Thursday, September 24, 2009

"To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice The Gift"

Five on the dot. I grab my bags and head downstairs to the gym. Deadline time is behind me and I can finally head to the gym with out guilt for an easy four miler. I have been looking forward to this moment since probably, 10 am.

Two years ago when I started training - training was everything. I kept my schedual tacked to my cube wall, I read about running at lunch, an on a running day I was out the door no later than 5:15. I found peace and freedom in those runs. Nothing mattered once my feet were pounding the pavement. I had to work hard for every second of every minute that I was out there. There were no five minute coffee breaks, only recovery which kept throwing my body forward.

As I tied my sneakers, snug but not too tight, and fasted my pink watch around my wrist I glanced over at the dark empty gym. I was often the only one who worked out here, a hamster on a giant wheel running in place in front of a wall of mirrors. Forced to watch my reflection make the same moves over and over. I sighed at the thought of running four miles in such a monotonus environment. I had seen a clouded over sky on my way down to the dungeon of a gym, but somehow the thread of rain was not as menicing as the threat of boredom. I needed to finish this run and if I had to cut it short becuase I could not stand to be in the same spot for another minute I would not easily forgive myself.

I stood in the commons for a good minute, watching the clouds. I must have looked like a fish out of water in the middle of our giant pink palace. A girl in black running shorts and a black tee shirt, the only trace of pink being the trim on my shorts and my watch. Who was this athletic looking person standing in the middle of all our pink and green and prep? My mind was made up. Outside I would go, a quick dash inside the locker room to grab my access card, a quick hello to Ms. Pat, and I was out the door and heading up the hill. In all honesty I didn't even know where I was headed, I didn't know how many miles I was going to run, or the terrain I was going to encounter. I was just happy to be outside, to be moving at a pace that was entirely dictated by my body and not my a moving belt under my feet. Treadmills made me feel cheated, like I was being told i could run faster than I was able, the belted ground moving along under me and I just picking up my feet to keep up.

The seconds and minutes would tick away on my pink iron man watch as I slowly moved up the hill. I was only half aware that all the cars driving by me were my fellow employees leavnig for the day and I was just getting to the best part of mine. I kept on moving forward. I would go twenty minutes out, however many miles that would take me, and then turn around and head home. I would not set myself any more limits than that. I had a vauge idea of running to Valley Forge Park, or at least seeing how close to it I could get. This would mean turning right onto Allendale, right onto First Ave, and then right onto whatever came next. I ran down third on the side of the road rather than in the grass. There was a serious lack of sidewalk around this area. I opted to stay on the right side of the street as I turned onto Allendale, which was probably not my smartest decision being that the side walk was on the left side of the street. But I chose to avoid traffic lights and run right in the road again. For a minute I hopped up onto the curb and ran like a balance beam one foot straight infront of the other. I would occasionaly waver side to side but never once stumbled completly off. And then that too ended and I was left again to run in the road, and then the grass, and then the road. I just prayed that when this short stretch ended and I turned onto Frist ave there would again be sidewalk, and there was! A wonderfully flat, open, and short stretch of sidewalk. Ok so I probably should have seen this coming. First Ave was a coral reef of office complexes. Why would they ever want to sidewalk all of their streets? Who would ever want to run along this hilly industrialized stretch of road? Runners I say (even though I seem to be the only other one out here, everyone who is smart just drives the five minutes to Valley Forge park) next time I say. Next time I will just drive to the park.

