When It Gets Ugly

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I love all the memes and stock images of runners and racing. They are so lovely and inspirational. Beautiful toned bodies, effortlessly floating through the air; arms outspread, breaking through a finishing tape; a solitary trail, scenic overlooks, rolling hills and a runner meditating on a long run. Who doesn’t want a piece of that?

stock-photo-man-trail-running-for-fitness-on-stony-path-in-high-mountains-with-peak-view-and-blue-sky-459868003And sometimes we do get a run where everything comes together nicely and we get that floating on air feeling. It’s effortless; we are strong, powerful, fast. It is beautiful.

But not all runs are picture perfect. In fact, some runs are down right ugly. We can’t hit our paces right or a nagging pain plagues us. Or for whatever reason we bit off more than we could chew & are forced to decide to spit or choke. It happens to everyone, but what you do about the ugly run can define you as a runner.

I decided to run, rather last minute, the 1st Andover Lake 5 Mile Race last weekend. Unlike my town’s 5k/10k which is practically all flat on the rail trail, this race was mostly pavement and quite hilly. I know the lake loop like the back of my hand. It is one of my favorite training courses – but I wasn’t sure how a 5 mile race would pan out for me two weeks before my marathon. After lots of nudging, I conceded. It was local, it was familiar, and it would benefit my town – why not!

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I knew where the hills were, so I knew better than anyone how to pace myself for them. But I also knew what I could push on this particular course, so push I did. And let me tell you, it was not pretty.

There was grunting, a little barking, lots of huffing, and even a minor whimper near the end. I ran a lot of the race stride in stride with a young man, urging him along. He had the potential to do well – he just needed to run faster! I was dropping mile times nearly 30 seconds faster than intended. But I kept pushing it. The last half mile was going to be a serious up hill, with 95 feet of elevation gain. I had only ever run all the way up the hill a handful of times, and none of them at 5k race pace. This was going to be a brutal test.

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Fast mile splits made for an ugly finish.

We chugged on to the hill bravely, knowing our fate but trying to pretend it wasn’t real. At the base of the hill my new running buddy deflated a little. “Oh shit,” he murmured between gulps of air. “It’s okay. We got this,” I huffed back and we charged on. I took the hill slightly ahead and did what I could to keep my form steady, my breathing under control, and ignore my pace. That’s when things got real ugly.

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I died here.

I ran out of steam half way up. I didn’t want to run any further. And this was torture because I could hear the crowd gathered at the finish line just at the top. I knew how close we were. I just didn’t care anymore. The young man began to pass me and urged me to keep going with him. “No, I can’t.” But he insisted. “Don’t say that! You’ve got this!” As we shuffled over the crest of the hill I urged him to make the dash to the finish chute.

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No. I can’t. No uglier words have been said in a race. I knew better than to say it out loud, but I honestly wasn’t even thinking them – at least not consciously. My pace was shot, I was now in third place, and my confidence busted. My form was all over the place and my chin was covered in drool & sweat. It was ugly. But what did I have to loose?

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I couldn’t hold my pace in the last quarter mile of the race, but I could push through the nastiness that hard races put before us. I dug deep and found a sprint (not a fast one, but still) and pushed it out. I wasn’t going to take my place back, but I really was okay with it. That kid put in a lot of work and deserved that 2nd place finish. It was a hard race, harder than even I had anticipated, but it felt rewarding to look it in the eye and beat it down. When you put everything out on the course and run your heart out you feel beautiful, no matter how ugly it may have gotten out there. And you never dwell on those ugly parts. You just move on, happy to have finished, happy to be strong. Happy to be done.

When the course gets ugly, you get ugly right back. This sport isn’t about being pretty; it’s about being powerful.

