“Well, this wasn’t exactly part of the plan” I thought to myself as I was walking out of a Tucson church in December, blinking against the brilliant morning sunlight, carrying my stepmother’s ashes to her final resting place. It all seemed so surreal.
Flashback to six months earlier, when I wrapped up my first Half-Iroman in June (2012) and found myself feeling very fit and ready for more. I set my sights on the Kiawah Marathon in South Carolina, lured by the flat course as well as the free lodging graciously offered by my BFF’s parents. It also seemed like an ideal opportunity to test out a new training program that I’d been eyeing. I had stumbled across the Hanson Brooks Distance Project plan a couple of years ago, but never felt confident enough to take on the higher weekly mileage totals. The foundation of triathlon training was just the confidence I needed to engage in this experiment. The stars seemed to be aligned.
Of course the plan got off to a rocky start: I miscalculated the start date and began three weeks later than originally planned. The sudden increase in both miles and speed left me with a tender hamstring tendon, and after a brief flash of panic, I found myself seeing an A.R.T. practitioner on a weekly basis. He was able to calm down the acute symptoms and got me to a level that I could tolerate while continuing to run the miles I needed. We agreed that I probably wouldn’t improve the tendonitis much more until after the race, when I could incorporate some rest and cross training into the plan. But for the time being, it kept me on the roads.
The 6-days-a-week training plan moved along quickly and included a speed/strength day (long intervals) and a weekly mid-distance run at marathon pace. The theory was that by Sunday’s long run, my legs would be exhausted as I tackled between 10-16 miles. On paper, it looked completely manageable and not vastly different from what I had done in the recent past. My legs felt otherwise. By the middle of the Sunday long run, I felt like I was at mile 18 of the marathon. Brutal but with intention – it was exactly how the Hanson brothers designed it.
With the Big Day only three weeks away, I got a call from my stepmother (in Tucson) telling me that she was going to be in the hospital over Thanksgiving for a chronic health issue with which she’d been struggling. She’d be able to go home after a few days in the hospital and then some time in rehab. But the next thing I knew, she was moved to a hospice facility and passed away five days later. My father was devastated and I was absolutely heartbroken.
And just like that, my plans changed. Instead of South Carolina, I was headed to Tucson. As fate would have it, there just happened to be a marathon taking place in Tucson that same weekend. It may seem callous to some that I would still participate in a race given the circumstances, but for me it was the right thing to do. Running through the desert would be therapeutic for me, and it was my way of honoring her. She was plagued by foot neuropathy for years, and would have given anything to be able to walk, let alone run. She was always so supportive of my athletic pursuits.
It felt odd to register for a marathon just days before the race. No hours of research, pouring over logistics and course maps. Just a few checks of the web site and then I kept my fingers crossed that I was going to make it to the correct start line at the correct time. The Tucson Marathon is a point-to-point course with 2200 feet in elevation drop from the start to the finish. The logistics were a little tricky, having to park in a remote parking lot, grab a shuttle to the start line (40 minutes away), run 26.2 miles to the finish line and then get on another shuttle back to the parking lot. The half marathon started at a later time, at the halfway point on the course, so we all finished together (note: this was great – kept the start from being congested and resulted in more people on the road towards the end of the race, making it a little less lonely).
Somehow, despite my last minute planning, I managed to pull it all off. The shuttle to the start found me sitting next to a woman who was a NYC Marathon “orphan” and she was not the last orphan I would come across that day. It was great to see so many other races reach out to the NYC runners, offering them discounts to help ease the sting of their missed opportunity.
I had hemmed and hawed about what to wear for the entire bus ride and while waiting in the bathroom line (twice). The start temps were in the low 40s, with finishing temps predicted in the mid 50s to low 60 with some strong winds. I conferred with neighbors; analyzed what others were wearing and finally opted for shorts and a t-shirt. This required a complete wardrobe change, but I was perfectly prepared with my overly stuffed I-should-be-a-Girl-Scout drop bag and I never regretted my choices.
In the midst of the wardrobe change, I managed to rip my bib just before heading to the start line. I pleaded with a stranger for just one of his FOUR safety pins to fix my bib. You would think I had asked him for his shoes, he was so disgruntled to give up the one pin. Thankfully he did though, and I promised him good race karma because of his kindness.
As I was standing in the corral, waiting to start, I caught a glimpse of a pacer to my right, with a hand-written sign held high which read “3:30.” Scarcely able to believe my luck, I asked him if was the official 3:30 pacer, and he replied in the affirmative. I was shocked and elated, as I had heard that there wasn’t going to be a pacer for 3:30 – he was clearly a last minute addition as evidenced by his less than official looking sign.