My mind for a moment drifted to my saturday run with Heather. This past week we had tackled eleven full miles, trecking through various neighboorhoods in the city. We trecked up hills and rampms, past train tracks with box cars full of garbage, past the zoo which smelled of animal waste, and past a putrid stretch of west river drive that smelled like something too gross to even identify. We ran although she had a sinus infection at at times she said she wasn't going to make it to the end. But I kept telling her not to stop. I know what it's like to be in her shoes, I used to say the exact same thing. I used to say I would stop like it was a threat to Larry, when in all reality it didn't matter to him one way or another. I would keep going becuase I knew I had to, and becuase I knew I would feel guilty. I kept pushing Heather and she kept going. I knew when it came down to it, at the end, she would want to feel like she acomplished something and not that she failed. Of course there would be runs where you gave up, there were countless runs that I gave up, even with Larrys words of encouragement. But we would not give up that day. we pushed all the way up the top of the hill and finished at Falls Bridge. I wanted to tell Heather that she had taught herself one of the most important lessons in training for a marathon. There will always be times when you feel like you cannot keep going, but you will. You will feel like there is nothing in the world that could get you to take another ten steps, and while you are too busy contemplating to stop or not, you realise you have gone a quarter mile with out really thinking, so you keep going another quarter mile, and before you know it you have knocked one more mile off your run. And you do what all good runners do, you just keep going.

As I ran along the grassy terain sidewalk again appeared under my feet, as I approached the bottom of a large hill. I silently cursed myself for picking this route as i checked my watch. Almost nine minutes. Ok hill, let's go! As I made my climb I started to look around and I realised that in the two years I had worked here I had never really taken the time to find out what else was back here. And I never realized the amount of people that left the office before six. Cars were lined up at every exit, waiting their turn to enter into the massive fight that is the rush hour evening commute! For once, I felt anything but envy towards them. They were sitting in their cars, in their restrictive business casual attire, and would probably remain there for at least a half an hour getting angry at other cars and wanting to be home. While I was free, I was out on the road, I was moving, and for the first time in months I felt like I finally had a purouse.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The aftermath

My stomach churned, my legs cried out for ice.  I rolled over and checked the time on my phone.  Ten of seven in the morning.  Now here is a great debate if ever there was one.  At ten of seven in the morning on a sunday, who actually wants to get out of bed and eat something and take Ibuprofen? If I get up I'm going to end up stretching out my legs and god knows that once I've been out of bed for more than five minutes I'm not going back.  But who wants to lie in bed, legs begging to be loosened, and stomach just itching for something to eat.  I will never get any rest this way either.  Ten minutes later, stomach wins out, as stomach always does.  There are many things I can stay in bed through, leg pain, having to pee so bad I might explode, sleeping through everyone in the house awake and sometimes even fighting, bright sunlight.  The list goes on forever but stomach always wins.
I get myself out of bed suddenly aware that the burning in my calfs is from spending hours in three inch heels on the dance floor just hours before.  Weddings.  gotta love weddings.  But weddings cannot be an excuse for not running, and so my ten miler had to get squeezed in pre ceremony.  

The morning was dark, so much so I had a moment of confusion, wondering if it was maybe the middle of the night.  I picked up my phone to silence it's deafening beeps .  6 am on the dot.  I wish I could have rolled over to boyfriend and whispered "Five more minutes?" But he wasn't even in the house.  I wasn't even in my bed.  I was on the couch.  My plan of falling asleep on the couch had backfired, instead of being uncomfortable and being easier to get up in the morning, I was just as content to go back to sleep for another five years. Or five hours, which ever came first.  Five seconds was more like it.  I stood up, and stretched ready to begin my pre run routine.  Did I even remember how to get ready this early in the morning?  I knew the basics, shorts socks shoes, sports bra, tech t-shirt, windbreaker.  Gatorade, breakfast bar, ipod, headphones and then ... wait, where were my headphones?!?! While I rarely ran my long runs with music I counted on the upbeat tunes to wake me up and motivate myself to get out the door.  this morning they were nowhere to be found.  No matter though, I didn't have much time left, I had to be out the door to drop gatorade on the course so I simply plugged my ipod into my car and got revved up that way.  I drove my car around the slick twists and turns of Kelly drive, pulling over just before the art museum to stash two bottles of gatorade behind a tree.  After that I was on my way to pick up heather and we would begin our run.  
We started out crossing falls bridge onto west river drive and chatted mostly about weddings, registries, planning and the like.  Heather was recently engaged and as exited about planing the whole ordeal as ever, and although boyfriend and I were still only boyfriend and I, I never much minded talking about all the planning.  Plus I had a wedding to go to later that afternoon which is why we were running so early.  Just like last week the sky was over cast, and the weather cool, with only a slight threat of rain from the dark clouds hovering around the city.  I noticed we were going along at quite a decent pace for having so much trouble two weeks ago.  The weather had a lot to do with it, but slowly we were both feeling so much stronger and it felt great to cover the distance in a comfortable fashion instead of a struggling one.  This week I had mapped the course, so Heather followed me up hills and through Fairmount park as I explained to her the course that the Marathon would take you.  We did a semi backwards version in order to do most of our uphills in the first half of our run.  Running through the war memorial and down Lansdown drive memories of my training flooded back into my mind.  When ever I thought of those days I felt stronger, I felt like I could go farther, I felt my steps become more fluid.  Those where the days where I could race along doing ten miles at a nine minute pace.  But for now we just went along as best we could, just finishing the miles, enjoying the scenery, enjoying the company an the conversation.  We begin to approach the art museum and by now we have completed five miles at least.  Our thoughts are on gatorade.  The sweet taste of gatorade flowing over our lips, thrusting energy into our bodies, giving us the push we need to complete the run.  We round the corner onto kelly drive.  I start to look for the tree, I run off the path only to find that our gatorade is gone.  Are my eyes deceiving me? is our liquid energy, our running treasure really gone? We know it didn't just get up and run away, could someone have really stolen our gatorade? This fact would forever baffle me but it didn't stop us.  We quickly found a water fountain which would have to satisfy us for the next four miles.
Thankfully it was only four miles and that last stretch always went by fast.  There were always plenty of people to look at, and when falls bridge appeared in the distance out of nowhere came this surge of energy that pushed you up the hill to the finish.   Ten miles.  ten miles and it wasn't even 9 am yet.

