Posts filed under 'Optimist's Guide'
I ran the half-marathon, and I have to say… it was incredible. The whole experience felt calm and gentle – words which I wouldn’t necessarily have associated with endurance running but I couldn’t think of a better way to have this experience.
I started out with some trepidation. Between the traveling, the excitement, and my hyper-awareness of my 5:00 AM wake-up call, I didn’t get to sleep until one in the morning. And then it was the kind of shallow, superficial sleep I have when my mind is totally preoccupied with some major and impending event. When the phone rang I leapt out of bed and got ready in the dark, eating my half of a dry bagel and mixing up a protein drink with tap water from the bathroom sink. Sam drove me to the starting line and let me wear his sweatshirt while I jumped up and down in the early morning mist. Looking around at the other runners, I felt pretty humbled; so many were wearing name brand gear, and had high-tech equipment strapped to their bodies. One man had a camel-like appendage on his back with four different straws that came out and framed his face. I suppose it was so he could sip drinks with different levels of electrolytes as necessary throughout the race. But he looked like he had a parasitic arachnid clinging to him for dear life.
The gun went off at 7:30 and I found myself in the middle of the pack. I never run with anyone, so I wasn’t sure how it would feel to try to find my pace as part of a pack. Strangely, it was easier than normal. I settled in, started my iPod, and checked out my fellow runners.
There were two-thousand of us, ranging in age from late teens to late 70s. There were professional runners, and there were first-timers. I spent a lot of time looking at other peoples’ shapes, wondering if there was any truth to the idea that runners have a certain body type. The answer is a resounding no. I saw men and women that looked like “runners” – they were long and lean, with narrow hips and shoulders and little muscle or body fat to weigh them down. But they were a minority. I also saw people with huge torsos and short legs, people who were pear-shaped, people who ran funny, and people who breathed so loud and lugubriously, they sounded like they were dying. There was a dad running and pushing a stroller with one hand while holding onto his dog’s leash with the other. There were groups of people running in packs, and loners who ran in and out between the others like they were on a slalom course. There was one woman in my immediate vicinity that appeared to be gravely overweight – she stayed consistently thirty paces ahead of me for the first half of the race then got so far ahead I lost track of her.
The morning was cool when we started, which turned out to be the best possible running weather – overcast sky with no sun, no wind, no rain to speak of but an occasional drizzle. The course took us through vineyards, so the road was smooth, but with a lot of hills. One hill even had its own name – “the corkscrew” – so called because it spiraled around and around going up forever. That was a tough hill. When I looked up all I could see were other runners who were blue in the face, hanging over the ledge, looking like they were ready to puke, with more hill looming up above them. When I looked down all I could see were the blanched faces of terrified runners who were approaching the hill, watching our progress. After a few glances, I decided to implement a technique I think of as selective ignorance: I didn’t look at anyone else, or anywhere else, except the pavement where my next foot was going to strike. I didn’t want to know how anybody else was dealing with the challenge, didn’t want to see their triumphs of defeats.
Somewhere around mile seven after I’d recovered from the corkscrew, a miracle occurred. I was feeling good, feeling on track. I’d settled into what I think of as autopilot – where my arms and legs and torso are all in a rhythm with each other and feel almost mechanized. I didn’t feel like I needed a miracle at all. But then this kid ran past me. He looked like he was about 17, like he’d never trained a day in his life, like he’d rolled out of bed maybe 20 minutes before the race started – he still had pillow-prints on his face and a raving case of bed-head. He looked around as he ran – not focused on the running at all but curious about everything else – what everyone else was up to, the countryside, the vineyards. And he flopped. His hands flopped at his sides, his legs flopped out behind him, and his feet flopped at the ends of his legs. He looked like a Gumby, all gangly limbs and swiveling head. It looked like running was absolutely effortless for him. I was instantly smitten with his technique. Gone, in an instant, ten years of trying to master the almost mechanized rhythm of arms and legs in perfect sync. That kid ran past me and I was consumed with jealousy; and I immediately started flopping too. I even took it a step further and opened my mouth a bit so that my jaw was relaxed. It made so much sense… how much energy does it take to keep everything rigid? What if everything just goes wherever gravity takes it, and all that surplus energy gets re-diverted into running?
