Tuesday, May 28, 2013

In Boston - Grandkids and Marathon Finish Lines

"These are the days, these are the days you'll remember, never before and never since I promise, will the whole world be as warm as this" - Natalie Merchant, These are the Days

Still learning this grandpa thing

So, here I am again in Boston doing my bimonthly trip to see my family. Adam and Emma are growing WAY too fast. Consequently, their energy levels are through the roof. When they are awake, it is constant energy, enough of which could solve all the energy needs of the world if we could harness it. Ah yes, to harness it...that would be nice...at least sometimes. From 6:45am until double nap time around 1:30, it's a virtual whirlwind of running, games, reading, diaper changing , and lifting. Emma is not that heavy, but at 3.5 years old, Adam is getting up there. Oh, what am I whining about? There are enough of you mothers that read this blog that are saying "Oh, quit your bellyaching and zip your mansuit on".

It's not just the physical angle of this grandpa thing either. The emotional rollercoaster of a toddler is all it's cranked up to be. Holy Crow! At one point during this weekend I said to my wife "I feel like I'm constantly on the edge of doing something wrong", something that will tip the emotional seesaw the other way and we have a short lived volcanic outburst that shakes the leaves off the trees. Oh, it's not just me, the spark can be anyone, including his parents. But the the instigator, the true spark to much of this, is his sweet 18 month old sister. Emma is the constant nudge that fans the flame. She has to be where her brother is, doing what her brother is doing, and wants whatever he has, only because he's there, doing this, or having that! Despite outbursts that register on the Richter Scale, Adam shows incredible restraint not to just show the girl who is in charge.

But, despite all of that mularchy above, learning to be a grandpa is quite the joy. Oh yeah, four days wears me out, but for every valley there are two hills with "I love you's" or hugs or "Will you read me a story?". Take your grandkids for ice cream and see what doors that opens. Peanut Butter Oreo Ice Cream makes Grandpa a hero. I don't understand how parents do this everyday with multiple children, because kids are kids. Maybe they do it just out of pure unconditional love, and kids being kids is part of the deal you knew going in. Or maybe you just learn along the way, the same for the kids, the same for the grandparents. We've all been doing it forever... Nothing new here...just keep movin' on.

Right on Hereford, Left on Boylston

As I usually do when visiting Beantown, I go running along the Boston Marathon course. This year, the course was basically the same, but the pulse of the run was much different. I was last here a week before the marathon in April and wondered if the feeling would be changed running the last few miles from Brookline to the finish line. Yes it was. From the moment I stepped onto the course, my main thought was that of the runners at this point in the run...legs carrying on but not crazy about it...lungs inhaling as much oxygen as they can muster to keep the fire burning...and the mind, ah yes, the mind trying every trick in the book to get you to ease off. These runners at this point cannot in their most nightmarish thoughts ever dreamed up what lies 3 miles down the road. As I climb "Mt Kenmore", this is where many runners start hearing that something has happened up ahead. I cross under the famous Citgo sign (one mile to go) and then approach the Massachusetts Avenue tunnel. This just about my favorite part of the race, but today I recall a picture I have on my screensaver at my office of thousands of hopeful finishers at a dead stop here...their race over...their questions unanswered. A right on Hereford, a left on Boylston, and I feel my emotions welling up. Just a month ago, it was here that hell literally was on earth. I pass the spot where the second bomb had gone off. There are crocheted blue and yellow hearts on the lightpoles. I see a couple of shirts and beads wrapped around a parking meter and I know this is the exact spot! I keep running towards the finish line around tourists and other runners almost feeling guilty about wanting to see this. When I come to the finish line, I stop. Here is Marathon Sports where the first bomb exploded. Along the front window sill are about 20 votive candles, unlit due to the wind, but their meaning so powerful. I say a silent short prayer and back off out of the way of the sidewalk pedestrians. I lean against a mailbox. After a few seconds, I realize this is the same mailbox that we all have seen countless times on the newscasts. This is the spot where the bag with the first bomb was put down. This is where loved ones cheered for an instant before their lives were ended or changed forever. I felt the cold chill. I shouldn't be here. But I am a runner. I have run Boston 5 times. I have family in Boston. Maybe I should be here. I'll say this - it made it seem very much more real than it has to me thus far. I retraced my steps back home...straight on Boylston, right on Hereford, left on Commonwealth, one step at a time. Be careful out there. 