As I lay stretched out on boyfriend's living room floor, stuffing my face with leftover pizza and Gatorade (finally!), stretching out my aching muscles, I remembered why I did what I did.  Why I ran.  Because for some reason I actually liked the pain.  I actually liked when my muscles felt hard and tough and toned.  I liked being a runner.
I would put up with the pain, the hunger, the early nights, and the even earlier mornings.  I loved what I did.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Back on the horse

For the first time in a long time, I had a real summer vacation.  I planned my weekends around cookouts, family get together, trips to the beach, and days at the pool instead of long runs, and recovery days.  I stayed out late on friday nights laughing with friends, I drank beers, I went out on dates with boyfriend instead of staying in, eating a sensible dinner and getting up at six the next morning.  It was glorious and relaxing and well... downright normal.  And that last little thing was probably what bothered me the most. I ran to get away from normal, I ran to be exceptional.  I ran to push my body, my mind, to challenge myself in the hardest was I knew possible.
I had trained for months for my second marathon.  I had given up so much in order get better, and in the end I was displeased with the results of my race.  So much so that I began to wonder was it all really worth the time.  Was it worth giving up my social life for a subpar marathon performance. Forget about the fact that I PR'd by about twelve minutes.  That didn't matter to me.  I wanted to achieve big goals.  Perhaps I had just set my sights too high.  But with my coach moving on with his life in med school, with me newly dating boyfriend, I realized I had to give myself the time off to enjoy my early twenties.  If my life led me back to running than so be it,  if it did not, than perhaps it was not mean to be.
I am by no means out of shape compared to the average american.  I stayed active, snowboarding in the winter, running every now and again in the spring, going to the gym a few days a week.  I always ate pretty well most of the time but never failed to pass up an opportunity to eat ice cream.  But compared to a runner I knew I had lost so much speed compared to last year.  I kept telling myself this is what I wanted.  I wanted to take a year off, enjoy life, stay injury free.  But the more time that went by the more I realized I was becoming content with my semi active life.  I put in extra hours at work and my running or working out happened more rarely.  Weekends where I stayed with boyfriend or went on trips I never even tried to accommodate for running.  I just pushed it aside like some chore I didn't want to do.  Was running becoming a chore to me?  The thing I had loved to do and lived for for so long was becoming a nuisance in my life?
What scared me most was that boyfriend, who did not come from an active lifestyle, would get used to the way I had been for the past year.  He enjoyed nights in watching TV, or nights out having a few drinks.  He was not an early riser.  If I did not do something about this now, what would happen when I was finally ready to get back into training? Would he hold me back? would he be unhappy with the time I spent training? I needed to know now.  
After a few arguments, I realized the only thing keeping me from running was me.  I needed to be tougher with myself.  I needed to get out of bed in the morning no matter what.  I needed to run the miles and keep going until I was done.  No one else could do that for me.  I had to make the time.  