In the end, I maintained my position in the middle of the pack from beginning to end. The entire run felt good – easy, natural, gentle, graceful. I averaged 10:30 minutes which was significantly faster than I’d imagined. My time, as I found out later, was also squarely in the middle of the pack – half of my fellow-runners were faster, half were slower. For my first race, and my first half-marathon – and given that I’d only started training five weeks in advance – I could not have been more delighted with the results.
I crossed the finish line with Sam and his mom waiting for me, cheering, and jumping up and down. Sam gave me a huge hug and a kiss, in spite of the 13.1 miles worth of sweat and dust I’d accumulated. A race-official put a medal around my neck, and I was channeled into a “recovery” line were I stocked up on apple slices and chocolate chip cookies. On the other side I rejoined Sam and his mom who kept giving me side-long glances and saying “But… you look like it was easy!” “Aren’t you going to cry or something?”
The best thing about the Santa Barbara half-marathon, other than the beautiful course, is the wine-tasting that follows. We had our souvenir tasting glasses, and used them to sample dozens of the Santa Ynez Valley’s finest – and they were all delicious. Once the last of the runners finished, the sun came out as if on cue, making the vineyards glow, and sending the aroma of drying earth and flowers wafting over the hills. We drove back to Santa Barbara after an hour or so, stocked our picnic backpack at the local Trader Joe’s, and had a Mother’s Day picnic on one of our favorite beaches. There was no bonking. My legs were tired, but nothing extreme. I slept normally that night and had slightly sore muscles the next day – nothing major.
I can’t wait for next year’s race.
May 13th, 2007
My last run before the half marathon was straight out of a film. It was long, it was hard, I was slow. I was bored after the first 3 miles with 9 still to go. I was exhausted after 6 miles with the other half still stretching out in front of me. Nothing was any fun – my ears had long since sucked all the energy out of the music in my iPod, the Venice Beach patrons were merely annoying. It was too hot, then too cold. I suffered through the entire run then dragged myself home, terrified about the experience. But Sam was quick to point out that all good Hollywood movies have a moment just like this. The last big test before the EVENT – the match, the race, the dance-off – always sucks. It sets the emotional scene for the big talk, where the mentor convinces the student that she’s had what it takes to be a winner inside all along – she just has to trust herself. And it sets the audience up for a bigger emotional rush – they go down with the excruciatingly bad last practice-run, which sends them even higher when the protagonist pulls it out in the end.
I was reassured. I also knew that pride, and being a public spectacle would keep me going even if the half-marathon were to be the most miserable run of my entire life.
In better news, I forced myself to eat an energy bar immediately after running and didn’t bonk. Next up – three days of no running, all part of the “tapering” that’s recommended before a big race. Hard to imagine that three days of doing nothing will transform me from sucking to being a rock star.
May 9th, 2007
Just finished another long run – ten miles – and have realized that the post-run wonkiness is not a fluke. The run felt great, and for about an hour and a half afterwards I felt totally normal. Then I was overcome by an increasingly urgent sense that being vertical in this world was no longer acceptable. So I installed myself in bed. I didn’t feel sick, exactly, but kind of like remaining not-sick required holding completely still. Even rolling my eyeballs to the side to make eye contact with Sam was an inappropriate amount of effort. Then, after an hour and a half, the wonkiness went away… and I was perfectly fine again.
An hour and a half of downtime after a long run doesn’t seem that unreasonable. But, my half-marathon is through the vineyards north of Santa Barbara, and it’s on Mother’s Day, and Sam’s mom will be here visiting us. There’s also a wine tasting party, along with tons of food and live music after the race is over. Clearly, I don’t want to miss out on any of it! Also, requiring an hour and a half of prone, no-eyeball-movement time is fine when I’m at home but I’m not sure how it will work out if I’m away, and already checked out of my hotel. Most importantly, I want Mother’s Day to be fun and stress-free…
I had dinner with some friends who run last night and I discovered that this post-run malady is technically referred to as “bonking” (Wikipedia has a fascinating etymology). It happens to endurance athletes when the body uses up all of its natural stores of glycogen; symptoms include general weakness, fatigue, hypoglycemia and sometimes hallucinations. Fun times! But, avoiding the bonk is apparently fairly easy: eating lots of carbohydrates the day or two before a long run (“carbo-loading”) to increase the body’s stores of glycogen, and most importantly, consuming carbohydrates during the run.
