Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Are we having FUN yet?

Another year and another finish. But it wasn’t pretty.

The weather was great, the fans were terrific, the start was a once in a lifetime experience and I made it to the finish line. Hard to find something to complain about….but you can bet I will.

With every marathon I learn a little bit more about myself and about marathons. Here’s the lessons learned this year:

- All that stuff I said last week about not going out too fast in the first half? I was right. But that didn’t stop me from doing it.
- You can actually limp with both legs at the same time. You just look really strange. But you get a lot of sympathetic cheers.
- When you reach the point where your legs are like lead, your muscles are in knots, and every stride is painful you have to make a decision….You can slow down and hope it hurts less (I can guarantee it won’t AND you will be out here a lot longer) or you can grit your teeth, go into the zone and muscle through it.
- Having your name on your shirt can be great towards the end of the race but is really annoying in the early miles. Every time somebody calls your name you feel obligated to turn, smile, wave your hand and of course check to see if you are really suppose to know this person. Next year I may put a sign on my back that says “Thanks…I’m smiling and waving back on the inside”.
- Boston has the world’s best marathon fans. I already knew that but it was nice to be reminded again this year.

The day started out great with a ride into Boston with a couple of good friends (Bill and Christine) where we were invited to hitch a ride with one of the charities on their luxury bus (a real treat given the alternative is being crammed in a school bus for over an hour). When we got to the staging area (what they call the runner’s village) we got to stay on our warm bus while most of the 26,000 runners had to wait outside in a practice field lined with porta-potties. It’s actually pretty interesting to watch how runners deal with waiting for hours for the start of their race. Some were up dancing, others were getting temporary tattoos, some getting their pictures taken by a Boston Marathon sign, some taking pictures of people taking pictures of runners and in general a lot of camaraderie, water drinking and repeat visit to the porta-potties.

There are a number of starts to the race…wheelchairs first, then a woman’s elite, then the first half of the main field (10 AM) and then finally the rest of us (10:30). Each runner has a number that corresponds with the corral that they have to be staged in at the start. There are fences along the road for over a quarter mile that will keep anyone but the runners from getting into the staging areas and each runner’s number is checked to make sure they are in the right corral. The goal is to prevent slow runners from trying to move up towards the front and getting in the way of the faster paced runners. The corrals for 13,000 runners will extend back over a quarter mile (yes the people in the back have to walk/jog that quarter mile after the gun is fired just to get to the starting line).

A half hour before your starting time you hand your bag of clothes and things you want at the finish to the bag handlers on school buses so they bring them to the finish line for you. Then, if you are like me, you don a trash bag to keep you warm as you make the half to ¾ mile walk from the runner’s village to the runner’s corrals. A lot of runners wear older running clothes which they strip off just before the start and toss them to volunteers on the side of the road. The Salvation Army collects an 18 wheeler full of clothes from the start.

Luck of the draw…my number was in the first corral of the second wave. For the first, and probably only time in my life, I got to be standing in the front row of runners at the starting line when the gun was fired for the second wave of the Boston Marathon. It was the equivalent of being a passenger in the back of the plane for years and suddenly the pilot asks you if you would like to come up to the cockpit for the takeoff. And while the thrill was short term, the resulting consequences lingered for hours. When the gun went off all the cooped up adrenaline, the excitement of the race, the thrill of being upfront leading a pack of thousands of runners goes straight to your legs. Add a very healthy downhill and you have the ideal situation for an overzealous start.

One of the challenges in a run is settling into your own pace. What helps is settling into that pace with other runners that are also running your pace. When there is no one in front of you and everyone around you is running hell bent for election you just get swept along with the crowd. I knew I was in trouble when I hit the 2 mile mark a full minute ahead of my pace and I immediately put on the breaks. Unfortunately once you have settled into a pace it is really hard to slow down and find a new one. Especially when everyone around you is blowing by you. It was 10 miles before I finally settled in and by then I knew I was in big trouble. At the half way mark I was a full 3 minutes ahead of last year’s pace and this year, because of the knee, I had fewer long runs and was less trained than last year.

Just shy of 16 miles is the low point and then for the next 5 miles you climb. By the time I got to these hills the legs were a mess. The right knee and hip were vying with the left hamstring and IT band to see which ones could get more of my attention. When I passed my sister Terry and nephews (Ian, Lucas and Madigan) at a little after 16 (thank goodness they were there…needed the moral boost) they said I looked stiff. They were being kind. I looked like one of those cartoon stick figures trying to run with no knees.

The remainder of the race had to be one of the longest last 10 miles I have ever run. Nick and I ran them together taking them one mile at a time with no expectation that we would be able to keep going beyond this mile, but trying not to think about anything but making to the next mile marker, or water stop, or street corner, or maybe just to that telephone pole. I was totally in the zone.

So when the finish line showed up, it was more relief and surprise that I made it than it was enthusiasm for the success of the run. The finishing time, as good as it was, was overshadowed by the mental effort and physical pain it took to get there. There’s no question that if you want to enjoy the marathon, especially the thrill of engaging with the crowd over the last few miles, the right way to do it is by running negative splits (the second half faster than the first).