I'll see you all on the roads - AL

"One child lost is too many...one child saved can change the world"

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Which One is Different?

"Life is a marathon. But if you smoke, eat wrong foods, or don't buckle up, and so forth, you may turn life into a 10k" - Hal Higdon

The other day, I opened a pack of electrode pads (remember I'm a Physical Therapist) and only 3 of the 4 pads had an electrode wire coming from it. So when Cliff, my good running friend from Atlanta AND the supplier of most of my clinic supplies, came by, I wanted to show him this blatant example of poor quality control. I pulled out the defective pack and I asked him "Cliff, here's a riddle. Which electrode is different?". Without blinking an eye, Cliff says "I see 3 that are different!". Great answer. How does this tie-in to running? I dunno, but it's funny. Actually, it does tie-in. 

Tell a non-running anyone that you’re doing an ultramarathon, or even a marathon,  and watch the expression on their face. They almost can’t believe it. Actually they just can’t understand it. “How far is that marathon?” they ask. "No, I'm not doing one of those 5 mile marathons". Even when you tell them what you're up to, they have no comprehension how far 26.2 miles or 50 kilometers or 50 miles really is. Sometimes I tell them by relating it to a distance they would understand — “It’s from here Alabaster and back, or it's from here to the Georgia border or it's from here to Hobnob by way of Jackson Gap"...remember, I live in Alabama. They still don’t get it. The physical task is, simply put, impossible for them to really understand.

But then you go to your particular race and you’re somehow feeling, well, “average.” When you're around non-runners or runners that don't have a need to see how far they can go, it's hard to not have a certain feel that you have something in this running mentality that they don't. Not better, not superior, not suddenly "all-knowing", but it's just a more of a "I've been somewhere that I can't explain to you" feeling. 

Anyway, you go to your race, and you look around at 100's of folks standing around the starting line and you start to think maybe this ain’t such a big deal afterall. The small fish (me) in a small pond becomes a smaller fish in a bigger pond. It’s not like I'm going to win or even came close. In fact, the winners are going to finish the race before I probably got to the halfway point. You hear others talking at the race...this is my 50th marathon, or this is my 10th ultra this year, or they're setting new PR's left and right. They expound about how many miles they're putting in, or how many "vertical feet" they incorporated into their training lately. I'm pushing 66 years old, and feel that's pretty good to just be out here, but now there's lots of these guys older than me running a lot faster (the fish just got smaller). It’s common place. The "wow" factor I produce at work is certainly missing when I'm surrounded by my running peers. Don't get me wrong, this is not a bad thing. Runners of ALL abilities are consistently the best collection of guys and gals you want to be surrounded by. But when you're around folks doing what you do, well, then what you do is no big deal.

Whenever I go to race, I have this very feeling. Although I'm doing what most consider impossible, or at least extremely difficult, when I line up before the obligatory "Go", I am feeling quite average. How can this be? Because my world shrinks when I'm around other long distance runners.

I think our own comprehension of what we do is shaped by our own experience, while the person hearing about your tale of perceived physical world domination can’t comprehend the task, because they have no experience with which to understand it. Their long distance is parking a little further from the WalMart front door. And our experience leads us to form an opinion based on all that we’ve done. In other words, we have a basis to compare against while others don’t.

