on.

Arshad’s lease was up on his apartment and he decided to move to my complex on the other side of the lake.  I talked him into running the OKC Half Marathon with the group and we talked about reserving seats on the bus the running club had chartered.  During that same time his parents came to visit from India.  On our Wednesday night run he asked if I would join them and a few other friends for dinner and a movie on Friday.  I met his mom and dad, his ex-girlfriend, Jen, and some friends from church.  We had a great time, though he took some grief for the movie, an ultra-violent film festival entry about the war in the Middle East.  He said he thought his mom would like it.

Arshad’s dad, mom, me, Jen, Arshad, and Sarah

The next week, just before our scheduled Wednesday night group run, it started to rain.  Arshad called to ask if I was going and I told him no.  Fifteen minutes later the storm passed and my phone rang.  Tempted to ignore it, I picked up and told Arshad I would meet him at the gate, knowing how guilty I would feel if I didn’t run.  The dark evening was beautiful, and everything at the lake glowed from the rain.  Arshad ran fast that night and it felt good to keep the pace.  When I made a random comment about hating to run into a headwind, he remarked, ever positive, that he liked it because it kept him cool.  He talked about how beautiful the trees at the lake were, and how it was his favorite place to run.

It was the last time we ran together.

We had made plans to drive together to the local train station for the start of our Saturday morning group run.  When I got up early the next morning I noticed a message on my phone.  It was Jen, telling me to call her as soon as I got the message.  Even though it was six o’clock in the morning, I immediately called.  She told me Arshad had been in a car accident the evening before, and it was fatal.  His mother was also killed, and his father was in critical condition.

He died on a busy street I travel on quite often, and it was a long time before I could drive past the spot where a manufacturing defect in one of his tires caused his death.  Two weeks after his death I ran the Oklahoma City Marathon without him.  I ran faster than I’d ever run, because I knew he couldn’t.  When I crossed the finish line and the medal was put around my neck by a bombing victim’s family member, I cried and asked if I could have another medal for the friend I had lost who hadn’t made it to the finish line with me.

Happy to be done!

His death made no sense to me, and it never will.

Today, three years later, I think about him.  I can still hear his silly high-pitched laugh, and see a smile light up his face.   I remember his earnest curiosity of what made people who they are, and his love of deep conversations.  I remember the new running clothes he bought just before he died, and how he worried about what he looked like in them.  I remember his carefree approach to running that I am still trying to emulate.  He is in my thoughts every single race I run, especially the marathons I never had the chance to talk him into running.  More than anything else, I just miss him.

His friends got together and donated a tree and a plaque in his name at the Celebration Tree Grove at the lake.  We all think of him when we run past the spot, which is on the same route we ran that rainy night, days before he died.   A little bit further up the road is the place where it is always windy.  It took me a long time, but now I smile when I think about how he could put a positive spin on everything, even running into the wind.

Rest in peace, Arshad Ahmed, and know you are not forgotten.

Friends of Arshad

One with the Sofa

Tomorrow is my group’s 21 miler, and I’m down for the count. What started as a slight sore throat on Wednesday afternoon at work turned into a fever of 102.1 and a throat that felt like I had swallowed broken glass. For the past day and a half I have done nothing but sleep and watch really bad daytime TV. I missed our 10 yassos workout on Wednesday night, too (though I secretly didn’t mind missing that grueling workout).

Missing our last long run before the taper is disappointing. This is when I get to see all the newbies at the end of the run, incredulous that they actually ran 21 miles. I will miss seeing the joy and satisfaction in their faces, and also the relief that we finally, finally get to start tapering.

Battling tonsillitis has felt like its own marathon. I am not the kind of person to lay around on the couch for days on end. I like to stay busy, and multi-tasking is my middle name. I hate feeling weak and helpless. This afternoon I even burst into tears because I felt like I was letting my boyfriend down when we had to cancel our Thanksgiving camping trip. Mostly, though, I cried because I just plain feel miserable.