This was it. The weather was perfect, the pacer was in place, my race day nerves were completely in check. How could I fail?
The first few miles the pace leader kept us just around 8:00 min/miles, if just a bit faster. The downhill course made it tough to slow down too much, but we had some hills to handle at the halfway point and again at miles 23-25. The pacer had a solid plan and I vowed to stick with him.
As the 3:30 group was getting acquainted, I became vaguely aware of some chatter about swimming, and next thing I know, I am running side by side with Sean from Connecticut (yes, my home state) and Mark from New Mexico, both triathletes. Mark was also an ultra-runner, so the conversation flowed easily over the next few miles. Suddenly we realized that we were AHEAD of the pace group. We kept trying to slow down to keep closer to them, but as we hit the halfway point, we were about a minute ahead of them and about two minutes ahead of our projected finish.
The halfway point is the only section of the race that has anything remotely resembling hills, which were ‘rollers’ by my definition but they still managed to slow us down as this section was so different than the downhill flow we’d been riding the whole time. This is also one of the few sections of the race that is not on Route 77/Oracle Road, and we were able to catch a glimpse of BioSphere2, as well as cheer on our fellow runners as we passed by each other on the out and back stretch of road.
The second half of the race was more downhill, all along Rt 77 and had great views of the desert and the mountains. In training, my longest run was one 18-miler, so I was very interested to see how my pace would hold up over the last few miles. I stayed just ahead of pace until about mile 21, which was just around the time that the headwinds picked up and my calf muscles started to shut down. The Wall was pushing at my edges and over the next few miles, my 2-plus minute cushion started to dwindle. My foot cramped up inside my shoe, and I felt my toes splay apart. I forced down a gel, with the hopes that the electrolytes would help keep my feet and calves from completely cramping.
I dug deep and used all my mental tricks. I thought of my mom and her strength. I thought of my stepmother and how important it was for her to be able to walk in Relay for Life each year…and how proud she would have been to see me race. I thought about being a “strong bear” and asked myself “Why not me? Why not today?”
I won’t lie…it was ugly. Mile 25 was the slowest mile of the day and it was by sheer will power alone that I made it to Mile 26. Somehow, I was able to rally for the 1.2 miles, spurred in part by finally being caught – and passed – by the 3:30 pacer. Panic set it…I couldn’t let him get too far ahead. I heard him say to his group “We’re running a 7:40 pace right now” which made me wonder if they were pushing to finish in time or if they were ahead of schedule. I turned that last corner having NO IDEA what the clock would say…my feet hit dirt (Seriously! Dirt?! NOW?!) and I grit my teeth, looked up and saw the clock said 3:29:40…ten seconds later and I was over the mat and Over. The. Moon. (Actual finishing time was 3:29:29)
After stumbling around for a few minutes, I found one of the guys I had been running with earlier. He finished just ahead of me. We wandered around stiffed legged and collapsed into some chairs. The food tents were just too far away for me to even attempt to reach. After sipping some water and getting my heart rate back under control, I stumbled over to the baggage claim area, and shuffled ever so SLOOOWLLY down the stairs – failing to notice the RAMP that would have saved me some pain – and made my way to the shuttle buses.
A short ride back to the parking lot, and I was back in the rental car, heading back into town. A quick stop at my hotel for a shower and some fresh clothes, and then dad and I went out for margaritas and burritos at our favorite watering hole. A rather drunk local befriended us and interrupted our small celebration for a while – also not part of the plan – he reluctantly moved on, and we went back to sharing stories about my race, my stepmother and all the other unexpected things that life tends to throw at us. Sometimes it feels easy, sometimes it feels like a headwind at mile 24, but either way, there is always a celebration just around the corner. It truly is the journey that matters in the end.
It was a week after “Boston,” and a sweet, simple email appeared unsolicited from him, reminding us that we are all loved and appreciated. It sparked the flame the lit the fuse.
The replies flew into my inbox, fast and furious with grand plans and a great idea. Naturally, the idea of a reunion was nearly instantaneous. A physical reunion presented more obstacles than solution; by its very nature it would not be all inclusive. Then her email came, and I paused a moment when she said “Maybe what we need to do is pick a theme and all blog about it on the same day. That would be a reunion of sorts, non?”
It would, I thought. And it would be so much more than just a reunion. It would be a homecoming too.
Then he said “I think each of us posting something about the impact of community on our lives would be a good theme. I say let’s pick the completely arbitrary date of June 21st to all post something.”