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Push Through

I had a track work out to do today. It was the last real hard workout before my taper begins. Since school has started for the kids, I’ve been doing all of my repeats on the trail. I like the packed dirt, I like the solitude, and I like the constant shade. But today I decided to run on the track for a reason. I did it because track workouts are hard. Track workouts, while the distance and paces are the same, are everything the trail is not. There are fewer variables on the track (so fewer excuses – no hills, fallen branches, etc!). There are always people (I know they probably aren’t watching, but I always feel like I’m being critiqued). The track is always hot. Even on cooler days, the direct sun and lack of breeze always makes the track feel ten degrees hotter.

It was a threshold workout with three excruciating parts; Set One consisted of 3 reps of 1000 meters below 6:00 min pace with 200 meters recovery (walk/jog) followed by 400 meters rest. Set Two was a step up with 3 reps of 200 meter speed bursts and 100 meters of recovery, also followed by a 400 meter rest. Set Three (the hard part) was another set of 3 by 1000 meters. I’ll admit it. I went out a little too hot on my first set and was a bit ahead of pace (we’ll also not talk about how I actually ran longer repeats – which was frustrating until I realized they were not 1000 meters!) I also crushed those 200s.

But the cloud cover that had shielded me for the first half of my workout dissipated, leaving me exposed to the sun. It became incredibly hot very quickly. By the time I started my third set my legs were feeling like tree trunks filled with lead. I just couldn’t pick them up. I was shuffling along. I had decided to cut the workout short. There was no point in pushing myself, dehydrating myself, potentially injuring myself if I wasn’t even going to be making the splits. I had already put in some good, quality work, so perhaps I should cut my losses and ditch the last rep.

As I came through the finish of my 5th 1000 meter repeat (which was slow, but faster than the one before it), I reminded myself that I came to the track for a challenge. I wouldn’t be able to just drop out of the marathon at the last mile simply because it was hot or because I was tired. I was here to work, damn it! I needed to work on my psychological toughness as much as my physical toughness and here was the test: 1000 meters of hot track, daring me to run it. Lane 5 taunted me. My legs may have been begging me to quit, but my head and my heart (those insane, annoying little cheerleaders of mine) told me to do it.

I know the point of the workout was to do the work while tired and depleted, which is why there was minimal rest between each rep. But I also knew I had to compromise somewhere. I wasn’t going to have any hope of actually completing the final rep on time if I stayed to protocol. And ditching it altogether wasn’t an option. So I walked the entire 200 meter recovery, taking double the time to rest, then went for my last run. I pushed through the lead legs & the sweat dripping in my eyes and did what I could to maintain goal pace. I pushed through the mental barrier that told me to give up.

A lot of people would have quit. A lot of people would have told me to quit. In many ways it may have been beneficial to do so, but I know I gained a lot by going just one more time. I walked away feeling accomplished, strong, powerful, and fast. I walked away with my fastest 1000 meter split as well. And I saw the workout all the way through. Sometimes you have to push through to the end and give it all up to know just what you’re made of. Mental toughness is being able to go around the track one more glorious time.

Be A Runner

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I was making my way down the trail the other day during a short, comfortable recovery run. Nothing too fancy, and certainly nothing too fast. My main goal was to get the blood flowing & head off any soreness from the previous day’s 17-miler. I passed a woman who was walking & recognized her as the mother to one of my daughter’s classmates. I said hello. “I sure wish I could be doing what you’re doing,” she said as I made my way past. I wanted to say “So start running!” but I didn’t. Instead I smiled and said as encouragingly as I could, “Baby steps. You’ll get there!”

This certainly isn’t the first time I’ve heard this sentiment. “Wish I had the knees for that,” or “I used to do that before kids,” or “Must be nice to have time.” I’ve heard excuses about work, or family, or buying a house, or illness, or injury. There are so, so many reasons why people don’t run or have stopped running. And let me tell you, once you stop it can be very hard to get going again. But for every excuse I hear, I also hear a longing in people’s voices. A longing to be active, healthy, fit. A longing to revisit their prime.

