Not “just another half marathon”

The week of the Crites Tybee Race Fest, a 2-day, 5-race festival with a cumulative distance of 26.2 miles, I came down with a cold. Because, well, of course I did.

No one else was faring much better. Lindsay had been fighting all sorts of sickness and Robin wisely decided to give her knee a rest after our Charleston Marathon. So I’d have to run by my lonesome. And if you know me at all, you know I don’t like to be alone. Like, ever.

So I decided to race “just” the half-marathon, which compared to the marathon a couple weeks ago, should be no problem.

At the 11th hour, my friend Jodie decided to join me for the race.  Jodie claims she’s “not a runner” but she’s pretty much whatever she wants to be. A salsa dancer? Sure! A Gladiator? No problem! A human fork-lift? I mean, have you seen her arms?!

And she can decide at a moment’s that she’s going to run 13.1 miles.

But Jodie won’t run with me. See, Jodie doesn’t like to talk and run. And I pretty much run to talk.

Jodie also doesn’t like the cold, and by cold I mean anything sub-78. In the middle of summer, when it’s 100 degrees and 100% humidity, you’ll see her running at 2 p.m. By choice.

This morning, it’s barely 40 with wind gusts up to 20 mph. And Jodie is not happy.

“I can’t believe you talked me into this,” she grumbles, pulling her jacket tight around her body in spite of the fact that we’re inside a heated car.

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Not happy.

We both know I didn’t talk her into this. A few months ago, Jodie decided to run the Key West Marathon in support of her dad, who’s fighting cancer. A few days before the race she came down with the flu and decided to run the half, fueled by fever, chills and a promise she made to her dad.

She finished the half, but the fact that she was still 13.1 miles short of her promise haunted her. Which brings us to the Tybee Half.

“This is just God’s way of punishing me for not running the marathon,” Jodie continues to lament at the race start line, her entire body trembling with the cold.

Neither of us have any expectations for this race; we’re going for the finish where we have VIP passes to the Savannah magazine tent and the promise of bottomless mimosas.

At the gun, we disappear into our individual playlists and race. It takes about two miles for my feet to thaw and I’m holding a pretty steady 8:15 pace. If I can keep it up, I’ll have a good finish.

Of course, I can’t. Not only because the wind pushes me backwards, but also because I’m mentally weak.

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Running (fake) happy.

Why do I do this? I ask myself, the beginning of a series of self-defeating rhetorical questions.

Why am I so slow?

Why am I so old?

Burp.

Why did I eat Mexican last night?

Then I turn the corner and run with the wind and all is right again.

Why does this feel so easy?

Another switchback.

Why does this suck so much?

Like all things, the race eventually ends. I somehow muster what I think is a sprint to the finish, but probably looks more like an angry orangutan scaring off a would-be predator.  I know this because spectators avert their eyes as I bear my teeth and emit very un-humanlike sounds.

I finish in 1:48, a respectable time but not a PR, gather myself and cheer Jodie in, who bounds along like she could run another 10 miles. Because she could.

Crites Tybee Run Fest

Jodie immediately wraps herself in “Grandma’s coat”—her affectionate name for the warmest, if not the most hideous, jacket—and we bee-line to the mimosas.

“Go easy on the orange juice,” I instruct the bartender. He pours maybe a half-teaspoon into my complimentary travel cup before I stop him. “Whoa—leave a little room for the champagne, buddy.”

We want to hang around to test the bottomless-ness of our cups, but the wind and cold is unbearable, so unbearable that even the free drinks aren’t worth the discomfort (a sentence I never thought I’d write).

Crites Tybee Run Fest

Actually happy.

As we flee to our cars, we congratulate one another on our accomplishment: finishing. Only it was a little sweeter for Jodie because finishing also meant honoring her dad by engaging in an activity they use to enjoy together.

For me it was “just another half marathon,” but at the same time there’s no such thing as “just another half marathon.” It’s always a struggle, always an accomplishment, and never should it be something we take for granted. To be healthy, to be active, to be able to run, to have friends to cheer us on, these are gifts we work for, but they are not forever.

I’m grateful I had them today.

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I lost my running partner today

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No, she didn’t die, thank God. But the loss and the grief is real nonetheless.

Robin first joined Lindsay and me less than two years ago when I coerced her into a run.

“I’m not really a runner,” she replied.

“But, you’re going for a run,” I said, looking down at her fully laced shoes.

“I’m more of a jogger.”