Community. A word that was instantly observable without need for coordination, evident in the moments after the first explosion. A word that I found myself pondering, chewing on, whenever I was alone with my thoughts in those first few weeks after Boston. A word that popped into my head when I found myself on a group ride with stronger riders who were willing to take me under their wings and help me find my legs. A word that showed its strength when I was surrounded by swimmer-friends in the lanes to the left and right of me, urging me on when I was breathless and red-faced, taking on a new challenge. A word that I embrace on a weekly basis, when my running partner – whom I met through our cycling club – shows up at on my door step at 6:30 a.m. for our 6-8 mile therapy sessions.
Of course, this word is not new to athlete-me. The idea of community first revealed itself to me when I became a runner with a blog back in 2004. Adult-onset athleticism had set in…I started running…then I wanted to learn more about it. I stumbled across the whole blogging phenomenon and became part of something amazing. At first, the idea of a community that existed virtually but not physically – despite the very physical nature of the shared interest – seemed odd. But then, it didn’t. And then, we started to meet in person. Before I knew it, the support of my running blog family had shaped me into a confident athlete. I had found a place where I belonged.
Within these athletic communities – virtual or physical – we are drawn together by a similar interest and become bound by a shared passion, seemingly homogeneous. The diversity among the members on the surface seems lacking, but scratch the surface just a little and the depths are quickly revealed. The political views are as varied as the nutrition/hydration choices; religious views differ as much as the choice in footwear. Demographically, our profile is not as predictable as marketing experts would hope. Despite our different backgrounds, there’s an unspoken pact of mutual respect. (This continues to fascinate me.)
This community exists outside of the formal groups, away from the running and cycling clubs, and miles away from the community center pool. On race day, there’s this inherent sense of camaraderie between participants. Being surrounded by other people who Get It, who truly understand the willingness to suffer (on purpose), who respect the distance, who offer unsolicited but always needed encouragement. Even at races where I have not known a single person when I arrive at the site, by the start of the race I have been offered an extra Gu, warned of The Hill, and been given a wetsuit wedgie by a stranger. Instant membership has its privileges.
This athletic community “cross trains” – seeing a running friend in the grocery store, a cyclist friend (or two) at the local brew pub, meeting a blogger friend in-person at a race. The happy double-honk of a car horn when an athlete-friend drives by us on our weekly Wednesday run. Admittedly, it sometimes takes me a moment to recognize my friends out of context while dressed in their normal, non-spandex, non-dri fit clothes (this is the only time when I understand how Clark Kent got away with his lame disguise). But once I do, I have that sense of what a “home town” feels like. I suddenly feel like I belong exactly where I am.
In October, my friend Amy was diagnosed with cancer. I saw her just a few days after she got the results of the biopsy, and she had a look of quiet resolve on her face, as if she was calmly trying to fight through a storm.
Like many others who know her, I was stunned by the news. This amazing woman standing before me, a woman who had just run her first half marathon, a woman whose cycling and swimming I admire (and envy), a woman who takes ‘healthy eating’ to a level that I didn’t know existed, a woman who regularly practices yoga, a creative, artistic, beautiful woman who makes me feel like she’s giving me a big hug with just her smile – how could she have cancer? How was it even possible? It didn’t seem fair, as cancer never, ever does.
Despite the unfairness of the whole scenario, what has been impressive about Amy’s situation is her reaction to it. Like a warrior preparing for battle, she immediately began her research and fact-finding missions to learn as much as she could about this new enemy and different treatment options. She and her husband started gathering their community together, set up lines of communication and developed strategies for different scenarios. In a very short amount of time, they mobilized a small army of friends and loved ones in an efficient and effective manner.
With Amy’s permission, I thought I should share their process here, as I felt others might find it useful:
1) One of Amy’s brothers set up a Google group called ‘Amy Wins’ to allow for easy communication with folks who want to be ‘in the know’. They have appointed a primary spokesperson (or two) who is responsible for disseminating updates from doctor’s appointments, test results, etc. to the rest of the group. This eliminates the need for Amy to repeat herself seventeen thousand times or make time to compose and send mass emails.
2) Amy was able to clearly identify how people could specifically help her. In situations such as this, everyone wants to help in whatever way they can, but its tough to know WHAT to do, WHEN to do it, and HOW it should be done. Amy was brave enough to actually ask for help with specific tasks: i.e. Walk the dog a.m. and p.m.; Help with food prep; Clean the house; etc.
3) To make the ‘helping’ easier, a friend of Amy’s set up a ‘Care Calendar’ on-line where we can all see the ‘needs’ that exist and if anyone has signed up to help out that day. It’s a great tool that allows all of us to know what’s going on.
4) Amy makes sure to always have a pen, paper and a voice recorder handy for when she interacts with her doctors – in person or via phone. In situations such as hers, the brain is trying desperately to comprehend what is being said but emotions often befuddle the information and details get lost. This is a great solution.
