Saturday, March 31, 2012

Running on the edge….Quitting is not an option

I recently was approached by a friend of a friend who was planning to run a marathon. He was calling to ask for advice and started the conversation by proudly announcing he had bought the book “Marathon Training for Dummies” (a title that some might say is a bit redundant). When I asked how many miles a week he was running and for how long, he told me he hadn’t started yet. At this point I was tempted to suggest he start with the “Idiot’s Guide to Running”.

Why any sane person would want to start running with a marathon as the initial goal is beyond me. It occurred to me that maybe I should write a book called “The Smart Person’s Guide to Marathoning”. It could have chapters like “Pain: Learning to Live with and Love it”; “Port-a-Potties: my home away from home”; “Basking in the health benefits: wind burn, black toenails, swollen knees and heat rash”; “Enhancing your social life: trading alcohol for Gatorade”; “ Practical road skills: Dodging flying beer cans and burning cigarette butts” and of course “Time: I’ve got plenty so why not spend it running”. I figure any sane person would quickly bail on the idea of a marathon long before the end of the book. If by chance they do get to the end they are a prime candidate for the afore mentioned “Marathon Training for Dummies”.

But I digress. The question I typically get from non-marathoners is “What’s the toughest part of doing a marathon”? I can honestly say the second toughest is getting out the door for the first day of training. The toughest is keeping it up week after week, month after month as the distance, time commitment, and soreness increases.

I’ve mentioned before that I believe just about anyone with half a brain (or less) that sets their mind to it can run a marathon. But it does require a mental tenacity that far outweighs the physical effort required. This is why ideal marathoners often have a good balance of stubbornness and mental instability.

When you think about what it takes to commit to the training for a marathon it’s easy to see why most runners never make it to the starting line. Months of training 8-12 hours a week often at the cost of another hour in a warm bed or a night out with friends. But then who would want to miss all that quality time in the dark, in the rain, or snow, or freezing cold or all the above. And just to make sure you have something to keep you company during all that alone time, there are the injuries, aches, and pains that come with the increasing mileage. And let’s not forget the hazards of tripping while running in the dark (been there done that), getting sick enough to cough up a lung from running in the cold (pretty nasty), and wearing out body parts from over training (yup…been there too). Nothing is more frustrating than to be in the middle of your training and you have to hit the reset button because you lost a week or more to injuries or sickness.

Often rookie marathoners think the training is about getting the body in shape to run the marathon. In truth it is more about training the mind. No matter how much training you do, somewhere between 18-20 miles your body will run out of fuel and the battle shifts from physical to mental. You have now reached the zone I call Running on the Edge, where your body is telling you to stop and your mind is fighting with itself over taking another step.
Dealing with the Edge requires the mental training that comes from getting out there every day, often sore, sometimes injured, frequently sleep deprived, and fighting self imposed doubts. And doing it day after day, week after week, month after month. To make it to the starting line you have to be convinced that Quitting is not an option. To make it to the finish you will need all that training and more.

On Race day when you are in the Edge zone your mind and body collaborate to present reasons why you should stop. Sometimes it’s “You’ll never make it up this next hill”, “Your doing permanent damage to your body”, “Your too old for this”(I get this one a lot), “If you just stop now the pain will go away” (it doesn’t), and my favorite “Lots of people don’t finish…nobody will care if you don’t”. Often when it gets bad there are little events that help strengthen my resolve…the crazy antics from the crowd (especially the girls at Wellesley and the beer loving spectators at BC), the next water stop just a quarter mile up the road, a downhill stretch when you really need it or a friend or family member yelling encouragement and support (and handing you jelly beans).

In our lives most of us have had those times when we are Running on the Edge. When the world seems to have turned against you, when the problems are piling up with no end in sight, and when you can’t see your way clear of the situation. Mostly We want to curl up in bed and make the world go away. To just call it quits.

I was reminded of this again the other day when we were approached to assist a family through Help in the Nick of Time. The story is a familiar one with the parents out of work for an extended period of time, behind on house payments, and trying to keep the family together, food on the table, and a roof over their heads. You could say they are a family who’s Running on the Edge. I can imagine that after many months of fighting this battle every day these parents just want to throw in the towel. But despite all the troubles they face, Quitting is not an option. In the room nearby are children depending on them to keep going. It takes far more strength for these families to face another day and keep going than it does for me to make it through a marathon.