So for the first time all summer, I finally set aside a saturday morning and said, this is gong to be it.  I am going to go running.  And then I realized that while I had been taking time off, my friend Heather had been running more.  I had always been the one to train more, but it would seem now that we were finally in a place where we could train together.  I knew that nothing motivates me to get out the door more than knowing someone else is there to go with me.  Even more convenient was the fact that she had just started training for a half marathon.  Sunday morning I rose at seven am with that all too familiar feeling of knowing I would accomplish something great in the next few hours.  I had a quick breakfast, and drove to our meeting spot.  The air was chilly but not cold, perfect for late august.  As we ran that morning, we chatted and caught up with each other's lives and even in the times when I thought I couldn't keep going, I did.  The clouds cleared and the sun beat down on us and we slowed down a bit but we never stopped.  Seven miles later we arrived at the end of our run, my car where I would drive us back to our houses.  At home that morning I went about my normal weekend routine of making coffee, cleaning my house, and reading the paper.  But it felt different than it had in the past.  It felt strong.  I felt like it didn't matter what I did for the rest of the day because I had already done the most important thing.  The next day I signed up for the Philadelphia half marathon.  I was ready to get back into racing.
One weekend long run under my belt, the next step was to do another.  Being labor day weekend I knew I would be away from home, and took al my running gear with me in case I were to have the chance to run.  I did not, but we arrived home earlier than planned and so Sunday night I set my alarm for 7:30 am, made sure to eat something healthy, avoid drinking.  When my alarm went off the next day I momentarily contemplated snoozing and going back to sleep for another half an hour.  But all I could see in my mind was running, pushing myself, needing to get this run in in order to be able to run ten miles next weekend.  It was only a matter of minutes before I was out of bed changing into running gear and ready to go out.  I quickly kissed boyfriend goodbye, said I love you, but couldn't take the time to have a drawn out goodbye.  The hardest part about running was putting aside all pleasure and just going forward.  So I just took off.  As I started my run, I thought about how pleased I was with myself for getting out of bed.  I would run eight miles this morning.  I would run no matter what, no matter what hurt, no matter how hard it was, no matter how much I wanted to stop.  Main street was deserted and there was a light breeze, there was no sun out, perfect weather.  Before I had even covered one mile my ipod died and I was forced to spend the rest of the run lost in my own mind.  I remembered back when I was training I would make up stories in my head, or narrate my actions to myself to keep entertained.  Today I calculated how far I would have to go to run eight miles.  Two miles down main street to the 3 1/2 mile mark on Kelly Drive, add 1 1/2 more miles to make four and then back to make eight.  As I made my way onto Kelly I was joined by more runners.  It's always a good feeling to be joined by fellow runners.  I said good morning to most that passed me.  I tried to keep thoughts of hot coffee and egg sandwiches out of mind.  My mouth was dry, I scolded myself for not drinking enough water the night before.  I beat myself up in my own head, pushing to keep going.  Turning around at the halfway point it was like I had put myself on cruise control.  My feet were moving, I was moving forward, but it was as if my mind was separate from my body.  I was just along for the ride.  It was a smooth stride and in those moments my mind just wandered, I looked out at the scenery around me taking in the trees, the river, I even saw a fox on a hill in the distance.  Before I knew it I had pushed myself onto Main street.  I was cruising up the last hill, and then trotting down the other side,  I threw my body into a higher gear to push across the last cross street and as I moved my legs across the bridge to cross onto Venice island I was done.  
My legs hurt, my mouth was dry, I could feel the muscles in my stomach, legs, back aching to hold me up.  And yet I was happier than I had been in a long time.   Getting back on the horse would not be easy. There would be many more early mornings, there would be aching muscles, and I would love every single second of it.