5) She is writing about the experience on her blog. She is acknowledging her feelings, thinking about how her decisions will affects others, and discussing it all openly with friends and family. Often times I think we forget that even though talking about something makes it real, it always helps to take some of the fear away. The monster in the closet seems a little less scary when you talk about him during the day and discover that other people are dealing with monsters too.
Developing these strategies seems to have helped to create a sense of control in the midst of an ever-changing overwhelming experience. I admire her strength and spirit as she faces this challenge and she is preparing for the best way she knows how. It will be a test of her mental toughness and her physical abilities. It will be harder than anything else she has faced to date. She will come away from the experience a changed woman, and will discover an inner strength she didn’t know existed.
Most importantly, she will win.
I’ve been sidelined for a few days. It’s amazing what can happen when there’s a little ankle-wobble on an unstable rock at mile 2.5 which then blossoms into a swollen, mildly sprained ankle 8-ish miles later. By the time I got home and climbed out of the car, I could hardly walk.
Two cycles through a contrast bath, some Alleve, some rest and elevation, and I was shakin’ my groove thang ten hours later at a masquerade ball. But running has been out of the question. Heck, stairs were tough until today.
Since there’s not much running to post about, I will share my latest ‘freebie’ with you. I was contacted by Cafe Press with an offer for a FREE SIGG water bottle in exchange for some blog-time. I’ve been interested in purchasing a stainless steel bottle but haven’t found a design I really liked. This was the perfect opportunity!
Here’s my selection:
Clearly, with this bottle, I will finally be able to reach the floor in a forward bend pose. If not, then I can always lean on the bottle.
You can find millions of custom sweatshirt hoodies and funny t-shirts at CafePress – even personalized Christmas gifts!
Three weeks ago, I had the pleasure of hosting Jon at my house the night before his debut at the Hartford Marathon, conveniently located 40 minutes from my house. This was not the first time that Jon has stayed at Chez Orange Hat, as he was a guest here a few years ago for the New Haven Road Race. And although I have hosted other runners in the past this particular visit was different: I was not registered for the race and I was not going to the race to merely be a spectator. My opportunity to ‘pay it forward’ had finally arrived, and I was going to have the honor of running Jon in for the last 6.2 miles of his race.
For four out of my six previous marathons, I have been fortunate enough to have friends run the last 6.2 miles with me, or better, run the whole 26.2 enchilada with me. The first time I had to run without a ‘pacer’ for those final miles, it was much, much harder to dig deep. When the darkness started to close in on me, it was amplified by the absence of a friend keeping step with me. Talking is not necessary at that point; there’s just something about a kindred spirit with fresh legs that can keep me focused.
My hope was to help Jon keep the darkness at bay as he reached for his goal.
For Jon’s race, the logistics of the situation worked out perfectly. I caught a ride on the bus for the relay runners, and headed out to the Mile 20 marker, which was also the Mile 14 marker, as that part of the course is an ‘out and back’ stretch.
I have only been able to be a spectator at one other marathon, so I was giddy with excitement over seeing the elites blaze through, and then watched as the various levels of runners went by. It was an interesting study to be placed at the Mile 14/Mile 20 markers. Runners were all smiles and still excited, energetic and looking strong at Mile 14. However, just across the street was a stark reminder of what lay ahead…the pale, sweaty contorted faces of tortured runners who still had six miles to go.
I caught Jon as he ran by at Mile 14. I ran up alongside him and gently tapped him on the shoulder, not wanting to startle him and break his concentration. I said ‘Jon! You look good! How are you feeling?!’ He slowly turned to me with concern in his face and replied ‘I don’t know Dianna, I just don’t know.’ I shouted something cliché but encouraging like ‘You can do it! I’ll see you soon!’ and headed back to my position at the Mile 20 mark.
I checked the time on my watch and did some quick calculations about when I might expect to see Jon again. I grew a little worried when that time passed, and the ‘pacer group’ he had been in passed by without him. Sometime later, he came running by and I jumped in beside him: me, all bubbly and excited to see him; him, not so much excitement.
I’ll be honest: he didn’t look good, despite the fact that I told him was ‘doing great,’ he was now one of those pale-faced runners. He didn’t sound good either; his voice was barely a whisper as he tried to fill me in on some of the details of his race. Plus, his breathing was off – shallow and quick. I was worried. We had some work ahead of us.
It slowly occurred to me that I was now in the enviable position of feeling fresh and energetic during the toughest part of the marathon. I took advantage of that fact by taking the time to really look around and absorb all that I was seeing and hearing. My report to you is this: it ain’t pretty.