Deep inside, or often superficially, we are competitive creatures. That’s a lot of why we participate in these crazy marathons and ultras to begin with. For most of us, including me, that competition is usually with yourself...can I be competitive - NO. Can I be competitive in my age group where there MIGHT be 3 competitors - MAYBE. Can I keep from falling less times than I did in my last race - PROBABLY. I guess my "competitive drive" shapes my impression of how I feel about my endeavors. The self-talk during a race quickly goes from “I am just trying to finish” in the late stages, and then 10 minutes after you cross the finish line - “I could have gone faster if only I had (fill in the blank)”. We never think what we are doing is impossible. We get it. We can do this. We've done it. We just want to do it better, or in my case, at least do it respectively.   This inner self-talk takes us from thinking that what we’re doing is impossible to thinking that we could do it better the next time. Any way you boil it down, it's just running and we need to put the pieces we know in the right order to get it right. Sometimes it works and sometimes it fails miserably. You don't always hit that sweet spot in any sport.

Our bar for comparison is all relative. Away from my running peers, I'm doing something that's pretty far out there. I'm judged anywhere from Superman to crazy as a loon. Around my running buddies, I'm not doing anything out of the ordinary at all. I'm considered strange because my beer choice is an English Brown Ale instead of an IPA, not because I run from here to WAY over there. Maybe that's why runners hang around runners, or any other group hangs around folks that do the same thing they do...as a group, you all get it, no need to explain, no quizzical looks, just "normal", "average", "ordinary". Ain't so bad, is it?

I'll see you all on the roads - AL

"One child lost is too many...one child saved can change the world" 

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Still Running and Still Learning

"I'll be happy if running and I can grow old together" - Haruki Murakami

I've often said that I'm not one for writing or reading race reports. It is just so very difficult to transcend the feeling of the writer/runner to the reader...yada, yada, heavy legs, yada, yada, uphill, yada, yada, sun going down...and so on. Let's face it, MOST race reports are extremely important to the writer, but they are pretty boring to read all the way through, so I won't start here. But, last weekend, I ran the Run4Kids 50k at Oak Mountain in miserable conditions. Those of you that read my blog regularly might remember (yeah, right!) that it was this race last year that I re-entered the ultra scene after a 6 year hiatus due to rusty ankles (If for some reason you want to read that post, here it is). The ankles are still rusty, but in the past 12 months, I have managed to run finish 3 50k's, one tough trail marathon, and a road marathon. 

Last Saturday, after a dark and stormy night, I woke up to a torrential downpour and thought "this is the type of Saturday morning I dream about" - where I can just pull the covers up and not feel guilty at all about not going out for my usual Saturday 2-3 hour run. But instead, I headed out to OM to spend 8+ hours in 3 hours of hard rain, sometimes ankle deep mud, and lots of slipping and sliding. Surprisingly, I only had one fall, and that was within 50 feet of the aid station for all to see...Great! Overall, I was pretty pleased with the result as I am these days with any finish before everybody goes home. No injuries and the ankles survived to be able to walk, although the next day was interesting - I thought while shopping I might have to get one of those Granny Carts to ride around in. Instead, I treated it like an ultra race itself, rationed my energy, and made the dairy aisle my line in the sand where I knew I would finish. Going through the checkout was the last aid station, and my car was the finish line. Yes, Walter Mitty was one of my favorite stories growing up! 

Although I've been running these races for about a hundred years, I'm still learning things along the way. Here's a couple of thoughts I came away with (at least ones I remember a week later):

Check your shoes - I've been running in Hokas for about 3 years now and am convinced they have saved my running. I usually have one pair for road running and when they start to show wear, they become my trail shoe and my current trail Hoka is retired. I'm not REALLY cheap, but at 170 bucks a pair, I'm bound and determined to squeeze all the juice out of these Hoka lemons. I'll usually get about 450 miles on the road and another 250+ on the trail before they go to Hoka Heaven. Well, after slipping and sliding for 8 hours last week, when I took my mud-caked shoes off I noticed that most of the sole on these babies was slick, like a bald tire! No wonder I was skiing through the woods. The next day, I calculated that those pair of shoes had right at 1000 miles on them (I write the date on my shoes when they do their 1st run)! Guess I squeezed that lemon a little too much.