I was stopped by one of the news crews at the finish line with a couple of questions. If you would like to see the video click on . I'm about 2 minutes in just after the Hoytes.

A month or so ago I mentioned the growing interest by runners in running barefoot as a result of the recent book “Born To Run” by Christopher McDougall. While I didn’t see any barefoot runners this year I did see a number wearing the new Vibram Five Finger running shoes (they are like rubber form fitting running slippers). Christopher, who made a generous donation to CAH, left a note that if I ran the last mile barefoot he would increase the donation. I actually thought about it at that last mile marker but I was afraid if I stopped and sat down to take off my shoes I wouldn’t be able to get up again. Stay tuned…next year I may be doing it in Vibrams.

As for how I’m doing right now? I’m just glad someone invented handrails for going downstairs. Otherwise I’d look really funny bumping down the stairs on my butt. To limit the pain and shorten the recovery time I took a page from the Marque de Sade school of training and climbed into a tub of ice when I got home. I’m not sure how much good it did but the initial shock made me forget all about the pains in my legs. I expect by tomorrow or the day after I’ll be able to get out of a chair or my car on the first try and then I can think about starting up again.

Well, here we are, another year gone by, another Boston Marathon, another fast enough time so I’m qualified to do it all again next year. But most important, another year I got to keep Nick’s memory alive, to share the effort with friends, family and colleagues and to do something that can help others less fortunate. Despite the pain, the cold mornings training and hours of lost sleep I consider myself blessed to be able to do this and fortunate to be surrounded by friends who care enough to support me.

Until next year…stay well and God bless.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Ya can't drive around with a tiger in your car

It’s been a tradition over the last 4 years choose the title of the last blog before the marathon from a verse in the Roger Miller song, “You can’t roller-skate in a buffalo herd” (on YouTube if you actually care ) . This will be the last year. Promise! I’m running out of verses anyway…although we could have used “You can’t take a shower in a parakeet cage”. That’s one that has never been on my life list of things to do.

So here we are, a couple of days before the marathon and in Boston the excitement is building everywhere. I went into Boston to get my number and the finish line is painted on Boylston Street, the stands are being built, signs are up everywhere touting the marathon and welcoming runners, and on every street I passed runners warming up, sightseeing, taking pictures and of course, eating. When you drop over 26,000 runners into the center of Boston they can’t help but be a dominant presence. That’s right, there will be over 26,800 of us at the starting line in Hopkinton on Monday morning. A town whose regular population is around 2700. Like hosting a party where everyone invited invites 10 friends .

Standing in line to get my number and T-shirt you can’t help but get excited. Everywhere you go strangers are yelling out “good luck Monday”, or “congratulations on getting here”. It’s like being a rock star. But along with the excitement you can sense the nervousness. Most runners have trouble sleeping the night before. I always get nervous the last few days before the race. Truth is, there is nothing you can do in the last week that is going to improve your odds of finishing and a thousand things you can do to screw things up. And it’s not as if I’m in it to win it. I have a much better chance of winning the lottery than I do of winning the marathon. Or for that matter beating the first woman or even finishing in the top half of the runners. Heck I’ll be lucky to have the knee hold up and finish under 4 hours. And having done this more than a dozen times you would think I’d be pretty relaxed about the whole thing. I guess after all the training, the long runs on cold dark mornings, the icing of body parts that keep reminding you you’re too old for this, you just want everything to go smooth.

But there is also the deep desire not to let down any of the friends and family who have supported me throughout, or the families I’m running for at CAH. And most of all not to let down Nick. I promised him I would Live Life Large and I know he will be out there running with me Monday.

The big unknowns with Boston are the last minute aches and pains, the weather and the logistics of getting to the start on time. Not much you can do about the first two but the last one has many of us paranoid runners who have slept through an alarm, checking the clock every hour during the night. The other big risk is starting out too fast. Boston is a downhill marathon, although you would never know it when you hit the hills in Newton. Over the first 4 miles the race drops 300 ft (the equivalent of a 30 story building). You can imagine what it is like to be cooped up on a starting line waiting to go, adrenalin pumping, legs getting antsy, and the gun fires and you are off…downhill. It’s like the horses coming out of the gates at the Kentucky Derby. The two biggest mistakes a marathoner can make…particularly in Boston are not drinking enough water early and going out too fast. And for the latter, the downhill start doesn’t help. Between miles 4 and 15 the marathon is rolling but the elevation doesn't change much. There is a big drop in mile 15 to one of the lowest points in the race and at mile 16 the climb starts. Over the next 5 miles you will climb the height of that 20 story building through a series of 4 hills each ranging in length between a quarter and a half mile. The last one, and the steepest, is Heartbreak Hill. There have been years I have cruised through these hills with some of the fastest miles of the race and other years where I have been heard to say “please just shoot me now”. On Monday I hope to be somewhere between the two.

So I have two goals going into this weekend. To finish the Boston Marathon for the fourth year in a row and to make my contribution goal for CAH. I’ll take care of the first but I could use a bit of help with the second.