First, sorry Jim Fixx, but I don’t believe in jogging. If you’re going faster than a walk, you’re running. You’ll recognize it by the ache in your joints, the panting in your chest and the jostling of your breasts. In short, you’ll know it when you feel it.

Robin and I were already friends so it was only a matter of the time that my pestering would cause her to cave. And here’s the thing non-runners or self-proclaimed joggers should know: runners live to recruit other runners. It’s not because we want to watch you suffer or mock you for your inexperience—that would make me a bad runner (as well as a terrible person). It’s because we want you to love (and hate) it as much as we do, and we want to do this together. Misery likes company, or something like that…

Fast-forward 18 months and Robin, whom I discovered is mentally and physically pretty damn tough (a perfect running recipe!), went from running 3 miles at a 10-minute-plus pace to double-digit miles, speed work, running and placing in races, donning KT Tape and falling into a puddle of murky sadness if she missed a run.

Robin became a “real runner.”

As we trained for the Savannah Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon this past November, I started to scheme how I would convince Robin to run a marathon with me. I’d already failed with Lindsay, who, true to her stubborn Southern roots, can’t be convinced to do anything she doesn’t want to, but Robin—a congenial Midwesterner—was an easy target. Also, I totally knew she could do it.

 

I didn’t even have to get her drunk to get her to sign up for the January 14th Charleston Marathon while at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Expo. And after earning her half-marathon PR the next day, we began our 20-week training program.

Watching Robin hit milestone after milestone during our training runs (Her fastest mile! Longest run! First GU shot!) was oddly exciting for me. I’m hardly a seasoned veteran, but with three marathons under my belt, I totally get the exhilaration…and the struggle. And I not-so secretly congratulated myself for sucking her into the adventure.

Two weeks before the marathon and 9 miles into on our 20-mile run, Robin suddenly stopped.

“Ow.”

“What is it?”

“My knee.”

And for the next three miles we ran-walked while her knee locked up every quarter mile. She told me to go on without her and that she’d rest—probably just an overworked IT Band. So, I finished out the miles and later learned that she did too, because that’s what real runners do, as stupid as it may be.

For the next week, she tried unsuccessfully to resume running, her knee incapacitating her each time after just a few miles. She tried tape, massage, ice, rest—and then called in the ortho guns.

After her appointment, she called me with the news.

She said something about x-rays indicating that her body alignment was off and that she had to take 8 weeks off or risk a fracture.

“He said I can’t run the marathon and it’s likely I’ll never be able to run one,” she explained, her voice wavering. “And after 8 weeks, if it still hurts, I might just have to do something else.”

“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” I replied, a friend unwilling to lose her running partner. Unwilling to accept that this next weekend’s marathon wasn’t going to happen for both of us.

Robin was taking in the diagnosis. I was refuting it.

“I don’t accept that. You need a second opinion. Is this ‘doctor’ even a runner?”

I’m sure the orthopedic doc is more than qualified, but in my anger, I doubted all of his credentials—plus, I’m 100% sure a runner would never tell another runner that she may have to “do something else.” Like what? Water aerobics? Step? Nothing wrong with that—unless you’re a runner. Then everything is wrong with it.

I remember years ago a doctor telling me that “women weren’t physiologically designed for running.” I get that we may be predisposed for certain injuries, but not designed for running?  There are a lot of things I’m not “designed” for: science, cooking, remembering to put out the garbage. Only cheetahs are designed for running, and even then, they can’t go very far.

Robin put on a brave face while I swiftly sunk into the 5 stages of grief—or at least the first three. Denial and anger came fast enough, followed quickly by bargaining, or what I would call “suggestion.” I polled my “experts”—Lindsay, and then her husband and my husband (neither run, but whatever) and concluded that the diagnosis was not only ridiculous, but also unacceptable.

Lindsay—always the friend—gave me permission to grieve even though Robin’s injury certainly isn’t “about me.” But it kind of is. What excited me most about the marathon was the thought of the shared pre-race nerves, the deliberating over what to eat and drink, the lack of sleep the night before and, most important, seeing Robin cross that line with all the emotions pouring over her. Seeing that look of complete exhaustion and accomplishment. And then later re-hashing each mile of the race together for the next 24-hours like only two people who experienced it together could.

Now it’s just me and 26.2 long miles. Which begs the existential question: if you run alone and no one does it with you, does it really even happen?

Pardon the drama, but I’m in a dark place.

Thankfully, Robin isn’t blindly accepting her fate. She’s made an appointment with a guy I consider to be our city’s running guru. He’s an Ironman competitor. A sports therapist. A real runner. Basically, a god to the injured runner.