Above: Running for scholarship money in college & 6 months pregnant with #2

I’ve been a runner since I joined the cross country team in middle school. But, as with a lot of things in life, my enthusiasm waxed and waned for the sport over the years. At first I ran because I was good at it. Then in college I ran because it was my job. But after a fairly serious car accident, I was forced to take a bit of time off, which quickly turned into a lot of time off. For the next two years I hardly ran at all. And then came family. I ran through my first two pregnancies off & on, though I was slow & unfocused. I ran just to keep moving. I ran out of boredom. But then came pregnancy number 3 – the Big Doozy. I fell during a five mile jaunt around the reservoir and tore a ligament in my pelvis. I had to stop running. In fact, I had to stop moving at all. The last 3 months of that pregnancy were spent in absolute pain. After my daughter was born I felt compelled to run again. I felt that I was losing my identity in the shuffle of motherhood; nursing, diapers, potty training toddlers, homeschooling, laundry (so much laundry). I was craving exercise and felt that running was a part of who I was. I felt compelled to try and be me again, so I hit the road.

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I set out slow. Very slow.  I tried to stay optimistic.  My post-partum body had lost the weight, but also the drive. I just couldn’t get my body moving. I was feeling frustrated. This was the one thing that was ME and I just couldn’t do it. Each week that I failed to meet my goal felt like a huge step back, instead of the baby step forward that it really was. I gave up that Fall. I discovered, suddenly, that I was a Has Been. My running prime had come & gone, so I sought out other avenues for exercise. I spent the Winter with a Bowflex, free weights, and Jillian Michaels videos. And just like that, I had quit.

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Getting frustrated.  Couldn’t even clear 10 miles in a week.

I watched other runners with envy. I simply assumed that because I was hurt and a mom and busy that I was just done with it. I was too young and dumb to know that my body needed time to repair it’s self. My pelvis was injured, but that didn’t mean it would be forever. Bodies heal. I was trying to do too much too soon and I became overwhelmed by it. I had stopped believing I could do it. But time off was necessary for some introspection. I needed to think long and hard about why I wanted to run and what it meant for me to be a runner. I also realized that all of these things were excuses for me to stop trying. The only way for me to be a runner again was to suck it up and run!

SAMSUNG

That Spring a magical thing happened. Somehow all the stars lined up and I WON a pair of Mizuno WaveRiders!! It was fantastic!! A fierce pair of yellow-gold shoes arrived and I just knew that they would be my good luck charm. Besides, I needed to put them to good use. I decided, once again, that I would be a Runner, nay, a Marathoner! I knew it was going to be a long way, and that it would hurt like hell, but I was committed. I was going to run a whole marathon in less than six months. In May of 2013 I began by walking one mile. When I could handle that, I ran it. I upped it by half a mile each week. In June I could run 3 whole miles and by July I had begun training for my first marathon, which I ran in October of the same year.

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I did it — my 1st marathon!

I wanted to be more than a Has Been. I didn’t want to be someone who used to do something. And I certainly didn’t want the fact that I was a mom, or had an injury, or a job, or a house, or any number of responsibilities to take away this one very important defining characteristic. I am a runner because I am strong, determined, focused, and confident. I am a runner because I want to be one.

I have put thousands of miles behind me since then, yet it’s still amazes me to think that only 5 years ago I was struggling to complete 10 miles a week. Now I run twice a day and consider a 10-miler a “mid-distance”. I am not a runner because I wished it, I am one because I laced up my shoes and did it. But I had to start at zero and go slow. I had to admit my limits, step away from the sport for a bit, and reassess myself. If you haven’t run in awhile, or even if you’ve never run before, know that the only thing stopping you is you. Start with baby steps, but do start. Go that first mile. When you get to the end of it, do another. Before you know it, you’ll be flying.

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Musings: Sweat Fog and Tears

I skipped my run yesterday.  I was supposed to get up at 5am and do the 3 by 12 minute threshold workout that my plan was calling for.  I turned my alarm off, looked at the rain that was falling outside and rolled back over. I called myself lazy, slacker, and weak. I knew I had to get out there.  If I want to run a fast marathon, then I need to do the work. I knew this.  But the truth is, I just wasn’t feeling it.  I’ve been overwhelmed lately and the idea of getting up and facing a cold rain with a hard workout was just more than my little, damaged psyche could take.