Those last six miles are filled with quiet struggle as runners wrestled their demons. There are few smiles to be seen, and the sounds of ragged breathing, shuffling feet and the occasional whimper filled my ears (and not just from Jon!). Many of the spectators wore worried expressions. I started smiling at the spectators to help ease their minds a little and they smiled back with a look of relief on their face.
My personal struggle was with how I should interact with Jon – quiet determination or chatty distraction? I started out by playing the role of cheerleader: You look great! You can do this! Your form is still looking good! If marathons were easy, everyone would be doing them! Then I switched to sports psychologist: Dig deep and think about what inspires you. Remember a time when you felt really strong and draw on that. Just focus on moving one foot in front of the other. Then, a medical professional: Take deep breaths. Eat a gel. Drink. Finally, I just tried to be there for him – hoping he would find comfort in having a friend close by.
We ran. We walked. We stretched. We ran. He would whisper ‘driveway’ or ‘stop sign’ and when we reached that particular spot, we’d pick up the pace again. I encouraged fluids and gels. My favorite moment came at Mile 25, just as we crested the hill placed so cruelly: we were walking side by side up the hill, and Jon suddenly turns to me and says in a loud non-whispering voice: “That’s it Dianna, you’ve been slowing me down for the last 5 miles. Let’s go, already!”
With about a mile to go, we picked up the pace. We turned onto the last section of road, and I tried to run in front of him in order to block the wind for him. I heard a desperate plea from behind me: “Where is the finish line?” and recalled a similar sentiment of mine own from a year ago: “Jeanne! Where the hell is the Mile 26 mile marker?!” I knew his pain as I called back “Almost there!”
I peeled off just before last turn and watched Jon run under The Arch and towards the finish line. A quick glance at the clock through the trees and I knew he’d come in under four hours, obliterating his previous marathon times. I was so excited for him and proud of him; he had worked hard for every single one of those miles. His tank was totally empty. He truly earned that medal.
If you haven’t had a chance to do something like this for a runner-friend, you should seriously consider it. It is an incredible experience and gives you a whole new perspective on the marathon!
There was a marathon, as predicted. I finished, as predicted. And yes, it hurt. A. Lot. As predicted.
Here’s how the pain unfolded in Newport, Rhode Island on Sunday October 17th:
My running partner (RP) has connections and was able to secure lodging for us the night before the race. Not only did we get to stay in a house with our own bedrooms, FOR FREE…but the house was located right on the race course. As if that wasn’t good enough, the house was located about a mile from the start/finish area, AND we would pass by the house TWICE within the first twelve miles of the race. This perfect location lent itself to being the perfect solution for discarding unwanted gear as race day warmed up.
We participated in the usual carb-loading for dinner, and talked about all things running with our host, who was also running the marathon. We discussed – at great length - what we would be wearing and how we shed our layers throughout the day as the weather was predicted to be in the low 40s for the start, reaching 60 by noontime, but with windy conditions. I planned to wear a long-sleeve cotton shirt over a short-sleeve tech t-shirts; shorts under wind pants; and a light pair of gloves. Plus, of course, an orange baseball hat (yes, the yellow hat has been retired since Livestrong in August).
There was the typical restless night for me, with very little sleep – which I completely expected, as it seems to be my ‘norm’ for the night before a big event. The morning also progressed as usual, with coffee and breakfast and multiple trips to the bathroom.
Finally, at 7:15 a.m. we decided we should make our way down to the start line. My RP and I walked down the hill towards the mass of people that were gathering at Easton Beach. I had two goals in mind: use a portapotty and find a pace group to run near during the race.
The pandemonium at the start staging area was incredible. It was instantly obvious that there were NOT enough portapotties for the number of runners registered for the race. The lines were long and winding, seemingly without end. I finally found a line that looked ‘reasonable’ just as the race promoter called out ‘20 minutes to start time!’. I stood in line figuring I was at least standing somewhere that could possibly have a decent end result.
However, when I heard the call for ‘6 minutes to race start’ and there were still 20 people in front of me, I did the math and knew that I would have to take drastic measures. My RP had already been scouting out the situation near the dumpters, as it appeared that behind one dumpter was the ‘ladies room’ and behind the adjacent dumpter was the ‘men’s room’. She called me over and assured me that I could manage it, and then she offered me her body as a shield as four of us scooted behind the dumpster together.
With that ‘goal’ met, we made a beeline for the start line and found ourselves at the back of the pack. We pushed as far forward as we could before the crowd grew so thick that we were stuck in place. My other ‘goal’ of finding a pace group quickly slipped away in the crush of nervous bodies clad in wicking fabrics.