We tell ourselves “pain is temporary” when we hit those last few miles of a marathon, so why is this any different? I think it has something to do with control. Running a marathon is voluntary; no one forces you to get out there and beat yourself up. All the aches and pains that come with fever are beyond your control, and this can be both frustrating and scary.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about things beyond our control, like my friend who has been in the hospital for the past three weeks, or another friend who was recently told that her twin brother doesn’t have much longer to live in his battle against cancer.  This makes my own small fight against tonsillitis seem trivial, and I know both friends would trade places with me in an instant if they could.  I suppose it’s mostly a matter of accepting things as they are, and letting go of the need to control.

I know I’ll be off the sofa and running again in a few more days.  Until then, I’ll say a prayer for my friends and keep taking my penicillin.

Good Marathons

It seems this is the year to have a great marathon. Last year was the opposite. At least that was the case for me and my friends.  I ran my first marathon last December in Dallas. I trained for 23 weeks, even pacing a group with the local running club, and I was more than prepared to have a good race. Perhaps I was overconfident, but I was truly hoping to come in under four hours and qualify for Boston right off the bat. That, however, was not the case. All the hours of training meant nothing against the weather. On race morning, we got hit with a temperature of 64 degrees at the start, 80% humidity, and winds from the south at 30 mph. At the 13 mile mark, once you came around White Rock Lake, the wind hit you full force in the face and was unrelenting. At mile 19 I was toast—and that’s where the hills begin. It’s also where I began walking. Up to that point I had managed to keep an 8:45 pace, but I had nothing left at mile 19. I finished in 4:16, which is respectable for a first marathon, especially considering how much I walked the last 7 miles, but I knew I could’ve done better and was disappointed in myself.

My second marathon in April of this year was even worse. After my experience at White Rock, I had no real desire to run another marathon. I was committed, however, to pacing another group to get them ready for the Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon. My heart was just not in it. Race day was even worse than White Rock, with a starting temperature of 72 degrees, humidity at 78%, and wind gusts up to 45 mph. We were all completely disheartened walking to the start line. I actually walked a little at mile 10, and considered calling Michael to come get me. When we got to the lake just after the halfway point, and turned south, the wind hit us full force, and it was like running in a wind tunnel. I decided at that point that this was a race to just finish, and nothing more. The last few miles were up a long, gradual incline, directly into those 45 mph winds, and up to 90% of the runners were walking. It was a horrible experience. I cried at mile 23, and I cried at the finish line.

I seriously considered never running another marathon. What was the point, I thought, if it’s not even fun? The mere mention of OKC still makes me shake my head. I knew there had to be a good marathon experience out there for me, so my friends and I entered the lottery for the St. George Marathon. At least if the weather was bad I would still get to run through my favorite part of the country. There is no place in America that I feel more at peace than in the desert. Also, I wasn’t so focused on my finishing time as I was on having an enjoyable marathon experience. I knew I needed to have fun in this marathon.

What a difference the weather can make. The temperature at the start was 39 degrees with no wind, and I finished in 3:56:39. I finally had my Boston qualifier. Other friends have done even better in their marathons. Number one reason why: the weather. You can train diligently and do everything right, but come race day you are at the mercy of the weather every time.

But was it really the weather that made all the difference, or was it my attitude? I’m not sure. I know that I run better in cold, wind-free temperatures, but I’m starting to think that maybe deciding to enjoy the marathon, regardless of my performance, was what really made the difference. Perhaps battling the elements only makes us stronger as runners, but at some point you have to be willing to let go of your dreams of the “perfect” marathon and accept things as they are.

As difficult as those last three miles in St. George were, I can honestly say that I enjoyed everything about that race. I cannot say the same about White Rock or OKC, and I think it’s mainly because of the mental states I brought to the races. I was equally well-trained for all three races, but making the mental decision to have fun and enjoy myself, while still staying focused on finishing strong, made all the difference.