I’ve been on the edge of depression as of late.  My marriage is hard.  My kids are hard.  This whole ‘maybe we’ll move in the next three months’ is hard.  I’ve been spinning my wheels and going nowhere —  just slinging mud.  Sometimes this whole marathon thing is hard.  I have days where I wonder why I can’t just be happy with 5ks and 10ks.  Sometimes the one thing I enjoy just feels like more work.  So I rolled over and slept until 8.  Then I spent the rest of the day feeling moppy and mad at myself.  I knew a day off wouldn’t hurt my training, but who takes a rest day just because they are sad?!

I got up this morning.  I would have loved to have slept in, or at least sat in bed with my coffee and the news. But instead I pulled on my big girl booty shorts and hit the trail.  The fog was so dense you could only see a hundred feet or so ahead on the trail and it clung to my hair and eye lashes.  And it was a chilly 55 degrees.  I actually wore a long sleeve.  It felt amazing to have to wear a long sleeve shirt while running in July, especially after the intense heat wave we endured last week.  I’m not gonna lie; I was slightly emotional.  I was focused on the run and my pace and not really thinking about anything, but subconsciously my brain (and body) were working through a lot of stuff.  Sweat, fog, and tears all look the same streaming down the face, and thankfully no one was out that early to see me anyway.  I ran a solid 10 seconds ahead of pace and felt strong.  I even managed to get in an extra rep.  That should make up for yesterday’s laziness, right?

Thankfully marathon training is long enough, forgiving enough to not take it so personally when you need a day off.  I have time to get it together before the gun goes off.  I have a lot of distance to cover between now and October, and the marathon training is okay with me taking my time.  I’ll be okay because of marathon training.  Life is sometimes hard, but running makes me strong enough to live it.

Keep Climbing Up, Baby

IMslideWhenever I bring my kids to the park there is almost always another family with kids there. And, inevitably, there is a not-so-gentle “reminder” to not go up the slide.

“Stay on your bottom, Sweetie!”

“Slides are for going DOWN!”

“Get off of there! You’re going to fall!”

I’m often given dirty looks and even asked why I don’t tell my children to stop climbing up the slide. Because they are playing and aren’t hurting anyone.  Of course they already know the rule; those going down take precedent & you always get out of their way.  Other than that, I honestly see no harm in it.

Yesterday at the park a woman was desperately trying to keep the young tot with her from going up the slide. But the kid kept going back and trying it again, and again.  Exasperated the woman gave up.

“When you fall off maybe then you’ll learn not to do that again!”

Of course I don’t believe she really wished for the kid to fall (nor would she have let him), but it was clear that she did wish for him to learn it was “dangerous” and to hopefully not do it.  This is where I shake my head a little.  I don’t wish my kids to learn how bad something is and to then avoid it. I want them to learn from it.  If my kid falls off a slide, I want him to yes, learn the dangers of it, but I also want him to come up with a new strategy and figure out how do it without falling.  I want him to grow. I want him to learn.

Imagine if every time we failed we just stopped trying.  My first marathon was a failure.  So was my second.  And, devastatingly, my third.  But I didn’t quit.  Yes, it was a struggle, an “up hill battle” if you will, but I learned something new about the distance after every cycle of training and every race.  I compounded this knowledge until I started getting it right.  If my kid had quit the first time he didn’t make it up the slide, he would have never experienced the satisfaction of having made it to the top once he was big enough, strong enough, and experienced enough to do it.  If I had quit after my first race, I would have never known the joy of smashing my goal.

Sometimes we fall.  Sometimes we get hurt.  Sometimes we fail.  But these can be good things.  We can learn from how something doesn’t work, making us that much more efficient the next time around.  I will do great things in the marathon because I just keep trying.  I keep climbing.  I keep on running.

I don’t ever want my kids to stop climbing up the slide.  I want them to keep climbing up, up, and up because I love the confidence, the satisfaction, and the joy on their faces when they make it to the top, turn around, and smile back down at me.