As I glanced around, spectators and runners were still getting off shuttle buses, and the lines were still deep for the bathroom and the bag check. I had my warm-up pants crammed into a bag in one hand, and a bottle of water in the other hand, and then gun went off! Of course not much happened because there were so many people crammed in together that it took a minute or two to reach the actual start line at an actual ‘running pace’. (I have no idea what happened to all those runners who weren’t even at the start line yet!)
Remember the hill we walked down to get to the start? Well, now we were running UP it, which was a great way to 1) warm up and 2) thin out the pack a little. I spent most of my time on the sidewalk, trying to squeeze in open spaces when I could find them. I dropped my bottle and bag at the house, somewhere around the Mile 1 mark and felt like I was off to a good start with a good pace.
The first half of the race starts with marathoners and half-marathoners all together. We passed through some beautiful historic neighborhoods, ran along the water, spotted a cruise ship docked in the harbor, ran out to Fort Adams and then Ocean Drive State Park for some spectacular views of the ocean along Ocean Ave. The wind was noticeable, but not problematic, and my pace was actually a little quicker than I wanted it to be, despite the multiple times that I demanded my legs to slow down a little.
Then past The Mansions and Salve Regina before heading back by the house, where I dropped some more clothes. I ran back down the hill, and had to literally pass right by the finish line as the half-marathoners peeled off to get their medals and call it a day, and the marathoners continued on for the rest of our miles.
In my head, I reminded myself that the race was only now beginning for me, and that up until this point, I had been merely warming up. My legs were not excited by this announcement, but they continued along at the same pace, somewhere in the 8:25-8:30 range.
The next part of the course moved us into a more residential area with a few ‘out and back’ sections. Somewhere around Mile 15, we had a nice downhill that brought us to Sachuest Beach, with more spectacular views of the water, including a wind surfer. I was feeling like a rock star, feeling strong, and reminding myself that I was not allowed to pick up the pace until Mile 20. I hit the turnaround at suddenly realized why I had felt like a rock star - the wind had been at my back. And now? In my face.
My pace slowed and my spirits dipped just a little bit, but there was a turn coming soon, and it was away from the water, so it had to get better…right? I think we all know where this is headed…
The next out-and-back section was long. Very long. Road to Hell long, and not even paved with good intentions. So long in fact that the race leaders were just reaching me (18 miles for me, 24 miles for them). It was not a good thing, to see all the suffering pass me by…to know that I would be in the same situation in a few miles. I slowly realized that the hill I had just run down, would have to be faced on the way back. A look ahead revealed that there were more hills to come. To top it all off, the wind was ever-present. I got out my bricks and mortar and got to work.
The suffering began promptly at mile 18, just as always.The suffering continued, but would ebb and flow as my willpower tried to beat it down. I picked up the pace a few times, and would just get into a groove, when the wind would inform me that I cannot control the weather. I reminded myself that my mom was with me every step of the way, and I would not stop until I reached the finish line - I would persevere as she had so many times. I had to.
After a third and final pass through the ‘Spookytown’ rest stop, I made my way back up the last hill…conveniently placed at Mile 24.5…a nice, big, hill near a place call Purgatory Chasm. I heard a runner cry out ‘This is so unfair!’ as we were almost to the top. I responded “Meanest. Race course. Ever.”
I fell into that zombie-runner phase for the last push – willing my feet to continue moving forward, trying not to look at my watch, wanted the finish line to be closer. Finally, the spectators filled the sidewalks and I could hear the race director announcing people’s names as they came in to finish…I rounded one final sharp corner, and crossed the line. Hyperventilating. Relieved. And suddenly in a great deal of pain. My watch read 3:47 which was pretty darn close to my prediction of 3:50.
I wandered around aimlessly for a few minutes, and the pain in my legs intensified. My muscles ached deeply, like they wanted to tear themselves off my bones and never work again. I sat down, and suddenly found myself crying…from emotions more than pain. This was my first finish line that I couldn’t share with my mom – in person or even on the phone. This was a finish line at the end of a long year. This was a finish line without a hug, and I didn’t much care for it.
I pulled myself together, tried to stretch a little, walked around and tried to get my brain to figure out where I might find my running partner. Finally, 15 minutes after I crossed the finish, I found my RP by the finish line, and yelled out her name. She turned and relief washed over her face as she realizes I am not still out on the course trying to drag my carcass to the finish line.
We began the long walk back up the hill, with me dictating a snail’s pace because I couldn’t possibly move any faster, even if my shorts were on fire. We regale each other with stories of pain and suffering, and head back to the house for a post-race clean-up and prep for the drive home.
It’s a perfect sunny autumn day. Marathon #6, another adventure in the books.
It appears that I will be running a marathon next week.