I pray to the running gods—and really anyone else who will listen—that Robin will run another day, and preferably on January 14th.

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What I Gained from the First Race I Didn’t Race: Another Perspective

I set myself up for success by setting myself up for failure. No really, hear me out. By not training for the Critz Tybee Run Fest—all 5 legs which equal 26.2 miles—I couldn’t even worry about racing. I told myself my only goal was to finish. And I was only halfway committed to that goal. If it was raining, I wouldn’t show up. If it was below 30, I wouldn’t show up. If I had a bad dream about snakes, if my floss broke, if I sneezed…

I kept an eye out for every omen to tell me not to do it, but nothing revealed itself but a big ol’ green light welcoming me to the start line of the 5K on Friday night. I hate 5Ks. The distance, while short, is just over 22 minutes of absolute hell. I’d rather run 20 miles at a comfortable pace than “just” 3.1 miles at breakneck speed. I’m not one of those people who say, “Just pull the Band-Aid off quick; it’ll hurt less.” No, it won’t, and you’ll spend another week trying to grow back a 3” strip of dermis. Pull it slowly and you lose a few hairs you should’ve shaved off anyway.

But I knew I had to take it easy because at 7 the next morning I’d have to run a 10K and if I still didn’t dream about snakes or sneeze, I’d chase it with a half-marathon, a 2.8 beach run and a 1-miler.

No big deal—I wasn’t racing.

But dammit if I didn’t race.

About a quarter of a mile in, my body felt good. My feet were turning over to one of Taylor Swift’s songs with 96 BPMs (don’t judge) streaming from my new Plantronics BackBeat Bluetooth headphones (I’m only including this detail because tech tends to fails me, but these are an exception–they’re awesome and you must get them). I glanced at my Garmin, which revealed a 7:15 pace. Much too fast.

I dropped to about 7:30 which made me feel even better. At that point, I decided to see what would happen.

Here’s what happened: I almost ran a PR. I got third place in my age group. If I felt uncomfortable, I’d pull back just a bit because if you recall, I’m wasn’t racing. The last 500 yards I sprinted, which I never do. And I didn’t retch at the finish. Which I always do.

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Third Place in the 5K!

 

About 5 seconds after crossing the line, I texted my running partner who signed up for the next morning’s 10K—and was waiting for me at dinner.

Who you text immediately after a race says a lot. It’s the person who won’t reply to your “I just ran a 22:28” with “Is that a good time?” or “Cool. When will you be home?” Lindsay gets it like only a running partner can—she knows my splits, my PRs and my bad hip from my good one.

I got my medal, hustled to dinner, drank too much wine (again, because I wasn’t racing) and crashed with Lindsay and our other friend, Robin, at a beach house just a mile from the next morning’s start line.

I woke up energized. My floss didn’t break. My toast didn’t burn. I was ready to race—er, I mean, run.

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Lindsay and me having just survived the 10K

I paced Lindsay on the 10K even though I said I would rest up for the half. As we crossed the finish, I had 30 minutes to change my socks, use the bathroom and eat before the next race. The point is, I didn’t have time to give myself a reason not to run again. In fact, I kept encountering reasons to press on. Robin, who just ran the 10K, decided she would join me for the first six miles of half, for which I was eternally grateful (she ended up running all 13.1 miles). By mile 3 I felt like hell and couldn’t stop thinking of hamburgers. But I popped some Stinger chews—a far cry from the quarter-pounder I craved—and got a surge of energy.

There were other inspirations along the way—sharing a couple of miles with some running friends I hadn’t seen for awhile, seeing Lindsay, showered and rested with a glass of wine sitting in a folding chair at mile 10, and being cheered in by my Savannah Striders friends and the finish. I was about 12 minutes off my half PR, but I had just run 19 consecutive miles. And I wasn’t racing.

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Staying warm post-half, pre-beach run.

I was on autopilot for the final two legs. Luckily, another friend, Christine, was willing to keep me company, even after she had already accomplished her goal of running a 10K PR.

I survived. I sat in the car for about 15 minutes texting Lindsay, Robin and Christine all the results (19th woman overall!) and gushing about how I couldn’t have done it without them as if I was on my third glass of wine rather than my third pack of energy chews.

As I drove the 10 minutes from the island back to my house, I felt incredibly accomplished (and wildly hungry). But more than that, I felt really, really loved.