 

It’s Not Always A Competition

“It’s not always a competition,” I say to my children on an almost daily basis about something. My two boys race to get their clothes on, slurp down cereal, run to the bus stop.  It is always a competition with them and as a mom it is exhausting trying to keep up with the feelings of the loser.  But at the same time, I totally get where they are coming from. I am a typical type A, highly driven, stress laden, competitive person. I made everything a competition from day one. Grades, friends, boys, sports, heck, I was even the damn Prom Queen. Because. I. Always. Win.  And happens when a highly competitive person doesn’t win?  Emotions happen.  Lots, and lots of emotions.

I had a hard time in college.  I went from being a big fish in a small pond to a mediocre fish in an ocean.  I had to work so much harder at everything and it turned out that I wasn’t prepared and I didn’t have the guts to pull it off.  My grades were decent, my track times were decent, my relationships were lukewarm.  And since I wasn’t a stellar anything anymore, I spiraled into a horrible black hole of depression.  None of it was necessary of course.  Looking back now I see that my GPA (3.7) was completely fine.  I set a lot of great PRs on the track and I learned a lot about running while on the team.  I performed much better than I gave myself credit for.  It wasn’t poor performances that got me down, it was the stress of trying so damn hard.

This temperament makes being social difficult.  I don’t have fellow athletes; I have arch nemeses.  When I see times posted from former teammates, I can’t help but compare myself (especially if they used to be faster than me). Oh, she’s had two kids since college, well I’ve birthed four! Oh, she ran a 3:32, yeah, well, I ran a 3:22!  He runs 35 miles per week, puh-leeze, I run 40!  I know, unhealthy, right?!  But it’s my nature. I am driven to go a little faster, go a little farther than someone, anyone else.  This need to out-perform keeps me going, which I suppose is a good thing, but I do worry that it will lead to either injury or another bout of depression.  Being a competitive person means that I am switched on almost all of the time, and, frankly, it’s exhausting.  It’s also not sending a very good message to my kids.

I’m trying to turn over a new leaf, to take on a different outlook.  Yes, it’s a race & times matter, but it’s about bettering myself, not being better than someone else.  I’m going to have to stop comparing.  I’m going to have to stop analyzing data and stalking runners on Athlinks.  I’m going to have to start practicing what I preach. I know…I know…  I need to start being a gracious winner inside and out, AND I need to be a gracious loser.  If I won’t stand a tantrum from a six year old who came in 2nd to the bus stop, then I really shouldn’t be tantruming over someone who wanted it more and edged me out.

The Mile That Broke Me

When I was in middle school we had to do the Physical Fitness Test for P.E. Some kids moaned and groaned about it, but I actually liked it. I was good at it. I was awkward with over sized glasses and scraggly hair, but I was also very competitive and this was my chance to show off. I couldn’t be popular, but I could do this. It was an easy A. Sit ups, pull ups, sit & reach — done, done, and done! But my favorite part was the one mile run. I was fast. I knew it wasn’t a competition, but I was the best and it was the one thing I could be so proud of.

It was Spring of my eighth grade year and my gym class lined up for the mile run. The goal was to run two and a half laps around the baseball/softball/soccer fields while our teacher, Mr. Arch, timed us. I don’t even remember what the passing time was since I already knew I’d beat it. I was running for more than just a passing grade, for more than a Presidential patch. I was running to impress my teacher and classmates and possibly hit a PR. Mr. Arch sounded his whistle and away we went, plodding through the damp grass. I moved quickly and effortlessly. Being on the track and cross country teams meant that I knew where every wobble and divet in the fields were, so I could easily avoid them. As usual, I headed a small pack of athletic boys. Some were on the track team with me. Some played other sports like baseball or soccer. They breathed heavily behind me and I felt self conscious, as many fourteen year olds do. I didn’t like being in close proximity to boys because they unnerved me and sometimes they gave me good reason to feel unnerved.