But much like the little well timed encouragements in the late stages of the marathon, a little help and support is sometimes all it takes to give them a second wind. This is the goal of Help in the Nick of Time.

So, what keeps me going through the cold, snow, soreness and injuries? It’s knowing that in a small way what I’m doing (with your help) brings hope and help to a family who has already made up their minds that Quitting is not an Option.

Two weeks to race day and counting….

Monday, March 12, 2012

Doing war with the Roads

After a particularly challenging run the other day I was taking inventory of all my aches and pains and I came to the realization that the roads had declared war on me, and I was losing. It wasn’t obvious at first, they were using a stealth program that was primarily a war of attrition but last week that changed. Now that the war is declared it’s “game on” and I intend to win, although at times it clearly doesn’t look like it.

I used to view the road as my friend, leading me places I’ve never been, rising to meet me as I easily stride up the hills, smoothly gliding down the far side and out onto a country road that winds through forests, farms, or neighborhoods. It was the weather that could be the enemy and the road and I were allies fighting against it.

But as I’ve gotten older I begun to believe the road has switched sides.

I know, you are thinking “while I may have questioned your sanity before, you’ve totally lost it now”. Well, before you call the men in the white coats (Pam keeps their number handy) bear with me a bit.

The roads have begun a subtle but relentless conspiracy to undermine my running through a complex combination of changes designed to wreak havoc with my joints, muscles and psyche. The assault started with tilting the road surface towards the side of the road so one knee was always twisting to the side. Then there are uneven surfaces and frost heaves designed to simultaneously twist your ankle in multiple directions and strain the hamstring. And we won’t even discuss the wear and tear of running on cement roads and dealing with sand and gravel. But the mother of all assaults, the roads’ secret weapon of mass destruction is the pothole. Which brings us back to my earlier realization; I’m at war with the road.

I was out for an early morning run in San Francisco and as luck would have it, in the rain. It’s dark, wet, cold and I’m particularly happy to be finishing up my run when the road launched its attack. I was crossing a street, looking up to watch for traffic and splashing through puddles when the road disappeared below my foot. Hidden in the puddle was a trench slightly smaller than the state of Rhode Island.

As a disciple of the book “Born to Run” by evangelist and author Christopher McDougall, I’ve totally bought into the minimalist/barefoot running technique which has the runner leaning forward almost to the point for falling forward and with the foot striking below and behind you. This works really well when you have control of your feet but when your foot gets sucked into a vortex it has the tendency to launch you forward at an accelerated rate of speed.

Thus, as my foot caught the far side of the pothole I found myself in full flight with no chance of getting my other foot under me. I’d like to say that I watched it all happen in slow motion but the only thing that seemed to be slow was my reaction. First to strike was the right knee followed in quick succession by the left hip and elbows. The hands came up just in time to avoid needing dental repair, although sliding across the road I contributed a significant share of skin to repairing the surface of San Francisco roads. Clearly given the aforementioned pothole, they need it.
I of course did the immediate crazy runner thing, rolling back onto my feet and yelling “I’m OK” as I’m limping off down the street to the amusement of the bystanders. I don’t get embarrassed by these things anymore having had my share of public displays of unusual behavior over the years. But I have to admit I was a bit uncomfortable walking past the doorman back at the hotel leaving a trail of blood droplets on the lobby floor.

As I’m patching myself up I decided to take inventory on where I stand on the battle with the road. In addition to the road rash, half a dozen cuts, and bruised left hip, there’s the swollen and black and blue right knee. Add those to two blacken toenails (and a third that might just vacate the toe altogether), a hamstring that screams on uphills and any distance over 12 miles, and the beginning of a blister and bruise on the ball of my foot. Clearly it looks like I’m losing the war.

But it’s not as bad as it may appear. Talk to most marathoners and they will tell you that somewhere along the months of training, wrestling with pain and injuries is normal. Granted, not usually this many and not at the same time but if the road thinks it’s won it is sadly mistaken.

I’m back out there and I will be at the start on April 16th to take on 26+ miles of “the road”.

I’m redefining the meaning of “Road Rage”. Watch out road…I’m coming for you.