In theory, “bonking” doesn’t happen until the 15th mile, and I’m only up to 10. But, I don’t “bonk” while running, I “bonk” an hour and a half after I’ve stopped – I never drink anything while I’m running, and aside from a few sips of water, I don’t like to eat or drink for a couple of hours after a long run, which is apparently quite stupid. Also, I don’t eat many grain-based carbohydrates in general, so maybe my glycogen stores are a little lower to begin with. I guess I’m a prime candidate.
I have one more long run before the half-marathon so I get to test all this out next week. I’m normally a running technology luddite, and the thought of buying chemically enhanced drinks, powders and gels makes me cringe. But “bonking” in public, and in front of a bunch of runners who all know better makes me cringe even more.
May 1st, 2007
Need more of a challenge? I recommend signing up for an intensive six-day yoga and meditation retreat that will overlap with the first and second weeks of mini-marathon training. Not only will the retreat leave you with no time whatsoever to run, it will also empty you of all competitive desire. You will long only to sit and stare at walls, smiling vaguely.
Actually… I went for my second long run yesterday – another eight mile course. And, it was the easiest run I’ve ever done! Seriously – there were no crazy runner’s endorphins involved, just a really pleasant pace from the first step to the last. I’d forgotten how good it feels when you don’t have to think about running anymore. It’s like your legs, lungs and heart take care of themselves and your mind just wanders… off… wherever… It felt so good, I tacked on an extra ninth mile at the end, just for fun.
In the interest of full disclosure, I will admit that about an hour and a half after my run I started feeling a bit wonky – had to sit down and couldn’t eat for the rest of the day. But two hours and an incredibly cheesy movie later, I felt good again and have no soreness to report today.
Was it taking a three day break from training? Or was it all the yoga and meditation? Hmmmm…
Or maybe Ooommmm….
April 24th, 2007
It was like that scene in Hidalgo – where Viggo Mortensen’s character looks back and sees a monumental Arabian desert sandstorm whirling up behind him and his horse. They race for shelter and barely make it to safety behind a convenient wall. A few minutes later they stagger out, spitting sand out of their mouths; Vig pouring what was once water – now encrusted sand – out of his water skin. With a slight change of principle characters and location, that was me – out for a training run the other day on Santa Monica beach. Malibu, which is generally perfectly visible, was totally obliterated by the crazy Santa Ana winds. A sane person would have gone home… but when you’re in training, you’ve got to persevere. So instead of being sane, I stuck it out and compiled a list of fun things to do while running through a sandstorm on the beach:
1. Multitask! Since the sand is already scouring away all of your exposed skin, just think about the exfoliating you won’t have to do in the shower.
2. Did you know that your eyes need exfoliating too?
3. Prolonged exposure to an aggressive sandstorm can be an excellent way to remove protein buildup from your contact lenses.
4. If you’ve never taken a moment to be grateful that your nose acts as a sophisticated filter, now is the time.
5. Been awhile since your last visit to the dentist? No problem – even if you don’t open your mouth, sand will somehow infiltrate and get caught between your teeth. Surely it’s removing tartar, and giving you a brighter, whiter smile.
6. This is a great chance to develop strategic thinking skills! While running with your eyes closed and dodging fleeing tourists, you can also contemplate whether you are more likely to be decapitated by a flying street sign on a side road or on the beach path!
7. Also a great opportunity to hear the Doppler effect in action. Note how your fellow beach-goers screams get louder and then softer as you run past them with your eyes closed?
8. When the sheets of flying dagger-like sand become unbearably painful, you can huddle down next to a public beach toilet and watch the other crazies who are walking, running, or riding bikes while doubled over with their eyes closed.
9. When else will you consider carrying your new mini iPod in your mouth for its own safety?
10. When you finally stagger home, no need to tell everyone that your all-over-body rosy hue came from taking a violent sand-bath; let them assume you’ve been sunkissed.
April 19th, 2007
Training runs can take place in a variety of locations. Softer terrain is better than concrete, clean air is a priority, and safety is crucial.
I recommend going for a run along the Venice Boardwalk – a thickly populated pedestrian walkway – in the late afternoon on a weekend. Between the kids and dogs, your five-mile-run will have you zigging and zagging into seven, even eight miles. Rage at inconsiderate pedestrians who have forgotten that there are other human beings in the world besides themselves will elevate your heart rate even further (bonus!). All the glorious salt air will be mixed with liberal doses of incense, cigarette smoke, burning sage, pizza, henna fumes, plus sweat, hair oil and suntan lotion rolling up from Muscle Beach.
They may not be the healthiest conditions, but I guarantee you will never be bored!
April 13th, 2007