And as for Roger’s song….what I love most is his chorus.

All you gotta do, is put your mind to it
Knuckle down,
buckle down,
do it, do it, do it

It will be what I’m singing as I’m coughing up my lungs on Heartbreak hill.

Thanks to everyone for the kind words of support and encouragement as well as the donations. There is nothing I can say that even comes close to letting you know how much it all means to me and to so many families.

PS: Much like last year, if you are totally bored or have a morbid streak, you can track my progress during the race either by registering for updates on a mobile phone or email. Click on the link below and it will give you instructions for both. My race bib number is 14750.

I should be crossing the starting line sometime around 10:35 and if all goes well I’ll be done just after 2:30.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Pain is Relative.....

I once heard someone say “Success is relative….the more success, the more relatives.” Some might say the same for Pain….the more relatives the more pains. I would never say that. I love my relatives. Especially the ones that donate to my marathon charities (sometimes subtle doesn’t work with them).

But as you might imagine the real topic of this blog is not about relatives. I promised myself that after three years of moaning and whining about injuries leading up to the marathon that this year I was going to be conspicuously quiet no matter what. The fact that my credibility was totally shot after managing to complete the 26 miles (and 385 yards) all three years despite injuries had a bit to do with it. And of course it was easy to make that promise early on in my training seeing as for the first time in 4 years I was in Feb. feeling good and ahead of last year’s training schedule.

In reality, almost anyone can run a marathon. It’s strictly a question of how much pain you are willing to endure to achieve the goal. I’ve mentioned in past blogs that your body fuel and shoes give out on you somewhere around 17 to 19 miles (earlier if you don’t do the training) and at that point it is strictly a matter of mental toughness and stubbornness that keep you going. For the next hour or so you are waging a battle with your body that resembles a World Wrestling Federation title bout. In this corner in the white running shorts we have the Captain of Confidence, the Top Dog of Training, the Prime Minster of Stubbornness our hero “The Finisher”. In the opposing corner, we have the Prince of Pain, the King of Cramps, the Injector of Insecurity, the challenger “Race Terminator”. Somewhere after 13 miles the battle between the two gets into full swing. At this point your training, the weather, how fast or slow you might have started out, how much (or little) liquids you took early on all factor into your ability to keep the Race Terminator at bay. On a good day you can keep him on the ropes until you reach that 17-18 mile mark. Then the second half of the race begins. It doesn’t help that in Boston, just as you need something to help you keep going you find yourself in the middle of 5 miles of hills. Heartbreak is the perfect name. It’s a body slam both mentally and physically.

From here on it is not a question of whether you are in pain, only a question of how much. From an early age our bodies teach us that when you are doing something and it hurts…don’t do that. Part of marathon training is teaching your body to deal with the pain without panicking. It doesn’t mean the pain goes away, it just means “The Finisher” is able to stay ahead of the incessant mental niggling of “Race Terminator”. The hard part is knowing the difference between pain that is permanent damage to your body and pain that is temporary from overuse and fatigue. The original Greek marathoner actually ran himself to death.

There is an old song I remember singing as a kid that went something like this…”The knee bone is connected to the thigh bone. The Thigh bone is connected to the hip bone.” . Back in late Feb. I couldn’t help but think of this song as I went out to run one morning and the pain from the knee and hip of my right leg stopped me flat. I still don’t know what happened. I could blame it on doing a long run and climbing on an airplane and flying for 6 hours (we all know what it’s like to be jammed into one of those seats designed for people less than 5 feet tall) but I actually have no idea . All I know is that the knee bone is connected to the thigh bone and the thigh bone is connected to the hip bone and in my body they are all yelling at each other. So I took two weeks off hoping that would help and then started up running again with a few miles every other day. The pain hasn’t gone away but with the help of ice, Aleve, a knee brace and a much slower pace, I have learned to deal with it and as of today I believe I can cover at least half the distance. At that point I will be well into the battle with the “Race Terminator” and the jury is out on who will win this time. I have one thing going for me…. Pam says I can be one of the most stubborn people in the world.

It occurred to me that often what keeps me going in the later stages of the race is knowing how much farther I have to go to get to the end. Can you imagine what it would be like if you were facing significant life challenges and could never see an end in sight? I can’t even begin to guess what it is like to be trapped in a situation where no matter what you do you can’t see a way to the finish line. Sometimes we just need people to point us in the right direction, show us there is a way out and give us a helping hand to get us there. That’s what Citizens for Adequate Housing does. It’s not just about a place to live; it’s about teaching life skills and helping families find their way to self sufficiency. To see the finish line or at least a way to get there. And while the analogy is a bit of a stretch, your donations are like the spectators on the side of the road, giving encouragement and water to help get to the finish line. It’s hard for me to separate the support you give me to get to the finish from the support you are giving to help others face their “Race Terminator”.

Thanks to everyone who has helped with support and encouragement. I know it is a tough year for everyone but please help if you can.
In the mean time I’ll be out there slogging the last of my miles as that crazy song goes round and round in my head. “The knee bone’s connected to the thigh bone. The thigh bone’s connected…”

Till next time…