In the couple of weeks that have passed, I don’t remember much about those few solo miles of the race, but I can vividly recall every mile I ran with one of my girlfriends. Because it was fun.

Let’s face it, racing isn’t fun. It’s what I image it feels like right before you die, except you stay that way for hour and you never die.

I pushed myself during the races, but I didn’t push myself over the edge because I wasn’t sure what I could do. I found out I could do a lot more than I imagined. But I don’t think I could’ve done it without my running partners.

Either way, I wouldn’t have wanted to.

My New Year’s running resolution, in all its simplicity

I’ve been percolating over this New Year’s resolution thing for a couple of days, seeing what might stick 72 hours before I announce a 365-day commitment. My record isn’t so good. Like, I’m 0 and 30 since making my first failed resolution around the tender age of 8 when I announced I would start a stamp collection.

But this year I might be onto something sustainable—and something more meaningful than stamps.

If I were to characterize 2015 in one word, it would be “overwhelming.” I felt like I was running in 10 different directions but never getting past my own front door. I was overwhelmed by my commitments to my work, writing, running, friends, family and myself. Commitments that I kept making.

“Why don’t you stop saying ‘yes’ to things if you’re feeling overwhelmed?” asked my husband.

As if that made any sense.

Truth is, I wanted to say yes to every single opportunity last year posed. I like new challenges and projects. I suffer from the fear of missing out. I live in this paradox where I crave time to just “do nothing,” but as soon as there’s “nothing to do,” I’m bored.

So if that wasn’t going to change, then maybe it was simply my outlook that needed a revision. Instead of grumbling and being anxious about everything I “had to get done,” what if I approached each project/goal/opportunity with joy? The same joy with which I accepted it in the first place?

I began by evaluating my running.

I came out of 2014 hitting PR after PR and with the hopes of qualifying for Boston. I finished every race exhilarated about what I had just accomplished and thought 2015 would be even better. But somewhere along the way I got fixated on racing and getting faster. Consequently, I endured a series of small physical setback and large disappointments. The races I did PR, I finished hyperventilating and heaving, beating myself up because I ran negative splits, walked at the water station, or didn’t place—things I knew were lame for an age-grouper running local tracks to care about, but still…I cared.

I don’t want to stop caring about becoming a better runner any more than I want to stop caring about being a better friend, mother, wife or writer. I don’t want to throw my hands in the air and say “I’m just too old/tired/busy for this.” Because I’m not.

But what if I let go of the useless anxiety that clouds my otherwise optimistic outlook? What if I instead focused on the one thing I could change: Me.

I didn’t think it would work because it goes against everything I’ve come to think I know about being driven. For instance, as a writer, I stress about deadlines, inspirational crashes, and whether or not I’m good enough, thinking that these things ultimately fuel my craft. In fact, they stand in the way of it. But the few times I’ve convinced myself it’ll all work out (and by the way, it does), or walked away from a piece only to have fresh insight the next day (because it always comes), or forget what people think and just write what I love (the best writing I’ve ever done), I’ve been surprised at how joyful the experience can be. The anxiety didn’t make me work harder, it just made me feel like I was working harder.

I wasn’t sure the principle would apply to running until today. After four hours of writing, I felt like running—I needed to run. But instead of looking at the half-marathon training program to tell me how to run, I ran just for the hell of it. I put on my headphones and picked a course that would allow me to log anywhere from 1 – 7.5 miles. I could turn back whenever I felt like it. I would run “comfortably” without worrying about the pace—something I hadn’t done for so long I wasn’t even sure what my comfortable pace was. I feared it would be slower than I could handle, but told myself it didn’t matter; my only goal was to adhere to the Brooks slogan I love so much: run happy.

http://community.runnersworld.com/blog/signed-up-for-my-1st-marathon

If my breathing became labored, I slowed. If I felt energetic, I picked up. I rocked out to the worst Tween beats Pandora has to offer because that’s my jam. At mile 4, I stopped to chomp on some energy chews, and enjoyed the warm sunlight on my face. I never took the shorter route, not because I had to log the miles, but because I wanted to run them.

Every now and then I would peek at my watch, just to see how much damage running happy would do. Funny this is, it didn’t. I was cruising at an 8:30-8:45 pace, much faster than my easy pace I do while training.

I didn’t finish with my body aching and my lungs heaving. I finished exhilarated at what I accomplished and called my husband and texted Lindsay to share in the joy of just another day of running.

This wasn’t new. This was how I used to run. Happy.

I think 2016 is going to be an overwhelmingly good year.