Buy a thin rain jacket - The temperature started in the high 40's and it was pouring. I have 2 rain jackets. One is a very good waterproof/breathable jacket I picked up on sale from GearBuzz. It's great, but a little heavy for MOST Alabama rainy days. There were some early morning rains in the 35 degree range that this jacket was a lifesaver. At this race however, I ran in a light, waterproof bike jacket that I picked up for $32 about 10 years ago. It works great...always has, probably always will. Doesn't breathe and has no pockets, but I wore it for the first 20 miles of the race and had no problems at all.  

Have dry/warm, comfortable clothes ready at the finish line - Preparation is key. It always amazes me that on a cold morning after a tough run, and you're freezing your ever-lovin' butt off in the parking lot, that when you get that sweaty, cold shirt off and put on a dry one, you immediately warm up. Following this race, not only was I wet as a striped bass, but I was as muddy as a happy pig (I love to paint visuals). Getting changed was almost life-changing! 

Stay positive - the hardest points of any race is when negative thoughts start-a-creepin' in. Every runner knows that to be successful (whatever your definition of that is) a big piece has to be about defeating the demons. They'll hit you usually about 2/3's of the way through any race and usually lay out a pretty convincing argument to quit. But, it's easier to hang on during the last 2 miles of a 10k than it is the last 30 miles of a hundred miler! During this race, I never hit a real low point, but when things started to go south, I just tried to concentrate on my form, and moving smoothly. I try to concentrate just in the moment, not how far I've been, and certainly not how far I have to go. My mantra has been with me for decades and is even on my RoadID - "Every step is a step closer"

Just keep moving - This is easier said than done, but when it hurts, you just need to keep moving. Getting to the aid station always brings some relief, but you can lose a ton of time just "hanging around". Walking is ok while you refuel and restock, but stopping doesn't get you anywhere. Ration your energy and keep your effort even. You'll be going slower at the end, but your effort should be on even keel.

Smile - This goes along with staying positive, but when you smile, you're more likely to stop feeling miserable. You're too tired to be a stand-up comic, but keeping things in perspective and trying to stay on the bright side of the situation will always be an option to help keep you going.

You chose this - keep reminding yourself that this is what you love to do, so stop whining. We all have our own reasons, but choosing to lie in bed on a miserable, cold, rainy morning, or running 50k in these conditions was never really a decision to fight with. To me, running a 50k is a blast for me...I ran for over 8 hours through mud, rain, cold, and the amazing scenery of Oak Mountain. No, I didn't romp like a teenage gymnast doing her floor exercise, but I did enjoy most of it. And you can't describe how you feel when you finish, but believe me, the needle on the Good/Bad meter is definitely on the "good" side.  

Music is Good - About 5AM on race morning, I got a call from my buddy and long-lost brother, Moha, that he couldn't make it, so I was on my own. Because we wouldn't be yukking it up for 8 hours, I decided to bring my own entertainment. I ran about 2 hours without anything, then a podcast for more than 3 hours (TalkUltra is a great pod, but gets longer with each episode). Finally, I plugged into my ipod shuffle of favorites. We all have our own playlists that embarrass us to admit what we listen to, but mine is all over the place. However, I have to say that Van Morrison's "Bright Side of the Road" is the best song to listen to when you're within smelling distance of the finish line. Love that song!  

Thank people - The volunteers at ultras are top notch, they deserve your gratitude. Despite the miserable conditions, at least I was running and staying relatively warm. Good friends like Prince Whatley were out there all day. Dan Ripple (who is running the CCC at France's UTMB race in August) was standing in ankle deep mud to direct us. David Christy was there all day taking fabulous photos that he makes available to all runners free of charge! And Mary Jo Tosch, the RD's wife, opened a Gu for me when she saw me struggling to rip the top off the damn thing (somebody has to come up with a better design for wet, sweaty runner's hands). Anyway, thanks to all.

OK, not a race report. Hope you all didn't get too bored with this recap, but I'm proud another one is behind me. Tough 18 mile trail race in July, and then a pretty busy Fall season. At the beginning of the year I told myself if I was going to go down, I was going down in flames. So far, so good. Let's see how many more pair of Hokas I can wear out. Run strong my friends.

I'm looking forward to seeing you all on the roads - AL

"One child lost is too many...one child saved can change the world"