As in, seven days from now. Crazy, right? I mean, who knew!? I guess I did…but just barely. I can say – quite confidently – that this will NOT be my fastest marathon, and in fact, it might be my slowest. Here are the two things that I know for sure: I will finish, and it will hurt. A lot.
It’s an odd feeling, to be so aloof about the whole 26-point-2-miles thing. I can barely remember to check my training schedule to see how many miles to run. My running partner would ask me about my long run for the following week, and I would have to look it up, because I just had no idea what was next. I certainly didn’t do any of that new-fangled ‘speed training’ that all the cool kids are doing.
I’ve just been toodling along, at a nice easy pace. The weirdest part of this situation – I am totally at peace with the potential outcome. It has been refreshing to not be obsessed with charts, graphs, numbers, calculations and predictions. I hardly look at my watch during a run, and when I do, it’s usually just to make sure that it is operating correctly and that I actually pressed ‘start.’
In the past, I’ve tried to keep my training focused and intentional, in order to improve my overall performance. I was determined to complete every workout exactly the way it was written on the schedule. I meticulously recorded all the data from my runs, and analyzed every number on the page. I compared pace per mile over the same course for a period of weeks. I researched prior race times well in advance of the current race, and determined my goal pace, visualized my race plan and then worked hard to execute it.
But this year has been different. I’ve been dealing with a tremendous loss, and coping with some additional stress. It been a crazy year, emotionally draining, leaving me feeling physically depleted. I’ve had to dig extra deep for the slightest whisper of something resembling motivation.
I’m slowly discovering the new “normal” and I’m learning to be gentle with myself. Admittedly, I have not had to endure as much as others, but for me…this year has been a test of my limits. The finish line will come whenever it does, and I’ll be grateful for the opportunity to cross it again.
One of the questions that I have been asked about running a marathon involves the source of ‘mental toughness.’ Those who have never battled the 26.2 mile monster are often curious about where I draw my strength, what drives me forward when my brain, lungs and legs are arguing about quitting.
Most of the time, during the tough miles, I think about my mom. I reflect on how she had to dig deep, time and time again, to fight cancer. I think about how she faced cancer on and off for thirty years, and for eighteen of those of years, she did it sober. I think about how other body parts failed her – carpal tunnel in both wrists, a knee replaced, a spinal fusion. When I start whining about how my legs are sore, I just think about her ‘never-give-up’ spirit and I find the strength.
As far as I’m concerned, she didn’t ‘give up’ on July 20, 2010 when she took her last breath. She finally decided it was her time to rest. She fought hard with all that she had to give. She needed the break, she earned the reprieve.
We held a Celebration of Life for her five days later, and these are some of the words I shared about her:
She was a woman with many titles:
She was a loving wife of nearly 30 years, a mom to more kids than just me, a sister, an aunt, a compassionate nurse, and a loyal friend. She was also known as the cookie-lady, not only for her personal love of cookies, and not just because she was a ‘tough cookie’ but also because she spoiled her dogs with cookies and treats at every opportunity. Who else sneaks French fries and pizza crusts into their purse to give to their dogs later?
She has been described as sassy and spunky. Brave and courageous. An inspiration and role model. A true survivor. She was the woman with the pirate-mouth that always made me laugh whenever she cussed, even though I’d act horrified.
She was a girly-girl who liked the color pink, and liked to have her nails done; who had to have her hair just right and her makeup on before leaving the house…yet you could often find her out in the yard, up to her elbows in dirt, planting her gardens with sweat on her brow and a smile on her face. A no-nonsense, unpretentious woman.
She has given me so many gifts and taught me so many things about living a good life…for that I will always be grateful.
Because of her, I know that there’s no difference between Bee Bomb and Manarda even if I can’t quite remember the difference between an annual and a perennial despite the hundred of times she has explained it to me. I can identify different birds, and distinguish their gender; I can devour a good book in two days.
Because of her, David and I can both cook well enough that we will never starve.
I will never be able to see a shoe sale, and not think of our Imelda Marcos with her closet overflowing with size sixes in every color and shape. The UConn Women’s basketball team will have one less voice cheering for them.
Because of her love, I have always found strength even when I didn’t think I had any left. And HER strength will continue to inspire me to DO more and BE more. She inspired me to live life fully and completely, to break THROUGH obstacles, rather than turning back and giving up; and to trust in my inner voice to lead me to the right decision, even when it’s against popular opinion.
If she could bear to go through all that she did, and still manage to smile, laugh and give to others, then I have no excuse to not be able to do the same.
Who is your inspiration? Where does your inner strength come from?