I picked up my pace to pull away from them as I rounded the first chain-link backstop. I could feel the presence of someone on my left shoulder. Andy drafted off of me as he puffed along. “You keep running like that and I’m going to break your legs, Mary-Alex.” I was startled and turned to see him with a snarly grin right above my shoulder. He threw out a sturdy elbow that caught me in the rib and threw off my balance. I ping-ponged between the backstop fencing and Andy until I had regained control of myself. Once in the open again I tried to veer away from him, but Andy kept close, grunting threats of bodily harm and demanding I slow down.

Andy was one of the best boy athletes in our grade. He played soccer, basketball, and baseball, was popular, was a bit of a trouble maker, and was someone I feared. He was competitive also, but rough, which made him dangerous. And I was often one of his targets for bullying.

We passed by Mr. Arch on the first lap, and he barely looked up. This was no longer just a physical fitness test. This was so much more than a time trial. This was a race. This was boy vs girl, good vs evil. We ran stride for stride around the perimeter of the playing fields while he called me names, promised me rape, and told me I was a dyke. I had been told that boys did these kinds of things, said mean things to girls because they liked them, because they had crushes on them. But I didn’t feel liked. Andy didn’t have a crush on me. Andy had an ego trip and a need for power and dominance. He would have liked to crush me. We were out of earshot of the teacher when he practically growled at me. “I’m going to fuck you, then I’m going to kill you.” He punctuated this decree with a sharp kick to the back of my knee. My left leg wobbled and buckled beneath me. Andy trotted on while I pulled myself up off the grass and attempted to walk it off. He pulled away from me and there was no hope for regaining my position. But Andy wasn’t my target; the clock was and I had to get moving to try and salvage my run.

There was maybe a quarter of a mile left, two more back stops and a finish line. I ran awkwardly and the rest of the lead pack of boys dashed past me. I let them go; there was no point in trying anymore. Andy was too far ahead. I stumbled, half jogging, half limping to where Mr. Arch stood with his clipboard and stop watch. “Great job, Zicky! Six and a quarter…” I tried to tell him that I had gotten hurt, but was told to come back when he wasn’t writing down times for the rest of the class. But the bell rang before I got a chance and everyone else just moved on. Andy didn’t make eye contact as we shuffled out into the hall. I was a better runner, but I didn’t get a PR and I didn’t come in first.

I didn’t pursue the issue. I didn’t even tell my parents. I had passed and I wasn’t significantly injured, so there wasn’t really anything to complain about. I figured I’d just be told again how boys can be be boys. And what did it matter if I was first? 6:25 was a decent time. I knew how fast and strong I was, did I have to beat some boy to prove it, or couldn’t I let him have the win and be happy while staying safe? I spent the next ten years being safe, staying out of the way of some aggressive guy. I kept a step behind, giving away the win out of fear that I’d be cut off at the knees again. And for ten years, anger festered. I was angry at myself for not fighting back, for not being loud about it, maybe for not hitting first. I was mad at myself for being so stereotypically weak. I just didn’t know how to get up and fight back, and I had been down so long I didn’t see the point in trying.

And then I had a daughter. A spunky, headstrong, fierce little girl who loves monster trucks and dinosaurs and doesn’t care at all if her two older brothers are bigger than her; she’ll take ’em on any day! If I won’t get up for myself, I must get up for her to show her to be strong, to be fierce, to not be ashamed of being in front. She needs to be taught to stand up for herself, and to fight back if need be. She’ll be targeted one day. A pimply teenager or insecure college guy will make a move on her, will try to degrade her, to take out her knees. I know this because, unfortunately, some boys will be like this, because I don’t believe that bullying or date rape or domestic abuse or sexual harassment or gender inequalities will ever truly cease to be. But she will be prepared to get back up and take back what is her’s.

I’m not slowing down or giving up anymore. I’m never going to take a step back for someone else’s pride. I now run for my daughter. I run for all daughters. I run in the name of Girl Power and Feminism and Equality. I am going to always run, I am going to always be fast.