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Running very happy

What I Learned from My Worst Race Ever

I’ve never had a bad race.

Until I did.

The night before the Savannah Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon and Half Marathon, race organizers warned runners that the weather would be unseasonably warm. Drink lots of water, they said. Slow down, they said.

Slow down?! I’d been training 12 weeks to run a 1:38 PR in this race and a little bit of heat and humidity wasn’t going to slow me down.

Until it did.

Right before race start. So happy. So naive.

Me, Lindsay and Robin at the race start. So happy. So naive.

I was standing near the front, squeezed in with a serious crowd of runners, when the race-horn blew. The mass of runners lurched forward with intention, void of the nervous chatter or enthusiastic “woo-hooing” that peppers the runners further down the line. I know, because I’m usually back there. But here, at the front, there was just breathing, feet slapping pavement and the occasional watch alerting a runner to his overzealous pace.

“We’re going too fast,” I heard a guy to my right gasp to his running partner.

I looked down at my watch to see my pace. 7:10. I had to maintain a 7:30 pace to get my PR—but the fact that 7:10s could qualify me for the NYC Marathon was on my radar—tucked into the make-believe zone where unicorns are real, Sandra Bullock is my best friend and David Beckham wants me real bad. Some call it mental illness. I call it mental hopefulness.

By mile 2, acid began to collect in my stomach and I thought I might heave. My heart was pumping too hard and the negative thoughts starting unfurling from the dark corners of my head. At mile 2, I usually feel like a winged gazelle, not a quadriplegic manatee. Something was wrong.

I gave myself some quick tough love.

You’ve got this. Suck it up.

And then I looked down and saw my pace slip to 7:40.

I don’t got this. I’m gonna throw up.

Plan B: No PR—just hold 7:50s.

Two miles later, I wanted to stop.

Plan C: Just don’t walk.

Plan D: Just finish.

The next 9 miles felt like the longest I’ve ever run—some of which I walked. I felt like a failure.

My friend, Chad Brock, who was cheering us on, snapped this photo. Glad you can''t see my face filled with pain.

My friend, Chad Brock, who knows all too well the pain of running, snapped this photo. Glad you can’t see my face filled with pain.

Then, just one-mile from the finish line, I looked around me and noticed with half-closed eyes that I was still surrounded by runners—good runners—who were engaged in the same strange shuffle-scuff-run I was. My brain, depleted by effort, was trying hard to make sense of what I was seeing, when I heard a familiar voice yell out.

“Go, Andrea! You can do it!”

Huh? It took an enormous effort to turn my head in the direction of the voice, slowly, like a dim-witted Brontosaurus looking for some greens to munch on. And there on the sidewalk, running parallel to me, I saw my running partner, Lindsay.

“I threw up at mile 5! I pulled out! You have to do this for us!”

Nothing made sense. Certainly not Lindsay on the sidewalk at mile 12. But I was more grateful for her at that moment than I’d ever been (and I’m pretty grateful considering what she’s seen me—and my body—do while running together). I summoned up what little bit of race I had left in me and pushed to the finish. In that final stretch, I noticed runners cramping, vomiting and even someone who had collapsed and was receiving aid. It felt like it would never end.

Until it did.

Once I crossed the line and controlled my instinct to vomit on the nice lady trying to put a finisher’s medal around my neck, I realized that my poor race wasn’t about a lack of training or mental toughness. It was about unseasonable temperatures and a stubborn unwillingness to heed the warning from more seasoned runners who knew it was not only OK, but also necessary to back off. That just finishing could be enough.

A number of runners didn’t finish, either because they knew better or their bodies wouldn’t let them—whichever came first. Tragically, one runner took his last breath on that race course. Another would collapse at home a few hours later.

And there I was disappointed about running 8 minutes off my PR.

For people who log ridiculous miles each week, it’s easy to get wrapped up in finishing times, PRs and medals. And because we sweat, bleed, blister and cramp through most of our days, it’s easy to overestimate our toughness. It’s also easy to forget that what we do isn’t easy.

But this race reminded me that we are a fragile lot. Life rarely goes as planned; why would a 13.1-mile race be any different—any easier?

Yesterday, I ran for the first time since the race. I didn’t have any expectations; I just wanted to run. Somewhere around mile 4, Lindsay and I began discussing our plans for our next race and what our goals would be. And that’s when I realized what I was supposed to take away from Saturday’s botched race: You just keep going.

Until you can’t.

The End--of yet another new beginning.

The End–of yet another new beginning.