When I first got into this running thing, I was an ‘after work’ runner. I’d either tie up the laces in my office and run on the streets of Middletown, or I’d wait until I got home and would run on the roads near my house. Occasionally, I’d really mix things up and meet friends at UConn in order to run around campus. (Especially during the dark winter months, the well-lit sidewalks of a college campus have come in very handy.)
One of the things I struggled with the most with the late afternoon run was nutrition. I tried countless different types of pre-run snacks, toyed with different combinations of foods and experimented with the timing. More often than not, I’d experience a sugar crash around the 2-2.5 mile mark. My energy level would plummet and I’d start to feel weak and shaky. Sometimes I could push through it, and other times I would have to eat a Gu in order to make it back to my start point.
Somewhere along the way, I decided to try early-morning running and see if that made a difference. I’d always thought that early-morning runners were a bit daft. Losing precious sleep to get up and run in the dark just didn’t appeal to me. I could barely drag myself out of bed to get to work on time. Then I became that daft runner, in the dorky reflective vest with the bright, shining headlamp, taking up valuable space on the narrow roads with no shoulders at 5:30 a.m. No sugar crashes, no energy plummets. That has been the norm for the better part of last years, at least.
Until now. It seems that my timing is all off. I was working odd hours for about 8 months and ever since then, I cannot reset my internal clock. Further thwarting this effort has been the wicked winter and the lingering rhinovirus that just won’t quit. Every morning, I set the alarm. It goes off, and I listen to the wind outside and decide that I will run after work instead. Except that promise is only kept about 50% of the time, which is leaving my running log looking a little thin. Plus, with the return of the late afternoon run, the nutrition problems have returned.
On the rare mornings that I can convince myself that I still am ‘hardcore’ and 15-degrees Fahrenheit isn’t *that* cold, it takes me the better part of 30 minutes to actually get out the door. Gone are the days when I rolled out of bed, stepped into my running clothes, threw coffee towards my mouth and hit the bricks. These days, it takes 10 minutes for me to remember why I am even awake at that hour, another 10 minutes to pull on the 10,321 layers that I need to face The Tundra, and at least 10 minutes to enjoy that first cup of hot, steaming, delicious coffee.
The goal for this month will be to reset the clock and get back into a routine. I operate better with a little more structure in my life. I’d best get building then!
In case you haven’t noticed, I’m shaking things up around here.
Not only have I moved my blog to these shiny, new digs (with the gracious help and complete support of the Amazing Hip) but I’ve also made a slight change to the name of my nearly six-year-old blog. I’m trading the Orange Hat for a Yellow one for at least the next 8 months. As much as I love tradition, sometimes traditions need to be updated to reflect the changing times.
Some of my long-time reader may recall that my mother has been a cancer survivor, six times over. About a month before I ran the Boston marathon in 2007, she was diagnosed with two different cancers in two different locations (throat and lung), marking her 5th and 6th diagnoses simultaneously. A few weeks after I crossed the finish line, she started chemo and radiation , and a few months later we were celebrating her survival on a cruise to Bermuda.
We managed to make it about two years before the cancer returned. This past spring, my mom was diagnosed with throat cancer again. Technically, there are two locations in her neck/throat area that have cancer, so that makes the 7th and 8th diagnoses. I’m not sure how to differentiate how many ‘times’ she has ‘had cancer’, but that’s not really the point, is it?
The point is this: I’m mad. Foot-stomping, red-faced, screaming, stinkin’ mad. I’m mad at cancer. I’m also frustrated, scared and emotionally exhausted, but this isn’t really about me. It’s about her. Every time I try to wrap my brain around it, I find it impossible to even imagine how my mom feels. She has been digging deep for strength and courage for too many years already, and yet she can still manage to find enough in her soul to keep going. It leaves me speechless, humbled and in quiet awe.
Rather than stew in my anger and exhaust myself by hiding all my other emotions, I thought I’d channel my energy somewhere positive. Inspired by the Fat Cyclist, I decided to set a Livestrong Challenge for myself. In mid-August in Philadelphia, I will run a 10K race on a Saturday and then bike 70 miles the next day. In the surface, it doesn’t seem like much of a physical challenge for me, as this is how I spend most weekends during cycling season. However, I plan to set some time-related goals that will make it a little more interesting. The real challenge for me will be reaching my fund raising goal (Donate HERE!).
More importantly, I hope to get you talking about cancer, about prevention, about support, about research and especially about your personal stories. We all know someone who is living with, battling, surviving, or has passed away from cancer. We all have a story to share, and many of us have a fight to pick with cancer. Winning one battle at a time can get us closer to winning the war. Join me in this battle, in any way you choose.
I’m doing this to honor the strongest woman I know. Who will you honor?