Monday, February 16, 2009

Half Way to Half Way

Every distance runner I have ever known has struggled through a run. It goes something like are in the first mile of a 10+ mile run. You are feeling like...well...crap. Every stride is an effort, the feet feel like lead, lungs are burning, breathing is like sucking air through a straw, legs are like jelly and the pavement feels twice as hard. And you are less than 10 minutes into an hour and a half run.

This is where the runner Gremlin kicks in. That's the little voice in the back of your head that relentlessly whispers "Why am I out here doing this?". "I don't need to run today, I should take the day off". "I'm not really a runner, I can't do this". "If I feel this bad now, imagine how bad I'm going to feel in another mile". "I'll never make it another hour, I might as well quit now". Come on, admit it...if you've run, swam or biked you've heard that Gremlin.

In a marathon it is even more extreme because you are out there for so long. To cope, we have all developed ways to "negotiate" with our Gremlin. Some runners don't think about the miles, they negotiate from milestone to milestone. I'll make it to the Framingham train station, then the girls at Wellesley, then the bottom of heartbreak, then the top of the next hill, then the next street corner, then the next telephone pole. The more pain, the shorter the distance to the next milestone and the louder the voice from the Gremlin to stop. I know runners who count down the miles one at a time, telling themselves they will just make it to the next mile. Tried this once...the first 13 miles it was tedious and the last 13 it was agonizing. My strategy is two fold...pummel the Gremlin with the knowledge that I have been here before and I know I can make it, and second, implement the "half way to half way" strategy. The first temporarily turns down the volume from the Gremlin (and I love the mental image of beating the crap out of the Gremlin with positive images) and the second breaks down the challenge in front of me into something I can mentally digest.

The reality is that a marathon is 80% mental and 20% physical. OK...maybe 50/50 but when you are in the last few miles it definitely feels like 80/20. By the time you get to 18 miles you have used up all your stored reserves and beyond that point you are literally digesting your muscles to fuel your body. This is why some people "hit the wall" between 18-20 miles. They just run out of fuel for the engine. At that point putting one foot in front of the other can take all the mental tenacity that a runner can muster. It's also when the Gremlins go from muttering in the background to picking up the megaphone and screaming in your head.

Why does any of this matter? Because dealing with the Gremlins on those tough training days, especially when you can barely drag your butt out of bed and the road feels like a tar pit that is sucking at every stride, is the mental training that will teach us how to deal with the Gremlins when we are in the final miles.

I also find that it helps to remember that as mentally challenging as it is to face each mile at the tale end of a marathon, it is nothing compared to the mental challenges of facing another day without a job, without food, without medical help or without a place to live. The tenacity to do that day after day without losing hope or giving up dwarfs my marathon efforts. Know that the help that many of you have offered provides the hope that allows them to silence their Gremlins for another day.

Oh...and how is my training going. Wellll...I'm half way to half way, and taking one day at a time.

Until next time....

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Sometimes being selfish can be good.

Training for the Boston Marathon if you live in New England is an exercise in dodging the weather (and sometimes cars). What makes it even more challlenging is getting in that weekly long run (usually several hours or more) that is so critical to marathon training. Most of us find it difficult to set aside several hours in the middle of the week so we save our long runs for Saturday or Sunday mornings. As luck would have it, in my neighborhood it has snowed almost every weekend this winter providing us with sidewalks buried under 2 feet of snow, roads covered with ice, and streets narrowed to where you often have to climb snow banks to avoid oncoming cars. The good news…temperatures actually reached 30 one weekend.

Yeah..I know…you want to know, “What’s this got to do with being selfish?”

Bear with me a bit.

I’m not sure any of us like the idea of being called selfish. It’s not the kind of comment you respond to with a “thank you”. I heard one person respond “I’m not selfish, simply self focused”. Whatever...if it helps you sleep nights……

Truth is, to be able to get out in this kind of winter weather to do anything for a couple of hours requires a certain amount of discipline, and ….well…self focus (not to mention a somewhat questionable mental state).

In the current economic times it’s easy to become self focused, worrying about the effect the economy will have on you (my way of dealing with it is not opening our monthly 401K or IRA reports with the unrealistic hope that if I don’t look its not real). While it is hard to turn on the TV or radio without hearing about foreclosures and job losses, it doesn’t seem as real as when it hits close to home with a family member or friend.

For me, I had one of those “reality” moments the other night. Last winter I had the opportunity to go out on the Lazarus House soup truck to bring sandwiches and hot soup to homeless and hungry neighbors who can’t make it to one of the city shelters for a hot meal. Between the snow, cold and icy roads it can be almost impossible for some of them, often with holes in their shoes, to make the trek. For many of them they have to make the decision to chance going out and getting sick (when they have no money for healthcare) or going hungry. They have gotten used to going hungry. So the soup truck brings food, along with socks and gloves, to people living in boarding houses and under bridges. Last winter when I was on the truck we served about 40 people who otherwise would have gone without. Last week that number was over 90. Sometimes “reality” bites.

So here’s the thing….while running the marathon could be considered a selfish act of setting and achieving a goal (and in my case honoring the memory of my son), you could argue that running it to help people makes my selfishness a good thing. What’s more, the feelings of accomplishment I get from knowing I helped others makes the training and running the marathon all worth while.

It’s not often we get to be selfish AND help others.

PS…Running is coming along slow but steady. Long run was 4 miles this week and while the hamstring is still giving me fits, I was able to keep a short stride and run slow enough to make it without re-injuring it. 11 weeks to go.